He's Pittsburgh's favorite son, but he's not Sid the Kid anymore

SOCHI, Russia — They’ve been watching Sidney Crosby for more than a decade now, and, boy, has it made for great television. Just look at the plot that’s unfolded: A teenage phenom from the far reaches of North America emerges out of the Nova Scotian winter, becoming the stuff of Canadian legend. His countrymen and women can’t turn it off, refuse to, because he is theirs, always will be. They are watching, but after so long, can they truly see him?

Being called “Sid the Kid” … that can’t help. Neither can the baby face that won’t leave him, those rosy red cheeks and friendly hazel eyes, nor the way he talks into the camera, with that golly-gee Beaver Cleaver intonation, as if he could just show up to dinner at any home north of the border and clean his plate without complaint.

That’s the thing about child stars. They are not allowed to age. Their lines get repeated into eternity and the theme plays on a loop. Shirley Temple died late Monday night of natural causes at the age of 85, known mostly for the way she danced and preened for the cameras as a 10-year-old. Macaulay Culkin of “Home Alone” fame forever will have his mouth open and his hands slapped to his face. The fictional Truman from “The Truman Show” eventually rebelled against his life of celebrity, heroically breaking his way out from behind the set, but that kind of behavior is not in the repertoire of Sidney Patrick Crosby.

This week, as Crosby takes the stage at the Sochi Winter Games, there will be so much focus on what he did four years ago in Vancouver, lifting the Canadians to the gold medal over the Americans with an overtime goal, that it will be easy to miss the quiet evolution of his character since then, played out mostly south of the border in Pittsburgh.

When Crosby scored that golden goal, a routine flip of the puck past United States goaltender Ryan Miller, he was still very much a carefree kid, just following his prodigious talent wherever it took him. He was coming off a Stanley Cup with the Penguins. As thrilling as it was, clinching the Olympic gold on his home soil was just the next thing up for his exquisite existence, falling right in line. It was like a dream, he says, but then again, so was his life.

In the past four years, though, he has been forced to question everything. A couple of hard hits to the head in the 2010-11 season turned into the diagnosis of a serious concussion, and Crosby had no choice but to pull the plug on the show and retreat, try to figure it out on his own. As month after month passed and he remained isolated from the game he loves, from his teammates, from those cameras, he had to wonder whether he would be able to perform again.

“It’s not something you want to let creep in a couple months in,” Crosby says. “But, when it’s coming on a year, and you’re not feeling that much better … I remember going in expecting to train all summer and things would be normal, and I trained all summer, and things weren’t normal. So, yeah, it definitely crossed my mind. A pretty scary thought. Not something that I figured at 24 I’d have to really think about.”

Now, he is 26, with nearly two good years of health fueling some of his best hockey. He came back from the brink with the same boyish looks, but inside, Crosby is different.

Sochi Sid will wear the “C” as Captain Canada, an acknowledgment from Team Canada’s power brokers that he indeed is all grown up, a fully developed person with the ability to lead a group of men set on defending their gold medal. And, with each highly anticipated step of the journey, he will be watched.

The Canadian microscope

On his 16th birthday, Aug. 7, 2003, Sidney Crosby found out he had made the Canadian Under-18 Junior World Cup team. He had been the only player born in 1987 to be invited to the camp. Now, he was on the team. Talk about sweet 16.

The Canadian newspapers did not downplay the importance of that moment, Crosby making his first national team — especially after Wayne Gretzky had stated publicly that Crosby was “dynamite,” the best young player since Mario Lemieux and the player most likely to break his records. The summer before, Crosby and Gretzky had skated on the same line at a camp in Los Angeles, and Gretzky — “The Great One”! — had come away wowed with the 5-foot-10, 175-pound prodigy from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia.

Crosby handled Gretzky’s blessing like a professional. He said it was an honor, but he doubted he would break Gretzky’s records. When one of Crosby’s teammates tried to give him the nickname “Gretz,” Crosby did not go along with it. He was too consumed with living up to Gretzky’s words to actually believe any of them.

