On 20th anniversary, prep school coach remembers Sidney Crosby’s year in Minnesota

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Long before Sidney Crosby was captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins and a three-time Stanley Cup champion, he was simply Sid, a 15-year-old from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia.

Shattuck-St. Mary’s coach Tom Ward, who made a pit stop in the NHL as an assistant coach with the Buffalo Sabres, still remembers the first time he saw Crosby in person. He used to attend a large tournament in Calgary, Alberta, where some of the best 15-, 16- and 17-year-old hockey players would gather.

“They have an all-star game the night before the championship game,” Ward said. “I remember Sidney was in the game, and I got a chance to run into his dad Troy after, and they had expressed some interest” in Shattuck-St. Mary’s.

At the time, Crosby was playing for the Dartmouth Subways, a midget team near Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia. His parents ultimately decided to send him to Shattuck-St. Mary’s, the heralded prep school in Minnesota, which offered a chance to get Crosby away from the national spotlight.

“He came to campus with a lot of hoopla,” Ward said. “There were people calling him the next Wayne Gretzky, the next Mario Lemieux, all that kind of stuff. I think it was a good call by his folks to get him out of there and kind of let him hide in Faribault, Minnesota, for a while.”

When the Wild host the Penguins on Thursday night Xcel Energy Center, it will mark exactly 20 years since Crosby called Minnesota home. He has been all over the world since then, representing Team Canada on the grandest stage, and establishing himself among the greatest players to ever play the sport.

As special as Crosby’s career has been, there’s something about the 2002-03 season that still stands out to everyone involved. It offered him a chance to be a kid despite the constant hype that followed him pretty much everywhere he went.

“He was mature beyond his age,” Ward said. “He somehow figured out how to handle it as a 15-year-old. Some of it help accelerate his game and gave him confidence and things like that. I don’t think he ever got to the point where it got to him. I never saw it in his behavior or in his eyes or anything like that. He was able to shut things out and stay laser focused on the game.”

Need proof? As the main player opposing teams focused on shutting down night in and night out, Crosby still recorded a whopping 162 points (72 goals, 90 assists) in 57 games.

What stood out about Crosby as a player back then? Though some might point to the fact that he was the strongest skater every time he stepped onto the ice, or that he had vision beyond his years, or that he was capable of scoring any time he touched the puck, Ward points to something less discernible.

“He always had the ‘It Factor’ about him,” Ward said. “You noticed it whenever he was on the ice. We’ve been around long enough where we can see people who have that and people who don’t have that. He had that ‘It Factor,’ no question about it.”

He was also a very good teammate. Not once did Crosby make the 2002-03 season about him.

“It was never all about Sid,” Ward said. “That’s something he shares with some of the other great player. He wants to have success. He wants to score. He wants to get his. Just not at the expense of his teammates, you know what I mean? His main focus was the team no matter what.”

That was evident when Shattuck-St. Mary’s captured the national championship at the conclusion of his season there. The snapshot moment in time still stands out to Ward a couple of decades later.

“Everyone knew we had this phenom on our team,” Ward said. “As soon as that buzzer goes off, though, it wasn’t everyone jumping on Sid or anything like that. It wasn’t like he was waiting for the dog pile to come to him. He was 100 percent into melting in with the rest of the guys and being a kid. It was all about the team.”

That reputation has followed Crosby throughout his career. As has his unparalleled passion for the sport.

“I think our game is unique where if someone is a really, really good hockey player there’s a little bit of magic in that. It takes over a person,” Ward said. “Your eyes kind of glass over at the rink. You walk in and smell the Zamboni and get into the zone. You love it. It’s a happy place. That’s what it was for Sid. He’s always played the same way because he loves it so much. I don’t think it’s ever become a job for Sid. He loves our game.

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