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Four years after Vancouver, Crosby faces new pressure at Sochi Olympics

The Canadian Press
In a Feb. 28, 2010, file photo Canada's Sidney Crosby  leaps in the air  after making the game-winning goal in the overtime period of a men's gold medal ice hockey game against USA at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia.  Crosby will captain the Canadian hockey team at the Olympics in Sochi
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FILE - In a Feb. 28, 2010, file photo Canada's Sidney Crosby leaps in the air after making the game-winning goal in the overtime period of a men's gold medal ice hockey game against USA at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia. Crosby will captain the Canadian hockey team at the Olympics in Sochi. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara, file)

Sidney Crosby was already a Stanley Cup winner and the face of the NHL when he arrived at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. He'd performed under pressure before, but it was never quite like this.

Canadians were counting on winning a gold medal in their own country. And they expected him to deliver it.

Most of Team Canada felt the pressure too, but the game's best player carried the weight of an entire country desperate to erase the failures of 2006 and reassert its dominance in the sport.

"That amount of pressure is probably the most I've felt in my hockey career," Crosby said. "Because it was right there, you were in Canada, there was so much going on. Everyone's talking about it. You're in a Canadian city."

It was so evident that his parents could see it.

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"There was so much at stake," said his mother, Trina. "When you're the goaltender's parent you just feel so responsible because it's your kid in net. And then, when you're Sidney's parents, you always feel like he's the one who either has to set it up or score. You just feel it. It's pressure."

Crosby delivered in a big way, scoring the overtime goal against the United States to win the gold medal for Canada.

"It was a storybook ending," Trina Crosby said.

Crosby's new challenge is just beginning. He enters the 2014 Sochi Olympics as Canada's captain and arguably playing the best hockey of his professional career, only this time he's able to draw from his experience in Vancouver.

Needing to live up to that gold standard again means the weight hasn't lifted from the 26-year-old's shoulders.

"I think the pressure is there regardless. I think it's always going to be there no matter where it is," Crosby said. "As far as my game and my mindset, I think that having gone through Vancouver hopefully will help."

Crosby was an alternate captain in Vancouver at the age of 22. By that time he'd already done almost everything in the NHL, including making two trips to the Cup final, capturing a Hart Trophy as MVP and winning the scoring race.

When the Pittsburgh Penguins named Crosby captain in 2007, he was the youngest in league history. He then validated that trust by winning the Cup in 2009.

But when it came time to pick the captain for the 2010 Olympics, veteran defenceman Scott Niedermayer got the call. Crosby was the third-youngest player on the team, but Niedermayer still thought "Sid the Kid" was ready.

"He was probably ready when he was 16," Niedermayer said in November at the Hockey Hall of Fame's induction weekend. "The thinking was he's going to have enough pressure on him just from who he is and things like that that he doesn't need one more thing to worry about, give it to some old guy that's just trying to figure things out out there."

That's when Crosby's apprenticeship began, wearing an "A" alongside experienced Olympians Jarome Iginla and Chris Pronger. Of course Niedermayer set the standard as captain.

"Everyone knew what had to be done, what was expected to be done," Niedermayer said. "There was not going to be a lack of emotion or energy for everybody getting dressed. It was just a matter of being level-headed and staying focused."

While it was Crosby's first Olympics, it was Niedermayer's second, Iginla's third and Pronger's fourth. Still, much of the spotlight was on Crosby, and his teammates knew it.

"We were the favourite going in, we were on home ice, and that being Sid's first Olympics and what happened to us in 2006," Pronger said in a phone interview. "You can name off a whole bunch of other issues that can get lumped on to someone's back, but I think the biggest ones were being on home ice (and it being) his first experience."

Coach Mike Babcock cycled through several linemates for Crosby, including Eric Staal, Patrice Bergeron, Rick Nash, Mike Richards, Jonathan Toews and Iginla. Pronger could see the pressure ramping up game to game because, in a one-and-done tournament, there's "even more pressure to not lay an egg."

Crosby's parents could sense how the pressure was affecting him.

"The truth of the matter is perhaps Troy and I could feel it too," Trina Crosby said. "Just his demeanour. He's very focused anyway. It was just a different level."

Crosby could look to Niedermayer as an example of what experience could bring to the captaincy.

"I felt a bit of confidence, just knowing that I'd been through an Olympics with some success, I'd been in a lot of big games in the NHL," Niedermayer said.

Knowing Crosby had participated in a Memorial Cup, a Cup Final Game 7, two world juniors and a world championship meant Canada's leaders didn't baby him.

