Great One, Next One comparisons already quite similar

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:00 AM ET

The date is worth noting: Dec. 13, 2006.

The day Sidney Crosby took over the point scoring lead in the NHL. Exactly when he relinquishes it is now a matter to speculate about.

It might happen next week or next month. Or, it might not happen until into the next decade.

He is every bit that remarkable at age 19: And should he win the scoring title outright, which is certainly possible, he will do something Wayne Gretzky could not accomplish.

The comparisons to a player once thought incomparable are suddenly there to be interpreted.

At 19, Gretzky tied for the league lead in scoring, but officially finished second to Marcel Dionne, who had scored more goals in 1979-80. Gretzky scored 137 points in his first NHL season, or 1.73 points per game before his 20th birthday.

As of today, in his second NHL season, and after a six-point barrage on Wednesday night, Crosby is scoring at 1.74 points per game. He turns 20 in August.

In Gretzky's first NHL season, an average of seven goals were scored per game. In this, Crosby's second season in Pittsburgh, the average game has 5.9 goals scored.

Another similarity: Neither player won the rookie of the year award. Crosby finished second in the balloting, and Gretzky, because of his WHA years, was deemed ineligible.

"I think Wayne always felt he was kind of ripped off by not getting the scoring title and not getting the Calder Trophy when he should have had both. That was a bit of a bitter pill for him," said Colin Campbell, now the NHL's executive vice-president and director of hockey operations, back then a veteran teammate of the 19-year-old Gretzky in Edmonton.

"The times are so different it's hard to compare (Gretzky and Crosby). When Wayne came in, many people in our league were doubting him. Yeah, he scored in the other league but it wasn't the NHL. And during the exhibition season, I don't think he got any points at all and he was just dropping along at the start of the season.

"Then, he just took off like gangbusters. We were an expansion team, old guys like me and Lee Fogolin and a lot of young guys with no experience and we made the playoffs and we gave Philadelphia trouble in the playoffs.

"Peter Pocklington was the owner and he was really into this positive-thinking stuff. He came in at the beginning of the season and said: 'You guys are going to win the Cup.' And I'm thinking, with this team? This guy is crazy."

The road Gretzky paved in the early years may never be equalled. He scored 137 points the first year, 164 the second, 212 the third.

That's an increase of 27 points from Year 1 to Year 2 and an increase of 48 points from Year 2 to Year 3.

By his second season, Gretzky had Jari Kurri, Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson, Paul Coffey and Kevin Lowe playing with him.

By his second season, Crosby has Evgeni Malkin and Sergei Gonchar of similar resume.

Crosby managed 102 points as a rookie and, to equal Gretzky's jump, he would need to finish at 129 this season, which isn't out of the question. But whether he can continue to make the wide leaps Gretzky made in putting distance between himself and all other league scorers may be asking too much.

"The thing about Wayne is, he kept going, loved scoring, he just loved it," said Campbell. "It wasn't about embarrassing the opposition. Wayne found ways around you, over you, behind you, things you couldn't explain. It was almost like what was happening with Crosby against Philadelphia. The puck kept following him and he kept making plays.

"I used to think the assembly line got stuck on Wayne when they handed out the talent."

Then Crosby came along, and instead of finding doubt, he faced hype. The kind of hype he's supposed to live up to. Only he is exceeding it with his play.

Crosby's game is different from Gretzky's. It is not so subtle or original. It is far more physical and powerful.

"They used to say there was a no-hitting rule with Wayne," said Campbell. "That's not true. We wanted it. You couldn't. I think he enjoyed it when you tried to hit him. He'd just make a move and you'd be standing there, embarrassed.

"Sidney gets hit a little bit more. He seems to like being involved physically."

When Gretzky officially won his first scoring title at the age of 20, he followed it up with six in a row and nine of the next 10. That may never be duplicated.

But with Sidney Crosby, you can never say never.


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