GRETZKY: FULL SEASON
CROSBY (40 GAMES)
GOALS PER GAME
ASSISTS PER GAME
POINTS PER GAME
free-agent hockey franchise--are nearing the end of their interminable game of
"arena chicken," which has come down to a choice between a
state-supported rink to be built in Pittsburgh or spiffy new digs awaiting them
in Kansas City. This has turned into a national story of sorts, not because the
fate of the Penguins can resolve the philosophical or economic debates over the
merits of subsidized housing for pro teams but because one day their home,
wherever it is, will be known as the House That Sid Built. Sidney Crosby is
that significant, that good. As the NHL slouched into the second half of a
season in which momentum from the postlockout return seemed to have slammed
into a wall (box, page 52), the emergence of Crosby as hockey's best
player--already, at age 19--was the singular development of 2006--07, a grand
counterweight to all the fretting over unbalanced schedules, inconsistent
refereeing and such that is typical of the league.
The last time a
teen was the dominant player in a major team sport occurred in 1979--80, when
Wayne Gretzky was Crosby's age, which certainly makes the Penguins' future more
intriguing than a checkered past that includes as many bankruptcies (two) as
Stanley Cups. Crosby hopes the club stays in Pittsburgh--"There's a hockey
atmosphere here, but I can still have a little bit of freedom," he said
earlier this month, on a day when team chairman Mario Lemieux, with whom Crosby
lives, was meeting with officials in Kansas City--but he never pesters his boss
for details about the business.
honest, I don't think it really matters in what city Sid plays in terms of his
impact on the game," general manager Ray Shero says. "Like Gretzky in
Edmonton, he transcends place."
During the first
three months of the season, in which he blended a sense of purpose with a
growing maturity, in which he was not a pawn but the king in a chess match
between Pittsburgh and Kansas City, in which he became the youngest player ever
named an All-Star Game starter, Crosby moved beyond being merely the Penguins'
franchise player. He became the league's franchise player.
very similar to Wayne," says Rangers general manager Glen Sather, who
coached the Great One for nine seasons at the start of Gretzky's NHL career.
"Same kind of vision. Crosby sees the ice as well as anybody. And I've seen
[ Crosby] do amazing things, like Wayne. He went through us [last month] and
scored a goal"--a forehand flick from just outside the crease after a rush
that began near center ice--"that was one of the best I've ever seen. He's
feisty, and that's what I like about him too. Wayne was feisty in his way but
not like this guy."
Crosby is not Gretzky. Notwithstanding Gretzky's volunteering in 2003 that if
anyone could break his scoring records, it would be the then 15-year-old
Crosby, no one ever will be Gretzky. As Bobby Orr says of the Gretzky-Crosby
comparisons, "Give it time." Beyond reaching 200 points four times, 100
assists in 11 straight seasons and 70 goals four years in a row, Gretzky was
hockey's foremost inventor in the 1980s. He would gain the blue line and then
curl, buying himself time and options. He opened up the area behind the net as
surely as Lewis and Clark did the Northwest, planting himself there and forcing
enervated defensemen to twirl their sticks like the metal players in the old
table hockey games in hopes of deflecting his passes. Gretzky would play the
game to his whims, often fast but sometimes in waltz time, a maestro dictating
Crosby is more,
well, conventional. He has superb hockey sense (think Nashville's Paul Kariya),
a heavy shot (like Colorado's Joe Sakic) and premier speed (quicker than
Montreal's Saku Koivu). He is also Gibraltar on skates (a compact version of
the Rangers' Jaromir Jagr) and plays capable defense--at week's end Crosby was
a +13 on a team that was a collective +3. All these attributes in one player
(let alone the fourth youngest in the league) is extraordinary--"You point
to other elite players, and there's always some hole, but he doesn't have
any," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff says--but Crosby's skills are not unique in
themselves. The 5'10", 203-pound center isn't reinventing the game, merely
playing it at a rarefied level.
Consider, for one
thing, the statistics. Juxtapose them, fiddle with decimal points, contrast and
compare. In his one full year of juniors, as a 17-year-old, Gretzky (who has a
January birthday) had 182 points. Crosby, as a 17-year-old (born in August),
had 168 for Rimouski of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. At 18 Gretzky
had 110 points, mainly with the Oilers, to finish third in World Hockey
Association scoring. As an 18-year-old rookie last season Crosby had 102, sixth
in the NHL. Gretzky, 19 in 1979--80, the season of the NHL-WHA merger, tied
Marcel Dionne for the scoring lead with 137 points while playing in 79 games.
This season Crosby had 21 goals and 45 assists through Sunday (he missed three
matches in November because of a groin injury), putting him on pace for 130
points in 79 games.
difference is that when Gretzky ran amok as a 19-year-old, the league average
was 7.02 per game, suggesting goals were a bit easier to come by than this
season when the average was 5.95 (chart, page 55). The statistical conceit gets
reinforced each time the Penguins see a televised classic game from 25 years
ago. The goalies look almost svelte in their equipment. Some of the defense
appears as soft as a grandmother's heart. "The guys will sit back and
[say], 'If only the goalies had smaller equipment now ...'" Crosby says.
"Certainly it's a different style. Goalies were standing up [in the early
1980s]. You could score along the ice a little more, and their five holes were
bigger." (Crosby watches tapes of his father, Troy, a goalie drafted 240th
by Montreal in 1984, and tells him, "I would have scored on you.")