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The coming of the saviour

From a coast of coal mines and steel mills to a city of coal and steel, Sidney Crosby has that home-coming feeling in Pittsburgh, SHAWNA RICHER writes

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

Pittsburgh — The grand, green, rolling hills of Allegheny County are as dramatic and defining a part of the Pennsylvania landscape as the ocean and craggy seashore are to Nova Scotia.

In both places, the citizens' humble manner extends from a history of reliance on natural resources and the toil they took to muster. The working-class culture and all its charms continue in both places even though the coal mines and steel mills here and the fisheries there have all suffered steep decline.

For years, this hard-labour culture in Pittsburgh, and across the state, bred football players the way Canada's small towns spit out hockey stars. But that is where the comparisons end.

In landing his first professional job, Sidney Crosby, the National Hockey League's No. 1 draft pick from Cole Harbour, N.S., has arrived in one of the most passionate sports cities in the United States. Pittsburgh fans are particularly hard core and hell bent. Athletes who play for professional football's Steelers, baseball's Pirates and hockey's Penguins and work hard and lose are likely to get more respect and fanfare than winners who coast and occasionally get lucky.

This Rust Belt city and its suburbs of about three million people have a sporting identity shaped almost entirely by football -- high school, college and the Steelers, who won four Super Bowls between 1974 and 1979.

Joe Namath, one of the quarterbacking legends to spring from Pennsylvania coal-mining country, once called the entire state "great football country." In a city that has produced some of the most prolific football players in history -- Hall of Famers Mike Ditka, Tony Dorsett, Dan Marino and Joe Montana among them -- hockey has occasionally been an afterthought, especially in recent years.

The Penguins arrived for the 1967-68 season as part of the NHL's expansion, but missed the playoffs in five of their first seven years. When Mario Lemieux was drafted in 1984, he joined a team with the league's worst record two years running. Without a strong supporting cast, Mr. Lemieux's efforts were wasted, but better teams later in the decade helped make the Penguins competitive. They won five division titles through the 1990s and two Stanley Cups.

But while many Pittsburghers still run on the fumes of those Super Bowls so long ago, the glory of the Penguins' consecutive championships in 1991 and 1992 has not held the same romance through the years.

Bankruptcy court, Mr. Lemieux's battle with cancer, his retirement, and a decimated payroll and roster all took their toll and the fans drifted away. Fewer than 12,000 attended each game in 2003-04. The lockout did not help. And while the salary cap in the league's new collective bargaining agreement would benefit small-market clubs such as Pittsburgh, the team did not have much to offer fans until it won the draft lottery and the right to select Mr. Crosby.

The new face of the new NHL, his on-ice talents are thus far equal to his off-ice poise, which is to say he has both in abundance.

Suddenly, in the heart of football country, hockey is making a comeback. Pittsburghers threw down a welcome mat for the Nova Scotia rookie, who appears in the October issue of Vanity Fair magazine photographed shirtless in low-slung Gap jeans and a Dolce & Gabbana denim shirt draped over his shoulder, a picture that certainly won't hurt ticket sales with female fans.

"Listening to the radio, people have really been talking about hockey," Mr. Crosby said. "I didn't know what to expect coming here. But it's been really great.

"The city's been really welcoming. It's fun when people are interested. Hopefully, that will show when I play. I have to go out and prove myself still. To have them feel like that right now before I've even played a game makes me feel fortunate, but I still feel I have to prove myself to the city and the fans."

At 18 and just out of junior hockey, Mr. Crosby brings an attitude that may already make him the perfect Pittsburgh sports hero before he even plays a game.

Paul Yunt has lived in Pittsburgh all his 47 years. He loves the Steelers and Pirates, too, but his passion for the Penguins elevates him to the category of Super Fan. Every city has them: the men and occasionally women who rise and fall with each win and loss, trade and injury.

He has attended every day of training camp practice, open to the public this year at the Penguins creaky downtown Mellon Arena for the first time. He has shunned other commitments to check out Mr. Crosby and the game he so missed during last year's lockout.

A clerk at a downtown law office, Mr. Yunt has been off work for the past five months. He is being treated for major depression. But the Penguins' return has lifted his spirits considerably, he said.

"We are ecstatic," he said of the city. "This makes me feel so good. We're very spoiled here. We got Lemieux 20 years ago and now we've got Crosby. Mario scored on his first shot in the NHL and I expect that Crosby is going to come out and play.

"The city is in a buzz right now. Usually with the Steelers going it takes a while for the Penguins to build that kind of buzz. But now they're pretty much attracting the same level of interest. And if the Penguins start the season with a bang, there's no doubt they'll be as popular as the Steelers."

Back in August, Mr. Crosby came to Pittsburgh for the first time as part of the Penguins rookie orientation camp. He was mobbed at the airport by a dozen television cameras and dozens of fans who were dying to see the future of the franchise in person. He was overwhelmed, but the airport scene illustrated just a sliver of the excitement.

Last Sunday he attended the Steelers game and sat in the crowd for the first half.

"A lot of people recognized me and that was pretty neat," he said. "You can tell people are excited about hockey again."

It is an alien concept: excited about hockey at a football game in America. But Mr. Crosby has not completely comprehended that he is the primary reason for the renaissance.

