ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The State of Hockey has been waiting for the return of Sidney Crosby for years.
The more astute fans here remember Crosby from five years ago when, as a 15-year-old, he played for Shattuck-St. Mary's High School about a half-hour south of the Twin Cities.
Even those who were not aware of him then have been waiting since Crosby broke into the NHL in 2005-06 for the Penguins to play a road game here. Under the unbalanced NHL schedule, the Penguins visit Western Conference teams once every three seasons.
When Minnesota Wild individual game tickets went on sale in September, three games sold out in 10 minutes -- the home opener against Chicago, a game against defending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim in January, and the visit from Crosby, the defending league scoring champion and MVP, last night.
"Interest in hockey is pretty fun here," Crosby said yesterday after the morning skate.
Shattuck is a boarding school that has made an effort to attract top hockey prospects. Crosby had 72 goals and 162 points in 57 games his one season and attended several Wild games in his spare time. He is one of 10 first-round NHL draft picks who played there, and there were 11 alums on NHL opening-day rosters this season.
"I have some good memories. I made some good friends here," Crosby said.
"It's a great hockey program.
"At that time, I wasn't sure if I wanted to go to college or play junior. It was a great place to grow up when you're away from home at such a young age."
Minnesota connections II
Penguins winger Ryan Malone has even more ties to Minnesota.
He spent the 1997-98 season at Shattuck-St. Mary's and later played four years at St. Cloud State. He now spends a lot of the offseason in this area.
"Shattuck was a good experience, a life-changing event, but both places were a big influence on where I am now, and that's why I come back here every summer and stay here," Malone said.
"I still have a lot of my close friends from just that one year [at Shattuck]. It helped me get going for hockey and for school. When you live on your own at 16, you grow up pretty fast."
Scouting the newer arenas
A contingent from the Penguins' marketing and ticketing departments traveled here to take another look at Xcel Energy Center, which is considered one of the best newer NHL arenas. Some elements of Xcel Energy Center could be incorporated in the Penguins' new arena set to open in 2010. Architects from the firm HOK designed Xcel Energy Center and are working on the Pittsburgh arena.
The Penguins' group talked to Wild staff about operations and the logistics of moving into a new building.
Penguins president David Morehouse had a second reason for accompanying the team. His father-in-law, Vance Opperman, is a Wild investor.
Penguins coach Michel Therrien goes back a long way with Wild coach Jacques Lemaire. "He was my coach when I was 19 years old" with Longueuil of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Therrien said. "I talked to him [yesterday] morning. I told him he was getting older because [that's what it means] when your players end up coaching against you." ... All 23 Penguins participated in the morning skate, although winger Georges Laraque (groin) is not ready to return.