ey Crosby has never been to Manhattan, and has only glimpsed Madison Square Garden -- the rotund, storied sporting venue -- on television and in his boyhood hockey fantasies.
Tonight, he will skate onto the ice at the Garden, and finally, at least physically, into the consciousness of New Yorkers. They are respectable hockey fans, to be sure, but more importantly, they're respected arbiters of what is cool and culturally and socially relevant.
Mr. Crosby, barely 18, will use his talents to try to impress this skeptical crowd, all but a slapshot's distance from Madison Avenue, where advertising images are created, bought, sold and projected around the planet.
Eight days after his Pittsburgh Penguins face the New York Rangers on Nov. 15, the kid from Cole Harbour, N.S., with the full lips and generous cowlick will see his profile catapult across North America on the strength of a slick TV commercial cooked up by those Madison Avenue types.
Reebok, which signed Mr. Crosby to a five-year deal worth a reported $2.5-million (all figures U.S.) in November of 2004, will feature the rookie scoring leader in its landmark "I Am What I Am" campaign. Every household with a television will have a chance to see the 30-second spot that is sure to help make Mr. Crosby a household name outside Canada.
At the same time, Reebok hopes the ad will sell a heck of a lot of skates, sticks and hockey pants.
Mr. Crosby will join an eclectic group of athletic and artistic overachievers in the campaign, which has featured basketball's Allen Iverson, baseball's Curt Schilling, football's Donovan McNabb, actor Christina Ricci and hip-hop artist Jay-Z. Mr. Crosby is the first hockey player to be featured in the campaign, which includes billboards and print ads. In some ways, he fits right in among those names. In others, he could not be more different.
"He has no attitude," said Yan Martin, marketing director of Reebok's hockey division. "He's not out there saying he's going to break Mario Lemieux's or Wayne Gretzky's records. He's got his own standards. We wanted the spot to say that, to show his personality and individuality."
The script was written by Mark Koelfgeen and Lew Willig of the New York agency McGarry Bowen. Mr. Crosby's voice falls over footage of the rinks he played in growing up throughout Nova Scotia. The ad then jumps to him in a National Hockey League game. He tells his own story in poignant sound bites.
"This was my prom. This was my spring break. This was Thanksgiving; semester abroad; road trip with friends; summer camp; having a girlfriend; being in a band; running away; down time.
"What do you call a life that's been nothing but hockey?
"I'd call it time well-spent."
The writers worked with Mr. Martin to get a sense of Mr. Crosby.
"I could tell that for him it was all about sacrifice and devotion to the sport," Mr. Koelfgeen said. "He's one of those people who was at a very young age capable of sacrifice and control, very rare for a kid. He wasn't hanging out at the mall wolfing down pizza. When he wasn't playing hockey, he was playing hockey.
"My sense of Sidney is that he comes from a working-class background and gave up a lot for his sport. Well, now you see the consequences of that."
Reebok launched Rbk Hockey in January. Their line of high-performance equipment from skates to sticks to protective gear was in development since June of 2004, when Reebok bought Montreal-based The Hockey Company and its brands CCM, Koho and Jofa. It's the top producer of hockey equipment and apparel in the world. It supplies jerseys to all 30 NHL teams and has deals with the American, East Coast and Canadian hockey leagues.
The company has several NHL players under contract, likeChris Pronger of the Edmonton Oilers, Patrice Bergeron of the Boston Bruins and Roberto Luongo of the Florida Panthers. But Mr. Crosby is now Reebok's marquee endorser.
"His talents speak for themselves," Mr. Martin said. "We wanted someone relevant to youth culture and individualistic. He has a chance to be more than just a hockey player. To be accepted outside hockey you need that aura, and Sidney has it around him."
Mr. Crosby, who also endorses Gatorade and Telus in Canada, is a dream catch for Reebok. He's good-looking, has a warm personality, is young enough for kids of all ages to relate to and mature enough for adults to respect. Teenage girls and their mothers can adore him equally for different reasons, and brothers and fathers can worship his hockey skills.
Dean Bonham, president of the Bonham Group, a U.S. sports-marketing company, said Mr. Crosby has the potential to be "the Michael Jordan of hockey."
Charm and skills like the ones possessed by Mr. Crosby can sell a lot of skates and jerseys, and Mr. Martin said he expects Reebok to do well by its spokesman.
Mr. Crosby said that when he was a boy, he and all his hockey-loving friends watched the pros intently to see what skates they used, what sticks they preferred and what helmets they liked.
