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Bright Lights and Bruises

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They meet for the first time at an international tournament when Sidney Crosby is fourteen.

Team Canada is waiting outside the hotel, huffing into gloved hands to stay warm while the vans that will carry them to supper take their time pulling around from the garage. "Hey." Russy, one of the other Canada players, older and dark-haired, elbows Sidney and nods in the direction of where Team Russia also congregates, milling about as they gather up for the meal. "Look. Over there at that one. Fangs." He holds two fingers to his front teeth and wiggles them in demonstration.

The Russian boy, the one Russy is talking about -- the one everyone is talking about this year, they call him the next Pavel Bure, a new superstar -- looks up in their direction. Alexander Ovechkin, all too-big hands and long arms and yes, crooked teeth. He frowns at where Sidney stands with the others.

"Heh, fangs," echoes Marc, another of the Canadians, from behind them.

"Stop it you guys, that's mean," says Sidney, embarrassed at the way Ovechkin's eyes track their movements.

"What, it's not like he can understand us. None of them speak English."

Ovechkin turns back and speaks to one of the adults in his group, a translator.

"Stop it anyway," Sidney says, resolved, and the others drop the matter in favor of teasing Sidney instead: goody-two-shoes, baby. He's two years younger than any of his teammates, and that makes him the butt of all the jokes.

He doesn't see Ovechkin again off-ice for the rest of the tournament.

---

The press clippings that his mother faithfully keeps -- in English, in French; from Montreal, Toronto, Quebec -- call him a phenomenon, the most promising talent of his generation. Sidney Crosby, the next Big One. In other clippings, ones that his mother doesn't read or discards and Sidney collects to secret away, they call Ovechkin the Russian Wonder, explosive on the ice and full of grins and quips off it. Sidney learned young never to believe his own press. He doesn't think too much of believing anyone else's either.

---

They meet again when Sidney is sixteen, at World Juniors. It's Sidney's first time on the big stage, and Alexander's third and last. It's like moving up from Midgets all over again: everyone bigger, everyone more worldly. Sidney feels wide-eyed and diminished, anxious for the hour when he can fit on his skates and put everything but the ammonia-and-chill smell of ice behind him.

"Privyet," says Alexander, and extends a hand in Sidney's direction.

"Uh, hi," says Sidney, and bites at a chapped place on his lips. They'll play each other tonight, after the media circus ends, after a meal, after a nap. If he squints now he can begin to see Alexander as the enemy. Give him a few hours. By the time his blade settles secure onto ice, he'll have the image built up. He'll be halfway to real hatred for the other boy by eight o'clock when they drop the biscuit.

Alexander says something that Sidney can't understand, and the older man behind his right shoulder steps forward. "He says he does not wish you luck," the man translates, and glances at Alexander to catch the rest of it. "That people talk about you a great deal for someone who has never played in the tournament before." Sidney stares at his mustache as he talks, the way it wiggles like a puppet in a comic would do.

"I can't help how people talk," Sidney says, stands straighter to try and make himself look large. "I just play hockey."

The man murmurs to Alexander, listens to the reply. The mustache rustles. It's disorienting, conducting a conversation of pauses this way, trying to hear Alexander's inflection and meanings beneath the translator's polished monotone. "He says that the way you play hockey makes people talk. He hears them, they cannot help themselves. But it will be good to play against you. Also that you should not have hard feelings tonight when he wins."

Sidney blinks, opens his mouth to reply, closes it again because his first reply would have been impolite, grins involuntarily. "Tell him people will still be talking about me after tonight. When he loses." The translator is still speaking the message when Sidney walks away.

That night, Ovechkin checks him into the boards twice and splits his lip on a huge hit where he tries to skate through Sidney to steal the puck in the neutral zone. Sidney bares his teeth at him through the blood and Ovechkin just laughs and spits a phrase at him in Russian. It doesn't sound kind.

Sidney retaliates by scoring twice, once on a pretty wraparound that sings in his blood and won't let him stop smiling, even if it hurts the busted lip. People will keep talking about him after that one. Let them, he's elated, tonight after a goal like that he can do no wrong. The game goes six rounds into a shootout. Sidney puts his shot in the second round in the net; Alex nets his shot in the third. Russia wins.

