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Crosby hits ice in optional skate

PITTSBURGH -- Now, it's just hockey for Sidney Crosby.

Finally.

After three months of spinning lottery balls, preordained status
as the No. 1 pick in the NHL draft, endless comparisons to Wayne
Gretzky and new housemate Mario Lemieux, million-dollar endorsement
signings and more photo shoots than a supermodel, Crosby was on the
ice Tuesday.

It was only an optional skate at the end of a training camp day
devoted mostly to physicals, team meetings, handshaking, equipment
fitting and, yes, more interviews, but Sidney Crosby, hockey
wunderkind, finally felt like a Pittsburgh Penguins player.

The NHL, his goal since he first pulled on skates at age 3, is a
reality.

"This is what I'm here to do and I'm very excited," Crosby
said, his every word captured by a sizable contingent of mostly
Canadian media members. "It's been busy, busier than normal with
the lottery and the draft, so it's going to be nice to get into a
routine and get on the ice every day. That's the fun part."

The hard part, he knows, is just ahead. Now that he has reached
the top rung of a sport he has dominated at every level to date,
the game is about to become much more difficult, perhaps a blur at
first, even for an 18-year-old with seemingly endless energy,
ability and motivation.

"I have to get used to the size and speed of the guys -- the
hooks are going to be stronger, the guys are going to hit harder,
the game's faster," Crosby said. "Reaction's a big part of my
game, so I have to be quick out there. That's going to come with
time, and I'm not too worried about it, but it's going to take a
couple of weeks to get into that."

Lemieux, the Penguins owner-player, came into the league in 1984
with ability and a reputation arguably greater than Crosby's. To
Crosby, a fortuitous sequence of events has landed him on Lemieux's
team, perhaps even on Lemieux's line, and, at least for now, in
Lemieux's very house.

Crosby moved in last week, eager to learn from the only active
player in his sport who can relate to what he's about to go through
as hockey's cover-boy rookie. There's no curfew in the Lemieux
household and, so far, no reason to have one; with about 20 players
in town late last week, the mentor and his student took part in
early morning workouts at a suburban rink, then went home to await
the arrival from school of Lemieux's four children, ages 9-12.

"He's easy to get along with, he's chatty, he talks all the
time, he gets along great with the kids and the kids love him and
have a good time with him," said Lemieux, who looked outside last
week to find Crosby playing driveway hockey with son Austin and
daughter Stephanie. "We spend a lot of time together, drive
everywhere and have dinner together every night. It's just a normal
day for the both of us."

Normal, of course, being relative when talking about one of
hockey's greatest players ever and someone who aspires to become
that.

"Just being around him is going to help me -- the little
questions about things in town, where things are, just seeing about
how he goes about things every day," Crosby said. "On the ice,
it's good for me to see some of these older guys who've been in the
league for a lot of years and see how they practice, just get into
good habits. Being around those guys, it's going to rub off."

Unlike most No. 1 picks, Crosby didn't join what figures to be a
bottom-of-the-standings team with no chance to win soon. After
landing Crosby, the Penguins -- sensing a chance to win big before
the 40-year-old Lemieux retires -- signed or traded for forwards
John LeClair and Ziggy Palffy, defensemen Sergei Gonchar and Lyle
Odelein and goaltender Jocelyn Thibault to instantly become, in
Lemieux's mind, one of the league's top five or six teams.

Asked if Crosby is getting a break by joining a "respectable"
team, Lemieux quickly replied, "Respectable? ... We have a chance
to compete for the Stanley Cup."

For now, the Penguins are doing everything they can to get
Crosby settled in quickly, and not just in Lemieux's spare bedroom.
His first NHL linemates, if only in a training camp game on
Thursday, will be Mark Recchi and John LeClair. The two have 838
goals between them.

"Good enough?" coach Eddie Olczyk said, querying a group of
reporters about his choice.

For Crosby, this is as good as it gets.

"Having a good camp, that's what I'm worried about now, and
raising my game to the highest it can be," he said. "It's going
to be a challenge and I understand that, but I'm coming here ready
to work hard and see what happens."