It's the moment hockey's Next One was made for: a chance at a gold medal on Canadian ice—with losing not an option. Now Sidney Crosby will really find out what it's like to be the center of attention
This is an article from the Feb. 8, 2010 issue
The signs got to him first. He was ready for the official one on the right there, just as they rolled past the town limit—COLE HARBOUR, HOME OF SIDNEY CROSBY—but then they kept coming, block letters slapped up on light boards at the businesses lining Cole Harbour Road: WELCOME HOME at the Petro-Canada station, HAPPY BIRTHDAY at Kyte's Pharmasave, CONGRATS! at Chris Brothers Meats. And the thought began to rise: I didn't dream this alone. They wanted it for me too....
Still, he was doing O.K., waving and flashing that boy-band grin from the antique fire truck, one hand on the massive silver prize. Indeed, this had pretty much been the plan when, just minutes after leading Pittsburgh to the 2009 Stanley Cup championship, the Penguins' center had been the first to reserve—captain's prerogative—his day with the legendary Cup: August 7, his 22nd birthday. His jersey number (87) and salary ($8.7 million) had been famously chosen to honor the 8/7/87 arrival of Canada's Next One; it was only right—not to mention superstitious and relentlessly cute—that after fulfilling all the promise and hype, after proving himself the heir of Howe and Orr and Gretzky, Crosby would choose this day to bring the supreme token of success home to Nova Scotia.
Yet if the complaint about Sidney Crosby—voiced most emphatically by fans of his exuberant and gap-toothed archrival, Alex Ovechkin of the Capitals—is that he is too bland or corporate, it doesn't account for the rare times when Crosby's control fails him. Because now that it was happening—the plan melting into reality, the ultimate conquering-hero fantasy come true—a whelming sense of joy, sadness, nostalgia and pride seized hold. People packed in along the roadsides, waving signs they'd brought from Ontario, from Alberta, from across the nation, all whooping and smiling, and as the procession hit the center of town, the intersection of Cole Harbour Road and Forest Hills Parkway, it was as if Crosby, for the first time this day, began to understand exactly where he was.
Here was the street where he once ran on chill early mornings. Here was the neighborhood where he'd Rollerbladed to his buddies' homes. There was the pizza place that made the family dinner all those Friday nights, the Subway where he always grabbed the same cold-cut sandwich, the sports store that supplied the tape for his first sticks, the stone to sharpen his little blades. Take a right here? In two minutes he'd be at the house where his parents, Troy and Trina, struggled to pay the mortgage, to buy oil for a few months' heat—but made damn sure that Sidney had new skates each season, and cash enough to pay for the next tournament motel. In two minutes he'd be walking the same streets where, at 11 years old, he would split the paper route with his mom on dim Sunday afternoons, going three hours door-to-door to deliver the weekly shopper.
Yes, he still came back each summer, to the home he'd customized back in the country, loving how his celebrity shrank among old friends. With space to roam, no traffic or crowds, Cole Harbour boasts a rare quiet; you could always hear your feet there, crunching in snow, slapping pavement—until today. Because as the truck made the left turn onto Forest Hills, Crosby finally got a look at what lay ahead in the mile left before the parade's terminus at a recreation complex named Cole Harbour Place: tens of thousands more people, a roiling, sun-blasted sea of faces lined 10, 20 deep as far as he could see.
It looked, sounded, felt so ... different. Estimates on the crowd would later range as high as 65,000, bigger than any that had ever attended an individual's Stanley Cup party, bigger than Cole Harbour (population: 25,934), bigger than even Crosby's ability to imagine it. But it was two faces there in the hugeness—one small boy, clapping and jumping, then an old woman under an umbrella—that struck some vague chord about time and renewal and hockey's role, his role, in all that, and he felt his chest tighten. He could barely breathe. He began to cry, tried to stop, cried harder.
"Bawling my eyes out," Crosby says.
But the parade didn't end at Cup and superstar—the very picture of precocious success. Trailing just behind, a drop-top scarlet Cadillac showcased the more common hockey portrait. Trina Crosby, 44, all but grew up at a rink waiting on two older brothers who played; one of them reached college level and earned a minor league tryout that went nowhere. Troy, a goalie, got closer, just enough to taste it. The Canadiens chose him as their last pick in the 1984 draft, and he played two years in the Quebec Juniors before his career died. He was 22.
