How does he do it? How does the best player in the world get better as he watches? To understand that, you must first understand Crosby's game in the context of other alltime greats'. He is not as creative as Wayne Gretzky, and he doesn't have the preposterous size-and-skill combination of Mario Lemieux, but he is more well-rounded than either. He often makes plays behind both goals in a single shift. His brilliance is built on relentlessness.
"How complete he is, that is what separates him," says teammate Matt Niskanen. "That and his drive. Lots of guys work hard, but he works harder. Lots of guys can skate fast, and lots of guys can stickhandle really well. He can do both at the same time and at a very high level."
Crosby has always been a hockey geek. Even as a kid who was far superior to his competition, he wanted to iron out any wrinkles in his game. Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero says that when he meets with Crosby, "I always set aside an hour, and every time—I don't think [a meeting has ever] been less than four hours. He just loves to talk about hockey."
Crosby says his absence only increased his passion: "I've always loved hockey, but I realized how much I really do love it." This would lead you to believe that he spends more time on the game than he did before. But that's not really the case. If anything, he has learned the value of thinking about it less.
"In the last couple of years, away from the rink, he has been trying to turn his brain off of hockey," says linemate Pascal Dupuis, Crosby's roommate on the road for three seasons.
Says Crosby, "When you're sitting around for a year and a half you realize you've got to enjoy the time you have—playing hockey, but also just being healthy. I learned to get my mind away from hockey a little more when I'm away from the rink."
He discovered he is better off concentrating intensely on hockey for part of the day rather than thinking about it all day. And by watching instead of playing, Crosby saw the game from a different angle. He studied the strengths and weaknesses of his teammates and the rest of the league. He saw openings that he hadn't seen on the ice. "When I came back, I realized there were things I was happy with and was able to maintain," Crosby says, "and there were other things I could improve."
That increased knowledge helped when he returned from his concussion last season. Then, during the lockout, he ramped up his workouts so that he would be at his physical peak when the puck finally dropped. Combined, those two things turned him into the most dominant NHL player in years.
Shortly after becoming the Penguins' G.M. in 2006, Shero decided to take his team on a training camp trip. He whittled his list of possible destinations down to two: West Point, N.Y., or Orlando. Eventually he picked West Point, and the Penguins spent six hours in Army-style training.
"We're in the middle of the jungle, basically, and there is an overturned jeep. And these eight guys per team have to figure out how to get it onto four wheels," Shero recalls. "It's teamwork: You do this, you do this, you do this.... Guys are getting under it, trying to figure it out. And I'm watching Sidney Crosby, at my first training camp, and I'm thinking, This f------ jeep is going to fall on his head, and I'm going to get fired. This is the stupidest thing we've ever done."