LONDON, Ontario (AP) – The prediction seemed preposterous at the time: A kid named Sidney Crosby had the potential to one day challenge Wayne Gretzky’s records.

What gave the words weight was their source: Gretzky himself. Two years later, little has changed in the opinion of “The Great One,” still enamored of Crosby, the 17-year-old prodigy dubbed “The Next One.”

“We’re always looking for guys to be the cornerstones, and he’s a guy that has all that potential,” Gretzky says. “He’s obviously the future of the National Hockey League.”

Gretzky is so impressed that he made a point this week of attending the Memorial Cup tournament, where Crosby and his Quebec junior Rimouski Oceanic club are competing in a four-team playoff to determine Canada’s national champion.

Gretzky’s trip to London, 90 minutes west of Toronto, was viewed as paying homage. Here was hockey’s high ambassador, who ushered in the league’s last expansion era in the 1990s, paying tribute to Crosby, the player many hope will revive the game’s sagging image, tarnished by a labor dispute that canceled the 2004-05 season.

“One person can’t save the NHL,” said Gretzky, the Phoenix Coyotes’ managing partner. “But we all have sort of a hand in contributing.”

And Crosby, almost certainly the No. 1 pick whenever the NHL gets around to holding its next draft, is expected to shoulder a heavy burden if the game has any chance of regaining relevance in nontraditional hockey markets.

The native of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, has done his part so far.

In two seasons with Rimouski, the forward has 120 goals, 183 assists and 303 points in 121 regular-season games. He’s failed to register a point in only eight games – and only twice this past season. His 2.5 points a game average is just behind Mario Lemieux’s 2.8 points over three seasons as a Quebec junior in the 1980s. Gretzky had 70 goals, 112 assists for 182 points in 64 games as a 17-year-old in his one junior season in 1977-78.

Crosby’s the first junior to win two Canadian Hockey League player of the year awards. He counts Lemieux as a friend, hanging out with the Pittsburgh Penguins’ owner-player whenever the two are in Los Angeles. And he’s already landed a marketing deal, signing a five-year contract reportedly worth $5 million with Reebok earlier this year to promote the company’s line of hockey gear and apparel.

It doesn’t hurt that Crosby is a polite, handsome young man who is outgoing with the media and fans, recently learned to speak French – a big plus in hockey-mad Quebec – and is unwaveringly humble.

He barely noticed that besides Gretzky, Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman were among those attending Rimouski games this past week.

“I don’t know if they’re coming to see me,” Crosby said.

And he’s unshaken by the comparisons to Gretzky and Lemieux.

“I just try to be myself,” Crosby said. “That’s a long way to go before I can even think about being in the same shoes as those guys.”

Crosby’s a strong skater with great instincts, possessing a knack for being in the right place, and is particularly a threat in transition. He has a solid shot, is a creative passer and responsible on defense. NHL executives attending the Memorial Cup were impressed.

“He can pass the puck as well as anyone that I’ve seen play the game – maybe with the exception of Wayne and Mario,” Florida Panthers general manager Mike Keenan said.

“This boy is special,” Toronto Maple Leafs coach Pat Quinn said. “You think back to Gordie (Howe) then Bobby Orr, Jean Beliveau, Gretzky and Lemieux … he might be a guy who carries that same torch for the National Hockey League some day.”

Vancouver Canucks chief scout Steve Tambellini put it bluntly, saying: “He’s a sure thing, oh yeah.”

Gretzky is struck by the youngster’s poise and maturity, well aware of the demands and distractions that come with being billed a teenage phenom.

“He handles himself with a great amount of dignity,” Gretzky said. “It’s fun to see somebody who loves the game and is very unselfish.”

A reminder of Gretzky in his younger days?

“No. He’s probably more mature at 17 than maybe I was,” said Gretzky, who first met Crosby three years ago at a rink in Los Angeles.

Crosby remembers the meeting well, and remains floored by Gretzky’s praise.

“I’ll be the first one to tell you I don’t think anyone’s ever going to break his records,” Crosby said. “I think he’s the greatest player to play. But if he’s going to say that about me, I’m going to try to continue what I’m doing. For sure, it’s flattering.”

AP-ES-05-26-05 2148EDT

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