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Sidney Crosby's Western Canada road swing makes a stop in Calgary

CALGARY - Sidney Crosby's tour of Western Canada feels like his rookie season in the NHL.

The fan and media attention the league's wunderkind has received on the Pittsburgh Penguins' three-game swing through Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver is reminiscent of his freshman year in 2005-06.

It took Crosby, the NHL's leading scorer and MVP at age 19 last season, 180 games before he played in these three cities because of the league's unbalanced schedule.

The novelty of Crosby playing in Calgary for the first time since he was a prep-school player five years ago was evident at the Pengrowth Saddledome prior to Thursday evening's game between the Penguins and the Flames.

Although it was publicized that the Pens' game-day skate was optional, over 100 people turned up and were rewarded for their efforts when Crosby stepped on the ice less than 14 hours after his three assists helped the Penguins come from behind and beat the Oilers 4-2 in Edmonton.

Steve Hope and his 11-year-old son Kyle came from Trail, B.C., a six-hour drive away to watch both the practice and the game.

"Because he's my favourite player," Kyle declared.

The bidding on EBay for two tickets for upper-level seats was up to $600 Thursday afternoon and the price of those ducats at the door would normally be about $120.

Pittsburgh is in Vancouver on Saturday night.

For these three games, the Penguins have reverted to game-day news conferences with Crosby, which was a practice they employed in his first year when he arrived in a new city because the media demand for him was so high.

The Ed Whalen Media Lounge was packed Thursday for it.

Crosby said he was surprised to see a trio of fans holding signs for him when the Penguins arrived at the Calgary airport at 1:30 a.m.

He was also touched by the warm ovation Oilers fans had given him during player introductions the previous night.

The hoopla reminded him of his first season in the NHL when fans in every building were excited to see the young phenom.

"Maybe a bit. Probably more, to be honest with you," Crosby said. "I tried not to have too many expectations, but it's been a lot of attention for sure.

"You go on the road, you don't expect the welcome I got. Last night it was pretty good. You don't expect that ever."

The 20-year-old from Cole Harbour, N.S., played in the annual Mac's Midget Tournament in Calgary for both the prep school Shattuck St. Mary's at age 15 and the Dartmouth Subways at 14.

His team did not reach the final at the Saddledome either year, so Thursday's game was to be his first in that building.

"I never knew if I was going to play in this rink, so it's nice to finally be here," he said. "It's exciting any time you get to come to a new place, and (it) being in Canada as well."

Crosby's father Troy, once drafted by the Montreal Canadiens, is following his son on his Western tour.

"He's just excited to see some new rinks," Crosby said. "When I was playing here at the Mac's, I wanted to play in the Saddledome and I'm sure he wanted to see a game in the Saddledome, so I'm sure he's happy to finally see one here."

Crosby was also looking ahead to renewing acquaintances with Flames defenceman Dion Phaneuf.

The two had physical and verbal battles during tryouts and practices as teammates with the Canadian junior team in both 2004 and 2005.

Prior to Thursday, they'd met only once as NHL players when Calgary beat the host Penguins 3-2 on Dec. 3, 2005.

"He was a physical defenceman and someone who didn't like to get beat and I'm pretty competitive myself," Crosby said.

Added Phaneuf: "I definitely consider him a friend, but when you're on the ice, there are no friends."

They were nominees for the NHL rookie award in 2006 that went to Washington's Alex Ovechkin.

Crosby became the youngest NHL captain in the history of the league in May after a 120-point season.

The Penguins have surrounded him with several youngsters including Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, Kris Letang, Maxime Talbot, Ryan Whitney and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, with the odd veteran such as Gary Roberts to pull the average age up.

"To have a young group I feel pretty fortunate," Crosby said. "We're all growing up together."


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