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From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED Oct. 17, 2005
ON A NIGHT WHEN NHL COMMISSIONER Gary Bettman was in the house and pop star Christina Aguilera sang the national anthems, 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 on Oct. 8 except for the final score, which happened to be 7-6, 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?
Crosby could turn out to be hockey's most important player this season but not even its best rookie. He is 23 months younger than another fabulous No. 1, Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, who scored twice in his NHL debut. But Crosby isn't being measured against other rookies. The template for him is the nonpareil Wayne Gretzky and Crosby's teammate and team owner Mario Lemieux, who scored on his first shot on his first shift in his first NHL game 21 years ago. One shift in, Crosby was already playing catch-up.
An NHLer for only a week, Crosby seemingly has been with us forever, the media having discovered him years ago. The only comparable athlete in this millennium is LeBron James. 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. He is ready for everything. Crosby 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 after the season opener. "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."
The Kid 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. 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 pop divas to a game) but by how soon he develops the strength to take hold of a 35-pound silver Cup.