Over the last few years, we've seen a heavy push in the hockey community to quantify everything. From the emergence of Corsi and Fenwick as go-to statistics to journalists inventing their own measures, there seems to be a number or percentage for everything.
While the emphasis on possession statistics certainly makes sense—the team that has the puck more tends to win more often, after all—there's still one aspect of the game that remains outside the reasonable bounds of science and math, and that's leadership.
No matter where he's gone and which sweater he's pulled on over his head, Sidney Crosby has become a luminary in the locker room and a player that teammates look to for guidance and a steady hand.
It isn't because he's simply the most physically talented player in the NHL—because he isn't—and it isn't because he's achieved more by the age of 26 than most of his peers can hope to accomplish in their lifetimes.
Crosby's gravity as a leader of men has more to do with his obsession with hockey—with his personality-dominating drive to want to be the best, no matter the circumstance or obstacle. If the captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins had been handed everything on a platter, it'd be easy to dismiss him as a superstar that lives a life of luxury that isn't accessible to the rest of us—and even a majority of other professional hockey players.
That hasn't been the case for Crosby, though. Things haven't fallen into his lap since he was drafted with the first overall selection of the 2005 draft. He's witnessed one lockout from the rafters and a second from the center of the business and media hurricane. He's dealt with misdiagnosed concussions and pucks to the face and everything in between.
Through it all, Crosby's only desire has been to play hockey and to be considered a guy on the same level as everyone else on the team, as opposed to some demigod. Teammate Paul Martin spoke to Josh Yohe of The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review about that this past May:
I give him all the props in the world for handling life the way he does. He's been doing it for a long time, I know. There is nothing worse than dealing with long-term injuries, and to watch how patient and calm he is, to me, is so impressive. He's never acted like he's better than anyone else. It's been that way always, and guys appreciate it. He really is one of the guys.
It's that level of mutual respect that made Crosby a no-brainer captain for Team Canada at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, and it's why he's such an underrated leader. He's a player that has both learned and thrived on the biggest of stages, and he'll have a chance to add to his already towering persona by taking down the Russians in their own barn in Sochi during the Winter Games.
Even if he accomplishes that feat, it's evident that Crosby will still desire to be just another member of the Penguins—just another name on the lineup card or in your game program. We all know that this is impossible, but that hasn't prevented Crosby from doing his damnedest to remain one of the guys.
Even as a rookie, "Sid" seemed to grasp the finer points of being a leader. Folks who only watch the game from the peripheral of their own favorite teams might feel that Crosby was rushed to the front and center of the Penguins organization, and they'll point to the fact that he was given the team's captaincy at the age of 19 as proof.
What they probably don't realize is that the young man had turned down the letter on two separate occasions before accepting the honor in 2007. Former head coach Michel Therrien spoke to Rob Rossi of the Tribune about that back in the summer of '07, after Crosby had been named captain:
I knew after Mario retired that we had a special kid that was going to be our big kid for a long time. He was not feeling comfortable having the 'C' before, and it was a big sign of leadership that he turned it down. We wanted him to be comfortable with being the captain.
From the get-go, Crosby has never been satisfied at any particular level of play. After a rookie season that saw him score 102 points, it was clear that this was a player that could get away with sliding into cruise control. He'd still be a top-10 scorer even after coaches had the time to pick apart his game via video tape.
He wasn't satisfied, though. Crosby went to work on the finer aspects of the game, including faceoffs. By his sixth year in the league, he was among the league's elite in the circle. No one handed that to him. That sort of elite skill comes from countless hours of taking draws while doing nothing else and thinking about nothing else.
It's that level of dedication that sets Crosby apart from his cohorts, whether he likes it or not. And it's that level of devotion that makes No. 87 so easy to follow into battle, regardless of seniority.
Crosby wasn't selected to captain Team Canada because the squad needs a vocal leader in the locker room. This is a veteran group that should be able to step up when the time is right. Yet when the game is on the line and a tide-altering play is needed, everyone will turn their gaze to the same player.
That's why Steve Yzerman and Co. named Crosby as the team's captain, and that's why there won't be a better man for the job until the day when he decides to hang up his skates for good. This is a man that doesn't shrink away from any responsibility or call.
When the NHL and NHLPA were on a crash course with another lost season due to lockout, it was Crosby who came to the table and attempted to mend lacerations on both sides of the aisle. It was Crosby who continuously spoke to the media and gave honest and helpful updates while the likes of Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr took potshots across each other's bows whenever they saw the opportunity.
Some pundits might wish that Crosby was more of a character, but time after time we see the nuclear fallout from other sports as professional athletes use their platform and fame to further their own "brand."
You won't see any of that from Crosby, though, and thank the hockey gods for that. He's been an understated and underrated leader since he was a teenager, and that might not change throughout his career. Not that he'll mind or is keeping tabs or anything.