The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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January 15, 2014

Crosby embraces Olympic role

PITTSBURGH — The gold medal, the one that electrified a country and cemented Sidney Crosby as part of Canadian hockey royalty forever, is “tucked away” somewhere out of sight and – Crosby insists – out of mind.

No need to have it displayed on the mantle or a coffee table. No wearing it around the house on a rainy day.

While he’s brought it out once or twice upon request, Crosby doesn’t sit around holding it in his hand.

Sure, it was a “nice moment” – Crosby’s go-to phrase when asked to describe his golden goal 7:40 into overtime in the final against the United States – but it was just that, a moment.

“I’ve kind of moved on,” Crosby said.

Fate didn’t give him much of a choice.

Crosby’s glove-flinging celebration in the corner of Rogers Arena as Maple Leaf flags draped the stands in a sea of red and white capped his ascendant rise from Sid the Kid to Sid the Savior. His wrist shot by Ryan Miller provided a fitting bookend to Crosby’s triumphant hoisting of the Stanley Cup eight months earlier, when the youngest captain in NHL history led the formerly moribund Penguins to their first title in 17 years.

Four years later, on the surface not much has changed.

On the ice the 26-year-old remains one of the top players in the world. He’s the NHL’s leading scorer for one of the league’s premier franchises and is the unquestioned face of the Canadian team as it looks to defend its gold medal in Sochi next month.

Off it he remains the ever-polite, ever-humble son of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, the one who refuses to get caught up in his own hype.

It all looks so normal these days, it’s easy to forget just how close Crosby came to nearly losing it all. The launching pad Vancouver was supposed to provide for Crosby’s evolution from superstar to icon instead turned into a cautionary tale.

Less than a year removed from his golden goal, Crosby’s career was at a crossroads.

Concussion-like symptoms sustained in a loss to Washington in the NHL’s Winter Classic on Jan. 1, 2011, turned him into a reluctant touchstone for head injuries. As weeks turned into months and 2011 turned into 2012 and the symptoms persisted, the world’s best player was forced to watch the game go on without him.

He missed two years in his prime, playing just 28 games during a 744-day span between Jan. 5, 2011-Jan. 19 2013, a bystander of sorts as teammate Evgeni Malkin, Chicago’s Patrick Kane and Washington’s Alex Ovechkin tried to wrest away Crosby’s unofficial title of the game’s best player.

It seems like a long time ago now. The questions that lingered when Crosby declared himself symptom free at the end of the NHL lockout last January have vanished. Ironically, he’s now one of the few players on the Penguins who have remained healthy this season as injuries have cost nearly a dozen regulars – including Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang – significant playing time.

It is Crosby who has kept Pittsburgh afloat. He entered Wednesday night’s game against Washington with an NHL-high 67 points, well clear of Kane and New York Islanders center John Tavares.

The Crosby who will wear No. 87 in Russia looks an awful lot like the one who dashed to glory in Vancouver, only wiser and perhaps more comfortable in his own skin. More consistent, too.

The player who struggled with faceoffs earlier in his career is now winning nearly 52 percent of his draws. After being chastised by coach Dan Bylsma for perhaps being too unselfish at times, Crosby is one hot streak away from threatening the career-high 51 goals he put up in 2009-10 while averaging a career-high 22 minutes of ice time a night.

“One of Sid’s best abilities is his ability to challenge himself and get better,” Bylsma said. “He’s gotten better with his demeanor and the maturity with which he plays the game.”

It’s a maturity that’s hard won. Crosby has spent most of his life dealing with overwhelming expectations while trying to be deferential to his more experienced teammates. He never let it get to him in Vancouver, even though it was Crosby – and not players like Jarome Iginla or Scott Niedermayer or Martin Brodeur – who faced the most scrutiny.

“He’s gone through a lot,” said Steve Yzerman, general manager of the Canadian team. “Playing in the Olympics in Vancouver was a tremendous experience for him. (There was) so much pressure – more so than anybody in the entire Canadian Olympic program – on Sid there and he scored the winning goal. Four years later, he’s going to be more comfortable.”

There’s certainly a sense of ease about Crosby that didn’t necessarily exist earlier in his career. When he steps into the dressing room for the team’s first practice next month, he’s aware that the eyes will drift toward him for leadership.

Press Crosby on what’s in it for him, what could he possibly to top what happened in Vancouver and the hockey nerd in him emerges. He points to the long hockey rivalry between Canada and Russia – dating all the way to the Summit Series in 1972 – and the unique challenge of trying to win Olympic gold in Russia.

It won’t be Vancouver, but that doesn’t mean the quest for gold is any less meaningful.

“If you have a record time in the Olympics prior to this one, you’re not settling for that time this time around,” he said. “You want to do better.”

And last he checked, two golds were better than one. Ask Crosby if there’s room in his house for a medal to bookend the one he grabbed in Vancouver and he just nods.

“Yeah, 100 percent,” he said with a laugh, “100 percent.”

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