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"I don't think you want to go around sermonizing to guys," Pronger said. "A lot of them have been on the big stage — maybe not the biggest stage at the Olympics, but they've been on a big stage before. Playing in Stanley Cup finals, winning Stanley Cups, winning Calder Cups, all the rest of those things.

"All those experiences really help in playing under that scrutiny and pressure of every shift, every pass, every shot matters. You've got to bring your A-game each and every time you're on the ice. There's no shifts off in a tournament like that."

Crosby knew that it was crucial to be at his best with the spotlight on him. But it was advice he imparted on another Canadian Olympian that showed he wasn't collapsing under the weight of expectations.

Figure skater Patrick Chan was 19 and competing in his first Olympics, too. On one drive to the rink, Chan told trainer Andy O'Brien — who also trains Crosby — he was nervous.

"Andy was like, 'Oh, I'll call Sid,'" said Chan. "We talked about expectations and at the end of the day, he told me, ‘Yeah, the Canadian hockey team has the most pressure out of all the events.' The way he put it in perspective was that we train every day and we train every day to kind of build an automatic pilot, and in order to initiate that automatic pilot when you're playing, you have to put it in perspective."

That perspective for Chan was that competing wasn't "the end of the world." And Crosby's message was simple.

"You're obviously going to be nervous, there's going to be pressure, but that's what you work so hard for," Crosby said. "So part of you has to realize, hey, you've got to enjoy this, this is what you do. Go out and enjoy it."

Chan finished fifth in Vancouver but has won three straight world titles since.

As much as Chan got from that conversation, Crosby gained something, too.

"I think the biggest thing is they train four years for that one time or that one run, and I don't think there's anything that you can compare to that," Crosby said. "Even as a hockey player you aren't playing one shift. A shift's a minute. They get one shift."

Crosby took countless shifts during the 2010 Olympics, but he was remembered for his final one and the shot past Ryan Miller that brought a collective sigh of relief and joy to the host nation.

When Crosby scored that golden goal, there was no guarantee NHL players would be going to Sochi. But once the deal was finalized to have NHLers in the 2014 Games, Canada's defence of that medal — and a whole new challenge for Crosby — began.

Canada hasn't won back-to-back gold medals in men's hockey at the Olympics since 1948 and 1952, before the country had even adopted the red and white flag Crosby waved after winning gold in 2010.

But history isn't as important as the present and a tournament that's taking place on Russian ice against a home team that will be as motivated as Canada was in 2010. Crosby has never played in Russia. All he has to go on is stories J.P. Parise told about the 1972 Summit Series while at Shattuck-St. Mary's.

"To have that opportunity and knowing the history is there, to be part of that would be definitely very special," Crosby said.

From a hockey perspective, Crosby learned plenty from his experience in Vancouver but doesn't think he would've prepared any differently looking back. But in looking ahead, Crosby has a different set of responsibilities in Sochi as the captain and head of a young leadership group along with alternates Shea Weber and Jonathan Toews.

"Sidney, Shea Weber, those types of guys that played very well and are elite NHL players," Team Canada executive director Steve Yzerman said. "Four more years later, a lot has happened in their careers. They've learned a lot. They've matured a lot. The Scott Neidermayers, the Chris Prongers aren't here. It's up to those players to take a step forward."

After six and a half seasons as a captain in the NHL level, Crosby should be plenty prepared to wear the "C," especially after the 2010 Games. He doesn't think growing into a leadership role is a conscious decision as much as a gradual process.

"I think it's kind of a natural progression for all the guys who were in Vancouver to come here and be a lot more comfortable," Crosby said. "When you've played on a team before, you understand things a bit better. It's a comfort level."

Off the ice, Crosby knows Sochi won't be as comfortable as Vancouver.

"We're not really familiar with the surroundings as much," he said. "You're a long way from home. I think just everything will kind of be simplified, and I'm sure the team will spend a lot more time together compared to last time."

Even if the conditions aren't ideal, Crosby will be able to find some familiarity being on the ice with several teammates who are back from 2010, and Penguins linemate Chris Kunitz. Crosby slides in as the unquestioned No. 1 centre on a team with a handful of them, and Canada would love for him to keep up the pace he has built during this NHL season.

"Getting Sid playing at the highest level we can is important to us to have success," Babcock said. "But he's just part of the team, too, and we're just going to put the guys in the best situations we can."

Crosby hopes that, four years later, he and Canada are in the best situation possible to win gold. Because that's the only expectation in Sochi.

"That's a fair assessment," he said. "Really, you don't want to have any other mindset."

— With files from Donna Spencer in Calgary and Lori Ewing in Toronto.

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