BY WILL GRAVES, AP Sports journalist
PITTSBURGH (AP) – Sidney Crosby’s intransigence persists even after 15 years. Pittsburgh Penguins trainer Mike Sullivan sees it every day.
Any exercise in practice, no matter how routine. Any shift during a game, regardless of the score. The player, who has helped define his team, his adopted country and his sport for a generation, is as committed to his craft as he was as a child in Canada when he put puck after puck in the dryer in his parents’ basement in Cole Harbor , Nova, Scotia fired.
Sullivan has spent the past five plus years marveling behind the bank. He’s grateful that the player who gave him “nightmares” when Sullivan trained elsewhere is now sitting in front of him on the bench, setting a standard that many emulate but few actually achieve.
Crosby will break another milestone on Saturday night if he becomes the first penguin to play in 1,000 regular season games. More than co-owner and Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux. More than the timeless Jaromir Jagr. More than long-time teammate Evgeni Malkin or any of the hundreds of other players who have been around town in the past 53 years.
And at 33, Crosby doesn’t roll out. Chances are he’s not even standing on the top. Fifteen games in its 16th season, Crosby remains a force on both ends of the ice. In one shift he redirects a shot from teammate Kasperi Kapanen – as he did to give the penguins a head start that they wouldn’t give up against the New York Islanders on Thursday evening – the next he checks like a newbie trying to secure a place on the squad. No player whose place in the Hall of Fame is already insured by the time they choose to retire.
“He just has an insatiable appetite to be the best and he wants to be the best. He is willing to take the time and sacrifice to try to be the best,” Sullivan said Friday .
And this is where Sullivan believes Crosby is breaking up with most of his contemporaries.
“He’s not ready to give up the best player in the game attribute or who he’s been bringing here for over a decade,” said Sullivan. “He’s an extremely competitive guy. There are many people who want to win, but there are not many people who want to do what it takes to win. There are a lot of people who want to be the best, but they don’t want to do what it takes. “
Not Crosby. Each summer is devoted to working on an aspect of his game that he lacks. Every game is an opportunity to learn. At any moment in the changing room, newcomers can feel comfortable in a star-studded squad, look after younger teammates or set a good example. It’s pretty much been since he arrived in 2005 and was anointed as a savior for a franchise before he ever jumped over the boards for his first shift.
Yet he has rarely treated his status as a burden. If anything, he believes he is simply stopping his end of the deal. When asked if one of his first 999 games is noticed, Crosby points as a rookie to an otherwise meaningless home final at the Civic Arena. Then, at 18 years old, he chased 100 points. The penguins, which were still being rebuilt, were in last place in the Atlantic Division. However, the mood in the arena that night felt like there was far more at stake.
He amassed three assists to hit the mark of the century. Pittsburgh won their 22nd and final game of a largely memorable season.
“They really didn’t have a reason to create such an atmosphere,” said Crosby.
Yet they did so, in part as a token of respect for Crosby for his determined efforts to reconnect the penguins and a fan base the team almost lost shortly before his arrival.
Instead, Pittsburgh has grown into one of the league’s marquee organizations. One where Crosby accepted the Stanley Cup three times from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, and one who led Crosby through the darkest period of his career.
A decade ago, Crosby was at a crossroads when he scored a blindside hit from Washington’s David Steckel during the Winter Classic at Heinz Field on New Year’s Day 2011. The concussion and its lingering effects limited him to just 22 games over the next 18 months. For a distance, every step forward was accompanied by a step back. The idea of Crosby playing regularly again – let alone hit 1,000 games – seemed unlikely at best.
Despite the constant setbacks, Crosby remained committed to both the short and long game.
“I think when you find yourself in a situation like this, try to work in small steps and just come back out and play,” he said. “But there are bigger goals that you have, and it’s obvious that you have to play long … when you try to visualize this it motivates you and reminds you what you’re trying to do.”
Make this chapter in his hockey life just that, a chapter and not the end of the story. The collision with Steckel came in Crosby’s 411th regular season game. Since then he has played 588, winning a scoring title, a goal title, an MVP and two cups.
As unlikely as it seemed a decade ago that it would hit 1,000, barring one disaster that it could play into the late 30s and perhaps beyond. His current contract runs until 2025. He will be 38 this summer. Crosby smiled when asked if he would like to follow the steps of his former teammate Matt Cullen, who at 42 was the oldest player in the league in his final 2018/19 season. Whether he will ever achieve grandfather status like Cullen remains to be seen.
“I feel good and I want to play as long as possible,” he said.
Not just play, but keep doing the things – both small and small – that have been the hallmark of a career marked by a mixture of success, humility, and a seemingly unsurpassed skill.
“You don’t just flip a switch and create the legacy it made,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think he’s finished. I think he still has a lot of hockey to build on his resume.”
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