By Steve Keating
TORONTO, Jan 20 (Reuters) - For Canadians Sidney Crosby is an ice hockey God.
A superhero with a hockey stick wearing the Maple Leaf on his chest who came to the hockey mad country's rescue four years ago at the Vancouver Winter Games by scoring the golden goal against the United States that crowned Canada Olympic champions.
'Sid the Kid', the all-Canadian boy from tiny Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia with impeccable politeness and magical talent, was the toast of the Great White North.
A once in a generation player who would carry the Canadian flag and hockey hopes of his country for years to come, Crosby's future seemed as bright as the shiny gold medal that hung around his neck.
But the architect of one of the greatest moments in Canadian sporting history would spend a good portion of the next two years not in the spotlight but sitting in the dark, his brilliance dimmed by sport's latest scourge - concussions.
Just 23 years old when he was flattened by a David Steckel shoulder on New Year's day 2011, there were concerns Crosby might never again grace NHL arenas. If he did return, concussion experts warned the Pittsburgh Penguins captain may never be the same dynamic force he was.
But after a long, tedious recovery Crosby heads to Russia once again at the peak of his powers.
When Canada announced its Olympic lineup to the usual scrutiny and fanfare on Jan. 7, Crosby's name was back at the top of the NHL scoring table with 65 points on 24 goals and 41 assists.
As the NHL season moved past the midway mark Pittsburgh was leading the Eastern conference standings and Crosby was on pace for his first 100 point campaign since 2009-10 and a contender for league most valuable player honours.
"It's a proud moment when you're named to Team Canada no matter whether it is the Olympics or world juniors," said Crosby. "Everyone expects to win gold and that has always been the expectation and I don't think that is going to change.
"That doesn't mean it's any easier."
The youngest NHL captain to hoist a Stanley Cup, a bulging trophy case that includes a Hart trophy (NHL MVP), an Art Ross trophy (NHL scoring champion) and Rocket Richard trophy (goal scoring leader), Crosby has already assembled a Hall of Fame worthy resume.
But for all his honours and achievements, including two Lou Marsh awards as Canada's athlete of the year, Crosby may well one day be best remembered for his remarkable resilience and saintly patience.
For over two seasons Crosby wrestled with concussion-like symptoms and the frustration of aborted and failed comebacks.
His indestructible aura shattered, Crosby slipped into seclusion plagued by headaches and dizziness unable to read or watch television due to a debilitating sensitivity to bright lights and loud noises.
He would spend months consulting with concussion specialists seeking out cutting edge therapy, including treatments in a gyroscope chair not unlike those used by astronauts preparing for space travel.
By the time he was finally ready to play, the NHL was in lockdown mode. Owners locked out players in a bitter labor dispute that chopped last season's schedule to 48 games.
Until the current campaign Crosby had appeared in fewer than 100 games over the three seasons since his initial injury.
In a country where hockey borders on religion, Crosby is the pope.
Like Wayne Gretzky before him, he seemed destined for super stardom long before he arrived on the NHL stage.
As Crosby's game matured so has the man, now a respected advocate whose views on everything from player safety to labour issues matter.
He is also, according to Forbes, hockey's top earner pulling in close to $13 million annually in salary and endorsements.
As wholesome as Canadian maple syrup, the Crosby brand is one of quality.
During the build-up to the Sochi Olympics, turn on a television in Canada and you will not have to wait long before Crosby's boyish smile flashes on to the screen pitching everything from coffee to hockey equipment.
The type of young man mothers would hope their daughters would bring home, Crosby has avoided the tabloid spotlight while leading a seemingly ordinary life.
The number one pick in the 2005 NHL draft, Crosby spent his first years as a professional living in team owner Mario Lemieux's guest house, personally delivering season tickets to Penguins subscribers.
An athlete Canadians admire, team mates respect and opponents fear, Crosby's impact on the game now extends far beyond the rinks where he showcases his special talents.
Known simply as "Sid" to Canadians, Crosby is the face of the NHL, a willing role model and the game's greatest ambassador.
Before arriving in Sochi, Crosby is widely expected to be accorded another honour and named captain of Canada's Olympic team.
He will charge on to ice at the Bolshoy Ice Dome when Canada takes on Norway in their tournament opener on Feb. 13 with the captain's C on his chest just above the Maple Leaf.
"Just looking back to 2010, seeing guys like (Chris) Pronger, (Scott) Niedermayer and (Jarome) Iginla and the way they led our team that would be great honour," said Crosby. (Editing by Pritha Sarkar)