Sidney Crosby Built from the Skates Up

At 19 years old, Sidney Crosby is unquestionably the Next One - the eye-popping puck skills, the studied humility, the precocious self-confidence are all present in the star centre of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Sidney Crosby Built from the Skates Up

At 19 years old, Sidney Crosby is unquestionably the Next One - the eye-popping puck skills, the studied humility, the precocious self-confidence are all present in the star centre of the Pittsburgh Penguins. So too is the inner fire prized in this game above all else, that thing which lifts a talented player into the realm of immortals like Bobby Orr or Maurice Richard. But to fully appreciate Crosby's place in the evolution of HOCKEY - a place identifiable even now, in his sophomore season - you need to go back. Back to the year before Crosby was born, and for the sake of this argument, to a statement of hockey principle that might have been dismissed at the time as a snippet of boozy rambling.

It was the summer of 1986, and the Edmonton Oilers were on top of the world. In the spirit of aiding history, a few key members of the team admitted filmmakers Terence and Bob McKeown to their inner sanctum to make a documentary. The resulting movie, Boys on the Bus, is pretty much the definitive Oiler hagiography, worth watching mostly for a dinner sequence at Mark Messier's apartment in which Wayne Gretzky, Kevin Lowe, Paul Coffey and Messier argue about the key to success in hockey. After an illuminating, at times comical exchange, Gretzky ends all argument with a curt summation of his personal on-ice philosophy. "I want that puck," he says across a forest of half-filled glasses. "And you guys," he adds, tossing his head at imaginary opponents, "you guys get your own puck."

The man was no puck hog, of course. He assisted 1,963 goals. But in this one slightly slurred dictum, the Great One distilled the measure of a player in the bygone NHL - namely, the ability to single-handedly control time and space on the ice. Today, the idea sounds quaint. Even as Gretzky spoke, rival coaches were devising ways to reclaim the ice from players whose pure talent slowed the game and governed the actions of opponents.

By the time Sidney Crosby appeared on the radar of NHL scouts, pro hockey had evolved into a chess match of "traps" and "locks" and "defensive systems" designed to foil scorers, which may explain why Crosby sought to diminish expectations whenever Gretzky comparisons arose. "No one is going to touch his numbers," he told Maclean's in 2005, invoking a theme he maintains to this day. "It was just a different league back then."

Now, as he makes his first appearance in the Stanley Cup playoffs, there's a palpable hope that Crosby is about to defy his own prediction. The pride of Cole Harbour, N.S., finished his second season with a league-leading 120 points, a pace comparable to early-vintage Gretzky but in a league that - for all its crowing about a crackdown on obstruction - remains much more defensively oriented than it was in the mid-1980s. On March 2, he became the youngest player in history to reach 200 career points (19 years and 207 days - 147 fewer days than Gretzky), playing a game so precise and disciplined that you can hardly tell it's revolutionary. For Crosby, hockey is less about controlling the ice surface than controlling the nine square feet around his skates.

Consider a pair of unlikely scoring chances he created late in the season. On Feb. 10 in Toronto, Crosby shot directly into the shin pads of an advancing defender during a Penguins power play, then showed lightning-fast reflexes to regain the puck, duck past the shot blocker, bulldoze through the next two checkers and - somehow - get another crack at the net. His second shot glanced off a flailing arm, and the whole thing happened so fast the Leafs might have thought it a fluke. If so, they hadn't been watching their tapes: the play was an exact replica of one Crosby pulled off two nights earlier in Philadelphia, producing a juicy rebound which linemate Mark Recchi jabbed into the net.

Not pretty, as highlight sequences go. But as an exhibition of talent, agility, balance, bull-like strength and sheer will, it was uniquely Sidney Crosby. Which is another way of paying him the greatest compliment a hockey player could hear: Wayne Gretzky could never have done it.

"Look in his eyes," murmurs Mike Lange, the veteran play-by-play man for WXDX radio in Pittsburgh. "Everything you need to know about him is right there, in his eyes." We're watching Crosby and his teammates go through a morning skate in Ottawa, pondering exactly how he does it. Lange's observation is both accurate and pleasingly mystical: Crosby is indeed possessed of a black, burning stare - like Maurice Richard's, only seemingly directed inward. But to portray his success purely as a function of determination is to overlook the quantum leap he represents to hockey history.

