IT WAS ONE PHENOM WATCHING ANOTHER TAKE A STEP TOWARD greatness. As LeBron James was putting the finishing touches on the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals last spring, hockey prodigy Sidney Crosby watched and admired from afar. He studied the way James placed his teammates on his back, elevated his game against the favored Pistons, and began to live up to the enormous hype that had surrounded him for years. "He dominated those games," the Pittsburgh Penguins star said months later. "Going through the same stuff (as highly touted teenagers) and then seeing him take his team to that level so quickly and with that kind of impact. . . . For me, it was encouraging."
Crosby, at just 20 years old, is the new golden boy of the National Hockey League. Or maybe not so new—he's in his third pro season—but definitely golden. Already, he is being mentioned as heir to the rarefied air inhabited only by the "Great One," Wayne Gretzky. Indeed it was Gretzky himself who anointed Crosby, then only 15, as the player who'll someday shatter his records. And the young one is already well along the way.
Following up on an impressive rookie season, Crosby became the youngest NHL team captain ever in 2006-07, as well as the first teenager to lead a major sports league in scoring—120 points (36 goals and 84 assists). That season, the 5' 11'', 200-pound forward captured the Art Ross (scoring champion), Hart (most valued player), and Lester B. Pearson (most outstanding player) trophies, making him only the seventh player in league history to win its three most prestigious individual awards in one season. Alas, Crosby's playoff baptism last season didn't last long enough for his tastes. Rival Ottawa methodically eliminated Pittsburgh, 4-1, one round from the Stanley Cup Finals.
Now Crosby, once again among the league's most dynamic players, wants more. "What (James) did," he says, "is obviously a blueprint of what I want to do."
Analysts have long expected Crosby, a household name in hockey circles since before he could drive a car, to gain the kind of popularity that transcends a sport. The hockey establishment has even pegged him as the game's savior (think Magic Johnson and Larry Bird rolled into one). Three seasons from a lockout by NHL owners that cost the league the 2004-05 season, the game still suffers from sagging, almost negligible ratings and earns hardly a blip beyond sports fans who are already ice heads. Crosby has already revitalized the Penguins. (He's practically the reason Pittsburgh is building a new arena.) And SIDNEY CROSBY he's the sport's most marketable player in more than a decade. Crosby already has a multiyear endorsement agreement with Reebok and is a big commercial star in Canada. He's also starting to become a favorite among bloggers eager to know more about his burgeoning love life. "Sidney Crosby is our LeBron James," says New York Rangers center Scott Gomez. "We've been hearing about this kid since he was however old, and he has gone beyond the hype. He is that good a player."