TORONTO – That Sidney Crosby needed the World Cup of Hockey as a referendum on his success, his abilities, his acumen, his work ethic or his status as the best hockey player on Earth always seemed a little peculiar to me.
This exhibition tournament featuring two made-up teams was held a scant three months after Crosby won the most grueling tournament in professional sports, hoisting both the Stanley Cup and the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of his team, with four points in the six-game Final against the San Jose Sharks.
That victory, and Crosby’s performance in leading his team there, came after a regular season in which there were a number of questions about whether he had plateaued or, worse, was in decline. Then Mike Johnston bungled his way out of a job; Mike Sullivan was promoted; the Penguins played an aggressive offensive style; Crosby found his smile and, eventually, his second Stanley Cup.
As Sportsnet boasted: “With plenty of runway left on a Hall of Fame career, he’s going down as the best of the bunch in the NHL’s initial salary cap era. Everything is gravy from here.”
The gravy has been poured on Crosby at the World Cup of Hockey, which he and Team Canada are poised to win after a juggernaut performance through five games. His line with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand has been the best in the tournament, and actually carried a gaffe-laden Canadian team to a win over Team Europe in Game 1 of their three-game final.
Dominance can make for some repetitive storylines. So each day brings new questions to players and coaches around the World Cup, mostly going something like this:
Q. VALIDATE SIDNEY CROSBY’S GREATNESS FOR US!?
A. YES HE IS THAT AMAZING THANKS FOR ASKING!
Or, more specifically:
Q. VALIDATE SIDNEY CROSBY’S GREATNESS FOR US, WAYNE GRETZKY!?
“Crosby’s the best player in the game,” said arguably the best of all-time.
But within this bizarre desire to reestablish what was already reestablished 90 days ago, we’re learning something about Sidney Crosby from his peers. Not that he’s the best player in the world, which at this point is a demonstrable fact, but why he’s earned and maintained that status.
So how does he do it?
Jonathan Toews, considered by some to be the most complete forward in the world, marvels at Crosby.
“Sid’s that No. 1 guy that everyone looks at in the room, and tries to figure out what he’s doing to be so good. He’s a special player. He’s showed that early this season, coming off a Stanley Cup win last season. He’s been the best in the world for a long time now, and seems to be getting better somehow,” said the Chicago Blackhawks star.
What does he do that impresses Toews?
“He just seems to always have the puck. The more you have the puck, the energy you have, the stronger you are. And he never gives it away. Makes quick plays.”
Toews said the Team Canada players all share trade secrets in the dressing room and on the ice — what works, what doesn’t, how they do the things they do in the NHL.
Does Crosby ever pick his brain?
“Eh, not much,” said Toews, with a laugh.
“But he actually does. I think that’s a quality the best players in the world have. He’s always looking for ways to better himself, even if it’s from a guy like me.”
In Sochi, Ralph Krueger was part of the Team Canada brain trust as they won Olympic gold. He worked with Crosby, and marveled at, among many things, his curiosity about the game.
“He’s just the ultimate professional in his preparation,” said Krueger, who coached Team Europe at the World Cup. “I was impressed by his hunger to figure out what to do on the big ice, the conversations we had about it. I think he’s the best example of playing the complete game.”
Why has Sidney Crosby dominated the World Cup of Hockey, leading the tournament in points after five games?
“Because he’s only had a month and a half off?” said Shea Weber, with a chuckle. “I don’t know. He’s just kept rolling.”
Crosby has nine points in five games. Part of his success has been due to an immediate chemistry with his linemates Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. (For all the “World Cup as requiem for Sidney Crosby” talk, it’s Marchand’s reputation as a player beyond being a pest that’s gotten the validation here.)
It’s an interesting line, given that Crosby and Bergeron are both accomplished centers. Like, you know, most of the forwards on this insanely talented team are.
“I think the chemistry clicked right away, the three of us from day one,” said Bergeron. “I’m just trying to read off what he’s going to do, and he’s usually always a step ahead of everyone, so it’s about reading that, and making sure I’m in position to help him.”
Said Crosby of Bergeron: “We’re familiar with each other. (I was) 17 years old and I think he was 19 or 18. So it goes back a fair bit. But I think that he’s comfortable playing both positions and we can read off each other that way and he’s a right-hand shot — you’re working off forehands a lot more. We like to play a similar style. We’re comfortable just reading the play and reacting. We don’t have to be too robotic out there, we can just kind of play whatever position needs to be played.”
