-- Sidney Crosby
critics out there, take heed.
"I think he's a lot more mature than I was at 21. He was a lot more mature than I was at 18. He's a special kid. I think you guys all know that from his interviews and from talking to him every day.
"He's a better player than I was at that same age, for sure. Some of the things he does on the ice -- his strength, his skating ability -- is incredible. His passion for the game and his will to be the best each and every shift, his work ethic -- he's got it all."
None other than Mario Lemieux
made that proclamation Saturday evening, a little less than two hours before the curtain rose on the 2009 Stanley Cup Final, a matchup pitting Lemieux's Penguins against the defending champion Detroit Red Wings
in a rematch of the 2008 Stanley Cup Final.
Having Lemieux, a first-ballot Hockey Hall of Famer with two Stanley Cup titles and 1,723 points (in just 925 games) on his resume, stumping for Crosby as a better player than he was should carry a good deal of weight.
Yes, Lemieux is partial to Crosby -- and not just because he has become the face of a franchise that has risen from the ashes of bankruptcy to win back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals under the ownership of Lemieux, who bought the team out bankruptcy in 1999. In the four years he has been with the Penguins, Crosby has lived with Lemieux, becoming a member of the family and bonding especially well with Mario's children -- Lauren, Stephanie, Austin, and Alexa.
"He's the same kid that he was four years ago," Lemieux said. "He's a joy to be around. My kids love him and he is a part of our family, really. He's been with us so long and it's great to have him around."
For Lemieux, a return to the Stanley Cup Final is also proof that the decision he made to save the Penguins from an inglorious end was the right one. Now he wants to be the one to bring the franchise another title, the first since the second of back-to-back championships in 1992 -- when Lemieux was at the peak of his powers as a player.
"That was certainly a goal of mine when I bought the team to, hopefully, you know, win the Stanley Cup as an owner," he said. "We had an opportunity last year that didn't go as planned, but hopefully this year's outcome will be different."
Even if the outcome is not the one Lemieux is hoping for, he knows his franchise is in a good place.
"I knew it was going to take a while to get back to the top, but now that we are," he said, "I think we are well-positioned for the next few years -- at least with the core players we have."
Lemieux plans to enjoy that success for a long time, saying he is feeling as good as he has in a while after seeing his body decimated by injuries and Hodgkin's lymphoma during his playing career.
"I started working out again about two months ago, which is always tough after a few years," said Lemieux, who has chronic issues with his back and has undergone two hip surgeries. "My golf game is not as good as it used to be -- I can't turn as much as I used to. But, it's fine. I get up every day, take a couple of Advils and I'm ready to go."