professional hockey players, both the high-strung hopefuls and fearless sure things, drifted into the Pittsburgh Penguins downtown arena for their medicals and meetings shortly after 9 o'clock yesterday morning.
The real work, skating drills and scrimmages, starts today, but a dozen eager fans leaned against the chest-high, chain-link fence surrounding the players' parking lot, clutching sweaters and caps in black and gold and fresh Sharpies, waiting for a glimpse of the young man called hockey's future.
As of this morning, when he skates in front of the hometown fans for the first time -- though it will just be a practice -- he will finally, officially, be hockey's right now.
Sidney Crosby is the most eagerly anticipated rookie to enter the NHL since Mario Lemieux or perhaps even Wayne Gretzky. This week, hundreds and probably thousands of people, many hockey-starved and some simply curious, are expected to press into the silver-domed Mellon Arena to watch training camp practices for this, the first National Hockey League season since a labour dispute forced the cancellation of the 2004-05 campaign.
It is also the first time that the Penguins have begun training camp downtown, throwing open the doors to fans for free. That this is not just any year is an understatement. And all eyes will be on The Rookie.
Mr. Crosby, the 18-year-old hockey superstar-in-the-making from Cole Harbour, N.S., is the Can't Miss Kid, the Next One. Even Mr. Gretzky himself has said so.
There are few in Pittsburgh who have actually seen Mr. Crosby's breathtaking breakaways, his anticipatory passes or uncanny touch around the net. And though his accomplishments are part of history now and fans know the past is not a sure indicator of the future, they also sense that he is different.
"There's a lot of rallying behind this kid," said lifelong Pittsburgher Jesse Long, who as a 54-year-old African American obsessed with football's Steelers is not your typical hockey fan.
But Mr. Long is intrigued by Mr. Crosby and wants to see if he is as good as advertised. "We're hoping he can do for the hockey team what Mario Lemieux did all those years ago. People have been down on hockey, with the ticket prices and no season last year and Mario getting to be an old man. But this young man, Crosby, has generated a lot of excitement. The whole city is watching now."
This is Mr. Crosby's time, and what unfolds in the coming months -- beginning today at training camp, through a gruelling 82-game schedule and what the Penguins hope will be a prodigious playoff run into June and the Stanley Cup finals -- will be thrilling and dramatic, full of ups and downs. At the centre of it all is Mr. Crosby, who begins his professional career alongside one of the best to play the game and with one of the NHL's most mercurial franchises.
When the NHL last played in 2003-04, the Penguins finished last in the standings and attendance, with just 58 points and an average of 11,877 fans a game. After winning Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992, the club has been in bankruptcy court and seen its star and now player-owner, Mr. Lemieux, battle Hodgkin's disease, save the franchise, retire and come back, only to be forced to jettison some of the team's top talent to cut the payroll. As Mr. Lemieux, who turns 40 next month, moves toward the twilight of his career, interest has dwindled in the Penguins.
That all changed on July 22, when the beleaguered team won a ball lottery and the right to select the phenomenon in the NHL draft.
When the employees at the Mellon Arena learned the news late that sleepy Friday afternoon, they whooped for joy. Then the phones started to ring.
The Penguins, who sold 486,961 tickets in the last season they played, moved more than that in the four weeks after the news that Mr. Crosby, the best young hockey player on the planet by the longest of shots, would be a Penguin. The phones rang until midnight. The ticket sellers stayed until they fell silent.
"It feels like the nineties again," Craig Patrick, the club's executive vice-president and general manager, said the other day. "Sidney is the big reason for that."
Pittsburghers and the Penguins aren't the only ones over the moon. The NHL, which became the first professional sports league to lose an entire season to a labour dispute and is desperate to rebuild its image and sell the game, has prayed that Mr. Crosby's athletic feats, poise and matinee-idol looks can elevate the league as it emerges from its nuclear winter.
The NHL needed Mr. Crosby to regain its footing in the sporting landscape, especially in the United States where it has struggled, often hopelessly in southern pockets, as much or more as he wanted to be selected first, which is to say a lot. It is the perfect marriage; the timing could not be better for either.
One by-product of the NHL's new collective agreement, as both the league and players committed to win back fans, was to open up the game, increase offence and let the skilled players shine by retooling some rules.
The red line is gone, which should produce exciting breakaways; shootouts will decide tied games and there will be zero tolerance for obstruction, which means the clutch-and-grab defensive style that limits offensively gifted players such as Mr. Crosby and Mr. Lemieux will not be allowed. They should be free to score at will.
All the changes, said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, are intended to emphasize the "beauty and skill in our remarkable game." All the changes will allow Mr. Crosby, who is fast and physical and a playmaker with instincts in the style of Mr. Gretzky, to excel at this level and do so immediately.
