Within moments of the Pittsburgh Penguins winning the NHL entry draft lottery eight days ago, the club's phone lines lit up, then nearly crashed under the strain of calls suddenly flooding the front office.
Fans of the franchise that has come to epitomize the league's economic woes were clamoring for season tickets, wanting to reserve their rink-side seat at the Igloo to see a 17-year-old forward who hasn't scored a single NHL goal, but has already drawn comparisons to Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux.
Gretzky was "the Great One." Sidney Crosby is being called "the Next One." Crosby officially became a Penguin on Saturday afternoon, when Commissioner Gary Bettman confirmed what everyone already knew. Lemieux, the Penguins' player-owner, greeted the No. 1 overall pick on the stage in the ballroom of a downtown hotel here and handed him a black No. 87 jersey.
The symbolism of the moment was hard to ignore, as one of the game's ambassadors extended his hand to a future one, a former No. 1 pick welcoming the latest.
"He's going to create a lot of excitement around the league, especially in Pittsburgh," Lemieux said. "We've seen that ticket sales are booming. People are excited. It's really going to help us bring back the fans."
"This is going to be a big piece of the puzzle going forward," he added. "He's got all the tools to be a great, great player in this league and have a great career."
Crosby said his goal is simply to crack the Penguins' lineup next season. Everyone else's expectations of him, it seems, are considerably higher.
Following a 10-month labor dispute that wiped out the 2004-05 season and alienated the league's already thinning base of fans and sponsors, the NHL desperately needs the smooth-skating Nova Scotia native to rescue it from the verge of irrelevancy.
The Penguins, meantime, hope Crosby can deliver them from the edge of extinction, much the way Lemieux, 39, did. The two could play alongside one another this season.
"I look at it as a challenge," said Crosby, who wears No. 87 because of his birth date: Aug. 7, 1987. "I'm not going to put too much added pressure on myself. I want to play in the NHL, and after that [happens], I can worry about things beyond that."
Asked about the prospect of having Crosby live with him next season, Lemieux joked, "You mean have another kid?" Lemieux already has four of his own, but will likely -- if it hasn't happened already -- invite Crosby to move in.
"I'd love to have the opportunity to do that," Crosby said. "Obviously I'm going to be a rookie, so I'm going to try to learn as much as a I can, be open-minded. And be a student. . . . I'm going to learn from one of the best guys in Mario Lemieux. So I'm going to try and be a sponge in that way and learn as much as I can from him."
Some general managers and scouts say they don't buy the comparison to Gretzky, the league's all-time leading scorer. But few, if any, doubt Crosby has the skill and charisma to become a star. The only question is how brightly he will shine.
The 5-foot-11, 193-pound center netted 66 goals and amassed 102 assists in 62 games for Rimouski Oceanic of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and was the Canadian major junior player of the year the last two years.
Crosby is just as impressive off the ice. He exudes self-confidence, has a flawless smile and answers questions from reporters in English and French. He already has signed multimillion dollar endorsement deals with Reebok and Gatorade.
"He has elite hockey sense," Washington Capitals General Manager George McPhee said. "He's one of those players who has a picture of the ice that most people don't see, in terms of what he sees and how quickly his brain processes what his eyes see.
"He's got the intangibles, too," McPhee added. "When you have those abilities, the one thing that really separates the great players from average players is character. In his soul, he's a very confident person. He comes across the right way. He knows what he can accomplish -- without arrogance."
Because of the time constraints posed by the lockout, Saturday's draft was reduced to a one-day, seven-round event and was hosted in a hotel rather than the usual nine rounds split over two days in an NHL arena. It was closed to the public.
Anaheim used the second pick to take right wing Bobby Ryan, a New Jersey native who tallied 89 points for Owen Sound of the Ontario Hockey League last season. With the third pick, Carolina took the draft's highest-rated defenseman, Indianapolis-born Jack Johnson.
The Washington Capitals used the 14th pick to select Cornell University defenseman Sasha Pokulok, then traded their two second-round selections to Colorado for the 27th pick of the first round. McPhee used that choice to take another big defenseman, Joe Finley, from Sioux Falls of the United States Hockey League. The Capitals took five defensemen last year. Pokulok is 6-5, 220 pounds and Finley is 6-7, 229 pounds.
"If your defense is good, you are in every game," McPhee said. "If you can keep the puck out of your net, you are going to win more than you lose. It's a very difficult position to trade for or fill. We've often said 'a good defenseman is worth two good forwards.' "
It's safe to say that statement excludes Crosby, who, if the prognosticators are right, might be remembered as one of a kind.