Hockey

CAN SIDNEY Crosby SAVE THE NHL?

The can’t-miss kid is just what the locked-out league needs, but his dazzling skills could be wasted in the pros, writes CHARLIE GILLIS

May 9 2005
Hockey

CAN SIDNEY Crosby SAVE THE NHL?

The can’t-miss kid is just what the locked-out league needs, but his dazzling skills could be wasted in the pros, writes CHARLIE GILLIS

May 9 2005

CAN SIDNEY Crosby SAVE THE NHL?

Hockey

The can’t-miss kid is just what the locked-out league needs, but his dazzling skills could be wasted in the pros, writes CHARLIE GILLIS

ON THE FIRST TRULY WARM DAY of a Gaspé spring, Sidney Crosby is putting the pond back into hockey. He and his Rimouski Océanic teammates have gathered at the Colisée, a gracefully aging 4,300-seater perched about a kilometre above the St. Lawrence, and their home in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. They’ve just completed a second-round playoff sweep of the rival Lewiston Maineiacs, and their reward from coach Doris Labonté this morning is a break from the regular grind of practice: four-on-four shinny instead of wind sprints and line drills. About 100 fans have gathered to watch, lining the boards and huddling in the teal-coloured seats above. Schoolchildren clutch hockey cards and posters, readying their pens for postpractice autographs. At the rink’s north end, greying men slouch in a row behind the glass, their eyes glued to Number 87.

At 17, Crosby has been variously compared to Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Joe Sakic, Bobby Orr, Steve Yzerman and—in one recent newspaper article— Elvis Presley. The latter was presumably based on his ability to fill buildings, which he’s been doing since his gold-medal performance in January at the world junior hockey championship. And there is an unmistakable air of teen idol about him, too, with flocks of adolescent girls appearing at his road games throughout Quebec, rushing the bench after practice and squealing as he skates by. You could forgive a kid for losing his focus.

But give Crosby some space in an up-tempo game, and you soon get a glimpse of the substance behind the delirium—a unique blend of skills that has NHL general managers considering which limb they’d saw off to get him

into their team’s jersey. Today, his talent is in flight. Thirty-seven seconds after the puck drops, freezes a defender with a shoulder fake, takes the open lane to the net and deposits a shot behind the goaltender, Scott Fraser. Another goal follows on his next shift, and by the end of the scrimmage, Crosby has retreated to defence, having scored four goals, assisted a bucketful more and waged a couple of mano-a-mano battles along the boards. When he emerges from the building, he’s still oozing adrenaline, yet hardly seems to have broken a sweat. “That’s the first time we’ve been allowed to do that,” he says with a grin, climbing into his Mazda SUV. “It was fun.”

NOW THERE’S a word you don’t hear linked to hockey very often any more. The lockout; Todd Bertuzzi’s attack on Steve Moore; declining offensive output; the choking influence of defensive systems on the flow of the game: these are the hallmarks of hockey at its highest level, and fun has been dropped from the equation. And while no one’s about to declare the game’s nuclear winter over because a high-schooler banged in a few goals at practice, what the young centre offers is an elixir the National Hockey League has spent the last decade seeking. This year, he put up numbers like no 17-yearold in the past two decades—168 points in 62 games— posing the intriguing prospect of a player capable of lifting the game to new heights, the way Lemieux and Gretzky did in the 1980s and ’90s. You need only look at the Océanie to see his effect. After a miserable, 11-win season in 2002-03, the team vaulted to the top of its division in 2003-04, Crosby’s rookie year. This season, Rimouski’s been practically unstoppable, averaging 4.76 goals a night and sailing into the third playoff round on a 35-game undefeated streak before finally losing a game last week to Chicoutimi. Crosby’s linemates, Dany Roussin and Marc-Antoine Pouliot, finished second and third respectively in league scoring, while the Océanie are now hands-down favourites to represent the

‘He doesn’t stay out late, doesn’t

QMJHL later this month at junior hockey’s national championship, the Memorial Cup, in London, Ont.

