the quondam kid

Sidney Crosby was home in Nova Scotia today, his 30th birthday. He spent the day showing the Stanley Cup around, joining a parade through Halifax first before travelling up to Rimouski, in Quebec, where he played his junior hockey, for a quick how-do. Asked this week about the ageing he’s undergoing, Crosby dutifully answered that 30 is “just a number.” Facing the inevitable follow-up — does he have any grey hairs? — the erstwhile Kid is said to have smiled.

Playing the numbers game isn’t hard with Crosby. After 12 exceptional NHL seasons, the man has plenty to recommend him, even if you agree to a birthday exemption on playing up the troubling tally of four confirmed concussions. Totted up his first 1,000 points in 757 games! Won three Stanley Cups! Two Conn Smythes! Collected manifold Art Rosses, Rocket Richards, Lionel Conachers, Lester B. Pearsons, Baz Bastiens! Not to mention Olympics and World Cups! The full list of notable statistics, trophies, and accolades runs much longer, of course. And for those who’d rather advance into the thickets of hockey analytics, help yourself.

If Crosby’s dominance of the moment isn’t in doubt, this latest Stanley Cup has fuelled an increase in discussions of the longer-term and more subjective question of where Crosby fits into the pantheon of all-time greats.

Can Crosby be considered one of the top five players of all time? I think we can all agree that if you posed the question to Crosby himself, he’d let it expire in small talk if not outright silence. And why not? Debates about the best of the best across the eras are all in good fun, causing no harm, I guess, but that doesn’t mean they’re not more or less ridiculous, given how short our memories are. Where once there were those who could (at least in theory) be counted on to judge the whole spectrum of NHL hockey talent because they’d personally witnessed the league’s entire history, there’s no-one, today, who has the personal experience to argue the merits of Howie Morenz over Mario Lemieux’s. It’s nobody’s fault, but it does help explain why, earlier this year, when the NHL paraded its list of 100 Greatest, the absence of players like Frank Nighbor, Sprague Cleghorn, Frank Boucher, and Aurèle Joliat (among many antique others) was barely noted let alone pilloried.

That doesn’t mean the top-five debate won’t go on, of course. In June, Rick Carpiniello got in on it at MSG Networks by declaring his leading men (in order): Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr, Mario Lemieux, and Gordie Howe.

And number 87? Whereas (Carpiniello wrote) “Crosby is the best player of his generation, without a doubt, a slam-dunk future Hall-of-Famer, and he will be among the short list of all-timers when he’s done playing, if not sooner,” he wasn’t ready yet to add his name to the uppermost echelon. Crosby is going to have to work for it, he says, over a number of years if he wants to supplant Mark Messier, the subject of a 1999 biography of Carpiniello’s called Steel On Ice.

Over at Sports Illustrated, Colin Fleming declared that Crosby has now “stormed the citadel of the top ten.”

We all know the top four: Gretzky, Orr, Howe, Lemieux. Put them in what order you wish, but have Gretzky first. After that, in no particular order, I’d stick in Bourque, Sawchuk, Béliveau, Harvey, Roy, and now Crosby. What’s more, I’m not sure that Crosby isn’t fifth. He’s the best player since Lemieux, truly generational. He’s not merely the best player since Super Mario: it’s not even close.

“I’d put Sidney Crosby right there at number five,” Brian Boucher was saying in June as the Penguins wrapped up their second straight Cup. “We’re watching greatness,” said the former NHL goaltender, now an NBC analyst. “For people to hate on it, I get it, because maybe you’re not a fan of the Pittsburgh Penguins. But if you’re a fan of watching true greatness, to me, that’s it.”

Back in January, during the festivities leading up to the All-Star Game in Los Angeles, the NHL put together a press conference where Gretzky, Orr, and Lemieux shared a stage where they were lightly questioned by a parcel of reporters. As The Toronto Sun’s Mike Zeisberger reported part of that went like this:

“Is the greatest hockey player of all time at this podium?” we wanted to know.

“No,” said Gretzky.

Then who?

The consensus of all three: Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe.

You can debate their answer. They weren’t about to.

Heck, if these three weren’t qualified to answer this, who then?

“Listen, we talk about this all the time,” Gretzky said. “That’s what makes sports great, and that’s what makes hockey wonderful. I think we’re all in pretty much agreement that Gordie was pretty special. These two guys here were pretty special, also. We all had so much respect for what Gordie did and what he accomplished that it’s not a bad thing to be named in the Top 100 behind a guy like Gordie Howe. I think we all feel the same way.”

“Absolutely,” added Orr. “Gordie is in my mind the best that ever played the game. I’m not sure if we’ll ever see another one. I sometimes sit and look at his numbers. As I sit sometimes and look at the numbers that these two guys put up, I think, how in the world did they do it.

“But no, Gordie was a special player and a special man in my mind, and I think the three of us agree that he was the best player ever.”

Over to you, Mario.

“Absolutely,” Lemieux said. “I agree with these guys that he was a special player. He could play any way that you wanted out there and a great goal scorer; tough, as we all know, and always taking care of business. But he was truly a great ambassador for the game. He loved the game. He played until he was 51 years old, and that’s pretty rare these days except for Jagr, my buddy.”

Asked for an opinion on the best player still on skates, all three men agreed that it’s Crosby.

“I think his work ethic, first of all,” said Lemieux, the owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Crosby’s one-time landlord. “He’s the hardest — just like Wayne was when he played, he’s the hardest working guy out there, whether it’s at practice or a three-on-three game at practice, he wants to win, he wants to be the best.”

Added Gretzky: “I agree with Mario, everything he said. He’s the best player in the game. He’s earned that mantle, and his work ethic is as good or better than anybody in hockey.

“We encourage, and I know Bobby is very close to Connor (McDavid), that that’s the guy that he’s chasing, and Connor sees him in his vision, and that’s what makes the game wonderful is that you want to be as good as the best player.

“Right now Crosby is the best player, and you have to earn your stripes.”

(Image courtesy of Gypsy Oak, whose luminous work you can find here. Follow him on Twitter @gyspyoak)