Still, he had a moment or two. Troy can still see future Pittsburgh legend Mario Lemieux, en route to shattering the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League scoring record during the 1983--84 season, rifling pucks past him, "but I stopped him on a couple breakaways too," he says. "Two in one shift."
Years later, after he had become the Penguins' co-owner and just before he became Sidney's boss, Lemieux told Troy over dinner that he remembered scoring—but not Troy stopping him. "I'm telling you, I did," Troy, 43, says. "Back in '84 there wasn't a lot of video. But I did."
Still, he never deluded himself. Asked how it felt to play against one of the game's greatest talents, Troy, now retired after years as a facilities manager at a law firm, shrugs. "I wished I was him, actually," he says. "I wished I had that: When he was 18 he had the world in front of him. He was Mario Lemieux, and I wanted to be that player."
Instead he and his wife had that player. Sidney found his skating legs at three and never knew a day of clumsiness. "When he threw a baseball it was like he was a 20-year-old, the form," Trina says. "That sounds ridiculous, I know, but when it came to motor skills, he could do everything." The lifeguard at Sidney's YMCA preschool couldn't hide her astonishment. "I've never seen a four-year-old," she told Trina, "with developed pecs before."
At seven he gave his first newspaper interview: "You have to do your best and work hard and things will happen," Sidney said. "You can make it if you try." Coaches noticed, year after year. Sidney wasn't just more talented: He loved the game, lived it harder than any teammate. "He'd call me to hang out when we were kids, and with other guys they're calling to come over and watch movies or play video games," says Mike Chiasson, 23, a goalie at Nova Scotia's Acadia University. "But with Sid you knew you were always going in his basement to play hockey, have a shootout. His passion, his hard work: That's what got him there."
Crosby had observed his parents. He remembered his dad early mornings, working out with the thought of becoming a firefighter. "I didn't see him play, but everything else he did, whether it was fixing a pipe under the house or whatever—he got it done," Sidney says. "He wasn't going to quit on it. If he told me he was going to do something, he did it; if he said, 'I'm going to bring you to practice today,' he didn't call and say, 'I can't make it.' He was always there."
The competitiveness was there too: Sidney wanted to beat his dad. Troy stepped out of the basement goal for good when the boy was eight and starting to lift the puck, left him down there alone to shoot for hours, the misses leaving the clothes dryer dented and scarred with black streaks. Troy sported a QMJHL championship ring he won with Verdun in 1985, and when the two would watch Hockey Night in Canada or the Olympics and talk about getting there someday, to Sidney that seemed too ambitious. But a QMJHL title ring? Going higher in the NHL draft than Troy did? He could see that.
Still, as Sidney kept playing up a year or two, as he tore through the Cole Harbour Timbits and Atom and Pee-Wee seasons, his name grew, and with fame came the ugly side of hockey fever. Titles were won, tournaments dominated but resentment festered: He was too good. Whoever stopped him could make a name. By the time Sidney was 11, he'd sit in the stands during tournaments while waiting for his team's turn to play, wearing shoulder pads but no sweater; too often parents, seeing the name on his jersey, had jeered him to the point of tears.
"I remember being in Pee-Wee, a guy trying to break my leg," Sidney says, swinging an imaginary stick to demonstrate. "It wasn't even during a play: I was going to a face-off, and a guy just two-handed it right at my knee—like a baseball bat."
When, at 14, Crosby ransacked Midget AAA opponents for an absurd 193 points in 74 games, his parents grew frightened. Men in the stands, frustrated at the way Crosby overshadowed their sons, would yell about breaking his neck, how he was going to get killed; come game time, Sidney found himself slashed, punched, hammered from behind. Such ugliness was one reason the family decided that he should leave the country, and at 15 he shipped out to Shattuck--St. Mary's boarding school in Faribault, Minn. His one year there—he won a 17-and-under national championship—left Trina and his little sister, Taylor, heartbroken. But Troy was all but in mourning. For the first time, he couldn't be in the stands to see Sidney go. For the second time, the game had left him behind.
That's why, even with all that has come since—Gretzky's anointing of Sidney as the player capable of breaking his records, the Ross, Hart and Pearson trophies, that on-ice father-son hug after the Stanley Cup win, the ain't-life-strange fact that, for five years now, his son has lived during the season with, yes, Lemieux and his family, staying at Super Mario's house in suburban Pittsburgh—nothing quite matches the thrill of seeing him compete. Because it's there that Troy can see his boy's bone-deep joy: In the morning skates, the breathless workouts, in the daily battle that Troy still, at his core, wants for himself.
