“Cros-by! Cros-by!” screeched a few hundred children in hockey jerseys from the upper reaches of the Bell Centre seats.
It is a phenomenon not seen since Wayne Gretzky’s early years with the Edmonton Oilers that a visiting player draws that degree of adoration from young Montreal fans.
And it is one more sign that the superstardom long predicted for the 19-year-old from Cole Harbour, N.S. has indeed arrived.
“I grew up watching Montreal, and to see kids chanting my name in the rink, that’s pretty fun to hear,” said Crosby. “It means a lot.”
The gifted centre came to town as the hottest player in the league. He piled up 10 points in two games this week to take a commanding lead in the league scoring race in only his second NHL season.
He is also leading in fan voting for the all-star game and two coaches, his own bench boss Michel Therrien and Canadiens coach Guy Carbonneau, have already called him the best player in the league.
That may be a ton of pressure for most teenaged prodigies, but he was already living with a comment by Gretzky himself some years back that he may one day break the Great One’s scoring records.
“I had a little bit of pressure before, so hopefully I can deal with it,” he told a mob of reporters. “I’m just trying to do the same thing every night.
“Some nights, the puck goes in and other nights, it doesn’t happen, so I’ll take those nights when they come but I won’t try to change anything.”
While Crosby is a star attraction in most NHL cities, especially in Canada, his greatest value to the league may be his ability to penetrate a U.S. market stuck on NFL football, NBA basketball and Major League Baseball.
Agent Pat Brisson said his client will have his first U.S. television advertisement released in the spring for Gatorade.
“For the first time in about 15 years, there’s going to be a national TV commercial in the U.S. with a hockey player, Sidney Crosby,” said Brisson. “The last time was with Gretzky.
“It’s a breakthrough. We haven’t had anyone doing this. It’s fantastic.”
At the height of Gretzky’s popularity, it seemed one couldn’t watch three ads in a row without seeing him flog one product or another and Crosby may catch up in that category as well, at least in Canada.
Brisson said he expects three or four TV ads to appear, mainly during hockey games, in the new year.
In the U.S., where several teams had have trouble moving tickets and where TV viewership is down, it is a tougher sell.
“Hopefully in the U.S. it will come to that point eventually,” said Brisson. “With the way the game is played now and with the arrival of HDTV and with the league focused on making the game better, let’s hope that (TV) is where the revenues come from more and more.
“We don’t have a strong television deal right now. but by selling personalities like Sidney or Joe Thornton or Eric Staal, that will help the game.”
Crosby is all for helping to grow interest in the sport, so long as it doesn’t interfere with scoring goals and helping the Penguins win games.
“As players, it’s up to us to do that,” he said. “There’s a time and a place and it has to be managed well, but this is a game we love to play and hopefully we can bring that interest to other people, too.”
Brisson is not concerned about all that attention going to Crosby’s head.
“I’m not worried about him going Hollywood,” the Los Angeles-based agent said. “He’s very focused and very grounded.
“He comes from a very strong family, with good morals and all that. And is father and his mother are very involved in his career. In my opinion, Sidney will be the same at 25 years old as he is now.”
The Penguins are likely to be the centre of attention for several years, thanks to a pack of young talent collected while the team floundered near the bottom of league standings in the last four years.
Not only is there Crosby, but young Russian star Evgeni Malkin joined the club this season and the two together have become a formidable offensive threat.
They also have talented rookie centre Jordan Staal and a fine young goalie in Marc-Andre Fleury. As well, defence prospect Kristopher Letang was named captain of Canada’s national junior team this week and looks like he will be another part of the Penguin’s revival.