Crosby Show

CHRIS STEVENSON

, Last Updated: 7:24 AM ET

PITTSBURGH -- Sidney Crosby is the consummate teammate on the ice.

But in the jungles of Chile?

Or some other place where insurgents rule?

The business at hand is called SOCOM U.S. Navy Seals, the military scenario video game (played on the PlayStation Portable) which occupies Crosby, Colby Armstrong, Ryan Whitney and winger Ryan Malone, who sits between Crosby and Armstrong along one wall of the Pittsburgh Penguins dressing room.

Crosby is getting hit. Abused. Not from every side, because from the position he's defending, there's only two of them. In the sanctuary of the dressing room, his back right now is against a wall and his left is protected by Mario Lemieux's stall, which is last in the row, empty of equipment, but full of meaning.

Crosby has to take it from linemate Armstrong, who sits to his right, and from defenceman Whitney who sits off across the room, across the dark carpet with the Penguins logo in the middle of it.

Crosby might be the new face of the NHL, the anticipated winner of the Art Ross Trophy as scoring champion, possibly the Hart Trophy as the league MVP and maybe the best player in the world, but in here, in this conversation, his worth as a teammate is being crushed.

"He thinks he's got these legendary ideas," Whitney says. "He still tries to run off on his own and you can't be having that."

"Creech thinks he's a sniper. He likes to go off on his own, but you have to stick together. I keep telling him that," said Armstrong, cocking his head as the light shines on a black eye that has progressed to more yellow than black now.

Hang on, Creech?

"That's what I call him, Creature, Creech. The Hockey Creature. The Hockey Legend," Armstrong says. "Hey, sometimes I have some dumb ideas."

They aren't talking about Crosby's suitability as a teammate in here, in this room or on the ice. Of course not.

Right now, it's about the video game.

They'll play five aside on their charter aircraft when they hit the road. They'll go out for a steak dinner and then back to the hotel, hunkering down in one of their rooms, Crosby and Armstrong against the Ryans.

"It's a battle. We're getting better and improving. But (Crosby)'s a solo mission guy," admonishes Armstrong, the 24-year-old who's in his first full year with the Penguins.

"I'm trying (to teach him). He's 'follow me, follow me, follow me.' He's always trying to get me to follow him. Then we have a little argument for a bit like little kids, then we're on the same page and we're going."

Crosby lolls his head and flashes his luminescent smile when he hears the comments, every muscle it seems a human is capable of having defined under his shimmering black shirt, wet after practice.

The Penguins have just skated at the Igloo and a plane is waiting at the airport to take them to Ottawa, but many of the players aren't hurrying, they're sitting in their stalls, enjoying the easy conversation, the insults, the asides.

Crosby is not conceding anything. "The guys who got together always got grenaded. They'd kill two guys with one shot," he says with a shrug. "I'd go around and try to get behind them and they'd always be waiting for me. I'd always die. So now I started moving with them and started to work together. It's a team game, I guess."

Whitney is unrelenting. "He's my teammate when we play 5-on-5 and I knew we could beat them 2-on-2 because I see how bad he is 5-on-5," Whitney says. "He's gotten better, but he still tries to run off on his own. You can't have that. It might work on the ice, but it doesn't work in SOCOM."

'ONE OF THE GUYS'

They kid because they love him. Yes, it does work on the ice. Crosby is on the cusp of winning the Art Ross, the only teenager other than Wayne Gretzky to hold the league scoring lead (Gretzky briefly held it at the end of the 1979-80 season and the beginning of 1980-81).

He has spectacular speed that does not diminish when he is in possession of the puck, a rare quality. Put the puck on the stick of even some very talented players and it looks like it weighs five pounds.

Crosby can dart and jump and soar and the puck moves with him like they're sharing a brain. He is bigger than you think with a thick core and legs like a Bulgarian weightlifter. And he has that manic teenager's energy.

"When he jumps over the boards for a shift, it's like someone shot him out of a cannon," veteran winger Gary Roberts says. "If you're out there with him, you're saying, 'Holy (bleep), I'm either skating or I look bad. He forces whoever he's playing with to pick up the pace or you get left behind."

Crosby has led the Penguins from dark basement to the bright spotlight of the playoffs and the NHL from the nuclear winter of the lockout to a lush spring whose playoffs promise so much this year.

Alexander Ovechkin got the better of Crosby in TV commercials, but Crosby is the one answering the knock at the door and finding opportunity standing there with a dessert tray now.

"After last year, it's good to be in this position going to the playoffs. I don't think it's anything where we surprised ourselves as far as being there," Crosby says. "As far as the position we're in, maybe we surprised ourselves or exceeded expectations, but (making the playoffs) was our goal all year long.

"Everyone made an effort to learn throughout the season. Everyone has bought into what we have to do to win."

This is what the NHL wants, what it needed, to have at least one of its two young, brilliant stars to be in the playoffs so people could not see him on Versus (U.S. cable network).

