Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby sits on the boards, Feb. 8, 2009. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Gene J. Puskar
PITTSBURGH - Sidney Crosby didn't need to watch the Olympics last summer to know what swimmer Michael Phelps was going through in Beijing.
The around-the-clock attention. The lack of privacy. The inability to eat a snack, talk to another Olympian or have a casual conversation without being overwhelmed by reporters and photographers. The two weeks of waiting to see if he would make the tiniest mistake, say the wrong thing or frown when the world wanted a smile.
One year from Thursday, all of Canada - plus millions worldwide - could be watching Crosby with a Phelps-like scrutiny in Vancouver as he tries to lead the home team to an Olympic gold medal in its national pastime.
Skiers, skaters and snowboarders will be closely tracked, too, but not like the hockey players. Vancouver may be remembered as being the Sidney Crosby Games.
"It's a different situation for sure - we're talking the world and we're talking about more than just hockey," Crosby said Tuesday.
Crosby competes in a team sport, not an individual one, so he can win only one gold medal, not the eight that Phelps won in swimming. That makes the 2010 Olympics all the more challenging to a player who will be only 22 when the Games roll around.
Still, he will carry the hopes and expectations of a country.
If Crosby leads Canada to its second Olympic gold medal since 2002, he will likely find his name mentioned alongside those of the stars of the Canada-Russia Summit Series in 1972.
Should Canada fail, as it did in Turin three years ago, he might have to live with it the rest of his career.
It's a burden to which Phelps can relate. The American swimmer handled the athletic pressure well with his record performance, though he has run into problems at home after recently being photographed smoking marijuana.
Crosby knows Olympic hockey is a big stage, and is less forgiving than the NHL playoffs.
"It's one game, too, in the Olympics, it's not like a series," said Crosby, the face of the NHL since he was the rookie of the year at age 18 in 2005-06. "So if you lose, it's easy to kind of say, 'Oh, if we had this or what if we had that.' The fact is it's the Olympics and you're talking about countries and every country is strong now and there are no weak links."
There's this pressure, too: There is no agreement beyond Vancouver for NHL players to participate in the Olympics, so it is possible these might be the one and only games for Sid the Kid.
"Who knows if NHL hockey players are going to be in them past that one, we don't know," he said. "So this might be an only shot if that's the way it works out. That would be a lot of fun, to be a part of that."
A lot of pressure, too, though Crosby has handled every stage of his career with uncommon maturity, composure and confidence.
"He's the kind of person who's been under a microscope since he was 5 years old. I don't think he'll have any issues or problems handling it," said Penguins teammate Sergei Gonchar, a two-time Russian Olympic defenceman. "It's probably going to be another level he's never experienced before, but at the same time I'm pretty sure he will be fine on the ice and off the ice."
Still, Gonchar said, no player truly understands what an Olympics is like until he experiences the kind of minute-to-minute scrutiny that 10 Stanley Cup finals can't provide.
"It's a different experience, you're living in the village with different athletes and you're seeing different events and you see how important it is to the people," Gonchar said. "With the time differences, they're staying up at night (in an athlete's home country) to see a game and they're calling you right after the game and you see how much it means to them."
Welcome to Olympic hockey, Sidney Crosby. Ready to see your image splashed on the side of a building, as those of other Olympic stars of recent memory have been?
With the games on home ice, Crosby will understand during every second of every shift how much winning a gold medal means.
Canada went 50 years between hockey golds until winning at Salt Lake City in 2002, and every failure along the way was met with criticism and self-doubt.
While he won't say so, Crosby badly wants to play after being passed over for the 2006 team by executive director Wayne Gretzky, who favoured experience and role players, possibly at the expense of youth and talent. Being left off was a major disappointment to Crosby, though he has been careful not to criticize anyone associated with Team Canada.
For now, he's not spending too much time worrying about Vancouver, not with the rest of this season and half of next season still to be played. He hasn't officially been picked either. Canada's team won't be chosen until January.
To illustrate how much the games mean in Canada, newspapers and hockey websites there are filled this week with multiple predictions about who will be chosen, although there are bound to be surprises. Crosby recalls forward Rob Zamuner coming out of nowhere to make the 1998 team.
"A lot can happen," Crosby said. "I missed 30 games (last season) with a high ankle sprain, so I'm pretty sure it's pretty easy for something to happen. But it's something that would be great to be a part of, but not because I'd see my face everywhere. It would be great because it's in Canada and I'm playing hockey."