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Already (at 19!) The Best
January 22, 2007
In his second season Sidney Crosby is setting himself apart from the rest of the league--and scoring at a pace close to none other than Wayne Gretzky's
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January 22, 2007

Already (at 19!) The Best

In his second season Sidney Crosby is setting himself apart from the rest of the league--and scoring at a pace close to none other than Wayne Gretzky's

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GOALS PER GAME 0.65 0.53 0.62
ASSISTS PER GAME 1.09 1.13 1.33
POINTS PER GAME 1.73 1.65 1.95
PLUS/MINUS 0 +13 --

The Penguins--a 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.

"To be 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.

" Crosby's 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."

The disclaimer: 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 tempo.

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.

The contextual 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.")

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