PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Look at your right hand. Close your eyes. Do you know where it is? Are you certain?
For months, Sidney Crosby was not.
While the rest of his Pittsburgh Penguins teammates spent the summer resting, working on their golf game and trying to get over a seven-game loss to Tampa Bay in the opening round of the playoffs, the game’s greatest player spent it searching for a way back to normalcy.
Two head shots within a week of each other last January ended the former MVP’s season, put his career in jeopardy and may have started a culture change in a sport where toughness, grit and “playing through it” are among the most prized commodities.
Entering his sixth NHL season, the 24-year-old franchise cornerstone didn’t set out to be the most public case study on the mysterious lingering effects of concussions. He simply wanted to feel better and get back to doing what he loved.
The road back has been more arduous than he ever possibly imagined when he was scratched out of the lineup following a game against Tampa Bay on Jan. 5 after experiencing what he’s since described as “fogginess.”
Months of rest, of tests, of travel, of quietly—and not so quietly—refuting what his camp has deemed as misinformation about his condition, his health, his future have followed.
The organization did its best to give Crosby space. Coach Dan Bylsma and general manager Ray Shero checked in occasionally. Teammates, both old and new, would text or call to talk about anything and everything but the state of Crosby’s head.
Penguins forward Jordan Staal says they texted about fishing. The words “vestibular system”—which focuses on a person’s ability to balance and work within a given space, the system most affected by Crosby’s concussions—never came up.
“I figured he was getting enough of it from everywhere else,” Staal said. “All that matters to us really is that he’s healthy. All that stuff you thought you heard, I didn’t pay any attention to it.”
Private by nature, the combination of Crosby’s injury and his urge to get away from things back home in Canada during the off-season only seemed to feed the frenzy.
He was retiring. He wasn’t retiring. He suffered a setback. He was skating at full speed. Each week seemed to bring a new rumour or theory.
Crosby remains polite but reserved when talking about the process, though he did spend more than 40 minutes last month addressing reporters while sitting alongside the two doctors who have overseen his rehabilitation.
Dr. Mickey Collins, a neuropsychologist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, likened Crosby to a Ferrari. Dr. Ted Carrick, who practises clinical neurology and whom Crosby turned to when things seemed to stall in midsummer, has seen so much progress that he likened it to Christmas.
How exactly did Crosby get to this point in his recovery? Well, that’s tricky. Unlike a muscle or a bone, there is no obvious physical evidence when you’re healed. The science of how to handle and treat the vestibular system is evolving.
“It generally kind of boils down to retraining the brain to know where everything is in space and the awareness of where your body is in space,” said Mark Lovell, the founding director of the UPMC Sports Medicine concussion program and CEO of ImPACT, a computerized concussion evaluation system. “When you have an injury that can be thrown off.”
Getting it back in a normal person takes time, and lots of it. Throw in the unique demands of Crosby’s job—namely making sudden movements and constantly recalibrating your balance to adjust to an ever-changing environment—and getting to the point where Crosby feels “normal” is an uncertain proposition.
A thriving vestibular system allows a person to trust their senses. Lovell likened it looking at your hand then closing your eyes and trusting your hand is in the same place. For a person with vestibular problems, that’s difficult because the brain may be receiving faulty information.
“From a rehab standpoint you work on gradually giving people exercises so that they’re increasingly able to tolerate the kind of side-to-side movement as well as have a better awareness of where they are in space in any given time,” Lovell said. “You can’t do that all at once. If you do it too quickly, you make a person feel worse.”
That’s part of the danger. Crosby allows his training regimen was adjusted over the summer. It seemed to be whenever he’d reach a certain threshold of exertion, his symptoms would return.
Frustrating? Absolutely. Mystifying? Sure. Enough of a reason to consider hanging up his skates for good? No shot. He’s not the first player to deal with debilitating concussions, just one of the most famous.
Boston’s Patrice Bergeron, who missed nearly the entire 2007-08 season with injuries sustained when he was checked head-first into the boards, told Crosby to hang in there.
“I was reaching out to him and just letting him know what I’ve been through I guess and that patience and staying positive is, it sounds kind of cliche, but that’s exactly what it is,” Bergeron said. “And just to stay with it then he’s going to be, you know he’s going to find a way to get back.”
Not one to make declarative statements, Crosby said during his press conference it was “likely” he would play again this season, and he’s attacked training camp ferociously even if he’s forced to wear a different coloured helmet to let his teammates know he’s not cleared for contact yet.
The Penguins open the season on Thursday in Vancouver but Crosby won’t be in the lineup. He remains on injured reserve and still has no indication on when he’ll be cleared for contact let alone play in a game.
However, he will travel with the team when it begins the season on the road, attempting to get back into a rhythm.
“Even if I’m not playing, it’s kind of a fresh start,” Crosby said.
The league is pulling for him. Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin—the NHL’s exuberant yang to Crosby’s steady yin—is ready to see Crosby’s familiar No. 87 back out there.
“I hope he’s not going to feel dizzy or not feel sick anymore, and he’s going to play—because he’s one of the top guys in the league, and it’s very hard to play against him,” Ovechkin said.
The NHL could certainly use him, and the league has taken an aggressive stance against the kind of head shots that put Crosby’s future in limbo. Former all-star Brendan Shanahan, now in charge of league discipline, has been cracking down on players during the pre-season for taking dangerous and unnecessary chances.
It’s a step in the right direction for a league starting to gain some traction. The last time Crosby played on national television, the Penguins were losing to the Capitals in the Winter Classic, the highest-rated regular season game since 1975.
His presence would help hockey fill a bit of the void if the NBA’s lockout continues.
“It’s huge,” said Nashville’s Shea Weber, who played alongside Crosby on the 2010 Canadian Olympic team that won gold in Vancouver. “I mean he’s really the face of the NHL I think. He’s the most dominant player in the world.”
Or, at least he was.
Crosby isn’t sure what to expect whenever he’s cleared. He’d love to be the player who seemed to be in the middle of his prime last winter. He’s not sure when that guy will show up, if he does at all.
“I’d love to be able to say first game back I’m right where I left off but it’s pretty unrealistic,” Crosby said. “With that being said that’s where I want to be. This is the best I felt since I’ve played NHL and that’s what I want to get to. I want to get back there as soon as I can.”
After a restless summer spent wondering if its iconic star would ever return, so does hockey.
AP Sports Writer Teresa Walker in Nashville, Joseph White in Washington, D.C., and freelance writer Matt Kalman contributed to this report.