Remember when Don Cherry liked to pick on Sidney Crosby?
Not anymore. Now, Cherry calls him "the most complete player in the game. "To me, this is the best year that Crosby's ever had," the colourful Hockey Night In Canada analyst said Friday on a conference call. "Not in points and that, but he takes draws now, he's dynamite on draws, he's down low, he hits, he blocks shots, he's had two fights.
"To me, he's the most complete player in the NHL. This year, he's playing for the team 100 per cent."
For much of 21-year-old Crosby's first three NHL campaigns he was criticized regularly by Cherry for diving, complaining to officials and other antics. During Pittsburgh's run to the Stanley Cup final last spring, both denied they were in a feud, but there was a still a coolness to Cherry's comments about probably the brightest Canadian star in the league.
It appears he's changed his tune.
"When Crosby started out, I tried to warn him about yapping at the referees and taking dives and slamming his head back and jumping on the glass, and if you look at him now, he's a complete hockey player," said Cherry.
Cherry took part in the call along with fellow analysts Pierre McGuire and Mike Milbury, as well as NBC play-by-play man Doc Emrick.
McGuire backed up Cherry's view on Crosby.
"There is a maturation process that goes on with all these young players and sometimes they do have to be taken to task," he said. "He's been a leader.
"They went through a coaching change, which I think he handled seamlessly. He had a spectacular year. His faceoffs have improved. He's much more responsible defensively. He's actually killing penalties now, which he didn't do last year, which drove me crazy. I really believe it's the maturation process."
One hot topic was Crosby's showdown with his chief rival for best player in the sport honours, Washington left-winger Alexander Ovechkin, who drew Cherry's ire for a 50th goal celebration in which he lay his stick on the ice and pretended to warm his hands off it.
"Ovechkin is like the wild bull of the Pampas - he's exciting to watch," said Cherry. "I was very upset with him when he did that to Tampa.
"They're out of the playoffs, beating them 5-1 and he let on that his stick was too hot and stuff like that. I had to rip him pretty good and if you notice now, his celebrations are normal."
Crosby had 103 points this season, third best in the league behind his Penguins teammate Evegni Malkin and Ovechkin. But only Malkin, Ovechkin and a third Russian, Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings, were named finalists for the Hart Trophy as the league's most valuable player.
Cherry is known for boosting North American players and questioning the commitment of Europeans, and rather than slam the writers who voted on the award for picking three Russians, he jabbed them for not nominating Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Steve Mason.
Mason, a candidate for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year and the Vezina Trophy as top goaltender, led the league with 10 shutouts and helped the Jackets make the playoffs for the first time.
"If you take Malkin away from Pittsburgh they would still be a good club; if you take Datsyuk away, Detroit's still a good club; but if you take Mason away from Columbus, they'd be in the American Hockey League," said Cherry. "Not to even be nominated. . .
"I don't know what those guys are smoking when they give out the awards. I don't know who is doing the voting but they're out to lunch."
As for the three Russian nominees, Cherry said "it doesn't bother me.
"But I can't see how the three Russians can be in there. I can see two of them, but it doesn't matter. We'll see who is most valuable in the playoffs. I think it's been a Canadian every time except one, so we'll see what happens when the real season gets through."
Actually, American Brian Leetch won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 1994 and two Swedish Red Wings have won it - Nik Lidstrom in 2002 and Henrik Zetterberg in 2008.
Cherry also had lavish praise for one of his favourites, forward Kyle Wellwood, a former Toronto Maple Leaf now in the playoffs with the Vancouver Canucks. The Canucks won their second-round series opener 5-3 over Chicago after blowing a 3-0 lead in the third period on Thursday night.
"One of the greatest little kids who went through tough times," Cherry said of Wellwood. "He won seven out of seven draws, he had two assists, he started the winning goal with a minute to go, he was plus-2, he got eight minutes on the power play, he lost a tooth and a pint of blood. I can't say enough about him.
"Vancouver was a little rusty, but it was really something to watch them come back. That was one of the most exciting games we'll ever see."