“I didn’t let it affect what I did or the way I looked at things,” Crosby says. “The NHL always seemed like it was another planet. I didn’t have a NHL team where I lived. There were a couple of guys who made it from my area, but I’d been to one or two NHL games maybe my whole life. I knew it was a long ways away, and probably in a good way I was just able to grow up.”

Crosby wore the jersey of Team Canada for the first time in that Junior World Cup event, set in Breclav, Czech Republic. They did not win, which ate at Crosby. The Canadians had built their reputation by winning just about every junior competition.

After the 2004 World Juniors, Crosby’s next international tournament, the craze around him already was taking on a life of its own. His autographed, game-worn jersey from one of the games was being sold on eBay for more than $2,000. At Helsinki, Finland, Crosby had become the youngest player to score a goal in that event. Of course, given that Canada only won silver, what did it matter?

Those perceived failures drove Crosby, who would win his first gold medal at the 2005 World Juniors in Grand Forks, N.D.

“You know how much expectation comes with playing for your country,” Crosby says.

And soon, the NHL wouldn’t feel so far away. The Penguins took Crosby with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 amateur draft. It wasn’t just the Penguins who needed Crosby to be a star. After the NHL lockout canceled the 2004-05 season, league officials were desperate for a new face and image to brand. The perfect guy fell into their lap because Crosby already was used to the attention.

On the day he was drafted, Crosby sat on the phone for hours, fielding reporters’ questions from all over North America, undaunted. If he was annoyed, he hid it expertly.

“To be honest with you it’s all I really know,” Crosby says. “It’s been like that since I was 16, 17, and coming into the league after a lockout, hockey was kind of in a different place then, trying to get guys to do things.

“I think that growing up in Canada, the expectation is, as a hockey player, that after a game you’re available, win or lose, and that’s just kind of the environment that I was brought up around. That’s how I understand the game to be. I’m definitely not running around and knocking on anyone’s door, looking to do an interview. But if people come to your stall after a game, whether you win or lose, it’s part of it.”

A new episode

On that fateful February night in Vancouver, Sidney Crosby did something that Wayne Gretzky never accomplished.

Because NHL players were not allowed to play in the Olympics until the 1998 Nagano Games, Gretzky only played in one Olympics, as a 37-year-old, and Team Canada finished fourth.

Crosby’s ability to shine on the Olympic stage will only help him reach Gretzky’s level of adoration in his homeland.

“People will come up and say, ‘I was here, I was in the Dominican, I was in such and such place when you scored that goal, congratulations, that was awesome,’ that kind of thing,” Crosby says. “It’s not like after you win a Stanley Cup. It seems like it’s kind of that summer, then everyone kind of turns the page. This is something that, two or three years later, people still kind of talk about it.”

As demanding as the Canadian fans are, their collective body couldn’t put more pressure on Crosby than he heaps on himself. Talking about those early defeats in international junior play, Crosby seems like he’s reliving each one. He can tell you the scores, the circumstances around losses that haunted him as a teenager.

“I’ve been on both sides of it,” Crosby says.

In Sochi, the Canadians will be favored by many to win gold again, even on the larger international ice surface. And back in Canada, from bars and living rooms clad in red and white, they will relish the viewing of this episode: Their Olympic hero, back in his realm with a deeper perspective, savoring every second of it.

“I’ve learned different things along the way,” Crosby says. “Probably more of an appreciation than ever, when I’m playing, and for everything that comes with it, whether it’s winning, or competing, or just being around the guys. When it’s gone, you realize how much you love it, and not that I don’t think I did before, but it’s a lot more clear how much you love the game.”

J. Brady McCollough: bmccollough@post-gazette.com and on Twitter @BradyMcCollough. First Published February 11, 2014 9:37 PM

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