PITTSBURGH – Sidney Crosby's relentlessness remains intact 15 years in. Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan sees it every day.
Every drill in practice, no matter how routine. Every shift during a game, no matter what the score. The player who has helped define his team, his adopted city and his sport for a generation remains as committed to his craft as he was as a kid in Canada firing puck after puck after puck into the dryer in his parent's basement in Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia.
Sullivan's spent the last five-plus years marveling from behind the bench, thankful that the player who gave him “nightmares” when Sullivan coached elsewhere is now sitting in front of him on the bench, setting a standard many emulate but few actually reach.
Crosby will cross another milestone Saturday night when 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 ageless Jaromir Jagr. More than longtime teammate Evgeni Malkin or any of the hundreds of others players who have passed through town over the last 53 years.
And at 33, Crosby isn't coasting. There's a chance he might not even be cresting. Fifteen games into his 16th season, Crosby remains a force at both ends of the ice. One shift he's redirecting a shot from teammate Kasperi Kapanen — as he did to give the Penguins a lead they wouldn't relinquish on Thursday night against the New York Islanders — the next he's backchecking like a rookie trying to earn a spot on the roster, not a player whose spot in the Hall of Fame whenever he decides to retire is already assured.
“He just has an insatiable appetite to be the best and he wants to be the best and he’s willing to put the time in and make the sacrifices to try and be the best,” Sullivan said Friday.
And that's where Sullivan believes Crosby separates himself from most of his contemporaries.
“He’s not ready to relinquish the best player in the game attribute or that he’s carried here for a decade-plus,” Sullivan said. “He’s an ultra-, ultra-competitive guy. There’s a lot of guys that want to win, but there aren’t a lot of guys that want to do what it takes to win. There's a lot of guys that want to be the best, but they don't want to do what it takes.”
Not Crosby. Every summer is dedicated to working on some aspect of his game he feels is lacking. Every game is an opportunity to learn. Every moment in the locker room a chance to make newcomers feel comfortable amid a star-laden roster, mentor younger teammates or lead by example. It's pretty much been that way since he arrived in 2005, anointed as the savior for a franchise in shambles before he ever hopped over the boards for his first shift.
Yet he's rarely treated his status as a burden. If anything, he believes he's simply holding up his end of the bargain. Asked if any of his first 999 games stand out, and Crosby points to an otherwise meaningless home finale at the Civic Arena as a rookie. Then 18 years old, he was chasing 100 points. The still-rebuilding Penguins were mired in last place in the Atlantic Division. The vibe in the arena that night, however, felt as if there was far more at stake.
He racked up three assists to get to the century mark. Pittsburgh won its 22nd and final game of a largely forgettable season.
“They didn't really have a reason to (create) an atmosphere like that,” Crosby said.
And yet they did, partly as a show of respect to Crosby for his single-minded effort to re-establish the connection between the Penguins and a fan base that nearly lost the team not long before his arrival.
Instead, Pittsburgh has become one of the league's marquee organizations. One that's seen Crosby accept the Stanley Cup from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman three times and one that helped steer Crosby through the darkest period of his career.
A decade ago, Crosby found himself at a crossroads when he absorbed 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 stretch, every step forward was accompanied by a step backward. The idea of Crosby playing with regularity again — let alone getting to 1,000 games — seemed improbable at best.
Still, despite the constant setbacks, Crosby remained committed to both the short game and the long one.
“I think when you’re kind of in that situation, you’re trying to work at small steps and just get back out there and playing,” he said. “But there’s bigger goals that you have and it is obviously to play for a long time ... Trying to visualize that, it helps motivate you and remind you of what you’re trying to do.”
Namely, make that 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. He's played 588 since, winning a scoring title, a goal title, an MVP and a pair of Cups along the way.
As unlikely as it seemed a decade ago that he'd get to 1,000, barring catastrophe he could play into his late-30s and maybe beyond. His current contract runs through 2025. He turns 38 that summer. Crosby smiled when asked if he wants to follow in the steps of former teammate Matt Cullen, who at 42 was the oldest player in the league during his final season in 2018-19. Whether he ever becomes achieves “grandpa” status as Cullen did remains to be seen.
“I feel good and I want to play as long as I can,” he said.
Not just play, but keep doing the things — in both ways and small — that have been the hallmark of a career defined by a mix of success, humility and a seemingly unmatched esilience.
“You don’t just flip a switch and create the type of legacy that he’s created,” Sullivan said. "I don’t think he’s finished. I think he’s got a lot of hockey left to build on the resume that he has.”
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