No one saw this change coming, any more than Sidney Crosby saw David Steckel’s shoulder coming that New Year’s Day more than two years ago.
It was Jan. 1, 2011. The Washington Capitals had just defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-1 in the Winter Classic, held on Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field following a long rain delay.
Crosby moved to a podium to answer questions. The No. 1 topic was the weather, No.2 the game, a distant third the shoulder that knocked Crosby to the ice at the end of the second period. Briefly dazed then, he seemed fine now as he sat and spoke to the media. He seemed fine, and he had taken the first shift of the third period.
“I couldn’t tell you what happened,” he said. “Got my head, for sure. But I can’t comment on it.”
No comment: the usual hockey player’s answer to questions that might lead to further, harder questions.
But a few days later, in another game, he would be hit again, and reality would set in. Concussion symptoms would restrict him to a mere 28 games over the next 18 months.
He wouldn’t be able to play, but he could think and reflect. The 23-year-old is now 25: Sid the Kid is now Sid the Man. They used to say his lips looked too big for his face, but he’s grown into them in more ways than one – they no longer murmur the comforting clichés that young sports stars use as a shield. Before this past year, no one would have mistaken him for a spokesperson for anything but his many endorsements.
Instead, the stolid Face of Hockey from the NHL’s 2004-05 lockout emerged transformed into the Voice of Hockey with the 2012 lockout. Prepared to speak out on matters from player safety to Olympic participation, the Penguins leader has symbolically brought the entire league under his captaincy.
This is a much different Sidney Crosby than the one Canada thought it knew so well when he scored the overtime goal that brought the country Olympic gold at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games. He is still the iconic name that Canadian children shout out in their mini-sticks games, but he is now much more.
This Sidney Crosby is more connected to his off-ice experiences – to the long months spent recovering from concussion, when he turned to reading rather than video games. He became a bit of a history buff, keen on war stories and tales of leadership.
Rather tellingly, his favourite book over those tough times was Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.
He has much to say and is not afraid to say it. On an early February weekend in Ottawa, with his Penguins practising at a small suburban rink packed with hundreds of screaming kids who have come to see him, he dawdles with a journalist in the far corner of the dressing room, long after the others have left.
It’s a rare private audience, and the last phrase Crosby would turn to these days is “no comment.”
Crosby now firmly believes that player safety is hockey’s major issue, and that responsibility runs all the way from Timbits hockey to the NHL. While the league has made some movement on the dreaded and dangerous head shots, there are still far too many concussions in the game. He knows more change will have to come.
“I think it starts when you’re younger,” Crosby says. “That’s definitely where you learn all your habits and all the things that you’re going to grow up and do. But that being said, I think the NHL is obviously what everyone watches, so there’s got to be a balancing act there.”
The NHL, he also believes, has to allow its players to go the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. He wants, once again, to represent his country, but the league has yet to confirm that NHLers will be released.
“It’s coming fast,” he says. “I’ve only played I think maybe 80 or 90 games since the last Olympics, so it’s coming up pretty quickly. … I think everyone who has experienced that wants to be a part of it.”
Crosby found his voice in the months leading up to the end of the recent lockout. He stood front and centre, usually on the right hand of NHL Players Association head Donald Fehr, as the players pleaded their case and challenged the owners to meet and give. He came with Pittsburgh Penguins owner Ron Burkle to the most significant meetings of the long dispute. He was informed, articulate, passionate and, unlike certain others, always calm.
For a hockey superstar to be so involved in the business of the game is unheard of, unless you go all the way back to Terrible Ted Lindsay and the early attempts to form a players’ union in the 1950s. No one among the elite of Jean Béliveau, Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr, Mario Lemieux or Wayne Gretzky – Crosby’s superstar role models – took on such a role.
Other current stars either ran off to play in Europe or waited the standoff out in hometown rinks. The other NHLers who spoke out – such as Chris Campoli, Josh Gorges or George Parros – are journeymen by comparison.
“I felt that there was a deal that could be worked out for both sides,” Crosby says. “I think the frustrating part of the process was when we weren’t meeting. I always knew that from our point of view we were always willing to meet, but when you hear that there wasn’t going to be any meetings for the next couple of weeks, well. … We had all that progress in New York for those few days, and then it was off the table. It just seemed like there was a better way.”
