The scene should have warmed the heart of a hockey fan.
More than 15,000 fans had packed Le Colisee in Quebec City to get a glimpse of Sidney Crosby, the most highly touted National Hockey League prospect to come along since Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. The fact that most of the fans were 12-year-old players in town for the Quebec peewee hockey tournament just added to the feel-good factor.
But this is hockey circa 2005, and on the eve of the cancellation of the NHL season, there were no feel-good stories. The arena lights were bright, but there was a shadow hanging over the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League game between the hometown Remparts and Crosby's Rimouski Oceanic.
Seventeen-year-old Crosby, the Canadian Hockey League's player of the year last season, was just coming off a landmark game. He had scored his 50th goal of the season in his 50th game. But at Le Colisee all the talk focused on the impact of the NHL's cancellation on the best player yet to skate in the dormant league, the one anointed by Gretzky as the Next Big Thing.
If the NHL season were proceeding as usual, Ottawa would be hosting the 2005 entry draft in June and Crosby, a lock to be the first selection overall, would be looking at signing a contract over the summer and heading to his first pro-training camp in the fall.
But until there is a collective agreement between the NHL and the players' association, there won't be a draft, and until there's an NHL draft, Crosby's future, rosy in the long term, is a whole lot less certain.
Crosby has almost nothing left to prove in the junior ranks. True, his Rimouski team hasn't won a league title but it seems poised to make a run this spring. The Memorial Cup, the CHL championship, is out there, too.
But in terms of individual skill, Crosby is the dominant player in junior hockey. Since his stint with Canada's gold medal team at the World Junior Championship, Crosby has played 23 Quebec League games and scored 71 points. His 145 points in 57 games (57 goals, 87 assists) already surpassed the 135 points in 59 games he posted last year, his rookie season.
Moreover, Rimouski is undefeated since the return of Crosby, who hasn't played on a losing side in more than three months.
"Sidney's ready to move on to the next level," said his agent, Pat Brisson of IMG. "We just don't know where that might be right now."
He added, though, that "[QMJHL] fans shouldn't go out to buy tickets [to see him] for next season."
U.S. college isn't an option because a player forgoes his NCAA eligibility by playing major junior.
While playing in the American Hockey League is an option, a case can be made that Crosby would get more of a push in a European pro league next season, facing more than a few players who would otherwise be in the NHL.
Europe might be good for his development, and he would certainly be able to pull down top dollar -- according to one insider, $1 million to $1.5 million -- which, with tax breaks, might work out to more than he'd stand to make under the NHL's proposed entry-level system if the league were open for business in the 2005-06 season.
One significant snag: The Rimouski Oceanic maintain that Crosby is tied to the franchise for two more seasons. Under the standard CHL contract, a player at ages 18 and 19 either plays in the NHL or his rights revert to his junior club.
"If there's no NHL, I don't know what Sidney is going to do but I know on our side that according to his contract he has to come back," QMJHL president Gilles Courteau said. "When you sign a major junior contract at our level, you sign for four years, the duration of [your junior eligibility]."
Oceanic executives don't sound ready to let go of the young star. Rimouski coach and general manager Doris Lebonte described Crosby as "our Mick Jagger."
Crosby has never played to less than a sellout at his home arena, and his presence has been a boon to the league. Fans fill arenas to capacity when the Oceanic come to town, and in most cases they can only buy ducats to see Crosby as part of larger ticket packages. And at Le Colisee, like elsewhere, hundreds of fans wore Rimouski sweaters with Crosby's number 87. Some have suggested that a European team might be able to compensate the Oceanic for Crosby's services -- except that there's no putting a price tag on Mick Jagger's value to the Rolling Stones.
That's not to say Crosby is out of options. Brisson won't get into the specifics, but other agents suggest that Crosby could take the matter to court if the Oceanic tried to block his way. "Crosby could seek to have a judge rule that the contract with Rimouski violates his right to work, to freely seek gainful employment," one agent said. The agent suggested that Crosby could cite precedent on the case of John Tonelli, the player in the 1970s who successfully won the right to play professionally at age 18. "No matter which side wins if it goes to court, it's almost a sure thing to be tied up there in appeal."
Other agents aren't impressed. Said one: "Crosby has a contract with Rimouski, and I don't see an out. The team has a side deal with Crosby [a rumored $150,000 a season], and that Crosby might be in Rimouski more than two seasons going up to what should have been his draft year -- well, that's what the Oceanic see as part of the team's investment."
Courteau and other officials are worried that other CHL players might seek to follow Crosby to European pro leagues. And some agents don't look forward to talking to junior clients who want a taste of the European pros rather than another season of riding buses for $60 to $100 in weekly pocket money. In the game in Quebec City, Crosby had to skate a gantlet of a hundred hooks, holds, slashes and attempted tackles. After every whistle he was mugged and face-washed. He drew five penalties and picked up an assist, but it wasn't one of his memorable performances. In the last seconds, he sent a long shot off the post of an empty net, perhaps a fitting image.
Rimouski left the building with a 2-1 win, and Quebec fans left wondering whether they'd seen the last of Sidney Crosby at Le Colisee -- or whether they would have other chances over the next season or two.
After the game, Crosby was peppered with questions about the cancellation of the NHL season and, with it, the snuffing of the 2005 entry draft. "I'm not thinking about the [NHL] at all right now," he said. "I'm honestly not. I'm concentrating on playing for this team and playing for a championship."
He said he'll sit down with his family and his agent "after the season, sometime during the summer, and look at the options." When asked whether he'd go to the NHL as a replacement player, Crosby one-timed a denial. "That's not one of the options we'll talk about," he said.
At the end, one reporter asked Crosby in French whether he ever gets frustrated by the questions about his future. "Je sais qu'íl sera comme ça," he said. I know it's going to be like that. And right now the only thing he can know for sure is that there will be more questions before he has any answers.
Gare Joyce is a Toronto-based freelance journalist and a regular contributor to ESPN The Magazine.