The Penguins sold more tickets in the four weeks after the draft lottery that gave them the right to select Mr. Crosby than in the entire 2003-04 season. Mr. Lemieux, the club's primary owner, is confidently predicting at least near-sellouts for most of the season. It's all trickling down from Mr. Crosby.

"It's difficult to play when the building is half-full," Mr. Lemieux said. "Drafting Sidney allowed us to put a good team on the ice this year."

Jay Plish, 33, a highway maintenance worker with the state Department of Transportation, acknowledged the reaction to Mr. Crosby's arrival has been somewhat surprising given Pittsburgh's passion for football and that the NFL season has just begun.

"Everyone's talking about Crosby," Mr. Plish said. "I was at the Steelers game and I must have passed 60 people wearing Crosby shirts. That's hard to believe in this town. I was shocked."

Retired steel worker Don Bonidie, who has been a diehard Penguins fan for decades and hasn't attended a Pirates game since they won their last championship in 1979, is convinced Mr. Crosby is the second coming of Mr. Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky rolled into one package.

"There's excitement around this hockey team I haven't seen since the Cup years," Mr. Bonidie said. "You see Crosby on television and he's as cool as a cucumber. Boy, if they tried to move the team from Pittsburgh now the people would have a war."

Thanks to Mr. Crosby, the Penguins are not just relevant again. The 18-year-old who everyone around here is calling "the Kid" is suddenly the club's best hope of persuading local and state politicians to agree to fund a new arena, lest Mr. Lemieux move the team when its lease with Mellon Arena expires in 2007.

So now everyone is worried about keeping the Penguins in Pittsburgh. Local radio shows broadcast their morning segments from Mellon Arena all week long, and most of the callers said that now that Mr. Crosby is here, the team must stay.

"The minute [NHL commissioner] Gary Bettman announced we had the first pick, the fortunes of this team turned around," Mr. Yunt said. "Now we need a new arena and politicians must get on board. I'd like to see a day when these tickets are really hard to get."

Pittsburghers may be ready for a new sporting hero and Mr. Crosby's timing could be impeccable. Ben Roethlisberger -- Big Ben as they call him -- saved the Steelers' regular season last year filling in for the injured Tommy Maddox, but the rookie crumbled in the playoffs under the pressure.

There was much hand-wringing over the past few weeks over his lacklustre pre-season, but when he led the Steelers to a tidy victory over Tennessee last Sunday in the home opener, all was forgiven. Yesterday it was revealed that the strapping 6-foot-5, 240-pound passer has a bruised knee that's getting worse by the day. He has been the city's biggest sports hero for the past year. If he goes down, the Penguins' popular rookie could well assume the mantel.

Pittsburghers seem ready to hand it to him.

"Crosby's going to be more popular than Ben Rothlisberger," Mr. Yunt said. "The difference between the two of them is that we know what we're getting with Crosby. He's already done so many great things. Ben just saved a season. Crosby just might be the second saviour of the franchise."

PITTSBURGH, CITY OF CHAMPIONS

PIRATES-5 WORLD SERIES

1909 vs. Detroit Tigers,

4 games to 3

1925 vs. Washington Senators,

4 games to 3

1960 vs. New York Yankees,

4 games to 3

1971 vs. Baltimore Orioles,

4 games to 3

1979 vs. Baltimore Orioles,

4 games to 3

STEELERS-4 SUPER BOWLS

Super Bowl IX, Jan. 12, 1975

Steelers 16, Minnesota Vikings 6

Super Bowl X, Jan. 18, 1976

Steelers 21, Dallas Cowboys 17

Super Bowl XIII, Jan. 21, 1979

Steelers 35, Dallas Cowboys 31

Super Bowl XIV, Jan. 20, 1980

Steelers 31, Los Angeles Rams 19

PENGUINS-2 STANLEY CUPS

1991 vs. Minnesota North Stars,

4 games to 2

1992 vs. Chicago Blackhawks,

4 games to none

TOP 10 PITTSBURGH ATHLETES

Mike Ditka,

Hall of Fame tight end and NFL coach, Chicago Bears

Tony Dorsett,

Hall of Fame running back, Dallas Cowboys

Ken Griffey Jr.,

Gold Glove centre fielder,

Cincinnati Reds

Dan Marino,

Hall of Fame quarterback,

Miami Dolphins

Joe Montana,

Hall of Fame quarterback,

San Francisco 49ers

Stan Musial,

Hall of Fame left fielder,

St. Louis Cardinals

Joe Namath,

Hall of Fame quarterback,

New York Jets

Arnold Palmer,

61 PGA Tour victories,

including 4 Masters

Johnny Unitas,

Hall of Fame quarterback,

Baltimore Colts

HOW PITTSBURGH RATES

2005: 18th

2004: 24th

2003: 18th

2002: 17th

2001: 15th

2000: 20th

rated 1st overall as best NHL and NFL city

1999: 20th

1998: 17th

(Out of more than 300 cities; Rankings are based on regular season records, playoff berths, championships, quality of competition, fan enthusiasm measured by attendance, quantity and quality of teams and stadiums/arenas, ticket availability and prices, franchise ownership and marquee appeal of athletes over each 12 month period

Source: The Sporting News

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