"People talk to
you a great deal about your education, but some good, sacred memory, preserved
from childhood, is perhaps the best education."
Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov
education of a hockey prodigy began long before a puck was dropped shortly
after 7 p.m. on April 11. Sidney Crosby, you see, has already won a Stanley
Cup. This one happened to have a bucket for a base and a bowl for a top and was
wrapped in aluminum foil. On frostbitten Sundays in central Quebec on the
backyard rink of assistant coach Donald Dufresne, Crosby and his Rimouski
junior hockey teammates would gather for fierce games of two-on-two to decide
their "Cup" champion. � Of course, even before he arrived in juniors,
Crosby had won the real Stanley Cup 1,000 times in the rollicking arena of his
mind. "The way I imagined it, there was no jersey, no rink," Crosby
said last Friday. "Just you and the Cup, over your head. That's how I
thought. Don't know how it works for other guys."
Crosby, 19, made
his formal playoff debut last week wearing a snappy white Pittsburgh Penguins
sweater in a 20,000-seat arena, his team suffering a 6--3 embarrassment at the
hands of the Ottawa Senators in the opener of the Eastern Conference
quarterfinals. Pittsburgh, with 13 players appearing in their first NHL
postseason game, wanted to test the water--in the locker room after the game,
Crosby pantomimed dipping his big toe in a chilly pool--but wound up being
hauled into the deep end by the relentless Senators, who took a 2--0 lead in
the first seven minutes and physically abused the Penguins throughout. By the
count of Pittsburgh assistant G.M. Chuck Fletcher, Crosby was knocked down six
or seven times and fell once. "That's the worst playoff game you'll ever
see Sidney Crosby play," Fletcher said. "But his bad games are still
night was exacerbated 23 seconds into the third period, when his apparent goal
was disallowed after NHL hockey operations in Toronto determined he had
directed the puck into the net with his leg. Scoring on a power play with 49
seconds left in the game was little consolation. "[The first game] was
average," said Crosby, whose stall in the visitors' dressing room for his
first playoff game was the same one Wayne Gretzky used in his last NHL game in
Canada eight years ago. "And I don't accept being average.... I have to be
one play ahead. And at times I wasn't. No doubt I have better in me."
With 120 points
during the regular season, Crosby became the first teenager to win a scoring
championship in any of the four major North American professional leagues. But
his hockey gift is so singular and his hunger for excellence so feral that
ultimately he will be judged not by mere goals or assists but by how many Cups
his team wins and how quickly it wins them. Gretzky took five years before
leading Edmonton to a Cup. Crosby's friend and landlord, Penguins chairman
Mario Lemieux, needed seven seasons before taking Pittsburgh to the first of
two championships. Without the layer upon layer of pressure that grinds the
Senators--"At the end of the day, it's not like [the fans] are going to
burn down Pittsburgh if we don't win this series," Fletcher said--the 2007
playoffs might be a freebie for the young Penguins, especially because they
already improved 47 points in the standings since last season. Except that a
young man chasing hardware and history never gets a pass.
Crosby was right,
of course. He did have better in him. That was evident in Game 2 last Saturday,
when he assisted on a power-play goal, dug the puck out of the corner to help
create a second power-play goal and finally scored the winner in the Penguins'
4--3 victory. To get the goal he used the shaft of his stick to redirect a pass
at the edge of the crease, an act that might have been passed off as mere
serendipity had it not been Crosby waving that Reebok wand. He would have a
goal and an assist on Sunday as the Senators took a two-games-to-one lead with
a 4--2 win, but as he talked on Friday in an empty arena anteroom with only the
dispiriting opener as tangible evidence, he had this to comfort him: Gretzky,
in his first playoff with the Oilers, in 1980, was sent home in three games by
Philadelphia in a best-of-five. No matter what happened in this best-of-seven,
Crosby would not disappear that quickly.
In a memorable
tableau captured on the CBC telecast of Game 1, Mark Recchi, Gary Roberts and
Crosby, from left to right, were leaning over the boards in front of the
Penguins bench with bowed heads during a stoppage in the final minute of Game
1. The 39-year-old Recchi, who has 508 career goals, had been repatriated by
Pittsburgh after being shipped off to win the Stanley Cup with Carolina last
spring; the 40-year-old Roberts, renowned for his professionalism, was acquired
from Florida at the trade deadline to provide leadership for a group so young
that chicken fingers are on the menu at team meals. In 38 seasons combined,
Recchi and Roberts had played in 249 playoff games before this one and won
three Cups. As the camera lingered on "two old farts and a young
leader," as Recchi later characterized it, the bobbing head on the right
made it clear who was offering the opinions.
"He was talking
to us," Roberts said. "And he's a talker. He likes to show you on the
board where he wants you to be. I've been fairly coachable in my career,"
Roberts added with a smile. "Hopefully, that'll continue."
Like the keen
student with the right answers, Crosby enjoys going to the blackboard--or in
this case the erasable whiteboard that the Penguins keep behind the bench.
Crosby commandeered assistant coach Mike Yeo's board after the first shift of
Game 1, scribbling directional arrows as Roberts, his regular left wing,
watched. Crosby had grown accustomed to diagramming plays during the season
when he had been flanked by Evgeni Malkin, the superb Russian rookie whose
limited English makes him perfect for this sort of pedagogy, but even Roberts
knows he benefits by chalk talks from a player this prescient and prepared.
After playing against Crosby four times during the regular season, Ottawa had
tweaked its defensive coverage; Sid was merely taking note.