Young blood

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:45 AM ET

Defining Sidney Crosby is not in any way easy, but then again defining art is never without debate.

The great ones can't always explain what they do or how they do it: It just happens, naturally and competitively.

He is the new fresh face of hockey, albeit with a lip cut in two places right now. Forever smiling, forever available: You don't watch these Memorial Cup games as much as you watch him. This is his tournament, his time, even if his team, the Rimouski Oceanic, doesn't win.

He is captivating, the way Gene Hackman is captivating on a large screen. Crosby may not be the next Wayne Gretzky -- and in truth, it is unfair for anyone to looked upon that way -- he may indeed end up as a lesser version of Gretzky with a meaner-tougher veneer.

A hybrid star the likes of which we've never seen before.

"I'd say he's closer to Paul Kariya than any of the names I've heard him compared to," said Craig Hartsburg, the former NHL coach now coaching junior in Sault Ste. Marie. "He has Kariya's sense and understanding of open ice, just not his speed."

To the naked eye, Crosby doesn't necessarily look extraordinarily fast yet scouts here rave about his speed. He doesn't necessarily look strong, but his coaches brag about his lower-body strength. He plays centre one shift, right wing the next, forever darting in and out, almost inventing new ways to play. And for an offensive star, he plays defence with diligence on a team that does not.

"People keep saying Gretzky as a comparison, but I don't see if that way," said Frank Bonello, who heads up Central Scouting for the NHL. "To me, he's more like Pat Lafontaine or Steve Yzerman. Those players had a certain quality about them, they were real gamers with great anticipation, tremendous competitors.

One play late Tuesday said much about Crosby. He was not having a good night taking faceoffs against the Ottawa 67's. And late in the round-robin game, with his team up by a goal and down by a man, he was asked to take a key faceoff in his own end. He won the draw decidedly.

"I knew how much that meant at that moment," Crosby said. "I wanted to make sure I won that one."

The great ones always seem to find a way when it matters most.

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Trina Crosby couldn't take it anymore. She had to take a walk Tuesday night, right in the middle of the Memorial Cup game. It's nothing she hasn't done before.

The attacks on her son were so pointed, she didn't know any other way to reasonably respond.

"It's wrong the way they go after him," said Troy Crosby, the father. "My wife was really upset in both of the first two games. We've learned to tolerate a lot but it's still hard. We're still his parents. We just don't know what's a penalty anymore.

"You know, he's been a target for a lot of years and it's hard to sit back and watch sometimes. The worst was when he was 14 years old and playing midget. He was playing with 17 and 18 year olds and he was the best player and some teams didn't even think about the puck, they just went after him.

"After a while, you watch this and you have to take a stance. Is this safe for your kid? I watched the tape of the (Ottawa) game and they whacked him about eight times with no infractions. How many times does it have to happen? Sidney's a tough kid but this is ridiculous."

The Crosby's aren't asking for any kind of special treatment -- they are pleading for fairness.

"In two games of the tournament, they've been all over him and he hasn't drawn a single penalty. To me, that's unbelievable," Troy Crosby said.

"And remember one thing: Sidney's not complaining about this. I am."

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Brian Kilrea has only been around junior hockey forever but Tuesday night was the first time he coached against Crosby.

The game plan was obvious. Slash him. Hook him. Hold him. Hit him. Anything to get him off his game.

And the truth is, none of it worked.

Crosby scored once, set up another goal and was responsible for a third goal that he didn't get a point on. His line scored four goals and had he capitalized on his opportunities, he would have scored five himself.

"I had enough chances," he confessed.

Other than that, Kilrea's strategy worked to perfection.

"If I could figure out a way to stop him in 24 hours, I wouldn't be coaching junior," he said.

"I don't think there's anything he doesn't respond to."

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Little known fact: This is the second Memorial Cup for the Crosby family. The first was 20 years ago this month, two years before Sidney was born. The tournament was nothing like this back then.

Troy Crosby was a goalie for the Verdun Junior Canadiens, a team that featured Claude Lemieux and Jimmy Carson.

"I can tell you one thing, it wasn't anything the spectacle it is today," said Troy Crosby, the soon-to-be famous hockey dad from Cole Harbour, N.S. "It was a very small tournament. I think there were 500 people in the stands for some of our games. We played in these old rinks in Drummondville and Shawinigan.

"I still have old tapes of some of the games. I watch them the odd time, Sid's seen them.

"I think it was TSN's first year. John Wells did play-by-play and I think Darcy Rota did colour. You know how long ago it was? Our players were wearing Cooperalls."

That week, Troy Crosby started two games in goal. No one requested an interview.

"Not one."

Crosby and Gretzky have more than a few things in common. When Gretzky entered the NHL, it was by a special agreement negotiated by the Edmonton Oilers. This year, the NHL has toyed with how best to make Crosby available to its non-playing franchises. There have been reports that a lottery system will be used to determine who would pick first, should there be an entry draft.

There have also been quiet rumblings that the NHL is so concerned about Crosby going elsewhere, they will engineer a draft of some kind even if an agreement isn't reached in their collective bargaining fight.

NBC, the American network that will televise games if they are ever played again, already has begun work on a marketing campaign based around Crosby, who has yet to play his first professional game.

"I know for a fact they (the NHL) want to capitalize on this," said Pat Brisson, Crosby's agent.

Gretzky made the No. 99 famous and now it has been retired from hockey. Crosby wears 87 for two personal reasons: He was born in the year 1987 and his birthday happens to come in the eighth month and on the seventh day.

One more Gretzky-like comparison. Crosby led the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League with 102 assists this season. Had he not scored a goal, he would have finished fifth in league scoring and second behind someone who doesn't play on his line.

"What's happened with him is beyond our wildest dreams," Troy Crosby said. "It's been unbelievable, really.

But the main thing is, he's a happy kid, he's a great kid and he's doing what he loves. What can be wrong with that?"

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Scotty Bowman walked through the hall past the dressing rooms at the John Labatt Centre and caught Sidney Crosby's eyes and in a non-verbal way, with only eye contact, each acknowledged the other.

A telling, if understated, moment. One legend passing, the other on his way.


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