The Evolution of Sidney Crosby
PITTSBURGH -- It is 11 p.m., and the lights are low in Suite 66 on ice level at Consol Energy Center. The lounge, not long ago filled with happy fans watching a Pittsburgh Penguins intrasquad game, is empty save for the workers cleaning up.
Pictures of Penguins owner Mario Lemieux are on the wall. Sticks, miniature Stanley Cups, league trophies and other paraphernalia mark this area as a kind of shrine to the player and the game.
At a small table, Sidney Crosby sits, gray toque pulled over his head. He has showered and eaten after the game. His teammates have all departed, as have the youngsters up from the Penguins' AHL affiliate who fleshed out the rosters for what will be the last real hockey experience before the truncated 2013 NHL season opens Saturday afternoon in Philadelphia against the Penguins' archrivals, the Flyers.
In this moment, the building slowly easing itself into sleep, there is anticipation and introspection, a sense of a story about to resume.
This is fair given that the story of Sidney Crosby is a story interrupted.
Excited? Heck yeah, he's excited.
The lockout is over. The concussion problems that limited him to 22 regular-season games since early January 2011 appear to be a thing of the past. Bring it on.
"You realize over that period of time that you just want to compete and be with your team and go through all the normal things that an NHL season brings. I'm just excited for that," Crosby said.
"I always thought I appreciated the game; I'd be the first one to say that I don't think I took it for granted. I've always worked hard and realized how lucky I am and tried to make the most of my opportunity to play in the NHL.
"But all that being said, I think I do appreciate it even more than I did before. Going through that, I think anyone would probably feel the same way. It's tough when you can't play. You get used to that, and then I think you realize how much passion you do have for the game and how much you do love it."
Take the paint away from a painter, and what is he? Is he still an artist?
Take the money away from a businessman; is he still that?
Take the game away from a player like Crosby -- and take Crosby away from a game that had come to depend on him on many levels -- and what is left? Those are difficult questions to answer.
For the past two years, what looked to be a path made entirely and utterly of glittering promise -- a scoring title, a berth in the Stanley Cup finals, a Stanley Cup win, a gold medal -- had become something entirely different, something far less certain.
It was just more than two years ago, on Jan. 1, 2011, that Crosby suffered a concussion in the Winter Classic, not far from this dressing room. After trying to play in the next game, he missed the balance of the 2010-11 season and the playoffs, then missed all but 22 games last season.
When he did play, he was electric, with 37 points in those 22 games, but Crosby and the Penguins -- made heavy Cup favorites when Crosby returned for good in March -- were dislodged with relative ease by the cross-state Flyers in six games.
That disappointment was followed by a lockout that threatened this season but was resolved in time to salvage a 48-game schedule.
But although the Crosby story, at least the one we anticipated, was interrupted, his story hasn't stopped. He wasn't cryogenically entombed until all of this passed and he could resume his assault on record books and opposing goaltenders.
No. In fact, maybe it's less a story interrupted than a story diverted.
During the lockout, for instance, Crosby was instrumental in organizing player gatherings in Dallas and Phoenix. There, he helped organize the players into teams for workouts and scrimmages.
And of course there was Crosby's presence in the lockout. He was visible and engaged, and at one point it looked as if he, agent Pat Brisson and Pittsburgh owner Ron Burkle might single-handedly prove to be catalysts to a deal in December.
These were moments not lost on the hockey world.
"In my experience, hockey players are great teammates and are going to help another hockey player when they need it," Buffalo Sabres netminder Ryan Miller, whom Crosby worked out with in California in the offseason, told ESPN.com via email. "Given the situation, it was important for all of us to train together, negotiate together and be a teammate in the sense that we are all just hockey players at the heart of this. I thought Sid did a really great job of understanding that he was needed and he could be a good 'teammate' by representing the players.
"He was firmly on the players' side, and he was able to communicate calmly within the NHLPA and with the media about the lockout. Smart and well spoken, but everyone knows that. It isn't easy to be called upon by your team, the league, your union, your sponsors, the fans, the media, your friends and family to always have the right perspective and say something useful, and he does it very well."
Longtime NHLer and national broadcast analyst Ray Ferraro is unequivocal about what he thinks Crosby is about to achieve on the ice.
