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Under the Penguins' wings As Crosby counts the days to his NHL debut, his mentors are preparing the rookie for success, SHAWNA RICHER reports from Pittsburgh

As Crosby counts the days to his NHL debut, his mentors are preparing the rookie for success, SHAWNA RICHER reports from Pittsburgh

PITTSBURGH

nine nights from this one, the National Hockey League will finally resume, proffering its first hockey in nearly 16 months.

The Pittsburgh Penguins open their season that evening, Oct. 5, on the road in a hostile arena against the New Jersey Devils, and in the biggest night of his young life so far, 18-year-old Sidney Crosby is scheduled to make his debut.

What Mr. Crosby knows for certain is that he will be enormously excited and a little bit nervous. But will he be ready and how will he do? Will he start his highly anticipated NHL career -- his boyhood dream in Cole Harbour, N.S. -- with game-changing, league-lifting authority, the way he knows he can? Or might there be growing pains? Will it take time to shine? Will he and everyone who has put so much on him have to be patient?

In every sport from hockey to football, No. 1 draft picks have rookie seasons that unfold with greatness, ignominy and everything in between.

A few special players are spectacular immediately. It is not insignificant that one of them is mentoring Mr. Crosby. Mario Lemieux, the Penguins' star player and owner, scored on the first shot of his first shift in his first regular-season game, and went on to post a 100-point rookie season.

More often, rookies have good or respectable efforts. Some unlucky ones, such as Joe Thornton of the Boston Bruins, get injured. Others, Vincent Lecavalier of the Tampa Bay Lightning comes to mind, struggle on bad teams.

A little more than a week before it all begins for Mr. Crosby, one wonders how history will remember the early days of the most promising No. 1 pick since Mr. Lemieux entered the league in 1984.

Even a cynic would have to admit Mr. Crosby, who is likely to be in the lineup tonight in Pittsburgh's first home preseason game against Columbus at Mellon Arena, has had a terrific training camp. His presence helped the team to land veteran wingers Mark Recchi and John LeClair, both talented free agents, and once they were paired up with Mr. Crosby the trio showed an instant and inexplicable chemistry.

He had an assist in his first NHL preseason game last week and scored a power-play goal in his second on Saturday, pouncing doggedly on his own rebound. He has worked hard in the corners and along the boards. He has drawn penalties and been tough against opposing players plenty larger than him. But for all his natural talent and achievements so far, Mr. Crosby has been a student of the NHL game since arriving two weeks ago.

"He's a sponge," said Phil Bourque, the gritty former defenceman who won two Stanley Cups with the Penguins and is now part of their broadcasting team. "His eyes are wide open. You can see him absorbing his surroundings, feeding off everything that's going on. No matter how good you get you can never stop learning. He gets that.

"[It's] rare in this day and age of athletes. Maybe some get caught up in the money or the accolades and come in on their own page doing their own thing. But this kid seems to have a great feel for exactly what he has to be doing."

Mr. Bourque said most 18-year-olds take a season to hit their stride, sometimes for reasons beyond their control. He predicted Mr. Crosby won't need that long, not by a long shot.

"It's going to take 10 or 15 games until he really gets going," Mr. Bourque said. "I really think that's all he'll need. He's so smart he can pick things up faster than other guys and apply them to his game."

After 13 days in camp, Mr. Crosby has made noticeable improvements to his game. He's picked up his already formidable speed, and fine-tuned his ability to read plays and anticipate turnovers.

Ryan Malone was the Penguins' top rookie prospect in 2003-04, and remembers how awe-inspiring a debut in the NHL can be, even for great players.

"When you're lining up alongside Mario Lemieux and you've looked up to him your whole life, that's intimidating," Mr. Malone said. "But you eventually realize that you're on the team, and in that regard you're all the same. It doesn't matter how old or young you are."

Coach Eddie Olczyk has surrounded Mr. Crosby with veteran players.

His stall in the locker room is tucked in between Mr. Recchi and Mr. LeClair, 37 and 36, respectively, and with a pair of Stanley Cups between them.

"I've seen coaches who actually had charts with all the names and numbers," Mr. Bourque said. "They're almost like a wedding planner, sitting certain players next to others and keeping certain ones apart. It's kind of a science and it's not an accident."

Mr. Recchi and Mr. LeClair are considered "character guys" in the locker room, that is to say, players with plenty of steadying influence and little of anything that might steer a rookie in the wrong direction.

Mr. LeClair, who is quick with a quip, said: "Sidney knows how to play. The last thing I want to do is tell him something that messes him up."

Mr. Recchi is a wise, kind warhorse with insight to spare. He has seen rookies arrive overconfident and not ask enough questions, a mistake he said Mr. Crosby has not made.

