Crosbys debut still memorable on cusp of 1,000th NHL game with Penguins

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The center, the No. 1 pick in the 2005 NHL Draft, is scheduled to play his 1,000th NHL game, against the New York Islanders at PPG Arena in Pittsburgh on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; ATTSN-PT, MSG+, NHL.TV), 5,617 days after his first NHL game. 

With 1,276 points (468 goals, 808 assists) and three Stanley Cup championships (2009, 2016, 2017) on his resume, the Penguins captain has come a long way since that initial game, a 5-1 loss at Continental Airlines Arena.

Crosby, who played 15:50 and had three shots, scored his first NHL point, the primary assist on a third-period goal by Mark Recchi, a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame. 

But it’s a save by another Hall of Famer, goalie Martin Brodeur, on Crosby’s first NHL shift that remains entrenched in the memory of each player. 

“I can remember just not even caring that I didn’t score,” Crosby said during an NHL video entitled “Welcome to the NHL Moment: Sidney Crosby.” “I think that was the first time in my life that I didn’t care that I didn’t score.

“It was fun because at that point you’re just happy to be in the NHL. Martin Brodeur just stopped me. Life’s good, life’s OK.”

Crosby was attempting to replicate the feat accomplished by Penguins icon Mario Lemieux, who scored on his first NHL shift in a 4-3 loss to the Boston Bruins on Oct. 11, 1984. Lemieux, now the Penguins owner, then in his last NHL season, played in Crosby’s first game.

Brodeur made sure Crosby wouldn’t match Lemieux’s career start when he turned aside his backhand at 1:19 of the first period, much to the delight of the 18,101 fans during each team’s season opener.

“I remember there was a lot of talk about him, the next prodigy, playing his first game, and I was focused on not letting him score,” Brodeur said this week. “I didn’t want to be on every highlight show, so I was going to dive if I had to to stop him, even if it meant one of his teammates had an open net if he passed it.

“It’s cool to look back on, especially with the amazing career he’s had.”

NHL.com spoke to Brodeur and a number of others who were on hand for Crosby’s NHL debut.

Crosby, from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, was selected No. 1 by the Penguins after they won the 2005 NHL Draft Lottery. He was the unquestioned top player in the 2005 NHL Draft after scoring 303 points (120 goals, 183 assists) in 121 games through two seasons with Rimouski of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and being named Canadian Major Junior Player of the Year in 2004 and 2005. 

Ed Olczyk, Penguins coach: “The excitement was off the charts. We had the feeling that this guy was going to be the cornerstone of the franchise for the next 20 years. There was tremendous hype for this game.”

Troy Crosby, Sidney’s father: “I’m not sure why, but my wife Trina and I stayed in Manhattan. It was a bit overwhelming at the time coming from Cole Harbour. I’d been to big Canadian cities like Toronto and Montreal a few times but New York is a different level. You get there and it’s like, ‘Wow, this is cool, the Big Apple.’ We’ve been there lots of times now and are more comfortable getting around. But back then, seeing things like Times Square, then being at his first game, it was pretty awesome.”

Mike “Doc” Emrick, Devils broadcaster: “The Embassy Suites in Secaucus was my home base for home games and the Penguins just happened to be staying there. The night before the game they had a press conference with Sidney. Those things are commonplace now but back then, to have one the night before a game, it reflected the hype.”

Tom McMillan, Penguins VP, communications: “That was extremely unusual for the time but that’s how much interest there was. You want to capitalize on that publicity but you’re also realizing this is an 18-year-old kid about to play his first NHL game.”

Jocelyn Thibault, Penguins goalie: “He wasn’t a normal 18. You could sense and feel from Day One of training camp he was a 30-year-old player in the body of an 18-year-old kid. Just the way he came in, handled himself, took care of things like nutrition, his work ethic, the way he dealt with the media. I could tell he was ready for this, including at the morning skate.”

Troy Crosby: “Trina and I were new to this whole traveling in New York thing, so we took a transit bus to New Jersey for the morning skate. The arena at the Meadowlands was in the middle of nowhere and we got off a stop too early. We walked the last mile along the side of the freeway trying not to get hit by any cars.”

Emrick: “Obviously we’re glad his parents made it safely. I remember after that morning skate seeing both of them sitting surrounded by reporters.” 

McMillan: “Sid came out of the dressing room and when he saw his mom was being interviewed, he pulled me over and said: ‘Can you go over and make sure she’s OK?’ She was.

