From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED Nov. 10, 2003
THIS PRODIGY BUSINESS ISN'T FAIR. MOZART GOT TO play the courts of 18th-century Vienna and Paris and Munich while Sidney Crosby gets the cold arenas of 21st-century Drummondville, Que., and Bathurst, New Brunswick and Lewiston, Maine. And while Mozart probably never had to carry anything heavier than sheet music, Crosby has to lug his equipment bag full of sweat-soaked gear as he travels the junior hockey hinterland.
You might have heard this said about some other player before, but here goes: Crosby is the Next One. However, you've never heard it from such an authority as the Great One. The 16-year-old center with the tousled black hair and half-smile has been tapped on the shoulder by Wayne Gretzky. When asked last summer by The Arizona Republic if a player might one day break some of his NHL scoring records, Gretzky said, "Yes, Sidney Crosby. He's the best player I've seen since Mario [Lemieux]."
Although he won't be eligible for the NHL draft until 2005, Crosby has been on the radar in Canada since his formative years in Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia. He was interviewed by a newspaper reporter for the first time at age seven, and this year he is being tracked in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) with the Rimouski Océanic. In a league in which 19- and 20-year-olds usually dominate and rookies are often grateful for a few shifts a game, Crosby led the QMJHL with 19 goals and 26 assists in his first 21 games and has been named the league's offensive player of the week twice.
"I realize a lot of guys have been tagged with that 'next great player' thing," says Crosby, who is 5' 10" and 185 pounds. "Some have gone on to be great players, some have fallen. I don't want to be one of the guys who disappears. I remind myself of that every day."
Crosby is shifty, fearless and shockingly strong on his skates, but his top attribute might be a remarkable hockey IQ. His best play in a recent Halifax homecoming came not while creating both goals in a 2-1 Rimouski win but by backchecking ferociously to strip a streaking Petr Vrana of the puck in the third period. Crosby, a lefthanded shot, used a maneuver called the can opener on the New Jersey Devils' 2003 second-round draft choice. He stuck his stick under Vrana's right armpit, then whacked him on the inside of his left elbow, freeing the puck. Few big-time NHL players do it with such ease.
Less than 48 hours later Crosby opened some more eyes with a five-point game against Acadie-Bathurst. On one play he swerved to the middle in the offensive zone and then 1) faked a pass that induced the defenseman to drop to the ice; 2) slid the puck under the defenseman as that player went down; 3) hurdled the blueliner without breaking stride; 4) regained control of the puck in the slot; and 5) wheeled to his right while snapping a wrist shot for his second goal. The stunned Bathurst crowd of 3,524 went silent.
Suddenly, there was the sound of two hands clapping. A few others joined in, and then more. This was no frenzy—just light rhythmic applause from fans who had been struck by the realization that they had witnessed perhaps the most remarkable goal they are likely to see in their lifetime.