At the media scrum after the game, reporters school around him as though the blood in his mouth attracts them, like chum in the water, on the ice. Sidney gives canned, careful answers to their questions and watches Ovechkin hold court across the press room. Their eyes catch once and hold.

Sidney nods, just enough for Alexander to see, not enough for the reporters to ask about it. Alexander raises one eyebrow -- a skill Sidney has always lacked and envied -- and curls his mouth in what might be a grin if it weren't so aggressive. There's too much challenge there to call it a smile.

Sidney gives his own version of the expression and turns his attention back to the reporters.

Canada recovers from the loss. They go on to win the tournament. Russia is eliminated in semifinals so they don't play each other again. He doesn't see Alexander any more.

---

He's drafted first overall in 2005 at the age of eighteen, just after the lockout ends. Pittsburgh crowns him the future of the near-defunct Penguins. The league crowns him the face of its new marketing campaign. GQ crowns him one of the year's brightest and best looking rising stars, and asks him to pose naked. Sidney compromises: he does his best to lead the Penguins if the team tries to keep reporters off his back, he does press for the league if the commissioner Bettman makes sure to always include big publicity for the team as well, and he agrees to pose shirtless for GQ if they let him keep his pants.

Alex Ovechkin is the other dynamite talent of the year, and unlike Sidney seems to live without a concept of what compromise might mean. On the night after the draft he's photographed drinking at a club with a blonde on each arm and his shirt halfway unbuttoned, dark smiles and hard eyes. The NHL marketing department begins to spin them as yin and yang: earnest young over-achiever and careless but brilliant playboy. Sidney lets them shape his image as they like, and tries to keep his nose down. His job is just to play hockey.

The Penguins play the Capitals for the first time on the road, the second of four away games that they'll play on the trip. Sidney runs into Alex in the corridors of Verizon Center in Washington the day before the game, as he searches for the equipment room where the team set up the video and white boards for strategy.

"Hello," says Sidney, walking past, and doesn't really expect a reply.

"Hello." He's never heard Alex speak English before. His face must show the surprise, because Alex smirks. "I learn English for the team. Not fast, but learn, so."

Sidney speaks more slowly than normal to make himself understood. "You're better at it than the last time I saw you."

A line creases Alex's forehead, concentrating. "The last time we don't talk at all. Reporters in between us." Sidney laughs, and the line in his forehead disappears when Alex grins back. He still has the crooked teeth. "And the last time we play, I win," says Alex, smug.

"Don't get used to it," Sidney grumbles.

Alex points him toward the video room, and Sidney puts the encounter to the back of his mind.

The next day, at the game, Alex doesn't manage to get a hit in on him, but the Caps win 3-2. Sidney gets an assist, two penalties, and a massive case of frustration with both himself and the team.

"I win again," Alex says as they pass in the hall. Sidney resists the urge to punch him in the teeth.

---

Ovechkin wins the Calder. Sidney manages to give a gracious statement to the media and only throws unimportant things across the room when he gets home, so overall he thinks he's handling the pressure pretty well.

---

When NHL 07 the game comes out, there's a familiar face on the front. Sidney actually isn't too bitter about Alex getting the game cover, because there's a well-known curse that whoever fronts the game loses in the playoffs the next year. It gives him hope.

When he gets home, he settles in with a bowl of pita chips, a thermos of Gatorade, and the PS3 console he bought as a splurge after he was drafted, preparing to vegetate for a weekend as he conquers the imaginary hockey world. In the game, he plays as the Penguins whenever he can, and leads them to championship after championship -- a Stanley Cup on Friday, a Stanley Cup on Saturday, a Stanley Cup on Sunday.

He watches himself as a mass of pixels hoist the Cup and wonders how heavy it will feel in his arms, whether the metal will be cold from the air above the ice or whether it will feel strangely warm just because he'll be so happy to touch it. It's not a question of if he'll one day hoist the Cup; there's not a shard of doubt in Sidney's mind that it will happen. The only question -- as the face on the box reminds him, watching through the plastic cover as he plays -- is whether Alex will get there first.

---

It's another three years, a captaincy, a lost chance at the Cup and a host of bitter games later when the two of them meet once more in the second round of the playoffs. It's a seven game series, and despite the Penguins' having done it the year before and won on their way to a loss in the Cup Finals, Sidney feels his nerves wrap knots around his stomach and squeeze the air out of his lungs. There's no way that he can skate like this. He can barely stand up.

