Crosby a rare combination of star and working man's hero

CALGARY, Alberta -- The ones we remember, the men and women who leave their imprint on our imaginations and their signatures on our dreams, work damn hard to make it look easy.

Dancing man Fred Astaire, for instance, was legendary for sweating for a week on the steps to accompany just four bars of music. Watching Larry Bird hit jump shot after jump shot from the corner of the parquet at the old Boston Garden in the gathering darkness, long after everyone else had left a morning shootaround, left little mystery as to why he could find the bottom of the net with a game, any game, on the line.

Today, in Western Canada, the calliope is silent. The cotton candy has been stored. A two-and-half-year wait has ended. The Sidney Crosby Circus has packed up and departed. There hadn't been this much excitement on the bald prairies since Mick and the Stones rocked Regina.

And the Oilers, Flames and Canucks became little more than afterthoughts in their own buildings when confronted by the Crosby Experience.

Three third-period assists in Edmonton, Wayne Gretzky's old haunt, were the only tangible assets the reigning Hart and Art Ross Trophy winner brought back from his trip. Those, and three precious victories for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Not that he shortchanged anyone on the excitement meter. Sid the Kid was flamboyantly denied by Roberto Luongo on an overtime penalty shot at GM Place. He was stoned by Miikka Kiprusoff and Luongo in shootouts in Calgary and Vancouver, respectively. Those two games marked the third and fourth time this season Crosby failed to register a point.

Not to imply that the buildup/letdown quotient was near, say, the "Seinfeld" finale or the opening of Capone's vault. A near-unprecedented amount of publicity followed Crosby on each stop of his three-ring circus. Extra security. A crush of media. The anticipation and hype had been laded out in great gulps -- "the youngest to this" and "the quickest to that."

"I think it's a little crazy," protested Calgary defenseman Cory Sarich, tossing a bucket of water on the fire. "You're seeing car bombings somewhere else and it's not even a blurb on the news these days because of Sidney Crosby."

And what was the most lasting impression for those who flocked to see Crosby up close, live and in person, for the first time?

Well, for starters, he works his tail off. Those who shelled out as much as $700 for a seat left the buildings regarding him as not merely a highlight-reel hero, but a working man's star, too.

Stylistically, they found out that Crosby is far closer to, say, an in-the-pink-of-health Peter Forsberg than Gretzky, the icon he will forever be compared to. So strong on his skates, nearly impossible to discourage on the forecheck and seemingly hooked up to an inexhaustible oxygen tank hidden somewhere on his being, No. 87, the pin-up poster boy for the New NHL, is that rare combination of intuitive offensive player and relentless power forward.

He is, like a young Gretzky, the face of the sport in his era. He is, like a young Gretzky, polite, gracious and says all the right things; he understands his position in the game and the impact his profile can have.

But unlike Gretzky, Crosby often absorbs one heck of a beating to make things happen. Gretzky beat teams with quick, lethal injections of genius. Crosby wears teams out.

No one worked harder on a sheet of ice than Gretzky. That effort, however, was channeled in a distinctly different way than Sid the Kid's. Gretzky was an apparition; Crosby is a force of nature.

Sidney's Sidney. Wayne's Wayne. Mario's Mario. And that should be good enough. Comparing is part of the fun of sports. I understand that. I do it myself. But I don't know how relevant it is.

--Wayne Gretzky on the comparisons made between him and Sidney Crosby

The late "Badger Bob" Johnson once pinpointed the major difference between No. 99 and anyone else in the game at that moment in time. Gretzky's was voracious, but for individual and collective achievement. That's another trait the two men share. But, as players, they are vastly different.

"Nobody's the next anybody," Gretzky had contended last week on the night his Phoenix Coyotes visited the Igloo in Pittsburgh. "Sidney's Sidney. Wayne's Wayne. Mario's Mario. And that should be good enough. Comparing is part of the fun of sports. I understand that. I do it myself. But I don't know how relevant it is."

At the moment, not very.

Crosby only needs four Stanley Cups, eight more Hart Trophies, nine more miniature Art Ross statuettes, three Canada Cups (or the equivalent of), five Lady Byng Trophies, 17 more All-Star Game appearances and nearly 2,600 more points to catch up to Gretzky. Come back in a decade or so and we'll talk discuss the matter further.

"People always ask me if our Oiler teams could've beaten those Canadiens teams of the '50s that won five championships in a row," Gretzky said. "And I just answer, 'We'll never know.' What I do know is that we were an exciting, successful team with a lot of great hockey players. And so were they.

"Then you get those computer matchups. You can feed all kinds of data and variables into a computer, but it can't measure a heartbeat. When a computer can measure a heartbeat, then I'll believe a computer."

Crosby isn't a machine, but he has a heartbeat as loud and strong as anyone in today's game.

"How many times," asked Gretzky, "have you heard, 'There'll never be another' and then 10 years later, the same people who said it are going 'Wow! This guy is the best I've ever seen. There'll never be another.' It happened to me. It happened to Mario. And it'll happen to Sidney. There'll always be somebody new. That's just the evolution of the game."

The Sidney Crosby Circus packed up its tents and moved out of Western Canada late Saturday night. If it didn't quite live up to all the hype, did anyone rationally expect it to?

What Crosby showed expectant fans seeing him for the first time was that sublime blend of power, finesse and effort. He offered up tantalizing glimpses of what all the fuss is about.

Most significantly, like all the great ones who have gone before him, he left them wanting more.

George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.