To perform that leap, Crosby had to forego the very kind of romanticism that tends to infuse ideas of how a star is made. While the Howes and Orrs who came before him plotted a course across frozen ponds and backyard rinks, Crosby is a hothouse specimen, a player built from the skates up to conquer a highly systematized game. Yes, nature supplied the raw materials of strength, character, vision and unheard of motor skills. But the assembly was performed by others - a hockey-playing father; instructors at high-performance hockey camps; coaches at the Minnesota prep school he attended for a year. And the most important influence of all proved to be a soft-spoken Prince Edward Islander with some novel ideas about how to succeed at hockey.

Andy O'Brien remembers well the first day he saw Crosby. He was teaching at an elite hockey camp in Summerside, where young Sidney, just out of elementary school, was skating with boys two years his senior. "We'd been hearing about a player there who was said to be the best 13-year-old in the world," recalls O'Brien, then freshly graduated from the University of Western Ontario's kinesiology program. "But when I realized that this was the player they were talking about, I thought, 'Good lord, this kid needs some work.' He was lumbering around a bit out there."

Now the strength and fitness coach for the Florida Panthers, O'Brien was a bit of a radical thinker - at least by hockey standards. For years, he'd watched in bemusement as top-level players feverishly pumped iron in the off-season, even though studies had long ago proven that building muscle mass indiscriminately could actually diminish performance in high-tempo sports. Far more important, he knew, is the ability to work specific muscle groups in concert at high speed, and with picture-perfect form. Yet there the hockey guys were, puffing up their pecs and ballooning their thighs like they were preparing for beefcake contests.

Much of this stemmed from a basic misunderstanding of hockey's unique effects on the anatomy, according to O'Brien. As a sport played on metal blades across a low-friction surface, the game demands work from body parts never really meant for the job. While running or jumping sports use muscles meant to produce vertical force, skating requires horizontal exertion from those that provide stability - the outer quadriceps, the lateral hamstrings and a pair of gluteal muscles called the piriformis and the medias. If you could increase the efficiency of those groups, O'Brien reasoned, shortening the time they required to contract while increasing the amount of force produced, you could build a much, much better hockey player.

So in the late 1990s, he devised a workout regimen to do just that. What he needed was a top-drawer player entering the most important phase of his development - a teenager whose neuromuscular responses could be super-programmed for maximum performance.

Enter Crosby and his parents, Trina and Troy, a working class family looking for someone who, at a modest price, would transform an uncommonly talented boy into a surefire NHL prospect. Thus began a five-year experiment that would eventually produce the best player in the world. O'Brien happened to be moving to Halifax, so the year Crosby turned 14, he was on hand to oversee the youngster's daily workouts at the St. Mary's University athletic centre. The pair spent hours working on Crosby's posture, using exercises unlike anything hockey players did at the time: the teenager would jump, skip, sprint, duck under hurdles, even do somersaults on mats while O'Brien studied his movements - all with a view to correcting mechanical flaws in his hip extension or coordinating the angles of his knees and ankles. Then came exercises aimed at building balance and stability. Crosby would teeter, see-saw style, on a piece of plywood balanced on a length of pipe while O'Brien surveyed his movements. "I'd hit him with all the force I could to try to knock him off," recalls O'Brien, "or I'd throw a medicine ball at him. As he became more efficient, we tried to create inefficiency in his environment so he could continue to progress."

The sessions were gruelling, but Crosby was pleased with the results, and today, he keeps up the same off-season regimen. "With all the speed and youth in the game, it's important to have that extra step," he explains in an interview. (O'Brien stopped overseeing his workouts after getting the Panthers job, but the two remain close friends.) "That's something I'm always trying to gain so, honestly, a lot of the stuff I do is pretty athletic."

Examples? "Sprint intervals of 200 or 300 m. I'll do three or four pretty quick and close together. And I almost always put my body in some sort of unnatural position, then try to keep doing the exercise fast and strong. That's worked well for me. If it's hurdles or cones or hill running, I'll do it with a weight belt on one side, or maybe a medicine ball."

It's not as simple as replicating hockey movements on dry land, Crosby stresses. Rather, the workouts are meant to prepare his body to withstand the game's rigours. "On the ice, you're always kind of leaning, or digging in and changing position. Balance and flexibility become very important. A lot of people forget how important it is to be athletic and to focus on moving your body well."

