Step Back in Time # 1 – The Crosby Sweepstakes

This is a weekly feature we are going to put out every Friday. We are going to look back at something big in sport a game, a series, a tournament, a moment something of importance. We will take you through the event, the history, why it was important and what happened next. As usual any questions, or anything you think we should take a step back in time for Comment, Tweet or Email us.

Crank up those Flux Capacitors. Step into your Tardis. Or whatever your time machine of choice is as we are about to step back in time.

Date – June 30th 2005

Location – Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Picture the scene, the first NHL draft after a lockout season. All the top prospects, their families, league and team executives all gathered in the Westin Hotel in Ottawa for the first of the two day NHL draft. Gary Bettman does his opening speech, honouring the attendees on their “special day”. This year didn’t have the usual tension about who was going to be the first name picked. Craig Patrick General Manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins takes the stage and announces that with the first pick in the NHL Draft the Pittsburgh Penguins select Sidney Crosby of the Rimouski Oceanic. So, why is this such an impactful moment? Well, we will have to go back to go forward.

Pittsburgh was a sports city before the Penguins came along. The Steelers had been around since the 30s and the Pirates had been around since the 1800’s. During the 20’s the city had been home to the Pirates NHL team and in the mid 60’s they wanted a team back. The Heinz family (You know the beans and ketchup people) and Art Rooney who owned the Steelers lobbied and bought a team for just over $19 million. They began playing in 1967/68 season at “The Igloo” the Pittsburgh Civic Centre, which the team called home until 2009/10 season. Initially, the “Pens”, as they would be known, would find success hard to come by. Their State rivals the Philadelphia Flyers, who also came into existence in the 1967/68 season, won back to back cups in the 1970s with a physical game that earned them name the Broad Street Bullies.

As the 1980s rolled around things got worse for the Penguins. They had the worst record in the 1983 and 1984 seasons. Controversially at the end of the 1984 season, they appeared to start tanking, the act of losing in purpose, to get the first pick in the 1984 NHL entry draft. Penguins coach Lou Angotti has gone on record saying that it was a tactic that he did not feel comfortable with but ultimately it would pay dividends. They used the pick to draft Mario Lemieux who would go on to break pretty much every franchise record imaginable. The team was built around “Super Mario” bringing in star defenceman Paul Coffey, a winner with the Edmonton Oilers. They added young talent Kevin Stevens, Rob Brown, John Cullen, and Buffalo Goaltender Tom Barrasso. In 1990 they added star winger Jaromir Jagr with the 5th pick in the draft. This core bought the Penguins back to back Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992.

The good times in Pittsburgh wouldn’t last. 1997 was the year things started to go south. A first-round loss to the Florida Panthers in the playoffs was the turning point. On April 6th Mario Lemieux announced that we would have to retire over health concerns, he would later come back and play in early 2002. 1998 bought huge financial troubles and the franchise declared bankruptcy. Lemieux, remember him? Offered to buy the team, as he was owed wages he was in effect the biggest creditor. The financial troubles of the past would reoccur and Jaromir Jagr, who became the on-ice star after Mario retired was traded away.

We are on the fast track to ’05 now. The Penguins were an awful, awful hockey club. They finished bottom of the league in 2003 drafting Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury with the first overall pick. Another poor year followed, drafting Evgeni Malkin with the 2nd overall pick in 2004. Then things got really dark Mario Lemieux investigated the possibility of selling up and the team relocating to Kansas City (As alien as this will be to some of our British readers relocating is a very big part of US Sports). There was no 2004/05 season due to a work stoppage (Lockout) which meant no previous season for the draft lottery to be based on. The draft class for the 2005 class was hailed as the best for years and the runaway top player was a kid from Canada called Sidney Crosby. A draft lottery was held and the Penguins came out the winners. So, why was there so much hype around Crosby? Why were clubs so desperate to win the Crosby sweepstakes?

Sidney Crosby, “Sid the Kid”, “The Next One” was the most hyper player going into the NHL Draft for years. In his first exhibition game for his junior team, Rimouski Oceanic, Crosby put 8 points on the board. At the end of his first season, Crosby scored 135 points in 59 games to win the awards for Rookie of the Year, The Leagues Top Scorer, and the League MVP. During that summer, the WHA a rival league attempted to draft Crosby. He turned down the deal to keep playing in the QMJHL and follow his dream of playing in the NHL. His domination continued, 168 points in 62 games to again be named the leading scorer in the league. He also took home MVP, Offensive Player of the Year and was named an All-Star for the second time. Sid led the team to the Memorial Cup finals, but they were swept by the London Knights to end his junior career.

Following his incredible two years as a junior, the Canadian media compared Sidney to not only Mario Lemieux but also Wayne Gretzky. Being compared to two of the greatest players of all time seemed to have no effect on the mild-mannered Crosby who was followed by a complete media circus every he went leading up to the draft.

So that day in June the Penguins a franchise who couldn’t fill their arena, their best player was arguably their owner had drafted the best hockey player of his generation. What would happen next? Immediately after Crosby joined the team the attendance increased by over 4000 fans, the up in interest meant that Lemieux decided to keep the team in Pittsburgh. Crosby broke the records for goals, assists, and points for a rookie. He just missed out on the scoring title and rookie of the year to Alex Ovechkin, the man who’s Crosby would constantly be prepared to. It could be said that the signing of Crosby saved the team but that was just the start.

In the 2006/07 season, Evgeni Malkin joined the team the attendances only grew, which led to a new arena deal. The Penguins had also drafted Jordan Staal, a third young centerman to join Crosby and Malkin and success wasn’t far away. The Penguins traded for Marian Hossa and played their way into the Stanley Cup final in 2008 losing out to the Detriot Red Wings, but this Penguins team weren’t to be denied. In 2009 they were back this team beating Detriot thanks to a game seven Max Talbot goal.

Since 2006/07 the Penguins have never failed to qualify for the playoffs. Despite injuries, Crosby, including a concussion that nearly ended his career, would go onto cement his legacy as one of the greatest of all time winning a host of individual awards. The Penguins would go onto win the Stanley Cup Final in 2016 and 2017 with Crosby taking home the Conn Smythe for playoff MVP both years. At aged 31 Crosby led the Penguins to another playoff run, this time losing out to eventual champion Washington Capitals.

What would have happened if Penguins didn’t draft Crosby? Well, long story short they wouldn’t exist, they would be playing in Kansas City. Anaheim Ducks would have drafted Crosby over Bobby Ryan and had a formidable forward line of Crosby, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry which would have been as irritating as it was impressive. Love him or hate him, there is no denying the impact that Crosby has had the Penguins organisation but the whole NHL.

What do you think about the impact of the Crosby Sweepstakes? Comment, Email or Tweet us your thoughts.

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