Watching Jack Hughes with the NTDP at the USA Hockey Arena, I found myself shaking my head and asking myself, How did he do that?
This was the question I’ve contemplated about Crosby across the arc of his entire career. Young players like Hughes might be fairly familiar with Crosby’s games in Stanley Cup runs in 2016 and ’17 that they’ve screened on iPads. They might have even read a bit of the backstory. Still, they can’t possibly know the extent of the challenges that Crosby faced and overcame. Really, no teenager could possibly get it. No teenager has a world view expansive enough to appreciate the obstacles Crosby faced as a kid in Halifax. And even for Hughes and his teammates, they can’t fully appreciate the advantages they enjoyed in the USA Hockey program in Plymouth compared to Crosby at the same age.
It’s tempting to presume that there was a levelling of the playing field when Crosby made it to the Quebec league, that the final stage of his development was going to be like that of others. Yet even in Rimouski, he was still playing catch-up. His peers were still in a position of advantage. The Q was in a very soft period, if not at an all-time low, definitely the third-best of the three Canadian major junior leagues. In the two seasons prior to his arrival, the Quebec league had turned out a paucity of NHL first-round draft picks: two skaters in the first round in 2003 (Steve Bernier, who’d go on to an NHL journeyman’s career, and Crosby’s Rimouski teammate Marc-Antoine Pouliot, who played less than 200 NHL games) and just one in 2004 (Alexandre Picard, a forward who didn’t score a goal and recorded only two assists in 67 career games). Looking down the lists, occasionally a name pops up (Patrice Bergeron as a second-rounder in 2004, for instance). So, on its face, it looks like Crosby faced soft competition, and only a few of his teammates in Rimouski played any pro hockey, and at a lower level, after graduating from the Quebec league.
In Alexander Ovechkin’s first season in Washington he was probably taking a step back from his Dynamo team in Moscow during the lockout season — in the KHL in 2004–05, he played with a dozen NHLers, including future Hall of Famer Pavel Datsyuk. In Connor McDavid’s last season in junior, the OHL featured 24 NHL first-round picks from the 2013 to 2015 drafts. As a 16- and 17-year-old, Hughes was on the ice every day, practising and playing with seven other projected first-round draft picks.
When Crosby jumped from the Quebec league to the NHL, the bar was raised far more dramatically than for the aforementioned. How did he do that? is a question you can ask of any player who reaches the NHL and achieves stardom, but perhaps more than anyone on the list of the greatest players of all time, Crosby made his way from farther off the grid. If you pushed for a one-word answer, try alone.
Excerpted from Most Valuable by Gare Joyce. Copyright © 2019 Gare Joyce. Published by Viking Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
Originally published at https://www.sportsnet.ca/hockey/nhl/sidney-crosby-valuable-book-excerpt-big-read/