"When you want to be an NHL player you want the same things they do," he said. "It doesn't mean you're going to play like them, but as a kid you feel a little bit closer to that player when you learn about what they wear. You want to be happy out on the ice. It's not absolutely necessary to have the best stuff all the time, but it can make it more enjoyable.
"The fun thing was noticing new stuff on a player in September, because they all had it before it was actually available, and Christmas was always a good time for us to try and catch up with what the pros had."
And on this autumn afternoon at Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh, with the shoot stretching into its seventh hour, Mr. Crosby looks to be earning his money. If he vaulted over the boards once that afternoon, he did it a hundred times. Over and over, he acted the part he lives for real every game night: eyeing the play unfolding on the ice and waiting for his turn to join in.
In all, Mr. Crosby spent 10 hours filming and voicing the spot, and also spent several hours modelling his lifestyle clothing line for a crew shooting print ads.
Mr. Crosby has also put his touch on a line of Reebok clothing that will be available later this year across Canada in Sport Chek and Sport Experts stores.
He's selling youthful-looking long-sleeved T-shirts, hoodies and cotton pants, in rich blue and earthy brown hues that he chose.
"When they brought it up to me I was definitely interested in getting involved with clothes I liked," Mr. Crosby said. "I wanted clothes that reflected me. I'm always coming to the rink in hoodies and sweatpants, and I wanted stuff that I'd wear. It's pretty casual. . . . No neckties."
Last month, in the hours just before filming the Reebok ad, he modelled each of the pieces on the outdoor concourse at the arena, a clear blue sky and the Igloo as backdrop.
Makeup artist and hairstylist Debi Maker and wardrobe stylist Tracey Kovell were always nearby to touch him up.
"I'm a little worried about how his hair is going to turn out," Ms. Maker whispered. "But I just work with his cowlick. They want a natural look, and he looks good. He's so good in front of the camera. He's only 18 and he's just so natural. He's very at ease and composed."
And according to his agent, Pat Brisson of IMG, he has also been selective about what he will endorse. Mr. Crosby doesn't want to be a skating, shooting billboard.
"He has what it takes to do all kinds of things with [endorsements]," Mr. Brisson said. "He has so many options in front of him and he always makes the right decisions."
Reebok was criticized when it signed Mr. Iverson, the Philadelphia 76ers' star, to a $50-million, 10-year contract in 1996 because of his heavily tattooed skin and hip-hop image. But the gamble paid off for Reebok, which recently signed Mr. Iverson to a $100-million lifetime deal and released his 10th signature shoe yesterday.
The company likely won't need to worry about Mr. Crosby, who may be one of the least controversial athletes in ages.
Capitalizing on his time spent playing junior hockey with the Rimouski Oceanic and his willingness to learn French, Reebok will also release a French version of the ad for Quebec.
"It's going to be a gorgeous, inspirational ad," Mr. Koelfgeen said. "Some day if I read about some young kid who played hockey and this ad made a difference to their life and pushed them to excel, I am going to feel like this ad did its job."
RICHEST ENDORSEMENT DEALS
DAVID BECKHAM: Soccer star has a $160-million lifetime deal with Adidas.
GEORGE FOREMAN: Former boxing champion has a $137.5-million lifetime deal with Salton Inc., makers of the Lean Mean Grilling Machine.
TIGER WOODS: $80-million annually from Nike, Disney, Wheaties, Buick and American Express.
LeBRON JAMES: Cleveland Cavaliers star signed a seven-year, $90-million sneaker deal with Nike on his draft day in 2003.
ALLEN IVERSON: Philadelphia 76ers point guard has a $100-million lifetime deal with Reebok.
TOPS IN THEIR SPORT
ANDRE AGASSI: $44.5-million a year from Adidas, American Express, Aramis cologne, Kia Motors, Canon and Schick.
LANCE ARMSTRONG: Earns $17.5-million endorsing Subaru, Nike and Bristol-Myers Squibb.
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Earns $20-million a year from Wrangler, Drakkar cologne, Budweiser and Domino's Pizza.
MICHAEL JORDAN: He's retired but will earn $33-million this year from Nike, Hanes, Ball Park Franks, Gatorade, MCI and Wheaties.
REPUTATION IS EVERYTHINGLATRELL SPREWELL: He was with the Golden State Warriors in 1997 when he tried to choke his coach during practice. Converse cancelled his contract, worth more than $500,000.
MAGIC JOHNSON: Lost contracts with Converse and Pepsi worth $12-million when he announced he was HIV positive. When Mr. Johnson resumed playing the next year, Pepsi took him back.