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Crosby goes above and beyond to make teammates feel included

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

Matt Cullen has played in 1,445 NHL games over 20 seasons with eight different teams. And throughout his lengthy career, he's never seen anybody do a better job of welcoming players into an organization than Sidney Crosby.

"I watch how he makes time to make a real effort to include guys and go out of his way to spend time with younger guys, and I know that goes a long way," Cullen said. "Especially when it's Sidney Crosby, you know?"

Whether a player is a veteran like Cullen or a rookie, Crosby does whatever he can to help them feel like they're part of the team, and that's a responsibility the Penguins captain embraces year-round.

"He just always includes everyone. I think that's the biggest thing," defenseman Brian Dumoulin said. "When you come to a pro hockey team, you have people who have families, different lives. But regardless if you're a first-year rookie or you're a 10-year vet, he's going to include you in the text whether it's dinner, whether it's getting together here in Pittsburgh or on the road. 

"That goes a long way when a guy like that is including you. It makes you gel as a team. It all starts from him, the things that he does people might not see."

The Penguins usually invite between 50-60 players to training camp every year, and it's not always possible for Crosby to get to know every single one of them. But he tries his best to at least introduce himself and have a conversation, like he did with future two-time Stanley Cup-winning goaltender Matt Murray at his first training camp in 2013.

"I was definitely star-struck, still kind of am," Murray said with a smile. "He just introduced himself, and I was like yeah, I know who you are (laughs). He was always really welcoming. That's why he's the best captain."

When Crosby approached Bryan Rust at his first training camp in 2014, the winger was surprised that Crosby already knew a couple of things about him, like that he went to Notre Dame and that he was in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton after his senior year had ended.

"That just shows the kind of character he has," Rust said. "He makes sure that he tries to at least say hello and get to know every guy, at least a little bit."

After Zach Aston-Reese turned pro following his junior year at Northeastern, he played 10 games with WBS before suffering an injury. So the forward came to Pittsburgh to get evaluated by the team medical staff the same day the Penguins hosted the Washington Capitals in Game 4 of their Second Round series in 2017.

"After the game, in Pittsburgh, I was down waiting for 'Murr,' who was driving me back to Cranberry," Aston-Reese said. "And Sid walked by, I had never met him before in person. And he was like oh, I saw you did well in Wilkes, asked me about my hand and stuff. So he knew right away."

Aston-Reese made his Penguins debut on Feb. 3 at New Jersey, and the following day was Super Bowl LII between Philadelphia and New England. Crosby invited Aston-Reese to join him and the rest of the guys to watch the game at his home. 

Then, when Aston-Reese sustained a broken jaw against the Capitals in the playoffs in May, Crosby informed him that he had suffered a similar injury a few years prior and gave him some tips on what to eat - including ribs and mac n' cheese in a blender, one of his go-to's.

"That's something he had gone through, so he had his chef make a bunch of stuff for me, made a bunch of different recipes," Aston-Reese said. "He was really good about that and helping me through that."

Last year, Jordy Bellerive earned an invitation to training camp as an undrafted free agent forward. The day after training camp started, the team announced that Bellerive had earned a three-year, entry-level contract. After the news got out, the first person to approach Bellerive was, of course, Crosby.

"I came in and I was a nobody," Bellerive said. "When I ended up getting my contract, he was the first guy to congratulate me. So that was pretty cool."

This summer, after Bellerive suffered severe burns to his hands in a campfire incident that hospitalized him for 12 days, Crosby sent him a text right away to see how he was doing. It was so unexpected that it took Bellerive a minute to figure out whom the text was from.

"The text was signed ' -Sid,' and I started thinking, who's Sid?" Bellerive recalled with a laugh. "Then I was like oh, that Sid. Okay. Then this year, he was the first guy to come up and talk to me (at training camp). It was really nice of him and pretty nice to hear from him right when I got here, too."

When Cullen first signed with the Penguins two summers ago - on Aug. 16, 2016 - his first interaction with Crosby was something he said he'll never forget and that will leave a mark on him forever.

