PITTSBURGH – Sidney Crosby and Jack Johnson were pretty normal 15-year-old kids when they were the only two sophomores on Shattuck-St. Mary’s prep team in 2002.
They loved to goof off by getting into snow ball fights or a game of 3-bar. They competed at virtually everything, like who could finish their lunch quicker or pick corners more accurately while shooting at a target on the tennis court.
These were two straight and narrow teenage hockey stars who, from time to time, got into trouble.
There was the time they got into a dugout-clearing fight against a Mankato pitcher who kept throwing high and tight at both of them at the plate. Johnson, hit by a pitch, got kicked off the baseball team for charging the mound and throwing punches at that pitcher while his pal — the one and only Sidney Crosby — held off the catcher.
Fourteen years ago, the Faribault school was ahead of its time by issuing each student laptops.
“We were probably guilty of using it for things other than just school,” Crosby recalled, laughing.
In Modern European history, Crosby and Johnson would sit in the back of the classroom watching hockey highlights on NHL.com as their teacher lectured. Little did they know, the teacher could see precisely what they were up to by way of the reflection on a glass wall separating a storage room.
“We’d be like, ‘Oh, sorry, sorry,’ and of course, a week later we’d get caught again. The teacher would be like, ‘Come on, are you guys kidding me?” Johnson said, chuckling. “We were young kids, and I think we acted like it.”
Johnson, a defenseman for the Columbus Blue Jackets, couldn’t be more excited to see his former Minnesota prep school teammate a victory away from captaining the Pittsburgh Penguins to a second Stanley Cup since Crosby was drafted first overall and Johnson third overall by the Carolina Hurricanes in 2005.
“I just know the type of competitor he is,” Johnson said. “There literally was nothing we’d do together that wouldn’t turn into a competition. I know how badly he wants this. [Penguins coach Mike Sullivan] said he has that twinkle in his eye. I don’t know if that twinkle in his eye ever really leaves.
“I know him being this close, he’s going to be tough to beat.”
At Shattuck-St. Mary’s, Crosby and Johnson went on to win the 2003 USA Hockey Tier I 17 & Under National Championship with a team that included now Winnipeg Jets winger Drew Stafford and Ryan Duncan, who went on to win the Hobey Baker Award at North Dakota in 2007.
“It was a pretty special group of guys,” said Johnson, who starred at Michigan. “I think we had 11 guys on that team that had Division I scholarship offers.”
“Definitely one of my favorite memories in hockey is being a part of that,” added Stafford, who played at North Dakota.
Part of the fun was getting his first sight of Crosby.
Shattuck has boasted talents like Zach Parise and Jonathan Toews, brothers Ben and Patrick Eaves, and Derek Stepan. But nobody was quite as hyped as Crosby, tabbed the second coming of Gretzky and Lemieux wrapped up in one teenage body.
Stafford was a senior, and along with Duncan would become Crosby’s wingers. So Stafford was curious what all the fuss was about. Then, he watched a 15-year-old score 72 goals and 162 points in 57 games against mostly 18-year-olds.
“You see him in person, and he’s just a kid, but he was just heads and shoulders better than everybody,” Stafford said. “For a 15-year-old, he already had the body type, the same kind of style he plays now — that power skating, where it’s power moves. He was 15, and his legs were enormous. He was built to be a hockey player, and it was pretty cool to see just how skilled and his vision.
“The hype was definitely huge, and it was real. He backed it up.”
Johnson saw Crosby’s “passion and love for the game. It was hockey 24/7 with him. Even though we loved having fun, his drive to want to be the best was there, and we were just kids.”
Coming to Minnesota
Shattuck-St. Mary’s was fortunate to get him.
Crosby, who hails from Halifax, Nova Scotia, dominated in peewees and bantams. Shattuck was playing in Calgary playing a midget tournament and Crosby, playing for the Dartmouth Subways, was the talk of the tournament “because he was supposed to be the next coming of something,” longtime Shattuck coach Tom Ward said.
“Some of these kids that are phenoms, some of these people peg them as phenoms when they’re 10, 11, 12 years old. And Sidney had that moniker when he was that young.”
Ward heard Crosby’s father, Troy, was trying to get in touch with him. By the time Ward returned to Faribault, there was a voice mail waiting from Sidney’s dad.
The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League wouldn’t make an exception to allow Crosby to play at such a young age. Crosby was in the midst of a 95-goal Midget AAA season, so Troy Crosby was looking for something different where his son could play at a higher level in relative anonymity and bridge the time before major junior, where he’d ultimately star for Rimouski.
Sidney arrived in Faribault and was respectful, referring to everybody as “sir” and “ma’am.” He was introduced to college hockey and nearly was wooed by North Dakota, where one of his idols, Parise, was playing. Parise’s father, J.P., invited Crosby to his Prior Lake home, where wife Donna would cook him breakfast and he would sleep in Zach’s room full of hockey medals and trophies.
Wearing No. 9
“He was a little boy, just a flat out young kid in a bunch of different ways,” Ward said. “And I think he liked getting out of the, ‘Hey, you’re going to be the next rising star’ [atmosphere]. I think it was good for him just to be Sid. And just to blend in with the crowd.
“But, at the same time, as a 15-year-old kid, he was wiser than his years. He knew kind of his place, without being cocky. He knew what was maybe ahead of him if he kept progressing. And he knew that he was not going to not let that happen because of his relentlessness. I mean, the kid is driven, he has got all of the intangibles plus the talent.”
Crosby is thankful for his one year of prep hockey in Minnesota.
“It was important,” he said. “At that point, I’d never even been on the ice every day. It was the first time I ever skated every day. It was just a great place to go, meet new people, friends, go to school and play hockey.”
Crosby wore No. 9 at Shattuck, a storied number there worn by players like Parise, Toews and Stepan.
“I remember the first year that we got our jerseys handed out in Richfield squirts,” Ward said, “my coach said, ‘Hey, if you’re taking number 9, you know who wore number 9, you better play like number 9, and that’s Gordie Howe.’
“You take that number, there’s a lot of responsibility with it.”
It’s been 14 years since the baby-faced Crosby won a Midget AAA national title while playing for a Minnesota school.
He’s no longer “Sid the Kid.” He turned 29 in August, and this is his 11th NHL season.
In many ways, it was one of his most trying. He scored one goal and four assists through his first 11 games, two goals through his first 18 games. His coach, Mike Johnston, was fired Dec. 12.
But after Mike Sullivan took over, the Penguins went 33-16-5, including wins in 14 of their final 15 regular-season games. After the slow start, Crosby went on a tear, finishing third in scoring with 86 points and tied for seventh with 36 goals.
He’s a two-time Art Ross Trophy winner and two-time Hart Trophy winner with 938 career points. He’s won gold medals, even scoring the overtime winner at the 2010 Olympics.
But after winning one Stanley Cup and going to two Finals in his first four seasons, the six-year drought of getting to this point again has Crosby fully aware of just how hard this is.
He’s determined not to waste this opportunity.
And that should worry the San Jose Sharks.
“I think he’s pretty well cemented the best player of our generation,” veteran Matt Cullen said. “When you’re around Sid for a long time, you understand the only thing that drives him is winning the Cup. He makes no secret what his motivation is for what he does.”