Condors’ Neilson Protected “The Next One

By Andy Kehe
Californian staff columnist
The Bakersfield Californian

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. – A year ago as a junior hockey player, there weren’t many places “The Next One” would go without “The Other One,” particularly into the corners chasing down a puck. Sidney Crosby, now the 18-year-old rookie sensation with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and rookie Condor right winger Eric Neilson were that attached at the hip.

If they weren’t kicking it together at home, then maybe it was at the bowling alley or playing shinney hockey with the neighborhood kids on one of a gillion street corner ice rinks in the small Quebec province town of Rimouski, where for two years the two friends and housemates played on the same team in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. The day would start out with breakfast — for Crosby, a glass of orange juice and a cinnamon bagel. Always orange juice and a cinnamon bagel. “Never anything different,” Neilson says. “And he’d slurp the orange juice. It’d drive me crazy.”

Then lunch — for Crosby it’d be ham and cheese with mustard. No mayo. Always ham and cheese with mustard, no mayo. Then maybe they’d crank on the tube and watch a little CMT, sing along and get “stupid.” Teammates might stop by and before you knew it, it’s WWE, no disqualification two out of three falls on the livingroom floor. Somebody’s getting pile-drived, but not necessarily the fresh-faced Crosby kid. “Sidney’s tough. He could hold his own,” Neilson says.

Then later still, they’d hit the ice together, Crosby and Neilson — the big sheet of ice, for real this time — and if anybody messed with the kid, there’d be Neilson there, in his face. He’d first issue a warning, then if that didn’t get the message across, a pulverizing might. “They usually backed off before that happened,” Neilson says, grinning. “I took care of him on the ice. He got the goals. I fought.”

Sixty-six goals, in fact, to go along with 102 assists for 168 points in 2004-05 alone — more than three times Neilson’s point accumulation in his four years with Rimouski Oceanic. That’s not all you need to know about why Crosby’s in the NHL and Neilson the ECHL, but a lot.

Once practically inseparable, Neilson and the kid some are predicting will break all of “The Great One” Wayne Gretzky’s NHL records are now connected by only a phone conversation every other week. During those calls they talk about how much their lives have changed, Crosby’s certainly more than Neilson’s. How different they are from each other’s now, less than a year from being virtually interchangeable.

Crosby will make as much as $2.5 million with bonuses in his rookie season, even more with endorsements. Neilson, a 2004 fifth-round re-entry draft pick of the Kings who is on loan from their AHL affiliate Manchester, is making somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 a week.

Crosby was met by a mob of fans and reporters when he first got off the plane in Pittsburgh. Neilson was picked up at Meadows Field by Condors assistant coach Mark Pederson, and was damn appreciative of it.

Crosby has his own Web site so fans can keep up with his progress. Neilson doesn’t even have a computer yet. Crosby has already appeared on the “Tonight Show with Jay Leno” and has been featured in Vanity Fair and this month’s issue of GQ. Neilson’s getting some love right here in this space, and that’s about it so far.

Crosby lives at the home of the legendary Mario Lemieux. Neilson with another King draftee Ryan Munce — no offense to Munce. Here’s something Neilson has over Crosby — Munce has no kids he has to babysit.

Regrets that it’s played out this way?

“Absolutely not,” says Neilson, who after six games with the Condors is still trying to play his way permanently onto one of the three Condor lines and is still looking for his first point. “Sidney is a great guy, very down to earth and a great talent. But he does what he does and I do what I do. He’s developed a lot quicker than me. But it’s been great here — the guys, the fans. I’m always amazed at how nice people are when I go to these towns. I’m only 21 and I’ve still got my career in front of me and hopefully that includes playing with the Kings.”

The hustle and work ethic is there, but Neilson is struggling some with the speed, size and experience of players in the ECHL compared to juniors, which is what makes Crosby’s successful transition so far to the NHL — 7 goals, 14 assists through 19 games — that much more remarkable. Moreover, here Neilson’s being asked to play tough and produce, where as in Rimouski, just protecting Crosby kept him plenty busy.

“I think here, I’m not going to be so much a tough guy as I am a power forward, an aggressor, using my speed and forechecking,” he says.

Do that, brawl a little and give the Condors 15-20 goals and Neilson, now out from Crosby’s shadow, could transition from being “The Other One” to, like Paul Rosebush before him, the fans’ “Chosen One” to rally behind.