Sitting down with Sidney Crosby

Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby. (SUN/Sean Kilpatrick)

Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby. (SUN/Sean Kilpatrick)

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:51 AM ET

PHILADELPHIA -- Here was Sidney Crosby, sitting in the lavish lobby of the Ritz Carlton in Philadelphia, a hotel so brazenly exclusive it has no outdoor sign.

He was wearing a nicely tailored navy suit, with the collar open and the tie tucked away somewhere for safekeeping.

He fit right in with a room full of powerful corporate types but as usual, he was the youngest person in the room.

He had been thinking hard for about 15 seconds. The question was tying him up in a way no NHL defenceman has been able to: What one word sums your season?

"The first word to me has been fun," he said, "but if you want me to put the season in a category, it would be ... eventful."

YES, EVENTFUL WORKS

In just one year, Sidney Crosby has:

- Found himself in Pittsburgh despite only a 6% likelihood in the NHL's draft lottery.

- Watched as the Penguins used his allure to land a host of free agents, including Mark Recchi, John LeClair, Ziggy Palffy and Sergei Gonchar.

- Accepted an offer to live with player/owner Mario Lemieux, one of the best to reach for a pair of skates.

- Seen a heart ailment threaten Lemieux's life and end his career.

- Get his first car, a leased Range Rover.

- Watched his first pro coach, Ed Olczyk, get fired and replaced with hardrock Michel Therrien. One of Therrien's first acts was to make Crosby an alternate captain, earning the youngster derision for having been given too much, too soon.

- Found himself unable to lift the Penguins anywhere near the playoffs in the most disappointing year in franchise history.

- Been snubbed for Canada's Olympic team.

- Seen Palffy retire because of a shoulder ailment. Recchi, meanwhile, was traded to Carolina at the deadline. Crosby is now seventh in seniority on the Penguins.

- Endured facewashes around the league and a slag from Ottawa Senators star Daniel Alfredsson that he was a crybaby compared to Washington's Alexander Ovechkin.

The thing you must know about Sidney Crosby is that in most things hockey, he is 25 years old. His talent is already mature, but then the talent of prodigies is always unusually mature. That's what makes him special.

Crosby left Cole Harbour, N.S., at 14 to attend an American prep school. There is no homesickness left in him.

At 18 he has seen more, done more, travelled more than most of the polished executives who filled the lobby of the Ritz Carlton. What he hadn't experienced up to now is the extraordinary unfairness that is ordinary in life.

That's why he was shaken when an irregular heartbeat forced Lemieux out of the game. Young people --and this is the way it should be -- think they can live and play forever. This is the year Sidney Crosby learned otherwise.

"Seeing what Mario went through and how tough it was on him and his family and seeing that he had to stop playing, that was really a tough day for me," he said.

"I realized how much he loved to play. It pretty well kicked in for me the day after he retired. I was getting ready to go to the rink and he was still downstairs. He wasn't coming. I kind of thought to myself how tough that would be. It really hit me hard. I tried to put myself in his shoes and think about what that would be like."

For Crosby, the lessons fell from the trees. Palffy had two years and more than $10 million left on his deal and could have retired a much richer man. Crosby noticed the integrity of his decision.

"I think that maybe a lot of people don't know Ziggy, he keeps to himself," Crosby said. "He's not someone who would talk about it, but when he played he wanted to contribute and his body wasn't enabling him to. I learned a lot from him."

Crosby was tested in many of the rinks he helped fill.

"Every night when you watch him, he's always showing up and working hard," Penguins tough guy Andre Roy said. "He does get a lot of grabbing and clutching and stickwork and face washing and whatever."

Where Ovechkin's response has been to flail away at those trying to intimidate him --his row with Leafs defenceman Bryan McCabe during a 4-1 Washington win in February was a good example -- Crosby has instead turned to the officials for help.

Observers say referees have shown little interest in protecting Crosby from the brutal toughening NHL rookies encounter. In November in Philadelphia, hulking defenceman Derian Hatcher knocked the top off of two of Crosby's teeth with a punch to the mouth. When Crosby complained, he was assessed a minor for unsportsmanlike conduct. Crosby had the last laugh, beating the Flyers with an overtime goal.

Alfredsson gave voice to the notion that Crosby wanted special treatment.

Ovechkin "doesn't get frustrated when he gets hit," Alfredsson said. "He gets up and keeps playing, not like the other rookie (Crosby), who starts crying."

Crosby makes no apology and says the chatter over whether or not he complains too much is a by-product of who he is.

"When there's something connected to me, it's going to be analyzed more and it's going to be talked about a little more," he said with a shrug.

For all that went wrong in his rookie season, you can make a strong case Crosby delivered the best NHL performance in history for a player so young. With 93 points and four games remaining going into last night, Crosby has a chance at becoming the youngest player to record 100 points.

The breadth of his talents, from his skating speed and cinder-block strength on his skates to his on-ice vision, has been staggering.

"It seems like since he came into the league he's been able to do anything he wanted," Gonchar said.

"It's more than people expected," Therrien said. "He's already a leader on the ice by his commitment to the game, his commitment when he comes to practice, It's a pleasure to coach a kid like that."

That said, Crosby will probably not win the rookie-of-the-year award. Ovechkin,the irrepressible Capitals star, is a popular favourite to win Calder Trophy thanks to a virtuoso 100-point season.

Two years older than Crosby, Overchkin is a product of this double-cohort season, his first year washed away by the lockout. Unlike Crosby, who was conscripted into a major junior program that he dominated from Day 1, Ovechkin spent the past three years playing among men with the elite Moscow Dynamo.

"It's a huge gap," said Gonchar, Ovechkin's teammate on this year's Russian Olympic squad. "Alex isn't just older. He has played against men and practised with men for the last three years."

Going into last night's game against the New York Rangers, Crosby had 37 goals and 56 assists. Hall of Famer Dale Hawerchuk was the only 18 year old to break the 100-point plateau when he put up 103 for the 1982-83 Winnipeg Jets.

Those were the years of the run and gun. In 1982-83, 15 of the league's 21 teams broke the 300-goal plateau. With a week left in the schedule, only one club, the Ottawa Senators, has reached that standard.

The great Lemieux managed 100 points as a 19-year-old rookie. One hundred points would connect the two again. It figures that a standard Lemieux set would be a target for Crosby.

Many of the lessons absorbed by him this season have come from Mario Lemieux, in car rides to and from the rink, in the locker room, on the ice.

Ask Crosby for the single greatest moment of his rookie season and this time the answer comes quickly.

"We played on Long Island and beat them 5-1. I played on a line with Mario and that's the first time we connected for a goal. He passed it to me and I scored.

"I didn't think of it then, but now that he's not playing, it's something I will cherish for a long time."


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