In typical Crosby fashion, his concern wasn’t so much about his pursuit of a milestone only 45 other players in NHL history have reached, but how much it would inconvenience everyone else.
His parents, Troy and Trina, lived out of a suitcase while crisscrossing the Northeast in recent weeks in an effort to be on hand whenever their only son reached rarefied air. His teammates nearly tripped over themselves at times in an effort to force-feed him the puck.
Mentor and Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux put together a videotaped congratulatory message for a moment that seemed uncertain a decade ago when the lingering effects of a concussion cost the game’s best player the better part of two seasons and clouded his future.
Crosby, who had a deep appreciation for the history of the game long before he became a prodigy tasked with reviving a moribund franchise nearly two decades ago, understood the outpouring that would accompany No. 500.
For a player whose default status is to deflect attention to others despite his considerable gifts, maybe that’s what made the organic celebration after his shot from just above the goal line Tuesday night handcuffed Flyers goalie Carter Hart and caromed into the net so sweet.
The men who have had the best view of Crosby’s Hall of Fame career spilled over the boards to meet their captain in the corner at PPG Paints Arena — the same corner where Crosby erupted in November 2011 after his 216th career goal, the one against the New York Islanders following a 10-month absence. That giddy moment proved fleeting. Crosby spent the rest of that season grappling with concussion symptoms while dealing with whispers he may never be the same.
Those whispers have long since been silenced, replaced by the kind of roar that few others can produce. It echoed from one end of the venue that he built to the other on Tuesday night, euphoria for a player who has defined a generation.
“He’s in very elite company,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “And he’s so deserving. His legacy I think speaks for itself. To see the reaction, just the raw emotion on the bench, it gives you goosebumps when you’re watching it up close like we were as a coaching staff. It was really just a cool experience.”
One that is likely to become increasingly rare in an era when scoring is at a far higher premium than it was in Lemieux’s prime 30 years ago. Only seven members of the 500-goal club have played in the last decade; Crosby and Washington rival Alex Ovechkin — long the primal counterpart to the cerebral Crosby — are the only two active players on the list (veteran forward Patrick Marleau with 566 goals is currently a free agent).
“It’s hard to put into words,” Crosby said. “I think just being able to be part of some great teams over the years, play with some great players. It’s a cool number. You look at the guys who score 500 goals, I think it’s just a privilege to be part of that company.”
Eight active players currently have 400 goals. Of that group, only a handful — Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos (461), longtime Crosby teammate Evgeni Malkin (429), Chicago’s Patrick Kane (416) and Dallas’ Joe Pavelski (415) — seem to have a legitimate shot at joining the club.
If given a chance, Crosby might have thanked all 107 of his teammates who have collected assists on his 500 goals — a list that ranges from superstars like Lemieux and Malkin to the likes of Micki Dupont, he of the three career assists, one of them to Crosby in a long-forgotten victory over Atlanta in 2006.
Crosby’s star was still ascending at that point in the city he’s called home from the moment the Penguins took him with the top pick in the 2005 draft. The sport is booming in Pittsburgh thanks in part to the thrills Crosby has provided so regularly for so long.
Even the Flyers, who have found themselves on the wrong end of Crosby goals (50 and counting) more than any other team, took a moment to acknowledge history. Several players tapped their sticks on the board in appreciation during an extended video tribute in the second period.
“Wish he did it against somebody else, or at least we got the win,” said Philadelphia coach Mike Yeo, an assistant coach for the Penguins when Crosby led them to the Stanley Cup in 2009. ”(H)e’s an incredible player and I’m definitely very grateful to have had the chance to coach him.”
Yet it’s telling of Crosby’s legacy that afterward, as much as he enjoyed a rare moment of pure joy in the middle of the unique grind that is an NHL regular season, he lamented a letdown that allowed the Flyers to rally and nearly pull off an upset.
As much as he’ll cherish the puck and the mob scene in the corner, Crosby remains defined not by the goals he scores but the wins they create. That relentless pursuit of team — not individual — success is part of what separates him from nearly everyone else.
“His humility, the way he carries himself, his work ethic, his team-first attitude and approach,” Sullivan said. “He leads by example. He represents everything that’s right about our game.”