"It's in his blood," Troy says. "The ones that have it? You know. I have it; I still have it: There's nothing I'd rather do more than play hockey. And after I stopped playing, it was ... him. I didn't want to miss a game. I just love watching him play."
The day's next-biggest cheers fell upon the grinning man planted in a canary-yellow convertible. The fans knew, of course, that this party might never have happened without second banana Max Talbot, the Pittsburgh center who, with Crosby sitting out the bulk of Game 7 of the final against Detroit with a sprained left knee, sealed the Stanley Cup run with two clutch goals. But they knew, too, that wingman to greatness can be a delicate role, one Talbot pulls off with goofy, awe-puncturing charm. It's Talbot who balances Crosby's polite reserve, short-circuits any air of self-importance, who dares to finger Crosby's meticulously taped sticks before games "just to piss him off." It's Talbot who, after the Cup was won, persuaded Crosby to sit still and take in the scene, so that he would remember it forever.
"Every special talent has to be a little crazy, and he's definitely crazy," Talbot says. "You can't argue with him, you can't win an argument. And superstitious: Everything needs to be right. Every damn thing needs to be perfect. I'm sitting beside him in the dressing room for two years now, and every day you see the same thing. But I've seen him grow. He's taking it more easy ... a little bit."
Talbot was 16 the first time he saw the then 13-year-old phenom, taking it right to NHL stars Chris Chelios and Luc Robitaille at a camp in Los Angeles, blazing one slap shot right between Robitaille's legs. "It was beautiful," Talbot says.
By the time Crosby reached the NHL, in 2005, no one doubted that he was special. But he had detractors, their antennae up for any sign of ego. The 18-year-old rookie, soon to be the youngest player ever to reach 100 NHL points, had gotten into the habit of complaining to officials during his junior stint with Rimouski of the QMJHL—a surefire way to get labeled a whiner or, as legendary commentator and self-styled guardian of the Canadian Way Don Cherry puts it, "a semisweetheart.
"I had many criticisms of him at the start: When he'd get hit he'd throw his head back as if he got really corked, a semidive," Cherry says. "But now he doesn't dive, he doesn't yap at the referees. I gave it to him pretty good, but you haven't heard me give it to him lately—because he acts the way he should act. He's a good captain now."
It was no accident. Crosby flinched at the rips—and Troy sent Cherry's bosses a choice e-mail—but curbed his griping. "It's something I've tried to work on," Sidney says. "Just because you're 18 and a good player doesn't mean you're done learning. Hopefully as I get older I get better."
With his natural gifts—wide-angle vision, uncanny timing and, as former roommate Colby Armstrong, now with the Thrashers, puts it, "huge legs and a massive booty"—Crosby would've been a Hall of Famer without changing a thing. But he also gave up his beloved chocolate-chip cookies at 16 and learned French when he played in Quebec. Even with the NHL's best backhand and most explosive second gear, he has never stopped refining, pushing—not even after winning it all. This season, after clearing a key hurdle in the never-ending Greatest of All Time race by becoming the youngest NHL captain to earn the Cup, Crosby was winning face-offs at a personal-best 57.1% at week's end and is on course to score more than 40 goals for the first time.
"He's dedicated like nothing I've ever seen," says Armstrong. "It shows when he comes back to camp every year; he's got that extra step that no one else has. He plays the game right for an elite player: He can blow a game open, but he also makes other players better. He made me better, made me see outside the box with certain plays; I'd pick his brain: Such little moves. But to do it at top speed? He's an up-and-down player with an unbelievable head on his shoulders."
He also grinds, albeit with a flair that no third-liner could summon. Late in October, Talbot, recovering from shoulder surgery, sat in a skybox at Mellon Arena, spectating. It was early in the second period of an eventual win over Montreal, Crosby had already scored once (he would end the night with a hat trick) and now had drifted just outside the right side of the crease as a Pittsburgh shot clanged off the post. He snagged it facing the net but, defying the instinct to attack, instead whirled 180 degrees and—with his back to the goal and haunches keeping frantic defender Jaroslav Spacek at bay—settled the puck, lifted it on the back of his blade and sliced a low-percentage, no-look backhand high into the righthand corner of the goal. Between the post, the crossbar and two flailing arms, Crosby had given himself a target no bigger than a salad plate to aim for, blindfolded.
