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Reflection trumps relaxation

PITTSBURGH

Hockey sweaters were shucked and shin pads placed aside, revealing so much sun-kissed skin in the Pittsburgh Penguins dressing room as the National Hockey League resumed play this week.

Goaltender Marc-André Fleury's flexible frame was the colour of honey. Defenceman Rick Jackman's chest was sunburned. Even fair-skinned forward Colby Armstrong sported a reddish nose.

Across the room, teenaged star Sidney Crosby wore the winter-white complexion of someone who spent the Olympic break in chillier climates. He shunned tagging along to Jamaica with teammates in favour of a week split between his home in Cole Harbour, N.S., and Rimouski, Que., where he played junior hockey the past two seasons.

For Mr. Crosby, whose NHL rookie season has been terrific in personal achievements but darkly dissatisfying by team standards, outdoor shinny with pals in -34 temperatures was the balm.

The Penguins are in last place over all with a 14-35-11 record and on pace to end with 19 wins -- one more than in 1982-83, their second-most-losing season. But given expectations, this may be the club's most disappointing campaign on record.

In a parallel universe in Rimouski, the Oceanic are in last place in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Last year, when Mr. Crosby was the team, the team went all the way to the Memorial Cup.

Mr. Crosby's friend, assistant coach Donald Dufresne, invited the club's most celebrated alumnus to talk to his former team about the struggle of losing and how to overcome it. Part pep talk, part counselling session, Mr. Crosby also found it helpful.

"It was like a big [self-]help group," he said with a knowing smile.

"It was funny, because all the things I was trying to tell them are what I've been trying to tell myself all year. It just made me realize a lot of things happen in a season and you can't always win. To go back there, you realize really how far you've come. Some guys there are wanting so bad to be drafted, and it's even tougher for them to have a season like that. And you realize you could be losing there or losing in the NHL. It puts things in perspective."

He spent hours hanging with close friend Mark Tobin, a 20-year-old, hulking Oceanic left winger and Tampa Bay Lightning prospect from St. John's.

"It was good to talk to someone who is going through the same thing, who can relate," Mr. Crosby said. "We all feel the same thing when we don't win, when things don't go right."

The Penguins' sorrowful season has tested Mr. Crosby's innate optimism.

He was tagged a diver by the Philadelphia Flyers, a hot dog by Don Cherry. He lost his first coach when Eddie Olczyk was fired and his linemate Ziggy Palffy left. His mentor, Mario Lemieux, retired and is recovering from surgery to repair his irregular heartbeat. Titanic ups and down for a teenager, but observers say he has weathered it well.

"The expectations for him were so high, probably unfairly so," said John Muckler, the Ottawa Senators general manager who won five Stanley Cups as an assistant or head coach with the Edmonton Oilers in the eighties. "He's had an exceptional year for an 18-year-old player.

"He put a lot of pressure on himself. He came in with the expectation he was going to carry this hockey club, and good for him. You've got to respect that. But it's the NHL and you're going to find out the hard way it's going to be difficult. And he's learned to handle that, accomplished it very well."

Arguably the most personal blow came three days before Christmas, when Mr. Crosby was snubbed for the men's Canadian Olympic team. The squad was bounced from Turin early by the Russians; Mr. Crosby's rival, rookie Alexander Ovechkin, scored the game-winning goal.

"The big ice would be an advantage for a guy like him," said his Penguins teammate Sergei Gonchar, who played for Russia. "He has great speed, great vision. He has the skills and it would be a great advantage for him to play. His style fits this game perfectly."

In an interview with NBC's Bob Costas after Canada's shocking shutout loss, Wayne Gretzky defended his decision to leave Mr. Crosby, among the top five Canadian scoring leaders, off the team.

"Sidney Crosby is going to get his chance, and he's a phenomenal young player," said the Team Canada executive director.

"I mean this with great respect, you take a player like [Alexander] Ovechkin; he's 20 years old. Sidney is 18. Two years is a huge difference. Experience and everything goes with that, we quite honestly thought: 'Why put Sidney in this position?' We know in [2010] he's going to be one of the leaders and maybe even the captain of this hockey club."

Mr. Crosby said he got over it, even as the loss caused many Canadians to cry: "Where was Sidney?"

"I think I got past that point," he said. "The first game, I was wishing I was there, but once the first game was over, I realized I wasn't going to be part of it and just became more of a fan, watching it, and just pulling for them. It was tough to see them go out like that."

He would not criticize Mr. Gretzky's decision. He knows he will get his chance in four years.

"I don't think I asked that of myself [if I could make a difference]," he said. "I knew I wasn't going to be there. I would have loved to have tried to have helped, to be a part of it, but it is way too hard to tell when the level of play is so high. I don't think it's right to question. I'm not going to put myself in a situation I'm not in. But I would have loved to have been there."

He has seemed more content in recent days, looking refreshed on the ice in practice and the Penguins first game, another loss, to the Ottawa Senators.

There remain just 22 games in Mr. Crosby's rookie season; he has 65 points, six behind Mr. Ovechkin. He says he is not worried about winning the Calder Trophy as the year's top rookie, but those close to him say he is too competitive, too proud, not to desire it.

He hopes to play in the IIHF World Championship, in Riga, Latvia, in May and most likely will be invited. The team is made up of players not involved in the NHL playoffs. Canada last won gold in 2004 and placed second to the Czech Republic last year in Vienna.

"I'd love to go if I'm asked," he said. "It's going to be tough not being in the playoffs, but I just want to keep playing hockey as long as I can."

And in Rimouski two weeks ago, Mr. Crosby play-acted at something he hopes to come closer to achieving next season.

The Oceanic's Mr. Dufresne has an outdoor rink, and as they have for the past several winters, Mr. Crosby and his friends competed for their own, private Stanley Cup in the Quebec countryside.

He and Mr. Tobin fashioned the trophy out of a small garbage can and a bowl, adding the winner's name each year with a label maker.

Who hoisted it this time?

"I did," Mr. Crosby said with an impish giggle. "I always do."

HOT ROOKIES

Alexander Ovechkin: Winger has 71 points (38 goals, 33 assists), but lowly Capitals will miss the playoffs.

Sidney Crosby: Centre has 65 points (28 goals, 37 assists), but Penguins could finish last over all.

Dion Phaneuf: Flames defenceman has 37 points (14 goals, 23 assists) as Calgary sits atop the Northwest Division.

Henrik Lundqvist: Goalie now has Olympic gold and a 25-7 record in the NHL. Rangers lead the Atlantic Division.

Includes games through March 2

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