Future for Penguins starts with Crosby

Sidney Crosby, a lock to be the No. 1 pick in today's draft, has drawn quite a buzz.

Published July 30, 2005

For years there has been a conga line of hot-shot hockey prospects, each supposed to be the second coming of Wayne Gretzky.

One (Mario Lemieux) almost got there. A few have been pretty good (Eric Lindros, Vinny Lecavalier, Joe Thornton). Some have been busts (Alexandre Daigle).

But, hockey still waits for someone as great as the Great One.

So, who is the next hockey superstar?

Many, including Gretzky, think it's Sidney Crosby, a charismatic 17-year-old from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, who will be the first pick in today's NHL draft.

A year ago, Gretzky said he finally had seen a kid with a chance to break all his records. That kid is Crosby.

"It was a huge compliment," Crosby said. "But there isn't going to be another Wayne Gretzky and no one is going to break his records. For him to say that though, I'm doing something right and I just want to keep doing it."

He'll do it in Pittsburgh, winner of last week's draft lottery and a franchise badly needing a savior, just like in 1984.

Back then, the Penguins were a league bottom-feeder in need of attention, an arena and a star to excite cavalier hockey fans. Lemieux arrived and won Stanley Cups, scoring titles and MVP awards to become as popular in Pittsburgh as favorite sons Terry Bradshaw, Mean Joe Greene and Willie Stargell.

Today, the Penguins are a league bottom-feeder in need of attention, an arena (they still play in the NHL's oldest building) and a star. Already, the Penguins and their fans hope Crosby, a center who played at Rimouski of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, can do what Lemieux did.

And, coincidently, Crosby's new boss and teammate will be Lemieux, the Penguins part-owner and, until Crosby arrives, the team's best player.

"He would be a great model and I'd love the opportunity to get a chance to play (with him)," Crosby said of Lemieux.

Meantime, Lemieux can't wait for Crosby to put on a Penguins No. 87 (picked because it was the year Crosby was born) sweater.

"He's a great person," Lemieux said. "He loves the game of hockey and talks about the game all the time. I had a chance to train with him last year in L.A. for a couple weeks and he's just a great person and great hockey player. He's very strong on his skates, sees the ice very well, anticipates the play as well as I've seen a young kid do throughout my career."

Comparisons to Lemieux probably aren't accurate. Lemieux is 6 feet 4, a glider who drifts on the outskirts of the play, letting the play dictate where he goes. Crosby is not quite 6 feet, yet is more physical than Lemieux. Crosby is often compared with Peter Forsberg, a skilled playmaker and scorer who is not afraid to get his nose bloody.

Crosby's junior coach at Rimouski, Doris Labonte, calls him a blend of two former Rimouski players whom area hockey fans know well: the Lightning's Lecavalier and Brad Richards.

"Sidney is a good mix of both," Labonte told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Lecavalier is like a horse. He fills lots of space. Richards uses his vision of the play more. Sidney is in the middle. He has the drive of Lecavalier and the vision and skills of Richards."

In 121 games in the QMJHL over the past two seasons, Crosby had 121 goals with 183 assists and was an amazing plus-127. Many stars (Lemieux, Lindros, Joe Sakic, Pat LaFontaine, Luc Robitaille) have been named Canadian Major Junior player of the year, but only one - Crosby - has been named twice.

Hockey coaching legend Scotty Bowman calls him a "wonderful player." Lightning GM Jay Feaster said Crosby is the "real deal." And, of course, there are those kind words from Gretzky.

In Pittsburgh, he's being billed as the next savior.

"This means everything to our franchise," Penguins president Ken Saywer said. "Go back 21 years and see what (Lemieux) did for the Penguins. It's deja vu. It's unbelievable."