PITTSBURGH (AP) - Sidney Crosby is his generation's version of Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux to countless hockey players and fans in his native Canada, yet he has never played in half of his homeland's six NHL cities.
That changes beginning Wednesday, and western Canada is definitely abuzz about its first in-person NHL look at Sid the Kid - a player whose reputation began building at such a young age, he was known nationally by his first name before he was a teenager.
Only Sid really isn't a Kid any more, and that's part of the problem with the NHL's current scheduling format. Crosby is 20 and in his third NHL season, yet the fans of Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver won't have seen him until the Pittsburgh Penguins play in all three cities this week.
``It's always nice to go to new places,'' Crosby said.
Up north, where hockey is king and Canadians traditionally schedule holiday parties around telecasts of the world junior championships, Crosby's visit is a very, very big deal.
The NHL MVP and scoring champion last season at age 19, Crosby is having three news conferences in Edmonton alone - one after the Penguins arrived at their hotel late Tuesday afternoon, and two others on game day Wednesday. The routine will be the same Thursday in Calgary and Saturday in Vancouver, minus the hotel news conferences.
``It's a little busier (when the Penguins are in Canada),'' Crosby said. ``There's a lot more going on. A lot more interviews.''
After all, this a country where a routine hockey transaction in mid July often is the lead story on TSN's SportsCentre, Canada's version of ESPN's signature show. And where it is impossible to turn on any sporting event for more than 10 minutes and not see a commercial featuring Crosby.
Think Peyton Manning does a lot of ads here? Go to Canada, and you'll see Crosby marketing or appearing in ads for Gatorade, Reebok gear (he has his own 87 clothing line), Tim Horton's coffee houses, Upper Deck trading cards, Telus wireless phones and Lay's snack foods.
Think there isn't Crosby-mania in Canada?
Before the Penguins lost in Toronto 4-2 Saturday, fans paid $6.50 to watch the team's morning skate at the Air Canada Centre, and Crosby didn't practice. Even if some fans thought he did; teammate Maxime Talbot spoofed them by wearing Crosby's No. 87 for a workout attended by all of four players.
Penguins enforcer Georges Laraque lives in Edmonton and has family members there, yet he said they are more excited about Crosby's visit to the so-called Heartland of Hockey than they are his own.
Gretzky, the biggest name of them all in Canada, knows what this is all about. Early in his Oilers' career, he made a three-game swing to Washington, Philadelphia and Toronto from Jan. 13-16, 1982 in which there was a similar media crush. Scalpers got $250 for a single seat in Toronto, where Gretzky's one-day appearance generated 99 requests for interviews.
``He will enjoy it,'' said Gretzky, whose Phoenix Coyotes lost in Pittsburgh 3-1 Monday night as Crosby set up the decisive goal. ``They have tremendous fans out there in Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver. They're going to be really excited to see him play in person.''
After this week, Crosby - who has 37 points in 26 games and is the runaway leading vote-getter in the NHL All-Star balloting - will have played in every NHL city. Even if that took him three NHL seasons and 186 career games to accomplish.
Crosby's absence from some of the NHL's most hockey-mad cities was a factor in the league's decision last week to revert to its pre-2004 lockout scheduling format and do away with the current, division-heavy schedule.
Now, all NHL teams are guaranteed to play each other at least once per season, and stars such as Crosby, Vincent Lecavalier, Jarome Iginla, Evgeni Malkin and Ilya Kovalchuk will no longer go three years without appearing in some cities.
``We need to have Crosby in every building,'' Gretzky said. ``It's about time.''
Now, all Crosby needs to do is play better than Gretzky did on that early-in-his-career Eastern swing in 1982. Gretzky's Oilers were outscored 21-9 while losing twice and tying once.
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