Mario Lemieux, Sidney Crosby’s original landlord in Pittsburgh, is usually the most reclusive of the NHL’s living legends, rarely making public appearances to offer his thoughts on the state of the game.
But a few weeks ago, at the all-star game in Los Angeles, Lemieux broke his customary silence to help the NHL celebrate the 100 greatest players in history.
Lemieux, the Penguins’ owner, was on that list, as was his primary asset, Crosby, one of five active players who’d accomplished enough in their careers to warrant inclusion.
Crosby is just 29 and has played in the lowest-scoring era of the past half-century.
And yet on Thursday, playing in his 757th career NHL game, Crosby became the 86th player in NHL history to score 1,000 career points. It happened 6:28 into the first period of a game against the visiting Winnipeg Jets, when Crosby outfought Blake Wheeler for a loose puck and shovelled it over to longtime linemate Chris Kunitz, who beat goaltender Connor Hellebuyck from point-blank range for a 2-0 Penguins’ lead.
Crosby had been on the cusp of 1,000 points for the better part of a week now, something the crowd at the PPG Paints arena – which included his parents Troy and Trina – was acutely aware of. Whenever Crosby ventured into the offensive zone, a murmur ran through the building, anticipating the milestone at virtually every foray. Finally, when it happened, the place went wild, Crosby acknowledging the standing ovation with a wave of his stick.
There is probably no one better positioned than Lemieux to put into context everything Crosby has accomplished in his career. To Lemieux, talent can only take a player so far. Crosby’s greatness, he believes, can be attributed to his work ethic and his innate desire to improve every year.
“Just like Wayne [Gretzky] was when he played, Sid is the hardest-working guy out there,” Lemieux said. “Whether it’s at practice or a three-on-three game at practice, he wants to win. He wants to be the best.”
Crosby was seeking to become the 12th-fastest player in NHL history to score 1,000 career points, but his overall points-per-game average has him fifth all-time among players who’ve scored a minimum of 500 points or more, according to figures supplied by the Elias Sports Bureau.
Only Gretzky (1.921), Lemieux (1.883), Mike Bossy (1.497) and Bobby Orr (1.393) had averaged more than Crosby’s 1.321 points per game over their respective careers.
Colby Armstrong was one of Crosby’s first linemates in the latter’s rookie NHL season, 2005-06, and remembers how intrigued he was at the prospect of playing with Sid the Kid after spending three seasons apprenticing for the Penguins’ minor-league affiliate in Wilkes-Barre, Penn.
“The first time I saw my name next to his, on the board in the dressing room where they post the lines – it was Crosby, Zigmund Palffy and me,” said Armstrong. “I was like, ‘Wow, I’m playing with Sidney Crosby on the first line in an NHL hockey game. That’s really awesome.’ “I went from 31/2years in the minors and not getting an NHL game to playing with this young phenomenon that everyone’s been talking about – and lighting it up on what was a pretty bad team at the time. I was like, ‘Okay, here we go. I’m in the NHL now.’ ”
In the same way that people in the hockey industry had become aware of Connor McDavid by the time he was 15, Armstrong says everyone in the Pittsburgh organization knew of Crosby’s potential long before the team drafted him first overall in 2005.
“We had some guys from Montreal and the Quebec area who were our strength coaches and they told us, ‘This kid’s the real deal,’” Armstrong said. “You’d hear the buzz, but I didn’t actually see him play until the Memorial Cup that year when they lost in the final to London – and he was pretty much his whole team.
“He’s got skill and drive and work ethic and all that stuff, but the way I look at it, the sun shines on him differently than anyone else. He was touched by the hockey gods. He’s just one of those guys – like McDavid – who are legitimately different from everyone else.
“I don’t know how to explain it because when you hang out with him, he’s just a regular guy and a good person. He’s like all my regular hockey buddies – until he puts his skates on, and then he’s different. He’s just special.”
Lemieux scored his first 1,000 points in 513 career games. Only Gretzky got there faster, in 424 games. But they played in a different, higher-scoring era, which makes generational comparisons difficult.
Gretzky is a keen follower of NHL history and pays close attention to what’s going on in the game. Even though he now works for the Oilers, and acknowledges that McDavid has Crosby in his sights, the Great One still believes Crosby is atop the NHL heap and will be until someone wrenches that title away.
“Right now, Crosby is the best player,” Gretzky said. “And you have to earn your stripes. Until somebody knocks him off the castle, that’s the way it’s going to be.”
Lemieux was on the scene when Crosby and Alex Ovechkin went head to head in their rookie seasons, 2005-06, both exceeding 100 points. There have been the bumps in the road since then for Crosby, most of them related to the concussions that derailed his career for the better part of two seasons. But there was also a triumphant surge in 2016, a singularly successful calendar year that saw him win both the Stanley Cup and the World Cup and earn MVP honours in both events.
There is something unique about the make-up of the true generational players – qualities that set the all-time greats apart from the good and the very good.
Lemieux thought it began with Crosby’s skating ability, which he described as “second to none. His strength, his lower-body strength, is unbelievable. If he goes one on one in the corner, he’s able to come out and make a play. His passing ability is probably the best in the league. And his vision, of course, is also one of the best.
“You put all that together, and now he’s starting to score some goals this year, leading the league in scoring. He’s just a special player that comes along not too often. I’ve been very lucky to have him at my house for a few years as a tenant, and to be able to watch him every night is very special.”
Apart from Crosby’s on-ice achievements, Gretzky believes the way he conducts himself off the ice sets him apart from other players in his peer group.
“He’s won two Stanley Cups and two gold medals and handled the pressure and everything with grace and dignity,” Gretzky said. “He deserves all the accolades he’s getting. He’s really been special. And he’s been very lucky in the sense that he had Mario to lean on, a guy who’s been through all of it and a guy that understands the pressures that go with being the best player. That’s something Sidney probably took advantage of.”Report Typo/Error