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NHL gets a new star just in time Crosby will be doing more than just launching his pro career tonight, SHAWNA RICHER writes. He'll be giving the league a needed boost

Crosby will be doing more than just launching his pro career tonight, SHAWNA RICHER writes. He'll be giving the league a needed boost

SECAUCUS, N.J.

ey Crosby works to maintain eye contact with every reporter who asks him a question, but there have been so many men and women with notepads and pens and tape recorders, and so many more with brightly lit television cameras and large, padded microphones, that so often lately it is a crush of bodies and bright lights.

The telegenic teenage hockey player from Nova Scotia, who has impressed with his on-ice skills and off-ice composure like no other since men named Gretzky and Lemieux skated into the National Hockey League decades ago, always tries hard to engage his questioners when he talks to them.

It is how he was raised: to be respectful. There is a boyish shyness to him, though, and it is obvious that being overtly gregariousness with strangers does not come easily. But it is part and parcel of his charm and he wears it well. Pittsburgh hockey fans have taken to calling him The Kid, the same nickname Wayne Gretzky had in the early 1980s. And a kid he is.

Crosby will begin his NHL career tonight at the Continental Airlines Arena, on the site of a sports complex nicknamed The Swamp.

"I am ready for it," he said yesterday. "I've been waiting a long time for this."

The new NHL dawns tonight, after 310 days of lockout, and Crosby, the handsome rookie centre with the Pittsburgh Penguins, is the league's new poster boy. The NHL needs him. The labour dispute was long and ugly and the game slow and dull in recent years as ratings for the Stanley Cup finals have steadily slipped.

Now there's a new labour deal that makes teams competitive and new rules to make the game more thrilling, and a bright, fresh face to usher it all in wearing sweat and a smile.

Crosby has been called hockey's saviour, an awfully tall order for a young man who has not played a moment of meaningful professional hockey until tonight. But at the very least, thus far, it is fair to say he has been its resuscitator.

"It's going to be a good feeling, stepping out on that ice," he said yesterday. "It's something I've been imagining and I want to enjoy it. I'm nervous, but anyone in this position, doing it for the first time, would be."

He has dreamed of the moment since he was three years old. He is not the only one who is grateful it has finally arrived.

"The timing with Sidney coming into the league has created additional interest and buzz," said Ed Horne, president of NHL Enterprises, the league's marketing division. "Sidney is attracting a lot of attention. Our effort is in making sure the game is relevant outside of hockey as well, and getting players and the game places it hasn't shown up before."

Crosby endorses Reebok shoes, skates, athletic wear and hockey gear, and Gatorade. He will make more money in endorsements this year than from his $850,000 (all figures U.S.) salary, the rookie maximum under the new contract.

In the October issue of Vanity Fair magazine, he posed for a beefcake shot -- Dolce and Gabbana denim shirt off, Gap jeans slung low on slim hips and full-lipped, sultry stare.

He admitted it "wasn't the typical hockey player pose" but said he liked the photo and so did his mother, Trina, at home in Cole Harbour, N.S.

"It's good for hockey if you can get it out there in a different way," he said.

"I don't want to do too many of those things, but if there's time and it helps promote the game a little bit I will."

He will be featured in GQ magazine's November issue, outfitted in his hockey gear. He made a summer appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

"We've been working with the [Penguins] to get Sidney out in a variety of ways in the mainstream media," Horne said. "It's not the first time we've done it, but given our new partnership with the players there is an incredible incentive to grow the interest. We want our fans to feel appreciated and excited."

It seems to be working. Twenty-three of the NHL's 30 teams have renewed 90 per cent of their season-ticket subscribers. In Pittsburgh, the team had sold more tickets by mid-August then it did the entire 2003-04 season.

Tom McMillan, the Penguins' vice-president of communications, said it is unprecedented for the NHL to hold a press conference before a season opening game, as the Penguins did last night after landing in New Jersey, putting Crosby and Lemieux at a podium to answer questions from the more than 150 reporters -- nearly half from Canada --who have requested to cover the game.