The question now is whether the NHL will get its act together in time to take advantage of his talents. He would undoubtedly cringe to hear it (“I’m just concentrating on making it to the next level”), but the issue will never be more timely. This spring, Crosby is eligible for the NHL entry draft and, if the lockout is settled before next season, he’s a solid bet to spend most of2005-06 in the league. At the same time, hockey’s brain trust is engaged in the most searching reexamination of the sport since it embraced the forward pass back in the 1930s. Last month in Michigan, all 30 NHL general managers met with a handful of player representatives to discuss ideas aimed at generating goals, such as permitting two-line passes, trimming the size of goalie equipment and expanding the nets.

Crosby is not the sole cause of this review, of course. But his imminent debut adds to its sense of urgency. Will the NHL allow him to score, to make the gorgeous plays he’s proven he can make? Or will it leave

him to war with thuggish, grasping defenders in a creatively retarded game?

If this seems like a lot to heap on a teenager’s shoulders, consider the stake Crosby himself has in the outcome. Less than two years ago, no less an authority than Gretzky anointed him most likely to match the Great One’s records. In the blink of an eye he had become the Next One—the best player, said Gretzky, “since Mario.” It’s the kind of prediction that can launch a career, or crush it, sending a player on a spiral of self-loathing for every night he falls short of brilliance. So far, Crosby’s been holding up just fine. Last season, he became the first 16-year-old to win the Canadian Hockey League’s scoring title, constructing passing plays that left scouts shaking their heads in disbelief. He was only the fifth 16-year-old to represent Canada at the world juniors, and in June—if the selection of juniors hadn’t been postponed—he’d have been the handsdown first overall pick in a draft pool that scouts describe as the deepest in years.

But Crosby is not Gretzky, and herein lies a potential problem. Though short by NHL standards at five foot eleven and 195 lb., he revels in rough play, something neither Gretzky nor Lemieux managed to convincingly fake. It helps that he’s built like an inukshuk—thick and rock-hard through the torso with stumpy, wide-set legs. One scout who’s followed Crosby since bantam marvels at his ability to make his plays after, not before, marauding checkers have given him their best shot. “When he gets across the blue line he kind of sets himself up as a tripod, with his skates apart and his stick down on the ice,” explains Dennis Maclnnis of the Antigonish, N.S.-based International Scouting Services. “Then he just lets his hockey sense and vision and playmaking skills take over. You can hit him all you want and you’re not going to knock him down.” But there have been other talented players in the NHL who were driven to play tough, and too frequently they’ve been stymied by injury. Eric Lindros’s career has been derailed by concussions. Peter Forsberg, the player to whom Crosby is most frequently compared in terms of talent, style and physical stature, has suffered 20 serious injuries over the past five seasons, including five concussions, and sat out all of 2001-02 due to a ruptured spleen. Now 31 and unsigned, the gutsy Swede should be poised to cash in on being a soughtafter free agent. Instead, he’s been musing about retirement. And while recent reports suggest Forsberg hopes to come back in 2005-06 should the league and players settle, no one seriously believes he will be the player he once was.

lave time for a girlfriend.

CROSBY, FOR THE RECORD, would rather spend his NHL career scoring goals than battering himself into long-term disability. He’s seated in a booth at an Italian restaurant where he and his teammates often dine, chewing over ideas to make the game faster, more fun, more open. “I like the idea of not having a red line,” he says, between bites of chicken alfredo and gulps of bottled water. While expanding the nets strikes him as a bit drastic, he’ll be the last to complain: “I’ll take every inch I can get,” he says, smiling. “The good thing is that

everyone’s still trying to learn and find ways to make the game better. Hopefully, eventually, it’ll open up a bit more. If it doesn’t, I’ve got to find a way to adapt.” Today, as on most days, he is a walking advertisement. The black hoodie, the trainers and the cap he’s wearing are all symbols of the reported five-year, multimillion-dollar endorsement agreement he recently signed with Reebok, the sportswear company. Without ever lacing up for a pro game, Sidney Crosby is rich. But his abundant poise helps explain the fortune Reebok and others have invested in his future. He punctuates sentences with reflexive smiles, a visible enthusiasm that makes him the most camera-warm hockey star since Orr. And he’s plainly comfortable with the media’s relentless dissection of his young life, something he’s endured since doing his first interview at age 7. “It gets to be part of your routine,” he says, “like putting your equipment on before practice.”

