This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine's July 5, 2004, issue. Subscribe today!
GAME 2 of the first round of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League playoffs in April, and Sidney Crosby is having a good night. A Sidney Crosby kind of night. A few minutes into the second period, the 16-year-old center for the Rimouski Oceanic has already scored twice and created chances for teammates on every shift. The home team leads Les Cataractes de Shawinigan 4-0, but when Rimouski takes two penalties a minute and a half apart, a long 5-on-3 power play gives Shawinigan hope of getting back in the game. Oceanic coach Donald Dufresne sends Crosby out to take the draw in the Rimouski end. "A kid that young shouldn't even be on the ice in that situation," Dufresne says later. "But Sidney brings skills and speed I've never seen in a 16-year-old."
Shawinigan hasn't seen anything like it either. When a defenseman gets cute with a cross-ice pass, Crosby pounces on the puck and leaves all pursuers behind with an explosive burst. It's just a few strides, but you can actually hear the ice chips fly as he accelerates, before the crowd rises and starts to roar. Crosby is half the length of the ice in a flash, deking Shawinigans goalie and going top shelf to complete his hat trick. He raises his stick, looking triumphant but also a little bit stunned. "I never had scored 3-on-5 before," he says later. "I was looking for a teammate to celebrate with, but the nearest one was at the other end of the ice."
It's the sort of play that makes Tim Burke, a scout for the Sharks, call Crosby the best player you'll see all year; the sort of play that makes the Sabres Mike Racicot, the dean of Quebec-area scouts, who saw Guy Lafleur and Mario Lemieux in the QMJHL, say, "It's the chance to see someone like Sidney Crosby that keeps you going in scouting;" the sort of play, to be honest, that makes a hockey fan wondering this, the NHL's summer of discontent, why in hell isn't this kid famous?
"He'd work on little things after practice, playing with the puck on his stick. He'd make it look like he'd lost control of the puck like it bounced up off his stick or dropped back in his skates but really, he was never out of control. He just wanted it to look like that so that he could get a defenseman leaning. He'd work on some little move or fake one day, then be doing it full speed in a game the next." -Former NHL star J.P. Parise, AD at Crosby's high school
THE NHL DRAFT comes to Raleigh the last weekend in June. The venues change from year to year, but the scene is generally as predictable as a Zamboni route. The crowd will boo when commissioner Gary Bettman is introduced to declare the draft open. GMs will parade to the stage and announce that they're pleased to select teenagers who sit nearby, hearts pounding through brand new shirts. Hearing their names, these players will hug parents, siblings and friends more than 200 teens, more than 200 reenactments of this happy scene. This year, though, will be a little different. This year, the biggest name in the draft is one that no team will call, that no team can call.
At 5'10", 175 pounds, Sidney Crosby is hardly a giant. But despite the presence of sure No.1 pick Alexander Ovechkin, Crosby casts a long shadow over the 2004 entry draft. For good reason. Crosby, the Canadian junior hockey Player of the Year this season, is also the boy who two years ago was compared favorably by Wayne Gretzky to, well, Wayne Gretzky. Back then, after working out with Crosby, the Great One recognized the same slippery moves, deceptive speed, shot creativity and ice vision that marked his own game. "He's the best talent to come along since Mario," Gretzky said, suggesting that Crosby might threaten his own NHL scoring records. Implied, of course, was the idea that the kid could also become something of the ambassador to hockey that No.99 was.
You sensed this at the QMJHLs award show in March. Crosby's name was called again and again: offensive Rookie and Player of the Year, top scorer, MVP and winner of the Paul Dumont Trophy. Never heard of the Dumont? Yannick Dumais, an Oceanic executive, explains: "It's the award for the player who brings the most sunshine to the league."
Crosby, in short, is just what hockey needs right now: a phenom with a pronounceable name and ice-white smile who might make people forget that the NHL is facing labor Armageddon even as it digests a disappointing new TV deal and a worrying ratings decline. Fact is, Crosby would have been the first pick in last years draft if it weren't for one snag. It's right there in his number, 87, which honors his date of birth: 8/7/87. The future of hockey isn't old enough for the draft.
