PITTSBURGH (AP) – Sidney Crosby has yet to pull on a Pittsburgh Penguins’ No. 87 jersey. Has yet to sign his first contract, attend his first training camp, play his first shift, go through the hassle of his first eight-cities-in-12 days road trip.

But it was evident Saturday, from the we’ve-just-hit-the-lottery enthusiasm displayed by everyone in the organization from player-owner Mario Lemieux on down, that this 17-year-old phenom from Nova Scotia has already changed everything about hockey in Pittsburgh.

The team’s worst team when the NHL last played a regular-season game in 2004, the Penguins can now look upon the playoffs as a realistic goal this season. And ticket sales, which sagged after years of near-capacity crowds in the league’s oldest and least fan-friendly arena, picked up substantially minutes after the Penguins won the No. 1 pick Friday in the NHL draft lottery.

The Penguins sold scores of season ticket packages Friday night to fans from 10 states and Canada, even though ticket-buyers had to wait 45 minutes on hold just to get an operator.

Other phones are ringing, too. With hundreds of players about to be dumped on the free agent market Aug. 1, some had their agents call general manager Craig Patrick.

They are eager for the chance to play alongside Lemieux, Crosby and Mark Recchi, in front of goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, to get back to the player-friendly venue which lost stars such as Jaromir Jagr, Ron Francis, Alex Kovalev and Martin Straka not because they wanted to leave, but because the Penguins couldn’t afford them.

Thanks to a salary cap that will shrink the gap between the Penguins’ payroll and that of the upper-tier teams from $55 million in 2003-04 to about $10 million in 2005-06, they can compete again on the open market for top-tier players.

Patrick has a plan going into the free agent signing period, with needs prioritized as A, B,C and D. “But A just got filled,” he said.

Patrick, like most general managers, guards against hyping a young player to avoid creating premature expectations of greatness by the fans. But he fairly gushes about Crosby, saying, “People have said he’s got the vision of Wayne Gretzky and the goal-scoring and playmaking ability of Mario Lemieux.”

But how could the Penguins not be excited about a player who caused Florida Panthers GM Mike Keenan to observe, “He can pass the puck as well as anyone I’ve seen play this game – maybe with the exception of Wayne (Gretzky) and Mario.”

All of a sudden, maybe Ben Roethlisberger isn’t the best passer in Pittsburgh any longer.

And Lemieux, leaned upon so often for so many years by the Penguins he even had to buy the team to keep it from leaving town, now has a successor in place – a star in waiting, a potential franchise-saver, just as he once seemed to have in Jagr. The player for whom future teams will be built around, just as every Penguins team that Lemieux has played for was built around him.

“He’s going to have a major impact,” Lemieux said.

How’s this for quirky synergy? When Lemieux was drafted No. 1 in 1984, a goalie from his same Canadian junior league was chosen 240 spots later by Montreal. Troy Crosby never made it to the NHL, but his son will, starting Oct. 5.

Then Troy Crosby can put another picture on his wall in Cole Harbor, Nova Scotia.

“I’ve been told he’s got a photo in his den where he’s looking back into the net … I was on a breakaway and I roofed it,” Lemieux said Saturday, describing a long-ago goal in the Quebec junior majors that No. 66 scored on the elder Crosby. “He was a little late on it.”

This time, though, a Crosby’s timing couldn’t be more right. Sidney Crosby is arriving just when the Penguins need him most, with a new arena still not a certainty and with the urgent need to re-establish the franchise at a critical time before its current arena lease expires in 2007.

“This is huge,” Lemieux said, relating how the momentum generated by Crosby’s presence could spur the arena effort.

“We’re on Cloud 9,” team president Ken Sawyer said. “This has probably been the greatest 24-hour period of building a team here since 1984.”

The Penguins did stage one ceremonial jersey-wearing ceremony Saturday: Recchi put on his No. 8 again, nearly a year after re-signing with the Penguins. But he knows he’s not the biggest news in town right now.

“It’s not Crosby, sorry,” he said, tugging on the Penguins jersey he last wore 13 years ago. “But that’s coming.”

The Penguins can’t wait.

AP-ES-07-23-05 1910EDT


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