He wasnt even on the ice yet. He was sitting on the Penguins bench, watching the action unfold. That hardly seemed to matter to the crowd.
The puck dropped and the game had just begun when the chant got going. It started slowly and softly at first, almost like a whisper from the upper reaches of the Wells Fargo Center. The volume and number of participants grew quickly, and before long it was easy enough to make out what was being said: Cros-by sucks.
Welcome back, Sidney Crosby. They love you in Philadelphia.
The Pittsburgh Penguins came to town on Sunday afternoon for a nationally televised clash with the Flyers. It was the NHL on NBC Game of the Week, and with good reason: the Penguins entered the afternoon second in the Atlantic Division (fourth overall in the Eastern Conference), while the Flyers were right behind them (third in the Atlantic Division, fifth in the Eastern Conference). The Penguins also came in hot enough to melt the ice, having won 11 straight games.
The last time Crosby played in Philly was Dec 14, 2010. The Penguins were on an 11-game winning streak back then, too. The Flyers won the game that day and stopped the Penguins forward progress. They did the same thing on Sunday, winning 3-2 thanks to a dramatic goal by Scott Hartnell with just 0.9 seconds remaining in overtime. The victory moved the Flyers within three points of the Rangers and two points of the Penguins in the standings.
In the Penguins locker room following the game, Crosby wasnt overly talkative.
Tough loss for us, Crosby said in a quick exchange with the gathered media.
After missing 40 games in a row with concussion-like symptoms and a soft tissue issue in his neck, Crosby returned to the ice on Thursday and had two assists in a win over the Rangers in New York. On Saturday, Crosby added three more assists in a victory against the Devils in New Jersey. Counting the Flyers game, Crosby has played in just nine games since being concussed last January.
During his career, Crosby has abused the Flyers, scoring 26 goals and adding 36 assists in 37 games against Philadelphia. That wasnt the case on Sunday. Crosby had three shots and finished as a minus-1. The fans seemed pleased about that and even glad to have him back in town -- glad in the same way that a boxers fist has a freshly-stuffed heavy bag to punch.
Its no secret that Flyers fans love to loathe Crosby. The Penguins center once complained that the Wells Fargo center is a vicious atmospherethats not a fun atmosphere, which naturally encouraged the Flyers faithful to verbally abuse him even more. They were so eager to give Crosby heat that they accidentally and unwittingly booed him when he appeared on the Wells Fargo Center video screen for spot put together by the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. When the national media found out about that, they had a good time with it -- even though, as previously noted, the crowd was booing Crosby, not rooting for cancer.
Theres something about Crosby that simply rankles hockey heads around here. His talent, his looks, the cut of his jib -- none of it goes over well in Philly. Even though hes only 24, hes become Public Enemy No. 1. Actually, strike that. Hes Public Enemy No. 10, according to the recently compiled list of greatest villains in Philly sports history. Thats impressive stuff for a guy whos only three years removed from his first legal drink.
The Penguins scored their first goal early in the first period and then added a second goal in the second period on an acrobatic divingsliding shot by Evgeni Malkin. And so, until the third period when the Flyers tied the game, the building was relatively quiet -- as though the assembly was in a doctors office waiting room (perhaps to get a cure for the residual St. Pattys Day headaches). It stopped being so quiet, though, when Crosby was involved in the proceedings. When Crosby was on the ice and the puck on his stick, the crowd reacted as it generally does -- they booed, loud and long. Crosby called the reception "typical." The fans did cheer a few times when Crosby was on the ice -- when Crosbys shots were stopped by Ilya Brzygalov, especially during a three-on-three stretch in overtime.
If part of sports is rooting for something or someone, then the other part -- perhaps less frequent, but no less enjoyable at times -- is rooting against something or someone. For every good guy in the white hat you need a dastardly desperado in all black. Makes things more enjoyable that way. On Sunday -- with a Flyers win and a chance to boo Crosby once more -- the crowd seemed to have quite a bit of fun -- both cheering and jeering.
E-mail John Gonzalez at firstname.lastname@example.org