Crosby leads march of the Penguins

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:05 AM ET

PITTSBURGH -- In Pittsburgh, they no longer wait for the second coming.

Sidney Crosby is here and a city once blessed with a hockey saviour in Mario Lemieux has been, through the serendipity of the NHL draft lottery, offered another go.

Crosby shirts and gear are selling briskly in Pitt. He is big news, even as the Steelers kick off and the Pirates limp home and it will all get headier when camp opens today .

Resurrection is an old storyline in Pittsburgh.

The Penguins were considered a lock to relocate to Hamilton until Lemieux arrived in 1984.

"Before Mario, if you wanted to play, you were 45 minutes away from the closest place," said the cabbie driving in from the airport. "Mario comes, they're putting in double rinks all over."

That is precisely the impact the Penguins are hoping for with Crosby.

The Penguins already have sold more tickets than in 2003-2004 when they averaged just 11,800.

That represents a spectacular windfall when you factor in the lockout, three disastrous seasons and an embittering history of financially dictated trades.

When the Penguins won the NHL lottery July 22, they had the usual skeleton staff on hand. The phone started to ring just after the telecast and continued to ring unabated until midnight. Ticket people were billeted at hotels so they could come in to work Saturday morning. Everything changed that quickly.

Happily, Crosby's appeal will make the Penguins not just news here but a point of interest in the hockey world, and by some modest extension, in the sporting world as well. Ten Canadian media outlets, including six daily newspapers are here.

It is the same as Lemieux's arrival, only different.

"With the Internet and 24-hour talk radio and sports cable stations, Sidney Crosby has been known for years" Penguins vice-president of Communications Tom McMillan said. "As big a story as Mario was, the Canadian media didn't come to training camp. It's just a different media world."

Making the story more compelling was general manager Craig Patrick's move to reinvigorate the lineup. The team that kissed Ron Francis, Jaromir Jagr, Martin Straka and Alexei Kovalev goodbye, was now importing big-ticket veterans such as John LeClair, Mark Recchi, Ziggy Palffy, Sergei Gonchar and goalie Jocelyn Thibault.

The Penguins brass is confident people will come back because there remains in Pittsburgh memories of better times.

It has really been three bad years, a millisecond in Maple Leafs time, as the club was stripped down and run on the cheap.

"People called us cash strapped which wasn't necessarily true," McMillan said. "We just didn't spend money we didn't have."

That prudence brought a 25th-, 29th- and 30th-place finish and dwindling interest in the Mellon Arena, by far the league's oldest. The lockout came as a sort of blessed relief.

All that, of course, has been washed away by the Sidney factor. Although Crosby will never shatter Lemieux's scoring marks -- they are different types of players in radically different eras -- he will be counted on to perform one miracle even Lemieux could not turn: Get an arena.

The Penguins watched as the football Steelers and baseball Pirates benefitted from the typical taxpayer largesse to gain new digs, but priorities toward funding sports stadiums have changed. The Penguins are banking on a plan that would see them operate a slots facility and use the proceeds to fund their new building.

What seems a safer bet is that Sidney Crosby has landed in a perfect place. He can be mentored by one of the greatest players who ever lived, on a team peopled not by expansion castoffs but by veterans. The Penguins should be respectable and their young star can mature in a cozy market.

It's not Rimouski, but it's not bad.


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