This prodigy business isn't fair. Mozart got to play the courts of 18th-century Vienna and Paris and Munich while Sidney Crosby gets the cold arenas of 21st-century Drummondville, Que., and Bathurst, New Brunswick, and Lewiston, Maine. And while Mozart probably never had to carry anything heavier than sheet music, Crosby has to lug his equipment bag full of sweat-soaked gear as he travels the junior hockey hinterland.
You might have heard this said about some other player before, but here goes: Crosby is The Next One. However, you've never heard it from such an authority as The Great One. The 16-year-old center with the tousled black hair and half-smile has been tapped on the shoulder by Wayne Gretzky and told, in effect, Tag! You're it! When asked last summer by The Arizona Republic if a player might one day break some of his NHL scoring records, Gretzky said, "Yes, Sidney Crosby. He's the best player I've seen since Mario [Lemieux]." The anointment was stunning, like Jack Nicklaus's declaration that a 20-year-old Tiger Woods would go on to win more Masters than he and Arnold Palmer combined.
"I was honored Wayne said that," says Troy Crosby, Sidney's father. "It's an honor that he even knows who Sidney is."
Although he won't be eligible for the NHL draft until 2005, Crosby has been on the radar in Canada since his formative years in Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia. He was interviewed by a newspaper reporter for the first time at age seven. He was featured on a segment of CBC's Hockey Day in Canada when he was 14. Crosby has been playing against older boys since he was six, and on every team at every level he has put up numbers reminiscent of the days when The Great One and Lemieux were playing wild, wide-open hockey as kids.
November 10, 2003
In 2002-03 he spent his sophomore year at Shattuck-St. Mary's, a prep school in Faribault, Minn., which is to high school hockey what Harvard is to law school. Then, after scoring 72 goals in 57 games, he left to play in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) and was selected first in the midget draft, by the Rimouski Oceanic, in June. The rumors about Crosby's deal spread like crabgrass. As a 16-year-old rookie he is entitled to the standard $35 per week plus room and board, but there's been a vague whisper that Rimouski is clandestinely paying him $150,000 and has given him an attendance clause in his contract. Troy Crosby and Pat Brisson, Sidney's agent at IMG since June, say they have an agreement with the Oceanic that covers the cost of Sidney's college education only if he chooses to go but insist there is no payment and no attendance clause. That is a pity considering that Rimouski, which was an 11-58-3 doormat that played to many half-empty houses last season, has been a big draw in every arena in its first 21 matches through Sunday. On Oct. 16, when Crosby played his first junior game in Nova Scotia, there were 10,189 fans at the Metro Centre in Halifax, 4,000 more than usual. The next night a crowd of 4,574 (including about 400 standing-room-only fans) greeted him in Sydney, Nova Scotia.
"I realize a lot of guys have been tagged with that 'next great player' thing," says Crosby, who is 5'10" and 185 pounds. "Some have gone on to be great players, some have fallen. I don't want to be one of the guys who disappears. I remind myself of that every day. For Wayne to say what he did and sound confident in the words, I'm not disappointed at all. If that's his opinion, why not share it? I'm flattered, but at the same time I have a long way to go."
The burden of being The Next One was a great weight on the last junior player to stir up such a fuss, Eric Lindros. Crosby has been handling it well to this point. He greets the daily interviews with a mix of engagement and caution, always maintaining eye contact and cordially giving answers but not saying much. Crosby knows the drill. He has been schooled by a brief lifetime of watching between-period interviews on Hockey Night in Canada and by two media-training classes that IMG arranged for him the last two summers. He always talks about team goals and shared success. He even dresses in a shirt and tie when he goes to the rink because he remembers New York Rangers general manager Glen Sather saying that if you dress well, you play well. In his good-of-the-game manner, he is uncannily like Gretzky, with whom he scrimmaged on the last day of an IMG prospects camp in Los Angeles in the summer of 2002.
In a league in which 19- and 20-year-olds usually dominate and rookies are often grateful for a few shifts a game, Crosby led the QMJHL with 19 goals and 26 assists through Sunday. He had at least one point in all but two of Rimouski's 21 games and had been named the league's offensive player of the week twice. Crosby's on pace to break the league record for most points by a 16-year-old, 125, which was set by Norm Dupont in 1973-74.
