Sidney Crosby’s health issues are making for a very unsettled late Pittsburgh summer.
Nearly a quarter-century since The Mysteries of Pittsburgh was a best-selling book, the region’s hockey fans are dealing with another riddle wrapped inside an enigma. One that clearly has them worried.
How badly is Crosby still hurting after sustaining what appeared to be multiple concussions only days apart in January? Will his lengthy layoff stretch into the new season? And when No. 87 finally does play, will he again be hockey’s best player?
The answers don’t appear to be forthcoming any time soon, and that’s making the Penguins’ large and exceedingly loyal fan base as nervous as an overtime Game 7.
Since leaving town nearly four months ago, Crosby hasn’t said anything publicly about his persistent post-concussion symptoms. The Penguins aren’t saying much, either, if only because they don’t know much. Even some of Crosby’s own teammates are privately wondering why they aren’t getting more information.
“I can’t wave a wand and tell you how it’s going to play out,” said Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, who said the team might not get a true reading of Crosby’s status until training camp starts in mid-September.
At a time of the year when Pittsburghers generally are focused on the soon-to-start Steelers season – the revered franchise has appeared in three of the past six Super Bowls – many are on edge because Crosby still isn’t healthy eight months after being hurt.
The lack of any clear prognosis only adds to the puzzle. So does the secrecy, which resembles that during the multiple medical ailments of Mario Lemieux’s brilliant but oft-interrupted career in Pittsburgh.
Lemieux’s former teammate, Bryan Trottier, a Hall of Famer himself, calls Crosby’s situation “scary.”
“I’m worried,” said Brian Smith, a 23-year-old Duquesne University graduate school student and Penguins fan from Pittsburgh.
“I worked in the concussion lab at my undergrad school, and concussions can be serious, especially when you’ve gotten two in a row like that. They can really mess you up. He definitely needs to take his time. I want him to come back, but I don’t want him to ruin the rest of his life.”
While at Penn State, the kinesiology student helped test football players with concussions. Most showed considerable improvement within a week or two. But Smith fears Crosby’s case is less predictable because it now appears the Penguins captain had concussions in separate games four days apart in January.
Because Crosby showed no immediate signs of a concussion after being drilled by a blindside hit from the Capitals’ David Steckel during the Winter Classic on Jan. 1 at Heinz Field, he stayed in the game. However, he was clearly woozy and shaken up following the hit.
Four nights later, Crosby received a concussion when his head whip-lashed into the boards while being hit from behind by the Lightning’s Victor Hedman. Crosby hasn’t been cleared for contact, much less to play in a game, since then.
The Penguins were encouraged when Crosby – the runaway leader in the NHL scoring race at the time he was hurt – returned to practice in April, albeit without any contact. But he was forced to stop practising when his concussion symptoms returned during Pittsburgh’s first-round playoff loss to Tampa Bay. Those symptoms are believed to be mostly headaches.
After being shut down for a few weeks, Crosby began skating again and resumed his strenuous off-season workouts in his native Nova Scotia. Bylsma was especially encouraged upon hearing that Crosby’s sessions were even more demanding than those of recent years.
But as Crosby’s workouts intensified, the symptoms returned. Penguins general manager Ray Shero, who has been in contact with Crosby, isn’t sure exactly what they were.
Crosby is still working out, and neither he nor the Penguins are saying whether he is skating at a pace consistent with a player about to report to camp. If he isn’t, it would seem unlikely that he would be ready to go for the start of camp. If there’s much of a delay once camp opens, then the Oct. 6 opener at Vancouver becomes doubtful for a player who had won an NHL MVP award, a scoring title and the Stanley Cup by age 22.
“I don’t have Sept. 16 on my calendar for [Crosby], or Oct. 6. My only concern is his long-term health, keeping in mind he’s a hockey player, a 24-year-old kid. I want him to feel good about himself,” Shero said. “He’ll be back at some point to play hockey. We’ll see when he gets back, [we] get him evaluated, and go from there.”
Bylsma also is trying to remain positive, saying, “Sidney’s progressed nicely this summer, he’s had a long summer.”
What Penguins fans are concerned about is the possibility of a long winter should Crosby not be cleared to play.
The Penguins went 49-25-8 in 2010-11 despite playing half the season without both Crosby and former NHL scoring champion Evgeni Malkin (knee), but they lasted only one round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. A team built around its offence lost 1-0 to Tampa in Game 7.
“If he’s not ready for the start of the season, I’m worried for the Penguins for sure,” said Nick Barone, 20, a former hockey player for Bethel Park High School in Pennsylvania. “I don’t think they could go a whole season without Crosby. A lot of people will be worried if Crosby’s not out there.”
A lot of people are worried now. The lack of information from both Crosby and his team is leading many to wonder if one of the most popular athletes in Pittsburgh history is in worse shape than is being said.
“The lack of information, and the potential misinformation, has fuelled the fire,” said Pittsburgh talk show host Ken Laird. “We haven’t heard from Sid since he left town and, while it’s his off-season, [the Penguins] seem to be unsure, too. And that leads a lot of fans to believe that they’re hiding something or there’s something deeper.”
Neither Crosby nor the Penguins likely were encouraged upon hearing of Bruins forward Marc Savard’s ongoing struggles with post-concussion syndrome.
Savard hasn’t been the same since being levelled by Penguins forward Matt Cooke’s blindside hit to the head on March 7, 2010, or a week to the day after Crosby’s Olympic-clinching overtime goal for Canada against the United States in Vancouver.
“It’s been a long road. . . . I’m still suffering from a lot of daily issues,” Savard told TSN earlier this month. “Right now, it’s been a tough go. I’m trying to get through and not worry about hockey right now, just worry about my health.”
Savard said he often is “a little foggy” in the morning and the hot sun – or very bright light – is especially troubling.
Such talk makes the issue of when an athlete will play again seem not quite so important. Even an athlete as gifted as Crosby, who was enjoying the best season of an already enviable career when he was hurt.
“Everybody wants him back as soon as possible, but we don’t want to rush him and get himself in worse health than he is now,” Smith said.
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