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Sid the Kid welcomes a challenger First meeting for Ovechkin, Crosby evokes memories of Gretzky-Lemieux

First meeting for Ovechkin, Crosby evokes memories of Gretzky-Lemieux

PITTSBURGH

s a sign of new times that the National Hockey League realized just what it has in its two best young players and arranged a conference call for reporters and Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin on the eve of their first meeting.

The game is being compared to the first between two young players who turned out to be legends -- Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky -- back on Nov. 6, 1984. The league, banking on Mr. Crosby and Mr. Ovechkin becoming the game's next superstars, has smartly hyped it as such.

Mr. Crosby, the Penguins centre who was the No. 1 pick in the July entry draft, and Mr. Ovechkin, the left winger who was made the top pick in the 2004 draft by the Washington Capitals, play their first NHL game against one another at Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh tonight.

League officials and hockey fans from Russia to Rimouski are drooling; not just for what one game might bring, but for what these players, who lead their respective teams in scoring, might offer for years to come.

"This is the first time we'll meet and we're 20 games into our rookie seasons in the NHL," Mr. Crosby said yesterday. "We're both enjoying the experience and trying to get better, but we have a long way to go before we can start comparing ourselves to Lemieux versus Gretzky. We both realize that, but being two first overall picks, there's probably going to be some buildup."

Mr. Crosby, who turned 18 in August and is from Cole Harbour, N.S., has 10 goals and 15 assists in 21 games. Mr. Ovechkin, who is 20 and from Moscow, has 15 goals and 6 assists in 20 games. The young men are racing toward the Calder Trophy, playing markedly different styles, but bringing fans on the edge of their seats and leaving them to wonder who will emerge as the league's top rookie.

There has not been a race this captivating in decades.

"You've got two dynamic players that people are talking about outside of their cities," Penguins coach Eddie Olczyk said. "It's going to be very exciting."

Mr. Crosby, at 5-foot-11 and 193 pounds, has a compact build, his lower body so strong, he is nearly impossible to knock off his skates. He splits defencemen 30 pounds heavier and a half-foot taller with ease. He is primarily a playmaker -- he is ranked among the NHL leaders in assists -- but his goal tally is mounting rapidly with each game.

Mr. Ovechkin is bigger at 6-foot-2 and 212 pounds. He bulls his way into the crease without much effort and delivers devastating hits. He possesses a wicked slap shot and pure goal scoring abilities that have already put him among the best in the league. Tied for fourth in NHL goals scoring, Mr. Ovechkin is the only player to go 3-for-3 in shootouts.

But the question that has fuelled hot debate among fans in Pittsburgh, Washington and beyond might not yet have an answer. Who is better: Sid the Kid or Alexander the Great?

Mike Emrick, the veteran play-by-play man and the NHL's voice on OLN, said their differences make it impossible to say.

"I don't put any qualitative differences on either player," he said. "It's the same thing they used to say about Mario and Wayne. Who cares who the better player is or who someone thinks is the better player? They're in the same solar system and so we get to enjoy both."

Mr. Ovechkin and Mr. Crosby have never spoken to one another or met off the ice, but played against each other in the world junior championship final last year in North Dakota. Canada blew out the Russians 6-1 to win gold. Mr. Ovechkin sat out the final period with a shoulder injury, but was named the tournament's top forward.

Mr. Ovechkin emphasized that he and Mr. Crosby, whom he called "a great passer like Gretzky," are just two of a crop of good rookies in the NHL.

"Everybody talks about Crosby when I turn on the TV," he said. "I don't mind. It is not unfair for me. He is a great player, a special player. We have different style of play. We cannot all play like Gretzky and Lemieux.

"He is a very good player. But there are other good rookies in the league such as Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and Dion Phaneuf. We will see at the end of the season which rookie will win the Calder Trophy."

Mr. Crosby said he is not thinking about his competition for those honours because it is distracting.

"As a hockey player, with this being my first year, consistency is big and I can't get caught thinking about anything other than being my best every night," he said. "Other people decide that [the Calder]. If I put my focus on helping the team win hockey games, then after 82 games I can be satisfied with the way I've played."

He said he would approach tonight's contest as he would any other, but acknowledged he was well versed in Mr. Ovechkin's talents.

"Every night you play in this league, you're against good players; you're always aware who you're playing against," he said. "He's a fast player; he's strong and a powerful skater. He's a good all-round player from what I've seen. I think he's got everything. He's dangerous when he's out there. He's a player you have to respect when you play against him. He's had a great start to the season."

Mr. Lemieux, who remembers his first game against Mr. Gretzky as exciting because he was younger and grew up emulating the Edmonton Oilers centre, said the fact Mr. Crosby and Mr. Ovechkin are in the same rookie class adds a layer of intrigue.

"Any time you get two guys like that going at it early in their careers, it's going to be an exciting night," he said. "And they're both doing so well. It's great for the game."

Mr. Crosby's teammate, Mark Recchi, said his young roommate on the road would not take the comparisons to legendary players to heart so early in his career.

"Let's not get ahead of ourselves," Mr. Recchi said. "They're both terrific young players, and they've earned all the praise they get. Mario and Gretzky were great players for a long time, and in three or four years when Sid and Alex are at the top of the league, we'll be able to say that."

Read more about the

match-up and tonight's game on Shawna Richer's blog

at globeandmail.com/sports

GRETZKY V. LEMIEUX:

THE FIRST TIME

The greats first played each other in Pittsburgh on Nov. 6, 1984, the same night Ronald Reagan won a landslide presidential re-election. A sellout crowd of 16,003 watched as the game ended in a 3-3 tie.

Gretzky scored his 13th goal of the season and Lemieux picked up an assist. But the night was most memorable for the Edmonton Oilers' complaints about the ice at what was then called Civic Arena. The game's opening faceoff was delayed a half-hour as workmen attempted to fix holes in the ice.

"The guys who run the ice here should be fired," Edmonton coach Glen Sather said at the time. "The place is filthy, it has the worse boards in the league and it's close to having the worst ice surface."

Gretzky said: "The referee and two general managers really considered cancelling the game."

But Sather said the crowd probably would have "rioted."

Tracking the top rookies

Sidney Crosby: Pittsburgh Penguins centre leads the pack with 10 goals and 15 assists for 25 points in 21 games.

Alexander Ovechkin: Washington Capitals left winger has 15 goals, six assists for 21 points through 20 games.

Marek Svatos: Colorado Avalanche right winger has 10 goals and eight assists for 18 points in 19 games.

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