Penguins' Crosby eager to make up for lost time
For the Penguins, it became the enduring image of the NHL lockout: Sidney Crosby skating nets to their respective resting spots before practice at a near-empty Southpointe.
He did that daily, unsure when the lockout would end.
The crowds — and stakes — are about get a lot bigger.
The lockout's resolution didn't just save a hockey season. For Crosby, it saved a season of his prime. He's 25, a time when hockey's all-time greats almost always feast on the competition.
Crosby's concussion issues, along with other injuries, have conspired to rob him of 140 regular-season games. Penguins co-owner Mario Lemieux — no stranger to the trainer's table — missed 107 games by age 25.
“I was trying to not think about what I was missing,” Crosby said.
The lockout has eliminated 34 more games from his career.
But finally, it is showtime.
Consider what some of hockey's all-time greats have done at age 25:
• Mario Lemieux led the Penguins to their first Stanley Cup.
• Wayne Gretzky set the all-time record with 215 points.
• Guy LaFleur scored the most points of his career.
• Jaromir Jagr won the second of his five scoring titles.
• Evgeni Malkin produced his finest season and won his first MVP.
Other legends such as Bobby Orr and Gordie Howe notched vintage seasons at age 25.
So what will Crosby accomplish this season?
“You can't even imagine,” Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “I mean, I've been around him for a few years now. He's never been this fast, never been this strong. You can tell he's all the way back. ... He's pretty much impossible to keep up with.”
Even the defending MVP and scoring champion appears in awe.
“Sid is (the) best player,” Evgeni Malkin said. “I just try (to do) the same thing as him. He will come back (and) be the best player.”
Finally healthy, Crosby craves action even more. The memories from the darkest periods of his concussion ordeal, when he wasn't certain he would return, never go away.
“It was a scary time,” Crosby said. “One day I would feel good, the next day I wouldn't. I remember being on the beach in Florida while I was out with the concussion. … All I could think about was how much I missed hockey.”
Crosby is hardly one to feel sorry for himself, but those close to him emphasize just how frightening the past two years were for the world's most recognized hockey player.
His agent, Pat Brisson, is among those eager to watch Crosby return for an entire season.
“It's hard for me to explain exactly what all Sidney has been through during the past two years,” Brisson said. “When he was dealing with all the concussion problems, it was the worst time of his life. People don't even know what he went through.”
Like Niskanen, Brisson believes Crosby's finest hockey remains ahead of him.
“There is no doubt in my mind that he's going to be better than ever,” Brisson said. “An athlete, a hockey player, usually hits his peak play between ages 25 and 29. Sidney hasn't scratched the surface. He has more experience now. This season is going to be fun.”
Crosby can attain a second scoring title, MVP and Stanley Cup, but he doesn't think about his legacy or what he could've lost had the season been canceled.
He only thinks about Lord Stanley.
“Maybe someday. Not now,” Crosby said. “Right now I think about winning another Cup. And I think about how the average professional career is three or four years. There's a small window for a lot of guys to become an NHL player.”
Crosby essentially lost two seasons because of injury, and a third was shortened because of the lockout.
Few athletes of his stature have lost three golden years like these. Muhammad Ali (boxing ban because of refusal to join military during Vietnam War), Ted Williams (World War II) and Mike Tyson (rape conviction) are iconic athletes who missed three consecutive years in their mid-20s.
“Maybe missing all this time,” Crosby said, “is good for my legs. Maybe it's giving me a rest so I'll be fresher than I would have been down the road.”
The image of Crosby pushing a net up and down an empty ice rink just four months removed from his 25th birthday endures.
So does his hunger.
“I just want a chance to play,” he said. “Honestly, I haven't felt this good in a long, long time.”