TORONTO — The Pittsburgh Penguins are in the playoffs for the 16th straight season — the longest active streak of any team in the top five professional team sports in North America — largely because their star center Sidney Crosby durable, quietly had one of the best seasons in the NHL at age 34.
Only seven current NHL players have been there longer than Crosby, and six more entered the league with him in 2005. Except for Alex Ovechkin, the Washington Capitals forward who is chasing the scoring record in Wayne Gretzky’s career, no player Crosby’s age or with 17 seasons under his skates has been so dominant.
Elite athletes like Tom Brady (44), Tiger Woods (46), Serena Williams (40) and Rafael Nadal (35) worked to stay on top of their sport, with varying degrees of success. Crosby, who won three Stanley Cups and a host of individual awards in a physically brutal game that gets faster and younger with each passing year, paid attention.
No one has watched Crosby closer than Andy O’Brien. A strength and conditioning coach, O’Brien met Crosby at summer hockey school when the player was 13. This summer will be their 22nd working together at Crosby’s off-season home near Halifax, Nova Scotia.
But Crosby isn’t rushing into summer. The Penguins opened their first-round playoff series against the Rangers on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden.
“It’s unbelievable that he’s still one of the best players in the league at his age,” said O’Brien, who is based in Toronto and also works as a high-level consultant with the Florida Panthers.
“I don’t look at it like it’s peaked and now we’re just trying to slow that decline,” O’Brien said. “He’s able to put together a season that’s better than any season he’s ever had. He’s relentless in his growth as an athlete, ready to adapt and find new ways to “be effective. And the best measuring stick we have is what it does on the ice.”
What Crosby did in 69 games this year was score 31 goals (including nine winners) and 53 assists, and he persisted in a sport that takes its toll on the body. His 84 points tied him for the team lead with left-winger Jake Guentzel, who is seven years younger than Crosby and has played seven more games.
“You have to take care of your body a little bit more,” Crosby said. “It’s more years of wear and tear, and on top of that you have to find ways to adjust your game. There are tons of little things you can do. But taking care of your body is the most important.
Crosby, chosen first overall by the Penguins in 2005 and full of expectations to lead the NHL out of its lockout season, played its 1,000th career game in February 2021 and marked its 500th goal one year later. Stanley Cups in 2009, 2016 and 2017, and numerous Hart, Conn Smythe, Art Ross and Rocket Richard trophies, two Olympic gold medals100+ points in six seasons and the most playoff points of any active player, make up his career. Until now.
“He never got to a point where he said, ‘OK, that’s good enough, I just have to stay here,'” O’Brien said. “He constantly pushes himself.”
Crosby is still bursting around the corners, battling along the boards and scoring trick goals – on breakaways and tic tac toes, from the back door and behind the net, on one knee and on his behind and on the head of a goalkeeper. Almighty skating and sleight of hand can, in an instant, give way to mistreating opposing players. He’s a strongman and an escape artist who can thunder forward, spin around, burst into open space and find the net, which he had done 586 times, including in the playoffs. , entering Tuesday.
That’s remarkable given his injury history: a sprained ankle after hitting the boards in 2008; devastating concussions it caused him to miss most of two seasons in 2011 and 2012; a broken jaw in 2013; another concussion in practice in 2016; core muscle surgery in 2019; a left wrist injury from 2014 that required two surgeries in the past two years.
“His athleticism is as good as it’s ever been.”
Crosby, O’Brien said, has two special gifts, the first being the ability to tolerate an unusually heavy workload.
“He can do these crazy long workouts with high intensities and then go out on the ice and do the exact same thing,” O’Brien said. “And then feeling ready to go the next day. I’ve had other clients of mine who have tried to hang out with him, and they just can’t recover in a normal way for him.
O’Brien said Crosby has a ‘highly parasympathetic nervous system’ – which allows a low heart rate and his body to stay in a state of recovery longer. “He’s very good at rest, so when he’s not training his nervous system is in a really calm state.”
Crosby, who has prioritized strength throughout his career, turns 35 in August. “His overall athleticism – speed, agility, balance – is as good as it’s ever been,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien said Crosby had an unusual ability to perform at maximum physical exertion while skating, carrying the puck and absorbing and delivering shots, and that his low heart rate helped him cognitively.
“A lot of athletes who think the game at a high level and are really good at processing generally tend to be slower athletes,” O’Brien said. “He has the best of both worlds.”
“You are always looking for inspiration.”
Crosby is a big fan of other sports, like football, golf and especially tennis – playing and watching – and he studies how aging superstars endure.
“You look at Nadal, he’s just a horse and so determined with his work ethic,” Crosby said. “He always seems to work hard. So a guy like Federer, nothing looks awkward. He’s so graceful and doesn’t seem to work that hard even though he does. Both have had success. You are always looking for inspiration.
O’Brien said tennis and ice hockey are remarkably similar. (Look for Roger Federer on ice skates.)
Footwork – lunges, plantings, crossovers, pivots and constant trunk rotations – can help develop motor skills for hockey. “The upper body is constantly doing something different from the lower body in both,” O’Brien said.
From 2015 to 2020, O’Brien worked with the Penguins as Director of Sports and Performance Science. Seeing Crosby during the season allowed for nuanced adjustments to Crosby’s workload, recovery, nutrition, sleep and stress response, “his whole physiology,” O’Brien said.
Then there is the hockey skills part. Crosby said he learned to play more under the puck and with more patience, mastering the inherent need to advance to the right moment. “If you’re not under the puck, especially defensively, it can be a long night,” he said. “When you rely on your speed, you always feel like you’re going to have a chance. Finding that balance takes time to learn.
“You just appreciate the years.”
Crosby’s parents, Trina and Troy, were in Pittsburgh for his 500th goal. The milestone took a long look at their son’s career and what happened alongside it. In recent years, both of Crosby’s grandmothers have passed away, as have his yellow labrador, Samwho was 15 years old.
“You just appreciate the years,” Trina said. “There have been all these hockey games and all these special moments, and life happens in between. That’s so much what I’ve seen over the years. He’s had major injuries and he gets up every day and does something he absolutely loves.
Crosby has three years left on a $104.4 million contract he signed when he was 24. By superstition, this has always made for a salary cap hits $8.7 million per season. (He wears No. 87 for his date of birth, August 7, 1987.)
“I just try to watch it one year at a time,” he said. “I keep trying to learn things throughout the year, but then you try to figure out where you need to be better and use the summer to do that. I feel really good, I really want to emphasize that. But yes, you know.
“I mean, I’m much closer to the end than the middle. I understand that, but you’re trying to keep the same mindset you’ve always had.