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NHL icon Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins will miss this year's NHL All-Star game due to a concussion. AP

The National Hockey League is gathered in Raleigh, N.C., for one of the feel-good events of the season, the all-star game and the events around it, the back-slapping schmoozefests that are an essential part of the courtship of national sponsors.

But the biggest topic of conversation is not even there.

Eight hundred kilometres away in Pittsburgh, while the debate rages about concussions, the NHL's treatment of them and whether it needs to toughen its new rule against blindside hits to the head, the best player in the league is sitting this one out.

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Sidney Crosby may have watched Saturday night's skills competition on television and he will probably watch the game on Sunday. His recovery from the concussion he sustained on Jan. 1, which was aggravated by another hit to the head on Jan. 5, is progressing well enough that he can watch television.

He just can't play hockey, though, which not only angered him enough to take the rare step of criticizing the NHL for not punishing the players who hit him, it set off the on-again, off-again concussion controversy that dogs the league's perennially hesitant steps to deal with the problem. Both Crosby and his agent, Pat Brisson, called for changes to rule 48, the one the NHL brought in almost a year ago that issues a major penalty, a game misconduct and possibly fines and suspensions for players who deliver blindside hits to the head.

Since then, Crosby, 23, remained quiet on the topic aside from a media scrum this week in which he discussed his recovery and his frustration with not playing. Neither he nor his parents were willing to be interviewed for this story.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, though, is not apologizing for anything. He admits the league is not happy more than 30 concussions were diagnosed this season but will not concede if there is any action taken on the matter it will only be because the biggest star in the NHL got hurt.

"I don't buy that characterization," Bettman said. "In fact, in his case it was a collision. It didn't violate rule 48. It didn't fit within any other criterion of what would get punished or suspended. That was a consequence of a physical game.

"As long as body contact is encouraged, and our game is played at a high rate of speed, then you're going to have some concussions."

That is true, but the argument is the league is not doing enough to minimize the problem. Which is why the NHL is without a marquee player at one of its showcase events.

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"In my humble opinion, Sidney Crosby is the face of the NHL," said Bruno Delorme, a marketing expert who teaches at Concordia University's Molson School of Business. "It's no accident that of the last four Winter Classic games, two featured the Pittsburgh Penguins. There is a reason for that; that is Sidney Crosby.

"The NHL is going in a tough market for the all-star game, Carolina, and it needs all the help it can get. For him not to be there, it hurts. It also doesn't help that he is out for an indeterminate length of time. It hurts the brand."

It hurts Crosby, too. It is not so much the length of time he will be out - he missed 29 games in the 2008-09 season with a sprained ankle. The worst part is that Crosby has not been cleared for any physical activity, which is anathema to someone used to an active life.

"It's brutal," Crosby said in a media scrum this week. "You sit around and can't do anything. It's really difficult. It doesn't get any easier with each day that goes by. It gets tougher and tougher to work your way back in it. At the end of the day you keep reminding yourself that everything is clear, and when you do come back you'll be ready to go hard and do the things it takes to get back."

Those who watched Crosby play from the youngest ages know how grating the inactivity is on him. A series of interviews with people who helped him hone his skills paint a picture of a child who would leave the ice only grudgingly, a boy who had a competitive streak that could be piqued even by a flipped coin.

"It was just amazing to watch, he knew what he wanted to do," said June Thomas, who taught Crosby to skate backward when he was four.

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The superstar was then just one of the thousands of children who joined Thomas's skating program in Cole Harbour, N.S., over the years. But she remembered him standing out from the start. As he grew, she saw evidence of his incredible dedication.

"He wanted to play hockey every day," she said. "With Sidney, he wanted to improve every minute he was on the ice."

Paul Mason, Crosby's coach for four years of peewee hockey, said the boy would take breaks from the sport, notably in the summer to play baseball or street hockey, but that he always "wanted to be out on the ice."

"What he did, he did for hockey," he said. "I've heard his friends say it was always Sid who called and got [them]out to play."

Mason mentioned the famous story of Crosby shooting endless pucks in the basement of the family's home in Cole Harbour, part of the sprawling Halifax Regional Municipality. In spite of the scuffed marks on the family dryer left by errant pucks, damage later noted in a Reebok ad, Crosby remained single-minded.

"I would think [not playing is]driving him crazy," Mason said. "I haven't talked to him since New Year's. But I would imagine it's driving him crazy."

Fears about how long he'll be away from the game are rising, as are concerns about how the NHL handles shots to the head.

"I'm worried sick," said Joanne Noye, a friend of the family who lives on the same block as Crosby's parents. "When he was hit I just knew it was one of the bad hits. I couldn't believe he played the third period."

Noye is one of a few on the quiet street who remembers Crosby from the short time he lived there before moving to boarding school in Minnesota. They have fond memories of the boy, recalling how he would shovel snow and mow the lawn for a neighbour, and remain very protective of him. This can extend to running interference on the autograph-hounds and occasional busloads of young players who invade the area.

"We have always been protective," Noye said. "People come by asking where he lives and we just say 'we don't know.' "

But the furor erupting from his injury is casting a welcome light on the issue of concussions, which for years were shrugged off.

"When you see the best player get hurt, it draws a bit more attention to it," said Brian Newton, who coached Crosby in novice AAA when he was seven.

Like almost everyone involved in hockey, he has seen firsthand the effects of concussions. And while he wishes it didn't take a star getting injured to provoke change, he is hopeful the NHL will finally be forced to clamp down. He said getting rid of the excuse of accidental contact would be a start, just as no one is allowed to argue an accidental high stick.

"You can't have your stick above your shoulders, period," Newton noted. "You're presumed to be in control of your stick. So you should be presumed to be in control of your shoulder."

With a report from Roy MacGregor

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