Generation Crosby: What the NHL’s young stars learned by watching Sid

Sports

Sidney Crosby hears a lot on the ice during an NHL game. Cheers and jeers. The cacophony of trash talk, interrupted by a few goal horns. But as the years have passed, Crosby’s started to hear something else: Opponents openly confessing that they had the Pittsburgh Penguins star hanging on their bedroom wall while growing up.

“It was in our laundry room, actually,” said 23-year-old Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar. “It’s what we used to measure our heights. We’d stand next to it, and mark the lines on him.”

Since Crosby made his NHL debut on Oct. 5, 2005, there have been 2,939 skaters who have subsequently played at least one NHL game. Gradually, those players went from being Crosby’s contemporaries to a younger generation that’s only known him as their hockey archetype, the name on their most cherished hockey cards and the face decorating their walls.

“Pretty much everyone I know had that big life-size poster of him. Everyone looked up to him,” said 20-year-old Buffalo Sabres center Dylan Cozens.

Rather than looking up to him, Cozens has been eye-level with Crosby in the faceoff circle, taking in the surreal moment of battling a hockey idol. “There was one game where we were taking faceoffs against each other. I wanted to win every draw,” he said.

How did he fare?

“Obviously, he’s been taking draws forever. I got a few wins in. But he’s the experienced one.”

Experienced, he is. Despite the now-anachronous “Sid the Kid” nickname, he’s “Old Man Crosby” by hockey standards: 34 years old, in his 17th season, with 1,052 regular-season games played and 174 more in the postseason. In NHL chronology, the time between now and his rookie season is roughly the duration between Mario Lemieux‘s last Stanley Cup in Pittsburgh and Crosby’s first.

Hence, it’s become commonplace for Crosby to face foes that admit they grew up as fans.

“Yeah, guys have said stuff like that on the ice. Made me feel pretty old,” Crosby told ESPN, laughing. “But I know it’s meant to be a compliment.”

This is Generation Crosby: A collection of players from around the world who have picked up a stick, laced up the skates and hit the ice for the first time with the Pittsburgh Penguins captain as their Gordie Howe, their Bobby Orr, their Wayne Gretzky.

“Sid was a god,” said Jack Hughes, the 20-year-old New Jersey Devils star. “I met him a few times when I was younger. I was fortunate, because [his agent] Pat Brisson was a family friend. I was always really nervous. He’s the best player of our generation. The guy that, when I was growing up, was the best guy in all those years. It’s fun playing against him now and competing against him. But growing up, we had a bunch of ’87’ jerseys in the house.”

How does Crosby feel when a player like Hughes, part of that next wave of talent to hit the NHL, views him as some sort of hockey deity?

“I think that’s really cool. I always appreciate it,” he said, indicating that it’s not the first time he’s heard the comparison, and probably won’t be the last.

“I mean, I think that’s the cool thing about hockey. The guys have a lot of respect for one another. They appreciate the competition and know that it can be as fierce as it is out there. But at the same time, there can be an unwavering amount of respect and appreciation for everyone’s game and what they bring.”

What Crosby brings to the ice has become a template for aspiring players and the coaches who are instructing them, at all levels and around the world.

“I don’t think there’s a more complete player than Sid,” said his Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. “Just his understanding of how to win and his willingness to play on both sides of the puck is inspiring, [especially] for a player that’s such a generational talent.”

What has he taught that generation?

Plenty, on and off the ice.


The Teachable Crosby

Brian Keane, the founder and head instructor at Prodigy Hockey, has used Sidney Crosby through the years like an English Lit professor teaches Shakespeare.

His tutorial “How to Protect the Puck in Hockey” is built around the Penguins star’s body control, punctuated with a video of him dangling through NHL defensemen titled “Sidney Crosby is possessed.” Another uses Crosby’s heel-to-heel skating as a drill for advanced skaters to practice their “two-and-10 glide” on the ice. It’s a stance commonly referred to as “The Mohawk,” but that other tutorials have termed “Sidney Crosby Edges.”

