SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Time changes almost everything. It is the nature of life. But the one thing that apparently does not change is the feel of the Stanley Cup in your hands.
Ask Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby.
The time between 2009, when the Penguins raised their first Cup of the Crosby era, and Sunday night might have appeared at times to be unfathomable for Crosby and the franchise.
But when he took the Stanley Cup from commissioner Gary Bettman on Sunday evening at the SAP Center after the Penguins' 3-1 victory in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals, the feeling was unmistakable, perhaps even reassuring.
"I wasn't really thinking about '09 that much," said Crosby, 28. "I was just thinking about how hard it was to get to this point and just trying to enjoy every second of it. It's not easy to get here, and having won seven years ago at a young age, you probably take it for granted a little bit. You don't think you do at the time. But it's not easy to get this point, so just try and enjoy it as best as I can."
Sitting at a podium, still sporting his skates and jersey and new Stanley Cup championship hat, Crosby was joined by another trophy, the Conn Smythe, awarded each year to the playoff MVP.
He said he wasn't sure exactly what set him apart.
"There were so many guys that contributed, to be honest," he said. "I look at this as a total team effort. I just tried to work hard every night and do my job, just like everyone else. I don't know if I did anything different or specific."
Maybe that's why, if he wasn't an obvious choice for the award, he was the perfect choice.
Under head coach Mike Johnston, the Penguins were in disarray, but when coach Mike Sullivan took over in December, they became a different team. But that kind of turnaround isn't just from systems and line combinations. It happens because players feel they belong, and they feel they belong because their leaders make them feel so.
"I think his leadership, for me, especially when we called a lot of young guys up," said assistant coach Rick Tocchet, citing one of Crosby's bigger contributions. "I think he really took that to heart. He really wanted to lead these guys. He had them over to the house for dinner.
"Any time it got a little hairy in games, he was talking to them. I guess the cherry on top, he was incredible tonight. He was such an animal on the ice. I think that was the cherry for him, the process that he went through this year. I'm really proud of the way he played today, he wanted it tonight."
What does it mean to lead?
Well, how about when Crosby took the Stanley Cup and handed it to Trevor Daley, whose season ended because of a broken ankle in the Eastern Conference finals? And Crosby knew that Daley had visited his ailing mother before the finals. She told Daley she'd love to see him raise the Cup.
And Crosby made sure it happened.
Daley could not say enough about the gesture and the man who made it.
"I was thinking about that earlier," Daley said. "He's a great hockey player, but he's an even better person. What much more can you say about that guy? He's a special guy."
It wasn't just that.
The Cup then went to former teammate Pascal Dupuis, who retired this season because of blood-clotting issues.
He was in a Penguins jersey probably for the last time when Daley turned and handed him the Cup.
And then it was handed to Marc-Andre Fleury, who was injured at the start of the playoffs and lost his No. 1 job to super rookie netminder Matt Murra; hisfuture with the club is no longer certain.
These things happen because Crosby understands the importance of the symbolism of honoring those players, those teammates.
Seven years ago, Crosby didn't play in the third period of Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup finals after suffering a knee injury. He took the Cup from Bettman that night, and he admitted Sunday that he wondered at the time if this was going to be a kind of annual thing for him and his teammates.
But it didn't happen that way, of course. And over time, after a concussion cost him the better part of the 2010-11season, including the playoffs. After a series of playoff disappointments and a change at the GM position and two coaching changes and a dramatic turnover in player personnel, Crosby admitted doubts about finding the right combination again.
"Yeah, when you have so much turnover the last couple of years like we had, it's not easy just to throw a bunch of guys together and develop that chemistry, that trust," he said. "It doesn't happen overnight. But you look at the group and how many new players [we] brought in, it's pretty special what we were able to do."
Even if Crosby hadn't won a second Stanley Cup, it's hard to imagine he wouldn't have been an absolute lock to make the Hall of Fame -- Stanley Cup, two Olympic gold medals, two scoring titles, two Hart Trophies.
But now he has two Stanley Cups. What makes this one perhaps even more sweet: He isn't just older than in 2009, but he's a different player, on so many levels a better player, even if he recorded only 19 points this spring compared to 31 in 2009.
"He can adapt and change his game to different things," saidChris Kunitz, one of a small group of holdovers from that '09 championship.
"Early in his career, he went out and got points and did everything, but that didn't make him satisfied," Kunitz added. "He had to go out and lead through example, and became a better player. Offense, defense, he goes out with nine seconds left, takes a faceoff for our team. He's the all-encompassing guy, one of the greatest players to ever play the game because of how he can adapt to the game and how hard he works at everything."
Mark Recchi won a Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh as a young man in 1991 but didn't win another until 15 years later. He won a third in 2011 with the Boston Bruins.
In Crosby, Recchi sees someone who has evolved from being a great player to a great leader.
"I see a mature leader that played the right way every night, regardless of whether he got points or not, and he led the team that way," Recchi said. "And that's important when your leader leads like that. He didn't let things get to him. He just played the game every night as hard as he could and led the way with a great example."