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'Even with Mario, it was never like this' As Sidney Crosby's grasp of French grows, his fan base does too, SHAWNA RICHER reports

As Sidney Crosby's grasp of French grows, his fan base does too, SHAWNA RICHER reports


Several hundred people pressed against a metal gate, crowded deep around the Pittsburgh Penguins bus parked inside the bowels of the Bell Centre. Dozens more spilled onto the sidewalk, oblivious to the cold.

Close by but hidden from view, Sidney Crosby visited with his parents and little sister, chatting until it was time to leave. An hour had passed since the game ended but not one fan had budged, and so Mr. Crosby, in long, dark wool coat and flanked by two Penguins staff members, was whisked down a hallway, through a side door and out an exit no one could see.

Moments later, the bus rumbled to life and a mixture of cries and sighs erupted from the crowd. In the middle of the pack, a teenage girl squealed and frantically waved a cardboard sign at the disappearing vehicle. It read: Je t'adore #87.

Mr. Crosby, who is from Cole Harbour, N.S., and played two seasons with the Rimouski Oceanic of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, has been embraced by francophone hockey fans as if he were their own. In many ways he is.

While living in Rimouski, a remote and almost wholly French town of 40,000 on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River 300 kilometres east of Quebec City, Mr. Crosby, who knew no French when he arrived, learned to speak the language.

If his two trips to Montreal this season are foreshadowing, he may one day capture the hearts of anglophone and francophone hockey fans in equal measure, something Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux never quite accomplished.

"Ultimately, if you are French, if you want to move on to the National Hockey League you're going to need English," said Mr. Crosby, who speaks solid, albeit uncomplicated, French but practices constantly to keep improving. "And if you are English, having French is a good thing. It gives you something extra to have both."

Saturday's stealth exit was a forgivable move by the Penguins. They witnessed the commotion the teenage hockey star caused the last time they played in the most passionate of NHL cities.

The Penguins practised that frigid January afternoon at a junior rink in suburban Verdun and word got around.

Mr. Crosby and Tom McMillan, the team's vice-president of communications, whose responsibility it was to usher the rookie along safely and swiftly, emerged from the dressing room to a crush of dozens of young boys, their fathers and shrieking girls.

When they finally reached the door, at least a hundred more waited outside. It took him 15 minutes to travel as many metres. By the time he escaped onto the bus, Mr. McMillan, as slim as Mr. Crosby is sturdy, had been swept up in a wave and flattened against it.

"Even with Mario, it was never like this," Mr. McMillan said.

"For a non-French player to cause such a reaction in Montreal is really unbelievable."

Unlike Eric Lindros, who enraged Quebeckers when he refused to report to the Nordiques after being drafted No. 1 overall by the club in 1991, Mr. Crosby and a handful of other anglophone players from the Maritimes, including Tampa Bay Lightning star Brad Richards, immersed themselves in Rimouski's francophone culture, delighting locals.

"I thought it was the right thing to do in a place where everyone else is French," Mr. Crosby said. "I kind of spoke a little, a word here and there my first year. But by my second year, one night instead of doing my post-game interview in English, when he asked me the question in English I answered in French. Everyone was kind of surprised, but after that I would always do my interviews in French."

When Mr. Lemieux was drafted No. 1 overall by the Penguins in 1984, he was a shy francophone kid who arrived in the Steel City without a word of English.

"It was tougher for me when I was first here," Mr. Lemieux said. "I didn't speak the language. I was a little bit shy. He's very mature. He makes a few phone calls in French on the way home. He's very good at French."

Renaud Lavoie, a reporter with RDS, the French-language sports network, said he is amazed at how quickly Mr. Crosby learned French and that he continued to practice.

"He knows it's important for his hockey career," Mr. Lavoie said. "He is going to be captain of Team Canada one day and for him to be able to speak both official languages of his country is incredible.

"In Canada, there are a lot of people in French Canada who love Mario Lemieux and a lot of people in English Canada who love Wayne Gretzky. There's some crossover, but Gretzky was never totally embraced in Quebec because he didn't speak French. Sidney is going to be the next Jean Beliveau. It is amazing that he does this."

Mr. Crosby only knew how to say hello when he arrived in Rimouski in 2003. His billet host, Christian Bouchard, helped him with French and he and his roommate, Eric Neilson of New Brunswick, practised on each other.

"We would have a rule where at the dinner table you could only speak French," Mr. Crosby said. "At first it could be interesting, a little frustrating. But eventually I got to where I could carry on a conversation and say most of what I needed to say. I used it around the town and people were really good about helping me along. It's a big deal there to do it, and it means a lot to people."

He practices French with his teammates -- the Penguins have had eight francophone players on their roster this season.

"The fact that he's an English guy who made the effort to learn French is huge," said goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury of Sorel, Que., one of Mr. Crosby's closest friends on the team and someone he counts on to keep him sharp.

"Salut mon chum" is how they greet each other, though they often resort to humorous, unprintable phrases instead.

"You always learn the bad words first," Mr. Crosby laughed. "I could tell you, but you can't print them."

So how does he do?

"It's not bad. He knows a lot of words, a lot of slang," Mr. Fleury said.

"It's great for him and will help him, because he played, too, in Quebec. He has become such a big star for the English people, but is also a big star for the French people."

So big he couldn't even go out for dinner this past weekend with his family at the risk of being mobbed.

"I'm not surprised because he's had a huge impact especially in Canada," said Michel Therrien, the Penguins coach who is from Montreal and spent three seasons at the helm of the Habs. "I heard there were a lot of things like this with Mario, but this seems so unique. I had never seen something quite like this. It's really very special."

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