“You can try to tell a young player to do something. But they’re going to gravitate to the players they love to watch and admire. And I think Sid has been a source of inspiration for the players that are in the league now, and that are coming up,” said Keane. “I think you see a lot of players coming up that try to utilize those open hip movements, those heel-to-heel movements, to solve game problems.”

Ask Keane what he likes about Crosby as a teaching tool, and the hockey instructor conjures a laundry list.

“The way he uses his body and the way he can feel out opponents and utilize quick changes in direction, attacking seams when they’re available. One of the things I love to show players with him is where he’s looking and what he’s taking in to make his decisions, either on the puck or off the puck,” said Keane.

Keane has admired Crosby’s ability to protect the puck and credits his body type for the proficiency. “He has a unique way he moves. But it’s also his width,” said Keane, chuckling, “and his backside.”

In the realm of “you can’t teach that” about Crosby’s skills set is a lower body that earned him the nickname “Creature” from his teammates, as revealed in the book “The Day I (Almost) Killed Two Gretzkys” by author and TSN host James Duthie.

“It is huge. Gigantic. Hugantic. His caboose would make J-Lo jealous. His thighs are bigger than my torso. All his pants have to be custom made,” wrote Duthie.

That last part is Crosby canon: He famously revealed his struggle to buy jeans that fit in an interview with a local Pittsburgh TV station in 2007. “The cuts aren’t good for us,” he lamented.

“He really understands what assets he has, physically, and applies them in a great way,” said Keane.

Crosby’s “10-and-2” skating style — his feet spread wide, allowing him to open the hips — enables him to see more of the ice and is handy for puck protection. “He’s mastered it. He’s very efficient with that movement. A lot of people aren’t going to be able to open their hips that way and be as fluid, keep their glide,” said Keane.

Therein lies the problem in using Sidney Crosby as a teaching aid. There are things he does on the ice that can be emulated, but not necessarily repeated.

“Role models are a huge part of player development, and kids learning to love the game. I think Sid has inspired a lot of players to mimic and imitate the moves that he uses on the ice,” he said. “But every player has their own physical attributes. No one is going to move the way that Sidney Crosby moves. Only Sidney Crosby can move that way.”

It’s something Generation Crosby has grown to understand: That he is Sidney Crosby, and they are not.

“Growing up, we put Sid on another planet from where we were,” said Colorado Avalanche star Nathan MacKinnon, a native of Crosby’s hometown of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, and now a close friend. “We admired everything about his game, but we never thought we could do anything like him at all.”


‘God-level’

Shane Wright has grown up with Sidney Crosby.

He was a one-year-old when the Penguins drafted Crosby in 2005. He was six when Crosby scored the “Golden Goal” in Vancouver in 2010, one of the most iconic moments in Canadian Olympic history. He has an autographed photo from Crosby that reads “all the best … keep working hard.” It remains a source of inspiration for Wright, the Kingston Frontenacs’ forward who is projected to be the first overall pick in next summer’s NHL draft.

“He’s a role model for me, with all his work ethic and his accolades,” said Wright. “It was just the way he played. He’s such a smart player. He made his teammates better. And he was a such a great leader as well, always showing up in those big moments, in those big games. I loved watching him. I still love watching him.”

But ask Shane Wright which player he modeled his game after, and he’ll say Boston Bruins center Patrice Bergeron. Like Crosby, he plays well in both zones, wears the captain’s ‘C’ and is a model of work ethic. Unlike Crosby, young players like Wright see “becoming the next Patrice Bergeron” as attainable, while “becoming the next Sidney Crosby” as impossible.

“That’s actually a really good way of describing it: Sid is such an incredible player. He and Bergeron have such similar games, but Bergeron is more the attainable [talent],” said Wright. “That’s not taking anything away from [Bergeron]. But Crosby’s more the god-level, and Bergeron’s more the attainable player.”

This is a tale as old as time. Hockey Hall of Famer Brendan Shanahan grew up in the 1970s with Bobby Orr and was drafted in the 1980s while Gretzky was rewriting the NHL record books.

