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Sid the Kid and Alex the Great lead crop of NHL youth

NEW YORK - Martin Brodeur relaxed in the middle of a midtown Manhattan hotel and marvelled at the NHL talent walking past.

It wasn't so much the number of fine hockey players that impressed him on pre-season media day, it was their youth.

"I was young at one point and I was doing the same thing," the 36-year-old New Jersey Devils goalie said. "They had (Wayne) Gretzky and (Mario) Lemieux there and Paul Coffey. Now it's a different era. We have a great crop of young players, as good as ever. It's kind of weird a little bit. You never feel old, but when you get to these situations you think, 'All right, maybe I am old a little bit."'

From Sid the Kid to Alex the Great, the latest NHL superstars are not seasoned veterans headed toward the twilight of their careers. No, these 20-somethings are young and fresh and ready to dominate hockey for years to come.

Sidney Crosby is set to enter his fourth season. Only two months after turning 21, the face of the NHL has already been an MVP winner and a scoring champion. And - as the youngest captain in league history - he has taken the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Stanley Cup finals.

As much pressure and attention as he gets from the outside, it is nothing compared to the high expectations he sets for himself and his team.

He learns mostly from experience. Crosby is there for his teammates, who might be older but haven't gone through nearly as much as he has since drawing the spotlight when he was really just a kid.

"There is no handbook on how to deal with this," said Crosby, who has 99 goals and 294 points in his first 213 games. "Some guys are used to it, and the guys who aren't - they're going to learn quickly how to deal with it. I don't think it's something you can just ask someone about. The only way to deal with that stuff is to find the way that's best for you."

While Crosby has been a phenomenon since well before he was taken by the Penguins with the first pick in the 2005 draft, he is no longer alone on an island.

Alex Ovechkin turned 23 last month and has a resume every bit as accomplished as Crosby's. Ovechkin, the first pick in the draft one year before Crosby, is also heading into his fourth NHL season - his debut delayed a year by the season-killing lockout.

Ovechkin edged Crosby for the rookie of the year award in 2006, and wrested league MVP and scoring title honours from his newfound rival last season when he dominated the NHL with 65 goals and 112 points.

"They're the new generation like everybody is talking," said 21-year-old centre Anze Kopitar, who led the Los Angeles Kings last season with 77 points. "I'm sure all those guys are going to be in this league for 15-plus years. Hopefully the young guys after us are going to come in and have the same impact."

What might be even more impressive is the fact that Ovechkin rallied the previously moribund Washington Capitals to the Southeast Division championship with a late-season surge.

Throw in Crosby's teammate Evgeni Malkin, who is only 22, and you have a trio that will be wowing fans perhaps for decades. Malkin led the Penguins last season - his second in the NHL - with 47 goals and 106 points and carried the club when Crosby was sidelined long term by an ankle injury.

That made him the runner-up to Ovechkin in last season's MVP race.

"It's exciting. The top players in the league are very young guys," said Hurricanes forward Eric Staal, now 24. "You've got Crosby and Malkin who are barely 22 years ago, and Ovechkin. All the elite players are extremely young and are going to be elite players for a long time. It's a fresh look and an exciting game to watch."

The new stars' arrival comes at a perfect moment.

After the devastating lockout that forced the cancellation of the entire 2004-05 season, the NHL relaunched with a fresh set of rules and a new batch of superstars. Change was necessary if hockey had any hope of rejoining the mainstream sports landscape.

That journey is still in its early stages and there is certainly no assurance it will ever truly be complete. But powered by players such as Crosby and Ovechkin, the NHL can at least make a case for having its version of LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. If only the league can get anyone to notice.

"It makes me feel old. I am 28 years old," said Tampa Bay Lightning captain Vincent Lecavalier, the No. 1 pick in 1998. "I feel young, but at the same time when you see guys coming in at 18, 19 years old ... it's nice to see new faces. They are young, dynamic players, exciting players to watch. That's what people want to see. It's good for the league and it helps the league.

"It was great timing with Sidney Crosby. He is the best player in the league and he's coming in with new rules, new marketing around the players. It was perfect timing. It's unbelievable how the last few years so many good guys are coming out. Everything together makes a good product."

Not only are the "Big 3" making their marks, emerging young talent is energizing teams that haven't mattered in years.

Suddenly, the Chicago Blackhawks have awakened from a slumber that featured only one playoff appearance since 1998 and none in the past five seasons. That rebirth can be credited to the sudden appearance of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Kane was the rookie of the year last season, Toews was a runner-up.

Kane, the No. 1 overall pick in 2007, is not yet 20. Toews, chosen third a year earlier, won't turn 21 until the late stages of the upcoming season. If the general public isn't aware of this dynamic duo yet, Kane and Toews will be on full display on New Year's Day when the Blackhawks host the Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings in the Winter Classic at baseball's Wrigley Field.

"That's what makes it fun about the league," Kane said. "You see guys like Crosby and Ovechkin, it's so rare that players come in at such a young age and do well, but lately it seems like it's the new thing. It seems like there are one, two or three guys that come in from the previous draft and have breakout years or become key players on their teams.

"You want do the same things they're doing in their second and third years. Hopefully we can do that or do even better."

Rick Nash of the Columbus Blue Jackets certainly fits comfortably in this stable of young talent. At 24, he has 154 goals and 276 points. His next step will be a post-season appearance, and that could be coming soon from the improving Blue Jackets, who are the only NHL team not to have made the playoffs.

Out West, Dion Phaneuf plays in relative obscurity on defence for the Calgary Flames. The hard-hitter is entering his fourth NHL season and already has 54 goals and 159 points at age 23.

"You definitely take on more of a role every year," Phaneuf said. "With more experience comes more expectation. That hasn't changed and it's not going to change. You look around the league, there's a lot of great, young players coming in and really making a mark. In saying that, there are a lot of great veterans that are still in the game.

"You need some mixture of both. You look at Detroit last year, they had the veterans and they had the young guys that made that mix. With the rules changes and everything since the league started back up from the lost year, everything is going in the direction that everyone wants to see."



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