He’s undoubtedly the most recognizable athlete in Canada; the biggest name in the country’s biggest sport.
But with all Sidney Crosby has accomplished in the last decade, from World Junior gold to the Stanley Cup and Olympic gold, it’s hard to believe it was just 10 years ago he starred as a bleached-blond 14-year-old at the 2002 Air Canada Cup.
Crosby was hardly an unknown entering the National Midget Championship – he had racked up 95 goals and 98 assists for 193 points in 74 games with the Dartmouth Subways, and his scoring prowess had earned him an appearance on the annual Hockey Day in Canada telecast.
With Crosby quickly becoming ‘The Next One,’ much was expected from him in Miramichi, N.B. And boy, did he deliver.
Playing against some of the best players in the country, most of them two or three years older than him, Crosby racked up a remarkable 24 points (11 goals, 13 assists) in seven games, helping the Subways become the first Atlantic Region team in the tournament’s 29-year history to reach the gold medal game.
“It wasn’t just that he was scoring goals,” said Chicago Wolves (AHL) forward Andrew Gordon, a linemate of Crosby’s at the tournament. “He was dominating the game in a different way than other skilled players; he approached the game different. There’s no denying he was the difference for us that year.”
Gordon was no slouch himself; appearing in his second consecutive Air Canada Cup, the future Washington Capitals draft pick (2004, 7th round, 197th overall) finished with 20 points (six goals, 14 assists) riding shotgun with Crosby.
“That number may be a little deceiving,” Gordon said with a chuckle. “A few of those came off the breakout; I’d chip the puck out of the zone, Sid would pick it up, go through a few guys and score, and I’d get the cheap assist.”
Here’s a look, game by game, at how Crosby turned the 2002 Air Canada Cup into his personal playground:
Crosby wasted no time putting his name on the scoresheet, setting up Gordon for a power play goal midway through the first period before scoring his first of the tournament late in the opening frame as Dartmouth opened a 3-0 lead. He picked up another two assists on Gordon’s second and third goals in the second period before rounding out the scoring with his second goal, and fifth point, in the third as Dartmouth routed the tournament hosts.
Down 1-0 entering the second period, Crosby and Gordon set up Sean Flinn to tie the game just 18 seconds into the middle frame, and Crosby’s goal 12 minutes later gave the Subways their first lead. After the Quebec champions pulled even in the first minute of the third period, Crosby and Gordon once again got together, with Crosby picking up the assist on Gordon’s go-ahead goal with 5:30 to go. Unfortunately for the Subways, Collège Charles-Lemoyne earned the tie with a goal at 17:36 of the third, although Dartmouth did become the first Atlantic team to go undefeated in its first two games since the tournament went to a six-team format in 1984.
The first period against the Chiefs was arguably Crosby’s most impressive performance of the tournament; he scored a natural hat trick in a span of 8:05 and added two assists before the horn ended to end the opening 20 minutes, sparking the Subways to a seemingly-insurmountable 5-0 lead. But the Chiefs scored the game’s next seven goals, and by the time Crosby finished off his largest single-game output of the tournament with a third-period assist, the Subways were on their way to their first loss.
With a semifinal berth available to the winner, the Subways found themselves in a 4-2 hole after 40 minutes, and Crosby found himself without a goal through two periods for the first time in the tournament, although he had set up both Dartmouth scores. Putting the team on his back, Crosby brought the Subways to within a goal just 22 seconds into the third period and, after Matt Oxtoby had tied the game just past the 12-minute mark, scored the game-winner with under four minutes to go to send Dartmouth to the final four.
Already assured a spot in the semifinals, the Subways were routed by the Trojans in the preliminary round finale, outshot 55-21. Crosby was held off the scoresheet for the only time in the tournament, and one of the very few times all season, although he was named Air Canada Cup MVP and Top Scorer at the awards banquet following the day’s action. In all, Crosby played a role in 18 of Dartmouth’s 23 preliminary round goals (8G, 10A).
Down 2-1 after one period and 4-3 after two against the first-place Chiefs, Dartmouth once again turned to its young star; Already with a goal and an assist through 40 minutes, Crosby helped set up Subways captain Jeff Kielbratowski to tie the game early in the third period and, with overtime looming, got a lucky bounce when a shot from Flinn hit him in the chest and deflected past Red Deer goaltender Brandon Heatherington with 32 seconds left to send Dartmouth to the gold medal game.
The clock struck midnight on the Cinderella Subways, as the Trojans opened up a 4-0 lead and held Crosby, and Dartmouth, off the scoresheet until late in the second period. Crosby was in on both Subways goals, scoring once and adding an assist, but the Tisdale defence, led by future NHL blue-liners Shaun Heshka and Tyson Strachan, held Dartmouth to just 17 shots on goal, its lowest output of the tournament.
“He was only 14 years old at the time and the leading scorer of the tournament,” Tisdale forward Brett Parker told the Saskatoon StarPhoenix in 2008. “I was trying to antagonize him the whole game. I remember one time I even asked him, ‘Who do who think you are, Wayne Gretzky or something?’ Of course, four months later, Wayne Gretzky actually said that he (Crosby) was the next Wayne Gretzky. That was a kick in the face.”
For Crosby, the 2002 Air Canada Cup was a stepping stone – just over a year later he was the most celebrated Major Junior player in Canada with the Rimouski Oceanic, and three years later he was pulling on a Pittsburgh Penguins jersey as the No. 1 pick in the NHL Entry Draft.
He has gone on to bigger and better things, including a Stanley Cup with the Penguins in 2009 and an Olympic gold medal in Vancouver in 2010, where Crosby himself provided the defining moment of the Games with his gold medal game overtime winner, but for many of those who played with and against him in Miramichi, the National Midget Championship remains a lasting memory.
“Those were really the last days we played because we loved the game,” said Gordon. “It wasn’t about playing for scouts, or playing to be drafted; it was having your dad drive you to the rink and playing for fun. And that year, that team … that was a lot of fun.”