From Associated Press

Up in Canada, where hockey is as much a passion as it is a sport and its best homegrown players are prized not just for being fun-to-watch celebrities but national treasures, they’ve known all about Sidney Crosby for years.

Countless fans can recite his Gretzky- and Lemieux-like junior hockey statistics from memory. They can recall vividly the first time they saw him outskate two others to the puck or put a 100-foot pass directly on a teammate’s stick. They know his parents’ names, his sister’s, his street address in Cape Harbour, Nova Scotia, what he likes to eat, his shift-by-shift performances during the world junior championships and what he does for fun.

The next Mario Lemieux? No doubt. The next Wayne Gretzky? Could be. His nickname? The Great One is already taken, so he settles for the Next One.


“He’s going to be a superstar in this league,” Pittsburgh Penguin teammate John LeClair said, making up his mind after a single training camp practice alongside Crosby.

And Sidney Crosby just turned 18.

In the United States, where hockey can disappear for 15 months without many people knowing or caring except for noticing the increased poker coverage on ESPN2, Crosby hasn’t played a game yet but already is recognizable among the mostly indistinguishable mass of oft-scarred and stitched-up hockey player faces.

He’s not just in the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated, but in GQ (with his shirt off) and Vanity Fair (with it very much on). He’s already being compared to the NBA’s LeBron James for his instant and forceful effect on his sport, not just from a performance standpoint but an economic one. In the three weeks immediately after the Penguins won the draft lottery and chose Crosby -- General Manager Craig Patrick compared it to hitting the lottery -- the team sold more tickets than in the entire 2003-04 season.

“This is huge for us,” said Lemieux, the Penguins’ owner-player who decided, coincidentally or not, to not sell the team as previously planned within days after landing Crosby.

And Lemieux didn’t mean that only from a he’s-going-to-score-a-lot-of-goals and sell-a-lot-of-tickets standpoint. The Penguins have lobbied unsuccessfully for years for a new arena to replace 44-year-old Mellon Arena, the league’s oldest and smallest. Now, they hope the sellout crowds and the excitement Crosby creates and the star players he attracts (LeClair, Sergei Gonchar, Ziggy Palffy, Jocelyn Thibault) will ratchet up the momentum and public outcry for a new building.

And Sidney Crosby just turned 18.

On the ice, the 5-foot-11 Crosby more resembles, physically and aesthetically, a playmaking 6-foot-1 Peter Forsberg than he does a physically imposing and superbly gifted 6-4 Lemieux. Some scouts argue Crosby already is the best skater and passer in the league, even if they do not yet have a regular-season game to judge him by. Because of his speed and exceptional playmaking ability, it took him just one practice to mesh with LeClair and Mark Recchi, the two high-scoring ex-Flyers who will open the season alongside on the Penguins’ No. 1 line.

How’s that for impact: Crosby already has pushed Lemieux, one of the sport’s greatest players, to the No. 2 line.

No wonder Penguin scout Greg Malone, whose son Ryan, is a Crosby teammate, wrote on his first Crosby scouting report: “He’s the real deal.” Crosby was 14 at the time.

“I’m not trying to be the next Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux,” Crosby said. “I am putting pressure on myself to do my best and perform to my potential -- that’s all I can do.”

And what might that potential be?

“People have said he’s got the vision of Wayne Gretzky and the goal-scoring and playmaking ability of Mario Lemieux,” Patrick said.

Just can’t get away from those names, can he?

And his No. 87 jersey? It’s already selling in Pittsburgh in numbers comparable, given the huge disparity in interest between the two sports, to No. 7 -- the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger, the second-year quarterback who only last weekend lost his first regular-season game.

And Sidney Crosby just turned 18.

Crosby’s debut, which comes Wednesday night at New Jersey, is easily the most anticipated for a Pittsburgh rookie since Lemieux’s in 1984.