"I remember the first exhibition game we played in Rimouski last fall. The arena wasn't sold out. Everybody around here had heard about Sidney but wondered how he'd adjust to the Q. He had four goals and four assists. I was thinking those would probably be the last empty seats of the season." -Oceanic executive Yannick Dumais
In precocious league-defining talent, Crosby is right there with LeBron James. But the difference between the cultures of their two sports is stark, testimony to why hockey can't ever seem to grab its fair share of the U.S. spotlight. Hoops prepared LeBron for greatness by giving him an early taste of star perks; hockey went out of its way to keep Crosby humble. LeBron got a brand new Hummer as a prep prodigy; Crosby depends on a Mazda of uncertain vintage owned by a teammate. LeBron's high school games were sometimes aired on national TV; Crosby's home games were shown on a community station in Rimouski, a fishing town on the St. Lawrence River. LeBron played across the U.S. in major arenas; Crosby is stuck in the QMJHL, or the Q, which has a team in the remote mining region of Val d'Or but not one in Montreal.
Not that Crosby minds the obscurity. He says his life in Rimouski is perfect. He's somehow become an English-speaking hero in a town as French as frites. Parents who nine years ago voted for Quebec's separation from Canada now buy their kids Oceanic sweaters with Crosby's name on the back. If there were lingering hard feelings about Eric Lindros snubbing the Nordiques years ago, Crosby's erased them. "My father taught me it doesn't matter what language you speak," Crosby says. "The way you handle yourself and the way you play is the way you get respect." Crosby commands that respect from teammates through an impressive work ethic, although it's clearly a labor of love.
"Playing as much as he does, sometimes 30 minutes a night, we've had to tell him to take a practice off a couple of times," says Dufresne. "He never would ask for time off because he doesn't want special treatment." Not to say Crosby didn't get special treatment, hockey-style. Every team sport values team play over individual achievement, but hockey can push that credo to questionable extremes.
Exhibit A: Crosby's start in the Q last September. It was spectacular, the more so because he was playing against bigger and better competition than he'd ever experienced. Crosby was QMJHL Player of the Week for the first two weeks of the season. He scored at a goal-a-game pace, racking up points faster than Lemieux had at 16. He turned a team that had won 11 times in 72 games the year before into a contender, and within weeks turned himself into the biggest gate draw in the Q since Lafleur.
Then, one night at home before a sellout crowd, Crosby set up behind the Remparts net with Rimouski up 4-0. When the Quebec defenseman didn't challenge him, Crosby lifted the puck onto his stick blade like he was playing lacrosse. He then whipped a chest-high wraparound by a stunned Remparts goaltender. It was highlight-reel material, the kind of play that should have been wowing SportsCenter fans in Tampa.
But not everybody liked what they saw. Hockey Night in Canada commentator Don Cherry hammered Crosby on the air the next week. "I like the kid," Cherry said while tape of the goal rolled. "But this is a hotdog move. And the Quebec Remparts are going to remember that the next time they play. He's gonna get hurt. They're gonna grab the mustard and put it all over him." Cherry wouldn't let the incident die. A week later, he interviewed Brendan Shanahan and asked him about Crosby's swordsmanship. The Red Wings star said he'd be looking to take the head off a player who pulled a stunt like Crosby did in Quebec. Crosby, who has a confidence that belies his age, did not apologize. "I know the unwritten rules," he says. "My father taught me about respect. I wasn't trying to embarrass anybody."
Exhibit B came after Cherry's onslaught, around the time Crosby was chosen to play for Canada at the World Juniors in Helsinki in December. Although he became the youngest Canadian ever to score in the tournament, Crosby was buried on the fourth line. Was it a direct reaction to Cherry's bombast? Unlikely. Was it because Team Canada's coach, Mario Durocher, coached a Rimouski rival? More likely. Were team officials worried about insulting older players by giving Crosby too much ice time? Most likely. There's a hierarchy in hockey that's as much a part of the game as missing teeth.
In any case, Crosby failed to dominate a tournament that Gretzky overpowered at the same age. For some this was evidence that he was yet another Next Gretzky who was more hype than heir to No.99. For others, it was a missed opportunity (and not because Canada lost to the U.S. in the final, 4-3). "I think he should have played more," says Bruins scout Daniel Dor. "And I think the majority of scouts felt the same way."
Crosby, who was stoned on a great scoring chance in the final, didn't complain about the lack of playing time. Then again, he had other things to worry about. In late February, rumors began to appear in the French-language press that the kid might not dress for sold-out games in Drummondville, Quebec, and Lewiston, Maine, later in the month; that the Oceanic were fed up with refs putting away their whistles while Boy Wonder was mugged. It was a PR disaster, particularly since many thought Troy Crosby, Sidney's father, was pushing for it. Troy denies it, but you couldn't blame him if he was trying to keep his son out of games for his own safety.
