By Steve Keating
TORONTO (Reuters) - "Room open," shouted the attendant guarding the visitors' dressing room at the Air Canada Centre, launching the media mob into a mad sprint as if he had fired the starter's pistol for an Olympic 100 meters final.
"Run, get him," roared a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins as the stampede raced to their target, dodging sweaty hockey equipment being tossed into a hamper from all corners of the suddenly crowded room.
There, seated at the end of a bench dripping in sweat is Sidney Crosby, the planet's best hockey player, surrounded by cameras, microphones and recorders like some cornered prey.
Despite the frenzied scene, the face of the National Hockey League (NHL) is a smiling and welcoming one.
Crosby, of course, has witnessed this craziness many times before and while No. 87 may regard these post-practice meetings as an obligation, he makes those asking questions feel at ease and welcome.
Indeed, Crosby hints that media scrums are another part of the hockey business he has come to appreciate after dealing with career threatening head injuries that limited him to 48 games over the last 26 months and a labor dispute that nearly robbed another season from his extraordinary career.
"When you go through something like that and you're away from it for so long you definitely appreciate it," said Crosby, when asked if his injury setbacks gave him a fresh perspective.
"I don't think I ever took it for granted but, if anything, you kind of gain an appreciation for everything that comes with it. ... There are so many things that are fun about this so just enjoying and appreciating it is something I gained."
There is little doubt that the time away from the game that has been at the center of Crosby's life since he was a young boy growing up in Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, has changed him.
Not on the ice, where he remains the force he always was, but away from the rink where he seems to have developed a keener awareness of his place in the sport.
Given the chance to reflect on a career that already reads like an impossibly complete resume - a Stanley Cup, an Olympic gold medal and trophy case full of individual honors including a Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player - Crosby appears to have developed a greater sense of responsibility that extends beyond the Pittsburgh dressing room.
There is now a sense that the 25-year-old Canadian's impact on hockey will not only be measured in awards and championships but also by his thoughts and words.
To many hockey fans Crosby will always be 'Sid the Kid.' But today he is very much 'The Man,' particularly in NHL circles where his opinion matters.
Despite the crush of reporters at almost every arena he visits, Crosby refuses to have his media availabilities held in a special press conference room, not wanting to be accorded to be treated differently from his team mates.
Instead, Crosby sits in his locker room stall patiently taking questions from waves of reporters as they inch their way from the back of the scrum to the front.
And these days, when asked, Crosby has not been shy about sharing his thoughts.
Gone, for the most part, are the clichés hammered into young newcomers at media training sessions where they are schooled on how to answer questions without really saying anything, avoiding potential slips of the tongue the same way they are taught to avoid body checks.
Playing in Toronto for the first time in over three years last Saturday, a relaxed Crosby still offers a hint of boyish shyness that is both charming and welcoming during a playful give-and-take conversation with the media.
He has become a passionate advocate for player health and safety and provided a calming voice amid the rancor of a labor dispute that ended in January to salvage a shortened season.
While many of his NHL brethren, including team mate Evgeni Malkin, played in Europe during the work stoppage, Crosby stood alongside union rank and file in a show of solidarity.
But it is player safety issues where Crosby is feeling more at ease expressing his opinions, having very nearly seen his own career come to a premature end because of blows to the head.
"There were times that it felt really long but I don't think I ever had that in my mind," said Crosby, when asked if he ever doubted he would return to the game. "I was always worried about what I had to do to get back.
"At certain points it definitely felt like it was taking a lot longer than I thought or that I wanted.
"I'm glad it's done, glad it's over and I'm enjoying playing right now."
While the hockey world has become more interested in what Crosby has to say it is still his genius on the ice that fans pay to see.
Crosby entered the second half of the lockout shortened 48-game season on Saturday leading the NHL scoring table with 39 points, a scorching pace that would give him 78 points - eight more than Jaromir Jagr and Eric Lindros had when the 1994-95 season was cut short.
The Pittsburgh captain roared into the second half with a goal against the Maple Leafs on Saturday and then a day later matched a career-high with five assists in a 6-1 blowout of the New York Islanders.
"Everyone has their own opinion but the way he controls the puck - exciting things happen every time he touches it," said Tampa Bay Lightning sniper Steven Stamkos, who is eight points behind Crosby. "It's always a challenge when you play against (Pittsburgh), and since he's got back healthy this year he's been a force out there."
It is stretch of consistent brilliance not seen since the 2010-11 season when Crosby was running away with scoring race before he was slammed into the boards during the outdoor Winter Classic on New Year's Day, starting him on a downward spiral.
"The consistency at which he is playing right now is at such a high level, you see the work, you see the battle in his game you see it consistently every night that is the thing that is amazing," said Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma. "We saw it back in 2010-11 season where he was doing that over a 40-game stretch and we're seeing that again now where he is at that consistently high level.
"There are some dynamic, fantastic plays but you see that game in, game out is the amazing thing to watch."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)