His dark hair matted with sweat and his skates still laced half an hour after stunned fans had left Mellon Arena and ventured into a rainy autumn night, Sidney Crosby looked as if he were awaiting a tap on the shoulder to jump over the boards and dish off another saucer-flat pass or drive to the net.
Crosby had set up a goal, drawn six penalties and played fearlessly, but that wasn’t enough to prevent the Penguins from squandering a third-period lead in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Florida Panthers on Tuesday. He couldn’t sort out the confusion within the defense corps or play goal, so the team remained winless in a franchise-record first nine games -- Crosby’s first nine games in the NHL.
This isn’t how the dream was supposed to unfold for the kid who had been touted for stardom since his pre-teen years in tiny Cole Harbour, Canada.
Crosby was hailed as a life preserver for the Penguins and a league desperate for marketable stars. Blessed with great anticipation and an innate understanding of the game, he has been splendid in every regard.
The Penguins have not, losing four games in regulation time, four in overtime and one in a shootout. It’s not what anyone expected after they won the right to draft him -- generating more ticket sales in three weeks than for the entire 2003-04 season -- and spent $40 million on free agents Sergei Gonchar, Ziggy Palffy and John LeClair. This isn’t a baptism by fire. It’s more like immolation.
Mario Lemieux, the Penguins’ owner-player, acknowledged before Tuesday’s loss that Crosby is facing difficult circumstances. Lemieux knows of what he speaks: the Penguins missed the playoffs twice in a row before they drafted him first overall in 1984 and missed the next four seasons too.
“Everybody’s frustrated, and he is too,” said Lemieux, who took Crosby into his home and chauffeurs the 18-year-old to games and practices. “He certainly is not used to this, after a big year in junior. We have to be patient and help him.”
They couldn’t help themselves Tuesday, losing after Lemieux got an interference penalty with 19 seconds left in the third period and the Panthers capitalized 53 seconds into overtime. Afterward, Lemieux declined to talk to reporters. Crosby sat alone in the locker room, politely saying all the right things.
“It’s not easy now, but we’re all in this together,” he said. “It was tough for us to battle that hard and be in the position we are and maybe get a questionable call, but that’s the way it is and we have to realize that and find a way. That’s hockey, and that’s the way it goes sometimes.”
Playing an average of 18 minutes 24 seconds a game, he’s the NHL’s rookie scoring leader with two goals, 10 assists and 12 points. Over an 82-game season that projects to more than 18 goals, 91 assists and 110 points.
He gets time on the power play and at even strength, and sometimes kills penalties; he joins the penalty killing unit’s meetings for fun.
“He wants to be out there all the time,” Coach Ed Olczyk said, “and I think he understands that we’re putting him in a lot of situations where it breeds success because that builds confidence, especially in a young guy.”
Give him an opportunity, and Crosby will seize the moment.
“He can score, he can pass, he can hit. He’s going to be good,” said Palffy, a former King who has been one of Crosby’s regular wingers.
“For 18 years old kid he’s unbelievable. I was 18, I had skill but not that skill. And I didn’t play in the NHL. Not too many guys 18 years old can play in the NHL.”
But not many kids work with personal trainers when they’re 13 and begin media training at 14. Yet, he’s no Todd Marinovich, no scientific experiment or product of a parent’s failed dream.
Working with trainer Andy O’Brien helped Crosby develop the thickly muscled thighs that give him the explosive first step, strength and balance that solidify his 5-foot-11, 193-pound frame. Crosby is so dedicated to his regimen that he brought O’Brien to a charity golf tournament last summer to be sure he didn’t miss a session.
“We didn’t take the approach that we’d force him into it. No one said, ‘Sid, this is what you’re going to be,’ ” O’Brien said. “He has a tremendous amount of maturity. When he walks into the weight room, it’s like a lawyer walking into a courtroom or a surgeon walking into an operating room. He’s very focused.”
No fast food or late nights for Crosby, for whom a night off means watching DVDs with Lemieux’s four kids.
“He’s completely oblivious to a lot of things kids do, like partying,” O’Brien said. “He wants to become the best hockey player he could be.... It’s almost like he doesn’t understand the word ‘failure.’ ”
The media training prepared Crosby for the hype that surrounded him even before he scored 120 goals and 303 points in his last two seasons with the Rimouski Oceanic of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He was dubbed “The Next One,” a play on Wayne Gretzky’s nickname “The Great One,” well before he needed to shave. The Globe and Mail, a newspaper that circulates throughout Canada, assigned a reporter to live in Pittsburgh to chronicle Crosby’s season.
There are many tales worth telling. He has signed endorsement deals with Reebok, for whom he recently shot a television commercial, Gatorade and Telus, a Canadian telecommunications company. He also appears in the current issue of GQ.
“We could do a lot more deals but Sid wants to do it a step at a time,” said his agent, Pat Brisson. “We could have a quick service restaurant, a bank or a credit card, but that stuff takes a lot of time. It took eight hours to do the Reebok commercial. He wants to play first, so he’s very selective.”
He could have a higher profile if he played in Toronto or New York, but Crosby interrupted a question about where he hoped to land.
“I’m happy I’m here. We’ll just leave it at that,” said Crosby, who professed he knew nothing about Pittsburgh before he arrived but likes its modest size and pace.
Said Brisson: “He’s definitely in the right environment, getting a chance to play with Mario Lemieux, one of the best, if not the best player ever to play. It’s good for Sid to be in a different market and bring action to that market. And with today’s technology, every city is very close. It’s not like he’s at the end of the world.”
Ending the Penguins’ winless streak is Crosby’s main concern. He gets another chance tonight against Atlanta at Mellon Arena.
“To be honest, there is a little bit of pressure because we’re not winning, and if we can get through this and get through adversity, we’re going to be better for it,” he said.
“I’m competitive. I want to win and sometimes you want to go out there and you want to throw people around. I don’t try to be anything I’m not. For me, that’s the bottom line. I try to go out there and work hard, put an honest day’s work in every time I come to the rink and play with passion and heart, and that’s all you can do.”
For the Next One, that’s more than enough.