Crosby ready for the next step ... whenever it is

GATINEAU, Quebec -- It is early in the game, just past the first-minute mark, and Sidney Crosby of the Rimouski Oceanic stands on the bench. He has yet to leap the boards for his first shift, but already the biggest crowd of the season at the Robert Guertin Centre is on the edge of its seats in anticipation.

It is like this everywhere he goes, in the cities of Quebec and the Maritime provinces where the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League plays. Night after night, arenas are packed with hockey fans cramming in to see Crosby for themselves.

Crosby hits the ice just outside the Gatineau blue line, and in a single moment there is one of the many reasons why the 17-year-old is the most-heralded prospect to come out of Quebec since Mario Lemieux. Just two strides later, the puck appears almost out of nowhere and lands on his stick. The puck seems to follow the good ones around; it's their instinct to go not where the puck is, but where it will be.

Crosby has a wide, powerful skating stride, and in a couple of steps he is almost up to full speed.

He dashes over the Gatineau line, goes wide and winds up behind the net, a Gatineau defender in pursuit. Crosby banks the puck off the back of the net, spins 360 degrees to shake the defender, picks the puck up again and passes it in front to teammate Mark Tobin, who snaps it home.

After his first five shifts that night, Sidney Crosby had three assists. He finished the first period with four.

Not impressed, said Gatineau Olympiques coach Benoit Groulx.

"I'm not more impressed than last year. You expect him to play that way," said Groulx, who saw Crosby dish out six assists in his first visit to Gatineau last year on his way to a 135-point season as a 16-year-old (a league record). "You give him a centimeter and he's going to make you look bad."

It was another dominating performance for Crosby, the kid Wayne Gretzky said will break his scoring records. Crosby is the top-rated QMJHL skater by the NHL's Central Scouting Bureau, and is the consensus No. 1 pick in the next draft, which has been put on hold until a new collective bargaining agreement is signed.

Not since Lemieux skated for the Laval Voisins back in the early 1980s has a player created the same kind of buzz.

Judging by the spike in attendance whenever the charismatic and talented Crosby comes to town, his presence could be worth a projected $1 million to Quebec league owners this season. That's a conservative guess based on attendance figures on the QMJHL website, figures that jump considerably when Rimouski is on the schedule.

Teams in the league have packaged Oceanic games with less-attractive games this year, causing a ripple effect on attendance figures. To see Crosby in many Quebec-league cities, you have to buy tickets to other games, as well.

With owners reaping the benefits of his presence, Crosby and his agent, Pat Brisson of IMG, wanted to make sure the ticket packages, which average about $40 for three games, didn't preclude some kids from being able to see Crosby. So the Crosby camp requested that 100 tickets for each Oceanic game to be distributed to underprivileged kids. Some club executives resisted. Crosby got 25, instead.

"Sidney was saying that four or five years ago, when Rimouski came to town and he wanted to see Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards, it would be difficult to buy tickets for three or four games to see one," Brisson said. "Since teams were packaging up the games, Sidney wanted to do something good for the kids who couldn't afford to go (to all the games in the package).

"My personal opinion is 25 is far less than it should be. There was some grumbling, but I'd say those who criticize it are the greedy ones. Sidney didn't want anything out of this for himself. He just wants underprivileged kids to have a chance to see him play. It's not fair and we were upset.

"Some GMs and governors ... they're lucky to have (Crosby) in their building three or four times. They should have been happy and just gone along with it."

The Oceanic are the most popular road team -- by far. Crosby and his teammates play to 90 percent capacity on the road. The next most popular team, the Chicoutimi Saguenéens, play to 65.9 percent.

"All the places we go are pretty much sold out and other teams are motivated for that," said Crosby. "That's a challenge, for sure. It takes more than one guy to win; I've always realized that. You win as a team and you lose as a team, but there is a little bit of extra pressure. That comes along with it. When you are expected to score points, the expectations are high."

His impact hasn't gone unnoticed by the corporate world, either. He reportedly is close to signing a multiyear endorsement deal with Reebok/CCM that could be worth about $1 million.

Crosby takes his responsibilities as the world's best 17-year-old player seriously. Earlier this season, after a game in Moncton, Crosby was told by his father his grandfather had passed away from a heart attack. After hearing the news, Crosby went out and signed autographs for the kids waiting for him.

"I was pretty shook up," he told Sun Media, "But we only get to Moncton a couple of times and I knew I wouldn't get a second chance to sign for those kids."

And though an ankle sprain has prevented him from playing in a pair of all-star games against a touring Russian junior team, Crosby still made the trip to Montreal to greet fans who were counting on seeing him.

Meanwhile, he works away on his game. He remains an offensive force, averaging more than two points a game and opening up a 14-point lead in the Quebec league in scoring (17-40-54 in 26 games), but he's been concentrating on improving his defensive play. That's what was impressive about his performance against Gatineau. After the Oceanic had opened a lead -- they held a 5-2 lead midway through the second period and won 7-3, Crosby worked hard on his defense, coming back deep into his zone, taking the body, working hard along the boards to get the puck back.

Crosby also studies video to learn how to improve his defensive game, said Oceanic coach and general manager Doris Labonte.

"He'll never lose his offensive skills," said Labonte. "He's not just a one-way player. That's why he's killing penalties and playing in all defensive situations. He's going to have learned his lessons before he gets to pro. A lot of top junior scorers get to pro and they have to learn (how to play defensively).

"He won't be like (Atlanta Thrashers star) Ilya Kovalchuk, who's sitting in the stands because he's not aware of his defensive play. If (Crosby's) not playing defensively, it's because he doesn't want to do it, not because he doesn't know how."

Crosby doesn't mind the physical stuff, either. He put Gatineau's Francis Wathier, a big forward, on his head with a hip check in front of the Gatineau bench. It led to a scrum and then a fight between Gatineau's Nick Fugere and Rimouski's Erick Tremblay. The Gatineau bench was chirping at Crosby when he picked up gloves and sticks in the aftermath. Crosby listened to the yapping and then gestured to the bench to keep their heads up by tapping the back of his hand under his chin.

"I hit Wathier when his head was down and he got all mad at me. I was just telling him if he puts his head down, he's fair game," said Crosby. "I was just saying he should keep his head up."

As far as next year goes, Brisson said they will wait and see what happens with the draft before assessing Crosby's options. He already turned down a three-year offer worth close to $8 million from the World Hockey Association. If the NHL labor stalemate drags on through the summer, Crosby could return to junior next season, sign with a team in Europe or play in the American Hockey League.

But if NHL owners opt to use replacement players, Crosby will take a pass.

"There's no way he'll be a replacement player," said Brisson. "That's not what Sidney is about. He's about playing with the best and that won't be the best."

Chris Steveson of the Ottawa Sun is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.