PITTSBURGH – Sidney Crosby has always focused on carving out his own path. But his career is starting to resemble those of the great players who came before him.
The 22-year-old Pittsburgh Penguins captain was named The Canadian Press male athlete of the year Monday, joining an exclusive club by earning the recognition for a second time.
Only 12 hockey players have won the Lionel Conacher Award since it was established in 1932 and just six of those men have received it more than once. Crosby joins multiple-time winners Maurice (Rocket) Richard, Bobby Hull, Phil Esposito, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux.
“To be part of that group is always an honour,” said Crosby. “I don’t think I ever measure myself against anyone a whole lot. Everyone has found their own path and had their own success different ways. If anything, I think I just have a lot of respect for what people before me have done.
“I’m just trying to do a good job myself.”
The Conacher award is named after the all-rounder voted Canada’s athlete of the half-century in 1950.
Crosby was a runaway winner in a poll of sports editors and broadcasters across the country, with 248 points including 72 first-place votes. Runner-up was Montreal mixed martial arts star Georges St-Pierre with 78 points and 11 first-place votes.
Phoenix Suns guard Steve Nash was third with 38 points (two first-place votes), ahead of New York Islanders rookie John Tavares at 36 (three first-place votes).
Crosby, a native of Cole Harbour, N.S., previously won the award in 2007.
His 2009 will forever be remembered as the year he first got to lift the Stanley Cup – becoming the youngest NHL captain to help his team to a championship. Crosby was just 21 when he took the trophy from commissioner Gary Bettman on June 12.
That moment was even better than he dreamed it would be.
“When you think about winning the Cup, you purely think about your team and hoisting it, the pride that comes along with it,” said Crosby. “I think you forget the amount of people that are able to be a part of it too – your family and friends. That really is a time to share with everyone. I don’t think I really understood the magnitude of that until we did win it.
“It’s easy to see why guys want to win it so much more after they’ve won it. Seeing all that come together is pretty special.”
The 2008-09 season saw Crosby top 100 points for the third time in four years. He had 33 goals and 70 assists, finishing third in league scoring behind teammate Evgeni Malkin and Washington Capitals sniper Alex Ovechkin.
His impact was even stronger in the playoffs, where he scored 15 goals and added 31 points in 24 games and almost single-handedly lifted the Penguins past Washington in a seven-game second-round series.
Crosby is quick to point out that it wasn’t a perfect year and is most proud of the adversity the team fought through. The Penguins were sitting outside of a playoff position in the Eastern Conference when coach Michel Therrien was replaced by Dan Bylsma in February.
“When I look back at the year, I think about what we went through as a team,” said Crosby. “We had a coaching change. It wasn’t a picture-perfect year, it could have been a lot different. But that’s what you go through in the course of a hockey season, there’s ups and downs.”
Even the championship moment came with a sacrifice. Crosby was knocked out of Game 7 against the Detroit Red Wings after getting pinned awkwardly against the boards and suffering a knee injury.
He returned for one shift in the third period before showing true leadership by instructing coach Bylsma not to send him out again. With the Penguins ahead 2-1, Crosby didn’t want to cost his team the game by playing on only one good leg.
His teammates were able to hold on without him.
“That’s never the way you see it in your mind – you see yourself playing the game, you see yourself being a part of it,” said Crosby. “At the same time, that’s part of the game, that’s what happens. I just tried to react the best way I could. Midway through the third I knew I wasn’t going to be able to come back, I just tried to keep a good attitude.
“It was pretty interesting to see everyone really do their thing. I’d never really taken it in like that. I guess I had a front-row seat to see everything unfold, it was amazing to see all the habits you go over during the season really come forth in the biggest game of a lot of our lives.”
It’s little wonder why No. 87 is one of the most popular players in the Penguins locker-room.
Amazingly, he is the second-youngest player on the team’s roster. But he’s the first person anyone within the organization will point to when asked about how a young team managed to win a championship in 2009.
“There’s not a practice where he doesn’t come to work,” said Penguins forward Max Talbot, who occupies the stall beside Crosby in the team’s dressing room. “I’ve never seen him taking it easy in anything. He’s our captain and it forces you to push yourself. He makes everyone better.”
Another admirer is veteran New Jersey Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur, who recalls sitting back and watching Crosby from a distance the first time the two were at an all-star game together. He couldn’t believe how gracious the “saviour of the NHL” was with everyone from the media to the fans to his fellow players.
“He’s willing to do it without sacrificing what he has to do on the ice,” said Brodeur. “There’s not too many players that have that gift.”
Crosby chose his 22nd birthday – Aug. 7 – as the day he would give a gift back to the community where he was raised. In fact, the day he brought the Stanley Cup home to Cole Harbour and Halifax might have been the best of his entire year.
More than 70,000 people turned out for a parade through the streets of his hometown.
“It was incredible,” said Crosby. “I always realized the support I’ve had back home – I’ve never taken that for granted – it’s been amazing since really I left home. I left at 15. But I don’t think I ever experienced anything like that in my life as far as being home with that many people and really seeing it first-hand. …
“It really meant a lot to me and it really set in. That was I guess the best way I could say thank you to everyone and it was a perfect couple days there.”
It’s been a good year. Earlier this month, Crosby won the Toronto Star’s Lou Marsh Award as Canada’s outstanding athlete for a second time.
His trophy case also includes a Hart Trophy, Pearson Trophy, Art Ross Trophy and a flashy diamond-encrusted Penguins Stanley Cup ring – quite a collection for someone so young.
Even still, Crosby remains humble about his accomplishments.
“I know that there’s a lot of guys out there who probably have worked just as hard and maybe haven’t had the luck or been part of the situations that I’ve been a part of,” he said. “I feel fortunate. In a way, that motivates me more knowing the opportunities that I’ve had.”