He's not really sure how much of his success can be attributed to these preparations. But O'Brien knows what he saw when he attended a game in Halifax during Crosby's rookie year with the Rimouski Oceanic of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. In almost every vital department - hand speed, leg strength, balance, agility, and most importantly, foot speed - his young charge surpassed everyone on the ice. Today, NHL opponents speak with similar awe of Crosby's "completeness" as an athlete. "What doesn't he do?" asks Senators defenceman Wade Redden. "He's good on the puck. He's quick, he's strong, he's got a great shot and he knows how to find his teammates. He's a special, special player."

Of course, not everybody appreciates "special, special" players. And many of those who don't live in the city of Philadelphia. The team once known as the Broad Street Bullies was laid low this season by injuries and managerial incompetence. But the Flyers' fans can still get a decent hate on, and Crosby is their new favourite target. Boos fill the Wachovia Center each time he touches the puck. Epithets, most of them unprintable, fly down from the stands. Tonight, in a late-season encounter between the two teams, the Flyers show they plan to get in his face all evening, sending a charge of unaccustomed optimism through the crowd.

With that begins a series of unpenalized assaults - a blindside by Ben Eager; a two-hand slash across the gloves by Joni Pitkanen; an all-out lunge by Derian Hatcher, a six-foot-five, 235-lb. defencemen, which Crosby (five-foot-ten, 203 lb.) narrowly avoids. Later, in the third period, Hatcher catches him in from the Philadelphia bench with a forearm to the chest, bending his spine across the boards. The incident looks dangerous, and as he skates away uninjured Crosby casts a glare toward referee Kerry Fraser. But the play goes on, and Philly's ugly strategy is working. By the end of regulation time, the Flyers are tied with the high-flying Penguins 4-4. Crosby hasn't recorded a point.

Gorilla tactics have always been considered a form of flattery in hockey. Gretzky faced them; so did Mario Lemieux before their respective coaches brought in protection. When Crosby arrived in the fall of 2005, however, there was a fervent hope that the thugs were on their way out - that he was the cutting edge of an offensive renaissance that would eventually render intimidation obsolete.

This was a delusion born partly of Crosby's imperviousness to rugged play. "He'll turn around and shove it right back up their asses," is how Mark Recchi, Crosby's veteran linemate, describes the youngster's resilience. But cheap shots are cheap shots, and by the time he hit Philadelphia, frustration was plainly affecting Crosby's judgment. The first sign of trouble came during a Feb. 4 visit to Montreal, when he went down rather theatrically after getting clipped in the face by a Canadien's stick in the third period. With the crowd chanting "faker! faker!" Crosby was sucked into an argument on his way back to the bench with Aaron Downey, a fringe player who later admitted he was trying to get under Crosby's skin. "Sidney's a superstar," he shrugged happily. "I'm just a slug in this league, a tow-truck driver."

For the rest of the game, and for many more after it, Crosby seemed jangled. In overtime, he took an uncharacteristic tour around the Canadiens' net, dipsy-doodling back out to the blue line and trying a shot that hit Habs forward Tomas Plekanec in the leg. In a blink, the speedy Montreal centre had turned the puck up ice on a two-on-one, teeing up the winning goal for defenceman Sheldon Souray. The freeze-out in Philly came four nights later, and while he did score the winning goal in a shootout, Crosby seemed less elated with victory than exasperated by the preceding 65 minutes. Slipping his feet into the yellow Crocs he keeps by his dressing-room stall, he took "personal responsibility" for his line's declining output, telling the crush of reporters: "I had a lot going through my mind."

The effects were showing on the stats sheet, too. Having set a torrid pace of 1.71 points per game since the start of the season, Crosby registered less than a single point over the dozen outings following the Montreal game. He denied that escalating harassment was derailing his play. But some of his remarks had a pleading undertone. "I think I've done a pretty good job keeping my emotions in check," he told Maclean's a few weeks after the Downey encounter. "But I am human. I play with a lot of intensity and there will be times when I get upset."

Should the league have solved the problem with some decent refereeing? Without a doubt. Crosby is universally regarded as the league's crown jewel, a scoring machine with movie-star looks. But seldom has the game's greatest asset been so inclined to - in Recchi's words - "shove it up their asses." In the end, Pens general manager Ray Shero settled things the old way, cutting a late-season deal with Phoenix to acquire Georges Laraque, a six-foot-three, 243-lb. forward who is generally considered the heavyweight champion of the league. The trade put to rest any illusion you could nettle Crosby - physically, verbally or any other way - without risking serious head injury.

