No one saw this change coming, any more than Sidney Crosby saw David Steckel’s shoulder coming that New Year’s Day more than two years ago.
It was Jan. 1, 2011. The Washington Capitals had just defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-1 in the Winter Classic, held on Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field following a long rain delay.
Crosby moved to a podium to answer questions. The No. 1 topic was the weather, No.2 the game, a distant third the shoulder that knocked Crosby to the ice at the end of the second period. Briefly dazed then, he seemed fine now as he sat and spoke to the media. He seemed fine, and he had taken the first shift of the third period.
“I couldn’t tell you what happened,” he said. “Got my head, for sure. But I can’t comment on it.”
No comment: the usual hockey player’s answer to questions that might lead to further, harder questions.
But a few days later, in another game, he would be hit again, and reality would set in. Concussion symptoms would restrict him to a mere 28 games over the next 18 months.
He wouldn’t be able to play, but he could think and reflect. The 23-year-old is now 25: Sid the Kid is now Sid the Man. They used to say his lips looked too big for his face, but he’s grown into them in more ways than one – they no longer murmur the comforting clichés that young sports stars use as a shield. Before this past year, no one would have mistaken him for a spokesperson for anything but his many endorsements.
Instead, the stolid Face of Hockey from the NHL’s 2004-05 lockout emerged transformed into the Voice of Hockey with the 2012 lockout. Prepared to speak out on matters from player safety to Olympic participation, the Penguins leader has symbolically brought the entire league under his captaincy.
This is a much different Sidney Crosby than the one Canada thought it knew so well when he scored the overtime goal that brought the country Olympic gold at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games. He is still the iconic name that Canadian children shout out in their mini-sticks games, but he is now much more.
This Sidney Crosby is more connected to his off-ice experiences – to the long months spent recovering from concussion, when he turned to reading rather than video games. He became a bit of a history buff, keen on war stories and tales of leadership.
Rather tellingly, his favourite book over those tough times was Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.
He has much to say and is not afraid to say it. On an early February weekend in Ottawa, with his Penguins practising at a small suburban rink packed with hundreds of screaming kids who have come to see him, he dawdles with a journalist in the far corner of the dressing room, long after the others have left.
It’s a rare private audience, and the last phrase Crosby would turn to these days is “no comment.”
Crosby now firmly believes that player safety is hockey’s major issue, and that responsibility runs all the way from Timbits hockey to the NHL. While the league has made some movement on the dreaded and dangerous head shots, there are still far too many concussions in the game. He knows more change will have to come.
“I think it starts when you’re younger,” Crosby says. “That’s definitely where you learn all your habits and all the things that you’re going to grow up and do. But that being said, I think the NHL is obviously what everyone watches, so there’s got to be a balancing act there.”
The NHL, he also believes, has to allow its players to go the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. He wants, once again, to represent his country, but the league has yet to confirm that NHLers will be released.
“It’s coming fast,” he says. “I’ve only played I think maybe 80 or 90 games since the last Olympics, so it’s coming up pretty quickly. … I think everyone who has experienced that wants to be a part of it.”