PITTSBURGH, Pa. - In Mario Lemieux's eyes, Sidney Crosby is in the midst of a season that has eclipsed anything he accomplished during a Hall of Fame career.
The Pittsburgh Penguins owner took part in a Winter Classic alumni game at Heinz Field on Friday morning—playing for the first time in a public setting since his second retirement from the NHL in January 2006—and heaped praise on his team's star player during a rare news conference afterwards.
Crosby currently leads the NHL with 32 goals and 65 points and had a 25-game point streak stopped in Long Island on Wednesday night. Even though Lemieux once recorded at least a point in 46 straight games, he believes Crosby's achievement was superior.
"I think it's much tougher now to dominate the way the league is set up," said Lemieux. "For him to go out there and do the things he does every night, every shift, is incredible. His talent is unbelievable—his strength, skating abilities, his shooting ability has gotten better the last couple years.
"What he's doing now is much more impressive than what I did years ago."
The 45-year-old Lemieux, who has kept a low profile since his retirement, took part in pickup games with other members of the Penguins organization to get in shape for Friday's legends game. It appeared he still has the great hands that made him a three-time Hart Trophy winner and six-time NHL scoring champion.
Other parts of his body weren't quite as sharp.
"The legs were not very good," he said after recording two assists in the game between the Penguins and Capitals alumni, which ended in a 5-5 tie.
Roughly 10,000 jersey-clad fans were in attendance for a 9:30 a.m. start—and many had been tailgating outside Heinz Field since before the sun came up. Organizers could easily have sold more tickets, but were concerned about having the stadium ready for Saturday's Winter Classic game between Pittsburgh and Washington.
Some current members of the teams took in the alumni game and Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau was booed loudly when he came out to watch.
Lemieux has called Pittsburgh home since being drafted first overall by the Penguins in 1984 and couldn't help but marvel at the buzz the event has created.
"It's exciting for the franchise, for the players and of course for the fans here," he said. "Any time you can host a Winter Classic in your own city it's very special. We've come along way—as you know we struggled for many years before the lockout, we were not able to compete at the level that we wanted to. With the new (collective bargaining agreement), it really allowed us to put a great product on the ice and compete with the 30 teams in the league.
"Of course, (winning) the lottery (and drafting Crosby) didn't hurt."
The marquee attractions at the New Year's Day game will be Crosby and Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin—both former No. 1 draft picks who entered the NHL together in 2005 and amazingly sit tied with 571 career points apiece. They have different personalities and playing styles, but have each taken turns as the dominant player in the league.
Lemieux once had a similar rivalry with Wayne Gretzky and praised Crosby and Ovechkin for the job they have done to promote the game.
He is most familiar with Crosby, who spent five years living with Lemieux and his family before moving out on his own this year. The owner believes the key to his captain's success lies in his preparation.
"He thinks about hockey 24 hours a day, even in his sleep it seems like," said Lemieux.
The rewards have come so far this season and Crosby is currently on pace to eclipse his career-best in both goals (51) and points (120).
"He's been incredible all year," said Lemieux. "Since he came into the league, he's got better and better every year. He's an incredible player, an incredible person. What he did this year with the 25 games with points it's pretty hard to do in this day and age. It's not the same as it was 20 years ago—you have good goalies, good defencemen that can skate and defensive schemes are very good compared with 20 years ago.
"It's pretty impressive what he's been able to do. Just his work ethic is the best in the world, that's why he is the best in the world."
Crosby was named The Canadian Press male athlete of the year on Thursday. It was the third time he's claimed the honour in four years—joining Gretzky and Maurice (Rocket) Richard as the only hockey players to have won it at least three times.