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100 Greatest NHL Players

100 Greatest Players

Sidney Crosby: 100 Greatest NHL Players

Sid the Kid has won Stanley Cup three times with Penguins, two Olympic gold medals, World Cup with Canada

by Stu Hackel / Special to NHL.com

In 2009, when President Barack Obama welcomed the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins to the White House, he made it a point to congratulate the youngest captain ever to win the Cup, 21-year-old Sidney Crosby. Toward the end of the ceremony, Obama got a big laugh when he threw a little shade Crosby's way, remarking, "Sidney must be really fast because there's some big hockey players -- and he's not one of them." 

A casual fan, Obama did not realize that Crosby had not merely withstood pounding from bigger players but gave as good as he got. It's a major part of his game. During Canada's intrasquad scrimmage before the 2005 World Junior Championship, Crosby, 5-foot-10 at the time, and the much larger Dion Phaneuf -- 6-foot-3 and 25 pounds heavier -- got into a physical confrontation that grew so heated that the coaches had to cancel the rest of that day's practice.

 

Video: Sidney Crosby delivered on much-hyped promise

 

"He was getting to the net and steamrolling Phaneuf and Phaneuf was almost trying to kill him," said NBC Sports analyst Pierre McGuire, who witnessed the episode in a small North Dakota rink. 

"We've had our battles over the years," Phaneuf told Chris Johnson of Sportsnet.ca in 2013. "I've played against Sid for a long time and I've got the utmost respect for him. He's the best player in the League for a reason."

Fortunately, the president got the chance to make amends. In October 2016, the champion Penguins returned to the White House, and Obama said: "Last time he was here, I took a cheap shot at Sid for his size. I wasn't the first one, on or off the ice. Of course since then, he's won two Olympic golds (2010, 2014), a World Championship (2015), a World Cup MVP (2016), a playoff MVP (2016), another NHL MVP (2014), a mountain of other postseason awards. ... And, of course, he hoisted this trophy right here, his second Stanley Cup."

 

SIDNEY CROSBY CAREER TOTALS | View Full Stats

 

That list, Obama said, was "quite extraordinary." Clearly humbled, Crosby responded, "Thank you, Mr. President." Later, a reporter noted Crosby seemed very comfortable in that setting and wondered if he'd ever thought of getting into politics. His reply -- "No" -- couldn't come fast or emphatically enough.

That's because Sidney Crosby, known as Sid the Kid, truly is all hockey and is considered by most the greatest player of his era. Crosby, who scored his 1,000th NHL point on Feb. 16, 2017, has had challengers for that mythical title, and they're mighty formidable: Alex Ovechkin, Carey Price, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane among them. How does Crosby stay atop the pile? Let us count the ways: 

"Crosby has never stickhandled with the brio of Kane or scored as naturally as Ovechkin," Sports Illustrated's Michael Farber wrote in 2016. "His has been a subtler brand of exceptionalism, born of outsized effort and impressive skating edge work and an unparalleled backhand and all the details that piled high, create a mountain of hockey excellence."

"His bull-in-a-china-shop mentality is Peter Forsberg-like," McGuire said, referencing the former Colorado Avalanche center and Hockey Hall of Fame member. "His ability to dominate below the hash marks, where there is a lot of traffic, is amazingly strong. He's fearless down there. His peripheral vision is as good as anyone who has ever been in the League, and that includes Wayne Gretzky. His faceoff prowess is like Ronnie Francis."

"What Sid has is a little bit of an extra gear as far as his passing ability, his playmaking ability, the ability to make players around him on his team that much better," Gretzky told Sportsnet's Johnson during the 2016 Cup Final. "Guys like Bobby Orr did it, and Mario [Lemieux] did it, and obviously Crosby's doing it. He's just making his team better."

"He passes the puck better than anybody," then-Montreal Canadiens defenseman Josh Gorges told Farber in 2010. "He makes plays: behind his back, drop passes. You sit in the stands, and you don't even see the possibilities. You wonder how he sees them." 

As Penguins teammate Chris Kunitz told Sean Gordon of The Globe and Mail in 2017, "He obviously thinks the game faster than most people." 

And Crosby is possessed by a relentless, uncompromising drive to always improve, to identify and correct any flaw he perceives in his performance.

"You can't teach a guy's passion for the game," said McGuire, who has closely observed Crosby since the phenom was 16. "He either has it or he doesn't -- and Sid does. The ones who last the longest have this unquenchable, amazing desire to be great, to go to the rink and get better and to be around the game all the time. The best players, they're just in love with being at the rink."

"Crosby has always been a hockey geek," Sports Illustrated's Michael Rosenberg wrote in 2013. "Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero says that when he meets with Crosby, 'I always set aside an hour, and every time -- I don't think [a meeting has ever] been less than four hours. He just loves to talk about hockey.'"

He loved it from the start. Born Aug. 7, 1987, or 8/7/87 -- which is why he wears 87 on his sweater -- Crosby was raised outside of Halifax in Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia. His father, Troy, had been a junior goaltender and was a 12th-round pick of the Montreal Canadiens in the 1984 NHL Draft, though he never made the League. He put his son on skates before he turned 3 and in organized hockey at 5. Sidney regularly played against older children. 

