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Ebner: Crosby once again welcomes the pressure of being Canada’s marked man

Sidney Crosby skates before their exhibition game at Team Canada's Olympic hockey training camp in Calgary August 27, 2009.

TODD KOROL/REUTERS

Sidney Crosby paused to sign autographs for a klatch of school boys draped over a railing and then stepped on to the ice. The same ice where the man expected to captain Canada's hockey team at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics four years ago scored the goal everyone remembers.

The first thing he does is get to work. Before a short practice began, as his Pittsburgh Penguins prepared for a Tuesday night contest against the Vancouver Canucks, Crosby was fed passes as he stood near the Rogers Arena boards outside the faceoff circle. He fired, one after another, hard and rising wrist shots, like laser beams, a series of eight, each taken at a deeper angle toward the goal line.

Later, in the thick of practice, Crosby with the power-play unit, each of his passes pulled to their target by an invisible and powerful magnet. He paused to eject mucus from his nose. He sweated. The work continued. In another series, the puck was sliding out of the offensive zone and Crosby, near the blueline, dove for it, stick extended. He didn't quite reach it. He picked himself up, smiling and laughing with his coach, snow on his pants.

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This is how the hands-on favourite to captain Team Canada practises.

He's older now, 26. His face bears the echo of a puck that smashed him flush in the mouth and chin last spring, breaking his jaw and dislodging numerous teeth. Unseen, his brain has recovered from the trauma and darkness of injury, concussions, science unable to tally the scars that remain, or their cost.

The young man who scored the most important goal in a generation of Canadian hockey is once more the undisputed best player in the game, leading all NHL scorers and on the way to what would be just his second MVP trophy, the other won a long seven years ago, when the man was still a teenager, Sid the Kid.

Tuesday was the first time Crosby played a hockey game on the ice where he shouted, "Iggy!" urging linemate Jarome Iginla, 7 1/2 minutes into overtime, to shove over the puck, Crosby's one-timer squeezing through Ryan Miller's legs to secure Canada's 3-2 win over the United States – the crowning gold medal of the triumphant Vancouver Winter Olympics.

"Yeah, it's weird: it goes by quick," Crosby said post-practice, surrounded by a crush of reporters around his locker in the corner of the visitor's dressing room. "It's hard to believe it was four years ago."

There was darkness in the interim. Long months where his future in hockey was in grave doubt.

"Obviously, knowing the [2014] Olympics are that close, it's just amazing to see how fast it goes by. So I think that's probably, more than anything, something that I've realized the most being here."

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Crosby, like the other 24 men named to the Canadian men's roster Tuesday, got the call around 7 a.m. local time.

"Everyone talks about you kind of expect to be there but honestly it doesn't get old, that feeling doesn't get old," Crosby said. The captaincy has yet to be decided, but he appears to be a lock, a role and duty he has readied for his entire life.

"It'd be a great honour."

The naming of teammate/linemate Chris Kunitz, a 34-year-old who was never drafted, pleased Crosby. Kunitz was a controversial choice, but advanced statistics clearly show, especially this season and last, Crosby is a much more potent player with Kunitz than without.

In 2010, Olympic coaches couldn't quite figure out who to play with Crosby. He notched assists only in the first game, three against Norway. He saved Canada in a preliminary round shootout against Switzerland but, pushing towards a medal, didn't score or tally a point against Russia, Slovakia or the U.S. – until he finally did, and an entire country rejoiced.

Crosby, always leaning to vanilla and avoiding any scrape of decisive opinion, said chemistry is an important factor in a short tournament but then added that things change, plans go awry, lines get jumbled. "He's earned every right to be part of this team," Crosby said of Kunitz.

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On Russia, its ugly crackdown on human rights, the absurd and corrupt spending, and the spectre of terrorism, Crosby said: "We're going there to play hockey."

At the end, for many Canadians, it is only about hockey, and it is only about gold. The expectation remains singular. Canada could be derailed by a hot goaltender – Finland's Tuukka Rask – and there is no doubt another team, Russia, faces the greater burden of expectations. Two countries, wanting nothing less than gold, never mind the U.S., so close in 2010, and Sweden, victors in 2006 and formidable again.

Halfway around the world, there's maybe a little less pressure than at home in Vancouver – but it's always there, unrelenting.

It is what boys dream of. It is what young men dream of. It is what young men, who have been there before and are now four years older, dream of. And it sits on the shoulders of the kid-turned-man, the man who will be captain, who Canadians hope to roar for in the early morning of Feb. 23, as night darkens in Sochi.

"We all realize," Crosby said, "there's pressure that comes with playing for Team Canada and that's something everyone understands and that's what makes it so special – that everyone does care that much."

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About the Author
National correspondent, Vancouver bureau

David Ebner is a national correspondent based in Vancouver. He joined The Globe and Mail in 2000 and worked in Toronto and Calgary before moving to Vancouver in 2008. He has reported on a wide range of stories – business, politics, arts, crime – and has covered sports since 2012. More

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