Sidney Crosby was the last player to leave the ice yesterday. He practised vigorously and with hopeful determination on his young face, but none of that entirely masked some sadness.
His National Hockey League career is not yet three months old and the 18-year-old has already weathered many dark days and nights plying his love and livelihood.
The Pittsburgh Penguins, which selected him first overall in the July entry draft, are woeful underachievers. They have won only eight games in 31 tries, losing their first nine games of the season and, now, eight of their past nine.
In an attempt to turn things around before the season that began with much hope is completely lost, the organization on Wednesday fired Eddie Olczyk, Crosby's first professional coach.
He was replaced by Michel Therrien, who has led the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the American Hockey League to the best start in league history -- 21 wins and one loss in regulation time. Olczyk, the first NHL coach to be fired this season, will likely remain with the organization in a lesser job.
Crosby, the Penguins' star rookie, is dying for a chance to save a season that should have been glorious for him on many levels, but he was also hurt by the dismissal of Olczyk, with whom he had a close relationship.
"We're a family," Crosby said. "When you lose a guy like that it's like losing people in your family. He was always there. He was the first one to take the blame and held himself responsible. As a player, it's not something you like to see. The coach doesn't put on his skates and go out and play. There's only so much he can do. I have a lot of respect for him."
Crosby has seen his coach dumped before. Donald Dufresne, his junior bench boss with the Rimouski Océanic, was demoted to an assistant after a seven-game losing streak last year and replaced by Doris Labonte, who led the team to the Memorial Cup final.
This is different.
"It's my first year, and coming in he communicated well with me, with us," he said. "He cared about us as a coach, especially me. I'm 18, and he gave me an opportunity to play here and I feel fortunate for that. It's tough, but sometimes hockey goes like that."
Crosby ranks second among rookies with 13 goals and 31 points in 31 games but has not been as productive lately, with only two goals and two assists in his past 10 games. He looks frustrated on the ice and recently has been trying to do too much. It is apparent the team's struggles have begun to puncture his sunny spirits.
After a 3-0 defeat in St. Louis on Tuesday night, Crosby sat in his dressing room stall, sweaty head in his hands, at a loss to explain what had gone so wrong but unbending to the challenge.
"I don't know what to say any more," he sighed that night. "I don't care what happens, but I am not going to give up."
Did some of the players quit on Olczyk? General Manager Craig Patrick thought so, saying it became obvious during a 5-0 loss to the Minnesota Wild on Dec. 15 that the players had tuned the second-year coach out and no longer respected him.
"The Minnesota loss was very disturbing," Patrick said. "The team had shown its face, and for whatever reason, they weren't listening."
They had better listen to Therrien, who is 42 and had a 77-91-22 record as coach of the Montreal Canadiens from 2000-03. Known as a disciplinarian who preaches a hard-work ethic, Therrien won't hesitate to criticize players in the press, something Olczyk would never do, despite the fact his team was often criticized as lazy.
The first sign things have changed was yesterday's practice at the Island Sports Centre on Neville Island. It ran from A.M. to P.M -- more than two hours, a first this season. Therrien, who has a three-year deal with the club, also brought his own coaching staff from the Baby Penguins.
Patrick warned more changes involving players would come if a dramatic turnaround doesn't happen under Therrien.
"He's a no-nonsense guy, and it's either his way or you don't play, and from what I see, we definitely need that," Patrick said. "We look pretty on paper, but what are we? Now we'll find out what we're made of."
The new coach, described by the younger Penguins who played for him in Wilkes-Barre as a man who "hates more than anything to lose," is eager to get his hands on the most exciting young player in decades.
"I'm excited to coach Sidney Crosby," Therrien said. "He's got a lot of things to learn, but he's got so much skill and so much speed. For a coach, it's fun to have an opportunity to work with a player like him."
Olczyk moved Crosby from centre to left wing to right wing and changed up his linemates on a nightly basis. Therrien wants stability for his young star and will return him to his natural position at centre, anchoring a line with Mario Lemieux and Zigmund Palffy. Lemieux is scheduled to return after suffering an irregular heartbeat when the Penguins face Buffalo tonight.
"I want to give him a chance to expose his talents," Therrien said. "He's going to be able to do a lot of good things out there. I'm going to give him a lot of opportunity. But he's such a good hockey player. He does such things on the ice. I was impressed when I saw him in training camp, but I never thought he'd be this good."
Crosby is supremely coachable and should respond well to a more structured system and an openly emotional coach.
"He's pretty demanding," Crosby said of Therrien. "He demands you to be in the right position. He seems really intelligent. If we do things the way we're supposed to, we'll have some success. Hopefully it'll be a wakeup call, but that's up to us."
Although yesterday marked a fresh start, the team's often lousy play has resulted in a father with four kids losing his job two weeks before Christmas, something that wasn't lost on the youngest player in the room.
"Eddie never once gave up on us," Crosby said. "I've had coaches in the past who when you went through tough times weren't like that. They left us to handle it. Eddie didn't do that. It could have been easy to quit on us and he didn't. When we were hurting as a team he was hurting too.
"We have a new family now, but you never forget your coaches whenever that happens."
Two turbulent months
Oct. 5 to 26: Penguins start the season winless after nine games.
Nov. 11: Crosby loses parts of two teeth and has lip gashed by Philadelphia Flyers' Darien Hatcher. Flyers' media and players accuse him of "diving."
Nov. 25: Crosby forced to leave a game against the Florida Panthers after taking a hard shot in the foot; plays on bruised foot that's sore for a week.
Dec. 7: Mario Lemieux taken to hospital with an irregular heartbeat that requires medication to stabilize.
Dec. 10: Lemieux announces that "time is running out" to find a way to keep the Penguins in Pittsburgh.
Dec. 15: Head coach Ed Olczyk is fired.