The face of the NHL has a broken jaw. So when the Stanley Cup playoffs started last week, Sidney Crosby was far above the ice, in the press box at Pittsburgh's Consol Energy Center, watching his team dismantle the Islanders 5--0 in Game 1 of their first-round series. With 13:42 remaining, Crosby and his fellow inactive players headed to the elevator. He had already seen that his team did not need him. But his sport does.
This is an article from the May 13, 2013 issue
Crosby made his playoff debut two days later, after getting clearance from his doctor. He is not the first celebrity to arrive at a gala fashionably late, though Hollywood stars generally show up with more teeth. But even before he arrived, he had arrived. He has elevated himself from one of the best players in the world to an alltime great.
And as Pittsburghers know too well, the 25-year-old Crosby is always worth the wait. He returned from a 13-game absence in Game 2 last Friday and scored twice in the first eight minutes of what turned out to be a 4--3 Penguins loss. Then, on Sunday, he assisted on three more Pittsburgh goals—including the game-winner and another on a beautiful backhand pass—in a come-from-behind 5--4 overtime win that put the Penguins (the No. 1 seed in the East and the favorites to win their fourth Stanley Cup) up 2--1 in the best-of-seven series.
Here is the most amazing thing about hockey's most amazing player: The more he sits out, the better he gets. From the start of 2009--10 until a January '11 concussion sidelined him, Crosby averaged 1.43 points and was +35 in 122 games. When he returned the next season, he averaged 1.68 points and was +15 in 22 games.
Then came the NHL lockout and another nine months off. In this season's exhaustingly packed, 48-game schedule, Crosby averaged 1.56 points, was +26 in 36 games and was widely acknowledged to be playing the best two-way hockey of his life. Then in a March 30 game against the Islanders, a shot that had ricocheted off a skate broke his jaw and knocked out several lower teeth. He was out of the lineup for almost a month before somebody finally passed him in the scoring race; he finished third with 56 points despite playing only 75% of the season.
If this is how you succeed in the workplace, we should all call in sick. But this wait was particularly scary. Crosby always maintained that he would return from his 2011 concussion, but agent Pat Brisson says now that "he had moments where he was questioning whether he was going to play again. After so long, he got nervous, especially when it wasn't getting any better at one point."
Following his concussion, Crosby says, "I couldn't do normal stuff that I probably took for granted: driving, going for a run, playing tennis—being active, really." Loud noises and bright lights (from watching television, for example) exacerbated the symptoms. Riding in the passenger seat of a car made him carsick.
Then, on March 30, he found himself headed to a hospital again. His father, Troy, rode with him, but there was not much for a dad to say, and Sid couldn't say anything—he had to be careful not to swallow blood.
Waiting for Sidney Crosby is not so much fun when you are Sidney Crosby. But the wait was worth it for him, too.
Playoff hockey is mesmerizing largely because of the constant anticipation. The loudest cheer of the first two games in Pittsburgh may have come when the 5'11", 200-pound Crosby skated out for warmups in Game 2. Thousands of additional fans gathered for the privilege of catching the games on a huge TV in the arena parking lot.
How does he do it? How does the best player in the world get better as he watches? To understand that, you must first understand Crosby's game in the context of other alltime greats'. He is not as creative as Wayne Gretzky, and he doesn't have the preposterous size-and-skill combination of Mario Lemieux, but he is more well-rounded than either. He often makes plays behind both goals in a single shift. His brilliance is built on relentlessness.
"How complete he is, that is what separates him," says teammate Matt Niskanen. "That and his drive. Lots of guys work hard, but he works harder. Lots of guys can skate fast, and lots of guys can stickhandle really well. He can do both at the same time and at a very high level."
Crosby has always been a hockey geek. Even as a kid who was far superior to his competition, he wanted to iron out any wrinkles in his game. Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero says that when he meets with Crosby, "I always set aside an hour, and every time—I don't think [a meeting has ever] been less than four hours. He just loves to talk about hockey."
Crosby says his absence only increased his passion: "I've always loved hockey, but I realized how much I really do love it." This would lead you to believe that he spends more time on the game than he did before. But that's not really the case. If anything, he has learned the value of thinking about it less.
