It takes a village to raise a phenom

TERRY JONES -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 10:12 AM ET

COLE HARBOUR, N.S. -- They all coached Sid The Kid when he really was Sid The Kid.

Can you imagine being the man who agreed to coach the little guys, who are usually more adorable than talented as they take to the ice for the first time like baby turtles heading to the ocean, and one of the tykes is Sidney Crosby?

Paul Gallagher coached Crosby when he was five years old and wore No. 8 in Tim Bits hockey here. He coached Crosby again when he was in bantam.

Dennis Irwin coached him in novice, Paul Mason in pee-wee and Brad Crossley in midget.

INSPIRING THOUSANDS

Around our nation, Minor Hockey Weeks are being held at this time of year, including the Guinness World Records' largest hockey tournament in the world in Edmonton this week and the one just completed in Calgary, which is attempting to break the record.

On the ice are thousands of young players with hopes of being the next Sidney Crosby and hundreds of coaches who wonder if they might just be coaching a kid who turns out to be something special.

These guys did.

Spending a couple days here tracking down Sidney Crosby's minor hockey coaches was deja vu for a sports columnist who did the same thing in Brantford, Ont., when Wayne Gretzky was leading the NHL in scoring in his second year with the Edmonton Oilers.

The Pittsburgh Penguins superstar's latest endorsement is with Tim Hortons showing himself in his yellow Tim Bits hockey sweater.

There's a picture of him and his teammates in a special 20-foot long Sidney Crosby Case at Cole Harbour Place where a banner hangs in the corner of the rink declaring it 'The Home of Sidney Crosby' with his number and the Cole Harbour Red Wing minor hockey logo.

"I coached him on his first team," said Gallagher, of the tyke. "As soon as I saw him, I went to the organizers and said 'Are you sure he's only five?

"I've never seen a five-year-old kid skate like that.

"We played our games cross-ice and the kid had great natural lateral ability," said the man who now scouts for the Florida Panthers. "I said, 'Man alive, I've never seen anything like this.' "

The rest of them, and Gallagher the second time around in bantam, saw him coming, along with everybody else in Cole Harbour, the Halifax-Dartmouth area and most of Nova Scotia.

And they all say they knew exactly what he was going to do.

"Put us on the map,'' said Irwin. "He always says he's from Cole Harbour. He could say he's from Halifax. But he always says he's from Cole Harbour, which is good,'' he added of the bedroom community between Halifax and the airport.

The first thing you notice as you enter Cole Harbour is that there is no 'Home Of Sidney Crosby' sign.

"Yeah, right now we've just got that little dinky sign saying 'Welcome To Cole Harbour,' you saw out by Zellers," says Mason.

"But we've got two big ones coming. It'll say 'Home Of Sidney Crosby' and maybe have a big puck and No. 87. They sent a draft of a few designs out for some of us to take a look at to see what we thought."

Mason invited me to Cole Harbour Place yesterday to visit the 'Sidney Crosby Case' he and others put together for his return at Christmas.

It was only hours after Crosby flew home for a three-day Christmas break that he did something that impressed more people than donating his stuff and being there for the unveiling.

"His 10-year-old sister Taylor had a hockey practice at 7:30 a.m. and Sidney drove her to practice. He's a classy young man.

"That's the type of guy he is," said Gallagher.

Irwin says he never brags about coaching Crosby.

"I don't broadcast it. But it's a nice feeling knowing it myself. And around Cole Harbour, everybody kinda knows anyhow.

"I don't know if I helped him. But I guess I didn't mess him up too much,'' Irwin, a retired member of Canada's Armed Forces said with a laugh. "He was a special kid. He was strong. Even as a novice he had a lot of hockey sense. I figured he'd make it. He always wanted to be out there. He was always hungry. And he was very unselfish."

COACHES WERE BLESSED

Irwin said anybody who coached Sidney Crosby as a kid has been blessed, but he also had the other two Cole Harbour hockey players - former Chicago Blackhawk and current Halifax Moosehead coach Cam Russell and Joe DiPenta of the Anaheim Ducks.

