HALIFAX - I was not the only local who saw Sidney Crosby the other day. I was not the only local who nodded my head at him, at whom he nodded back, each of us carrying on our respective ways. While I remember him, of course, he will not remember me. He was probably headed to the ice at Halifax's Civic Center and I was headed to an interview with someone else not named Sidney Crosby. A little later in the day I saw him again from a further, non-nodding distance. CTV's Rick Grant was prepping for an exclusive interview with him while he worked out with Nathan McKinnon and a slew of other homegrown talent at "the rink" (arenas, grand and small are all called "rinks" around here) including Andrew Bondarchuk, Chris Clark and Logan Shaw.
Always polite and accessible, Crosby answered the predictable questions with candor and good humor. McKinnon, nearly as comfortable in front of the camera, displayed the same sort of polite, respectful demeanor we have come to expect from "our boys". McKinnon is mature beyond his years, a quiet confidence evident in his posture and attitude, very much a reminder of Crosby himself when he first exploded onto the national scene.
It's hard to say when Crosby first came to widespread, national and international attention. There was a glimmer of what was to come when he was featured on a segment of CBC's Hockey Day in Canada when he was fourteen. But it probably wasn't until he was sixteen at the 2003 Under 18 tournament where he scored 6 points in 5 games in Canada's fourth place finish, or the two years after that where he tore up the QMJHL and was the driving force behind Canada's 2004 Silver and 2005 Gold wins at the IIHF World U20 Championships. I could go on, as any Crosby aficionado knows, there is no shortage of milestones, awards and accomplishments in Crosby's resume. A quick visit to Wikipedia will give all the dry details of a career that has been truly spectacular.
But us locals, us Nova Scotians, have known about Sidney Crosby for a long while. He gave his first newspaper interview to a local paper when he was seven and made the major local news again when he was thirteen and trying to play Midget hockey two years ahead of the formal age break and was disallowed. His parents sued (and lost) but the Crosby phenomenon was already underway here in Canada's Ocean Playground. He did start in the Midget category the following year and managed to rack up 217 points, his on-ice performance doing what his parents' efforts had not been able to accomplish: proving he was ready for the next step.
The next year, when Crosby was 16 and causing jaws to go slack at the Under 18 tournament, a reporter from The Arizona Republic asked Wayne Gretzky whether a player might ever break some of his records and Gretzky's reply foreshadowed another one he would make in 2013. "Yes," Gretzky said in 2003, "Sidney Crosby. He's the best player I've seen since Mario Lemieux." In 2013, a decade later, his mind apparently unchanged, he would tell ESPN "I don't think there's any question Sidney Crosby is the best all-around player in the game."
His father's response to the first instance was telling. "I was honored Wayne said that," said Troy Crosby. "It's an honor that he even knows who Sidney is." The fact that he was not asked about the second instance is telling in another way.
By the time Gretzky made his second pronouncement, everyone knew who Sidney was, but as is the privilege of all hometown fans, we get to say we knew him first and maybe best. I went with my father, a once-removed familial relationship spurring his interest in this wonder kid, to watch him play when he was very young - well before he and his parents were fighting with the Nova Scotia Minor Hockey Council. We sat in a small rink in his hometown, less than an hour from our own hometown, on hard seats, hot chocolates in hand, watching this little kid positively own the ice. It was not quite comical, but it definitely had shades of Harlem Globetrotters about it.
On the way there my Dad and I talked about hockey, about his lifelong interest in it and how it was important to us, as Nova Scotians and Canadians. My father's own moment, albeit short-lived, in the newspaper sun came when he was in his late teens, part of a local team where he played with his brother, the two of them famous for their short stature and fiesty spirits. That newspaper clipping, yellow and brittle now, sits with all the other important mementos of his life. It was one he treasured, one he was proud of, one that represented his own personal Glory Days. By the time we went to see Crosby, he had long since stopped playing except in a Saturday Night league and had moved on to coaching and refereeing and I believe our trip to see Crosby when he really was Sid The Kid was as much about the "what might have been" that all young Canadian hockey players experience as it was about seeing the kid himself.
It is an accepted Canadian truism that little boys who love hockey want to grow up and win a Stanley Cup and my father would have been no different. Here was a kid who might well do that and my father wanted to see him play. Not because he was famous, we could not have known then what everyone knows now, not even because he was an extended family member, but because he was good. Because he might get to, the talk around the family and the town was already positing it, live that dream. The one all the little hockey-playing Canadian boys had.
Having one of our own, someone born and raised and exposed to hockey here in Nova Scotia, rise to the level at which Crosby now sits is a source of nearly universal pride. There's something soul-warming about watching someone from your tribe, so to speak, reach a pinnacle that everyone understands and most people value. More than that, it buoys and bolsters the next generation and creates an atmosphere of "yes we can", adds a little reality to the thought of living the hockey dream, and encourages young athletes to reach for the brass ring themselves. Just ask Nathan McKinnon who lists Crosby as his biggest inspiration.
Simply existing and being who he is has proved inspiring to most Nova Scotians, of course. A champion who came from your midst is usually considered, on some level, a communal accomplishment, a product of more than just a set of parents, a school or a sports system. You "own" them in ways other people can't because you have shared experiences and similarities of influence. When they do more than just exist, it's a tremendous bonus and, in its own way, a further proof that your tribal culture is a good one. Sentimental as it may seem, it is nonetheless the truth: it makes one proud.
His tremendous accomplishments in hockey tell us one thing about Sidney Crosby and his working out at the rink with fellow players, some of whom he has personally inspired but whom he will play against next season, tells us another thing about him. In the same way that that the polite, well-mannered, Crosby is the "face of the NHL" and represents it with an extraordinary level of professional and personal decorum, he is a credit to his parents and his community. You hear stories often, of course, of his work with youth hockey in Pittsburgh and his dedication to it, even through the latest NHL lock-out, or of his traveling before a game to see a sick child whose bucket-list, in a person far too young to even have one, included meeting Sidney Crosby.
Tomorrow night in Halifax another example will unfold when Crosby attends an event labelled "A Night of Champions", in support of Phoenix Youth Programs, to be held at the Metro Center. Envisioned as a celebration of Nova Scotia's connections to the Stanley Cup, other notable attendees will include Dave Andrews, Joe DiPenta, Paul MacLean, Brad Marchand, Al MacNeil, Mike McPhee, Jon Sim, Bobby Smith, Colin White, Darrell Young, Wendell Young, current Chicago Blackhawks employees Al MacIsaac and Dennis Bonvie.
According to Kim Houston, Night of Champions committee chairman, "Phoenix provides at-risk and homeless youth with the supports they need to realize their potential. We hope to inspire young people that have faced adversity to work hard, remain strong, resilient and optimistic as they transition to a place of independence."
It was the sort of thing my father would have gotten behind. He had a lifetime belief in the importance of giving back, of being more to the community than a taker of accolades. He believed that young people need dreams and he manifested this by being involved with youth sports and spent a great deal of his life as a coach or referee or mentor in baseball, hockey and golf. Maybe that's why he was so interested in seeing Sidney Crosby when he was a child. Maybe he wasn't just seeing a kid who could live the dream, but a kid who would be willing to give some of the magic dust back.
My father died before Crosby won his Stanley Cup, but he always knew he was going to win one. Not that Sidney Crosby owes my father anything, of course, but it feels like a proof to me. My dad taught it to me and hometown hero Sidney Crosby embodies it: you take and then you give back. It's a modified version of "give and take" that works in either order. It's not the order that counts, it's the component parts.
You can read more about Phoenix House organization and the Night of Champions at their website.