Mario tells him it never gets easier. Mario would know.

He ties the knots on his skates tighter than they need to be and swallows past the tennis ball stuck in his throat to lead the team down the echo of the concrete tunnel and out onto the ice. He's the captain; if he's scared he can't show it. The team follows him and the team needs to see a confident leader, so Sidney projects confidence with every pore of his body, and prays his ankles don't quiver when he sets skate to ice.

Ovechkin is already out. He grins, he skates backward, he snows his linemates for fun so they'll chase him. Sidney might just hate him a little bit.

The Caps win the game. Sidney might just hate him a lot.

In game two, Sidney gets a hat trick. Alex does too. The Caps win again.

Game three turns things around, and the Penguins finally start playing like the team that Sidney knows to his marrow they can be. Game four is a slaughter. Sidney gets two goals, Evgeni gets two goals, Fleury plays like a rock between the posts and holds the Caps to one. Sidney smiles shark teeth and knives across the ice at Alex afterward in the lineup to shake hands, and when Alex finally reaches him in line they both quietly try to break each other's fingers by grip alone. Game five is pure momentum, the Penguins playing on adrenaline and the contact high that comes with being part of a team that knows its destiny.

The Caps win game six but it doesn't matter. Game seven is theirs, the series is theirs, the division title and the Conference Championship and the Stanley Cup are theirs, and God help the teams that get in Sidney's way. He's played for a series like this his whole life, and now that he's here, now that he's doing it, somehow the nerves and mood swings and the lock-jawed determination feel as natural as breath.

The Stanley Cup is lighter than he expected in his arms above his head -- or perhaps the adrenaline of the win or the pain of the knee he smashed in the second period combine to bypass every signal that would let him think it's heavy. The metal under his gloveless hands feels cold, familiar, icy. Sidney thinks that might be appropriate, and secretly hopes the Cup sticks to his palms so that they can never pry it out of his grip.

He's hoisted onto someone's shoulders, he can't tell who.

A stick hits him in the ear where someone's waving it high, and the ringing in his head feels like harmony with the teeth-grinding throb from his knee.

Bony hands nearly drop him before someone else grabs hold, and their grip mashes right into the blackened grape-fruit sized bruise on his thigh from where that neanderthal Stuart whacked him with a stick in the fifth game.

He raises the Cup again to deafening roars from the crowd.

Someone wrenches his knee to a whole new level of agony.

It's without a doubt the most sublime moment of Sidney's entire life.

---

Commissioner Bettman calls him up that summer and wants him to film a pair of commercials for the league. Sidney initially refuses. Bettman then threatens to sign the Penguins up as one of the teams lending athletes to ESPN for a naked photoshoot. It's in the league's promotion contract with the team: he can require them to supply players. Sidney spares a moment to wonder why the world seems so keen on seeing him nude, and then capitulates to do the commercials instead.

Bettman signs Chara up for the ESPN shoot. Bettman has a sick sense of humor.

Sidney is coming out of makeup for the commercial and doing his level best to avoid meeting anyone he knows while wearing mascara, when the director charges around a corner and practically runs into him. She's a tiny woman, barely chest-high on him, but she waves her clipboard in his face in a motion to follow. "Come on, we've been waiting for you," she says.

'We' turns out to mean Alex. He too is in makeup, so neither one can hold the masculine high ground on that count, but the stylist had insisted that Sidney shave and Alex gets to keep his rough stubble. Alex smirks. Sidney smiles back at him with all the warmth of someone who knows he's won a Stanley Cup, and watches Alex's eyes widen minutely. Sidney isn't sure what it means, exactly, but it feels like a victory.

"You played well," says Alex as the film crew bustles around them, adjusting lighting and taping little blue Xs to the green background.

"Thanks."

"After you beat us in the second, I had to hope that you would win so that it would not be so bad, to be beaten by the winner."

Sidney smiles. When Alex smiles back it seems genuine.

Winning the Stanley Cup calms something between them, severs a string of tension that Sidney didn't realize was there until they aren't competing for that milestone anymore. The thought of a second commercial shoot no longer feels like a sentence to hard labor in a prison ship galley.