The trio has clicked in a way you wouldn’t expect a line to click in a short tournament, and the credit has gone to Crosby. He’s created countless chances, and his defensive hustle has led to many of them – like that sick puck thievery against defenseman Dmitry Kulikov of Team Russia that led to a crucial Marchand goal, tying the game 2-2 en route to a Canada win.
Crosby strips Kulikov and puts Canada on the board pic.twitter.com/dzUT737TyL
— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) September 24, 2016
Shea Weber calls it “imposing his will on the game” when Crosby makes a play like that.
“He’s one of those guys that’s got the ability to switch momentum. He switched the momentum after they scored and went up 2-1, and got the momentum back at the end of the second so we could regroup and come back in with a little bit more confidence,” said Weber.
The concept of leadership is pretty specious in hockey, from the overstating of the captaincy to the nebulous concept of having “rings in the room,” i.e. veterans that have won championships before.
But leadership in hockey gains clarity when you see a play like that by Crosby, at that time for Team Canada, and in a tournament like this.
“You see plays like that, that’s where the leadership comes in,” said Marchand. “When you’re able to lead at this level, of a group of leaders, then you’re able to take control, that just shows how special of a player he is and he created that whole goal and ultimately, that did lead to turning the game around.”
Toews first played with Crosby in the Vancouver Olympics. “We joke now that we’re not the young guys anymore,” he said.
He saw Crosby score the “Golden Goal” that defeated the United States in overtime of the gold medal game. Four years later, he saw Crosby struggle to product offense in the 2014 Olympics, playing with a rotating cast of wingers, and here we see the double-standards placed on him: Like Crosby, Toews didn’t score a goal until the gold medal game against Sweden, but Toews had long been established as a player who “does so many other things” when he’s not scoring. Crosby had a strong tournament in Sochi, but there was a sense of disappointment in his output that followed him until his offensive renaissance with the Pittsburgh Penguins last season.
“In Sochi, it was more about why weren’t we scoring, low scoring games and the teams we were playing we’re supposed to be winning by a certain amount of goals,” said Crosby. “At the end of the day we were winning games. It’s always nice to score, but we knew that we had to play a certain way and sometimes that meant not scoring five or six to win. You understand that.”
The expectations are different at the World Cup of Hockey, where Canada has exerted its will over overmatched opponents, carrying the play and playing creatively offensively. (Sometimes too creatively … oh hai Ryan Getzlaf blind drop passes at the blue line.)
“Coming here, I think you just try to do your best to create things. As a line we’ve done that. As a team we’ve done that. It’s a good feeling when you win,” he said.
It’s also a good feeling when a team with incredibly high standards performs to its potential, and when a player with equally high ones does the same.
“He has a mindset, that frame of mind that he’s been the best for so long,” said Toews of Crosby. “He has that high standard of himself, and he just knows how to create and produce consistently.”
Q. VALIDATE SIDNEY CROSBY’S GREATNESS FOR US, BLOG BOY!?
He doesn’t need me to. Or Mike Babcock or Jonathan Toews or Brad Marchand. But that Gretzky love is an honor … well, at least until Connor McDavid gets the rub next.
McDavid. Yeah, that one. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, and one assumes Crosby’s going to hand it over to McDavid at some point in the “Best Player In The World” beauty pageant.
Perhaps, then, that’s why you hear and read so many attempts to quantify and qualify and reaffirm Crosby’s status as the best player of his generation. Because there are always forces that are going to try to knock him off the throne, be it McDavid or the ever-present army of Crosby detractors or injuries or junior coaches thrust into NHL jobs that don’t know how to deploy him.
And so we get protectionist about Sid, and constantly reinforce his credentials and accomplishments.
Maybe we just have a hard time accepting that we’re watching our Gretzky, our Howe, our player of a generation whose speed, skill, numbers and intangibles are not only perfectly representative of the post-2005 NHL but will be hard for anyone to match in subsequent generations.
So we ask the experts if that’s accurate, just to be sure that our eyes don’t deceive us and the hype can be believed.
Experts like Steven Stamkos of Team Canada.
Q. VALIDATE SIDNEY CROSBY’S GREATNESS FOR US, STEVEN STAMKOS!?
“There is really not much more that can be said about the player that he is,” said Stamkos. “The guys in our room feel he is the best player in the world, and we’re glad he’s on our team.”
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