Crosby: Too good to be true, or simply too good?

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  • Sidney Crosby
    Sidney Crosby
    Canadian ice hockey player

Phil Bourque drove into the parking lot of his local bagel store, and he was late. The former Penguin, now broadcaster, saw no spaces available – except for one. If I just idle in this handicapped spot, he thought, I can run in, get my coffee, hustle out in three minutes, and no one will know the difference.

Then he heard a voice in his head: “What would Sidney Crosby(notes) do?”

Bourque circled the lot until a legal spot came open.

Sounds like a hokey hockey story. But Bourque is serious. “I’m a 47-year-old washed-up jock,” he says. “I haven’t always made the right decisions. Every day I run into little crossroads in my life. And I hear that voice like a little man on my shoulder: ‘What would Sidney Crosby do?’ ”

Crosby has plenty of detractors. But two things are beyond debate: he’s unusually accomplished for age 22, with a Hart Trophy and a Stanley Cup and an Olympic gold medal; and, he’s unusually respected by those around him. If a teenager got a job in an office and was immediately more famous, wealthy and powerful than co-workers old enough to be his father, it wouldn’t go over too well. But Crosby pulled it off in Pittsburgh with hardly a trace of turmoil – at age 18. Sure, part of the reason is his job – he’s an athlete. And part of the reason is his work ethic: he has the insatiable drive required by great captains. But it’s more than that. Crosby has a way of instilling belief – not in the first month or the first season, but from the very first moment he meets someone.

Take Jay McKee(notes), for example. He’s a shot-blocking defenseman who has been in the NHL since before Crosby turned 10, and he came over to the Penguins from St. Louis this season. McKee expected to hang out with the two or three new teammates he already knew, but Crosby walked right over to him on his very first day, introduced himself, and invited him to lunch. “That stood out,” McKee says. “It’s the way he carries himself. He was born to be a leader.”

Mike Yeo’s first impression came under more difficult circumstances. He arrived in Pittsburgh from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., in 2005 as an assistant under coach Michel Therrien when Ed Olczyk was fired on a cold and rainy December day. Yeo was nervous. Mario Lemieux was still on the team, which consisted of greybeards (Mark Recchi(notes)) and babies (Colby Armstrong(notes)). Would anyone on this losing club listen to a 31-year-old who had never played or coached in the NHL? “I felt both guilty and bad,” Yeo says. “But I knew right away (Crosby) was all in. It was the eye contact. You say something and you see him do it – and do it eagerly. With a guy like that, your own confidence grows quickly.”

The eye contact is no small part of Crosby’s manner. He was not made available for this story, but watching him take questions from local media is in some ways more revealing than an actual one-on-one interview. He makes eye contact with the questioner, nods once or twice, then swivels his head to look down as if in thought. He speaks for a few seconds, often bunching up his lower lip or tilting his head between sentences, and then he swivels his head back around to meet the questioner’s gaze again. Crosby does this every time, no matter how long or how crowded the press session. He rarely says anything too memorable, but he always offers the impression that he is giving a question some thought. He looks like he’s listening. “He’ll look you right in the eye,” says former Penguin Bob Errey, who is now a broadcaster. “He’s very engaging that way. You come away feeling like he made time for you.”

That wasn’t lost on Penguins president David Morehouse during his first impression of Crosby. Morehouse has served as an adviser to Al Gore, John Kerry and Bill Clinton. So after the Penguins drafted Crosby, Morehouse immediately went into campaign mode, asking team communications VP Tom McMillan to find a media coach for the new star. Then Morehouse returned to his office and saw Crosby doing an interview on TV. He called McMillan back. “Forget it,” he said. “Don’t let anyone talk to him. He’s a natural. He’s pitch perfect.”

Cynics (and more than a few Washington Capitals fans) disagree. They point to his frequent whining to the refs as a rookie. They point to how the league seemed to prop him up and hand him accolades from the time he put on a Pens cap as a draftee. And they see his polish as calculated, even fake. In the ultimate team sport, skeptics say, Crosby is comfortable taking all the benefits of stardom and floating above the rest of the league. His alleged snub of the handshake line after last year’s Stanley Cup final only cinched his entitled label.

But nobody in the Penguins organization sees any sign that Crosby is basking in the glow of his status. Quite the opposite. First-year assistant coach Tony Granato found himself almost sad that Crosby spent so little time enjoying his gold medal-winning goal in February. “You almost wanted him to keep the celebration going,” he says. “You almost wanted to celebrate more with him. But there was not a change in him. Pretty remarkable.”

So while outsiders raise an eyebrow at Crosby’s corporate style, insiders find themselves impressed immediately by his businesslike approach. “If we’re winning by four or five goals,” says forward Craig Adams(notes), “and a play doesn’t go his way, he doesn’t laugh it off. He’s really intense.” Yeo calls Crosby “almost compulsive.”

During a recent press scrum, Matt Cooke(notes) thrust the knob of his stick toward Crosby’s face, as if he was joining the interview session with his own mock microphone and wanted a quote. Crosby grabbed the stick, made eye contact with his teammate, smiled slightly, and pushed the stick away. He didn’t even interrupt his answer. Crosby humored his teammate without enabling him. It was measured and efficient – just like everything Crosby does on the ice. Is that too corporate, too polished? Or is it a young man who doesn’t like to waste time better spent on his job?

That’s what moves Errey the most. “Maybe if I had done it his way,” he says, “I’d be able to play a bit longer. As a young player, you feel like this is going to last forever. He knows how precious the game is.” So while most 22-year-olds take plenty of detours, Crosby doesn’t even seem to notice them. That’s probably part of why he still lives with Mario Lemieux. And that’s how he gets in the head of a “47-year-old washed-up jock” who finds himself in a tiny battle with good and evil on his way to get a cup of coffee.

Some will always think Crosby’s a phony, and point out that Tiger Woods looked pretty pristine last year at this time. But if this is all an act, it’s almost as long-running as “Cats.” Teammate Max Talbot(notes) had his first impression when he met Crosby in a hockey camp in Los Angeles. “He was pretty mature,” Talbot says. “It was the way he stood, the way he spoke. He thought about what he was going to say. He was there to get better.”

Crosby, at that time, was 13.