Major League Baseball crawled out of the swamp of public opprobrium after the 1994 strike with the help of home runs and the men hitting them in the magical summer of 1998, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. When (and perhaps if) the NHL lockout finally ends, an explosion of raw offense isn't likely to rekindle interest in the league--but a personality might. This is an unfair burden to place on a 17-year-old, but Sidney Crosby seems ready for practically anything. A year ago in Helsinki he became the youngest Canadian player ever to score a goal in the World Junior Championship. Through Sunday, Crosby, the most fabulous talent to emerge since Eric Lindros 14 years ago, had six goals and two assists in Team Canada's five-game march to the finals in Grand Forks, N.Dak. (Canada was to take on Russia for the gold medal on Tuesday.)
In an event customarily dominated by 19-year-olds, the precocious Crosby ranked sixth in scoring while buzzing on a line with Patrice Bergeron of the Boston Bruins and Corey Perry of the junior London (Ont.) Knights. Crosby demonstrated all the attributes that Wayne Gretzky saw a year and a half ago when the Great One anointed him a possible successor: the hockey IQ that allowed him to work cute backdoor plays with Bergeron on Canada's lethal power play, wondrous creativity and surprising speed and strength. The era that fostered Gretzky and Mario Lemieux is gone--Gretzky's 92 goals in 1981--82 now seem even more surreal with passing years--but no player since has been as bred for stardom as this polished forward with thick hockey haunches and a quick hockey mind.
Last week the only thing that seemed to throw Crosby was a question. Asked by a Canadian TV reporter about crossing a picket line if the NHL ultimately uses replacement players--he will be the No. 1 draft pick in June, if there is a draft--Crosby said, "I think if I do have the opportunity, I would probably go." The next day he was furiously backchecking against himself, saying he had always dreamed of playing in the NHL but a league without the best players would hardly be the NHL. The firestorm quickly subsided. If the rarely impolitic Gretzky could call New Jersey a "Mickey Mouse operation" two decades ago (the Devils have since won three Stanley Cups), hockey's teenage hope can take a mulligan. --Michael Farber