Do you remember? It was Feb. 20, 2021, the night of Sidney Crosby’s major milestone 1,000th game, with no fans in the stands because of COVID-19, and the Pittsburgh Penguins star center standing on the ice as longtime teammates Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang presented him with a forged silver stick and a mosaic made of pictures from each of his first 999 games as part of a pregame ceremony.
You could see their eyes. They were misty. Crosby even later chuckled about how just looking at each other made it impossible to maintain dry eyes.
It wasn’t a night then to ponder what it will be like when the team captain and his two alternate captains learn that they will no longer all be members of the Penguins. It will probably be a private moment. They might even share that moment by something as normally impersonal as a text because of the distance during the summer.
But you can just imagine the mist will rise again.
And if you have been paying attention, you can imagine it could very well happen this offseason, with Malkin, a center, and Letang, a defenseman, pending unrestricted free agents and maybe headed elsewhere.
For 16 seasons, they have been Penguins teammates – the longest stretch for three players with the same team in NHL history, and one of the most productive stretches, with three Stanley Cups and lots of other hardware.
Crosby, from Nova Scotia, was already in the NHL for a year and already was ascending to a long-time unofficial ambassadorship as the face of the league, if not the sport, when Malkin, who is Russian, and Letang, who is French-Canadian, made their Penguins debuts in 2006-07.
Letang’s English was a little sketchy. Malkin’s was nearly non-existent. But they started to bond over their common language, hockey.
Tuesday, the three – Crosby, 34, Letang and Malkin, 35 — got perhaps the last chance to publicly talk about what they mean to each other while they are still teammates.
Letang reflected on the early days.
“Having the chance to play against him in the Quebec League, (Crosby) was always a model,” Letang said of their days as junior hockey opponents. “Even if he was the same age, it was like he does everything perfectly, how focused he is, and the dedication he puts into hockey is just amazing. So to have him alongside me and ‘Geno,’ it’s a treat for us.
“And Geno, I saw him grow as a player and as a person. We all know how good he was, and everything he’s accomplished throughout his career is just amazing, but to see the beginning of Geno, not speaking a word of English and after that being a guy who jokes around, having him more with the guys out for dinner.
“We kind of grew all together. You learn a lot more when you spend that much time with these guys.”
To the point where now they can nearly finish each other’s sentences as easily as they finish plays together.
Malkin, aka Geno, was both funny and poignant talking about the three of them.
“It’s amazing. It’s like my two brothers, one Canadian and one French-Canadian. I love them both,” Malkin said.
“It’s not just hockey; it’s life. We spend so much time together. We know each other pretty well.”
Hearing about Malkin’s brothers comment, Crosby laughed, then reflected.
“I think we all feel the same way,” Crosby said. “We’ve been fortunate enough to play together for a long time, been through a lot. I think (when) you look at all those experiences, there’s a lot of belief, a lot of trust in one another. With that, we’ve had success, too. So I think there’s also a confidence level. That’s very rare, and I think we all appreciate that.
“That being said, we understand that it’s not something that can happen forever, but, hopefully, a little bit longer. Hopefully, we continue to play together. It’s unique. It’s special. And, like I said, I think we’ve done a pretty good job as a group and as a team, so, hopefully, that plays into it, too.”
Three brothers. Trois freres. три брата.
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan can’t hardly separate the three when he thinks about their impact. He was asked about Malkin and Letang – after all, Crosby has three more years on his contract – but Sullivan instinctively formed his answer around all three in one of his many soliloquies about his marquee stars and leaders.
“It’s hard for me to articulate what these guys mean to the Pittsburgh Penguins organization,” Sullivan said. “When you look at the legacy that has been built here over the last 16 years, those three guys are the cornerstone of that excellence. There’s probably a reason why these three guys have played for the same organization for as long as they have. From my standpoint, they’re the guys that have established the standard of what it means to be a Pittsburgh Penguin. They’re the guys that have built the culture of excellence that’s been created here in Pittsburgh that we’ve all enjoyed over the last 16 years during their career here.
“I can’t say enough about these guys and how driven they are, their desire to win, their care for the Pittsburgh Penguins and their teammates. They’re the standard, for me, of what it means to be a Pittsburgh Penguin, and they’re the guys that have put the work in day in and day out that has allowed this organization to achieve the level of success that it’s had during their time.”
Sullivan, who has coached the Penguins since December 2015 and led them to two Stanley Cups, doesn’t negotiate contracts, but he is expected to be part of the conversation with management when the Penguins rank their priorities for any offseason moves.
It sounds as if that will be nearly as difficult as a parent having to choose among their children.
“Well, it’s hard. You know, it’s hard,” Sullivan said, head down and appearing to be close to emotional. “It’s my job to coach these guys, and we care about them a lot. We build relationships over the years.”
He noted that considering them as team assets in team decisions is “I guess a necessary part of the business, but it’s difficult. These guys have been really important players for us. Their body of work speaks for itself. It’s my job to share my opinions, and I do that when I’m asked.”
They are three. Will they be two come training camp? One?
Crosby is not normally one to be overly contemplative or nostalgic, but this situation is foisting those things on him. He has seen friends and teammates come and go for most of his life.
It’s never been like this, with Malkin and Letang involved.
“Yeah, it’s different just because of the fact that we are getting older and there’s so much history,” Crosby said. “I think … you reflect a little bit more because of the fact it’s something we’ve had to talk about and think about all year.
“It’s not easy. I think it’s amazing how those guys were able to kind of put that aside and continue to play the way that they did. It’s never easy when you go through that situation.
“It’s reality and part of the business, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy, either.”