He was not naive enough to think a singular plea could solve the impasse, but he felt there was something larger than the squabble – the game itself.
“I care about hockey. I love the game. I felt like it wasn’t doing anyone any good, especially all the fans, but also the game that we had grown over the last seven or eight years – it wasn’t doing the game any good. So I felt like I needed to be vocal for that reason.”
Crosby’s longtime agent, Pat Brisson of Los Angeles, says that Crosby has always been acutely respectful of other players. When Crosby was a 16-year-old junior phenomenon with the Rimouski Océanic, he told Brisson to refuse the endorsement offers that flooded in after he signed with Reebok and Gatorade. He didn’t want to go too far, too soon.
Brisson remembers Crosby telling him, “It’s not right. I haven’t even played in the NHL yet. What will NHLers think of me?”
Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero has watched his captain grow over the past several years, and says he was pleased to see Crosby step up during the four-month lockout.
“It was good for the players,” Shero says, “but it was also good for him.”
Is it a new maturity? His agent questions that. “When I first met him,” Brisson says, “he was 13 years old and asked questions a 15-, 16-year-old might ask. When he was 16, he was talking like a 20-year-old.”
It might be more apt, he suggests, to say Crosby has become more reflective. He believes that the changes in the young man from Cole Harbour, N.S., have their genesis in Crosby’s struggles to overcome the fog of concussion, as well as in his own contract negotiations last summer, which led to a 12-year, $104.4-million (U.S.) deal with the Penguins.
Crosby spent much of his down time becoming more interested in the world apart from hockey. Along with Unbroken, he read other books about military events, such as Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and The Lost Heroes of Seal Team 10 . He likes to watch Homeland , the television series about a CIA agent and a soldier returning from years as a prisoner of war in Afghanistan.
Brisson recalls coming back from a holiday with his wife to Bora Bora: Instead of just looking at vacation pictures, Crosby told them all about the Pacific island’s strategic role as a supply base for the United States. during the Second World War.
When it comes to the game, though, Crosby says he is a determined “traditionalist.” In Winnipeg recently to play the Jets, he insisted on walking down Portage Avenue in minus-40-with-windchill weather, so he could “feel the Canadian winter” and get in a proper frame of mind for the game.
He also thinks that players have a responsibility to their fans. Basketball superstar Charles Barkley once famously said, “I’m not a role model. … Just because I dunk a basketball, doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.” Crosby believes the opposite, and he takes it very seriously.
“He had time to question his future,” says Brisson of Crosby’s time away from the rink. “It gave him time to reflect. He had to think about things from a different perspective.”
During last summer’s contract talks, Crosby became deeply involved in the negotiations, particularly over his concern that his concussion history might deprive him of full insurance. It forced him to recognize the fragility of a hockey career and made him more aware of players with far less security.
“From a business standpoint,” Brisson says, “he grew a lot from those two years. It’s another chapter in his book.”
But there was more than business to reflect on over those long months when he could not play. There’s the question of safety, of course. “The grassroots have to kind of help to build that,” he says, “but as a league you have to be aware of that, too. Because that’s what all the kids and all the young players are trying to play as – that’s what they’re watching.”
But he also got to think about the journey – and the geography – of his hockey career. He believes that while hockey is the same game in the United States and Canada, it is also not the same – as he was reminded by the couple of thousand young players and parents who crammed into that small Ottawa rink this week.
“I don’t think you can describe it unless you’ve grown up in it and have experienced it,” he says. “I’ve been in Pittsburgh a long time now and I’ve seen the passion that people have for hockey there, but there’s also football and baseball in town.
“I think when you look in the Canadian cities it’s hockey. Hockey is the big thing in town and it’s all about that team. I think that’s really what separates it from everything else.”
And with that heritage in mind, he promises there will be more to come from the new Voice of Hockey. “I don’t feel I need to share my opinion on everything in the world,” he says. “But when I feel pretty passionate about something I will speak up.”
And they will listen.