The auteur theory rules in cinema and in sports, and in the celebrated case of A's general manager Billy Beane, it does so at the same time. This is the gilded age of the sports architect, even those who haven't had the good fortune of being played by Brad Pitt, a time when the guys in suits—or Levi's, in one case—have become the leading men in the unscripted dramas of America's games. Theo Epstein, late of the Red Sox, became a matinee idol in the city of big shoulders and day baseball when he was named Cubs president. Bill Belichick gets to buy the groceries and cook the meals in New England, even if his secondary is getting burned. There are heralded, headline-grabbing coaches with whom the world is not merely on a first-name but on an initial basis, like, say, K.
Then someone comes along to remind you what really matters.
After missing 319 days because of a concussion, Sidney Crosby returned to the Penguins on Nov. 21, the most entertaining comeback since dinosaurs resurfaced in Jurassic Park. Facing Anders Nilsson, the Islanders' fourth-string netminder, Crosby scored a pair of goals, on backhanders, and assisted on two others in a 5--0 victory. If his return seemed like a Hollywood blockbuster, consider the 10 or so seconds before Crosby's first goal the ultimate in cinéma vérité. Nothing ornate. Crosby began in the defensive zone with some earnest backchecking. When Pittsburgh corralled the puck, he transitioned to the attack with a zero-to-60 burst, creating an ideal angle to receive a breakout pass. Instead of attempting a pass of his own through a thicket of Islanders' skates, he lugged the puck, one-on-three, past flat-footed New York defenders. Finally he shot the sadly neglected backhand, which he executes ably, in part because he uses a blade almost as upright as he. Goal.
When Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma was asked after the game if Crosby had a chance to win the scoring title despite giving the league a 20-game head start, he slyly replied, "His pace is pretty good right now." After two assists in a 4--3 overtime win last Saturday in Montreal, Crosby, with nine points in four games, ranked 220th in NHL scoring. With a bullet.
If a northern game played by uncompromising men is a reflection of Canada's best self, then Crosby is what his country sees when it looks in the mirror. And Crosby is hockey's best self, a marriage of generational talent and rough will. Crosby scored, yes, but he also won 55.2% of face-offs in his first week back and was industrious without the puck. And he was hardly shy. He took three penalties in a 3--2 overtime loss to the Blues on Nov. 23, rudely engaging with St. Louis right wing David Backes, who appeared to throw a punch during a scrum. "He snaps quick," says Pat Brisson, Crosby's agent. "And rightfully so after what Sidney's been through." The default comparison for Crosby always has been Wayne Gretzky because of their on-ice vision. But his rightful antecedent actually might be Gordie Howe, who played with the same jagged edge.
"I think [the burden he carries] gets lost," Chris Kunitz, Crosby's left wing, says of his linemate's role as hockey's foremost ambassador. "[But I also] think ever since he's been a kid, he's kinda welcomed it. You know he's a little shy, that he doesn't want to be in the forefront. But he knows that the burden's part of who he is."
Crosby is 24. He hoards moments. He is the youngest captain to lead an NHL team to a title. He also has won an MVP award, a goal-scoring title, a points title, saved his franchise from relocation and scored the most significant goal on Canadian ice in 135 years of hockey when he got the 2010 Olympic overtime winner against Team USA in Vancouver. If Woodstock signaled the end of the '60s even though four months of the decade remained, Crosby's comeback was the symbolic conclusion to a horrible hockey year that started with his concussion and included the deaths of three enforcers, Stanley Cup rioting and a plane crash that wiped out a Russian team.
Crosby—or someone like him—is probably why you fell in love with sports in the first place. You did not make a lifelong emotional investment in commissioners negotiating, coaches strategizing, general managers managing or owners owning. You came to this fabulous party for the players. You can nod to the auteurs—the high foreheads, the deep wallets—but stars drive Hollywood and great players still make the games.