PRAGUE - When Sidney Crosby decided to play at the world hockey championship after his Pittsburgh Penguins were ousted from the NHL playoffs, it didn't occur to him that his role on Team Canada would be much different than the last time he competed at the tournament.
Back in 2006, Crosby was a fresh-faced 18-year-old who had just finished his rookie season in the NHL. Nearly a decade later, he has two Olympic gold medals, two Hart trophies and a Stanley Cup to his name.
"I never thought I was going to be one of the older guys on the team," the 27-year-old Canadian captain said after practice Wednesday. "But it's kind of worked out that way."
Crosby was Canada's offensive catalyst in 2006, amassing 16 points in nine games and becoming the youngest player to win a world championship scoring title.
He's still a big part of Canada's attack this year with three goals and four assists in six games, but he also provides veteran leadership for a talented but young team.
That steadying presence is crucial for Canada as it heads into its quarter-final match against Belarus on Thursday.
"He has provided tremendous leadership both on the ice and off the ice, as he should," said Canada coach Todd McLellan. "He's been to so many of these events. He's won so much that guys look to him and he continues to carry that torch for our country."
Crosby said Canada's key to success is making sure that the team comes together quickly and buys into the program.
"Having everyone understand that pretty quickly is most important and I think we do — the comfort zone and just making sure everyone feels comfortable with the group," he said. "You have some rival teams in that dressing room so it's important that it happens quickly and I think it has. You can see the group getting closer with each day so that helps a lot."
For Crosby, that means setting aside his differences with Philadelphia Flyers Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn.
"It's been good," he says of working alongside his Pennsylvania rivals. "You have so many tough games and intense battles against them over the years and you come here and put on the same jersey and all of a sudden you're working for the same thing.
"I think it's kind of the cool thing about this, and the fact that everyone's willing to do whatever it takes no matter what their role is at home. Coming here, it's 'What do you need me to do to help the team win?' It's a great attitude and says a lot about the character of guys."
Though Canada cruised through the preliminary round of the tournament with a perfect 7-0 record to lead Group A, Crosby understands that a win against Belarus on Thursday is far from guaranteed.
"Anybody can beat anybody," he said. "It doesn't matter the ranking or the guys on paper. They have a lot of skill and a lot of speed.
"We respect them. We know they're a good team but we came here to move on."
A win on Thursday would be Canada's first in a world championships elimination round since 2009. The Canadians have suffered quarter-final defeats in the past five tournaments.
This year, Crosby and the Canadians are determined to end the trend.
"Both teams want the same thing. We've got to go out there tomorrow and find a way to win."
A championship in Prague would make Crosby the ninth Canadian member of the Triple Gold Club, with a Stanley Cup, an Olympic gold medal and world championship gold.
But he's not looking that far ahead.
"Let's worry about the quarter-finals first," he said.