The brief tempest over Crosby's security was just one example of the argument he stirs wherever he goes, debate caused primarily by the fact he's tougher than the familiar image of a scoring star. Gretzky's supple eccentricities, after all, constituted an unmistakable prototype - a model that spawned a generation of lesser imitators like Petr Nedved and Craig Janney. Lemieux fell into a much older tradition of elegant giants - Jean Beliveau, Frank Mahovlich and, later, Jaromir Jagr. All of these players demonstrated that familiar I-want-that-puck urge to control play, pulling defenders out of position and using the open ice to create offence.

Crosby, by contrast, assumes the appearance of a hard-grinding forward even when he's carrying the puck: he'll let a checker do his worst, widening his stance to protect the disc until he gets the chance to move it, or he'll dish it off before an opponent can lay a stick on him. Either way, he doesn't require open ice to create goals, which tends to confuse critics who attend his games with visions of Gretzky dancing in their heads. "Crosby is, well, more conventional," declared a mid-season profile in Sports Illustrated, adding that the young Penguin "isn't reinventing the game, he's merely playing it at a rarified level."

Why, then, do his opponents sound so non-plussed? "I think everyone's trying to figure him out," says Toronto's Chad Kilger, one of the league's premiere defensive forwards. "If the play's there, you got to hit him, but you can't run around and try to be too physical or you're going to wind up in the penalty box." Factor in the crackdown on obstruction and stick penalties, say others, and Crosby's physical advantages multiply. "I don't know if there's a defenceman in the league right now that can handle him one-on-one when he gets position," says Senators coach Bryan Murray. "When he puts that hip out and starts to pivot, he's very hard to take off the puck. And you can't put the stick on him anymore in the way people have done in the past."

If you're looking for ways in which Crosby has influenced the game, this is a pretty good place to start. For the better part of two decades, smart coaches have been answering offensive firepower with defensive set plays designed to take away the kind of space Gretzky and his ilk feasted upon. As Ken Dryden, the Hall of Fame goaltender and all-round hockey philosopher recently noted, these systems grew out of the realization that the checker's higher relative speed and the simplicity of his task (i.e. he doesn't have to focus on stickhandling) give him an edge over even the most talented puck carrier. They may be maligned for their stultifying effect on the flow of the game, but they're merely the product of common sense.

Crosby's genius has been to erase that imbalance: the efficiencies O'Brien and he worked so hard to achieve permit him to receive, carry and unload the puck at blinding speeds, often with little more than a synchronic spasm of body muscle. He may be the best player in the league at directing the puck with one or two touches of the stick and - most importantly - he almost never relinquishes the ice beneath him. When the puck comes his way, the checker's supposed advantage is lost.

None of this is to say that teams won't someday unlock the secret to controlling him. Most sports, after all, operate on cycles of innovation followed by strategic adjustment (in baseball, for example, hitters answered the 100-mph fastball with greater upper body strength which, in turn, increased bat speed). But it's a lot more fun to imagine they won't - that Crosby will advance his game further, expanding the gap between himself and his defenders and stretching the magic seconds when he's carrying the puck into more high-light-reel moments. He certainly resists interpretations of him as some sort of icebound automaton, a guy who has set out to make his play in a millisecond flat or consider his shift a failure. "I think it's part of how you adjust and adapt to each game," he says when I observe how little he actually carries the puck. "But you do still hope you're going to get a lot of time to touch the puck and create plays. If that doesn't happen, you know, you have to make the most of the opportunities you do get with it. You have to make the right plays and sometimes those are the simple ones. But you think to yourself that maybe, later in the game, you'll get a chance to do something bigger and better."

Tantalizingly, he spent the late season doing just that - seeking out the spectacular where the merely impressive might have served. In a March 16 rematch with the Canadiens, he eluded four checkers converging on him and released a shot while falling down that resulted in one of the year's most miraculous goals. On the power play, he's developed what might be considered a signature move, faking a shot from the half-boards to freeze the checkers, then firing a light-speed pass diagonally to Ryan Whitney, a left-side defenceman, for a back-door shot. Over and over, the play succeeds, because defenders know that the alternative - peeling off to cover Whitney - gives Crosby an open lane to the net.

It has helped, too, that he is surrounded this season by a cast of teenaged stars, who are helping create the open ice he'll need to further raise his game. At 19 and 18 respectively, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal are two of the best prospects in the league. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, 22, is living up to his billing as a first-overall draft pick, and a slew of others - Ryan Malone, Erik Christensen and Whitney - help form the core of a team that went 31-7-5 during the second half of the season.