“I was probably more interested in following [Bruins tough guy] Terry O’Reilly. Following Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux was out of the question,” he said, with a laugh. “There are certain people that are on that mountain. So you’re like ‘who else could I emulate that’s attainable?'”

Jack Hughes tried to play like Chicago Blackhawks star Patrick Kane while growing up, because playing to Crosby’s level wasn’t realistic.

“When you hear guys compare their game with a guy like Sid, it’s like, ‘C’mon,’ you know?” said Hughes. “He’s the guy that’s done it all at the highest level in our spot. He’s won Cups. He’s won MVPs. That 2010 Olympics when he scored that goal for the gold medal, it was heartbreaking for us Americans. But since it was [Sidney Crosby], it was pretty cool.”

Philadelphia Flyers center Sean Couturier is about five years younger than Crosby, but still remembers the buzz when Sid’s Rimouski Oceanic would visit his hometown of Bathurst for a Quebec Major Junior game. “It was like a show coming into town for us. He was quite a player.”

Couturier also looked up to Bergeron, because Crosby was on another level.

“I think he is. Especially in today’s game, you don’t see many guys that put up a point per game in every season. That’s pretty crazy in today’s game. Someone is going to do that year after year, he’s going to be an exceptional talent. I think we see that with Connor McDavid coming up. You see those talents like once every 15 years,” said Couturier.

The next two decades could easily produce a Generation McDavid — his 1.43 career points-per-game average has eclipsed that of Crosby (1.27). But a generational talent isn’t always just defined by statistical achievement or the size of their trophy case. It’s also how they choose to handle, and utilize, their generational status.

If Shane Wright can’t be Sidney Crosby on the ice, he thinks he can still be like Sid off the ice.

“[Crosby] wants to give back to the community that helped shape him, helped get him to where he is today,” said the 17-year-old center. “He’s a role model in every single way. He takes care of his teammates. He takes care of his community. He’s someone you can look up to on ice and off the ice.”


Sidney’s Little Penguins

The bond between Sidney Crosby and Penguins legend Mario Lemieux is a strong one, and not just because the Lemieuxs were the de facto NHL billet family for Crosby when he was a rookie.

Crosby inherited the mantle of franchise superstar from Lemieux. He couldn’t break Le Magnifique’s scoring records, so instead he captured one more Stanley Cup ring than him. But perhaps their strongest parallel has been their dedication to growing the game locally in Pittsburgh.

“When Mario came to town in 1984, I think there were six sheets of ice in the region. When he retired, there were 33. So the foundation was built, but it wasn’t being utilized,” said David Morehouse, who became president of the Penguins in 2007. “We weren’t putting any money into youth hockey. When you’d go to the rinks, there wasn’t any Penguins presence there, either.”

While this was happening, Crosby approached Morehouse with his desire to create a program that would enable local athletes that couldn’t afford to play hockey with the opportunity to play it. The two sat down for lunch at a Pittsburgh Marriott and mapped it out: Crosby was with Reebok; the Penguins had Dick’s Sporting Goods as a team sponsor; and both the captain and his team were willing to front their own money.

Thus, “Sidney Crosby’s Little Penguins” were born.

“Sid didn’t grow up a rich kid. For him, it was important to take away a lot of those financial barriers so kids can try the game he loves so much,” said Morehouse.

The executive and his captain pushed both sponsors to eventually cover every piece of equipment the players needed from head to toe, including their jersey and a gear bag.

“I remember when we first printed the jerseys, the idea was that all the players would wear different numbers. But everyone wanted ’87.’ So every jersey had Sid’s number on it,” Morehouse said, laughing.

In the first year of the program in 2008, the team had 400 kids between the ages of 4-7 sign up. While local rinks were nervous the program would take business away from them, the Penguins funneled the young players to their local rinks to sign up for learn-to-skate and learn-to-play programs. Enrollment jumped to 1,000 athletes in the following year, and Morehouse said the program led the country in growth for this kind of youth hockey organization for the next several years. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the program was handing out close to 2,000 sets of gear annually.

