Crosby craze has Pens fans excited again

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:31 AM ET

PITTSBURGH -- Honus Wagner founded a sporting goods store in Pittsburgh in 1922.

This year, his baseball card, worth pennies when it was printed, sold for $1.1 million US.

Things change.

A man named Tim Piett is the current manager of the Honus Wagner Sporting Goods store on Forbes Ave.

Piett has been here 23 years and he is beginning to warm to Sidney Crosby.

"I was here when Mario (Lemieux) came here in 1984 and sales for Crosby are going to be as strong or stronger," he said.

When the Penguins won the NHL lottery draft June 22, the store had 60 T-shirts with Crosby's No. 87 made. There are eight left. The two dozen replica jerseys, the ones are $150 US a pop, were gone within a couple weeks.

No one in Pittsburgh has seen Sidney Crosby play. There is scant video footage. The sporting goods store, festooned with Steelers merchandise of every type, carried no Penguins gear during the lockout. None. Now, Piett sees Crosby matching or even supplanting Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger as the holiday season meal ticket.

"We sold all that stuff before he hit the ice," Piett said. "Wait until he plays."

"So far, Reebok has sold 16,000 (Crosby) jerseys," Crosby's agent, Pat Brisson, said. "If you can translate that to Joe Thornton two years ago, he was the highest. It was in the 9,000 area."

There is an ocean of money to be made from Sidney Crosby, whose $850,000 base salary is dwarfed by endorsement income.

He is pitching Gatorade, Reebok and Telus. He has posed in Vanity Fair, and will adorn the pages of GQ in November. The guy who photographed Crosby shot the Rolling Stones.

There was a time when a player was sentenced to anonymity if he wasn't lucky enough to fall into the right market, or, what once was quaintly called a city.

It wasn't a death sentence -- you might say Lemieux thrived in Pittsburgh and Wayne Gretzky managed nicely in Edmonton -- but today every player in every NHL city can be a star.

There is a stardom infrastructure, TV highlight shows, coast-to-coast radio packages, crossover forays into glossy magazines, blogs, chat rooms and Internet sites.

Borders are vapourizing. A French language radio reporter has been snapping photos for his network's web page this week. Crosby's personal website averaged 160,000 hits a day around the time of the draft lottery.

The NHL signed a $100-million deal this week with XM Broadcasting, a subscription satellite radio network, that will air 1,000 games this year. XM boasts more than four million subscribers. Another satellite broadcaster, Sirius, already is on the job.

I can write this column from the hotel lobby and Sidney Crosby can play in a cosy, sports-mad market, face minimal media demands and still maximize his endorsement opportunities. Unlike Gretzky, who faced economic limitations in both salary and endorsements, Crosby never need move, especially now that the salary cap has levelled the field.

"Whether he's in New York or Pittsburgh or a smaller market, it doesn't make much of a difference because of the way information travels so quickly," Brisson said.

"To be honest with you, I don't think there could be a better spot for him," said veteran winger Mark Recchi, who is on his second go-round here. "It's a terrific city. The people will embrace him. He'll be able to come in and play hockey, enjoy Pittsburgh and let the people enjoy him.

A few details remain, of course, not the least of which is easing Crosby into the lineup. Today will mark his first scrimmage, but no one doubts Crosby's talent or desire to be a star.

He wants kids to wear his jersey, because that's the job of a superstar. He doesn't seem to crave attention but instead endures it. He doesn't need the love.

"I do (endorsements and media) when the time comes to do it but it's not my main focus when I wake up in the morning," Crosby said.

"It's coming to the rink and getting ready to work."

Crosby's domestic situation has become the hot topic of conversation in the rookie's first NHL training camp.

Crosby has been occupying the second floor of Mario Lemieux's suburban mansion and has endeared himself to Lemieux's oldest son, Austin, by being willing to play hockey with him in the driveway.

Lemieux described the relationship as "buddy-buddy" and said the 18-year-old Crosby would be welcome to have girls over. Then Lemieux's inner parent came out. "No sleepovers," Lemieux said with a grin.

"No comment," Crosby said, laughing, when told Lemieux's remarks.

Lemieux was more definitive when asked what line he expected to see Crosby on in today's first scrimmage. Crosby will centre right winger Recchi and Ziggy Palffy.


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