For who he is, and what he does, and where he comes from, the moment couldn't have been bigger. Because once in a very great while -- more rarely than we are led to believe -- sport becomes about something beyond wins, losses and whatever is meant by the phrase, "triumph of the human spirit". Once in a great while, an athlete or team becomes a vessel not just for a city or region but for the bone-deep need of tens of millions. Then money doesn't matter. Then ads and sponsors and owners and agents don't matter. There is just the game, the team, the man and the public. There is the nation feeling better, feeling the best, feeling redeemed.
This is an absurd notion, of course, to those who think that only an orator's word can crystallize people's hopes and only the political act can make them real. Pity such blinkered souls. If they weren't equipped to understand the elation that hit the United States after its hockey team beat the Soviet Union and won the 1980 Olympic gold medal, that hit France after Les Bleus won the 1998 World Cup, they have no chance of grasping the import of Sidney Crosby's gold-medal-winning, overtime goal to beat Team USA in the 2010 Olympic hockey final. If only for sealing the nation's first home-soil Olympic hockey championship, justifying a lifetime of hype and reaffirming Canada as the premiere power in the game it invented, Crosby, the Pittsburgh Penguins center, deserves to be named the 2010 Sportsman of the Year.
"We're probably the best curling nation in the world, we've got incredible speedskaters, we've got a great skeleton team," says Andrew Podnieks, author of "A Canadian Saturday Night: Hockey and the Culture of a Country." "But when you go from British Columbia to Manitoba to Northern Ontario to the Maritimes, people can't name athletes from those sports the way they can name Sidney Crosby. There's a reason for that. We watch hockey night in Canada every Saturday night. Nothing binds the country -- not only coast to coast, but week by week -- the way hockey does."
Still, the impact of Crosby's golden goal traveled well beyond the rink. It also served as the electrifying climax of one of sport's greatest and most unusual comebacks, one so dumbfoundingly storybook that it had to be preordained, one achieved not by an individual or team or franchise, but an entire nation. Because halfway through, the 2010 Vancouver Games felt like disaster. After the opening ceremony was blackened by the on-course death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili -- and a mealymouthed response by local organizers and the IOC -- ticket snafus and a lack of snow made Canada's whole operation seem starcrossed. Meanwhile, the host nation's official, if uncharacteristic, vow to "Own The Podium" and win the overall medal count backfired amid a parade of underwhelming performances, including an early 5-3 loss by the men's hockey team to the Americans; Vancouver organizers, the host city, Canada's Olympians, and the national Olympic Committee all came under fire. Canada's Winter Games were shaping up to be a sad joke.
Then, in the final week, came a sudden flurry of gold medals by Canadian lugers and speedskaters -- all very nice, all very Canadian and consoling but meaningless without what happened next: A 7-3 win over Russia and Alex Ovechkin in the quarterfinals, a sudden feeling that gold was possible. Crosby was by no means the star yet; indeed, he wasn't playing particularly well. But as someone who had been tabbed "The Next One", as the phenom who had been tapped as the latest in the line of Canadian greats, as "The Kid" who had already captained a Stanley Cup winner at the record age of 21, he also knew that the game had a way of coming to him.
It's a rare trait for someone so young. But Crosby has long had that old-soul quality about him, which helps explain why purists and older men gravitate to his game while the teens gasp and gape at Ovechkin's pyrotechnics. Crosby seldom puts a foot or a word wrong and, indeed, the most common knock on him boils down to a vague discomfort with his style: He's too clean-cut, too careful; he always says the right, if mostly cliched, things. For fans who like their hockey wild and woolly, he'll never be their cup of Molson.
Yet to spend any time with Crosby is to understand that, when cornered, he can laugh, cry, and make his feelings known as honestly as anyone. He wept when he returned home to Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, with the Stanley Cup, and he was eloquent in describing hockey's hold. "I saw a six-year old kid clapping and going nuts when the Cup was going by and then I remember seeing a 90-year-old lady sitting under an umbrella doing the exact same thing," he said then. "That right there said it all: From the youngest kid dreaming and wanting to play to a lady who's still following it to this day -- maybe because her brother played or because -- who knows? -- maybe she played herself. Everyone has a connection to hockey. That's what we love and are crazy about."
Yes, he takes his public role seriously and, yes, his game is predicated more on precision, patience and responsibility than highlight hits and goals. He does deliver his most banal quotes after an incline of the head and tightening of the lips -- as if engaged in a painstaking chore -- and in a reality-show world it's easy to misconstrue such adult fare as dull or insincere. But TV reality isn't Crosby's thing, and neither is irony; he turned down David Letterman after the Olympics. He doesn't always say what he thinks, but what he says he means.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that you want to grab," he said before the Olympics. "You want to enjoy it, but you want to grab it. I feel pretty fortunate to have this timing, to be playing in the NHL when the Olympics are in Canada. This is a great opportunity. That's the way I've looked at it: Make sure you're there, and make sure you make the most of it."
Still, what critics usually miss about Crosby is what was there for all the world to see that Sunday in February: That he comes alive on the ice, that he speaks far better with his game than his mouth, that he knows how to find and seize his chance, how to play more coolly, than anyone alive.
Because after Canada saw its 2-0 lead disappear, after American Zach Parise buried the puck past Canada goalie Roberto Luongo with 24.4 seconds left in regulation, a nation sagged; all momentum had turned the dreaded Yanks' way. You could sense Team Canada growing panicked, could sense the heartbreak heading Vancouver's way...and then Crosby broke forward with the puck, dropped a simple give-and-go to Jerome Iginla and bolted for the goal. "Iggy!" he barked, and Iginla laid in the pass and Crosby, 7 minutes and 40 seconds into overtime, saw his opportunity --once-in-a-lifetime -- and grabbed it.
Crosby hadn't felt the pressure, not the way his teammates had. The crowd? The press? All that weight, all that polite Canadian need, bearing down on him? It never seemed heavy. All along, he figured, they were in it together. "Yes, there's high expectations," Crosby said. "But every one of those people watching is with you, hoping for the best. They're not looking for you to fail. They want it just as bad as you do. That's why it's tough when it doesn't happen; they feel it just as much as any guy on the ice would. They're going the whole way with you: That's the connection."
He cracked the puck between Ryan Miller's legs. Horns. Bedlam. Men crying. Crosby roared; his teammates piled on top of him. The streets filled, all over the country. Patience and responsibility: He had waited for his moment, and when it came Crosby was ready. Canada won its 14th gold medal, more than any nation in Winter Olympic history, and he -- all of 22 years old -- was responsible. Because he knew. It could not have ended any other way.