The year was 2003. I was visiting my friend Eric in West Virginia for the weekend for, uh, educational reasons. Anyway, when Eric asked about the “next Gretzky,” I assumed he was referring to Alexander Ovechkin.
The Russian sensation was lighting up the Russian Super League and had many NHL teams salivating at the prospect of drafting him.
“Alex Ovechkin? Yeah,” I answered. “He’s going to be a stud.”
“No, the other guy,” Eric said. “The Canadian kid. He’s supposed to be the next Gretzky. There is an article on him in Sports Illustrated.”
I was intrigued. I read plenty of Ovechkin, but I had not heard of this Canadian next Gretzky. What had I missed?
Eric showed me the issue and that’s when I first learned the name: Sidney Crosby.
"Sidney Crosby’s Next Stop is Greatness" shouted the headline.
Greatness was something he already possessed. Crosby’s real next stop was Pittsburgh.
Dark days. That’s the best way to describe the early 2000s Penguins.
On the ice, financial constraints forced the auctioning of their best players. The Pens finished in bottom five of the standings three straight years heading into the 2004-05 lockout, including dead last in 2003-04.
Off the ice, the Pens were actually in worse condition (if that were imaginable). The team was only a few years removed from (barely) surviving bankruptcy. Their facility, the 30-year-old Mellon Arena, was falling apart. Ticket sales were on the decline. Prospective owners were inquiring about moving the franchise to another location.
The Pens were on life support. And the only thing keeping them alive was Mario Lemieux.
The story is well known at this point. The legendary, Hall-of-Fame player parlayed his own lost salary into equity, assembled an ownership group and bought the Pens. Lemieux’s only priority was to keep the team in Pittsburgh, in perpetuity.
Lemieux’s un-retirement certainly was a jolt of life to the franchise. But even Lemieux, the most talented and gifted hockey player to ever grace the ice, couldn’t carry a roster that featured Rico Fata, Ramzi Abid, Milan Kraft and Tomas Surovy.
Lemieux, who battled back pain and injuries throughout his 17-year NHL career, was shouldering the burden of the entire franchise. Lemieux, acting as a modern day Atlas, was attempting to find an owner that would keep the team in Pittsburgh as well as find a way to build a new arena for the Pens’ sustainability.
As a lifelong Pens fan, this was a scary period. We braced ourselves for the worst possible outcome: The Kansas City Penguins. As much as we wanted to believe that Lemieux would save the franchise (again), there was only so much he could do on his own.
In reality, Lemieux couldn’t do it alone. The Pens needed another savior, another franchise player to pull the team from the depths of despair and back to the promised land, someone that the team could build around for future success.
The Pens’ financial situation was already dire in 2004. When the NHL officially cancelled the 2004-05 season, Pens fans braced for end. Could the Pens survive a lockout? Will the team move during the summer? Will Pens fans ever get to watch the team play in Pittsburgh again?
Meanwhile, a teenager in Rimouski, Quebec was honing his skills in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
The Crosby Sweepstakes occurred following the season-long work stoppage. Crosby was not only billed as the once-a-lifetime player and franchise player, but as the player that would save the NHL.
Crosby was touted as the face of the new, post-lockout NHL. He wasn’t just a franchise player; he was a generational player.
Due to the lockout, the 2005 NHL Draft order would be determined by a league-wide lottery. The Pens were one of four teams to have three balls in the lottery, giving them better odds than 26 other teams.
The lottery was televised. I was cleaning my apartment while it was playing in the background. All I hoped was that the Pens would land somewhere in the top-5. After all, landing Crosby seemed just too unrealistic.
My phone rang as the lottery entered the final three. It was my friend Collin, who happened to be with my friend Eric. They were both watching the lottery.
A scream rang out from my phone from both Collin and Eric. Confusion and nervous energy shot through me. Then I watched on my television, which was obviously delayed, as NHL commissioner Gary Bettman opened the envelope to reveal the Pens logo.
I nearly dropped the phone. The player that I had been reading about now for two years, the “next Gretzky” (although it’s more appropriate to say the “next Lemieux”), the player that I dreamed would wear a Pens sweater one day, was coming to Pittsburgh.
The Pens franchise was saved by a ping pong ball. Thanks to gravity, a bounce and luck, the black cloud that have hovered over the franchise parted and Pens fans could see the sunlight for the first time in years.
Ask any Pens fan and they’ll tell you exactly where they were and what they felt when they found out Pittsburgh won Crosby’s rights. It was a surreal moment. To this day every time I see a replay of Bettman opening the envelope I relive that excitement.
That evening I went to a big party on a friend’s farm in Nowhere, Pa. There were over 200 people in attendance drinking, eating, roasting a pig, playing games like kickball and cornhole and just hanging out. It was a joyous festival.
I must have talked to almost 100 people that day. And the one topic that everyone kept discussing was Sidney Crosby. Three guys were wearing plain, white-Ts at the party. In marker on the back they wrote “Crosby” with a big “87.”
Even though the pig roast is a yearly event, this year it became a celebration of Crosby and Pens hockey. This is the power of sports. One player brought an entire fanbase together and gave us hope. As Andy Dufresne said, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things.”
Every fan wants their team to win a championship. The idea the Pens would win a Stanley Cup seemed like a Twilight Zone fantasy. But now, with Crosby, it seemed a very, real possibility.
That’s what I remember. The excitement. The optimism. The hope.
It was 10 years ago on this day that it all became “official.” The 2005 NHL Draft was held in a hotel in Ottawa. And as expected, the Pens took Crosby with the first-overall selection.
The entire hopes and dreams of the franchise were placed on the shoulders of this 17-year-old kid with a crooked smile. It would only take four years for that kid to become the youngest captain in NHL history, 21, to lift the Stanley Cup.
The Pens franchise went from the basement to mountaintop in four years, from extinction to champions. The dream became reality.
In the last 10 years Sidney Crosby has won two NHL MVP awards, two NHL scoring titles, one goal scoring title, two Olympic gold medals, voted most outstanding NHL player by his peers three times, and named an NHL All-Star five times.
Oh, and his name is etched on that big silver chalice.
And Crosby’s only 28 years old.
Crosby has already given Pens fans enough memories and special moments in the first 10 years to last a lifetime.
Here’s to 10 more.