The whiz kid

CHRIS STEVENSON -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 11:12 AM ET

That is one of the first things you notice about Sidney Crosby when you see him play, how his powerful legs make him so difficult to knock off the puck.

He's been compared to Wayne Gretzky, but he is built more like a young Ray Bourque.

Ask big defenceman Marc Methot of the London Knights. At the Memorial Cup, Crosby and Methot went into a corner together early in their round-robin game. They eyed each other and went shoulder-to-shoulder. Guess who came out with the puck?

Crosby's a strong kid, but who would have imagined he could flatten the NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers?

Right in Steeltown?

It is an indication of the weight Crosby throws around -- and why the NHL can be so hopeful he could be a shining light after of the darkness of the last year -- that the Penguins' winning of the draft lottery could dominate headlines in pigskin-crazy Pittsburgh.

In July.

"The day we won the lottery, our ticketing people stayed until midnight that night because the phones would not stop ringing," said Tom McMillan, the Pens' vice-president of communications and marketing.

"Here we are selling hockey season tickets on a Friday night in July in Pittsburgh. That just doesn't happen. It probably doesn't happen anywhere. It was total spontaneity, totally off the news announcement (that the Penguins had won the draft lottery and the right to draft Crosby today). The fans were just responding ... and nobody had seen this kid play. They were responding to the phenomenon.

"The Pittsburgh media in the last week of July is dominated by the Steelers going to camp. The TV stations, from 30 days out, start a countdown to Steelers camp. But hockey was the dominant topic and in the last week of July, that just doesn't happen."

Crosby makes things happen.

On the ice. Off the ice.

The Penguins sold season tickets to people in 10 states -- including California -- and the province of Ontario that Friday night.

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Ottawa got a taste of the Crosby buzz yesterday.

The Bell Sensplex was jammed yesterday morning for Crosby, along with the other top prospects for today's NHL draft, skating with a bunch of kids. People stood four deep at the end of the rink, grasping posters handed out at the door, straining to catch a glimpse of the helmetless Crosby on the ice.

Crosby talked to the kids, raced with them, encouraged them, prodded them.

He was engaged.

Talk to people who know him and they'll tell you Crosby doesn't go through the motions, ever.

"We were throwing a ball around last week," said Jack Johnson, the fine defenceman from Faribault, Minn., who went to prep school with Crosby, visited with him in Halifax last week and is his roommate this weekend. "It turned into a competition, like everything."

It looked like Crosby made just about everyone of those kids feel special yesterday.

"I was just trying to talk to them," he said after. "I know what they feel like. I can remember seeing guys and being nervous out there."

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For all the attention over the last couple of years, Crosby is still a 17-year-old who likes movies and going to the beach.

And has to be prodded to take out the garbage.

"He doesn't volunteer to do it too much," said Crosby's dad, Troy. "Around home, he's still a 17-year-old boy, even though other places he has a high profile. He has the same responsibilities at home as his sister.

"He's still a kid. He was playing (road) hockey last week with his buddies. He just loves the game. He'd play hockey 24 hours a day if he could."

His peers don't begrudge the attention.

"He's a good guy. He's very humble despite all the attention around him full time," said Bobby Ryan, the Owen Sound Attack forward. "He deserves all the accolades he gets."

"He's always been the same kid and that's why he's such a likeable person," said Johnson. "He doesn't change even with all the spotlight on him."

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The NHL scout can remember the first time he saw Crosby and the first time he knew he was seeing something special.

"It was at the (Canadian) under-18 camp in 2003. He was a 16-year-old on the ice with 17-year-olds and he was by far the best player," said the scout. "Not even close."

A month later, the scout, along with a bunch of others, was at the Rimouski Oceanic's home opener to watch the rookie. The scout looked over the report he had from that game.

"We wanted to see how he would react to the pressure," said the scout. "He assisted on the tying goal with 30 seconds left and scored the winner nine seconds into overtime. He took over the game at the end as a 16-year-old. Not bad, eh?"

That is how Crosby's status has grown. Situation by situation, each scrutinized, handling each, building one on the other, winning battles for pucks, scoring titles and a gold medal, all the while unflappable in front of the cameras.

Crosby admitted to being just a little nervous yesterday on the eve of the draft, though it was hard to tell.

"It's hard to believe ... it all goes by so fast. I think a lot of us remember watching this on TV and now we're here," he said. "This is something I always dreamed of doing."

Like he often does, Crosby deflected the attention from himself when asked if this scaled-down version of the draft detracts at all from his coronation.

Crosby is one of only 20 or so top prospects here to gather in a hotel ballroom. In normal times, it would be the Corel Centre, the seats filled with hundreds of draft hopefuls.

But these are not normal times.

"When you watch all the drafts in the past, they were on a little bit bigger scale. It's tough for a lot of other guys who weren't able to come," said Crosby. "You have to accept that and move on. I don't think we're going to take anything away from this because it's on a smaller scale. It's draft day and we're going to enjoy it."

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Later yesterday afternoon, after being introduced to fans at Majors Hill Park, Crosby attended a media conference at the Marriott Hotel. He entered the room, like the rest of the prospects would later, wearing a blue golf shirt with an NHL logo on the chest.

He'll don a sweater with the Penguins logo on the front this afternoon, but, fairly or not, he will be expected to carry that spruced up NHL logo on his back for years to come.

This weekend is all about him, the theme being how he is going to help relaunch the NHL after the ravages of the lockout, how he will team with Mario Lemieux in Pittsburgh to usher in a new era of offensive hockey.

It's an unfair burden for a 17-year-old kid, no matter how great he's been so far.

But he doesn't shy away from the premise.

"I'm ready for the challenge. I'm not going to put the pressure on myself to be Lemieux or Gretzky," said Crosby. "Right now I'm looking at short-term goals and that's playing in the NHL next year. I want to come to camp ready and want to have a good camp. The NHL is where I want to be next year. I'm not thinking anything past that."

He is polished and poised beyond his years, answering questions respectfully, if not expansively, and in both official languages (he's picked up French in the last 18 months and does a fine job).

He said he'd drive himself nuts if he tried to count how many questions he's been asked.

"I couldn't tell you," he said. "I realize I'm in a special situation. It try not to get frustrated. A lot of people would like to be in my shoes."

"The kid is already a pro, mentally," said one Eastern Conference scout. "The talk he had with us was the best I've seen in all my years. What a solid kid. Everything he does is to be successful as a hockey player. He's not cocky, but confident.''

Troy Crosby is as impressed as anybody with his son's composure and poise.

"I'm really impressed with the way he handles it. He's very mature," he said. "I don't know how he got it."

The NHL can just be thankful that he has.

chris.stevenson@ott.sunpub.com


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