"If you're not afraid to ask questions you can get a lot out of the older players," Mr. Recchi said. "Sidney's asking a lot of questions. I was like him, a sponge. I took everything in from the veterans; how they handled things, how they prepared. You've got to use us. That's what we're here for.

"There are ups and downs. One day you feel like a world-beater and the next you think you're going back to the minors," Mr. Recchi continued. "Even someone with his talent will have good days and bad days. And that's why we're here; to bring him up and say, 'This day is gone, get ready for tomorrow.' He's level-headed but he's definitely going to have those moments."

Mr. Olczyk, who was a No. 3 pick in the 1984 draft and scored 20 goals and 30 assists as a rookie with his hometown Chicago Blackhawks, prides himself on putting players in situations that are as foolproof as possible.

"We're going to work with him and talk with him and give him the best chance to have success," Mr. Olczyk said. "He's got a special talent.

"Early on, it was be seen and not heard and now I know his voice when he's around the corner. He's more comfortable, more outgoing. He's fitting in, learning. He's like a Bounty; he's the quicker-picker-upper."

When you win the No. 1 player in the draft and he is billed as the saviour of your franchise and the league, you don't leave anything to chance.

"Ed and Mario are careful about how much ice time he puts in, how many games he plays, how much media attention he can handle," Mr. Bourque said, watching Mr. Crosby practise faceoffs with his coach. "Everything is being controlled right now to put him in a safe place."

The rookie could not be safer. He lives with Mr. Lemieux, drives with him to practice and essentially has one of the best hockey resources at his disposal.

"He's adjusted very well," Mr. Lemieux said. "We talk a lot. He's always asking questions. He's more mature than I was at his age. I'm here to give him some confidence and encouragement."

So he collects pieces from everyone -- from Mr. Lemieux at home and on the ice, from Mr. Recchi and Mr. LeClair in the locker room and on the bench.

He watches everyone's practice habits, how and when they eat and sleep, when they lift weights, how they interact with everyone from the coach to the equipment manager to the media.

"There are questions to ask but it's more observing," Mr. Crosby said. "Sometimes it's best when you're just there watching."

In junior he had buckets of confidence and with good reason. Here, in the NHL, he finds a little more each day.

"At the start I had to work hard just to keep up," he said. "Now I feel if I do things I've done in the past that I can play here.

"I have always been the youngest player, the one learning, looking up, but eventually you want be someone who is going to score that big goal and be out there in the last minute with the game on the line. I'm just trying to learn how to be that guy."

THE SPECTACULAR

1984 Mario Lemieux, C, Pittsburgh, [Laval, QMJHL]; scored on the first shot of his first shift in his first regular-season game; in 73 games he had 43 goals and 57 assists for 100 points.

1981 Dale Hawerchuk, C, Winnipeg [Cornwall, QMJHL]; when he was 18, he led the Jets to the largest single-season turnaround in NHL history; in 80 games he had 45 goals and 58 assists for 103 points.

THE GOOD

1992 Eric Lindros, C, Quebec [Oshawa, OHL]; refused to report; at the next draft the Nordiques traded him to Philadelphia, where he had 41 goals and 31 assists for 72 points in 61 games.

1988 Mike Modano, C, Minnesota, [Prince Albert, WHL]; he returned to junior and joined the Stars for 1989-90 season; a Calder finalist, he had 29 goals and 46 assists for 75 points in 80 games.

THE RESPECTABLE

2002 Rick Nash, LW, Columbus [London, OHL]; in 74 games he had 17 goals and 22 assists for 39 points; he was a Calder Trophy finalist.

1998 Vincent Lecavalier, C, Tampa Bay [Rimouski, QMJHL]; this high-scoring junior managed 13 goals and 15 assists for 28 points in 82 games on a terrible team.

THE UGLY

1990 Owen Nolan, RW, Quebec [Cornwall, OHL]; in 59 games had three goals and 10 assists; he was sent down to the minors.

1986 Joe Murphy, C, Detroit, [Michigan State University]; one assist in five games with Detroit; spent the rest of the season in the minors.

THE UNLUCKY

2001 Ilya Kovalchuk, RW, Atlanta [Spartak Moscow, Russia]; in 65 games he had 29 goals and 22 assists but a shoulder injury ended his season.

1997 Joe Thornton, C, Boston [Sault Ste. Marie, OHL]; just three goals and assists for seven points in a 55-game season plagued by injuries.

TIME TO COME

2004 Sidney Crosby, C, Pittsburgh [Rimouski, QMJHL]; the most anticipated player since Lemieux plays first NHL game Oct. 5 in New Jersey.

2003 Alexander Ovechkin, LW, Washington [Dynamo Moscow, Russia]; debut delayed by lockout; starts NHL career Oct. 5 against Columbus.

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