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Even All-Stars in awe of Crosby

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

SAN JOSE, Calif. - Mathew Barzal couldn't believe his luck.

When the New York Islanders forward entered the Eastern Conference locker room ahead of NHL All-Star Skills on Friday at SAP Center, he discovered that he had been given a prime spot for the weekend's festivities - right next to his idol, Sidney Crosby.

As Jake Guentzel can attest, that's maybe not the most ideal spot on a day-to-day basis with the amount of media that gathers around Crosby. But in a situation like this, Barzal couldn't have been happier.

"I had a chance to skate with him this summer a little bit and that was obviously just surreal, so coming here - he's such a nice guy and such a good guy to learn from," said Barzal, who won the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie last year. "It was just really cool for me."

And not only did Barzal get to dress alongside his hockey hero - he got to play alongside him during the NHL All-Star Game on Saturday. Capitals head coach Todd Reirden, who was behind the bench for the Metro, said Barzal was thrilled to learn that piece of news.

"I mentioned it to him and he was like, 'Are you serious? Really? Wow. I'm going to get some sleep tonight,'" Reirden recalled with a laugh.

Kris Letang also had to laugh while watching players like Barzal, who was to Crosby's left, and Hurricanes forward Sebastien Aho, who was to Crosby's right, interacting with him.

"You could see their faces sitting next to Sid, talking to him," Letang said.

On a weekend where many of the NHL's stars gather in one place, Crosby shines the brightest - because to them, he is just simply on another level with what he's accomplished throughout his career and having been the ambassador of the league for so long.

The respect and adoration from Crosby's peers is cool to see during times like these. Particularly from players like Barzal, who grew up watching him as he came into the league and are now starting a youth movement of their own.

"It's pretty amazing just to see him sitting across from you. Just all the guys, pretty much, but obviously Sid - he's Sid," Ottawa Senators rookie defenseman Thomas Chabot said. "He's the way he is, and just to shake his hand and to get to see him around just for a day, it was great."

Buffalo Sabres forward Jack Eichel, who was the second overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, made his first All-Star appearance last year in Tampa. Meeting Crosby, who was also his hockey hero growing up, was a highlight.

"I had posters of him all over my room growing up," Eichel said. "It was just super surreal. He's arguably one of the greatest players to ever play. Just even to be around him was really cool. He was somebody I looked up to so much growing up. It was pretty amazing."

Most of Crosby's fellow All-Stars make a point to chat with him, and if they can grab a photo or memento, that's an added bonus. 

"I had him sign a jersey for me last year, and I have it up in my house," Eichel said.

Columbus Blue Jackets forward Cam Atkinson played in his first All-Star Game in 2017 in Los Angeles. He said he was starstruck by Crosby, who was making his first All-Star appearance in 10 years. But he was also impressed with how friendly Crosby was, so he worked up the courage to ask him for an autographed stick.

"He was like, 'Only if I get one too,'" Atkinson recalled before adding with a laugh, "And I'm like, 'You sure you want an Atkinson twig?' He was like, 'Absolutely.' So it was kind of cool. I think we shared a couple cool pictures and stuff like that too, which is what this weekend is all about."

A few of the players even tell team staffers to keep an eye out for any interactions with Crosby so that they can take pictures, and of course, their families and friends are doing the same. Like Winnipeg Jets forward Mark Scheifele's dad Brad, who ran into Crosby in the family lounge after the game and introduced himself.

"We saw you talking with (Mark) on the ice and I said, 'We've got to get a picture, even if it's of the back of their shirts," Brad told Crosby. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime memory, I'll tell you. We love watching you. We appreciate everything you do for hockey."

At Crosby's first All-Star Game back in 2007, he was the younger guy alongside future Hall of Famers like Nicklas Lidstrom, Joe Sakic, Teemu Selanne, Martin St. Louis, Brendan Shanahan and Martin Brodeur, so he can relate to the players this weekend who were excited to spend time alongside him. 

"When you're young - and we've all been there - I think that's the cool part of this weekend, is you get to interact with other guys," Crosby said. "And no matter how many games they've played in or whether it's the first or 10th, it's cool to have that. We're all competitive guys and when we play against each other we want to win. But we all love the game and we all appreciate being able to spend a weekend competing against one another."

However, that doesn't make it any less weird for Crosby.

"It's scary when you come to these and after a few years start to realize you're much more the older guy," he said with a laugh. "It's a different role, but it's still a lot of fun. I think you appreciate just how skilled and talented so many guys are."

And the feeling is more than mutual.

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