"Oh, I think Sid's going to win the scoring title," Ferraro told ESPN.com.
After Crosby got "sidetracked" by all the shenanigans in the first round of the playoffs last season, a series Ferraro calls among the most bizarre he has ever encountered, Ferraro believes that folks won't see that from Crosby again.
As with all things Crosby, though, he transcends what is actually accomplished on the ice. And Ferraro, who played 1,258 regular-season games, said Crosby's profile during the lockout sent an important message about the players' resolve.
"Yes, I thought it was really important for Sid to be involved. And it wasn't like he was standing in the corner," Ferraro said.
Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma tries to pinpoint what, if anything, has changed with his captain over the past two years. It is a sign that whatever changes we are talking about are subtle, perhaps lost to all but those who spend a lot of time with a player largely regarded as the best in the world.
"I don't think he seems different. That wouldn't be the way I'd phrase it at all," Bylsma told ESPN.com. "I don't know if it's the aging process, but he's not necessarily Sid the Kid anymore. He's getting older. I think there's more maturity, and I think that's what you see.
"On the ice, you see the same kind of work ethic and speed and determination and playing and practicing that way. But I think in his leadership and in the room, there's a little more, you see a little bit more of an older veteran. And I don't want to use the word 'veteran' because he's still not that old, but you see that a little bit in talking to him and his demeanor. And I also see a guy who's really close right now to doing what he really loves to do, and that's playing hockey. And that's not just practicing hockey, it's playing hockey, and you kind of get that sense where time has passed."
Part of it is the natural passage of time. But the evolution of Sidney Crosby, the player and the person, also has been shaped by his time away from the game, especially his time away because of injury. For a long time, Crosby would naturally avoid putting himself in the public eye. He often ate in his room on the road because he feared being a distraction to his teammates if he was out with them. In some cities, he entered and exited hotels through back doors and loading docks.
Now, though, you are far more likely to bump into Crosby in a local grocery store or taking in a movie with his pals than ever before.
"You wouldn't have caught me in a grocery store a few years ago, especially at times when it's pretty busy, or movies on a Friday night, stuff like that I probably would typically have stayed away," Crosby said. "Now I try to just do those things and enjoy it because, like I said, I wasn't able to for a while."
After being on what he calls "lockdown" for about a year, worrying every day about recurring concussion symptoms, Crosby has chosen to embrace life, even though his celebrity has at times prompted him to be more cautious about such embraces.
"Prior to getting hurt, I probably would have erred on the side of not having to deal with crowds or things like that," he said. "But I think once you kind of feel like you're on lockdown for a year, trying to not have symptoms, just kind of resting, it's something that I think once it passes, you want to make the most of the time you have and enjoy it and be active. Even if there's places where you're going to be recognized or it's going to be crowded, I think I've probably made more of an effort just to enjoy regular things because I really didn't get to do that for about a year."
Eight years ago, the last lockout ended, and Crosby's arrival and that of chief foil Alex Ovechkin hastened hockey's revival.
Crosby recalls that first season, his rookie year in the NHL, as simply his trying to fit in and trying to meet some of the massive expectations put upon him as the No. 1 pick.
Many of those expectations have been met, of course, but it does not lessen Crosby's desire to prove himself, although his focus might be a little narrower now.
"I think, this time around, I think it's probably similar in the fact that I want to get my game back to where it was, and I haven't played a lot of games the last couple of years, so I think that's where I'm more focused on personally, what I have to do to help our team, than all the other stuff," Crosby said.
If Crosby is no longer as widely touted as the face of the game as he was eight years ago, his importance to the game has not diminished. And if the NHL is to rebound from another self-inflicted hit to its brand, it will need all the Sidney Crosby it can get.
"I think he's the guy still," national analyst Keith Jones offered. "It's tough to find another player to compare him to.
"There's a lot of responsibility that falls on Crosby, and he handles it well. I don't know if there's a more talented guy and a more interesting guy to follow," said Jones, whose perspective as a former Philadelphia Flyer and sometime Flyers analyst exposes him to the twin blades of Crosby love and hate.
"To me, Crosby has 'it.' I'm always impressed by him."
Time, then, for this story to begin again.