25 May 2008

Oh, Colby

From the Pitt Post-Gazette:

Armstrong will be watching -- with mixed emotions

DETROIT -- It is taboo in the NHL to talk about injuries at this point of the Stanley Cup playoffs, but we're going to make an exception this morning.

Colby Armstrong is out with a broken heart.

Out of his mind, actually.

"Ya think?" Armstrong asked this week, rhetorically of course.

You probably remember Armstrong. Sid Crosby's best friend in Pittsburgh and his road roommate. Hugely popular among his Penguins teammates. A fan favorite, whose hard work and harder hits were appreciated almost as much as Crosby's magnificence.

"Army," everyone called him with great affection.

That was before Penguins general manager Ray Shero sent Armstrong to the Atlanta Thrashers in February in the Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis trade.

Armstrong still has a hard time believing it.

Tonight, Hossa, Dupuis, Crosby and the other Penguins will play the Detroit Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena in Game 1 of the final, hockey's grandest prize just four wins away.

Tonight, Armstrong will watch the game at his home in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, with his father, Wayne, and brother, Riley, and try really hard not to cry.

"I came within five minutes of breaking the trade deadline," Armstrong said, thinking back to Feb. 26, when he got the fateful news from Shero. "It hurts when you're the guy who's pushed aside. I know it's a business, but it still really sucks when it happens to you."

Armstrong has watched almost all the Penguins' postseason games with mixed emotions, excitement and happiness for Crosby and his other buddies to be sure, yet frustration and disappointment that he's not a part of their fabulous run. After the Thrashers missed the playoffs, he returned to his home at Nevillewood for a couple of weeks and saw firsthand the region-wide hysteria that has enveloped the team. Then, he went home to Saskatoon to start his offseason training program but took Sunday off to do a little fishing and watch the Penguins' clinching, 6-0 win against the Philadelphia Flyers at his cottage at Loon Lake in Northern Saskatchewan.

"Definitely mixed emotions," Armstrong said.

"I was there through the times that weren't so good. I remember Ryan Malone always talking about what it was like growing up in Pittsburgh when Mario [Lemieux] played there and they were winning Cups. Our goal always was to make a run like that. Now they're doing it. It's tough missing out on that."

No, Armstrong isn't so presumptuous to think the Penguins would be in the same spot if the trade hadn't gone down. "Who knows if they'd be playing as well if I was still there? I can't say that."

And, yes, Armstrong has noticed how well Dupuis and especially Hossa have played on Crosby's line. He talked about the goal Hossa scored Sunday -- it was his ninth of the playoffs and gave the Penguins a 3-0 lead -- after a sweet pass from Crosby. "[Hossa] gets to a spot to get open. The puck always seems to find Sid, and he, obviously, sees everyone on the ice. If you're open, he'll find you."

You almost could hear Armstrong sigh all the way from Saskatoon.

"I know how it feels to play with Sid," he said.

Armstrong said his time in Atlanta went better than he expected. "It seemed like they really wanted me there." He had four goals and seven assists in 18 games after scoring nine goals in 54 games for the Penguins. It helped that former Penguins teammate Erik Christensen went with him in the trade. It also was a plus that another former teammate -- Mark Recchi -- had signed with the Thrashers in December after the Penguins released him. "Rex picked us up and took us to the airport and picked us up every day and took us to practice," Armstrong said. "He went above and beyond as a teammate and a friend. I don't know what we would have done without him."

Still, playing in Atlanta is different than playing in Pittsburgh. There's not the same passion. Certainly, Armstrong wasn't as big with the fans in Philips Arena as he was in Mellon Arena.

"I never really had a chance to say thanks to the fans there," he said. "I want them to know I loved it there. That's a great place to play hockey. I feel pretty lucky to have played my early years there."

Armstrong said he keeps in touch with several Penguins -- Crosby, Malone, Ryan Whitney and Mark Eaton among them -- although not so much now. He doesn't want to intrude, especially with Crosby. "I know he's a psycho. He's got a lot on his mind. I know where his focus is."

That didn't stop Armstrong from doing what everyone close to Crosby has done during these playoffs -- make fun of his beard. "I think he's probably dying it so people can see it."

Armstrong laughed.

"Maybe it's a blessing I'm not there. My beard is awful. It's worse than his."

Armstrong didn't sound very convincing. Not about the blessing part, anyway. Blessing? Curse is more like it.

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