"In the last couple of years, away from the rink, he has been trying to turn his brain off of hockey," says linemate Pascal Dupuis, Crosby's roommate on the road for three seasons.
Says Crosby, "When you're sitting around for a year and a half you realize you've got to enjoy the time you have—playing hockey, but also just being healthy. I learned to get my mind away from hockey a little more when I'm away from the rink."
He discovered he is better off concentrating intensely on hockey for part of the day rather than thinking about it all day. And by watching instead of playing, Crosby saw the game from a different angle. He studied the strengths and weaknesses of his teammates and the rest of the league. He saw openings that he hadn't seen on the ice. "When I came back, I realized there were things I was happy with and was able to maintain," Crosby says, "and there were other things I could improve."
That increased knowledge helped when he returned from his concussion last season. Then, during the lockout, he ramped up his workouts so that he would be at his physical peak when the puck finally dropped. Combined, those two things turned him into the most dominant NHL player in years.
Shortly after becoming the Penguins' G.M. in 2006, Shero decided to take his team on a training camp trip. He whittled his list of possible destinations down to two: West Point, N.Y., or Orlando. Eventually he picked West Point, and the Penguins spent six hours in Army-style training.
"We're in the middle of the jungle, basically, and there is an overturned jeep. And these eight guys per team have to figure out how to get it onto four wheels," Shero recalls. "It's teamwork: You do this, you do this, you do this.... Guys are getting under it, trying to figure it out. And I'm watching Sidney Crosby, at my first training camp, and I'm thinking, This f------ jeep is going to fall on his head, and I'm going to get fired. This is the stupidest thing we've ever done."
Afterward, the Penguins were so tired that they did the unthinkable: They turned down pizza and beer at their hotel to go to bed. The next day's practice would be canceled. But when Shero asked Crosby, "What do you think next year—West Point or Orlando?" Crosby replied, "We've got to come back here."
Warfare has fascinated Crosby since he visited Normandy on a teenage hockey trip and brought home a vial of sand. He is wary of parallels between the game and the military ("I don't think there is anything that compares to what they do"), but the focus of his interest offers a window into how his mind works. If he were a coach he might be intrigued by strategy, and if he were an enforcer he might be drawn to the brutality.
So what, specifically, interests Crosby?
"Snipers," Dupuis says.
Snipers, like scorers, are often misunderstood. People think it is all about the shot. But "marksmanship is a small part of it," says J.B. Spisso, a good friend of Crosby's who served in the U.S. Army Special Operations. Crosby reads books about snipers and asks Spisso about their preparation, discipline and perfectionism. "It's more than quick repetition," says Spisso. "It's precise repetition—very, very precise ability. It's not a run-and-gun scenario. It's very methodical. There is so much involved in shooting a bullet. [Sidney] understands that to be great at his game, he has to be involved in all facets of it."
The best snipers wait hours for their chance. And regardless of the stakes, that is Crosby. Outside of Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he owns a vacation home on Grand Lake, there is a legend about enormous sturgeon that swim far beneath the water's surface. Crosby has spent hours using high-tech equipment to search for the fish, even though he laughingly admits that they may not exist.
For a while, it was an analogy that worked to describe Crosby: the big fish that we couldn't see, and didn't know if we ever would again, because of the concussion. But he is back now, exceeding his considerable hype.
Chuck Daly, coach of the 1992 U.S. Olympic basketball Dream Team, loved to tell this story. The greatest players in the world showed up to practice for those Barcelona Games, but after a few days it was clear: Even among the best, Michael Jordan was on his own level.
That is Crosby now. Last year's league MVP, Penguins center Evgeni Malkin, is just 26. But there is no doubt that Crosby is better. Capitals winger Alex Ovechkin is still a sublime player, but the Crosby-Ovechkin debate has lost steam. For the moment, at least, Crosby has surpassed everybody.
Yet to many hockey fans—especially American ones—Crosby is unworthy of the throne once occupied by Gretzky and Lemieux. Crosby hears it in every road arena: He's an egomaniac, he whines, he dives, he's soft. Fans call him Cindy, and what the nickname lacks in creativity, it makes up for in misogyny. He was tabbed hockey's next great one (or Great One) as a child, and that has surely fed the narrative of Sid the Spoiled Kid.