If Gretzky got his start on his father Walter's backyard rink,
Crosby had Troy's 22-by-15-foot basement floor. Troy painted it
white, added a red line and a blue line and a regulation
four-by-six-foot net. Sidney, who started skating when he was
three, was always first-team all-cellar, too good even for his
goalie father, who was a 12th-round draft pick of the Montreal Canadiens in 1984. (He never made it to the NHL.) Troy retired
from the home basement games when Sidney was nine, because the boy's slappers were leaving him bruised. "He was killing me,"
says Troy. "I told him, 'You don't need a goalie, just shoot at the net.'"
Troy, a facilities manager for a law firm, put up extra netting behind the goal to protect the basement appliances, but Sidney's shots that missed to the left kept dinging the dryer, which miraculously still works even though it's streaked with puck marks and all the knobs were knocked off. It looks like a piece of junk, but if Crosby breaks any of Gretzky's records, it will be an heirloom.
Dryers aside, no one in the NHL considers the talk about Crosby hot air. He is shifty, fearless and shockingly strong on his skates, but his top attribute might be a remarkable hockey IQ. Crosby's best play in his Halifax homecoming came not while creating both goals in a 2-1 Rimouski win but by backchecking ferociously to strip a streaking Petr Vrana of the puck in the third period. Crosby, a lefthanded shot, used a maneuver called the can opener on the New Jersey Devils' 2003 second-round draft choice. He stuck his stick under Vrana's right armpit, then whacked him on the inside of his left elbow, freeing the puck. That would be a big-time NHL play because, other than Peter Forsberg of the Colorado Avalanche, few big-time NHL players do it with such ease.
Less than 48 hours later Crosby opened some more eyes with a five-point game against Acadie-Bathurst. On one play he swerved to the middle in the offensive zone and then 1) faked a pass that induced the defenseman to drop to the ice; 2) slid the puck under the defenseman as that player went down; 3) hurdled the blueliner without breaking stride; 4) regained control of the puck in the slot; and 5) wheeled to his right while snapping a wrist shot for his second goal. The stunned Bathurst crowd of 3,524 went silent. Suddenly, there was the sound of two hands clapping. A few others joined in, and then more. This was no frenzy--just light rhythmic applause from fans who had been struck by the realization that they had witnessed perhaps the most remarkable goal they are likely to see in their lifetime.
"He's a unique player who makes plays at both ends of the rink," says San Jose Sharks director of amateur scouting Tim Burke, who has watched Crosby at least 10 times. "Coming up-ice, most players, even the great ones, try to get to their favorite areas so they can make plays. You usually know where they're going. They're still tough to stop, but at least they're predictable. Crosby isn't. He plays both sides of the rink and is able to feed both sides."
"He's going to be a star," says Edmonton Oilers vice president of
hockey operations Kevin Prendergast. "Sometimes he'll make a play
and you'll think it's the wrong one, then it strikes you that the
guys he's out there with are not thinking on the same high level
as he is. We need another Canadian superstar. They're hard to
Mark Tobin, a 17-year-old Oceanic left wing, began calling him
Gretz, but Crosby quickly put a halt to that. Like Gretzky, he
does wear an unusual jersey number--87, because his birth date is
8-7-87--but Crosby says with charming conviction, "I am not
Gretz." For the moment, however, he does answer to the nickname
Darryl. Tobin came up with that moniker during Rimouski's second
preseason game, when Crosby had four goals and four assists. The
dazzling offensive show did not eclipse Darryl Sittler's
NHL-record 10 points in a game, but, as Tobin says, "It was close
enough for me.
"He's a rookie, and we give him crap because of that," says
Tobin. "But we all know how special he is. We don't come right
out and say it, but in our hearts we know one day we'll be
telling our grandkids that we played with Sidney Crosby."
This season Sidney Crosby is on pace to score 150 points, which
would be the most by a 16-year-old in the Quebec Major Junior
Hockey League's 34-year history. Here is what five notable QMJHL
alums, four of whom became NHL Hall of Famers (Vincent Lecavalier
is still active), did at the same age.
YEAR PLAYER, TEAM GAMES GOALS ASSISTS POINTS
1973-74 MIKE BOSSY, Laval 68 70 48 118
1977-78 DENIS SAVARD, Montreal 72 37 79 116
1979-80 DALE HAWERCHUK, Cornwall 72 37 66 103
1981-82 MARIO LEMIEUX, Laval 64 30 66 96
1996-97 VINCENT LECAVALIER, Rimouski 64 43 60 103
"I realize a lot of guys have been tagged with that 'NEXT GREAT
PLAYER' thing," says Crosby. "I don't want to be one of the guys