Sidney Crosby has exceeded the hype, on and off the ice, in Pittsburgh

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When Sidney Crosby was drafted by the Penguins in 2005, he was 17 years old. He was Sid the Kid. Literally.

He turns 35 today, having spent half of his life in Pittsburgh. Crosby isn’t a kid anymore. He’s so, so much more.

Crosby has been a fixture of Pittsburgh life since 2005, and according to what he told The Athletic last month, he’d like to play around six more seasons. The Penguins captain isn’t done, by any means, and remains one of hockey’s greatest players. As the years roll by, however, it’s fair to acknowledge that the end of an era isn’t too far away. It’s not sunset time just yet, but it’s getting to be late in the afternoon.

Though Crosby’s performance over the years is more than noteworthy — three Stanley Cups, two Olympic gold medals, the Golden Goal, 517 goals, 1,409 points, 16 straight playoff appearances for the Penguins, two Hart Trophies, two Art Ross Trophies, two Conn Smythe Trophies and enough memories to last a lifetime — his most powerful appeal is the person he has always been away from the ice.

Crosby has essentially spent a generation in Western Pennsylvania. His track record off the ice is flawless and is enhanced by the other headlines that have dominated Pittsburgh sports over the past decade.

Let’s consider, for a moment, some of the biggest names in Pittsburgh sports during this time and the attention they’ve generated away from their respective sports.

Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell are quite possibly the two most selfish athletes in the history of Pittsburgh sports. Their antics — Brown’s were considerably worse than Bell’s, but they both unleashed a dose of dishonor to the Steelers and the city that was nothing short of unprecedented — cloud the city’s affection for its football team to this day. Sports are supposed to be fun. In Pittsburgh, sports teams are supposed to give fans a sense of pride. Brown and Bell, in all their arrogance, have done much to disrupt those feelings. Local talk show host Mark Madden long ago dubbed them the “toxic twins,” and I can’t think of a better nickname.

Ben Roethlisberger? His legacy in Pittsburgh is always going to be a complex one.

The biggest Pirates-related story during the past week has been the tale of an 18-year-old posing for a video with cheapskate owner Bob Nutting while wearing a shirt that reads “sell the team.” Only the desperate and the gullible feel pride for the Pirates these days. It’s pretty much been that way for the past 30 years, save for that little three-year run nearly a decade ago.

For many local sports fans, the past generation has often been a confusing time. The pride that is typically felt among Pittsburgh sports fans has often been muted by things far bigger than sports.

There is still one sports hero remaining, however. He came to us long ago from Nova Scotia and he remains a treasure.

In the strangest of circumstances, I thought of Crosby the other day during, of all things, a professional wrestling match. I was watching Ric Flair’s final match. Flair is arguably the greatest professional wrestler ever, but he’s not exactly a heroic figure away from the ring. He took the microphone and said, “Everything you’ve heard about me is true.”

It was a great line because it was a true line.

The same could be said of the Penguins’ captain.

I’ve covered Crosby for the past 13 years, and during that time, I’ve been asked countless times if Crosby is “as nice as he seems.”

My typical response: “No. He’s actually much nicer.”

My job presents the privilege of getting to see people behind the scenes when the cameras are off. In those moments, you get to observe who people really are, for better or worse. These moments are when Crosby is at his best. He treats people who are down on their luck better than he shoots a backhand.

So many snapshots of Crosby treating people well are in my mind that I could transform this from an article into a book. A few years back in Minnesota, after a Penguins loss, Crosby was chatting with a child in a wheelchair when I entered the postgame dressing room. Twenty minutes later, when I walked past the same hallway, Crosby was sitting on the floor so he could be closer to eye level with the child, still talking away. I bring this story up because there are hundreds of a similar nature.

This is the guy who goes to Children’s Hospital regularly to visit patients but doesn’t want the notoriety. He’s the person who takes rookies out to dinner so they don’t feel alone in a new city.

He’s a Pittsburgher in every good way. When Marc-Andre Fleury agreed to join the Vegas Golden Knights, so many fans in this city cried. So, too, did Crosby. When Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang spoke about Crosby during a ceremony honoring him for his 1,000th NHL game played, much of the fan base had a tear in its eye. So, too, did Crosby.

Athletes have never really been heroes. That’s a convenient myth from a long time ago, when social media didn’t exist and the media that did exist protected the biggest names. Let’s be honest: Professional athletes, while often nice people, live in a different reality than the rest of us. As a result, they can often be pampered at best, and entitled at worst. They’re millionaires who are worshiped by total strangers. It’s a bad mix.

Crosby just might be different, though. His character exceeds everything he’s done on the ice, and he’s probably one of the five greatest players who ever lived. Let that sink in.

Health permitting, I believe he will play until he’s 40. Every day he spends in Pittsburgh is a blessing.

In an era when athletes are often anything but heroic and the negative headlines far outweigh the positive ones, you can feel safe buying your child a Crosby jersey.

(Photo: Timothy T. Ludwig / USA Today)

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