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How Pittsburgh native Joe Manganiello remembers Sidney Crosby's rookie season

Actor Joe Manganiello, who has been connected with the Penguins for several years, is narrating a new documentary on Sidney Crosby's rookie season. Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images

Joe Manganiello is a "we" Pittsburgh sports fan.

As in: "We" have a good shot at another Stanley Cup run this year.

As in: "We" thought Mario Lemieux was done (before he un-retired).

As in: "We" wouldn't have a hockey team at all anymore -- if it weren't for Sidney Crosby (and maybe Lemieux, too).

Yes, the love of all things Pittsburgh runs deep for Manganiello, a native Yinzer and actor by trade (catch him as a dancer in "Magic Mike" or as the pack master werewolf on "True Blood"). So, who better, really, to narrate the audio documentary "Sidney Crosby: The Rookie Year"?

Manganiello could hardly turn down the opportunity. He had already won an Emmy award in 2017 as the narrator of another hockey doc, "Pittsburgh is Home: The Story of the Penguins," and has maintained close ties to the organization. But if Manganiello thought he knew it all about Crosby, this latest project proved otherwise in revealing new facets of the Penguins' captain.

"There's no darkness in Sid, but there's an unbelievable toughness," Manganiello told ESPN. "You find that out in this documentary, especially as it deals with going out to play against these other teams who are really gunning for him and [his having] a target on his back before he really got up and got started. People who are under that much pressure usually don't handle things the way that he has."

The documentary covers all the details of Crosby's early ascent, tracking his phenom days in Cole Harbor, Nova Scotia, to the 2005 NHL draft, when Crosby was selected first overall, to playing -- and living -- with Lemieux, to his instant rivalry with Alex Ovechkin.

Crosby relives each chapter through his 18-year-old eyes, a young man bearing an enormous weight of responsibility. What impressed Manganiello in hearing Crosby's tale was how well Pittsburgh's forward rode the wave, by performing on the ice in a 102-point campaign and injecting life back into a franchise dealing with poor attendance and an uncertain future.

"In another profession, he would be considered a child star," Manganiello said. "And we all know how that generally goes, unfortunately. But he could handle it; he was prime-time ready. And what was underneath all of that was the added pressure of the fact that the team was on the verge of bankruptcy and going to leave Pittsburgh.

"And so the fact that he remained disciplined in the face of all of that adversity, and that pressure, it really lifted the city and kept the team there. We wouldn't have a hockey team in Pittsburgh if it wasn't for him."

Lemieux had a role in that too, of course. When the Penguins declared bankruptcy in 1998, he was their biggest creditor thanks to the $32.5 million in deferred salary he was owed. Lemieux had just retired in 1997, after playing through a diagnosis of Hodgkin's disease in 1993 and multiple back surgeries. But instead of pursuing a payout at the time, Lemieux and his group of investors made a deal to buy the team and keep it in Pittsburgh.

That was a good thing because one of the NHL's next great superstars was on his way. And when Crosby arrived, he needed a place to stay.

Once again, Lemieux stepped up. The Penguins legend invited Crosby to come live with him, wife Nathalie and their children. Crosby happily agreed to move in, sharing space with Lemieux at home and on the ice. Although not for long.

Lemieux had made a successful comeback after un-retiring in 2000, even battling through treatment for atrial fibrillation in 2005. Health problems would catch up to him in Crosby's rookie season of 2005-06, and the two pillars of Pittsburgh hockey would play just 26 games together before Lemieux was sidelined for good by an irregular heartbeat in 2006.

The relationship Crosby had with his mentor remained strong, and Manganiello is convinced it's what helped kept Crosby grounded.

"The fact Crosby was 18 years old and Lemieux just said, 'Come and live with me in my house with my kids' says a lot," Manganiello said. "Listen, I know a lot of hockey players and you don't want them around your kids. So that just shows Lemieux was a great judge of character. He had good people looking out for him, and I think it just goes to show you what we hope Pittsburgh is all about and what we hope Pittsburgh stands for, and those are two Canadian guys that are more Pittsburgh than anybody I know."

Manganiello then reverted to the collective "we," referencing those who witnessed the real-time succession of their city's beloved hockey heroes.

"When those 26 games were up and Lemieux wasn't going to come back again, it was like that was it; that was all we got," Manganiello said. "And having Sid carry on without him, to see Sid step into his own, and officially during those 26 games have that torch passed to him, and then to watch him take off on his own and become a star his own right was really special to be a part of and watch."

Revisiting Crosby's first season for the documentary also underscored to Manganiello how far -- and how fast -- the Penguins' stalwart had to rise. Even now, at 34 years old and 17 seasons into his career, Crosby remains an elite, point-per-game player.

That gives Manganiello hope not just for the Penguins' prospects this season, but that if he were to narrate the story of Crosby's final campaign, it wouldn't be for quite some time.

"After his last game, it would be me talking about his 1,000th goal and he's 50 years old, and he's still [trying to] go," Manganiello said. "It could happen! But no, I mean we've got a shot this year. I hope we're going to be talking about Sid and winning a few more Cups.

"He's [such] a role model; he's aspirational. You want to point to him and tell kids, 'Look, you can do it the right way.' That's him, that's Crosby."

Sidney Crosby: Rookie Year is available as part of Audible's Plus Catalogue membership.