The Penguins even received requests for Crosby's parents, Troy and Trina, and nine-year-old sister Taylor, who are here for the game, to be made available to the press.

"When [former No. 1 pick] Eric Lindros played his first game it was a sidebar," McMillan said.

The NHL has been salivating over Crosby's maturity and confidence for several years, more so because of the lockout. The league needs a new star to help improve its U.S. press coverage. (NHL coverage has been dropped, for example, as a regular beat from The Sporting News.)

"He is remarkable for where he is in his career," Horne said. "We've got guys who have been great ambassadors for the sport, but the timing of Sidney and this new era for hockey is really something special."

"This kid absolutely has the potential to be it," said Dean Bonham, president of Bonham Group, a sports marketing firm based in Chicago. "He's the real deal, not only on the ice but off. He could be the Michael Jordan of the NHL.

"There's more buzz about him than anybody since Gretzky, There's always buzz about the No. 1 draft pick, but he is different, and it's a combination of some extraordinary on-ice skills and some incredible characteristics he displays off the ice."

The NHL will continue to discuss more marketing opportunities with Pat Brisson of IMG, Crosby's Santa Monica, Calif.-based agent.

This week Crosby was featured in ESPN: The Magazine's Hot-Cool issue; his picture, albeit a small one, is on the cover of Sports Illustrated's NHL preview issue. Lad magazine Maxim, Time, Newsweek, People and MTV have all requested interviews with him.

GQ, in which Crosby is next featured, has put handsome sports stars on its cover for decades -- from Dan Marino to Alex Rodriguez to Evander Holyfield. Lemieux graced the front of the 2001 sports issue; inside NHL stars Mike Modano, Jeremy Roenick, Scott Stevens, Brendan Shanahan, Chris Pronger and Vincent Lecavalier cleaned up nice and posed in black tie and black skates.

Shanahan, the popular veteran Detroit Red Wing forward, said recently that the NHL needs "famous players; we need guys to become more famous in more markets."

Crosby, who has the looks and demeanour and hockey skills to break through in places where hockey has struggled (the Floridas and Nashvilles of the league), looks headed for the stars but still has a ways to go.

"As enthusiastic as I am about his success and influence on the NHL there is still the ordeal of fire and water he has to go through on the ice to prove himself," Bonham said. "Then comes the household recognition."

In Canada, Crosby is already a national treasure, but it will take more than a cute 18-year-old hockey prodigy for the NHL to turn many Americans onto hockey.

Historically hockey players have made for less flashy celebrities than athletes in other sports; all that equipment is partly to blame.

National Football League players wear skin tight pants and are often seen on the sidelines with their helmets off. National Basketball Association players ply their trade in singlet jerseys and shorts. Fans can see their faces and how athletic their bodies are. Hockey players go to work in layers of padding and helmets and pants baggy in the butt.

So this season the NHL will work with their broadcast partners NBC and the Outdoor Life Network to emphasize more "life stories" of players and show them "out of their helmets" more often, Horne of NHL Enterprises said.

"Our guys are such great and humble individuals who haven't wanted to be out in the spotlight as much," he said. "But the good-looking and articulate athletes we have combined with more exposure on NBC will help us eliminate some of those hurdles that have existed in the past."

It is perfect timing for the league's biggest commodity, the kid who starts his career, once and for all, for real, tonight.

"It's going to be a long day for him," Penguins coach Eddie Olczyk said. "Seven-thirty is not going to come soon enough."

Not for the NHL, and not for Sidney Crosby.

"There's no doubt in my mind that I've done all I can to prepare myself; I have to go out there with confidence," the rookie said, his eyes brightening at the thought of it all getting under way. "I'm going to play hockey -- in the NHL."

***

ATHLETE IDOLS

MOST POPULAR ATHLETES

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Donovan McNabb, NFL

Ben Roethlisberger, NFL

Source: Based on jersey sales, NFL.com, NBA.com

***

SEXIEST ATHLETES OF ALL TIME

Katarina Witt, figure skater

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Source: ESPN

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Dwyane Wade, NBA

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Source: People magazine, over past two years

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