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Emotional Crosby breaks the ice Rookie plays with great verve in most anticipated debut in years, SHAWNA RICHER reports

Rookie plays with great verve in most anticipated debut in years, SHAWNA RICHER reports

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.

arious moments yesterday, Sidney Crosby's face wore every emotion a young man can possibly feel in all their varying degrees.

He was eager and excited, nervous and tense, anxious and awestruck, expectant and happy, aggressive and frustrated. It was the biggest day of his life so far, and now he can get on with a career in the National Hockey League.

The 18-year-old No. 1 draft pick from Nova Scotia made his NHL debut last night at the Continental Airlines Arena against the New Jersey Devils; the most anticipated entrance into professional hockey since Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, who is Mr. Crosby's teammate and boss.

Mr. Crosby's special day turned into a lousy night for the Penguins, who lost 5-1. But the rookie centre registered his first NHL point, an assist at 5:36 of the third period, making a tidy pass to Mark Recchi from behind the net. When the winger scored, Mr. Crosby raised his stick and pumped his fist, but not too emphatically. His celebration seemed muted because his team trailed so badly.

"It was nice to get that point," he said later, tired and sweaty and looking like he'd left a life's worth of emotions on the ice.

"It's nice to be a playmaker and to get a point, I won't complain.

"But you play to win, and I don't think that ever changes."

Later, when he tried to go upstairs on a breakaway only to shoot wide, the crowd chanted "over-rated" in a singsong.

For those who track the numerical minutiae of sporting contests, it will be interesting to note that Mr. Crosby played 15 minutes and 50 seconds, 23 shifts in all, for an average of 41 seconds each time. He spent six minutes and 33 seconds on the power play, and had three shots on goal, one in each period. He finished -2, caught on the ice for two Devils goals.

But he looked better than the numbers suggested. He looked like he belonged.

"When you're a young player you come into the league with expectations, some from what you've seen on TV and how you imagine it will be," Penguins coach Eddie Olczyk said. "I was happy with the way he played. He made a great pass to [Recchi]. Not many players, think of all the kids in Canada and the U.S., get a chance to play in the NHL. Sidney will never forget this night."

He was the 10th Penguin to hit the ice as the teams came out for warm-ups, skating furiously, head down, an action he later said made him feel "comfortable." During the Star-Spangled Banner he stood, second in line on the bench, with his head bowed, chin resting on the top of his stick, for every note.

He vaulted onto the ice for the first time at 19:28, intercepted a pass from Devils centre Zach Parise and enjoyed a scoring chance on a backhand shot. On his second shift he nearly had a breakaway on the power play, and had a full-fledged one later in the third. But the kid who scored 343 points in two seasons of junior hockey was facing Martin Brodeur, the best goaltender in the league.

He turned the puck over once. He hung on to it too long at times. He struggled taking faceoffs, losing 10 of 16.

"That's not very good," he said with a self-effacing chuckle. "That's something I tried to work on in camp and I'll continue to work on."

No one else seemed disappointed.

"He did pretty well," said Mr. Lemieux, who turned 40 yesterday. "It's always tough to start your career in the NHL. He's only 18. He made some pretty good plays and he skated well. It's going to take a few games, but he didn't look out of place at all. I know he was nervous but before the game he was talking and joking around. We told him to enjoy it."

His parents, Troy and Trina, visiting from Cole Harbour, N.S., cheered and watched from the edge of their seats. This night was an agonizingly long time coming; Mr. Crosby felt it over his lifetime and especially the past two days.

Mr. Crosby awoke yesterday morning at the team hotel in Secaucus, N.J., a short drive from the arena. His roommate for road trips this season is the 17-year veteran Mr. Recchi. They went down for breakfast shortly before 9:30 a.m., and Mr. Crosby ate an omelette and some yogurt, and drank orange juice and bottled water.

Shortly before 11:30 a.m., the rookie came down the hallway, the 10th Penguins player out of the dressing room, clomping along on his skates, looking intense and more than a little anxious.

Once on the ice he seemed to relax, and went through his practice paces -- stretching and sprinting and three-man rushes with Mr. Recchi and John LeClair -- with an easy demeanour. He drifted around centre ice in lazy figure eights, making backhand and forehand passes effortlessly, bouncing the puck off his skates and dribbling it between them. Inside the cramped visitors' locker room, with its scuffed blue floor, cold concrete walls and uncomfortable folding chairs, Mr. Crosby removed his helmet, sat down and stripped off his jersey while three television cameras filmed his every move. They filmed him removing his elbow pads, unlacing his skates and dropping his sweaty hockey socks in a pile.

The attention on him has been unprecedented. But the past several days leading to his NHL debut unfolded with the kind of regularity and routine that paces a professional sports team through the season: Practice, team meetings, workouts in the weight room, more practice, plenty of sleeping.

On Tuesday, before the team left for New Jersey, Mr. Crosby woke up at 6 a.m., an hour and half earlier than he normally does. His stomach was jitterbugging and he wanted to make sure he picked out a nice suit and didn't forget anything so he could concentrate on hockey.

"I was a little bit nervous in the warm-up, but after I got out there skating around I started feeling more comfortable," he said. "It wasn't too bad. I just tried to do what I was told on the ice. [Coach] said to enjoy it, because it only happens once, and I tried to do that."

Fan Dan Gillis travelled from Cole Harbour, meeting up with three buddies, to see last night's game, and will attend the Penguins' home opener on Saturday and their Thanksgiving Monday game in Buffalo.

"I wanted to see him play his first game," said Mr. Gillis, who lives near the Crosby family. "He is definitely going to be a star, hopefully a superstar."

Superstars aren't born overnight; the rookie made a good start, with that point and a strong third period.

"You know, it's going to take him a few games," Mr. Lemieux said. "But this kid is going to be a great player for many years."

The rookie October 6 2005

I've seen about 150 NHL games in my life, and the best moment I've seen in hockey will happen this night, when Sidney Crosby steps onto the ice.

Dan Gillis of Cole Harbour, N.S., who came to see Mr. Crosby's first game

It's a great day for him. This game doesn't mean anything; it's going to be one of many. What's special is that it's his first.

Pittsburgh Penguins forward Mark Recchi

The expectations are high. The most important are the expectations I have for myself. I'm more worried about those than anything else.

Penguins rookie star Sidney Crosby

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