When word broke of Sidney Crosby's Mont-Tremblant holiday hockey workout with a Quebec college student, the quick translation turned it into a scene familiar from the star's Tim Hortons commercials: The hero descends into the bucolic winter to take a twirl and give a rare thrill to stunned youth.
It's true, as far as it goes, but that sort of delight actually happens quite frequently. Mr. Crosby himself has done many similar things. Search "P.K. Subban surprises" and you will see the top defenceman popping in constantly on young hockey players, hospital patients, poor kids and down-on-their-luck families. Connor McDavid, Johnny Gaudreau, Mark Scheifele and Carey Price yield similar results (although nobody hands out quite as many thrills as Mr. Subban.)
But the story of Mr. Crosby dropping in on Guillaume Ouimet is actually a tale of more prosaic and subtle beauty. Mr. Ouimet, after all, is no child (he's 19), is not underprivileged (he's going to McGill University to study business next year) and is so level-headed it is hard to imagine him being star struck. (He did have a poster of Mr. Crosby when he was younger, however.)
And Mr. Crosby's purpose that day was not to put a smile on anyone's face, although that was the happy result. Instead, this is the story of a master working on his craft while lesser NHL players (and they're all lesser players) were putting up their feet, and about a master sharing a few trade secrets with an eager apprentice.
It's also a story about three people with impeccable manners.
The Pittsburgh Penguins were on a five-day break on Jan. 9 when Mr. Ouimet rose before dawn and headed to the outdoor rink adjacent to the home arena of the Junior AA team he captains, the Diables de Mont-Tremblant. Mr. Ouimet relishes the morning outdoor solitude.
Mr. Ouimet was skating and shooting at an empty net when a Jeep pulled up, the driver immediately recognizable. Flushed, Mr. Ouimet rushed over to introduce himself to Mr. Crosby and his girlfriend. After a few minutes checking out the clean ice, the 30-year-old Penguins captain asked if more people were coming. Mr. Ouimet explained that he's always alone at that hour. Mr. Crosby went to the Jeep to get his tools: skates, a stick and gloves, along with elbow and shin pads to add game-like workout weight. With the change room closed, Mr. Crosby got ready in the snow and -15 C chill. His partner put on her skates, too.
Mr. Crosby told Mr. Ouimet he had trouble in recent games emerging from corners with the puck on his backhand side. Mr. Crosby set up his girlfriend's boots as pylons and gave Mr. Ouimet passing instructions. Mr. Crosby then led the duo in other drills, including some designed to help Mr. Ouimet as a defenceman.
"This is the best player in the world, he's on vacation with his girlfriend and he brings his equipment so he can work," Mr. Ouimet says. "And he helps me, too. His quest for perfection is something to see."
With the work complete about an hour later, Mr. Ouimet gave Mr. Crosby a tour of his team's arena. Mr. Crosby met workers, switching to the French he picked up 15 years ago playing junior hockey in Rimouski, Que. "You could tell it was important for him to speak French," Mr. Ouimet says. "He spoke to everyone as equals. He asked me as many questions as I asked him."
Mr. Ouimet asked Mr. Crosby if the couple was there to ski or visit Mario Lemieux, the former star and Penguins owner who has a home in the Laurentians. Just a couples' getaway, Mr. Crosby replied, adding he isn't allowed to ski under his contract.
At one point the two-time Olympic gold-medal winner and three-time Stanley Cup winner sat quietly in the dressing room and stared into the distance. He was reminiscing about his own youth hockey days, he told Mr. Ouimet when asked if anything was wrong.
Finally, Mr. Crosby's girlfriend reminded him they had someplace to be. Mr. Crosby's partner promised Mr. Ouimet some photos she had taken and they left. Two days later she delivered, unprompted.
Mr. Ouimet returned to hockey and studies. He told his family and a few friends about his encounter, some of whom believed him only when he produced photos. He sought no attention, but in the small world of elite youth hockey the story reached Mathias Brunet, a La Presse reporter deeply involved in the sport.
When Mr. Brunet called to do a story, Mr. Ouimet said he would have to ask permission. The couple told him to go ahead, asking only that the name of Mr. Crosby's partner remain private. Mr. Ouimet said he is also keeping other details of their conversations to himself.
"He's such a private guy. They're both private," Mr. Ouimet says. "I really want to avoid betraying their trust."
The story finally came out on Jan. 31, three weeks after the encounter. Mr. Ouimet has been busy retelling it since. "It really was a life lesson," Mr. Ouimet says. "You can be the best at what you do, and still work to be better. And you can still be really humble and have your feet on the ground."