PITTSBURGH - Perhaps it is a surprise only that it has happened to Sidney Crosby this quickly, this impressively.
Crosby has been viewed as hockey's next great talent, one who might be good enough to rival Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, since he was setting scoring records at age 13. Now, as Crosby readies for his first All-Star game at age 19 Wednesday in Dallas - yes, the same age No. 99 and No. 66 made their All-Star debuts - it appears to be happening.
For the first time since Gretzky was setting a different standard for hockey stardom 27 years ago, a player not yet in his 20s has become his sport's signature figure. Crosby is not only the NHL's most popular player - as evidenced by his landslide win in the All-Star voting - but arguably its best player.
"Yes, definitely, there's not even any question," said Pittsburgh Penguins linemate Mark Recchi, who, while more than prejudiced, echoes a sentiment shared widely by numerous NHL players, executives and coaches.
Check out the reaction of Carson Briere, the young son of Sabres center Daniel Briere, upon learning his dad would start the All-Star game: "Wow, you get to play with Sidney Crosby!"
It's not just that Crosby is scoring, but how he's scoring, with a verve, passion and a drive. In successive games against Tampa Bay earlier this month, he scored while sliding on his side, controlling the puck while doing so, and from his knees.
Despite a politeness and maturity that would be uncommon for players five years older than himself, Crosby has an edge, too. After being sucker punched in the stomach last week by the Islanders' Jason Blake, he charged after Blake with a look that couldn't mask his anger and disdain.
No more Mr. Nice Scorer.
"I think emotion is definitely part of the game and it brings out a lot in players," Crosby said. "No doubt I get caught up in it."
In Dallas, there are certain to be more of the inevitable comparisons to Gretzky, a player Crosby much resembles not only with his play but in stature. Crosby is 6 feet, 200 pounds and Gretzky was listed at 6-0, 185.
Crosby is the youngest player voted as an All-Star starter since the fan balloting began in 1986. He almost certainly would have been voted a starter last season, too, at age 18, but there was no All-Star game because of the Olympics.
The game has changed considerably since Gretzky was setting virtually every scoring record imaginable - there is far more contact and much larger goalie gear now - yet Crosby is keeping pace with Gretzky's early seasons. Gretzky tied for the league lead with 137 points at 19.
Even if he does it, Crosby wishes he could hush all that talk. "I'll always be the first guy to tell you there is never going to be another Wayne Gretzky," Crosby said.
Less than a year after becoming the youngest player in NHL history to have a 100-point season, Sidney Crosby could threaten to become the first since Mario Lemieux in 1996 (161 points) to have a 150-point season.
Crosby has 72 points in 43 games (he missed three because of a groin injury) and could hit 150 by averaging slightly more than two points per game the rest of the season. At the break, he leads Tampa Bay's Martin St. Louis by six points and Washington's 21-year-old Alexander Ovechkin by seven points.
- Associated Press