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Snow falls on Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins during the NHL Winter Classic against the Buffalo Sabres at the Ralph Wilson Stadium on January 1, 2008 in Orchard Park, New York. The Penguins won the game 2-1 in a shoot out. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images) (Harry How/2008 Getty Images)
Snow falls on Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins during the NHL Winter Classic against the Buffalo Sabres at the Ralph Wilson Stadium on January 1, 2008 in Orchard Park, New York. The Penguins won the game 2-1 in a shoot out. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images) (Harry How/2008 Getty Images)

Stephen Brunt

Crosby's magical year descends into murk Add to ...

It was Sidney Crosby's magical year.



But now the question is whether it will be remembered for how it began, or how it ended.



The greatest hockey players, Canadians like to believe, emerge out of the fabric of this country with the predictability of dalai lamas. The next one will be out there somewhere, in some small town, just waiting to be discovered.

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By the time Crosby came along in Cole Harbour, and then his consummate skills carried over into junior hockey, he took his place in the line of succession, after Gordie Howe and Maurice Richard and Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux and those who came before them. All he needed to do to fulfill those expectations was dazzle the fans, redefine the way the game could be played at its highest level, set a bunch of scoring records, win some Stanley Cups, and perform a heroic hockey act in the service of his country.



So when he scored the famous goal last February in Vancouver, it was like Paul Henderson's - and it wasn't.



The stakes were similar, the whole national-identity-tied-up-in-a-hockey-game myth, which to a degree has been the case every time a Canadian team has been in position to win or lose versus a hated foe since 1972 (including, at least in recent times, at the world junior championship). But a home Olympics considerably upped the ante. The emotional roller coaster of the Vancouver-Whistler Games made that gold-medal game the cherry on top of an already remarkable 17 days in the life of the country, while still the biggest prize of all.



With the overtime winner against the Americans - the sight and sound of it is now part of our tribal memory - Crosby wasn't a one-off like Henderson, a player whose entire career would be defined in that moment. Instead it was part of a continuum. Crosby had already won his first championship. He had already been acknowledged as the best - or, at worst, second best - player in the game. His had become the marketing face of the National Hockey League.



Of course, in the brightest spotlight, it would be him.



The Penguins couldn't repeat last spring, but this past fall, Crosby began the NHL season putting up numbers that suggested he might lap the field. Scoring records are always relative to the environment in which they are achieved (which is why Babe Ruth's home run totals are even more astonishing than they might appear at first glance). It's not just being first, but how much better you are than everyone else. That's why Gretzky's totals, in a wide-open era, or Orr's, even inflated by the soft opposition created as a result of the first great NHL expansion, still stand up against any statistical test.



Crosby was putting together one of those seasons for the ages, leaving Alexander Ovechkin and everyone else to eat his dust, proving to those who had expressed doubts - he was too much this and not enough that, had been overhyped and overpraised and all the rest - that he did indeed belong in the pantheon.



And then, on the day after that magical year ended, in the closing moments of an outdoor gimmick game, Crosby would be hit and hurt but play on. A few days later he would be hit and hurt again, and that was the last we have seen of him in uniform, quite possibly the last we will see of him this season, and beyond that the great unknown. Apologies to those bored by the concussion conversation, but there's the troubling truth once again. Blow out a knee and someone will try to repair it, someone will lay out a timetable of healing and rehab and therapy and provide a pretty solid answer as to when you might be back at full strength and the chances that you might be just like new again.



Injure your brain and there's none of the above, and the answer to that last part is sometimes never.



A year to the day after that singular moment when it seemed Sidney Crosby had fulfilled his destiny, he is out of uniform, off skates, unable to practise, unable even to exercise, waiting and wondering when the fog might lift while his teammates play on.



While we savour that sweet memory as though it happened yesterday, for him it must seem a long time ago.







 

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