"He was always more advanced than the other kids," Troy Crosby told Shawna Richer for her book, "The Rookie." "Everyone else was skating on their ankles, and he was skating and passing the puck. He even had a natural wrist shot."

At 7, Crosby was enrolled in a Halifax hockey school for the best young players in the Maritime Provinces where future NHL forward Brad Richards was an instructor. Noting Sidney was "head and shoulders above everyone else his age," Richards told Richer: "He never stopped learning, he just kept going. Kids usually peak. He never did." 

He spent countless hours in the family basement, shooting at a regulation-sized net, first with Troy defending, then on his own or in some improvised game with friends. Pucks that missed the net bruised and dented the family's dryer, now a celebrated artifact in the Nova Scotia Sports Hall of Fame.

He became a youth hockey phenom. Asked in 2003 if a player might one day break some of his NHL scoring records, Gretzky said, "Yes, Sidney Crosby. He's the best player I've seen since Mario."

Each season brought new accomplishments and honors for teenage Sidney: finishing second at the Air Canada Cup national midget AAA championship tournament where he was MVP; winning a USA Hockey national championship with the prestigious prep school Shattuck-St. Mary's; twice being voted Canada's top major junior player of the year while skating for Rimouski of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League; and winning a silver medal and then gold, respectively, with Canada at the '04 and '05 World Junior Championship, not to mention annually scoring in triple digits.

Shattuck-St. Mary's teammate Jack Johnson, a future NHL defenseman, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2016 he was impressed with Crosby's "passion and love for the game. It was hockey 24/7 with him. Even though we loved having fun, his drive to want to be the best was there, and we were just kids."

When the Penguins picked him No. 1 in the 2005 NHL Draft, Crosby proved the perfect player to rejuvenate a franchise coming out of bankruptcy after being saved by Lemieux. As a Penguins owner and a player who was finishing his magnificent on-ice career, Lemieux became Crosby's NHL mentor, even lodging the 18-year-old in the guest house on his suburban Pittsburgh property. 

They played together briefly, until Lemieux was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat in December 2005, forcing his retirement. But the mentoring continued, as did the family atmosphere the Lemieuxs provided. He responded with 102 points and was runner-up to Ovechkin -- often considered his closest rival -- for the Calder Trophy, awarded to the NHL's top rookie. In his sophomore season, he scored 120 points, earned the Hart Trophy as League MVP, won the Art Ross Trophy as the scoring champion and made the First All-Star Team.

But his desire to be the best was a means to an end. Crosby has always been far more about winning than individual recognition. Despite his first lengthy injury absence, he led the Penguins to the 2008 Cup Final in his first season since being named captain (at 20, the youngest in NHL history). Pittsburgh lost to the Detroit Red Wings in six games, and he tied Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg for the scoring lead in the Stanley Cup Playoffs with 27 points.

The next season, the Penguins won the Cup Final rematch over Detroit in seven games and their first trip to the White House. His 15 goals led all playoff scorers, and his 31 points were second.

He'd have strong seasons afterward, scoring a League-best 51 goals in 2009-10 (during which he scored the gold-medal winning goal in overtime for Canada at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics), but he'd also suffer from serious post-concussion issues; he was limited 99 regular-season games over three regular seasons from 2010-13. That he didn't modify his hard-charging style when he fully recovered -- he won the 2013-14 scoring title with 104 points and was awarded his second Hart Trophy -- was a testament to his rugged dedication.

Like seemingly every player at some point in his career, he'd endure a slump. At 28, Crosby called the prolonged drought to start 2015-16 "the lowest point of my career outside of injury," saying, "I can't say there weren't some doubts starting to creep in."

As the Penguins faltered, others had doubts, too. "Crosby just hasn't been himself this season, scoring just six goals in 29 games and sitting with a plus/minus of minus-seven," Neil Greenberg wrote in The Washington Post. "If Crosby isn't the NHL's best player, who is?" 

"Of course he was going to come out of it," Kunitz told Farber. "Too much skill. Too great a work ethic."

He did, sparking a momentous Penguins turnaround. When it was over, Crosby again hoisted the Cup and, this time, the Conn Smythe Trophy, and headed back to the White House for another meeting with the president.

Crosby won a third Cup title with the Penguins in 2017, again winning the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP. He aims to stay on top as long as possible, recognizing his foes have expanded beyond tough opponents to include Father Time and future contenders for his crown, such as Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers and Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

"As if outrunning the downside of my career wasn't motivation enough, the new guys coming into the league will surely have my attention, too," Crosby wrote for Sports Illustrated website The Cauldron before the 2016-17 season. "These are the young and hungry guys. The guys that want to be where you are. They're fast. They're strong. And with all the young talent throughout the league, it just makes you want to get better yourself. That's such a fun (and underrated) part of the game to me. I love having to adjust and adapt my game year-to-year to find ways to be my best."

"Right now, Sidney deserves to be known as the best player in the game," Gretzky told ESPN.com's Craig Custance in December 2016. "He's been the best player consistently in his career. He's won Stanley Cups and he's won gold medals. Until somebody takes that mantle away from him, he's still going to hold the crown."

 

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