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Groaning pains afflict a passionate sportsman Sidney Crosby aims to keep his aggressive style while toning down his arguments with referees, SHAWNA RICHER writes

Sidney Crosby aims to keep his aggressive style while toning down his arguments with referees, SHAWNA RICHER writes


In the visitor's dressing room at the United Center after a weekend game, Sidney Crosby sported a fat, tender lip, not the first of his rookie National Hockey League season and, he glumly agreed, not likely his last.

A Blackhawks defender elbowed him hard in the chops on a surge to the net. No penalty was called. He was not surprised. And in a new approach to things, he did not argue for one.

This is the Pittsburgh Penguins centre's latest challenge in navigating his first professional season, and it's a perplexing problem more suited to a philosopher than a hockey player: How at once does a man change yet find a way to stay the same?

Mr. Crosby recently realized that the aggressive and uber-competitive style that made him the consensus No. 1 choice in the NHL entry draft hasn't earned any breaks from referees, on calls and non-calls both for and against him. He's learning his reflex to object can hurt his team, which is struggling with just 11 wins, second fewest in the league, entering last night.

Mr. Crosby, who is just 18 and leads the Penguins in penalties with 64 minutes, must reconcile keeping quiet with a refusal to mute the feisty manner of play that makes him successful.

"You go through tough times sometimes," he said. "It's never a smooth ride. I'm learning as I go and I still have a lot to learn. It doesn't happen overnight. But I've always played an aggressive game and I'm not going to change that. It's what's made me successful, to be emotional and passionate and driving. I'm not going to change."

And Bruce Hood, widely considered the game's top referee when he retired in 1984 after 21 seasons, says the emerging superstar shouldn't -- that officials are ignoring many of the cross-checks, high sticks and interference Mr. Crosby puts up with nightly.

"I get incensed at a player of Sidney's talent being put through so much abuse," Mr. Hood said in an interview. "The referees are supposed to be there to protect him. But they see so much physical activity against him and he continues to sparkle. They lose sight of the fact there are serious infractions on him. It's sickening. Maybe there is a tendency for some officials to not call something obvious to show they are not intimidated by a tremendous young hockey player."

The situation boiled over in a two-game series with Atlanta earlier this month. The first night, Mr. Crosby was cross-checked hard into the boards in the first period by Thrashers star Ilya Kovalchuk and no penalty was assessed. In retaliation, he slashed Mr. Kovalchuk and was called. They exchanged words and whacks and, later, with Mr. Crosby in the penalty box, the Russian sniper scored to bolster a runaway lead and then pointed his glove dramatically at Mr. Crosby. There was no mistaking the gesture's intent to taunt and humiliate.

Afterward Mr. Kovalchuk was smug: "He takes those stupid penalties all the time. He's an 18-year-old kid and he can't play like this."

The next night, Mr. Crosby was hooked down on a breakaway by Niclas Havelid -- a replay showed a stick in the rookie's face -- and called for diving. Livid, he skated to the box, hurled his stick into the corner, and pleaded with the official, who slapped him with unsportsmanlike conduct.

Mr. Crosby, spent eight minutes in the box that night. After the game he seemed stung, as if his character had been called into question. Diving, exaggerating a fall after a hook, is the most demeaning call because it suggests disrespect for the game.

"I just have to keep my head down and play," he said that night. "If I get calls, just suck it up and go. Obviously there's not much leniency. I can't talk to them."

When he arrived home to Mario Lemieux's house, the pair talked it over.

"He has the passion to be successful," Mr. Lemieux said. "That's a great thing to have. But you have to control your emotions. I know it's not easy. Every time he has the puck he's getting hooked and grabbed. But it's always better to make [officials] your friends."

The next day Mr. Crosby was more reflective.

"I'm emotional when I play but I can control whether I argue something," he said. "Sitting in the penalty box is tough. You're putting your team down. Being [alternate] captain, I want to lead by example and sitting in the penalty box is in no way leading.

"I'm not going to change who I am because of that, but maybe there's a little more responsibility because I'm looked on as a role model and I take that very seriously. But I'm not going to change."

Stephen Walkom, NHL director of officiating who oversees the league's 77 referees and linesmen, said Mr. Hood's view "is ridiculous."

"No official would allow things to happen intentionally to any player," he said. "It's blown out of proportion because [Mr. Crosby] is such a great player. Any time anything happens to him it's noticeable. All players in the game have emotion and at some point interact with officials. Some of the best players are the most emotional. I think our guys as a whole really respect Sidney Crosby and the talent he is.

"Over time he's going to build up an excellent rapport with officials because he's a great guy."

But Mr. Walkom said highsticking should have been called in the infamous Nov. 16 game in Philadelphia in which Mr. Crosby's lip was cut and teeth broken by Derian Hatcher's stick.

"When a high stick happens, no official on the planet wants to miss that," he said. "It's certainly not intentional. When they do miss a call no one feels worse, especially when it involves a player being injured or a goal being scored."

Mr. Crosby was given an unsportsmanlike call in that game when he asked officials to call highsticking, prompting the Flyers and Philadelphia media to label him a "diver" and a "yapper." Even Don Cherry urged him to stop talking to officials.

Mr. Crosby said since receiving the alternate captaincy last month, which gives him the right to talk to referees, he has tried to talk less.

Mr. Hood said the rookie's experiences mirror a young Mr. Gretzky's.

"Gretzky was deemed a whiner because he was always talking to officials," he said. "But if you have any kind of courage in your body at all you speak up."

Entering last night's game against the Nashville Predators, Mr. Crosby is second among rookies with 21 goals and 28 assists for 49 points. In his first 10 games under coach Michel Therrien, he piled them up at his best pace, eight goals and nine assists, before registering just one assist in the past three games, after publicized struggles with officials.

He insisted it wasn't bothering him. Mr. Therrien said his star player shouldn't change a thing.

"Sidney plays with a lot of pride," Mr. Therrien said. "He plays with a lot of emotion. This is what makes Sidney Crosby. We're proud of him because he's one of the best players in the NHL because he plays with emotion. We want him to be aggressive. Why would we want him to change?"

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