Can he do it? Can he make a significant impact in his first season? Can he lift the Penguins from worst to first in attendance and standings? Can he help generate enough excitement on the ice to persuade politicians to fund a badly needed new arena and keep the team in Pittsburgh? Will he help Reebok, with which he has a five-year, $2.5-million (U.S.) deal, sell shoes and T-shirts? Can he accomplish what other highly touted No. 1 draft picks before him, such as Eric Lindros and Alexandre Daigle, failed to? Can he live up to the enormous and perhaps unfair expectations?
The Rookie, a series launched today by The Globe and Mail, will shadow Mr. Crosby through his first NHL season. It will document his development as a player and his impact on the game, here in football-mad Pittsburgh, across America where half-full arenas can be the norm, and at home in Canada, which in the wake of the lockout is grappling with its affection for the game but, overall, seems delighted with its return.
Mr. Crosby's season and his story are about so much more than hockey, and hockey is so much more than the sum of its parts: the sticks and skates, power plays and breakaways.
In our country, he will serve as a touchstone for something larger, our cultural obsession. Here in America, he is a poster boy and a salesman for something they just might love if only they would embrace it.
In his wonderful book about the Edmonton Oilers 1980-81 season, Peter Gzowski wrote of Canadians' relationship to hockey.
"All that separated us from our true heroes was that they were better at something we had all done. They belonged to us, as no other kind of hero ever could, at once more celebrated and more approachable because of what we shared. They were of us, playing the game of our lives." And so is Mr. Crosby.
It was assumed he would be the NHL's top pick since he scored 72 goals in 57 games as a prep school sophomore in Minnesota in 2002-03. He was the Canadian junior player of the year in both of two eye-popping seasons with the Rimouski Oceanic of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League that saw him score 147 goals and 214 assists in 148 games.
In December, he led the Canadian junior team to its first gold medal since 1997; the year before, at 16, he was the youngest player to score a goal at the tournament. He's been prepared for today for a long time and it shows.
Last week, at a press conference to announce his signing to a three-year contract worth as much as $3.7-million (U.S.) a season, he looked impressive in a navy pinstripe suit and square-toed dress shoes.
His dark, wavy hair freshly clipped, shaped with gel in a perfect tousle and hazel eyes bright and full lips in a winning smile, Mr. Crosby will be a No. 1 draft pick like no other for so many reasons.
He is poised and soft spoken, blushes like a schoolboy and is quick to smile. He was raised right and it shows.
He first laced up skates at 3 and at 5 was playing Timbits hockey, like so many Canadian kids. He took to it instantly and with more knack than other kids; Mr. Crosby had a natural wrist shot when all the others were still skating on their ankles.
Today, his future comes with astronomical advance billing, promising a land of hope and dreams every athlete envisions. What will happen to Mr. Crosby and the Penguins and the league as his season unfolds? Of that we are uncertain, but everyone, from the hockey club that won him to the league that needs him to this city that has adopted him to the country that spawned him, is rooting for The Rookie and watching ever so closely. We hope you, too, enjoy the season.
the rookie september 14 2005
|Born||Aug. 7, 1987|
|Birthplace||Cole Harbour, N.S.|
|SINGLE-SEASON POINTS PER GAME COMPARED TO OTHER FORMER PROSPECTS|
|Player, Team, Season||Games||Points||PPG|
|Mario Lemieux, Laval (QMJHL) 1983-84||70||282||4.03|
|Sidney Crosby, Rimouski (QMJHL) 2004-05||62||168||2.71|
|Eric Lindros, Oshawa (OHL) 1990-91||57||149||2.61|
|Alexandre Daigle, Victoriaville (QMJHL) 1992-93||53||137||2.39|
|Joe Thornton, Sault Ste. Marie (OHL) 1996-97||59||122||2.07|
|Vincent Lecavalier, Rimouski (QMJHL) 1997-98||58||115||1.98|
|CANADIAN HOCKEY LEAGUE RECORDS FOR 16 YEAR OLDS|
|Player, Team, Season||GP||G||A||PTS|
|Wayne Gretzky, Sault Ste. Marie (OHL) 1977-78||64||70||112||182|
|Sidney Crosby, Rimouski (QMJHL)2003-04||59||54||81||135|
|Norm Dupont, Montreal (QMJHL) 1973-74||70||55||70||125|
|Mike Bossy, Laval (QMJHL) 1973-74||68||70||48||118|
|Denis Savard, Montreal (QMJHL) 1977-78||72||37||79||116|
WHAT HE DEMANDS FROM HIMSELF:
"I didn't come here with any expectations. I just want to be a good role model and an honest worker on the ice and a good person off the ice."
ON THE PRESSURE AND THE HYPE:
"I want to be the best and whatever comes with that I have to accept. There will never be a time when I step back and wish things were different."