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For Crosby, being one of the faces of hockey "is something I've grown into, like tying my skates"--since he was anointed by Wayne Gretzky as a future NHL record-breaker when Crosby was a mere 15-year-old. For the gregarious Ovechkin, he is seizing his moment. "I love to do crazy things," Ovechkin says. "Like [at] the draft." In Vancouver a few days after the league awards banquet, he sat at Washington's draft table and delighted fans throughout the arena (as well as the TV audience), when he took general manager George McPhee up on his offer to go to the podium and announce the Capitals' two first-round picks.
"[The NHL has] so many dynamic players like [ Dallas's] Mike Modano and [ Colorado's] Joe Sakic, guys who should be household names," says Stars center Jeff Halpern, Ovechkin's former captain in Washington. "Ovie and Crosby can be bigger. Every time they play each other, it should be a national TV game. Instead of Detroit or Rangers games, get these two kids on there. Crosby versus Ovechkin."
On a 10-day trip early in his rookie season Crosby lugged some heavy baggage, Sid the Kid burdened not only by expectations but also by made-to-measures. Mario Lemieux, Crosby's team owner, captain and landlord (Sid lived with Lemieux and his family in Pittsburgh last season and will do so again this year) pulled him aside to explain the facts of life: Instead of packing five suits take two or three and change shirts every day. Mix it up. Other rookie tutorials were more public, less pleasant.
During a power play in an early-season game, Crosby overstayed his regular shift by perhaps 15 seconds. When he returned to the bench, Mark Recchi, who played his first NHL game when Crosby was a one-year-old, lashed out, questioning Crosby's commitment to team play. Crosby, always selfless with the puck, responded in an impolitic way, barking back at the veteran. The blowup was hardly Halley's Comet, but it underlined Crosby's great strength and his single flaw: his struggle to channel his passion. On the plus side of his rookie season was 102 points, including 53 at even strength, two more than Ovechkin. On the debit side was his NHL-high six unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, including those for protesting calls.
If there were a DVD of Crosby's greatest snits it might begin with Nov. 16, 2005, 14 weeks after Crosby's 18th birthday. Derian Hatcher, the punishing Flyers defenseman, soured Crosby's mood early in the second period by performing a Sher-wood root canal with impunity. The high stick, unpenalized, split Crosby's upper lip and broke three front teeth; the new face of the NHL was a mess. Crosby went to the dressing room for repairs, was told he could get stitches between periods, went out for his next shift and took yet another high stick from Hatcher, again unpenalized. Crosby yelped at referee Kevin Pollock and was nailed with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that negated the rest of a Penguins power play in a scoreless game. "In the dressing room after the period he knew he had taken a bad penalty," says Recchi, who after a deadline trade to Carolina is back with the Penguins and on good terms with Crosby. "It says a lot about his character that he set the world on fire in the third." Ultimately that night the rookie did more for his teammates--who in a telling sign of the team's lack of fortitude sought no retribution against Hatcher--than they did for him; he had a goal and an assist in the third period, then bagged the overtime winner.
"He handled [his rookie season] as well as any player coming in with that hype," says NBC analyst Eddie Olczyk, who coached the Penguins for 30 games last season before being fired. "But people remember Philly. National game. Miked up. No one comes to his defense. The unsportsmanlike. I often talked to him about being able to handle emotions and adversity as a marquee player. I told him that 20 years ago he would have been chopped in the back of his legs, elbowed to his head, every shift. I told him he couldn't be challenging everything, disagreeing with calls. It doesn't surprise me [if] referees are labeling him [as a chronic complainer.]"
Crosby is not unmindful of a burgeoning reputation, but as he looked up from a dinner of steak and mushrooms last month, he said in a polite, firm voice, "I respect officials. I do. But I can honestly say that I take pride in my emotion." He is also aware, however, that grousing is now a luxury he can't afford. When new Penguins coach Michel Therrien startled the hockey community by making Crosby an alternate captain last December, Therrien was force-feeding him a dose of responsibility. "If there's something I need to work on this year, beyond face-offs and defense, it's my emotions," said Crosby. "It's part of being a leader, showing the guys the right way."
After Team Canada's ill-advised Olympic snub of Crosby in late December (Ovechkin was selected to play for Russia at the Turin Games) and then Ovechkin's showing up on every sports channel highlight reel with his supine, over-the-shoulder, one-handed, goal of the year in Phoenix last Jan. 16, Crosbymania subsided. Too bad. Crosby, who bounced from his natural center position to the wing and back, was truly discovering his NHL identity only by then. If his adrenaline buzz and the media crowds dissipated, checking lines and No. 1 defense pairs still targeted him. "When you're in Game 50 or 60 and you're going up against top players and you're still finding a way to make things happen," Crosby says, "then you're doing something right." The last six weeks of the season were his Olympics, his Stanley Cup, on a last-place team. He scored 37 points in his final 22 games.
"Like all superstars, Gretzky and [Steve] Yzerman, Tiger Woods in golf, pressure excites Crosby," says Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland, Crosby's G.M. at the 2006 world championships. "Sophomore jinx? No chance. He and Ovechkin will be in the top 10 in scoring, and one will probably lead the league. For the next decade one of them will be leading the league."
On a crisp September morning, on a public square one subway stop from Toronto's old Maple Leaf Gardens, a mob of 100 or so businessmen and students greeted Ovechkin as if he were the Muscovite next door. When asked why Canadians, whose identity as a hockey nation was molded by the 1972 Summit Series victory against the Soviet Union, particularly seem to adore him, Ovechkin grinned and said, "Maybe because I'm good." The occasion was the release of NHL 07, an EA Sports game that features Ovechkin on the cover, and when his virtual face appeared on a monitor, ready to take a penalty shot, Ovechkin studied the likeness and asked, "Why am I not smiling?"