It turned out to be both – and a compelling story.
Sidney Crosby’s first season in the NHL was fantastic and his Pittsburgh Penguins’ season was a soap opera.
When Globe and Mail reporter Shawna Richer pitched the idea of moving from Halifax to Pittsburgh to spend an entire season writing about the NHL’s most heralded rookie after the lockout, she was terrified when her newspaper accepted.
“We went into it thinking we’re committed to this for the season and we didn’t know what was going to happen,” Richer said.
“It could have gone terribly wrong, but I don’t think I could have been luckier because he was tremendous and the team was terrible. There was this dynamic of personal success versus team failure.”
Richer chronicled all of it in dispatches for The Globe and Mail and combined them into “The Rookie. A Season with Sidney Crosby and the New NHL,” out Saturday.
Richer, 39, has returned to Halifax to cover all manner of assignments in The Globe and Mail’s Atlantic bureau, but says writing about Crosby for a season will stand out in her career.
“This was special to me because no one else can ever go back and do it,” Richer said. “Sidney’s rookie year in the NHL is gone, but I got to see it up close and was allowed to pay extraordinary attention to it.”
At 18, Crosby’s 39 goals and 63 assists made him the youngest player in NHL history to reach 100 points in a season and he finished sixth overall in the league’s scoring race.
The teen from Cole Harbour, N.S., and 20-year-old Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin waged the most entertaining battle for the NHL’s rookie award in years.
But it wasn’t smooth sailing for Crosby. Many can recall the image of him bloody-lipped and spitting-mad after a mugging by Flyers defenceman Derian Hatcher, as well as Thrashers forward Ilya Kovalchuk taunting Crosby after scoring a goal while Crosby was in the penalty box.
Crosby was not selected to the Canadian Olympic team by Wayne Gretzky, who once said Crosby would be the one to break all his NHL records.
The Penguins provided dramatic subplots.
The new collective bargaining agreement was supposed to help small-market teams contend for the Stanley Cup.
Pittsburgh surrounded Crosby with proven veterans, including aging star and team owner Mario Lemieux, in a bid to reach the post-season after three straight years out of it.
But the Pens tanked early and for the first time, Crosby played for a losing team.
Lemieux fell ill with a heart condition, retired and put the team up for sale again. Head coach Eddie Olczyk was fired and replaced by Michel Therrien. Veteran forward Ziggy Palffy abruptly retired.
Because Crosby was a hockey prodigy growing up, he is no stranger to the media. He is eerily self-contained and polished in interviews.
But Richer was able to describe his darkest days simply by watching him, because Crosby can’t hide his passion and emotion for the game.
“He wears his emotions on his sleeve and you can see it in his face and how he walks,” she said.
During one painful losing skid, Richer observed that Crosby constantly clenched his toes while delivering his usual neutral-positive answers to questions.
Crosby lived with Lemieux and his family in suburban Pittsburgh. Richer had hoped to get a peek what life was like in that household, but was not given that access.
“I often wonder how it would have turned out if the Penguins would have won 50 games,” she said. “When a team is losing, it’s not fun to be around them. They tend to shut down and that’s understandable, but it makes your job a lot tougher.”
That Richer thinks highly of Crosby is apparent in the book, but there is little to dislike in a young hockey player mature beyond his years and accommodating to everyone who wants his time or autograph.
Crosby did open up to Richer about the prospect of having a girlfriend. He didn’t have one at the conclusion of his rookie campaign, even though there were many brazen offers printed on signs and held up by young women at his games.
“I have to wonder if he might break a lot of girls’ hearts when he says he doesn’t really think he’ll meet his girlfriend at a hockey rink,” Richer said.
“The Rookie. A Season with Sidney Crosby and the New NHL,” published by McClelland and Stewart ($29.99, 420 pages).