"I look better in the eye paint," says Alex, regarding himself in the mirror and tilting his head to admire the effect, much to the dismay of his stylist. Sidney closes his eyes. After Alex is finished, he's next in line for eyeliner and mascara. When he opens them again, Alex is watching, fascinated. Sidney blinks at the heavy feeling around his lids. "I look much better," Alex concludes.

Sidney laughs. The stylist makes shushing motions at him to stay still. "Sure," he says as she poofs powder at his forehead. "You can have that one. If anyone asks, I'll tell them you look better."

Alex eyes him suspiciously, then bumps him against the wall with his shoulder when they both step out into the hallway. Sidney reciprocates amiably, nudging him back with slightly more force than Alex had used. It's only the stylist's dire noise of warning that prevents a scuffle.

Alex nudges him once more to get the last word in, then saunters on ahead and flirts outrageously with the slender girl holding the boom mike. Sidney considers the encounter. He feels curiously satisfied.

---

The Cup win magnifies the Pittsburgh media curiosity about him from intense to all-consuming. Everyone loves a champion. Sidney is their wholesome idol. Less often than he used to, but still at least once every two months or so, Sidney evades the pursuing cameras and the reporter hordes to drive to Scranton, where the Penguins' AHL affiliate plays. It's good for morale there when he shows up in the stands, and Sidney feels its his captainly duty. He looks forward to the solitude of the drive, the chance to watch a game as just a fan -- stuff himself on hotdogs and popcorn and shout stupid jeers at opposing goalies without fear of repercussions.

The Scranton Penguins are playing the Caps-affiliated Hershey Bears -- a regional rivalry, very hot -- when someone sits down behind him and kicks him not-so-lightly in the kidneys.

"Hey!" Sidney is up and out of his seat, turning around and angry. He'll kill the jackass who -- it's Alex perched there on the edge of a seat, smirking at him. "Asshole," Sidney mutters and sits back down.

Alex steps over the row of seats to sit beside him.

Sidney wordlessly offers his popcorn, and Alex takes a handful to munch.

At first intermission, Alex stands and stretches. "You drink PBR?" he says, and then "Be back," when Sidney nods.

Alex brings more popcorn with the beer. It lasts for most of the second, until the layer in the bottom of the bag gets spilled when Alex jumps up to yell at the ref in Russian about a whistle. Sidney doesn't think the call was so bad. It put a Hershey Bear in the box.

Alex settles back into his seat, a lump of hunched shoulders and crossed arms, grumbling threats in two different languages and cursing proficiently in both. Sidney leans over and gives him a friendly shoulder nudge to cheer him up. Alex nudges him back, harder, and when Sidney doesn't retaliate he stays that way, leaning over as a companionable if heavy weight against Sidney's left side.

Someone could take a picture. People would talk.

Sidney lets him stay there, and Alex doesn't move, even through their discussion -- argument -- during second intermission about the probable eyesight of the referee. They both get up only when the game is over and the arena is mostly empty of fans.

"I should go talk to the dressing room," says Sidney. "I usually do, when I'm here."

Alex nods. "Me too. You know, the Bears and the very small Penguins play again next month. In Hershey."

Sidney knows. He has a game the next day. The late drive would throw his usual game day routine into fits. "I'll be there," he says.

Alex reaches out and rests a hand briefly on his shoulder, then walks away toward the Bears' tunnel. Sidney turns the other way.

A young girl, maybe six, seven years old runs up, trailed by her harassed-looking mother. "You're Sidney Crosby," she squeaks, and thrusts a Sharpie marker in his direction. Sidney smiles, and signs the cap that she holds reverently out to him.

"Thank you," says her mother. Sidney looks down at the girl.

"You know, if you run really fast, that guy walking right there is Alex Ovechkin. I bet he'd sign your cap too." The girl's eyes go saucer-huge and she's off, dashing after Alex. Sidney watches her progress through the seats.

"Is that really Ovechkin?" the mother asks, watching Alex turn around and kneel to talk to the kid.

"Yeah."

"I thought you two were rivals."

Sidney shakes his head. "Nah. We used to be. Not so much anymore."

"Weird."

Sidney shrugs. "What about my life is normal?"

The mother quirks a grin at this, and at the way Alex talks to the girl with huge playful hand gestures, second-nature after years of motioning to help his broken English. "I bet you like it that way," she says. "Weird."

"Yeah," Sidney confirms. "Yeah, I really do."