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A Phoenix Coyotes helmet sits on the ice during an NHL game. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
A Phoenix Coyotes helmet sits on the ice during an NHL game. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Ken Dryden's call to action on head shots Add to ...

It was an extraordinary press conference. Four people were at the media table in a spare setting at Pittsburgh's Consol Energy Center: Penguins general manager Ray Shero, concussion specialist Michael Collins, chiropractor Ted Carrick and Sidney Crosby. They were serious and straightforward. Through nearly 45 intense minutes, they offered almost no smoke or spin.

The medical experts, not the GM or the hockey player, spoke first.

Dr. Collins, head of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Sports Medicine Concussion Program, laid out the events surrounding the injury, Mr. Crosby's resulting symptoms, the diagnosis, the treatment and the ups and downs of his recovery since January. He was patient and thorough. He spoke as if he knew his audience was intent on hearing what he said and, despite his occasional medical jargon, would understand him in all the ways that mattered.

With a few lapses, Dr. Carrick, a chiropractor and founder of the Carrick Institute for Graduate Studies in Florida, did the same.

Beyond the details, the specialists needed to convey that they were competent, professional and responsible – that Mr. Crosby is in good hands.

At times, they talked about Mr. Crosby's brain as if he wasn't there himself. Yet Mr. Crosby seemed undistracted. Respectful, he watched and listened as if the experts were only his trusted advisers. He was still the captain of his own ship.

When it was his turn to speak, Mr. Crosby was composed and informative, not seeming to hold anything back. He spoke of how he felt at each stage after his injury. At first, he had felt himself in a fog, he said, as if he was living one step removed from his own life, a spectator to it. Objects around him weren't quite where he knew them to be; once, Dr. Collins related, Mr. Crosby, feeling he was falling, found his body reacting when he wasn't falling at all. Even the flickering images on a TV screen moved too fast for him, making him dizzy – this in someone who had always seen everything so acutely, who at only 24 had seemed somehow to figure out hockey and life. Now, his board had been scrambled. Normal life, his medical people said, would return when, at full exertion, his headaches stayed away. Normal life as Sidney Crosby would return when everything went back into its proper orientation and, when confident of that, he could resume his Crosby-like creating, scrambling the board for everyone else instead.

The medical experts and Mr. Crosby said no one could predict when that would occur. Given where he had been and where he was now in his recovery, and pushed by the media's questions and by their own professional and human hopefulness, they put science to one side and declared that it would happen. Asked if he had played his last game, Mr. Crosby replied without bravado, “I wouldn't bet on that.”

Before the press conference, it was clear; after, it is even clearer. The National Hockey League season that begins next week – whether Mr. Crosby plays at all, or how well – will be about Mr. Crosby.

This is a difficult time for the NHL, for its commissioner, Gary Bettman, and for hockey. It's no less difficult for the National Football League, for its commissioner, Roger Goodell, for the U.S. National Collegiate Athletic Association, and for football.

Head injuries have become an overwhelming fact of life in sports. The immensity of the number, the prominence of the names, the life-altering impact on their lives and, more disturbing, if that's possible, the now sheer routineness of their occurrence. The hit on Mr. Crosby didn't seem like much. If it hadn't been him, the clip of the incident would never have made the highlight reel.

But if so much can happen out of so little, where is all this going? Who else? How many more? How bad might this get? Careers and lives of players, we know now, have been shortened, diminished, snuffed out by head injuries. What once had seemed debatable, deniable, spin-able now is not. What once had been ignored now is obvious. Not just contact or collision sports, hockey and football are dangerous sports.

Mr. Bettman, Mr. Goodell and sports leaders who came before them have done only what the players, fans and media have wanted them to do. They know we want our athletes to be better than they have ever been. We want them to be superhuman versions of ourselves – faster, bigger, stronger, more skilled, more committed. We want them, no matter the risk or pain, to prove beyond even unreasonable doubt that they are not in this for the money but for the love of their/our sport and their/our team, and to demonstrate that at every moment by being willing to do whatever it takes. The players, fans and media want great plays and thunderous hits. They need “wows” to compete against every other challenge – in sports, entertainment, news, politics – for the public's attention. And the players, and their commissioners, Mr. Bettman and Mr. Goodell among them, for the most part have delivered.

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