The Canadian pastoral version of that story is quickly becoming legend. It starts with a hockey-mad father, Troy, drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in the 12th round in 1984, yet never given his cup of coffee in the NHL. At 3V2, Sidney was taking afternoon free skates at the Halifax Forum, where attendants would throw out plastic sticks and balls for the kids to use during the last 10 minutes of each session. Even then, says Troy, he looked like a prodigy. “He seemed to know instinctively how to hold a stick, and he could keep the ball away from the other kids.” Shinny on nearby Bissett Lake would come later, as would games in the family basement in Cole Harbour, N.S., during which Sidney dented the dryer beyond recognition with his wrist shot. To his mother Trina’s amazement, the appliance works to this day.

What gets less attention is the gruelling exercise regime Crosby adopted in his early teens, strengthening his quadriceps, hamstrings and abdominal muscles while his friends were eating chips and playing video games. “Leg strength, speed and agility are going to help me most as a player,” he explains matter-of-factly. “And balance. I have to be able to fight off bigger, stronger guys and at the same time stay fast. It’s not always easy.” His training obsession reflects his competitiveness: he routinely hits the ice 45 minutes before practice, he’s usually the last to leave, and he puts in about 90 minutes a day, five days a week, at the gym. “He doesn’t drink any pop, doesn’t eat sugary stuff, doesn’t stay out late, doesn’t have time for a girlfriend,” says Guy Boucher, an assistant coach with the Océanie. “He wants to win so bad he can’t even play a game of cards for fun.”

But the work ethic also stems from Crosby’s own beliefs about the game, underpinned by his on-ice experience, his father’s homespun wisdom and his own formidable knowledge of hockey history. Scoring goals, he argues, is harder now—not just because leagues allow obstruction, but because the average player is bigger, faster, stronger and better coached. The result, he says, is an ice surface that feels more crowded, where checkers reach puck carriers in an instant, meaning playmakers have milliseconds to select their moves. “There’s not much you can do that’s different from anyone else, to make you that much better,” he says. “Everyone trains in the off-season. Every guy’s in shape and he has to be to compete.” Factor in advances in netminding—from the so-called “butterfly” positional technique to lightweight padding—and you have a goal recession the likes of which the NHL has rarely seen, he points out. The stats back him up: while Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers broke the 400-goal mark in team scoring five separate times in the 1980s, the Ottawa Senators topped the league in 2003-04 with just 262.

No surprise, then, that Crosby’s been gently distancing himself from the Great One’s bold predictions. “It’s not like you can say, hey, this guy’s going to be another Wayne Gretzky,” he says. “I don’t think anyone in their right frame of mind would put that pressure on himself. You’d drive yourself crazy.”

There are unspoken themes that run through most of Crosby’s responses. He does not consider himself

special. He accepts the sport as it is. He is a hockey talent, not a miracle worker. And yet the hope persists throughout the hockey community that he will transcend the game’s flaws, and become the flagbearer for some sort of firewagon revival. Even as the lockout drags on, top officials with both the NHL and the players’ association are talking up the need to return with a faster, cleaner product to win back fans. Both sides view the arrival of Crosby as pivotal to that strategy. “I know for a fact they want to capitalize on it,” says Pat Brisson, Crosby’s agent. “He’s very articulate and well-spoken and the league has to take advantage of this. He can deliver a clear message for them.”

