Wild fans will get their first up-close-and-personal look at Penguins savior Sidney Crosby tonight in St. Paul. And yes, he's as good as advertised, both on and off the ice.
Don't get Sidney Crosby wrong.
The Pittsburgh Penguins superstar, and the player many believe is the best in the NHL, badly wants to skate onto the Xcel Energy Center ice for the first time tonight and beat the Wild.
But he does have a soft spot for the team, too.
When "Sid the Kid" really was a kid, or more accurately a hotshot teenager burning out red goal lights for fun at Shattuck-St. Mary's in Faribault, Minn., Crosby, like thousands of Minnesotans, got caught up in Wild Fever. It was 2003, and the Wild was in the midst of its Cinderella run to the Western Conference finals. Crosby, a native of Nova Scotia, was 15 years old attending the Minnesota boarding school/hockey haven, and he spent many nights cheering on the Wild down at 7th and Kellogg.
"When Minnesota made the run there, I was lucky enough to see all the playoff games and go to games as a fan," Crosby said during a telephone interview. "I went to five or 10 games during the year, too, and every game was sold out. Even for a regular-season game, the atmosphere there is pretty amazing.
"But in the playoffs, especially, it was a fun place to be. I remember thinking, 'Boy, this would be a cool place to play,' so it's kind of fun that I'm going to have a chance to finally play there."Finally" is the right word. Crosby, who at 20 is the youngest captain in NHL history, has dominated his first two seasons like no other teenager in history.
As an 18-year-old rookie, he became the youngest player ever to score 100 points (102). At 19, he became the first teenager in major pro team sports history to win a scoring title, scoring 120 points (36 goals, 84 assists), and became the seventh player to win the Hart Trophy (MVP), Art Ross Trophy (leading scorer) and Lester Pearson Trophy (Outstanding Player as voted by NHLPA members) in the same season.
Yet tonight will be the first opportunity for Wild fans to see the flashy No. 87 -- dubbed "the Next One" -- up close and personal.
Because of the unbalanced schedule, Eastern and Western Conference teams travel to only one division in the other conference each season. So tonight's contest will be Crosby's first in a Northwest Division road city.
Next season, that's expected to change. In order to ensure young stars such as Crosby play in Western cities more often, the NHL will alter its schedule.
His first visit to the Northwest
"I'm excited to play [in the Northwest] because they're all full houses and hockey cities," said Crosby, who scored 72 goals and 162 points in 57 games for Shattuck-St. Mary's in 2002-03. "It's exciting to go on the road and know there's a challenge of going into a building that's full of fans that are probably all against you.
"Sometimes that motivates you, even if it's not your own crowd."
That's all the Wild needs -- a more motivated Crosby. The kid's good enough, with the hype following him since he was 13.
This is a guy that did GQ and Vanity Fair photo shoots before he ever came to his first NHL training camp. He has been on the "Tonight Show." He has endorsement deals with Reebok, Gatorade and Canadian-based coffee/donut shop Tim Hortons. A number of books have been written about him, and remember, he turned 20 in August.
This type of treatment usually is reserved for football, baseball and basketball players.
"The media and promotional requests are non-stop," said Tom McMillan, the Penguins' vice president of communications for 12 years who worked as a writer and broadcaster in Pittsburgh for 17.
So McMillan knows superstars, especially with the Penguins. He was there with Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, but that was in a day where there wasn't a 24-hour sports appetite in Canada and the United States.
"This is just a different world, and Sid accepts it as part of his job because he wants to promote this team and this sport," McMillan said.
Frank Buonomo, the Penguins' senor director of team services and media relations, handles Crosby's schedule.
"It's just a matter of filtering through the many requests to see what maximizes our organization, the NHL and Sidney," Buonomo said. "There's something every day and we try to help everybody, but there's no way we can do everything. His job is still to play hockey, but at this level, you couldn't work with a guy more cooperative."
Said Crosby, "I'd never complain about the attention -- ever. I feel very fortunate to be doing what I love to do. Not everyone gets that chance every day. This is just part of it, and it comes down to managing my time to make sure I concentrate on my passion, which is the hockey, and have time away from hockey."
'Best player in the game'
Crosby has an unusual combination of skill, strength, speed and determination. He has a great shot, uncanny vision and has no problem cutting through the middle and playing in traffic.
