CALGARY — Last time, he was 22. Sidney Crosby was already Sidney Crosby by then, of course, a prodigy turned MVP, a scoring champion and goal-scoring champion and Stanley Cup champion, the captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Yet it was his first Olympic experience, and he deferred to the veteran leaders of Team Canada like Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger.
“I think if I look back to last time, I was probably more in awe and trying to learn from those guys than anything,” Crosby said.
This time, he is 26. He has been through so much since scoring that golden goal in Vancouver, becoming a gold-plated icon in his country. He has been through hell, actually, trying to win all the things he used to win. Now he will have a chance to lead in Sochi, another chance to get back to where he was.
He will not be in awe anymore. Others will learn from him.
[Team Canada: Starting goalie will be whoever is hottest]
Executive director Steve Yzerman said Team Canada would not name a captain until after the roster is announced in late December. But coach Mike Babcock said he would offer the job to someone well in advance, as he did with Niedermayer in 2010.
Crosby is the top candidate, as long as he stays healthy, with a nod to Jonathan Toews, the best forward in Vancouver and a two-time Stanley Cup champion as captain of the Chicago Blackhawks.
“Yeah, in my mind, there’s no question that’s who would lead,” said Chris Kunitz, Crosby’s linemate in Pittsburgh and an Olympic hopeful.
“It would be an honor, for sure,” Crosby said. “I think if there’s any team to be a captain on, this one would probably be pretty comfortable, knowing how many captains and assistant captains [there are on the roster]. So I don’t think that’s something on my mind a whole lot. We all want to be part of this team and lead by example the way we need to.”
The last three Olympics, Team Canada’s captains were a decade older than Crosby is now. Mario Lemieux was 36 in 2002. Joe Sakic was 36 in 2006. Niedermayer was 36 in 2010. Yzerman values veteran leadership and wants it in Sochi, but this team has a different dynamic.
Someone like 38-year-old Martin St. Louis might add a veteran presence, but he didn’t make the 2010 team and will have to make this one first. Yzerman said there are only eight or nine players he would consider locks if healthy.
When Yzerman and Babcock talk about their leaders, they usually mention Crosby and the 25-year-old Toews. They sometimes mention Shea Weber, the 28-year-old captain of the Nashville Predators, who played in Vancouver. They occasionally mention 29-year-old Rick Nash and 23-year-old Drew Doughty. Nash and Doughty aren’t NHL captains, but Nash has been to three Olympics and Doughty was a revelation in Vancouver.
“The Scott Neidermayers, the Chris Prongers aren’t here,” Yzerman said. “So, yes, I expect some of these younger players to take a step forward. Jonathan or Sidney, for example, they’ve won gold medals, won Stanley Cups. They’ve accomplished a lot. They’re still young guys. But they’re leaders on their own clubs, and we expect them to be here.”
The players did not skate at orientation camp Monday and Tuesday because of the cost of insuring their NHL contracts. They tried ball-hockey walkthroughs to go over systems and adjustments to Olympic-sized ice, and they played golf and went out at night to bond. But even then, you could see the hierarchy.
The team was split into two groups for the walkthroughs. Crosby and Toews were in separate groups. Each would go first in drills, so the others could watch and follow their example. The leaders put the golf groups together, arrange the outings. Kunitz joked Crosby asked guys to show him their swings.
“Just with the guys, he seems to know everybody,” Kunitz said. “You already have the feeling of comfort going around talking to guys in each of the groups, guys on other teams, where someone like me just has to kind of learn some of the other guys and meet them for the first time this weekend.”
[Team Canada: Players play ball hockey instead of on-ice practice]
“When you’ve played on the team before, you understand things a bit better,” Crosby said. “It’s a comfort level. There’s a difference between going to your first Olympic camp and your second. It’s a totally different mindset. I think that’s kind of a natural progression for all the guys who were in Vancouver to come here and be a lot more comfortable.”
Crosby said he felt more pressure as a hockey player in Vancouver than ever before. The Canadians were on home ice, trying to meet the highest expectations. They came through because he came through, shouting “Iggy!” in the tense silence, driving to the net, taking a pass from Jarome Iginla and snapping the puck past U.S. goaltender Ryan Miller.
At that point, Crosby had it all – all those individual honors, the Cup, the gold. He was a national hero. He was a legend.
But soon afterward, the Penguins took a step back in the playoffs for the first time in the Crosby era, upset by the Montreal Canadiens in the second round. And then Crosby had a Hart Trophy season cut short by a concussion. And then the concussion problems cost him a playoff run and three quarters of the next season. And then came the lockout. And then another Hart Trophy season was cut short by another injury, this one a broken jaw.
Sochi represents Crosby’s next chance to be a champion again. He knows what to expect. He knows to appreciate it and take advantage of it. If he wears the “C,” if he finds the puck on his stick in overtime of the gold-medal game, he knows what to do.
“I put that up with Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals,” Crosby said. “I mean, that’s really the peak of pressure you feel as a player. … If it comes around again, you’re going to feel pressure again. That’s the reality of it. I don’t think it changes because it’s in a different place. The expectations are still the same. You’ve gone through it, so you know how to approach it a bit better.”