But if he’s not allowed to excel, what kind of message does that send? Paul Fenton, chief scout for the Nashville Predators, doubts that Crosby or anyone else can turn back the clock to the Gretzky era, because it would mean prying coaches, players and managers away from the prevailing mindset that defence wins games. “A colleague of mine asked the other day, ‘When’s the last time you saw somebody introduce a new offensive strategy to the game?’ ’’says Fenton, who played eight seasons in the NHL. “Our hockey people, our coaches, are finding ways to defend. But we’re not finding ways to score goals.”

Another Gretzky? 'You'd drive yourself crazy' thinking like that,

Bill Beaney, a coach at Middlebury College in Vermont and a leading advocate in the U.S. for cleaner, more wide-open hockey, is similarly pessimistic. He’s spent years railing against defensive “systems” like the neutral-zone trap, which he says boil down to little more than interference and obstruction. “I think when he’s judged against his contemporaries, Sidney Crosby’s going to come out with flying colours,” he says. “It’s just a shame he won’t be able to give us as many of those Guy Lafleur-type moments as he might if the game was allowed to proceed the way most fans would like.”

The NHL response? Well, you’ve heard this before, but there is a consensus among owners, players and managers that it’s time to enforce the existing obstruction rules and make rule changes necessary to let the game breathe. “Everyone recognizes that when we come back, we have to sell this game to the fans,” says Gary Meagher, the league’s spokesman in Toronto. “That’s what came out of the GMs’ meetings.” The NHL has tried to fix itself several times,

of course, with crackdowns on stickwork and the introduction of obstruction penalties in 1998. In each case, the resolve of on-ice officials melted as the season wore on. But sources close to the talks say the collective will really is stronger this time. While general managers voted 30-0 one year ago against allowing two-line passes, for example, many—possibly a majority—are reportedly interested in giving it a go when play resumes. One source said rule changes are “definitely coming,” and are bound to be dramatic.

IN THE MEANTIME, Crosby is making the most of his time in a league where he and his team reign supreme. Driving north through the sunlit streets of Rimouski, he appears less consumed by the goal drought in prohockey than by the challenge of getting a paintball game going among his teammates. Working his cellphone and consulting with Yannick Dumais, the team’s PR man, who is riding in the back seat, he susses out potential venues, sighing at one operation’s lamentable policy of closing on Sunday. On the dashboard is a dog-eared sticky note bearing a list of cryptic, badly outdated reminders: “Xmas gifts. Jersey. Meeting with woman.” He’d left it there over the holidays, he explains, and it was still there on Jan. 7, the day Rimouski’s unbeaten streak began. “I’m a little superstitious,” he says. “So I didn’t want to take it off. Now all the guys on the team know about it.”

Brisson is fond of saying his client acts five years older than his age, and as pressure mounts on the young phenom to discuss his future, it’s easy to see why. In recent days, speculation has arisen over what he’ll do if the lockout destroys next season. Crosby has shucked off the questions with a response as honest as it is empty: he’ll play in the best league he can, whether it’s a European circuit, the American Hockey League or (if it ever gets off the ground) the World Hockey Association. Then, out of respect for his team, he quickly channels conversation back to the task at hand, namely winning the QMJHL playoffs and getting his club a berth in the Memorial Cup. “After that,” he says, “will be the time to decide what I want to do with my future.”

It’s as if he’s gratefully aware he’s entered a special, fleeting phase of life—a kind of golden age. He speaks wistfully of teammates he’ll soon leave behind, and of Rimouski, a city that welcomed him with open arms. “After this year a lot of the guys are going to go different ways,” he says over lunch, glancing out the window, “so we just try to take advantage of all the time we can to hang out.” It sounds a bit odd coming from a 17-year-old who, if all goes as planned, has huge fortune, international fame and his best playing years ahead of him. But Crosby has a reputation for making the most of his surroundings, and bringing fun to the game wherever he plays.

Under the circumstances, the NHL’s task doesn’t seem so hard: settle the lockout, open the doors and, for the sake of its long-suffering fans, let this kid show his stuff. 171