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Sidney Crosby is famous for many things, one of which is his availability and patience with the sometimes obnoxious media.

For years, I watched Crosby sit patiently at his locker and absorb questions. One type of question was more predictable and consistent than the rest. Whenever the Penguins faced a player who had been drafted No. 1, like Crosby in 2005, Crosby was asked for comparisons and opinions on the newest star player to enter the league.

Patrick Kane. Steven Stamkos. John Tavares. Taylor Hall. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Nail Yakupov (remember him?).

Crosby was unanimously the best player in the world at the time, but he would still be happy about the draft picks. He wouldn't get upset – that wouldn't be his style. But you got the feeling Crosby didn't really like the questions. He's one of the least egotistical superstars in the history of the sport, but to be that great you still need an ego. He knew he was better than those players, even though he respected them a lot. He knew he wore the crown.

In the fall of 2012, Crosby knew exactly who his successor would be.


This year, the NHL was involved in one of its regular work stoppages, this time a lockout.

Players were allowed into practice facilities, but team officials were not. Crosby took on the role of director of media relations. He told the media a day in advance when the Penguins players — usually about a dozen — would practice. Once, in a particularly endearing moment, players canceled practice for the next day. So Crosby called me and asked me to tell the other media not to show up. It was a very strange time for hockey, and especially for Crosby, who had just lost 100 games in his prime due to a concussion. Now he was missing even more time in his prime due to a lockout.

Partly because of the lockout, Crosby had plenty of time for self-reflection in addition to his duties as a hockey player and in media work. He also had time to listen carefully to the rest of the hockey world, a privilege he doesn't normally get in October.

Two hours north of Pittsburgh, a 15-year-old sensation had arrived in Erie, Pennsylvania – Connor McDavid was taking the Ontario Hockey League by storm. I had decided to travel to Erie with Penguins commentator Paul Steigerwald on Saturday, the night of McDavid's second home game, when the Erie Otters took on the London Knights.

During the first substitution of the game, McDavid left defenders Olli Määttä and Scott Harrington out of action and then scored a spectacular goal.

Dan Bylsma, who was coaching the Penguins at the time, was there. After the game, he scolded Määttä and Harrington, two of the Penguins' draft picks, for allowing that goal on the first substitution of the game. After watching the interaction, I joked with Bylsma something like, “I don't know, that McDavid kid is pretty good.”

Bylsma looked at me and said, “He's 15. They shouldn't be separated like that.”

I told this story to Crosby, who asked if Bylsma really said that. Then he took my side.

“It doesn't matter how old he is. He's different,” Crosby said.

Oh?

Crosby always answers questions about the players politely, but he doesn't usually put in that much effort.

Then I noticed that the Erie Otters' games in Pittsburgh aren't televised. I assumed Crosby had never seen McDavid play.

“I've had some time lately,” Crosby said with a smile. “I've seen him. I've seen highlights of him.”

The best player in the world watches highlights of a 15-year-old hockey player on YouTube?

“Yep,” said Crosby.

Then he said something I'll never forget. I sensed he saw something different in McDavid and asked him if McDavid reminded him of anyone. Without any arrogance, Crosby said quietly, “He reminds me of myself.”

There's no question that he admired all the players who were compared to him. He once told me that if he could shoot the puck like Alex Ovechkin, he wouldn't make so many passes. I once saw him shake his head when he saw Patrick Kane on TV dodging an opponent with his stick.

But he never anointed other players, even though he would be surprised if he did.

In McDavid, Crosby recognized himself stylistically. And he saw a talent that was out of this world.


Crosby didn't feel threatened. He understood that someone else would always come along.

I imagine Wayne Gretzky felt the same way when he traveled to Laval, Quebec, to watch Mario Lemieux play in a junior game in 1984. Lemieux, knowing Gretzky was in the building, scored four goals in the first period. In that moment, months before he even won his first Stanley Cup, Gretzky knew who his successor would be.

During the 2012 lockout, McDavid had no way of knowing Crosby was watching him from afar, but he was. I think there's an understanding between the all-time greats. They recognize traits that only they can recognize because only they can understand the genius required to be historically good.

We're seeing McDavid take the Stanley Cup playoffs by storm and become the first player in history to score four points in back-to-back games in the Stanley Cup Final. That's remarkable. That's great for the game. A superstar at his best is the center of attention, and that's what the NHL desperately needs.

The concussion and lockout took a toll on Crosby's best years, but his hockey sense and vision were perfect even when he wasn't on the ice this fall.

He always knew that McDavid was his successor, that he played the same way, and that his physical abilities perhaps even exceeded his own.

He was right. McDavid is in the same league as Gretzky, Lemieux, Crosby and Bobby Orr. And now we wait to see if McDavid can pull off this massive comeback and win the title.

Crosby will certainly be watching. He always has.

(Photo: Codie McLachlan / Getty Images)

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