On eve of debut, Crosby keeping nerves in check

PITTSBURGH -- At about 6:30 a.m. on Tuesday, roughly an hour and a half earlier than his normal routine, Sidney Crosby woke up in his bedroom on the second floor of Mario Lemieux's house and started wondering.

Did he have the right clothes packed?

What was the team dress code again?

What about his equipment?

Was he ready?

Well? Is he?

It's a question that is on the minds of many throughout the hockey world. It is a question whose answer will start to become clear Wednesday night, when the Pittsburgh Penguins visit the New Jersey Devils to kick off the 2005-06 season and the NHL career of the phenom Sidney Crosby.

"I think right now I feel comfortable," Crosby said Tuesday. "Mentally, it's going to be tough. It's my first game. I think anybody who plays that [is] going to be a little bit nervous. They're going to be excited. It's hard to tell someone not to be. I don't expect it to be any different. I have to know that that's the way it's going to be and I have to control that and make sure I'm putting my energy toward paying well and having fun and not being nervous."

Crosby was among the last to leave the ice Tuesday morning. He remained patient and thoughtful in the face of the constant media attention.

"I don't think I visualized it too much, I'm just going to go through it," the native of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, said of his first game. "There's not going to be too much time of visualizing it, it's going to come true. I'm just going to enjoy it. Just have fun out there. You only play your first game once."

Sure, he's nervous. Who wouldn't be? Crosby has been reminded more than once that Lemieux scored a goal on his first shot on his first NHL shift.

"It's going to be exciting. Been talking about his kid for a long time now," said Lemieux, who has opened his home to the 18-year-old. "Really, to have a chance to play with him and start his career tomorrow, I'm really anxious to see how he reacts."

It's not quite like the anticipation in a room full of expectant fathers. In fact, Lemieux, a father of four, rolled his eyes at the suggestion.

"Done with that," quipped Lemieux, who will turn 40 on Wednesday.

But there is an almost palpable feeling of anticipation surrounding Wednesday's game, at what might begin to unfold.

Part of the anticipation would exist with or without Crosby. It is the kind of expectancy present in 29 other NHL cities as the league prepares to launch itself back into the hearts of North American hockey fans in the aftermath of the lockout that cost the entire 2004-05 season.

New rules.

New distribution of talent.

New hope for a league that mortgaged much of its hope to get to this point.

"It's been a long time and we're a day away," Penguins coach Ed Olczyk said. "It'll probably be a long 24-plus hours. But 18 months down to 24 hours, I'll take that trade-off anytime at all."

But mix in Crosby's debut as an NHLer, the debut of the most talked-about player in a generation, and the giddy factor goes through the roof.

It is why the league took the unusual step of making Crosby and Lemieux available after the team landed in New Jersey late Tuesday afternoon following their final workout in Pittsburgh.

It is the latest in a long list of "things out of the ordinary" surrounding Crosby.
Penguins training camp, normally a quiet affair covered only by the locals, has been a beehive of media attention since it opened in mid-September. Canadian media have been frequent visitors for the first time in more than two decades when Lemieux arrived in Pittsburgh in 1984, the last savior of the franchise.

The Canadian national newspaper The Globe and Mail has dispatched highly regarded writer Shawna Richer to Pittsburgh, where she will live and cover Crosby's inaugural season. There's Crosby's shirtless appearance in Vanity Fair and an upcoming gig in GQ (he's apparently wearing his hockey gear), not to mention last month's appearance on The Tonight Show (fully clothed).

All this without ever having put a stick to a puck in an NHL regular-season game. Until now.

"I think the attention is there," Lemieux said. "So it's nice to see the attention that [Crosby's] getting and the team's getting and the league in general. I think the whole NHL's going to be watching it."

Beginning Wednesday night, the story begins to take real form, moving in the moment it takes for the puck to fall from a referee's hand to the ice from the hazy world of "what-ifs" and "might be" to the sometimes unforgiving nature of the game itself.

Beginning Wednesday night, all of what has passed in the weeks since the NHL held its "Crosby lottery" to determine which team would draft Crosby with the top pick in the 2005 draft, will be rendered insignificant in the face of the game.

"Everything will go up tomorrow," Olczyk said. "The intensity and the speed of the game and the stakes will go way up, and I think then you'll see how guys really react."

The natural tendency will be to over-assess Wednesday's game regardless of how Crosby plays. Every missed pass, every solid check. If he scores. If he makes a great play or a handful of great plays.

Mark Recchi sits next to Crosby in the Penguins' dressing room (John LeClair, the third member of the two old fogeys and The Kid line, sits on the other side) and will room with him on the road. Recchi dismisses Wednesday's game as having no bearing on the season. It's just one out of 82, the veteran forward said.

"It's a great day for him, a long time coming. I'm not going to worry about tomorrow night. It's a great opportunity for him to get his feet wet," said Recchi, who played a similar role in Montreal and Philadelphia, rooming with and mentoring youngsters Saku Koivu and Simon Gagne.

There is no official speech for young stars or ongoing lecture series that Recchi has perfected. Just a couple words of advice here or there, and a receptive ear if need be.

"He's a good kid. He knows how to prepare," said Recchi, 37.

Olczyk is asked if he recalls his first game and he quips that it was on television in black and white (it wasn't). But there is an acknowledgement that these moments are important for all players, moments that are crystallized for all time in their memories. It's just that in Crosby's case, the memories he will store will be shared and examined and analyzed by an entire sport.

"It was a blur. You think about a lot of things," Olczyk recalled of his first game with Chicago in 1984. "You think about your family. You think about all the people that have helped you along. You only get to enjoy it once."

It's why Olczyk hopes it's something Crosby can embrace rather than simply endure to get to the other side.

"I don't know if you want to get it over with just for the sake of moving on. You want to enjoy the moment," the coach said.

On the top of the blackboard in the Penguins' dressing room the words "This Is It" are underlined twice followed by the team's travel and practice information. At the bottom of the blackboard two words: Game On.

Enough said.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.