This story appears in the April 19, 2010 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
It's just a letter, you might say. Third in the alphabet, handy for words like C-A-T and C-A-S-H and C-A-C-O-P-H-O-N-Y. It's also a musical note and the Roman numeral for 100. But when it's capitalized and bolded, cut from durable, moisture-wicking fabric and stitched to the front of a hockey sweater, the letter C becomes something else altogether. And on Feb. 16, 2009, following a game on Long Island, it burned the left side of Sidney Crosby's chest like a firebrand.
The year before, in Crosby's first season as captain, the Pittsburgh Penguins had reached the Stanley Cup Finals. But with 24 games to play, the Pens stood 10th in the East, in danger of missing the playoffs. Twenty-four hours earlier, general manager Ray Shero had fired coach Michel Therrien and promoted Dan Bylsma from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the AHL to stanch the bleeding. Crosby had never before felt the weight of the C so heavily on his sweater. Righting the ship and rallying the troops had been his responsibility, but he felt he had failed both team and coach. Adding insult to ignominy, Crosby had his shootout attempt blocked in that evening's game, sealing a loss to the lowly Islanders. Shero says this was the first and only time he's seen Crosby, in five years as a Penguin, lose his focus. "That was the hardest time I've had as captain," Crosby says. "We'd tried everything, and it didn't work. I felt like I'd let the coach down. I was mentally drained."
Crosby has the type of self-critical mind that plagues the overly gifted. Like the concert pianist who fixates on slight flubs of his fingers even as he bows to a standing ovation, Crosby obsesses over flaws. It was his drive to be the best that prompted the Penguins, in May 2007, to make him the youngest permanent captain in NHL history at 19 years 297 days. His appointment broke the seven-year-old mark of Tampa Bay's Vincent Lecavalier (by 27 days) and sparked a leaguewide debate about the role of an NHL captain. In hockey, the position has a mystique that doesn't linger around captains in other sports. Historically, coaches and GMs have bestowed the C upon the grizzled vet whose legitimacy draws from longevity and multiple playoff battles -- seven current NHL captains are older than 35; 18 are over 30. Crosby certainly had earned the respect of his peers, most notably by handling the pressure of his wunderkind reputation with aplomb and by topping 100 points in each of his first two seasons in the NHL. But his appointment was a direct affront to one of hockey's grandest traditions.