"I coached Cam in pee-wee and Joey in bantam. I even coached his peewee coach Paul when he was a kid. I've been lucky. I've been coaching 24 years and ... just been lucky, that's all."

Irwin said he kept the players ice time equal when Crosby was in atom.

"Well, pretty even. There were a few times I put him out there a little more than some of the others - on the power play and penalty killing. But not too often."

Irwin said he loves Crosby's Tim Hortons commercial.

"He loved to stay on the ice. It's kind of the theme of the commercial. There's a lot of truth in that. We had to beg to get him off the ice."

Irwin's favourite Crosby story came late in a season.

"We had one kid who hadn't scored a goal. Sidney was giving up sure goals trying to get him his goal. And he got it, too.''

Mason not only coached Crosby in peewee, he also coached him in minor baseball.

"It was just being in the right place at the right time to have done it. I just happened to be the peewee triple A hockey coach," he said. "I think we all knew he was something special by the time he hit peewee. I remember saying holy moly, this kid is something and that's before I coached him.

"He had vision beyond vision. My assistant coach and I used to look at each other and say 'Did he do that on purpose?' "

Mason took Crosby and his team to the famed Quebec City peewee tourney.

"I was trying to tell them there that this kid is pretty special, but they were promoting the top kids in the tournament and he wasn't one of them. I went and watched some of them and I could tell in seconds that those kids couldn't hold a candle to Sidney.

"He scored six goals in our first game at the Quebec tournament. You could really see it then because it was comparing apples to apples.

"But our biggest thing about Sidney down here is the way he carries himself, the kind of person he is. He's so down to earth.

"We're really proud of that around here. He represents us so well. We're all so proud of him. He knows where he comes from.

"I kinda feel bad for him now. He comes home now at Christmas and goes to watch his 10-year-old sister Taylor and he gets mobbed. The whole time he was there watching her, he was signing autographs.

"But he still comes home in the summer and plays ball hockey on the road with kids."

DIFFERENT IN BANTAM

Gallagher said it was an entirely different deal coaching Sidney in bantam than when he was a Tim Bits little tadpole of a player.

"As a little guy, he wasn't any different than any other kid as a kid. He enjoyed his little box of juice after the game just like all the others. But he sure loved to come to the rink.

"His family went to court against Nova Scotia minor hockey trying to have him made eligible to play midget when he was 13. I didn't expect to be coaching him again. But they lost the court case. Sidney showed up. I said 'All set?' He said 'Let's get 'er going.'

"We ended up winning the Atlantic Canada title with him that year and I'll never forget the goal in overtime. He set up the goal with a pass between a defenceman's legs to get the winner. Andrew Newton. He was the kid who scored it."

Crossley coached the Dartmouth Subways midget AAA team with which Crosby played as a bantam-aged 14-year-old. They lost the national championship to Tisdale, Sask.

"He actually made our team as a 13-year-old, but Hockey Nova Scotia wouldn't let him play," he said.

Like everybody else in Cole Harbour, Crossley watched the kid work his way through minor hockey.

"I played with his dad and went to school with his mom," he said of Troy and Trina Crosby who were in Pittsburgh yesterday to watch him play.

"Everything he did was special, but he was always just one of the guys in the dressing room. One thing I will say is that I never coached a guy as competitive.

"By the time I coached him, he was in charge of his own destiny. The media attention was astronomical. We had TV cameras at practice and great coverage in the papers. It was something we'd never seen before.

"And he was like a professional. He spoke better than most 25 year olds. He had an amazing amount of maturity."

Crossley says he has one regret.

"Seeing what he's doing now and how he handles himself, I wish I'd taken more time to just sit back and look at him as a fan a little bit instead of concentrating so hard on seeing him as a coach.

"Not many players like that come along."

You didn't have to coach Sid The Kid to feel how Cole Harbour feels about him.

"He's opened up a lot of dreams for a lot of kids around here," said Crossley.

"And what we all like best is that he's a better person than he is a hockey player."


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