Sidney Crosby knows a little — OK, maybe more than a little — about being hockey’s next big thing.
The hype. The attention. The pressure. It can be a lot for a teenager to handle, no matter how talented, how driven, how focused they are.
Crosby was that teenager literally half a lifetime ago when the Pittsburgh Penguins selected “Sid the Kid” first overall in the summer of 2005, weeks before his 18th birthday.
All the franchise and the city asked of him was everything. Over the better part of the last two decades, Crosby has delivered it. All of it.
Stanley Cup championships. A sparkling downtown arena. A regional transformation that’s made western Pennsylvania a hockey hotbed. All while serving as the face of the franchise and the league he helped revitalize one rush, one pass, one goal, one point — 1,502 and counting — at a time.
So when Chicago Blackhawks rookie Connor Bedard skates onto the PPG Paints Arena ice on tonight for the NHL season-opener and sees Crosby on the other side, he won’t just see the player he grew up idolizing. He will see a mentor well-versed in the unique crucible Bedard — born two weeks before Crosby arrived in Pittsburgh and himself chosen No. 1 just weeks before his 18th birthday — will find himself in over the next six months and quite possibly the next 16 years … or more.
“I think he’s a guy that’s more than ready at this point,” Crosby said. “He’s been dealing with the expectations for a while now. … I think, at this point, he’s just ready to finally start and get all of that over with. You can relate to things like that.”
Or at least, Crosby can, though the two-time Hart Trophy winner and future Hall of Famer prefers not to spend too much time looking in the rearview mirror.
Yes, the now 36-year-old understands he’s not the wunderkind he once was. That he has more hockey behind him than in front of him. That at one point he’ll hand the baton of being the most recognizable active player in the sport he’s helped redefine to someone else. Maybe Connor McDavid. Maybe Bedard. Maybe someone other prodigy drawn to the game because of something No. 87 did on the ice.
Don’t let the small but noticeable flecks of gray that dot Crosby’s hair fool you. While the league has become increasingly littered with “Next Sidney Crosbys,” the 1.0 version remains very much intent on proving the fire burns just as bright entering his 19th season as it did in his first.
“I don’t think it’s by accident he’s as good as he is,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “He’s an ultra talent without a doubt but he has an appetite for the game that’s been unmatched by anyone I’ve been around.”
An appetite that doesn’t have an off switch. At least one that works anyway. There will be times when Sullivan will be at home during a rare night off during the season when his phone will light up with a text message from his longtime captain.
“It’s ‘Hey, did you see that Colorado play on the power play? That’s a really nice play, we should think about that,’” Sullivan said.
Crosby sheepishly points out that he doesn’t watch hockey “every single night” but when the remote is in his hand it inevitably finds a way to a game. The smartest player of his generation can’t help himself. He doesn’t study hockey as much as he absorbs it.
“It’s hard not to pick up on things or try to learn,” he said. “I think you’ve got to continue to learn.”
A process that never stops. It can’t for a player who is relentlessly searching for an edge, who is still almost impossible to separate from the puck, whose innate ability to see things before they happen remains intact even as the legs that have carried the Penguins to three championships don’t create the blur they once did.
Sullivan called Crosby “a wiser version of himself.” It’s a wisdom gleaned from 1,370 games of being held to a standard few can match, a standard that Crosby embraces perhaps now more than ever.
Crosby collected 33 goals and 60 assists while playing all 82 games last season, his production one of the few constants in an uneven year in which Pittsburgh’s streak of consecutive playoff appearances ended at 16. Crosby shouldered much of the blame and disappointment even though it largely lay elsewhere, typical of a player who has had the captain’s “C” on his left shoulder before he was old enough to legally drink.
Bedard, who has crossed paths with his childhood idol on occasion as he’s made his way to the NHL, understands that responsibility will likely one day be his, too. Perhaps sooner rather than later. It’s part of the gig, a gig Crosby has handled so gracefully it feels like second nature.
“He’s such a good role model for everyone, the way he carries himself on and off the ice,” Bedard said. “He’s been in that spotlight for almost 20 years now and seems to have handled it so well. That’s something that’s really easy to look up to and I always do.”
Forgive Bedard if he admits there’s a chance he may be “starstruck” when the puck drops. He expects the “wow, I’m finally here” daze to disappear once the game begins. Probably a good idea.
While Crosby practically rolled his eyes when asked if he plans to teach Bedard a thing or two, he remembers what it was like to enter the league and see the players once only visible through the flickering of the family’s TV set in Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, come vividly into focus right in front of him.
“When I was a young guy playing an older guy, I looked at it as an opportunity to go out there and compete against the best,” Crosby said.
It should be much the same on Tuesday night, when the NHL’s future comes face-to-face with its, well, it’s far too soon to say past, isn’t it?
“If the young guy is coming up or being touted as the best, what a great opportunity that is to be able to go out there and go head to head against those guys,” Crosby said. “That’s why you love the opportunity to play in the NHL and do that every night. So that’s what I get up for.”
The Bedard/Crosby matchup is one of three games and plenty of storylines as the NHL opens its regular season Tuesday night.
The Stanley Cup champion Vegas Golden Knights will show off their new bling and banner as they entertain the Seattle Kraken at T-Mobile Arena. The Knights won their first Stanley Cup on June 13 by defeating the Florida Panthers 4-1 in the best-of-seven final.
And the always-tough Tampa Bay Lightning, without injured all-star netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy, host the rebuilt Nashville Predators at Amalie Arena.
Each of the 32 teams will play an 82-game schedule, resulting in a 1,312-regular-season schedule that winds up April 18.
All seven Canadian teams begin their season Wednesday: Montreal Canadiens visit the Toronto Maple Leafs; Vancouver Canucks host the Edmonton Oilers; Winnipeg Jets visit the Calgary Flames; and Ottawa Senators visit the Carolina Hurricanes.