Can Crosby really live up to hype?

7/30/2005 - NHL

OTTAWA -- Let's start from this simple premise: Sidney Crosby cannot possibly be as good as people expect him to be.

How could he?

If NASA and IBM joined forces and took the heart of Maurice "Rocket" Richard, the hockey mind of Wayne Gretzky, the leadership qualities of Mark Messier and Mike Bossy's shot and created their own super-player, such a creation would still fail to meet the expectations heaped on the slender shoulders of the 17-year-old Canadian.

"You wish him well," one respected agent said. "But he's been built up into an icon before he's scored an NHL goal."

Everyone involved in the game, from the league to the Pittsburgh Penguins to Crosby's handlers, has a stake in what happens from the moment the Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, native steps onto the podium during Saturday's NHL Entry Draft and pulls on a Pittsburgh jersey, donning No. 87.

They also have an equal responsibility to make sure that a young man who will not celebrate his 18th birthday until a week after the draft isn't crushed in the pursuit of their different goals, no matter how honorable and just.

The moment the Penguins were awarded the No. 1 overall pick during last Friday's draft lottery in New York, the phone lines at the team's ticket offices crackled with activity. Operators stayed on the line until midnight Friday, and some stayed at a downtown hotel so they could get back on the phone first thing Saturday. There were reports of spontaneous applause in Pittsburgh offices as the news pushed the Pirates and Steelers off the local sports map for at least a few days -- no small feat considering this is July and, when last seen, the Penguins were the 30th team in the NHL.

A team that had an average attendance of 11,000 in 2003-04, the lowest in 20 years, now can realistically imagine selling out 41 straight home games in the coming season.

"I think the sky's the limit for us," said vice president of communications and marketing Tom McMillan. "It's not Cloud Nine, it's Cloud 87."

Then, there's the small matter of saving an entire league.

Although the league had to be shamed into televising the draft lottery, it turned out to be great theater. Would viewers around the hockey world have tuned in to see which team won the opportunity to draft Rick Nash or Marc-Andre Fleury (another Penguins pick), or last year's top pick, Alexander Ovechkin? No. And that takes nothing away from those players. People tuned in to what became known simply as the "Crosby sweepstakes" or the "Crosby lottery" because circumstances and the uniqueness of the player have combined to create an unprecedented dynamo of excitement and expectation.

Mario Lemieux, at 18, did not face what Crosby faces when the Penguins made him the first overall pick in the 1984 draft. Lemieux spoke little English when he arrived as the savior of the franchise. But he did not have the glut of all-sports cable networks and sports talk radio and the Internet ramping up the hype-o-meter that provides the backdrop to Crosby's entry into the NHL.

They're setting him up for a fall, another top agent predicted. "He's not that good," he added, offering an almost heretical take on the situation. "Yes, he's very good. But there are a lot of very good players out there."

Crosby's résumé includes two World Junior Championship medals, one silver and a gold from earlier this year when he held his own on a powerful Canadian team dominated by 19-year-olds.
His numbers in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League are gaudy (168 points in 62 regular-season games), but one agent cautioned that the league has a history of paying little mind to defense, allowing eye-popping stats.

Although he had 11 points in five games during the Memorial Cup tournament, Crosby was held in check by the eventual champion London Knights.

"This is the NHL. You're going to have to go around Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger, Scott Hannan," the agent said.

Still, it is a delicate matter, daring to raise a hand, even a tentative hand, to question Crosby Mania. No one wants to rain on the league's parade.

Juxtaposed against the scorched landscape of the post-lockout NHL, it's not so much what Crosby has achieved but what he represents and what he might accomplish. He is the fresh face in a league whose very survival depends on looking forward. In the wake of the lockout, the NHL has to rebuild itself on the ice and in the local coffee shops and office buildings of North America. Crosby is the face of that rebuilding -- if he can manage to excel in the finest hockey league in the world.

If there is reason for optimism, however, it is the cocoon that embraces Crosby, beginning with his parents and extending to agent Pat Brisson, who first met a 13-year-old Crosby at a tournament in Toronto.

"He was just a peanut," Brisson said.

But if Brisson sounds concerned about what lies ahead, he betrays none of that. Just as Crosby's game was light-years ahead of his peers', his development and maturity continue to exist beyond his own calendar.

"At 13, he was asking questions like an 18-year-old kid," Brisson said. "It's been going like that from the beginning. It keeps getting better and better because he wants to get better."

Brisson lists Crosby's changing voice and interest in girls as perhaps the most significant changes he has observed in the past five years.

Pittsburgh provides perhaps the perfect landing area for the young phenom, or more to the point, the perfect safety net.

The team is rife with players and staff who have made their lives in Pittsburgh, who understand the game and the city, from the training staff to GM Craig Patrick to coach Ed Olczyk to assistant coaches Joey Mullen and Randy Hillier to Mark Recchi.

"There's a large family here that I think will help because people help in different ways," McMillan said.

The team already is planning to add an extra public relations person to travel with the team, and the team will assist in setting up lodging as the Penguins have traditionally had younger players live with local families. Lemieux, for instance, remains close to the family with whom he stayed when he first came to Pittsburgh. And during the early part of the 2003-04 season, it was Lemieux opening his doors to Fleury.

"He's an 18-year-old kid. You can't take that for granted. We know we carry a responsibility for the league and the sport, as well," McMillan said of Crosby. "We certainly feel the responsibility as an organization, and we take that seriously. But we're glad we have it."

Lemieux, with whom Crosby worked out last summer, will be the focal point in helping with the teenager's assimilation into the NHL culture. He also will be invaluable in absorbing some of the pressure, some of the attention.

"The one thing Mario didn't have when he came here was a Mario to play with," McMillan said.

Olczyk also will be crucial to Crosby's evolution from cult phenom to everyday NHL player. A former Penguin who came to coaching from broadcasting, Olczyk quickly has established a reputation as a fine teaching coach.

"Edzo understands all of the things [Crosby's] going to face, and not just the hockey," McMillan said.

Said Olczyk: "It's going to be important to put him in situations where he's going to have an opportunity to succeed.

"We're going to help him become a good player. Any young player's going to go through a transition period," said Olczyk, who recorded 794 points in 1,031 regular-season games. "At times, it'll probably get a little hectic and a little crazy."

But it's the expectations of the team and the expectations Crosby has set for himself that will matter most to Crosby, Olczyk said.

Maybe it doesn't matter that Crosby can't possibly become the person his clippings suggest. Maybe no one really expects him to. But maybe, against all odds, he'll be enough to make everyone happy.


Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.