Since the start of the program, Morehouse estimates there have been 14,000 young players that have been hatched by Sidney Crosby’s Little Penguins. Pittsburgh also has a Penguins Elite program and created a hockey academy in partnership with a local high school near their practice facility in Cranberry. It’s created a pipeline for local players that has already produced a potential lottery pick in next summer’s NHL draft: forward Logan Cooley, who went from “Sidney Crosby’s Little Penguin” to the U.S. national development team.

“It’s a program that increased eight-and-under participation [in hockey] by 50%, female participation by 70% and the overall growth is over 50%,” Morehouse said.

“It was Sid who was driving this. He has a genuine love for the game and a genuine ambition to get more kids engaged. To share this gift that’s the game of hockey.”


Lessons From Sid

Florida Panthers center Aleksander Barkov grew up a Crosby fan, and believes he’s a “top five, if not a top-three player to ever play the game.” But his true appreciation for the Penguins star came away from the rink.

The first time he met Crosby was at the Sochi Olympics in 2014. The Finnish center had injured his leg and was walking with the aid of crutches. He was touring the Olympic Village with his mother when Crosby saw him.

“He came over with his family to see how I was doing. I was this little 18-year-old that just made it to the NHL, and he’s the biggest star to ever play the game. And he just comes to me and asks me how my leg was,” said Barkov. “He’s one of the nicest guys I ever met.”

Makar was inspired by Crosby’s clutch play and leadership. “He was a role model for me. One of my fondest memories of him, even though it’s not NHL, is the Golden Goal in Vancouver. That was such a special time for Canadians,” he said. “The way he carries himself is exceptional. He’s a leader, inside and out.”

Crosby is also, at his core, a hockey fan.

The greatest of the great hockey players all seemingly share an insatiable appetite for the sport. Wayne Gretzky loves to tell stories about disguising himself in order to walk through the Hockey Hall of Fame as a patron. (Given Gretzky’s ownership of the record books, perhaps he just misses his belongings on exhibition.) Tales of Crosby’s hockey obsession are also legion, especially around the Penguins.

When Pittsburgh hosted the Winter Classic in 2010, the team constructed an outdoor rink on Pittsburgh’s South Side. One day, Crosby asked Morehouse for a key to the rink and to have the lights turned on. Without fanfare, he stepped on the ice and skated alone at the corner of 26th and — what else — Sidney Street.

“He just wanted to go out by himself. To hear the sound of his skates on the ice,” said Morehouse.

There was also the time Crosby snuck onto the Penguins’ office staff hockey team. It was a championship game in the 2015 offseason. Crosby waddled out in goalie equipment, hiding his identity. No one knew who he was.

“He always fancied himself as a goalie, because his dad was a goalie,” said Morehouse. “Sid just loves hockey.”

That love of the game, and desire to grow it, is the reason Crosby doesn’t shy away from the “role model” label. He isn’t blind to the influence that he’s had on a generation of players.

What does he hope they’ve taken from watching him for the last 17 seasons?

“Probably just two things. A wiliness to compete every night. No matter how long you’ve played, you never want to take playing in the NHL for granted. It’s what we all dreamed of doing,” he said. “And also a willingness to improve. We all get here with our skills and talents. But once you’re here, it’s not time to stop learning. It’s time to get better, and hopefully guys can see that.”

What MacKinnon sees as he’s watched Crosby is that growth. He’s no longer “the Kid.” Yet he remains a dominant player, outskating Father Time.

“I don’t know if he gets enough credit for how great he is in his 17th year. Everyone talks about LeBron [James], going into Year No. 19. But Sid’s been doing it for a long time as well, and staying at the top of the league is amazing,” said MacKinnon.

“I was 10 years old when he broke into the league. Everyone around my age has looked up to him. He’s definitely the best player of our generation.”

Generation Crosby, that is.

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