Sidney Crosby Embracing Health, Return to Dominance

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Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby

Dec 19, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) at the face-off circle against the Minnesota Wild during the second period at the CONSOL Energy Center. Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The kid was 16 years old when Wayne Gretzky labeled him “The Next One,” generating an unparalleled whirlwind of hype that carried into the 2005 NHL Draft.

Sidney Crosby had taken the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League by storm 10 years ago at this time, causing Gretzky to admit he feared for any records he set during his illustrious career. Soon thereafter, Pittsburgh won the so-called Crosby Sweepstakes when the struggling franchise made the center the No. 1 pick in the draft.

You know the rest of the story: winning the Art Ross Trophy, Lester B. Pearson Award and Hart Trophy in 2007; ending the Penguins’ 17-year Stanley Cup drought in 2009; being elected to four all-star games; serving as the sport’s Superman with an 87 on his back instead of a red cape.

But after suffering a plethora of injuries and missing significant time over the last couple seasons, it’s time to celebrate Crosby’s resurrection. Entering Friday’s slate, the 26-year-old leads the league in points (59) and is fourth in goals (22) for the Penguins, who sit atop the Metropolitan Division and Eastern Conference with 59 points.

“I can tell you from being hurt, going to watch games, to getting up in the morning having a game day, there’s a difference,” Crosby recently told the Post-Gazette. “I don’t know if it’s excitement or anticipation or a certain level of focus, but there’s something unique about it. Even though you’re not watching the clock, you’re not watching the seconds and minutes tick down, you’re preparing.

“The biggest thing for me is the passion that I’ve always had for hockey. I remember growing up, no matter what I did in life, my parents always told me to try to do my best at it and be my best. I can say going through different things that that passion is the most important part. It’s not skills or talent or any of that stuff. It’s the passion. When that’s at its highest, that’s when my game is at its best.”

Perhaps we can credit passion for Crosby’s ability to return to the ice from several detours and find his way back to the pinnacle of hockey.

In the beginning, he finished the 2006-07 campaign with 36 goals and 84 assists in 79 games to become the first teenager to lead the NHL in scoring since Gretzky in 1980. Crosby also became the youngest player in history to win the Art Ross Trophy and the youngest scoring champion in any major North American professional sport.

Hockey had its own glistening version of LeBron James, a luxury the sport desperately needed after absorbing major hits in popularity after the strike in the mid-2000s.

Sure enough, Crosby was named the team’s captain on May 31, 2007, making him the youngest player to earn that distinction in league history at 19 years, nine months and 24 days.

In 2007-08, Crosby suffered an ankle injury that caused him to miss 29 games, yet he still managed 72 points in 53 contests. The following season, he and Evgeni Malkin guided the Penguins to a Stanley Cup title, supposedly kicking off what appeared to be a dynasty with no end in sight.

But in the 2011 Winter Classic on January 1 and the ensuing contest four days later, Crosby suffered hits to his head, and after experiencing several concussion symptoms, he did not return for the rest of the season. Despite being sidelined for the first 20 games of the following campaign due to the lingering effects of the blows, he returned on November 21 against the New York Islanders. However, after playing another seven games, Crosby’s concussion-like symptoms returned in December.

Admit it – you questioned if he’d ever return. You wondered if we’d seen the last of “The Next One.”

Despite passing a successful ImPACT test, Crosby decided not to return to the ice until he was completely healed. Months went by, hockey was a little less exciting, and Crosby finally returned to action on March 15 in a 5–2 win against the New York Rangers. In limited action, he still amassed 37 points — including his 600th career point.

The shortened season in 2012-13 proved to be fruitful for Crosby, as he posted 15 goals and 41 assists in 36 games.

And that brings us to today.

Crosby, enjoying a clean bill of health, has been nothing short of spectacular for the Penguins by spending the first half of the schedule making a convincing argument that he deserves the MVP award once again.

Pittsburgh trails the Anaheim Ducks and Chicago Blackhawks by four points for the President’s Trophy lead, but that doesn’t matter. The Penguins are back, and so is Sid.

“Our team relies on him to score the points, win the face-offs in every zone,” teammate Chris Kunitz told the Post-Gazette. “All the while, teams are focused on trying to stop him. It takes a special kind of talent to do what he’s doing right now.”

Ten years later, Gretzky’s prophecy still stands true, and we’re able to resume watching something special unravel one game at a time.

Brian Fitzsimmons, whose work has been published by ESPN.com, Yahoo! Sports, NHL.com, and various newspapers around the country, is currently a senior writer/editor at MSG Varsity in New Jersey. The author of "Celtic Pride: How Coach Kevin Boyle Took St. Patrick to the Top of High School Basketball," Fitzsimmons was recently nominated for a 2013 New York Press Club Journalism award.
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