Crosby handling pucks, praise with grace

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Despite years of hype and expectations layered on gaudy scoring stats and praise from the game of hockey's greatest players, there is something ordinary about Sidney Crosby.

Not that this should come as a surprise.

He is, after all, just a boy.

Yet so much has been foretold of this 17-year-old from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia -- the least lofty of which is going first overall in the next National Hockey League draft -- one might have expected the attention would swallow him whole. Instead, he seems to have gracefully but steadfastly pushed all of it to the side.

"As much as there's so much going on as far as that's concerned, I haven't set foot in the NHL, I haven't been drafted yet. I know I have a long ways to go. At the same time I realize I'm a role model," said Crosby, who is playing in his second World Junior Championship for Team Canada and leads the tournament with six goals through four games.

Crosby learned to skate shortly after he could walk and has dominated at every level of hockey at which he's played. Last season, as a rookie with the Rimouski Oceanic in the Quebec Major Junior League, he recorded 135 points in 59 games and was voted the top junior player in the country as well as rookie of the year. This season, before joining Team Canada, he was leading the Quebec league with 68 points in 32 games. He still is. The closest challenger is teammate Dany Roussin, who has 59 points in 41 games, through Dec. 30 -- and turns 20 on Jan. 9.

How entrenched are the predictions that Crosby is indeed the next standard-bearer for NHL excellence? How about none other than Wayne Gretzky suggesting last year that if anyone breaks his seemingly unassailable NHL records it might be Crosby.

Being christened by The Great One himself only added to the previously accumulated reams of ink and miles of videotape and audiotape devoted to the hockey player who hasn't yet donned an NHL jersey let alone scored an NHL goal.

"I don't know if it's humorous but you think, how is it like this? But then you realize this is Canada, this is the way it is," Crosby said. "For sure I'm never going to take that for granted. People love hockey and I love to play and if I can make people say good things then that's fine with me. But there's going to be bad things with that sometimes, too and I'm ready to accept that."

That even-keeled demeanor has endeared Crosby to his teammates.

"The thing that amazes me the most is, obviously, that he's humble. He's down to earth," said Patrice Bergeron, a rookie sensation with the Boston Bruins last season and Crosby's linemate during the tournament. "He's got so much media around him and following him and he could say to himself that he's the best but he doesn't. I think that's what makes him good. He's intense on every shift."

The two players have become good friends off the ice, too, with Crosby practicing his French on the Quebec-born Bergeron. Crosby is learning the language so he can communicate with teammates, fans and the media in Rimouski.

"He handles pressure so well. I think since he's about 14 he's had some pressure on him and people following him around. I don't think it changed his game at all. I think it's better when he's got pressure. That's good for a hockey player if you can handle pressure well," Bergeron said.

How's this for pressure:

Even before the NHL locked out its players and robbed Canadians of their winter passion, the World Junior Championship has evolved into a holiday tradition north of the border, and part of that tradition includes christening a player or two who will lead Canada to gold.

With the NHL lockout, Canada has iced what might be its best junior team ever, as evidenced by its 4-0 record and 32-5 scoring advantage in the preliminary round. But on a team that boasts only two undrafted players, Crosby and defenseman Danny Syvret, the spotlight still shines brightest on Crosby.

"What we've seen so far in this tournament, he's fit in as well as any player I've seen since I've been around in 1990. He never talks 'I,' he always talks team. The players watch very closely for that," said Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson.

Crosby also understands his responsibilities aren't only on the ice, that he is the one from whom fans want an autograph or reporters want a quote.

"He knows it's important for the game," Nicholson said. "He's taken on that responsibility at such a young age. It's remarkable how he's handled it all."

There are two ways to view Crosby in the context of a tournament like this. Against the finest young hockey players in the world, against his peers, Crosby has shown himself to be more than capable.

"He's a guy that's constantly learning. He's just like a sponge out there he's picking up little things all the time and he keeps getting better which is the great thing about him," said Team Canada defenseman and Atlanta Thrashers prospect Braydon Coburn.

Crosby isn't the first Canadian star to be held to unrealistically high standards at this tournament. Another teen phenom, Jason Spezza, had six points in seven games in 2001 but was labeled a disappointment when Canada won only bronze. A year later, Canada won silver but Spezza was held without a goal and the No. 1 pick label that had been glued to Spezza for years was shortly after being worn by Ilya Kovalchuk.

Others have shone at this tournament only to blend back in at the NHL level. In winning gold from 1993 to 1997, Canada's leading scorers were, in order, Martin Lapointe, Martin Gendron, Marty Murray, Jarome Iginla and Brad Isbister. Of that group, only Iginla is considered a bona fide NHL star.

Crosby's feathery passes, tremendous vision and tenacity in holding onto the puck have observers comparing him to Gretzky. So does his size. His stature -- he's listed at 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds -- is similar to Gretzky's slight build.

Still, at least one NHL scout wondered aloud at this tournament back in 1978 whether a 16-year-old Gretzky had what it takes to become an NHLer.

Enough said.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.