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Sidney Crosby: An Intimate Portrait (Prodigy)

by Sam Kasan @PensInsideScoop / Pittsburgh Penguins

Sidney Crosby: An Intimate Portrait is a 5-part series that takes a look at the Pens' captain through the eyes of his closest friends, family, coaches and community in his hometown of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia. 

COLE HARBOUR, Nova Scotia - Every now and then the whispers start. Soon the volume grows and builds into a crescendo that can't be ignored.

In a town as small as Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia - a suburb of Halifax with a little over 25,000 residents - the names may change, but they hype is always the same.

"Have you heard about (so and so) playing in Pee Wee?"

"You have to see this kid."

"Go watch this kid play."

"This kid will be the 'Next One.'"

"That happens every once in a while. You hear about a kid," said Paul Mason, who has been coaching Pee Wee hockey in Cole Harbour for 39 years. "So you watch them play and say, 'Yeah, they're pretty good.'"

Mason, 53, heard it again in 1993. Some kid in Timbits named Sidney Crosby was lighting up the scoresheet. But what jumped out to Mason was that Crosby was doing it against players that were three years older. So he had to see for himself.

"He was 6 (years old) at the time and he could do things that other kids that age couldn't do, that 8 or 9 year olds couldn't do," Mason said. "He could make plays and passes where the other kids had tunnel vision. That stood out the most to me at that point. At the same time he had the skill to score."

It seems like everyone from Nova Scotia has a story about the first time they heard and saw Crosby play.

"A buddy of mine said, 'I just heard about this kid down in Cole Harbour. He's going to be the Next One,'" said 62-year-old Robert Bird of Amherst, Nova Scotia. "(Crosby) was only 8 years old. We followed him all the way through."

"I heard about him in Pee Wee," said Keith McNamara, 42, of Halifax. "I'll never forget. My friends and I read an article. We went to Bantam a couple times to watch him. We watched him anytime Rimouski (Crosby's junior team) was playing the Halifax Mooseheads. He was unbelievable to watch. Something special."

But Mason has had a front row seat of Crosby's entire career span. Mason, a Cole Harbour native, also coached baseball, and two years after watching Crosby play hockey for the first time, the young phenom landed on Mason's baseball team.

Crosby, an all-star third baseman and pitcher, helped lead his team to two Atlantic championships in his only two seasons with Mason.

"The ball team won every game in provincials by the 10-run rule and went undefeated in all tournament play. It was almost unfair," Mason said. "We lost four games throughout the whole year. That year we had six no-hitters from different pitchers, (Crosby) was one of them."

On the ice, Crosby made the jump to the Pee Wee AAA level, despite being just 10 years old. And when he made the team, his new hockey coach would be his old baseball coach: Mason.

"He was underage, but he was the top player in his first year," Mason said. "He dominated and every team knew that he was the player you had to stop."

Despite the success, coaching a player of Crosby's caliber did present its fair share of problems for the coaching staff.

"We said it jokingly, but we weren't joking, offensively you almost couldn't coach him at Pee Wee because he saw things that you didn't see," Mason humbly admitted. "What he could see live during the play was different than other kids. You could teach him some things defensively or system plays, but you couldn't restrict someone with that ability at that age."

But it wasn't just the combination of vision and skill that separated Crosby from his peers, although that was a large part of it. It was Crosby's intangibles, which were evident even from an early age.

"Sid is very, very competitive," Mason said. "He had a drive to learn and a will to win that you don't see in kids that age.

"He's the same guy (today). The competitor comes out whenever he plays golf or Frisbee in the backyard."

Mason summed up Crosby's most distinguishable trait: "He hated to lose probably more than he liked to win."

Mason, who was inducted into the Maritime Sports Hall of Fame on June 14, has seen many talented kids come and go in his nearly four decades of coaching. He knew from the moment he saw Crosby play at 6 years old that he would be an NHL player.

But there were two moments in Pee Wee that made Mason realize that Crosby could really be special, as in actually living up to "The Next One" hype.

The first moment took place at Cole Harbour Place, a multi-purpose facility that houses two ice rinks and is where Crosby played throughout his youth. On a sheet of ice called Scotia 1, Crosby had the puck below the goal line and nearly behind the net. His teammate, Corey Manfield, was open in the slot, but there was no direct line to pass. So Crosby banked a pass off the net and right onto Manfield's stick. He buried the shot.

"We looked at each other on the bench. We'll never forget that," Mason said. "We talked about that for years. I've never seen that done at any other level."

The second moment occurred during the international BSR Tournament in Quebec. There was a lot of hype surrounding a kid from northern Quebec.

"The people said he was this special kid, so we went to watch him," Mason said. "I remember saying that we have a kid as good as him, if not better, and he's not even Pee Wee age."

Crosby found himself again competing against kids that were two-, three-years older. In the first game of that tournament he scored six goals and posted 10 points en route to a dominating tournament showing. People took notice.

As Mason noted: "It made a pretty good impression."

Crosby even made an impression on his teammates. Even if they didn't realize he would be a generational player because of their young age, they certainly knew he was something special.

"At that time you're not really paying attention to (the hype), but he always had a step on everybody and the way he saw things and could open up plays more than others," said Matthew Foston, a former teammate and longtime childhood friend of Crosby. "Some kids with skill go down in a straight line, deke someone and score. Where as he could make guys around him better. You noticed that at a young age."

Though he only coached Crosby for two seasons, Mason has become a very close family friend. Mason and the Crosbys - Sidney's parents, Troy and Trina, and sister, Taylor - have formed a strong bond over the past 20 years. Mason even helped plan Crosby's Stanley Cup championship parades in Cole Harbour in 2009 and '16.

"I got to know him and his family," Mason said. "As far as a coach, it's a relationship with the family that has carried on after meeting them. We had really good times."

In fact, Sidney's first-ever car accident came in Mason's van while they were driving to a baseball game. 

"I lost my eye and it was only a couple weeks after and I pulled out in front of a motorcycle. I remember Sid's mom was losing her mind," Mason laughed.

To make matters worse, Mason's next and final car accident came with Taylor Crosby in the car.

"They don't want to drive with me anymore," Mason smiled. "It was my last two accidents and both of the Crosbys were involved."

Mason has followed Sidney's career closely. He's watched "Sid the Kid" mature into a man and go on to have a decorated NHL and international career. Crosby's won three Stanley Cup titles, two Olympic gold medals, 12 individual NHL awards, a World Cup of Hockey gold medal, a World Championship gold medal and will no doubt go down as the greatest player of his generation.

And he's accomplished all of this before turning 30 years old, which will happen on Aug. 7. On that day, Crosby will be in the same place he spends every summer in the offseason, his hometown of Cole Harbour, surrounded by 25,000 friends with the Stanley Cup.

Maybe that's the greatest testament of Crosby's personage. He could live anywhere in the world, yet he always comes back to his roots, which are grounded on a humble upbringing and blue-collar attitude.

"That characteristic is what separates him from others," Mason said. "He's someone who has good, strong family values. That's something he was taught, but continues to maintain even after the fame and fortune.

"That's why people in Cole Harbour are more than proud of him, it's because of that component as well."

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