Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins plays in the third period of Game One of the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final against the Nashville Predators at PPG Paints Arena on May 29, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennslyvannia. (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH—It was a Tuesday and Sidney Crosby was on the ice in a rink tucked into the hills north of Pittsburgh, and he was smiling. Grinning to beat the band, really. There weren’t a lot of Penguins on the ice, because this team is 102 games into a season, one year after a season that also stretched into June. By this time of the year bodies are chewed up, emotional batteries hard to access, and it is about survival. But Sidney Crosby was on the ice, because he was having fun.
“I just felt pretty good, and I haven’t been skating a lot on game day, and sometimes it’s nice,” said Crosby, one day after the Pittsburgh Penguins won Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final over the Nashville Predators. “They’re not that difficult of skates when you only have four guys out there and you’re able to touch the puck a little bit more. Yeah, sometimes it’s more beneficial if you get out there for that.”
It wasn’t boot-camp intense. It was an optional skate, and at this stage almost every regular takes the option not to be there. Crosby was. It was some 2-on-1 rushes, some skating and shooting, and finally some 1-on-1 work with his old friend, Marc-Andre Fleury. On one breakaway rush Crosby shot the puck and it flipped into the air, and Crosby tracked it and popped it from his glove to his stick and into the back of the net. Rinkside, a small crowd of reporters burst into incredulous laughter, and Fleury shot a puck into their corner. Afterwards, I went to Fleury and said that if he was angry, we weren’t laughing at him.
“No, no, not at all,” said Fleury, his face blooming into a smile. “I know: The one with his glove and back up to his stick? I laughed too. Not laughed. But said, ‘Wow.’ I appreciated it. He did that like four times in the game last night.”
He and Crosby have done this for years. “I get to work against the best player in the world,” Fleury said. Crosby has defined this era, and every attempt to compare other players to him has become more laughable with time. As Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson said after Pittsburgh outlasted the Senators in the conference final, “I think he’s the best player in the world and he has been for 10-plus years, and I wish him all the best . . . They won last year but they’re not satisfied with that, and I think that that’s impressive, and I think that what they’re doing right now is really special.”
Crosby will turn 30 this summer, and he still approaches hockey with a drive that never stops. Penguins defenceman Kris Letang spoke on Tuesday for the first time since undergoing season-ending neck surgery, and he said, “Just the way, the little details that he brings to every game, on and off the ice. He’s just an example to follow. You’ve seen it: We won (the Cup last season), and we had a couple chats, and he really wanted to get in shape right away to get ready for the World Cup, win the World Cup, and come back and say we can win this again, we have a lot of young guys, we have a lot of energy. So that’s everything: the details, what he wants to accomplish, it’s pretty incredible.”
It is a career built from big things, and little things. Crosby habitually gets out early in full practices to work on his shot, and he led the league in goals this season for only the second time in his career. He works on everything, which is why as a player he is almost a shapeshifter, year to year. With Fleury on Tuesday, Crosby worked on deflections, and every time the puck skittered up above his head he looked for it, so he could bat that puck out of the air, too. Sometimes he did. He grinned and laughed and found ways to put the puck past his old friend.
We appreciate him, but maybe not enough. On media day Evgeni Malkin spoke at a podium next to Sid, and he said, “like Gretzky say one day about Messier: it’s like small competition every day between him and Messier, and it’s good, because they’re better every day. Like, who’s better today? Who’s better tomorrow? You know, I don’t want to be No. 1 in Carolina or something — I don’t want to say bad about (Carolina) — but I want to be better every day, because Sid, every practice, he is so much professional guy, like most professional I’ve ever seen. And I want to be the same, I want to be professional too. I want to be better with him.”
And on a Tuesday in May, Crosby was out there when he didn’t have to be. His teammate Matt Cullen said he had never seen Sid more determined and committed than he is this year; he said, “I don’t think there’s any question that he can sense where we’re at, and has a real strong grasp on the history of the game.
“I know just being around Sid and talking to Sid how much this means to him. He’s just a unique competitor. They don’t come along very often, these generational talents. I think to go along with that, he has a drive that I don’t think I’ve ever seen anywhere. I think that, ultimately, is what’s gotten him to the point that he’s at.”
Crosby has been through wins and losses and seasons lost to concussions, and he said, “There’s a lot of motivating factors. Maybe [history is] one of them, but that’s not something you constantly think about. I think you’re fortunate to be back here, and it’s a great opportunity.”
He also said, “Time goes by fast.” And it does. Maybe the point isn’t that Crosby is driven by his past so much as his future. Maybe it’s that he has always been driven by something unseen, and now he knows there are only so many chances left because they vanish, year by year.
And beyond that, the work is where he feels happy, where it remains fun. In Washington, the Capitals are opening the door to trading Alexander Ovechkin, whose season ended in another heartbreak, another loss. And on a Tuesday morning in late May, Sidney Crosby strapped on his skates and chased something again, something smaller and bigger, filled with determination and commitment, and even joy.