"Ohhh: See?" Talbot shouted. "Every day, in everything he does, he wants to be perfect." He laughed. "But that is crazy."
The procession finally inched into the parking lot of Cole Harbour Place, but by then Crosby's truck seemed more like the leading edge of a great flood. It's not often that you can physically see what it means to have a town, a region, a whole nation even, pushing one man forward. But after Crosby passed, the crowd swamped the pavement and fell in behind; when he reached the stage and looked back over the expanse it was impossible to see a way out. "There was no ... empty," Crosby says.
They sang Happy Birthday. The mayor read a proclamation, Crosby raised the Cup above his head, the world roared. You couldn't blame him, really, for thinking the day was about him.
Yet around the grounds there were other agendas at work. Dads marched their boys inside the rec center to take in the poster of three-year-old Sidney in his basement, stick in hand, and above it the word dreams; three clothes dryers spent the day getting dinged old by young, male and female sharpshooters; everyone, it seemed, had to show they could play the only game that matters. As one Cole Harbour sign declared, BASEBALL FILLS THE GAP BETWEEN HOCKEY SEASONS. Which helps explain why it was often unclear which was the bigger celebrity—Sid the Kid or the Cup.
Allene Barrett and her two kids, Brooke, 17, and Brandon, 15, had driven in five hours from New Brunswick. All his life, her husband, Wayne, an industrial league player and longtime coach in the Fundy Minor Hockey Association, had yearned to see the trophy; the Maritimes don't produce pros—and resulting Cup tours—like the bigger provinces. On the night Pittsburgh won it, the family made plans. "He was going to see the Cup. Finally," Allene says.
Cancer had ravaged Wayne's health for two years. He beat back one fatal prognosis last winter, but then, two weeks before Crosby's party, Wayne died at 39. Every flower arrangement at the funeral had a hockey theme; all his players wore jerseys. Canceling the trip to Cole Harbour wasn't an option. When Crosby's truck neared their spot, Allene saw the Cup shining and her eyes went blurry and the kids got quiet. "Dad's here now," Brooke said.
Indeed, Crosby's rise has often served as a vehicle for matters beyond his ken. It wasn't enough that he was charged, at 18, with saving the postlockout NHL. When Paul Mason, one of Crosby's youth coaches, says "the NHL needed another Wayne Gretzky," he means more than just another great who sells tickets. He means another in the line of Canadian transcendents, another hair-raising Howe or Orr to provide what Andrew Podnieks, the author of A Canadian Saturday Night: Hockey and the Culture of a Country, calls "marketing in a psychological or spiritual sense." Crosby reassures his nation that, when it comes to hockey, the Great White North is still No. 1.
It's a full-time job, and not just for him. Fans have pilgrimaged to Cole Harbour for years, leaving items at his parents' house to be signed, knocking long after business hours are over. Sometimes it's sweet: Last summer a van from Vancouver pulled up and a man asked if this was, indeed, Sid's boyhood home. When Trina said yes, he screamed, "It's her!" and more than a dozen people spilled out of the van. Other times mailbox notes will demand jerseys, favors, cash. "The occasional wack job will come by," Trina says. "You don't know what you're dealing with when you open the front door."
Such approachability, though, is part of Crosby's appeal. His low-key demeanor also happens to dovetail with the Canadian self-image—self-effacing, deceptively tough—and gets inflated into a philosophic pose anytime Ovechkin, his lone competition for best player alive, pantomimes a hot stick or taunts Crosby with a chicken dance. Mention Alex the Great's habit of hurling himself into the glass after scoring to anyone in Camp Crosby, and you'll invariably hear, "But 60 times a season?"
Crosby himself has sniffed at Ovechkin's celebrations ("Some people like it, some don't. Personally I don't"), but he says he's more concerned with how "dangerous" Ovechkin can be—as both a scorer and a headhunter. "When we started to play each other, it was more like people were celebrating two players," Crosby says. "But it seemed like, with each game, he was just trying to line me up. So we start having run-ins, and the media is watching. Then, with it getting stirred around off the ice, it built into more of a hate relationship."