"My first year when I signed here, I signed late. Sort of an afterthought to everything," Cullen said. "But he called, right away, and welcomed me to the team. Offered to help in any way, actually offered to go look at houses for me. One of the best players to ever play the game offering that - honestly, I think it says a lot, it really does."

Cullen didn't end up taking Crosby up on the offer, which he joked that he regrets - "I wish now, knowing him, that I had and really given him the runaround and had him look at 10 houses," he laughed. But once Cullen arrived in Pittsburgh, he and Crosby met for lunch before the season got underway. Whether it's a meal or golf or even going to a Pirates game, like he did with Aston-Reese this summer, Crosby does his best to spend time with new teammates.

"It's important because once the season gets going, you fall into your routine and I think he realizes that, so he does a good job of going out of his way to make sure he carves out the time to get to know everybody before the year starts," Cullen said.

For players that join the team during the season, whether it's via a call-up or a trade, Crosby usually gets their number from a staff member and shoots them a welcome text before they arrive, then follows back up with them once he gets the chance to meet them.

"If there's new guys, you try to help them out with anything or just see how things are going," Crosby said. "I think it takes more than one person to do that. It takes a group, but I think everyone tries to help in any way they can. I think it's just about trying to be a good teammate."

"He's the one captain I've played with that really makes an effort to bring in the new guys and make them feel at home," winger Carl Hagelin said. "That's why so many guys come to this club and play well right away. So many guys get called up and play well right away because he wants everybody to feel like they're a big part of the team."

After the Penguins acquired defenseman Justin Schultz from Edmonton at the trade deadline on Feb. 27, 2016, the team hosted Arizona on Feb. 29 and then flew to Washington to play the Capitals the next day. Schultz said that after the game, Crosby came up to him and made sure he had a ride to the airport since it was his first road trip with the team.

"You hear stories about how nice he is and everything, but he has a lot of responsibilities and obviously a lot of attention," Schultz said. "He's a superstar. So for him to do that and go out of his way for new guys and guys coming in when they're a little nervous, it's huge for them and I know it helped me."

Crosby said that during his rookie year, he watched and learned from the veteran players around him - starting with Mario Lemieux, of course, but also guys like Ryan Malone and current Pens assistant coach Mark Recchi.

"Early on, with the group that we had, there was a good chunk of young guys and newer players and all the veteran guys always treated us really well," he said before adding with a smile, "Obviously they had fun and chirped us, but they were always there to help us out, too."

As the face of the NHL and face of the Penguins, Crosby has always taken his responsibilities seriously. So much so that he waited until the end of his second season in the league to accept the captaincy, saying he understood there would be a lot more responsibility on his shoulders - but that he felt ready for it and felt comfortable with it.

It's been over 10 years since then, and for Recchi, it's been a pleasure watching Crosby really embrace this aspect of wearing the 'C.'

"He's always kind of had that, but obviously you evolve as you get older and you grow into that even more," Recchi said. "He's our leader on and off the ice. His work ethic is incredible and he really takes pride in making guys feel comfortable, making guys feel part of it."

As Dumoulin put it, with everything that Crosby has accomplished, "he could be an arrogant (jerk) that keeps to himself." Instead, Dumoulin called him "the nicest, most friendly guy who is so well-grounded that he can talk to anyone about any situation."

"He's good at reading people and knows when people need a pick-me-up or when he needs to give them a hard time," Dumoulin said. "Whether you're down or you've had a bad game or anything like that, he comes over to pick you up and makes sure he's there for you, and lets you know that. He just makes you feel like family."

But it's not always Crosby approaching his teammates. Sometimes it's his teammates approaching Crosby for any advice or guidance.

"You just reach out to him and you just say hey, I might need this day or I might need this. And he's more than willing to help out," Dumoulin said. "He's in almost every one of our lives. He's aware of certain situations, if you're going through a rough time at home or with family. He's right there to pick you up and lift your spirits and give you a laugh. It's just the little things that he does to put a smile on your face day in and day out. 

"It goes a long way."

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