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World Cup of Hockey elevated Sidney Crosby to all-time great

Not even three full months had passed when Sidney Crosby arrived in Ottawa for training camp ahead of the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.

Barely enough time to plan and throw a Stanley Cup party, and start recharging the batteries after a 104-game season, never mind actually getting ready for the next one.

Or so we incorrectly thought.

The best of his generation was carrying around a diamond saw in his hockey bag during that sublime period where he carved his way onto the sport’s Mount Rushmore. And he’d tapped in to a seemingly endless well of emotional and physical energy in the process.

There was legitimate reason to question how much Canada’s captain had in him to give for that rebooted World Cup, an event with an inconsistent past and an uncertain future. It required players to report on Sept. 5 and embark on an ambitious itinerary that saw training camp, three exhibition games and six tournament games squeezed into a 24-day window.

All that, coming off the short summer.

Crosby is a player that from the very early stages of his career believed his legacy would be defined by team success. Championships. And he and the Pittsburgh Penguins had just ended a seven-year odyssey by winning their second Stanley Cup on June 12 in Nashville — giving him full license, if his heart desired, to spend the next few months savouring a spirited run that also earned him the Conn Smythe Trophy.

Instead, it had the opposite effect.

The fuse stayed lit throughout that off-season.

“It was short, but exciting knowing we were coming here,” Crosby said after pulling on his Team Canada sweater.

Beyond the parade through Pittsburgh and the Cup party in Cole Harbour, N.S., he crucially spent time that summer skating back home with Brad Marchand. The Haligonians had a notion they might end up playing together at the World Cup and were paired together right from the first practice alongside Patrice Bergeron — Marchand’s linemate in Boston and Crosby’s teammate from multiple golden moments gone by.

Together, they became a wrecking ball.

Crosby scored the first goal of the tournament for Canada and Marchand potted the last, a short-handed marker with 44 seconds to play that secured a 2-1 victory over Team Europe. In between, they overwhelmed opponents with dogged puck pursuit and possession, leading the charge for a stacked Canadian team that methodically removed any doubt about how the event would end with each passing day.

There was an ease and joy to the way Crosby went about his business over a couple weeks that September. Three times he gave Canada a 1-0 lead inside the first 10 minutes of a game. Unlike in Vancouver and Sochi, best-on-best Olympic tournaments where he took misguided criticism early before delivering late, Crosby extinguished the hot takes before they could even be written.

He led the tournament in scoring with 10 points and was a slam-dunk choice as tournament MVP.

“I just think he knows how good he is and he’s more patient with what he’s doing,” Team Canada coach Mike Babcock observed during the event. “When things don’t go well, he doesn’t get frustrated; when people cross check him he doesn’t get riled up.

“He just knows he’s going to have success over time.”

The most memorable moments of that 2016 World Cup were arguably delivered by a Team North America squad that announced Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon and Auston Matthews as challengers to the establishment in hockey’s orbit, but history will look back on it as an event where Crosby nudged the bar a little bit higher for that chase group.

He was in his prime with nothing left to prove and managed to do it better, for longer, than any of them.

The tournament ended with him lifting another trophy.

“He plays the game hard. He plays the game with a lot of pride,” said Team Canada goalie Carey Price. “That’s the type of player that if you’re a young kid watching how to play hockey, that’s the way you do it.”

Crosby continued to set the standard after heading straight from the World Cup celebrations at Air Canada Centre to Penguins training camp.

Against the odds, he put together an even better statistical season in 2016-17 and went on to lead Pittsburgh to another Stanley Cup the following spring.

And when he held a party afterwards, he displayed a Hall of Fame career’s worth of hardware on a table at his house: Two Stanley Cups, two Conn Smythes, the World Cup trophy, the World Cup MVP crystal and the Rocket Richard Trophy for being the NHL’s top goal-scorer.

All of it won during an unthinkable 15-month stretch.

One that elevated Crosby from an NHL great to one of its greatest.

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Written by Sportsnet

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