Sidney Crosby isn't the first driver confounded by the traffic tangles in and around Pittsburgh, but among all of the Penguins, he admittedly has the most trouble getting anywhere and is most apt to get lost.
"I'm way better now than I used to be, but that reputation has kind of followed me. My dad's pretty bad at directions, and I guess I got it from him," he chuckled. "Even when I follow people, they make a habit to follow the signs and landmarks. I get so focused, I don't pay attention."
His internal compass when it comes to hockey is a different story. Recently turned 21 and entering his fourth NHL season, Captain Crosby knows exactly where he wants to go and what it takes to get there. His teammates and the Penguins Nation, driven by dreams of a Stanley Cup, are on board for a hockey version of follow the leader.
The destination, of course, is a return trip to the Cup finals. The magical climb -- complete with frenzied sellouts and outdoor TV screens -- ended with a thud when the Penguins fell in six games to the Detroit Red Wings.
"We want to get back there, but every other team wants to get there too," Crosby said before the Penguins headed to Sweden to open the new season on the international stage. "Getting as far as we did and coming up short, it definitely gives us an even better goal for this year."
But no season, especially in the era of salary caps and free agency, picks up where it left off. The Penguins may be reigning champions of the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference, but the journey starts as fresh as a sheet of ice manicured by the Great Zamboni in the Sky. Every team will have the same record when the Penguins open the season with two games next weekend against the Ottawa Senators in Stockholm.
"That's the great thing about sports. You have to be able to come back, year after year, and prove yourself as a team. I think that's something we're all well aware of," he said.
And as far as who fills the role of bellwether, coach Michel Therrien pointed to the star player with the exemplary work ethic who comports himself well on and off the ice.
"When you're talking about leaders on our club, there's no doubt you're looking at our captain," the coach said.
If year four of the Sidney Crosby Era is anything like the first three, something historic awaits.
His rookie year witnessed the passing of the torch. Although the team struggled, and the NHL rookie of the year award went to Washington's Alex Ovechkin, an 18-year-old prodigy broke the franchise scoring record for rookies set by Mario Lemieux, the owner/captain/landlord who retired during the season because of health concerns.
In 2006-07, Crosby led the Penguins back into the playoffs after a long absence, although the Penguins were bounced in the first round by Ottawa. Along the way, Crosby became the youngest person to win a scoring title and the youngest player voted to a starting spot on the All-Star team. He won the Hart Trophy as the league MVP, the Art Ross Trophy as scoring leader and the Lester Pearson Trophy as outstanding player as voted by his peers, becoming only the seventh player in NHL history to win those three trophies in one year. He also played the last month of the season with a broken foot.
Last season, with Crosby serving as the youngest captain in NHL history, the breakout continued despite a high ankle sprain that forced him to miss 28 games. After winning their division, the Penguins won playoff rounds against Ottawa and Jaromir Jagr's New York Rangers, then claimed the Eastern Conference title with a series win over the Philadelphia Flyers, the first time they had ever beaten the Flyers in a playoff series. The run ended with the loss to the Red Wings, but Crosby had 27 playoff points, the same total as playoff MVP Henrik Zetterberg.
All of which leads up to a new season and the need for a new nickname. Sid The Kid, as he was known inside and outside the organization, turned 21 on Aug. 7. El Sid, anyone?
A 21st birthday is a milestone, and a big bash was organized in Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, by Troy Crosby, Sidney's dad. Mario Lemieux came up. Penguins co-owner Ron Burkle flew in from Europe. Aunts and uncles and other members of the extended family joined in.
"It was really special," said Trina Crosby, the celebrant's mom. "Just because of the way life is, it's difficult for everybody to get together at once. This was a way to slow everything down for a couple of days. It was a wonderful way to bring everybody together."
The morning after the party, Crosby got up early, worked out for two hours and played 18 holes of golf. He got back in time before his guests gathered around the table for brunch.
Because of his hockey success, Crosby has become a cottage industry in the endorsement arena. His major deals -- worth multiple millions in total -- are with Gatorade, Reebok and Tim Hortons, the Canadian-based coffee and doughnut chain. (Tim Horton, by the way, began his pro career with the AHL Pittsburgh Hornets and later played for the Penguins, but the closest franchise of his doughnut empire is in Ohio.)
A number of other businesses have approached Crosby about being a pitchman, including some offers well into six figures, but he imposes his own limits on endorsements.
"He turns down offers every week," said Dee Rizzo, the Pittsburgh-based agent for CAA Hockey, which represents Crosby. "He's here to play hockey. He's here to win the Stanley Cup."
Still, Crosby's name and image turn up in all kinds of places.
He was recently named a recipient of the Order of Nova Scotia, which is presented for excellence and achievement in the name of the Crown as the highest civic honor of his home province. He is entitled to place the letters O.N.S. after his name.
In his adopted home town, the handles of Crosby's hockey sticks were used in the ceremonial breaking of ground for the Penguins new arena, slated to open in two years. He is the two-time winner of the Dapper Dan Sportsman of the Year, and the only other Pittsburgh sports figure to win it in consecutive years was the late Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh. The newest penguin at the National Aviary on the North Side is named Sidney. His picture has graced the cover of magazines from Gentleman's Quarterly to Men's Fitness.
He is the most interviewed person in hockey, unflinchingly meeting with the media after morning skates and after games. This routine of being available twice a day continued in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
How is it possible that a young man can handle all this? Well, he gave his first newspaper interview when he was 7, and he accepts being in the spotlight the way he accepts having to lace up his skates before taking the ice.
"It just didn't happen after he turned 18," said his mother. "He got a lot of attention at a very early age. He's grown used to it. I think he's been able to prioritize. He's always been under the microscope. His main focus is to play hockey, but he has a clear idea of who he is off the ice too. It's a balance. He was able to find that at a young age.
"To me, I just see him as my son," she added. "I could sit down with any other mother who has a 21-year-old son and we could be singing the same song. But he has this other side. He loves challenges. There isn't anything he could do that would surprise me. He's a very strong leader, not a rah-rah cheerleader type, but he's a strong individual."
There is also a bond that has grown stronger between the Crosby family and Sidney's adopted home town.
"Sidney has a deep respect for the game, and he feels privileged to be able to play it for a living. We feel privileged because he's in such a great place," Mrs. Crosby said. "When he went there, he was a boy. The city kind of adopted him. He is one of their own.
"Pittsburgh people work hard, and they can appreciate someone who works hard for them. It's all a little overwhelming when there's 17,000 people cheering inside that arena. But not only do they appreciate his hockey skills, they appreciate what he represents as an individual. That means a lot to a parent."
So what's next for top player in hockey, as selected by The Hockey News?
"Hopefully, the Stanley Cup," said Crosby, who is one goal shy of having 100 in his career and six points away from reaching 300 points. "But I think if you asked every player in the league, they're saying the same thing. That's always been on my mind since I started playing. It doesn't change. It's what you work for."
But there may be just a little extra incentive from the experience of having come so close last season before watching another team celebrate with hockey's holy grail.
"It's a terrible feeling," Crosby said.
Does that make him want it more?
"Yeah, I think it does. I don't think I ever questioned how much I wanted it. But I want to get back there," Crosby said. "You want the feeling of winning, but it's almost like you don't ever want that feeling of losing again. I don't know which is stronger. "
Robert Dvorchak can be reached at email@example.com First Published September 28, 2008 4:00 AM