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Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, left, looks to shoot in front of Maple Leafs defenceman Dion Phaneuf during first periodaction in Toronto on Friday. (Darren Calabrese/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, left, looks to shoot in front of Maple Leafs defenceman Dion Phaneuf during first periodaction in Toronto on Friday. (Darren Calabrese/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Kelly: Sid the Kid saved hockey, and he’s as inscrutable as ever Add to ...

We tend to forget that Sidney Crosby saved hockey.

That was the narrative pinned to him as he was drafted nearly a decade ago. The NHL had just lost the 2004-05 season. People were throwing around words like “beleaguered” and “troubled” in connection with the sport.

Though it didn’t turn out this way, everyone assumed hockey was going to take a post-lockout, baseball-style nosedive in popularity.

In the midst of all that angst and expectation, Crosby floated into our lives. He’s been there 10 years. It feels like 30. Crosby has risen to the highest conceptual plane any pro can reach – he’s become a means by which we measure time in our own lives.

He’s still only 27. But as Crosby begins to take on the lean look of athletic middle age, we’re reminded just how much older we’ve become since he arrived.

At that moment, hockey didn’t need someone with personality. It didn’t need a leader. We were sick to death of the game’s many leaders and all their coded, tone-deaf whining about money.

What it needed was an exemplar. Someone willing to quietly make the game look appealing again. Someone who did not stand out in any way – beyond his level of play.

Crosby has ticked all the Hall of Fame boxes, but that flat effect is his unique contribution to NHL history. When hockey was looking for someone to redefine what a player looked like off the ice, Crosby arrived fully formed.

He was only 17. But he was already the achingly well-mannered, sharp-but-never-clever, old-timey-values pitchman he remains. Crosby is from Nova Scotia, but he was born inside one of those Canadian Heritage Moment ads.

You’d think it was all a bit perfect, if he hadn’t gone this long without ever once screwing it up. He really is this guy – this inscrutable, but unfailingly pleasant, cipher.

When a national newspaper chain got it badly wrong a few weeks ago and published a story claiming Crosby had been charged with a DUI, it didn’t start the usual online schadenfreude. What just about everyone said was, ‘Well, that must be wrong.’ And it was.

It’s hard to think of another athlete in any sport who would get that same benefit of the doubt. People know two things about Crosby – that he’s good at hockey and that he’s just plain good. It’s an article of Canadian faith.

Beyond the dinged-up clothes-dryer mythology, that’s all we really know. The hockey world is so taken with the idea of Crosby, no one wants to ruin it by asking too many questions.

Right now, he’s the best player in the NHL – not just in sum, but also on form. Leafs coach Randy Carlyle referred to him several times during his pregame talk, but never said his name. He’s Voldemort with a shy smile.

It seems ridiculous that we used to wonder who’d be considered the best of this generation – Crosby or Alex Ovechkin.

Ovechkin was that other sort of player – one with a suspicious amount of personality. He’s been fun, but he’s badly out of step with the league’s zeitgeist. This is the era of chillaxed throwbacks, not unruly bros from the Steppe. On every level in this battle, Crosby has already won.

His past concussion issues lend him an air of fragility that makes him even more compelling. We want him to play like this for 10 more years, but there is a small part of us that knows it could all end today, or tomorrow, or the day after that. Just one awkward hit. One of those already cost him a season. Why couldn’t another end his career?

As such, Crosby doesn’t go on the road any more. He’s on an indefinite farewell tour.

He was in Toronto for a rare Friday night game. Barring the playoffs, he’ll only be in this country a half-dozen more times this year.

It was a quietly effective night. Crosby had an assist. The Penguins held on for the 2-1 win over the Leafs.

As a rule, Crosby does his interviews while sitting. Like all genuinely strong people, he prefers the weaker position. It’s hard to badger a guy from above.

We all cluster around his locker ready to be charmed by his presence. We know he won’t say anything interesting. Crosby is an interesting guy, but he has excised that part of himself for public consumption.

There’s no advantage for Crosby to be seen as edgy or slightly ahead of conventional thinking. Few players have ever so ruthlessly exploited advantages like Crosby does.

He’s asked about a couple of the day’s Hall of Fame inductees – Dominik Hasek and Peter Forsberg. Crosby has learned the experienced interviewee’s trick of repeating your question back to you as a statement. Hasek was “unbelievable.” Forsberg “loved to compete.” This doesn’t mean anything, but everyone nods like Crosby’s handing out stone tablets.

Someone brings up the slow fade of the enforcer – a topic with small potential for controversy. Crosby says, “That’s just the way the game’s evolved. Everyone adjusts accordingly. There’s definitely been some change. That’s just one of the many things that, with time, you see changes.”

You ask him about the disappearance of fighting, and Crosby tells you fighting is disappearing. It’s a hell of a trick.

So is he for it? Or against it? Does he care either way? No one has any idea. We all keep nodding.

You really do wonder how he’s managed it – spending so long as the league’s poster boy, and never having once been cast as its spokesperson. He has ideas about hockey and the wider world. He just has no interest in sharing them – which is a large part of why we love him so much. He’s a blank canvas onto which we project all our backyard-rink fantasies.

Viewing his legacy from somewhere in the middle, Crosby wasn’t only the kid hockey needed. He’s allowed us to make him into the player we all wanted.

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Follow on Twitter: @cathalkelly

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