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Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) smiles after scoring a goal against the New York Islanders during the first period at the CONSOL Energy Center. (Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE/US PRESSWIRE)
Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) smiles after scoring a goal against the New York Islanders during the first period at the CONSOL Energy Center. (Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE/US PRESSWIRE)

Roy MacGregor

Crosby gives hockey a much-needed boost Add to ...

Forget Sidney Crosby – imagine you’re Anders Nilsson.

You’re a 21-year-old goaltender from Lulea, Sweden, and you’ve just been given your very first start in the NHL by the New York Islanders.

Your first start and it’s against a team, the Pittsburgh Penguins, and a player who hasn’t seen action in 320 days. He wears No. 87 and 18,387 people in the Consol Energy Center are holding up signs that say, simply, “SID.” You know he’s special but, really, you – like just about everyone else watching this night – have no real idea just how special.

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He scores on his team’s very first shot, blowing through your defence on only his third shift and backhanding a shot that, well, makes you look pretty bad. He sets up a winger for a shot that goes off your crossbar. He sets up another centre on the power play for a shot that goes off your post. He sets up a defenceman for a blast from the point you cannot stop. It is 2-0, he has two points, might have had four … and the first period isn’t even over.

There is really no explaining this, though hundreds, thousands are trying. How did Sidney Crosby score that seemingly effortless goal that won the Olympic gold medal for Canada? How did he carry his team to the Stanley Cup so young? How did he score on his very first shot back from nearly 11 months of being out with concussion?

Perhaps it does not matter how he does it, just that he does. In a single shot 5:24 into a game that otherwise would mean little, Crosby may have brought an end to the NHL’s annus horribilis. In a year that began with Crosby’s head being clipped at the Winter Classic, a year that included Boston University scientists discovering the long-term dangers of hits to the head, a year that had the Vancouver riots and the tragic deaths of three former players, his return to the ice – in what appeared Monday night to be much as he was a year ago– is cause for cheering from all sides. Hockey 2011 may indeed have the happy ending it so desperately needs.

Crosby became the NHL’s signature brand last year as he separated himself from the pack with 66 points in half a season and his only imaginable rival, Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, began a downward spiral that has today all but seen him vanish. As such, Crosby became far more than the face of professional hockey but the face of the game. As much as his great play had inspired youngsters to play the game, his injury had led parents to question the game. His return to health and action is just as important to Hockey Canada as it is to the NHL.

His accomplishments on ice in the first half of 2010-11 might one day be seen as less than his accomplishments off ice in the second half that he missed. He changed the way people see the game as much as Orr, as much as Gretzky, by simply not being able to play. No one jokes about getting “your bell rung” anymore. No coach would dare tell a player to “shake it off” and get back out there. He began a societal change in regard to head shots and concussion that will one day be compared to societal changes on such matters as smoking. He caused the NHL at least to begin a necessary move toward eliminating as much as possible any shots to the head.

The question looming still is whether Monday night’s remarkable performance – two goals, two assists in a 5-0 victory, dominant on every shift – was an anomaly or will be reality.

Other great players have not been so fortunate. Eric Lindros came back from concussion only to be levelled so hard by Scott Stevens in the 2000 playoffs that he was never again the same. Paul Kariya’s enormous promise was severely restricted by the blow he took in 1998 from Gary Suter. Pat LaFontaine, on the other hand, came back from concussion to have a 148-point season in 1992-93, only to later be advised to quit because of additional hits to the head and eventually forced to quit after one final, accidental blow when he collided with a teammate.

Greater awareness, however, may make this great player’s return different. We can only hope so.

Sorry to have to say this, Anders, but the game needed this victory far more than you did.

Follow on Twitter: @RoyMacG

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