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Crosby ready to face harsh media glare of Toronto Penguins' star nonplussed about inability to win over tough critic Don Cherry, SHAWNA RICHER writes from Pittsburgh

Penguins' star nonplussed about inability to win over tough critic Don Cherry, SHAWNA RICHER writes from Pittsburgh

The national anthems were belted out before the Pittsburgh Penguins and Toronto Maple Leafs faced off here last week, and Hockey Night in Canada commentators Don Cherry and Ron MacLean did their pregame standup routine near the ice.

CBC cameras beamed the contest, the Penguins' first national Hockey Night appearance this season, to fans from Coquitlam, B.C., to Cole Harbour, N.S., but those viewers would not see or hear the hearty rain of boos hurled at Cherry by the sellout crowd at the Igloo.

The flamboyant and controversial commentator won't be in the spotlight when the Penguins and Maple Leafs meet tonight at the Air Canada Centre -- it's not a Hockey Night game -- but the reason Pittsburgh's fans passionately object to Cherry will be front and centre.

Sidney Crosby, the No. 1 National Hockey League draft pick from Nova Scotia, plays his first games in Canada as a professional this week, in Toronto and tomorrow in Montreal against the Canadiens. Family and friends are flocking to both sites.

He arrives in his homeland as the NHL's second leading rookie scorer, with 19 goals and 23 assists in 37 games. Since the Penguins' new head coach, Michel Therrien, moved the natural centre to his preferred position from the wing, he has exploded for six goals and four assists in the past five games, including the overtime winner against the New York Rangers on New Year's Eve.

The upside to a trip to Toronto -- widely considered the epicentre among NHL cities -- is it guarantees enormous exposure. In an unusual move, the Penguins will bring their entire media-relations staff in order to handle the crush expected for Crosby.

The less desirable side is that a Toronto stop often raises controversies, often exaggerated, and, in this case, fuelled by Cherry's national show Coach's Corner.

"There's a lot of controversy with everything you do in Toronto," Therrien said last week in response to a question from a Toronto reporter about Crosby being appointed as an alternate captain. "There was no controversy in Pittsburgh. Eventually, this is going to be Sidney's team. I'm not afraid to say it."

Over the past month, Cherry, who has never met Crosby, has accused the talented rookie of "diving" and being "yappy," of backing the firing of coach Eddie Olczyk and of not deserving the A on his sweater, which Therrien awarded to the rookie when he took over the team two weeks ago.

But Cherry's grudge has simmered for more than year, sprouting from his dislike for a lacrosse-style goal Crosby scored in junior with the Rimouski Océanic.

On Coach's Corner, Cherry called Crosby a hot dog, saying he embarrassed the goaltender on the play. Cherry's comments enraged the entire province of Nova Scotia, as he was seen to be picking on a 16-year-old boy for being exuberant.

"I've always said he was a good hockey player," Cherry said in an interview last week. "In fact, he's going to be a great hockey player. But my problem is that he showed up that goalie. You get a reputation like that."

The only legitimate reputation Crosby has amassed to those who see him game in and out is as an exceptional, hard-working young player who can win big games and handles himself off the ice like a 20-year veteran.

On Nov. 16, in a game against the Philadelphia Flyers, Derian Hatcher broke two of Crosby's teeth with his stick. After receiving four stitches to close a gash in his lip, Crosby was shoved by Hatcher again. Crosby complained to officials and was called for unsportsmanlike conduct.

Later in the game, Crosby sparked a Penguins rally with an assist and a goal and then scored the overtime game winner on a breakaway.

After the game, Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock called Crosby a "diver" and so did star Peter Forsberg. The Philadelphia media weighed in similarly and soon others, such as the Buffalo Sabres' announcers, repeated the line when the Penguins visited the Sabres.

"Now, Ken Hitchcock said the same thing I did," Cherry said. "Buffalo said the same thing I did. Forsberg said the same thing I said. So that's not too bad [company].

"Look, I've got nothing against the kid. He just can't act the way he acts. He can't be yapping at the referees. You just don't do that when you're 18 years old."

Crosby has taken the comments in stride. He did a live Hockey Night interview between periods during the Leafs game and was polite and tempered when asked about Cherry.

"It's fine," Crosby said. "He's there every Saturday night. He's always been opinionated. I always watch Saturday night to see what he's going to say. In my case, he's mentioned my name [in] probably not the best of ways. Everyone's entitled to their opinion.

"He's a hockey analyst. When guys watch hockey, everyone sees things different ways. He has his viewpoints. They're his opinions. That's fine. If he thinks those things, then he's entitled to that. I think that everyone can form their own opinions from watching."

Cherry, who coached the Boston Bruins for five seasons and took them to the Stanley Cup final twice, is known for his dislike of European-style hockey. His comments in 2004 that visors are most popular among "Europeans and French guys," players he said were "turning into sucks," prompted an outcry in Quebec, an investigation by the Canada's Officials Languages Commission and the implementation of a seven-second delay by the CBC, a measure the broadcaster abandoned this season.

Many in the Quebec media have accused Cherry of being racist and a xenophobe. And yet, he was voted among the CBC's top 10 greatest Canadians, taking his place among prime ministers and inventors. Few have a pulpit with reach and volume like Cherry, whose opinion is impossible to budge once formed.

"An 18-year-old kid?" he said when asked about the alternate captaincy. "Give me a break. What do you think Lyle Odelein thinks? What do you think [John] LeClair and [Mark] Recchi think?"

But before the Leafs game, Recchi, the 17-year veteran, said there were no hard feelings about the promotion.

"We've got a young bunch of guys here," he said. "He's the future of our hockey club. To take that step, that's fine. It's not a big issue in our locker room. He's eventually going to carry the torch for this team in terms of leadership and everything. Michel wanted to put the responsibility on him. It's a big step, but it's a process he's been going through."

Crosby has handled the criticism with a cool head and adult perspective atypical of a teenager.

"I'm sure he's not the only guy who's criticized me, but that stuff happens," he said. "Everyone's not going to have a great opinion or a nice opinion of you no matter what you do. So, it's the same way whether it's something good or something bad. You take it in stride.

"People are allowed to have their opinions. We have to respect that. The only opinions I care about are the ones from the guys in this room."

Tracking the top rookies

Alexander Ovechkin The Capitals left winger has 23 goals, 21 assists and 44 points in 36 games. He's on pace to register 100 points.

Sidney Crosby The Penguins centre has 19 goals, 23 assists and 42 points in 37 games. Crosby's on pace for 93 points, but may do better now that he's been returned to his natural centre position.

Henrik Lundqvist The Rangers goaltender gave up goals to Crosby and Ovechkin in December losses. The 23-year-old Swede has a 14-5 record, a 2.19 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage.

Dion Phaneuf The Flames blueliner is tops among rookie defencemen with nine goals, 14 assists and 23 points in 39 games.

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