Editor's Note: Superstar flashback—this story is from the February 2008 Men’s Fitness issue starring Sidney Crosby on the cover.
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, 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 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."
"He's the real thing," confirms Neil Smith, the former Rangers general manager who is currently a scout for Anaheim. "You very rarely get to see the real thing coming along. He's got everything you could ask for. He has a unique number on his back (87); he's a very good-looking kid, very articulate. He's the total package. He's like a matinee idol type—kids want his poster in their bedroom."
It wasn't all that long ago that Crosby was tacking posters of his own heroes on his bedroom wall. Born 8-7-87 in Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, he was up on skates by the age of three. Soon after that, he began firing pucks into a net that his father, Troy, built for him in the basement near the family's dryer. That dryer quickly became the first victim of Crosby's intense competitiveness. "It took the worst beating," says Troy, a former goaltender once drafted by the Montreal Canadiens. "It worked for years with no buttons on it, was dented and looked like a Dalmatian. The controls were all destroyed."
With that kind of drive and skills to match, Crosby was playing against kids twice his age by the time he was seven— the same year he conducted his first newspaper interview. And it wasn't long before some began predicting that Crosby might obliterate at least a few hockey records. The Crosby telephone started ringing by noon every day. But instead of girls calling, it was agents—all hoping to court hockey's next megastar in the mode of Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Eric Lindros. Crosby and his family eventually signed with someone just to get the phone calls to stop.
At 14, Crosby continued to skate toward the pros. He even hired a personal trainer, Andy O'Brien (now the Florida Panthers' strength and conditioning coach). It was O'Brien who eventually molded Crosby into a powerful and skilled skater.
But despite the workouts and his insanely competitive nature, it's what's in his DNA—exceptional vision, athleticism and a relatively small but insanely fit perfect-for-hockey body—that prompted Gretzky to gush to The Arizona Republic that Crosby was "the best player I've seen since Mario (Lemieux)." This was in 2003, when Crosby was 15.
Crosby has since lived up to that claim. And how. Last season he was the first teenager to lead the NHL in scoring since Gretzky did it in 1980. But just as LeBron's game is vastly different from that of the NBA's Great One, a.k.a. Michael Jordan—Crosby is no mere Gretzky wannabe. Many observers, Smith and O'Brien among them, say he has Gretzky's skills and passion—plus a dash of Lemieux's vision and the physicality of imposing past greats like Peter Forsberg and Mark Messier. "He skates better than Wayne, and he's also unique," says former teammate, Mark Recchi, a 19-year veteran. "He has great vision, he's explosive, and he makes his teammates better all around."
Lifting his team. Elevating his own game. Living up to the hype. Crosby is clearly channelling his inner LeBron. A few years back, he remembers sheepishly asking a Reebok rep for one of James' Cleveland Cavaliers' home white No. 23 jerseys. He doesn't wear it, though. "It would be down to my knees," he says, chuckling. "I know in the Finals he had a tougher time (James and the Cavs were pummelled by the San Antonio Spurs in four straight games). It's different in basketball. Obviously, it's a team sport, but a player can take a game into his own hands like he did. Hopefully, I can help my team in the same way."
He's already well on his way.