The salutary effects of this can't be overstated. Better teammates occupy opponents' attention, pulling top checkers away from the first-line centre and helping build leads. That, in turn, forces teams to take defensive risks. When he watches this group of youngsters, André Savard, a former Canadiens GM who is now an assistant coach with Pittsburgh, gets a bit of déjà vu. "If there's a resemblance," he says, "it's to the Oilers back [in the early 1980s]. It's a team game and you're going to win because of chemistry. So it's got to be nice for Sidney to have other players stepping up."

Whether the Penguins have what it takes to win one Cup - never mind four, like the Gretzky-era Oilers - is yet to be seen. As Crosby himself says: "There's definitely a confidence level. But a sense of something special? Who knows?" If that sounds a bit non-committal for a guy about to face the acid test of an NHL playoff run, chalk it up to his reflexive habit of trying to manage expectations. Crosby above all understands that the ultimate measure of his impact on the league lies ahead. Say all you want about team chemistry; fantasize at will about a player surpassing Gretzky's 200-point seasons. But the grand experiment that began with a lumbering 13-year-old at a P.E.I. hockey camp will ultimately be evaluated in sips of champagne from Lord Stanley's mug. And to get to that point, it's not just wanting the puck that counts. It's what you do when you get it.

ANATOMY OF A WUNDERKIND

Crosby relies on a combination of strengths to perform so well. Some, like his extraordinary mental fitness, come naturally; others required painstaking work to develop. His off-ice preparations were founded on the principle that hockey uses different muscle groups in different ways than other sports, and he tends to value stability and efficiency over bulk or brute power. But to make his regimen work, Crosby must continually raise the difficulty of his workouts, enduring ever greater pain to attain ever greater results.

Crosby generates a level of excitement among fans unseen since the days of Gretzky. The visible joy he derives from the sport - described by one former trainer as his 'glow' - makes him seem almost childlike. But on the ice, even at practice, he's got a black burning stare like Maurice Richard's.

'Core training' is a trendy byword for building the lateral and abdominal muscles. Crosby and his former trainer, Andy O'Brien, took it further, however, doing exercises in increasingly awkward circumstances to enhance balance at the centre of his body. The result: superb stability and durability.

Crosby's movements changed as he matured, and he needed to constantly tweak inefficient or incomplete hip movements to maintain a perfect stride - creating a virtuous cycle of greater efficiency. 'When your body moves well mechanically,' says O'Brien, 'everything you do becomes an exercise.'

Forget the Reebok ads that show Crosby leg-pressing a stack of weights. He avoids weight training that builds bulk, working instead on lower stabilizing muscles like the gluteus medias and lateral hamstring. Skaters use them not just for balance but for propulsion. Crosby's are freakishly strong.

NHL teams still use a push-pull test to measure players' strength, but Crosby's forte lies in efficiency - that is, his ability to contract and extend certain muscles quickly with a high degree of force. His bulk and definition lies primarily in his legs. His biceps and upper body are not remarkable.

Personal trainer Andy O'Brien used exercises developed for track athletes to assess the mechanical correctness of Crosby's movements. When they met, Crosby was said to be the best 13-year-old in the world. 'I thought, "Good Lord, this kid needs work." He was lumbering around a bit.'

His 'groundedness' has been a key selling point. But he had lessons in media relations while still a young teen, plus workouts with other pros (including Wayne Gretzky) whose examples he follows off the ice. Today, Crosby is forever identifying some new goal with which to motivate himself.

Nature gave Crosby 'soft' hands. He's got a mesmerizing array of dekes, dangles and toe-drags to fake out defenders in open ice. But forearm strength allows for quick shots and passes - much more useful in the heavy traffic of today's game. And his nearly straight stick blade helps with his backhand.

Engineering his stride - coordinating the degree of knee, hip and ankle flexion - has helped minimize wear and tear on his joints and lower back. It also gave him explosive acceleration. A year after he began working with O'Brien, he'd shaved a half-second off his time on a 30-metre dry-land sprint.

How do you dominate a playing surface crowded with defenders? Crosby's method is to control the limited space around him, sometimes with lightning-fast movement, sometimes with superior strength and balance. No one is better at bursting past checkers, or protecting the puck on the fly.

Maclean's April 23, 2007