SAN JOSE -- When Sidney Crosby walked off the ice after practice Saturday, there were so many reporters waiting for him, they couldn't fit into the dressing room at SAP Center. They wanted to talk about his Pittsburgh Penguins facing the San Jose Sharks in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final on Sunday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports). But they also wanted to ask about Gordie Howe, who died Friday at age 88.
Crosby waded through the bodies and cameras and notepads and microphones and voice recorders, then stood against a black backdrop with NHL and Stanley Cup Final logos and handled question after question.
"When you think of hockey, that's who you think of," Crosby said. "I think you think of Gordie Howe and the way he played, the way he conducted himself. He was a role model for a lot of people, including myself."
Howe was "Mr. Hockey," one of the greatest players and ambassadors in the history of the game. He was known not just for his incredible accomplishments on the ice, but for how he treated people off the ice, taking the time to talk, snap a picture or sign an autograph. He was the idol of Wayne Gretzky, "The Great One," who not only broke his scoring records but became the face of the game and handled off-ice demands with a gracious, humble style.
This is a different era, with more money and more media and more types of media, including digital and social media. It's unfair to make a direct comparison. But the example of Howe, Gretzky and others like Jean Beliveau echoes today, especially with Crosby.
Video: Sidney Crosby talks to the media after practice
Whether or not you consider Crosby the best player in the world or one of the best, he, far more than any other NHL player, bears the burden of representing not just himself and his team but the sport as a whole. Like Howe, like Gretzky, he is the one with the name casual sports fans know, the one the media puts on a pedestal.
Crosby meets the media every day he skates, and he makes a point to sit at his locker instead of a podium whenever possible, so he doesn't set himself apart from his teammates. With the exception of the All-Star Game, he attends many events to promote the League and the sport. He does it with grace and humility too.
"That's who sets the example, the guys that played before and set the example for the guys you looked up to," Crosby said. "Not just the hockey players, but the people. I think that's what's so special. His numbers speak for themselves, and all those players, their numbers will speak for themselves. But the type of people they were, the people that were willing to give back, that care about the game, that love the game, I think that's what makes it unique."
Crosby met Howe once, and his story sounds like so many others you hear about meeting Howe, including Gretzky's story about meeting Howe at a banquet in Brampton, Ontario, as a kid. Crosby was in his first or second year in the NHL, 18 or 19 years old, and the Penguins were playing in Detroit against the Red Wings. Walking out after the game, "Sid the Kid" ran into "Mr. Hockey."
"Like anyone else, you don't even know what to say," Crosby said. "You just kind of shake his hand. You're in awe. Just the way he spends time to talk to people … There's so many people wanting to meet him, wanting to take a picture with him. He just made you feel comfortable, and just a genuine person."
Video: The Sharks and Penguins reflect on Gordie Howe
Crosby was too young to have watched Howe play. Doesn't matter.
"He was done playing by the time I was even born," Crosby said. "But if you love the game, you love reading stories about the people who played it. He played with a ton of passion. He played on that edge. He wasn't afraid to play physical too. But I think those are kind of the things you love about a hockey player, the way they work, the way they compete. He was one of the best at it."
Penguins defenseman Ian Cole grew up near Detroit and knew the legend of Gordie Howe well. When he was a kid, he stood in line at the Ann Arbor Ice Cube to have Howe sign a book and take a picture. He called Howe the "epitome of the hockey player you want to grow up to be" for his combination of toughness and skill but also for how he represented himself, his team and the game.
"You kind of hear stories about him and you're like, 'OK, that's how a hockey player acts off the ice,' " Cole said. "Growing up and being a young, impressionable mind, you try to take that to heart and act the way he did."
No one is asked to do it more than Crosby is.
"Watching how great Sid is at handling the attention and the media and people in the streets, obviously I had a ton of respect for him initially, but it's only grown exponentially just with how gracious he is to everybody," Cole said. "He's just fantastic off the ice. I think Gordie Howe, among other players, really kind of established that for hockey players."
Video: Jim Rutherford talks to reporters on Gordie Howe