He's done it without having a supporting cast up front that other Art Ross contenders enjoy and with a coach who is still very mindful of controlling his minutes on the ice.

He has done it while always being available for another question, for another interview, to walk across a parking lot in Ottawa when it was -30 to sign another autograph, to read from a piece of paper "I'm Sidney Crosby and you're listening to . . ."

He has done all of that, and, remarkably, remained one of the guys, as much as that is possible.

"He is one of the guys," Armstrong says. "He just has a little more trouble going to the mall or to the movies, things like that. He gets recognized a lot and I can't imagine what it's like for him back home."

'HE'S A MARITIMER'

In the Penguins room, he's a guy with a target on his broad back.

"He has a lot of little routines that he does, maybe superstitions, if you will. I think everybody does. It's extra fun to bug him about it because he's the hockey legend," Armstrong says. "It's fun. He takes jokes well. Everyone does. We have a good time with each other on the team. We have a lot of laughs. He's fun to be around and he hands them out, too.

"I used to bust on him last year and since this year started, he's been coming at me pretty good. He must have polished up over the summer. He's quick."

Roberts noticed it right away, how Crosby's teammates indulge themselves in good-naturedly ridiculing his skills at video games, which shows they like the guy.

"I look at his attitude and the way he approaches every day, how much fun he has on the ice with the guys. He makes himself very much part of the group," Roberts says.

"You get the joking around going back and forth and he takes as much of it as anybody does which is a sign of his personality and how respectful he is and how mature he is.

"That's one thing I've really noticed is his maturity level for a young player. His commitment. His discipline. His work ethic every day is the one thing that has totally blown me away. At such a young age? It's pretty easy to get sidetracked as a young player with his kind of success and you can see his ability every day to come prepared to practice and play every day is amazing."

Roberts pauses. "He's a Maritimer. My parents are from Newfoundland. I know the kind of people who are down there. Generous. Very genuine people. That's the environment he grew up so I can see why he's stayed so level headed."

Penguins coach Michel Therrien, the man who has guided Crosby through most of his two seasons in the league, never loses sight of the fact he's dealing with a 19-year-old player, even if he might be the best player in the league.

Therrien monitors Crosby's ice time meticulously.

With a couple of games to go in the season, Crosby was averaging 20 minutes and 47 seconds a game.

That ranked him 83rd in the league. Therrien has a range of 18-21 minutes a game for Crosby. He'll use him more if the Penguins are in need of a goal; less in other circumstances.

'GREAT VISION'

Therrien doesn't use Crosby to kill penalties, wanting all of his energy focused on creating offence.

"He will (kill penalties) eventually. We want to use him to his best ability to produce offensively. That's important for us," he says. "He's 19 years old. You see a guy like (Marian) Hossa when he was young in Ottawa. He wasn't killing penalties. At 18, we used him a certain way. At 19, it's different. I have a plan with him and eventually he will be there. Right now, I want him to focus on what he's supposed to do at both ends of the ice. He's got great vision and he's running the power play really well. We have a process with him.

"The way he plays, it's tough for him to play over the minutes we give him. He's so intense. He's not a guy who will slow down a game. Every time he tries to do that, he's not at his best. He's a high intensity guy, up tempo game, second effort and it's demanding the way he plays."

Crosby makes Therrien's job easier, too, in a lot of different ways.

When he's out on the ice after practice to take extra faceoffs, how can another young player not notice that?

"We're a young team that works really hard. You have to give a lot of credit to a guy like Crosby," Therrien says. "The energy he gives to practice, the way he is preparing himself. There's no doubt he's the leader and the other players have to follow him. He's a kid who likes to pay attention to detail, above everything. In practice, he wants to be the best. In games, he wants to be the best. He's so mature for his age."

When Crosby was still in junior, playing for the Rimouski Oceanic of the QMJHL, he did a sponsorship deal with a telephone company.

He made sure all of his teammates were taken care of and they all got phone cards for their use.

Now with the Penguins and endorsing Reebok's products, his teammates and staff are taken care of, too.

Crosby makes sure to spread the wealth. It's part of that teammate thing. As much as he has worked to be special on the ice, Crosby has worked just as tirelessly to be ordinary off it.

"There's no special way to play for anybody on this team. Everybody plays the same way," says Crosby, who sets the example. "We do have a lot of talent and skill on this team. There's no hiding that fact. All those guys work hard and do the little things, too. You count on the guy next to you to do his job.

"You have to be responsible. That's just part of being a team. That's why we've had some success, whether it's blocking a shot or winning a faceoff, finishing your hit ... not everybody is big in here, but some guys play a little bigger than they are. Look at Maxim Talbot. Those are little things that go a long way. We all notice that. We all see guys pulling for each other. That's part of being on a team and shows a lot about our chemistry."

He says it. He makes you want to believe it.

Therrien believes it.

"After you know him," he says, "everything is about the team."

Now, if he can just stop running off in the jungle.


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