They all wear 87

Nobody wants Sidney Crosby back on the ice more than the good people of Cole Harbour

Updated: March 22, 2012, 11:23 AM ET
By Steve Wulf | ESPN The Magazine

Cole Harbour Wings hockey jerseysRob HowardIn Cole Harbour, Sidney Crosby's hometown, youth players don the number of the Penguins center on jerseys he donated.

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WELCOME TO THE BIG LEAGUES. That's the name of the sports bar on the south side of Cole Harbour Road, close to where the Stanley Cup parade began three years ago and not far from the house on Hannebury Drive where Sidney Crosby grew up.

Cole Harbour
ESPN The MagazineCole Harbour, Nova Scotia, population 25,172

But calling it a sports bar is a little like calling the Kid a hockey player. Big Leagues is also the kind of community magnet that hosts charity auctions and panel discussions on concussions in youth hockey -- an urgent topic ever since their hometown hero was derailed by one.

The NHL missed Sidney Crosby. Pittsburgh missed him. But the people who really missed him were the folks of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia. For one thing, business at Big Leagues was down by half on nights the Crosby-less Penguins played, according to co-owner Danny Latter.

The larger issue, though, is Crosby's health. Although he's back on the ice, his long-term durability remains a concern. "As much as we want him to come back, we don't want him to come back too soon," says Bill Morris, Halifax Regional Police staff sergeant and former president of the local minor hockey association. "We all wear 87." Morris is speaking literally and figuratively. Every player in Cole Harbour Bel Ayr Minor Hockey has an "87" on the right corner of his or her jersey. That's partly because the jerseys were bought with a $10,000 Crosby donation but mainly because he used to be one of them.

He went to Colby Village Elementary School, just like Sam Brown, a sixth-grader who can relate to Crosby in another way. "I got a concussion the same time he did last year," Sam says. "I went headfirst into the boards during practice and missed a month of school and two months of hockey."

Back when Sid was Sam's age, he often checked the hockey books out of the library. After Crosby became famous, Graham Pierce, a teacher and former librarian, realized those books might be good keepsakes, so he replaced them and gave the originals to Sid's parents, Trina and Troy -- but not before photocopying the title pages and attaching circulation cards. And so there it is: The Stanley Cup, by Frank Orr, signed out to Sidney Crosby twice, once in fourth grade and once in fifth grade.

[+] EnlargeCole Harbour Wings,1995-96
Courtesy Brad CrossleyEven as a peewee, Crosby was front and center as captain.

On Aug. 7, 2009, he brought the actual Cup to Cole Harbour for a parade the community of 25,172 will never forget. Morris, who was in charge of security for Crosby, recalls: "I mentioned to Sid that my son couldn't be there because he was working at Cleve's, our local sporting goods store. So as we're passing Cleve's, Sid goes through the back door of the store and poses with the staff and the Cup."

The parade ended at Cole Harbour Place, the same community center where Crosby played youth hockey. At one end of the rink is an impressive folk art mural of a hockey game done by Peter Bresnen in 1989. When you look at it closely, though, you see that it's been pocked and dinged and smudged by errant and maybe not-so-errant slap shots. And then you think: Not a bad metaphor for the beauty and brutality of hockey.

On the ice is a peewee triple-A game between Sackville and the Cole Harbour Wings, coached by Paul Mason, the same coach Sid had when he was 12. After Cole Harbour wins 2-1, Mason, a principal at nearby Ross Road School and the man who organized the parade, says: "It was an honor to coach him. My gut feeling was always that he'd be back before the end of the season."

Others may have doubted, but the folks in Cole Harbour always believed in the Kid.

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Steve Wulf

ESPN The Magazine senior writer