Ovechkin denies this, says that he looks to hit everybody, that the rivalry is a media concoction. But Crosby can't shake the feeling that Ovechkin enjoys stirring the pot and the more publicly the better. "Our games can speak for themselves," Crosby says. "He wants to play hard, great, I look forward to that. But ... I don't allow there to be a story that's not there. I think he may look for that, and that's something that unfortunately I have to answer to."
Of course, for now Crosby has the last word, having outdueled Ovechkin in their epic seven-game Eastern Conference final last spring. "Every time he's been challenged, he's risen to the occasion," Podnieks says. "So far." But now the stakes rise. Crosby is the face of Canada's bid for Olympic gold, the center for Team Canada figuratively and literally. His role as defender of the faith has never been made clearer than in a national commercial, released just after he was named The Canadian Press male athlete of the year in December, that opened with Crosby declaring, "Hockey? Hockey is our game."
God forbid Russia—or anybody else—beats Canada in Vancouver. God forbid that these Olympics, Crosby's first, end like the last, with Team Canada losing to Russia and finishing seventh. Ovechkin actually jumped for joy then.
"You cannot believe what this means to Canada," Cherry says. "We cannot be second. Second means we're failures; we cannot fail, especially when it's in our barn. We have to win. Because Canadians are strange people: We eat our own. There will be absolutely no mercy, like the last time: Every guy and the coaches were just ripped to pieces. I don't know how else to describe it. We just have to win."
It would end on a pair of tennis courts beside Cole Harbour Place, but unlike the parade and the concert blaring on the other side of the building, this was a quieter affair that, oddly enough, made perfect sense. Because even in Canada, hockey doesn't always mean ice or cold. Because too early on Saturday mornings when they were eight and nine years old, phones would ring at the homes of Crosby's buddies. It was always Sidney, calling for a game of road hockey.
"I was their parents' worst nightmare," Crosby says. The moms and dads, bleary-eyed, would tell him to call back. Half an hour later, the phone would ring again.
Now came the most personal part of Crosby's Stanley Cup day. The earlier meet-and-greet with Canadian military personnel and the stop at the children's hospital and the on-stage Q and A were gestures to the community, formal and stiff. But now he and eight friends, the ones he played with daily from ages six to 15, hurried to shed their street clothes in a nearby dressing room. They all had moved on in one way or another from the hockey dream—gone to school, gotten jobs, watched as their friend lived it for them on TV. Now as they hustled into pads and Rollerblades, Crosby pointed and, one by one, recited their old phone numbers from memory.
This had always been part of the plan, too, even since he joined the NHL. If ever he won, they'd all play one more time, three-on-three, the way every kid played it on the street or pond: O.K., this one's for the Stanley Cup. But now they'd do it for real.
Crosby, as he did as a kid, squatted in goal, outfitted in oversized pads. Everyone was nervous—who plays road hockey before hundreds of people?—but once the sweat broke and the adrenaline kicked in, it was as if nothing had changed. "It was like they were 12 again," Troy says. Sidney made 11 saves, took a hard tumble when one buddy flew into the crease and, of course, his team won, 7--3.
And then, there the Cup was, waiting in the gloved hands of its longtime keeper, Phil Pritchard. At first his teammates hesitated, figuring Crosby would be, should be, the only one entitled to pick it up. Then Crosby tapped Mike Chiasson's arm and said, "You're the captain. Go up and grab it."
"Just him saying that meant the world to me," Chiasson says. "That's when it really set in: This is really happening."
He took it, considered hoisting it, but that felt wrong. Chiasson handed it back, Crosby did a small pirouette for the crowd, and then the best moment of the day occurred: He insisted that each player, winner and loser, lift it and act as if he had earned it. And one by one guys named Mike and John Chiasson, Matt Foston, Andrew Newton, Corey Banfield, Nathan Welton, Jeff Kielbratowski and Scott Leverman did the unthinkable, lived the dream. They set off across a hard court on wheels, but for a few seconds it felt as though they were on the sharpest skates, on perfect ice, in front of a packed arena. They hoisted the Stanley Cup.
Crosby stood back, grinning. For a moment, for the first time in hours and maybe even months or years, he wasn't the center of attention or the vessel for so many hopes; he finally looked at ease. "This is exactly why you do it: to share it with people," Crosby says. "To share it with close friends." And so he knew, better than anyone it turns out, that even this day was hardly about him at all.
Get full coverage of Olympic hockey, with U.S. team reports, from Michael Farber and Sarah Kwak at SI.com/olympics