"When I see an opening, see a chance, I try to react and sometimes just trust my instincts," Crosby said. "People think it works all the time, but sometimes it doesn't work. Sometimes I get hit, sometimes I lose the puck. Those are, I guess, judgment calls. But sometimes, it works and it's nice when they do."
Crosby is being humble. It often works for him. Just look at the dozens of Crosby highlights that roam the Internet. He attacks the blue line as if he's a running back penetrating the line of scrimmage.
"If he gets you on an angle, you're not stopping him," said Rick Dudley, now assistant general manager in Chicago after being the GM in Ottawa, Tampa Bay and Florida. "He's so powerful, when he drives inside, you're not going to be able to stop him.
"I think he's the best player in the game. He single-handedly could affect a game more than any other player."
Luckily for Crosby, though, he has lots of help. He's surrounded by a young nucleus in Jordan Staal, 19, Evgeni Malkin, 21, Marc-Andre Fleury, 22, and Ryan Whitney, 24, a group that helped the Penguins to a 47-victory, 105-point season in 2006-07 for their first playoff berth since 2001.
Pittsburgh lost to Ottawa in five games in the first round, but Crosby said he believes the experience will make all the difference this season.
"I feel really fortunate, and I think we all do as a group of young guys getting to grow together," Crosby said. "It definitely helped us going through our first playoff last year. It wasn't a long series by any stretch, but just to get that feel and be part of that atmosphere and to see how hard it is to win, and how you have to raise your game, it's good to realize that.
"But I think you can only say that so long. It's nice to always talk about the young core, the young core, but sooner or later, people are going to want results. Players want to see results, too."
Crosby, who still lives with Lemieux and his family, was named the Penguins' captain May 31 after turning down the captaincy twice last season, once during All-Star weekend. He said he wasn't ready, which arguably shows such maturity, it's probably proof he was ready.
This is a kid who had to be forbidden from attending optional skates last season by coach Michel Therrien. He's a guy who insisted on going into the Penguins' offices last year and personally thanking the sales team. On his own, he called Angelo Esposito, the 20th overall pick in June's draft, and welcomed him to the organization. He delivered season tickets to fans, with one excited woman, 30-year season-ticket holder Alice Kilgore, saying, "They said a Penguin. They didn't say Sidney Crosby."You know, I really didn't want [the captaincy] until I got through the whole playoff experience and also got to watch and learn from guys like [veteran Gary] Roberts," Crosby said. "Now being two full years with the guys, I have that comfort level, and it makes a difference."
The 'Kid' who saved Pittsburgh
The reality is Crosby came at the perfect time for the NHL. He and Washington's Alex Ovechkin were the fresh, new faces following a lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season. On July 22, 2005, an hour after the lockout ended, there was the Sidney Crosby Sweepstakes, or the moment the ping-pong ball fell right for the Penguins. (By the way, the Wild finished fourth in the Crosby Sweepstakes).
The Penguins, who have sold out 19 home games in a row and 29 of their past 31, are expected to sell out every home game this season. They capped season-ticket sales for the first time and have only a handful left for each game at the 16,940-seat Igloo.
This is a team that averaged 11,000 a game before the lockout.
"We've never had a ticket-selling frenzy like this at all levels," McMillan said. "We have a very exciting young core, so it's impossible to quantify, but Sidney is the catalyst for what's going on. We've been very lucky here in Pittsburgh to have two once-in-a-lifetime players in the same lifetime [Lemieux and Crosby]."
Until Crosby came along, the Penguins looked destined to relocate, with Kansas City being the front-runner. Now? There's a groundbreaking for a new arena planned for the springtime.
It's been tagged the "House that Sidney Crosby Built."I don't know about that," Crosby said, laughing. "I think the fans earned it with the support they've shown during tough years in Pittsburgh. The fans really stuck behind the team, and they deserve to get a new rink. As players last year, we wanted to make sure we played as well as possible so we could do our part."
Ed Olczyk, Crosby's first Penguins coach in 2005, says this class is what separates Crosby.
"To see how he absorbs the attention and handles himself and genuinely wants to sell the game," Olczyk said, "it's quite special to see. He's the best player in the game, but he's an unbelievable kid, too, who knows who he is and where he wants to get to.
"He's just a solid person. Between the ears and inside the chest, he's a special guy."
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