Troy Crosby: “There was a lot of media. But you know how I knew it was a big deal? They’d sent a reporter from home in Nova Scotia down to cover the game. That’s a big deal.”

Thibault: “It was a big deal, sure. But if he was nervous, he didn’t show it to us. As a goalie, you have a sixth sense of if a guy is special, even in warmup. And you could tell he was ready for this moment, for any moment. It wasn’t too big for him.”

Olczyk: “The entire lead-up to the game was surreal. You had the owner of the team, Mario Lemieux, playing in what would be his final NHL season. You had Sid, who was already being billed as something special. We started him on the wing just to let him get his feet wet and not have to worry about too much.”

Troy Crosby: “I was nervous. Mario’s in this game, Brodeur’s in this game. It’s like you’re dreaming. Is this for real? And then he almost scores on his first shift. It was pretty surreal.”

Lemieux, Recchi and Brodeur each was on the way to the Hockey Hall of Fame and each roster was dotted with players at the prime of special careers, including Pittsburgh’s John LeClair and Sergei Gonchar and New Jersey’s Alexander Mogilny and Brian Rafalski. But it was the 18-year-old prodigy who had the game’s first big moment. Taking a chip pass from LeClair, Crosby came out of the corner to the right of Brodeur and beat Devils defenseman Richard Matvichuk to the front of the net, but Brodeur turned aside the backhanded attempt with his leg pad for the first of 36 saves in the game.

Martin Brodeur, Devils goalie: “He had a good chance early on. You knew he was special; you’d seen the highlights of him (playing for Canada) at the World Junior [Championship]. I knew a little bit about his tendencies, like he loved to go backhand, but I didn’t go crazy studying him before that. That was the extent of my knowledge on him. For me it’s all memory based. I watch a lot of hockey and, for me, whoever I played against I want to know what they like to do.”

John LeClair, Penguins forward: “He had this understanding of the game. He saw things develop on the ice ahead of a lot of guys who had been in the League for years. He knew how to create space for himself in situations where other guys would be nervous. He had the composure to do that. He wasn’t cocky; he was just self-confident in a good way. You see that in superstars, and he showed it early on.”

Brodeur: “At that point, facing him you go with instinct because you haven’t played against him. As I played him more, I understood things like his quick release when he comes in. Or when he goes back-door, you can hug the post and guys are looking for him. Guys like Mario [Lemieux] and Brett Hull, you’ve got to always know where they are. With Sidney it’s not hard to know where he is because he’s always got the puck so you’re following him. With guys like Hull, they’re hiding somewhere waiting for the puck.” 

The Penguins, trailing 4-0, were on a power play when LeClair muscled Matvichuk off the puck and poked it to Crosby, whose cross-crease feed was converted by Recchi for Pittsburgh’s goal at 5:36 of the third period, Crosby’s first point in the NHL.

LeClair: “I was just happy to be out there with those guys. You definitely didn’t want the puck on my stick, you wanted it on his.”

Troy Crosby: “To get a point in his first game like that, we felt so good for him. He’d worked so hard to get to that point.”

McMillan: “We lost the game but he was so composed with the media afterward. It says a lot about who he was. I was asked at the time if we’d learned anything from the way the [Pittsburgh] Steelers had handled [quarterback] Ben Roethlisberger as a rookie in 2004. It was different. Ben had lived the college experience; Sid came right from junior. And yet he could handle it all.”

Brodeur: “After the game I learned Sid asked for one of my sticks, so I sent one over. He’d really impressed me. We’re always in hockey looking for the guy who’s going to be the ‘Next One.’ It’s a lot of pressure but he had an amazing start to his career and kept on going. He didn’t disappoint. And hasn’t.”

The Penguins struggled during Crosby’s first season, going 22-46-14. Their 58 points were the second-lowest total in the NHL, one better than the St. Louis Blues. But Crosby put on a show wherever he went, scoring 102 points (39 goals, 63 assists) in 81 games and starting a run of scoring at least 100 points in four of his first five seasons.

Penguins broadcaster Mike Lange: “That first year was tough for the team. During one of our flights, I walked over, sat next to him and told him, ‘It’ll get better.’ That’s all I said. Well, it certainly did, didn’t it?”

Brodeur is now executive vice president, adviser, hockey operations with the Devils. Thibault is vice president of hockey with Sherbrooke of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. LeClair is president of the John LeClair Foundation, which awards grants to non-profit Vermont organizations that sponsor programs for children. Olczyk is an analyst with NBC and the Chicago Blackhawks. Emrick retired on Oct. 19, 2020 after a 47-year career broadcasting professional hockey.

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