On a night when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was in the house and pop star Christina Aguilera was on the mike--the league is movin' up; the best it could do for the national anthems at the 2004 Stanley Cup final was Hulk Hogan's daughter-- Sidney Crosby banged a puck out of a goalmouth scramble into the Boston net and flung himself against the glass in a paroxysm of joy. With one point-blank shot he had turned goalie Hannu Toivonen into a trivia question (who did the Kid beat for his first NHL goal?), just as earlier in the game he had turned Hal Gill into a pylon when he blew by the lumbering Bruins defenseman on his way to the second of two gorgeous assists. Everyone will remember everything from the Penguins' home opener last Saturday except for the final score, which happened to be 7-6 in favor of Boston. Sometimes you send the fans home awed instead of happy.
A few minutes after the game, Crosby related in a barely audible voice that it was nice getting his first goal but winning is paramount, exactly what NHL players are supposed to say--even 18-year-old centers less than 10 weeks removed from being drafted No. 1. After he scored five points in his first three games, was there any question that Crosby, a compact amalgam of poise, power and vision, is ready to thrive in the NHL?
The veneration by 17,132 in Pittsburgh was in stark contrast to the welcome Crosby received in his debut at New Jersey three nights earlier, the first coming of the NHL's second coming. As the Devils charged to a 5-1 win, Crosby was serenaded with chants of "overrated" and " Parise's better," a reference to Devils rookie Zach Parise. The derision was not as unexpected--"All great players have to get used to that on the road," Penguins center and team owner Mario Lemieux said--as it was undeserved. On his first shift Crosby burst out of the corner and flipped a backhander on net, a nifty shot that goalie Martin Brodeur kicked aside. He also created Pittsburgh's goal with a slick pass to Mark Recchi in the third period. The 5'11", 191-pound Crosby, who has thick hockey haunches and skates wide-legged in the Russian style, looked at ease in nearly 16 minutes of ice time.
Crosby might prove to be the bomb and the balm, an anodyne for many of the league's ills, but trying to fill absurdly high expectations is a mug's game. He could turn out to be hockey's most important player this season but not even its best rookie. Crosby is 23 months younger than another fabulous No. 1, Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, who scored twice in his NHL debut. While it will soon close, there is an obvious gap in physical maturity between a 20-year-old (the 6'2", 212-pound Ovechkin was drafted in 2004) and someone who turned 18 in August. When asked what he thought was the highest point total by an 18-year-old in the past dozen years, Crosby guessed, "One hundred?" The answer is 51, by Alexandre Daigle in 1993-94 and Ilya Kovalchuk in 2001-02. Crosby should blow past that, but of course he isn't being measured against Daigle, who's playing out a disappointing career in Minnesota, or Kovalchuk, who re-signed with Atlanta last Saturday. The template is the nonpareil Wayne Gretzky, who two years ago identified Crosby as someone who might break his scoring records, and Crosby's teammate Lemieux, who scored on his first shot on his first shift in his first NHL game 21 years ago. One shift in, Crosby already was playing catch-up. "I've heard top 10 scoring, point-a-game, for Sid," Recchi said. "Jeez. All he has to do is be a good player on a good team. He doesn't have to carry us."
An NHLer for only a week, Crosby seemingly has been with us forever. In this wired world, sports consumers are no longer allowed the small pleasure of gradually discovering a seminal talent. Crosby was discovered years ago--his first newspaper interview was at age seven. The Globe and Mail of Toronto has assigned a reporter to cover the Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, native for the year; Canada's most influential paper now has foreign bureaus for Beijing, London, Moscow, New York, Washington and Crosby. A biography was due out this week.
The only comparable athlete in this millennium is LeBron James, some of whose high school basketball games were televised nationally. James resurrected a franchise--the Cleveland Cavaliers' attendance increased by almost 7,000 per game his rookie season--just as Crosby's presence should add almost 5,000 a night to the Penguins' gate, a bonanza for a team that becomes a free agent when its lease at Mellon Arena ends in 2007. The difference: Crosby's arrival is far more significant, relatively. James entered a fairly healthy league with crossover stars like Shaq; while Crosby is white-knighting into a postlockout NHL. Crosby isn't a future star as much as the future itself.
Although Crosby might never be Gretzkyesque, he inarguably has prepared himself for greatness. When Lemieux was 18, he smoked two packs a day. The last NHL rookie to generate as much buzz as Crosby, Eric Lindros, was uncomfortable with the attention. Crosby was ready for everything. He started at 15 with a personal trainer and his first media-training session. In junior hockey he came to the rink in a jacket and tie. He learned to speak French playing in Quebec. Crosby understood that the hockey world was watching him, and he embraced his destiny. "Greatness isn't decided at 18," he said last Thursday. "You can't say a player's good until he's played 10, 15 years in the league. Great players are the ones consistent year after year, the ones who win championships."
Gretzky needed five NHL seasons to lead his team to a Stanley Cup; Lemieux, seven. Crosby--who will get quicker and improve his middling face-off skills--should not be judged by his ability to carry a league (or get Aguilera to a game) but by how soon he develops the strength to take hold of a 35-pound silver Cup.