Crosby, his parents and his team all fear the same thing: that a thug might try to get his 15 minutes of infamy by taking out the Next Great One. "Preseason was the worst," Sidney says. "Teams wanted to intimidate me. And after the Worlds it was bad too. In one game I had five fights in the first 15 seconds." Crosby played in the end, he had a goal and three assists in those two games, and Rimouski team officials say it was all a misunderstanding, that it was their intention to sit their young star all along. "We worried about Sidney running out of gas," Dufresne says. "It would be tough on any player, but especially a 16-year-old who hasn't played at this level before or played as much."
"This was probably the fifth time that I saw him this season. My notes that I kept on the game, perfect pass, perfect play, can't tell the story. What's not in my notes is the fear in the defenseman's eyes when Crosby is coming down the ice, 1-on-1." -Bruins scout Daniel Dor
Before Game 2 against Shawinigan, Crosby is kicking back in Le Colises players lounge, waiting to play Ping-Pong and watching highlights from NHL games the night before. Pictures of former Oceanic (and current Lightning) stars Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards line the lounge walls. So do photos of Rimouski hockey, some going back 100 years. "It's unbelievable how much fun used to be in the game back in the 70s and 80s," Crosby says. It's hard to imagine a 16-year-old sounding wistful, but Crosby does. "It's end to end. They let players play. There weren't a lot of traps or systems."
Consider Game 1 of the series. Crosby was harassed constantly by Shawinigans trap in general and defenseman Nicolas Dsilets in particular. Every time Crosby thought he had time or space to make a play, the disagreeable Dsilets had an arm or stick hooked around him, delivering an elbow in the ribs or a slash on the wrists or a facewash. Crosby gave as good as he got, he plays like a peach-fuzzed Peter Forsberg, but he was clearly frustrated by the special attention. This emphasis on defensive systems, as common in Juniors as in the NHL, makes Crosby's first-season stats (59 games, 54 goals, 81 assists) all the more amazing.
If you want a grassroots example of the way hockey spites itself, this is it. A player who could add real showmanship to the game is hamstrung by a system few really like. Scout Racicot says that if Crosby had come along when Lafleur or Lemieux or Mike Bossy was playing, he'd score 200 points instead of 130. Pat Brisson, Crosby's agent and a former teammate of Lemieux in the early 1980s, makes the point more directly. The Q of old, he says, was a lot more fun to watch and a lot more fun to play in. Then again, Crosby doesn't have many career options. Because Crosby was born in Nova Scotia, the Q has geographic rights to his Junior apprenticeship. Troy Crosby has no intention of following Maurice Clarett's lead and challenging the NHL's draft rules in court. For one thing, hockey's labor woes would seem to make it a futile exercise, fighting for the right to play in a league likely to be shut down by a lockout.
More important, Troy remembers the hostility directed at the Lindros family when it tried to dictate where Eric would play, in Juniors and the NHL. The Crosby family (including mom Trina and kid sister Taylor, 8) want no part of that. There were rumors about Crosby jumping to Europe this fall, but Troy and Trina deny them. "There's still a lot for Sidney to learn in Juniors," says Troy, a clerk in a Halifax law office. "It's still the best place for him to develop."
Just the rumor of Crosby cutting bait was enough to make league officials nervous about not having him around for another season of sunshine and sellouts. The league has geared its publicity machine around Crosby, and has sent a gentle-but-firm message to game officials: the kid is good for business; keep an eye on things. Still, when The Hockey News listed the 100 most powerful people in hockey, Crosby was slotted at No.98. That he wasn't given No.99 makes you wonder if anyone in hockey has a clue as to what the hockey world almost has in Sidney Crosby.
"At the World Juniors, I saw a Swiss defenseman try to decapitate Crosby with a crosscheck to the neck. He didn't miss a shift, and later he knocked the guy flying. That's one of the things that sets Crosby apart. He won't need anyone else to fight his own battles. He can take it and he can give it back." -Tim Burke, Sharks scout
One year down. One more to go.
Gare Joyce, The Magazine's longtime token Canadian, writes hockey-themed mystery novels under the handle G.B. Joyce.