But the truth is that he doesn't want anything until he has earned it. When Shero first asked Crosby to be the Penguins' captain, in early 2007, the 19-year-old turned it down. He didn't think he was ready.
"I always hear the same thing: Get a winger for Crosby, get a winger for Crosby," says the G.M. "He has never once asked me to get a player for him to play with."
In fact, at the trade deadline Shero made a deal with the Flames for six-time All-Star Jarome Iginla, 35, who assisted on Crosby's gold-medal-winning goal at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. But when Shero talked to Crosby about the trade, Crosby said that he was happy playing on a line with Dupuis and Chris Kunitz, two undrafted players who had been having their best seasons. (It was Kunitz, in fact, who scored Sunday's game-winner, off an assist from Crosby.)
The key to playing with Crosby: skate fast and always be ready for the puck. He takes care of the rest.
Crosby was a lousy face-off man early in his career, but he worked on it and became one of the best. "He's got a lot of talent and he hones everything," says Niskanen. Which is what the Penguins mean when they say Crosby is a great leader: He shows what perfectionism looks like. If you want rah-rah speeches, rent a movie.
Crosby is playing at such a high level now that his game should have the same effect on critics that LeBron James's peaking game did the last two years, forcing them to applaud against their will. You can't boo when your jaw drops. Dupuis says Crosby feeds off the hate: "In Philly, as soon as the 'Crosby sucks!' chant starts going, I look to him on the bench, and I know he is going to have a great game." But Crosby does not fight it publicly.
"I don't think everyone likes Tiger Woods," his father says. "Not everyone likes LeBron. Just pick a sport—not everybody likes everybody. [Sidney] doesn't go to bed at night worrying about what the Flyers' fans think of him. He's had so much bad luck the last few years that I think he is just happy to be playing."
Pittsburgh has been disappointed lately by the behavior of other young stars—most famously, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, but also 33-year-old mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who took office at 26 and who recently dropped his re-election bid amid a federal investigation into police spending. (Last week Ravenstahl responded to an unfavorable story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette with a rant in the newspaper's online comments section. The highlight: "It's actually laughable to think that you print your newspaper everyday [sic] with a straight face.")
Crosby, who signed a 12-year, team-friendly contract extension for $104.4 million last summer, just wants to go to work. He moved in with team owner Mario Lemieux as an 18-year-old rookie (the two were teammates that first season), and though he said he was leaving almost three years ago, he still hasn't moved out. Crosby is building a house near Lemieux's, and he will move when it's finished.
He doesn't buy a new sports car every year. (He drives a Range Rover in Pittsburgh and a Chevy Tahoe in Nova Scotia.) He spent much of last off-season in Santa Monica, Calif.—but he did it to get away from stardom. There he could eat lunch on a restaurant patio without being recognized.
"Sidney doesn't accept living in a bubble," says Brisson. "Some celebrities, that's what they're looking for, but that's not him."
Since he was a teenager, Crosby has balanced the responsibilities of promoting his sport with fitting in alongside teammates. In juniors he faced a dilemma: If he signed every autograph, the team would have to wait on the bus for him. Years later, when he returned to practice after breaking his jaw, he talked to the media every day, but never in a self-promotional way. This is why teammates don't mind all of the Sid questions. They love playing with him.
Crosby says that his next hockey frontier is shooting more often when he is far from the net. He has realized that he can get so consumed by the action on the ice that he loses sight of what is right in front of him.
"It's something that doesn't come quite as natural as making plays and looking to pass," he says. "I kind of have to force myself to work on my shot, to have that mentality to shoot the puck when I have a chance. It keeps guys guessing a little bit more."
For a much of the last three years, as he sat out with injuries, that is what Crosby did: kept everyone guessing. Now he is the surest thing in hockey.
TIME OFF HAS DONE NOTHING TO SLOW CROSBY
2009--10 to 2010--11
Missed 10 months
Missed nine months
For full coverage of the Stanley Cup playoffs, including a fresh take on Games 4 and 5 of the Penguins-Islanders series, visit the Home Ice blog daily at SI.com/NHL