EDMONTON, Alberta – Sidney Crosby came calling Wednesday night to the heartland of hockey, where pursuit of the puck is as much ingrained in the fabric of Canadian life as the petroleum products that make this city the oil capital of the country.
They braved the frigid temperatures to fill one of the league's oldest barns, and for the first time they witnessed the NHL's newest big star.
And, boy, did he give them a third period to remember.
Crosby set up the game-tying and winning goals, then added a helper on the insurance tally late to help his Pittsburgh Penguins overcome a 2-0 deficit after two periods en route to a 4-2 victory over the Edmonton Oilers.
"It was execution," Crosby said of the third-period turnaround. "We had a long flight (Tuesday); it took us a while to get our legs under us. Once we got our forecheck going we made some great plays and took advantage of them."
The sellout crowd of 16,839 cheered Crosby when he hit the ice in warmups and again when he was shown briefly on the video board during the U.S. anthem, but they left no doubt about their true allegiance. One fan held up a homemade placard early in the third period that read: "Sidney, welcome to the house Wayne built."
In the end, Crosby showed his appreciation for the respect the crowd showed him by waving to the fans after taking a quick spin on the ice for having been named the No. 1 star.
"When you're on a stage like this you always want to do well," Crosby said. "I try not to go into any building on the road expecting too much, but it's nice to get a welcoming like that. It's definitely a nice gesture and I appreciate it."
Outside the building is a statue of Edmonton's favorite son, Wayne Gretzky, who holds 61 league records, a record in itself. Maybe some day there will be a statue in front of the new building in Pittsburgh. But right now that building is just a blueprint, much like Crosby's career is in its infancy.
"I don't think anyone is Gretzky," Crosby said after his first visit to Edmonton, which will be followed Thursday by his initial stop in Calgary. "A lot of things he did, he was the first one to do it."
Fair or not, the comparisons started when Crosby put up eye-popping numbers in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League at age 16 and 17 with Rimouski – 135 points in 59 games his first season and 168 in 62 the next. Gretzky scored 182 points in 64 games with Sault Ste. Marie in his final season of junior hockey, 27 years before Crosby capped his amateur career.
It was a different era, a different game. That won't stop the comparisons from being made now, however.
"If Gretz had three goals or three points, he was always trying to get the fourth one. Crosby is the same way," said Oilers coach Craig MacTavish, a three-year teammate of Gretzky's in Edmonton and briefly again for a handful of games in St. Louis. "Crosby has the same sense of destiny that Wayne had since he was 12 years old."
Crosby displayed exactly that in the final period. His best play of the night helped to set up Colby Armstrong's go-ahead goal at 10:57. Crosby was last to arrive behind the Edmonton net in a battle for a loose puck, but he beat Oilers Jarret Stoll and Ladislav Smid for possession. He zipped a pass to the opposite point to Mark Eaton, whose drive was tipped by Armstrong in front for the eventual game-winner.
"I wasn't creating a lot as far as getting shots on net," Crosby said of the opening 40 minutes. "Sometimes the little things, the battles, little chips here and there – those are details that sometimes go unnoticed – but I think as a team you realize what your teammates are going to do for you. No one guy is going to carry a team, especially now."
Gretzky was the youngest player to win the Hart Trophy as league MVP (19 years, five months), and Crosby became the second youngest to turn the trick last season at 19 years and 10 months.
MacTavish tells a great story that illustrates Gretzky's relentless desire. He describes video of a game in Toronto when Gretzky loses his stick in the attacking zone. Gretzky continues after the puck, fending off defenders while kicking it back to the spot where he can retrieve his stick and retain possession.
MacTavish sees the same kind of fire in Crosby.
"You feel, ultimately, a Crosby-led team will at some point win the Stanley Cup," he said.
Crosby cringes with a smidge of jealousy when he sees the wide-open nature of hockey played during Gretzky's prime, and he acknowledges yet also deflects both the individual and team-wide comparisons. It's all a little too much to take in when he and his Penguins still have so much to prove.
"The comparisons are a compliment for the most part," said Crosby, held scoreless in only two of 27 games this season. "That's the way I look at it. I try to be myself. Sure, you try to learn from the great players, but to try to be just like another player I think puts too much pressure on yourself."
If Crosby tires of the constant hounding by media and adoring fans, he doesn't show it. When he came off the ice following the morning skate Wednesday he was asked to sign a couple of autographs and pose for a picture. He cooperated, held a short conversation with the admirers and squatted while in full gear to make the Kodak moment picture perfect.
After that, it was straight to a press conference down the hall. No time to change, no time to unwind, no time to exchange playful barbs in the locker room with teammates.
"You're not envious of him on some days," Pittsburgh's Gary Roberts said.
The veteran forward said he had time to take a two-hour nap during a recent game day only to find when he returned to the rink that Crosby never left and still was in gear to facilitate a number of photo shoots and the making of a commercial.
"The commitment he makes to the game for fans is really impressive for a young man," Roberts said. "It's probably more so now than when Wayne was 20 because there's more media attention.
"For me, I focus on one thing, and that's playing hockey," he added. "I couldn't imagine what he has to go through."
- Wayne Gretzky