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Crosby has created own legacy with Penguins

Pittsburgh's all-time leader in games played has done more than follow in Lemieux's footsteps

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

The first time I saw Sidney Crosby play for the Pittsburgh Penguins, it was Jan. 25, 2006. I wasn't covering the NHL then. I was just a hockey fan, and I happened to be in Pittsburgh, and man, I had to go to the game.

It was the second matchup of Crosby and Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin, then the NHL's hotshot rookies. It also was the day after Mario Lemieux had announced he was retiring for good.

It wasn't what I expected, and when I think about the meaning of Crosby (916) passing Lemieux (915) for most games played in team history, which he did on Saturday, I go back to that night. 

 

[RELATED: Sidney Crosby's career highlights and milestones]

 

The game was not sold out. The crowd was announced at 14,415, more than 2,500 short of capacity at the old Igloo, then known as Mellon Arena. I bought a ticket on the street for, I think, $10. It might have been $5.

There was no elaborate ceremony. The Penguins hadn't had time to plan, and Lemieux had asked for them not to go overboard. So there was a video tribute during the first TV timeout and a standing ovation, and Lemieux waved from a private box.

Crosby had four points (one goal, three assists) in an 8-1 win, his highest total 50 games into his NHL career, and the goal was vintage Sid. He buzzed around the net, splayed his skates at 10 and 2 o'clock, kicked the puck from his right skate to his left-handed stick. and made a poor defenseman look silly.

But when Crosby was introduced as First Star, he waved a Terrible Towel. The Pittsburgh Steelers were headed to victory in Super Bowl XL in 11 days. The Penguins were headed to the second-worst record in the NHL.

"The Great Lemieux ended his career officially and, this time, finally," columnist Gene Collier wrote in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "It was the day the Penguins effectively became Crosby's team."

Think of the way Crosby was heralded when he entered the NHL. He was known as the "Next One," as if he were the second coming of the "Great One," Wayne Gretzky.

Video: Memories: Sid is youngest to reach 100 points

Think of the situation he inherited.

"The Penguins are for sale," Collier wrote in that column. "The building is an albatross. The savior who wore 66 just boarded up the miracle business. And still Crosby is the brilliant light behind every obstacle."

"Sid the Kid" -- and back then he really was a kid, only 18 years of age, living in Lemieux's house -- was supposed to follow in the footsteps of not one but two of the greatest players in history and resurrect a franchise.

No pressure, eh?

"Hockey's lost a great player and a great person," Crosby said of Lemieux in that column. "I don't think it will change anything for me, but this happening makes a lot of the younger guys realize what he meant to the team and the city. It makes you want to do things for the team and the city that he did."

Crosby has done just that.

You can compare and contrast their styles and statistics and individual awards. But Lemieux and Crosby are different players who performed in different eras, and each had health problems that skewed everything.

Who knows how many games Lemieux could have played if healthy? How much more he could have accomplished? Same for Crosby. At least Crosby is playing at a high level at 31. We can only hope he has many years of good hockey ahead of him. Lemieux got only 170 games after that age. 

What this milestone does is remind us of how, despite all the expectations, all the pressure, all the adversity, Crosby has built upon Lemieux's legacy. Like Lemieux did, he played with superstar teammates but made hockey matter in Pittsburgh more than anyone else in his time.

The season before the Penguins selected Lemieux No. 1 in the 1984 NHL Draft, they finished last in the NHL in points (38) and average attendance (6,839). They won the Stanley Cup in 1991 and 1992, and averaged more than 16,000 from 1992-93 to 1996-97.

The season before the Penguins selected Crosby No. 1 in the 2005 NHL Draft, they finished last in the NHL in points (58) and average attendance (11,877). They won the Stanley Cup in 2009, 2016 and 2017, while opening a new arena in 2010 and averaging more than 18,200 -- more than 100-percent capacity -- every season afterward.

There were six rinks in the region when Lemieux arrived and 33 when he retired. Crosby started the Little Penguins youth program in 2008, and the Penguins opened the state-of-art UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in 2015.

It says it all when kids are skating in Crosby jerseys in the practice rink named for Lemieux, when the new arena rocks and the miracle business is back and the light shines so bright you can't see the obstacles anymore.

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