THE CANADIAN PRESS
PITTSBURGH — As Canada’s Olympic hockey staff gathered for breakfast the morning after a 5-3 loss to the United States jeopardized the home team’s gold-medal chances, Sidney Crosby walked by towing a pile of suitcases.
He wasn’t alone. Nearly the entire Canadian team trailed him as Crosby — the biggest star on a team carrying an avalanche of pressure to deliver home-ice gold — moved permanently into the Olympic Village in Vancouver.
"It’s just like the Pied Piper," St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, an assistant coach on the Canadian Olympic team, explained Wednesday. "There were about 10 guys following him."
Crosby, who at the time was eight months removed from carrying the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Stanley Cup, went on to lead the way to one of the most memorable gold medals in Canadian Olympic history.
Hitchcock, who once called Crosby a "diver" because of his perceived ability to embellish plays and draw penalties, now might be Crosby’s biggest fan. To Hitchcock, Crosby is the ultimate class act, and not just because of his world-class ability or his long list of accomplishments.
Two weeks in Vancouver convinced Hitchcock of that.
As Hitchcock was reflecting Wednesday on Canada’s golden moment on ice, he suggested that Crosby’s leadership skill was the biggest factor. He didn’t even mention Crosby’s gold medal-clinching overtime goal that decided Canada’s 3-2 rematch win over the United States — arguably one of the greatest hockey games ever played.
"It was 8 o’clock in the morning and we (the coaches) are going for breakfast and he’s coming back with the whole crew," said Hitchcock. "The coaches really appreciated that. It made a huge difference."
In Vancouver, the NHL players had the option of staying in hotels rather than the more Spartan accommodations in the Olympic Village. But once Crosby eschewed an expensive room, the other players did, too.
"By just his presence and his disposition, he just brought everybody into the village," Hitchcock said. "It made a huge difference. Everybody was having fun together. You talk about building chemistry, the chemistry became instant. Everybody started hanging out on the (village dormitory’s) 12th floor and having fun together."
For that moment on, Hitchcock said, a collection of highly skilled and highly paid NHL players of different backgrounds, organizations and ages became a true team, not just an all-star team.
"He’s such a good player, such a good person," said Hitchcock, now the coach of the St. Louis Blues. "There’s leaders, and then there’s leaders of players. He gets along with the guys good. It’s not surprising. Everything he does has got class to it. I just like the way he leads the guys."
Crosby was fully cognizant going into the Vancouver Games that it might be his lone shot at an Olympic gold medal. Nearly two years later, the NHL still hasn’t signed off on shutting down additional seasons at peak-interest times to accommodate the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia.
Crosby admittedly did not want to spend the rest of his career regretting not winning the gold medal in Vancouver — a real possibility following that loss to the United States. Canada regrouped to win its remaining four games, beating Germany 8-2, Russia 7-3, Slovakia 3-2 and the United States 3-2 in the tense gold-medal game.
"Some guys get it with their teammates. Some guys are leaders in the media and some guys are leaders with management or coaches or a combination," Hitchcock said. "He just digs in with the players, he has fun with the guys. He led the fun parade in the Olympics. … He connected everybody with the other athletes in the village and made a huge difference for us moving forward."
No wonder Hitchcock wasn’t least bit surprised when Crosby ended his 10-month concussion layoff by scoring two goals and getting four points in Pittsburgh’s 5-0 victory over the New York Islanders on Monday. The Blues met the Penguins on Wednesday night.
Now, before Crosby moves forward with the rest of his already outstanding career, Hitchcock hopes the Penguins superstar repays him the $40 he supposedly owes him.
It seems as if Hitchcock showed up for the Olympic ring ceremony wearing soggy footwear, which the coach blames on Crosby’s prankster skills. However, Crosby wasn’t buying it when he and Hitchcock ran into each other in a Consol Energy Center corridor.
Crosby, who was accompanied by father Troy, professed his innocence.
"Forty bucks!" Hitchcock said in response, and not seriously. "Hey, your room was right across the hall!"
A room that, had it not been occupied by Crosby, might have resulted in a very empty feeling for that Canadian Olympic team.