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Crosby gets back on his feet as injured ankle still rankles Rookie is a tough player in soft skates, SHAWNA RICHER reports from Tampa

Rookie is a tough player in soft skates, SHAWNA RICHER reports from Tampa

TAMPA

ey Crosby's naked ankle peeked from the gap between his left shoe and hem of black slacks. On his first National Hockey League road trip to Florida, the Penguins rookie looked like a resident; bare feet in dress shoes is a decidedly local fashion statement.

Those feet, among all the other parts of him, are the future of the Pittsburgh Penguins franchise, and on Saturday afternoon, he limped to his stall in the visitors' dressing room at the St. Pete Times Forum.

As his teammates drifted in from practice, he was troubled by his left foot. A rectangular bandage was affixed below the bump of his bony ankle, covering a cut from the puck that deeply bruised that foot in a game on Friday night against the Florida Panthers.

Mr. Crosby, the 18-year-old who leads all rookies with 12 goals and 28 points through 23 games, decided after a brief skate yesterday morning that the swelling had receded enough for him to play later on against the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning. They lost 4-1, but even on a foot that Mr. Crosby said ached badly from the second period on, he was the hardest-working Penguin.

Equipment manager Steve Latin fashioned a pad for his skate to cushion the bruise. It appeared to work. His stride was fast and strong and he hit the Lightning cross bar on his first shot of his first shift.

Injuries are a hazard of his love and livelihood. But Mr. Crosby's decision to play will bolster his growing reputation as a resilient player as well as the Penguins' best. He has scored 10 goals in his past 11 games entering yesterday.

"I think it depends on the swelling," he said of how fast he could return. "If it's still swollen, and because it's swollen, the left foot probably doesn't fit in a skate. It's the pain and the swelling."

He stayed up until 4 o'clock Saturday morning layering bags of ice on his hoof, keeping roommate Matt Murley awake.

"I was up most of the night making sure I kept the swelling down as much as I could," he said. "It's never fun waking up in the morning. You don't know how it's going to be. But it was better than I feared. Usually you expect the worst but I was able to move it a little bit."

The slap shot, from two metres out, came from big Panthers defenceman Mike Van Ryn with 11 minutes left in a game the Penguins lost. Mr. Crosby consciously stuck his skate into the shot; blocking it was a risky but necessary move.

The puck was going about 150 kilometres an hour and hit with a thundering thwack heard by everyone on the bench. He crumpled to the ice and hobbled to the dressing room. Five minutes later, he tried to play a shift, but could not skate.

"It sounded like someone taking a baseball bat to a piece of leather nailed to a tree," said Phil Bourque, a former Penguins defenceman and now their radio analyst. "For him to be able to walk and put most of his weight on it is a good sign. If there's no break it's all about your pain threshold."

What does it feel like to be hit in the foot -- a tender area with little meat and many small bones -- with a frozen piece of rocketing rubber?

"You feel like throwing up," said Penguins coach and ex-player Eddie Olczyk. "It's a feeling that takes your breath away and then you realize how much pain there is."

Mr. Crosby's foot was X-rayed at the arena, and he had a CT scan the next day at a Tampa hospital. Neither revealed a fracture, miraculous considering the shot, and fortunate, given that it would sideline him for at least a month. "It's just one of those things that happens," Mr. Crosby said. "I've had a few [in the foot] before but that's the hardest I've ever gotten hit. I was the most nervous about this one."

Mr. Crosby is one of a handful of NHL players who wear Reebok Pump skates.

He works with Philippe Koyess, a skate designer with the Montreal-based equipment manufacturer The Hockey Company.

Pros are fussy about their equipment, especially skates; everything from the boot's height to eyelet placement is up to the player. Mr. Crosby likes extremely tight skates, Mr. Koyess said.

"It's specifically cut to wrap his foot so he has liberty of movement and all the support he needs," he said. "Most pros wear tight skates because it allows them to feel the ice better. The closer you are to your skates the closer you feel the ice."

Mr. Crosby's skates (size 8 ¾) are so snug the tips of his big toenails are often black after games.

He confessed he loves his skates "soft and broken in," which makes him more vulnerable to the puck injury he suffered.

"I probably have the softest skates on the team," he said. "That's not good when you block a shot. But I like mine really soft. A lot of skates now are really stiff and they hold up pretty well. But I'm just one of those guys who don't like to go through a lot of skates or change them too much."

His are customized with less composite material in the boot, so that they are more pliable. He goes through just two pairs a season; most players use many more. He demonstrated how easily they yield. "Most skates wouldn't bend that much," he said. "There's more plastic in a stiffer skate to hold the shape. It's a very personal thing."

Mr. Crosby has not been often injured. He hurt his knee and separated his shoulder last year in junior, but has never missed more than four games.

He needed four stitches in his lip and two hours of dentistry to repair two broken teeth 12 days ago after Flyers defenceman Darien Hatcher roughed him up with his stick. But Mr. Crosby responded that game by scoring two goals, including the game winner in overtime. Penguins' fans love his toughness.

"[Injury] is going to happen a lot in this league and it's maddening because it gets in the way," Mario Lemieux said. "I've taken shots like that, in my foot, pretty much everywhere over the years."

According to 2003 figures from the Canadian Institute for Health Information, puck strikes made up 25 per cent of hockey injuries, far less than those caused by sticks or players hitting each other. Still, it is the NHL equivalent of catching a gunshot.

"[Mike] Van Ryn has quite a shot," Mr. Olczyk said. "It's a frozen piece of rubber getting up to 100 miles an hour. That play happens a lot. When it does, you realize it's probably lucky more guys don't get taken out that way."

TRACKING THE TOP ROOKIESSIDNEY CROSBY: Penguins centre leads all forwards with 12 goals, 16 assists for 28 points in 23 games.

ALEXANDER OVECHKIN: Capitals left winger has 15 goals, nine assists for 24 points in 23 games.

DION PHANEUF: Flames defenceman is the top freshman blueliner with five goals, nine assists for 14 points in 25 games.

HENRIK LUNDQVIST: Rangers goalie is best in his class with a 9-3 record, 2.07 goals-against average and .930 save percentage.

Includes games through Nov. 26

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