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Kovacevic: Crosby, Canada work in progress

| Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013, 10:27 p.m.
AFP/Getty Images
Sidney Crosby celebrates after scoring the game-winning goal in overtime for Canada in the men’s ice hockey gold-medal game against the United States in the Vancouver Olympics on Feb. 28, 2010. (Getty Images)

WINNIPEG, Manitoba — Ever stepped into minus-27 degrees?

If not, here's a tip: Don't.

No matter how well you think you're clothed, it doesn't take a minute before your skin tingles, your fingers clench, your eyeballs feel like they're calcifying and ... OK, I'll come clean: That pretty much sums up my 3.5-block walk from the hotel to a coffeeshop late Thursday afternoon.

The cab ride back wasn't nearly as bad.

It's a cold place, Winnipeg. Coldest big city in the world, actually, with a population of about 700,000 hardy souls and an average winter temp that's a mathematical match for all the tourism revenue it reels in.

And yet, it's also one of the warmest places.

“These are some of the friendliest people you'll find anywhere,” Tanner Glass, the Penguins' newest winger, was saying. He should know. He was raised in neighboring Saskatchewan and spent last season with the Jets. “They're tremendous hockey fans, too.”

Sounds like an ideal mix for Sidney Crosby's debut in this city Friday night, right?

A packed house of good-hearted, passionate Canadian hockey fans welcoming a favorite son on home soil?

It does to me, anyway, but ...

Glass: “Honestly, I have no clue how they'll be with Sid.”

Brandy Ellerbrock, a Jets season-ticket holder: “We're all excited to finally see him, but I'm not sure if he'll get the typical Winnipeg boos for the other team's best player or cheers.”

Gary Lawless, veteran columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press: “They'll cheer him early, then get on him.”

No one seems to have a firm feel for it.

And maybe that's telling in and or itself.

We're almost three years to the month since Crosby's crowning achievement as a Canadian, the golden overtime goal to beat the United States at the Vancouver Olympics. It was celebrated unlike any event I've ever covered, inside and outside that throbbing building.

And Crosby, the pride of Halifax, Nova Scotia, was king of Canada.

For about a week.

Before long, he was booed in Ottawa, taunted in Toronto and, really, he still hasn't been elevated anywhere near the status once enjoyed by Wayne Gretzky or, later, Mario Lemieux.


Much of it, I'll tell you, is the Canadian sports media's love affair with Gretzky that lingers still. No one can ever touch the Great One in their eyes.

Not even Lemieux. Mario had three strikes: He was a French speaker, wasn't nearly as fond of cameras, and his ascent past Gretzky didn't sit well with those who'd already done the anointing.

Still, Lemieux was mostly treated with respect in his home country, especially after his own national triumphs in the Canada Cup and Olympics.

With Crosby ... it's just not the same.

He's the consensus best player in the game, as those two were. But it's far more difficult to detect that same glow out of Canada. Not in the press, not in endorsements and not in crowd adulation, the area that's easiest to quantify.

There's a definite like there, but love feels like it's still on the horizon, at best.

One explanation Lawless offers is that “Gretzky did all his winning for a Canadian team. Crosby has helped keep the Cup out of Canada.” He means Gretzky's famed Oilers.

Hard to argue that.

“Also, Sid's dominance is more subtle. He's never been far and away the best, having Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin to contend with. When 99 was the best, it wasn't close. Same for 66 when he took over the stage. But that being said, I think Sid's about to enter a new stage of his career and take his rightful place in Canadian hockey royalty.”

Be sure that would matter to at least one guy.

I asked Crosby, with the Penguins' trip taking them here and on to Ottawa, if he finds it important to be embraced by Canada.

“Yeah,” he answered. “I'm Canadian. A proud Canadian. And I definitely appreciate, if I hear cheers on the road or things like that, it's nice.”

Maybe he will Friday at the MTS Centre, loudest building in the league. It should be fascinating to find out.

Might be fun, too. The fans here make a game of teasing opponents' stars. Sometimes they boo with each touch. Other times, they'll chant that a comparable player is better. When the Hurricanes' Eric Staal visited, they'd chant, “ Jor-dan's bet-ter !” Did that for Ovechkin, too, with a “ Cros-by's bet-ter !”

What if now it's Malkin being “ bet-ter ?”

“Hey, that's OK,” Crosby came back with a grin. “At least they'll be on our side.”

All politics is local, eh?

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