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Of course, for now Crosby has the last word, having outdueled Ovechkin in their epic seven-game Eastern Conference final last spring. "Every time he's been challenged, he's risen to the occasion," Podnieks says. "So far." But now the stakes rise. Crosby is the face of Canada's bid for Olympic gold, the center for Team Canada figuratively and literally. His role as defender of the faith has never been made clearer than in a national commercial, released just after he was named The Canadian Press male athlete of the year in December, that opened with Crosby declaring, "Hockey? Hockey is our game."
God forbid Russia—or anybody else—beats Canada in Vancouver. God forbid that these Olympics, Crosby's first, end like the last, with Team Canada losing to Russia and finishing seventh. Ovechkin actually jumped for joy then.
"You cannot believe what this means to Canada," Cherry says. "We cannot be second. Second means we're failures; we cannot fail, especially when it's in our barn. We have to win. Because Canadians are strange people: We eat our own. There will be absolutely no mercy, like the last time: Every guy and the coaches were just ripped to pieces. I don't know how else to describe it. We just have to win."
It would end on a pair of tennis courts beside Cole Harbour Place, but unlike the parade and the concert blaring on the other side of the building, this was a quieter affair that, oddly enough, made perfect sense. Because even in Canada, hockey doesn't always mean ice or cold. Because too early on Saturday mornings when they were eight and nine years old, phones would ring at the homes of Crosby's buddies. It was always Sidney, calling for a game of road hockey.
"I was their parents' worst nightmare," Crosby says. The moms and dads, bleary-eyed, would tell him to call back. Half an hour later, the phone would ring again.
Now came the most personal part of Crosby's Stanley Cup day. The earlier meet-and-greet with Canadian military personnel and the stop at the children's hospital and the on-stage Q and A were gestures to the community, formal and stiff. But now he and eight friends, the ones he played with daily from ages six to 15, hurried to shed their street clothes in a nearby dressing room. They all had moved on in one way or another from the hockey dream—gone to school, gotten jobs, watched as their friend lived it for them on TV. Now as they hustled into pads and Rollerblades, Crosby pointed and, one by one, recited their old phone numbers from memory.
This had always been part of the plan, too, even since he joined the NHL. If ever he won, they'd all play one more time, three-on-three, the way every kid played it on the street or pond: O.K., this one's for the Stanley Cup. But now they'd do it for real.
Crosby, as he did as a kid, squatted in goal, outfitted in oversized pads. Everyone was nervous—who plays road hockey before hundreds of people?—but once the sweat broke and the adrenaline kicked in, it was as if nothing had changed. "It was like they were 12 again," Troy says. Sidney made 11 saves, took a hard tumble when one buddy flew into the crease and, of course, his team won, 7--3.
And then, there the Cup was, waiting in the gloved hands of its longtime keeper, Phil Pritchard. At first his teammates hesitated, figuring Crosby would be, should be, the only one entitled to pick it up. Then Crosby tapped Mike Chiasson's arm and said, "You're the captain. Go up and grab it."
"Just him saying that meant the world to me," Chiasson says. "That's when it really set in: This is really happening."