Sidney Crosby could not have imagined a better way to celebrate his 15th birthday. Three days after the teenage hockey phenomenon turned 15 in August of 2002, he spent 10 days with Canadian junior team hopefuls at their summer evaluation camp in Halifax.
Crosby wasn't invited to try out for the team of players 17, 18 and 19 years old, but since the camp was at the Halifax Metro Centre and he lived across the harbour in the Dartmouth suburb of Cole Harbour, he asked Hockey Canada whether he could come help out.
Hockey Canada was not going to stand in the way of a future Canadian junior team member, so it granted Crosby his birthday wish. He was a stick boy, a water boy and a towel boy all wrapped into one. Crosby's pay was access to the camp to immerse himself for what lay ahead: to crack the roster of the 2003-04 Canadian junior club.
Crosby, now 16, will be invited to the team's selection camp that begins in Kitchener, Ont., on Dec. 11.
"It will be a huge challenge for him to make the team at such a young age, but the thing with Sidney is he has met every challenge so far," Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson said.
Only four 16-year-olds -- Jay Bouwmeester, Jason Spezza, Eric Lindros and Wayne Gretzky -- have played for the Canadian junior team in the past 26 years. How much did Crosby's experience at the summer camp help him toward becoming the fifth? A lot.
"It was his idea," his father, Troy, said yesterday. "Earlier that summer, he attended the IMG [hockey]camp in Los Angeles, and [former Canadian junior team coach]Stan Butler was running the camp. Stan made a call on Sidney's behalf to [last year's Canadian junior coach]Marc Habscheid."
Habscheid and the players made sure Crosby felt like part of the team. He slept in the team dormitory and took part in team activities.
"It was a great learning experience," Troy said. "He learned a lot from guys like Jason Spezza [of the Ottawa Senators]and Pierre-Marc Bouchard [of the Minnesota Wild] He learned what it takes, how to prepare properly and how to handle himself off the ice."
Those who have seen Sidney in action recognize he knows how to handle himself on and off the ice. On the ice, he led Canada in scoring this past summer with four goals and six points in five games at the Eight Nations Under-18 Cup in the Czech Republic.
His rookie season with the Rimouski Oceanic of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League has gone better than expected. He is not only leading the league with 53 points in 25 games, the 5-foot-10, 175-pound player has demonstrated he is about more than piling up the points. The teenager has tremendous hockey sense and works hard at both ends of the ice.
"What he is doing is great," said Wayne Gretzky, who met Crosby at the IMG camp. "I saw him at a camp for 18- and 19-year-olds and I just had to get on the ice with him. He has everything. He's the real deal and he will surprise a lot of people at the world junior. We need more guys like him to come along. People say Canadians don't have enough finesse, but he sure does.
"He will get more and more pressure as he goes along, but he has a love for the game. He says the right things. He's a good kid. Most importantly at his age, he has good guidance from his parents."
Trina and Troy have kept their son humble and grounded. They are, however, reluctant to take all credit for Sidney and his brother, Taylor, 7.
"We have raised both simply to be good sons," said Troy. "We want them to treat people the way they would want to be treated.
"Sidney has always had two good role models in Wayne Gretzky and Steve Yzerman. He sees how they can be great hockey players as well as great people. He understands that he is a role model, even at his age, to younger hockey players."
Tonight, Crosby will suit-up in Halifax for a QMJHL all-star team in an exhibition game against the Russian selects. It will be Crosby's first appearance on national television since he led the Dartmouth Subways to the Air Canada Cup final, the first time a team from Atlantic Canada had advanced to the national midget championship game.
"I don't think he is as excited about being on national television as he is about playing Russians," Troy said.
Ah, the Russians. Canada versus Russia. In the Crosby home at Christmas, the world junior tournament received top priority. That's why Crosby is so driven to play this time around.
"After the presents were opened, he would turn on the television and watch the world junior," said Troy, who says his son isn't intimidated about being the youngest at the selection camp next month.
"He doesn't think of himself as a 16-year-old. He has always played against the older players. He knows that age doesn't determine a player's ability."