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A hockey game to play, while the Great One watches from the stands Gretzky scouts rookie for Turin Olympics, SHAWNA RICHER writes from Pittsburgh

Gretzky scouts rookie for Turin Olympics, SHAWNA RICHER writes from Pittsburgh

PITTSBURGH

For a few, fleeting moments on the weekend, the Pittsburgh Penguins dressing room resembled an eye-popping, heady scene from the Hockey Hall of Fame past, present and future.

Without fanfare or warning at the Saturday morning pre-game skate, stood Wayne Gretzky, inducted in 1999 and retired, Mario Lemieux, inducted in 1997 but still an active player, and nearby, shedding his sweaty practice gear, Sidney Crosby, who will certainly be so honoured decades from now, if his career soars as most expect.

Mr. Gretzky, the Team Canada executive director, was in Pittsburgh on the weekend to watch a game between the Penguins and Colorado Avalanche. He came to chat with Mr. Lemieux, who announced Saturday he would not play for Team Canada at the Turin Olympics in February, mainly because of health reasons, and also to scout Mr. Crosby, the No. 1 draft pick whose standout rookie season makes him a serious Olympic candidate.

The Great One watched the Next One from a private box, with top aides Steve Tambellini and Marc Habscheid. As Mr. Lemieux's former playing rival, he was cheerfully booed by the fans.

Mr. Crosby, just 18, impressed during the Penguins' 4-3 victory, with one assist and some of the prettiest passing he has exhibited all season.

Every four years, revelation of the Olympic men's hockey roster elicits excitement and emotional debate from St. John's to Surrey. It will again in about 10 days as Mr. Gretzky attempts to assemble a team to defend the gold medal won in 2002 at Salt Lake City. The 23-man roster will be announced after a final meeting among team executives and coaches on Dec. 21.

"I would love to play for my country. Definitely," Mr. Crosby said. "It means so much to be able to represent your country and I have played for Canada [at the world junior championship] and to be able to win gold is something you dream of as a Canadian player."

Mr. Gretzky, who has been on a weeklong Olympic scouting trip, said yesterday his visit did not amount to an audition for Mr. Crosby, who is second among rookies in scoring with 30 points (13 goals, 17 assists) in 29 games.

"Absolutely not," Mr. Gretzky said. "One game doesn't make or break a kid. I've known him since he was 14, and I've watched him play all year long. The thing about Sidney is he plays hard every game. He's been outstanding. He's a breath of fresh air for the NHL. He's tremendous for our game."

Of the NHL's youngest players, Mr. Crosby, the one Mr. Gretzky once said had the best chances of breaking his own scoring records, will be heavily considered for a spot along with Jason Spezza of the Ottawa Senators and Eric Staal of the Carolina Hurricanes.

They were the only players on the preliminary list of 81 not invited to the team's training camp in August, but their awesome performance has earned each solid consideration, especially with Mr. Lemieux and the Red Wings' Steve Yzerman stepping aside.

Mr. Spezza, 22 and of Mississauga, Ont., is third in the league in scoring with 43 points (11 goals, 32 assists) in 27 games. Mr. Staal, 21 and of Thunder Bay, Ont., is fourth with 42 points (21 goals, 21 assists) in 29 games.

"Each one has a legitimate chance to be considered," Mr. Gretzky said. And then he rhymed off a laundry list of attributes he likes most about Mr. Crosby, the teen from Cole Harbour, N.S.

"His vision, his work ethic, he sees the ice extremely well, he passes the puck extremely well, he loves coming to the rink," he said. "He's mature beyond his years. How can you get a better combination than that?"

Two factors weigh heavily in Mr. Crosby's favour: He has been the best player on the Penguins and was the NHL's rookie of the month in October, and he will stand up well in the glare of the Olympic spotlight because he's already weathered head-spinning hype and attention.

"He handles pressure as well as anybody," Mr. Gretzky said. "He's been under the microscope. He understands what everything is about."

Mr. Crosby said he was not nervous about having a special audience. He exchanged pleasantries with Mr. Gretzky in the dressing room in the morning, but that was all.

"It's an honour to be considered," Mr. Crosby said. "You go through situations where you know you're being watched. It's something I've learned to handle."

He has met Mr. Gretzky just twice before, most recently at last year's world junior tournament in North Dakota.

"Living with Mario, I feel comfortable around him, but yeah, it was something special," he said of seeing both legends in the room at once.

"For me, it was nice to see him and say hello, but I had a game to play and he had guys to look at. You don't want to get too involved in that."

Mr. Lemieux, who informed Mr. Gretzky on Thursday that he would not participate in the Olympics because of an irregular heartbeat that is being treated with medication, and because of his desire to see younger players on the team, gave his rookie teammate a passionate plug.

"Absolutely, I think he should be on the team," Mr. Lemieux said. "He is going to be part of Team Canada for the next 15 to 20 years. Even if he goes there and doesn't play a whole lot, just to have the experience of playing with these guys and practising with these guys for a week to 10 days; when I played for Team Canada back in '87 [at the Canada Cup], it really changed my career. I am sure it would help Sidney quite a bit to be in that environment."

Mr. Gretzky said he was disappointed with Mr. Lemieux's decision to sit out, but did not try to change his mind.

"His personal health is more important," he said. "But you don't try to replace a Mario Lemieux. When I got the call, I was disappointed for Mario and disappointed for the people of Canada. But we have to look in a different direction, as far as getting leadership from other players."

Enter the NHL's exciting kids -- Mr. Crosby, Mr. Staal and Mr. Spezza. You may well see two of them representing Canada in Turin.

Mr. Gretzky said he has some tough decisions to make and has whittled down his list from 81 names to about 45 so far.

"Everything goes into consideration," he said. "Winning at the world junior level, winning a Stanley Cup, winning a world cup; they're all huge factors.

"Sidney has been tremendous under a microscope, Spezza is a star on the No. 1 team in the NHL and Staal has been outstanding. You take it all into account.

"But it's going to be a very difficult decision."

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