Whether you love or loathe Sidney Crosby – and there are a surprising number of haters out there – Monday marks the day NHL hockey gets a whole lot more interesting again. And for those who grew weary with the daily updates, there must be much rejoicing.
When Crosby returns to the NHL in a Monday-night matchup against the New York Islanders after missing 10-and-a-half months with a concussion, it has the potential to have an impact just as great as 18 years ago when his former landlord, Mario Lemieux, came back after missing 24 games with Hodgkin’s disease and overtook Pat LaFontaine to win the scoring championship with 160 points.
It’s unrealistic to expect Crosby to match Lemieux’s rare feat…isn’t it? But just for fun, let’s pretend he can keep up the pace of 66 points in 41 games he established last year before he was injured, which is a tall order indeed. But if he were to do it, he’d have 100 points in the Penguins’ last 62 games of this season. Probably not enough to overtake the likes of Phil Kessel or Claude Giroux, but you never know.
What will certainly be of more immediate interest will be what happens when Crosby takes his first solid hit in almost a year. There has been a lot of speculation over just how Crosby will react now that he has had a diagnosed concussion and whether or not he’ll be able to play as robust a game as he did before the injury.
The betting here is he will. Crosby never has been a periphery player and he’s not about to start being one now. He has had arguably the best and most prudent care of any player in the history of the game who has been concussed and if Penguins doctor Charles Burke and concussion specialist Michael Collins are comfortable with him returning to the pace of the NHL and have cleared him to play, then there is no doubt he is ready to return. Taking any more time off wouldn’t have changed the situation for Crosby or made him any less susceptible to a recurring head injury.
And when it comes to that possibility, here’s what you need to know. All the data compiled by the experts suggest – and they suggest it only because nobody knows this phenomenon for certain – that a player runs the risk of developing more serious concussions with a longer recovery time if they expose themselves to concussion-causing hits after already suffering one.
But it’s important to note Crosby’s head hasn’t suddenly turned to glass. The fact is he is no more liable to get a concussion from regular body contact than any of the other 700 or so players in the NHL. That means if someone crunches him against the boards with a run-of-the-mill type hit or he falls to the ice because he’s tripped, he won’t end up on the long-term injury list again.
“The symptoms might come back with a smaller hit, but it would still have to be a hefty hit,” said Dr. Lauren Sergio of York University, one of Canada’s leading concussion researchers. “It’s unusual for someone to be reinjured that easily. There have been a lot of people who have gone back after one concussion and they’ve been fine for the rest of their careers.”
What we don’t really know is whether Crosby’s absence was so long because of the extent of the damage or because the Penguins, Crosby and his doctors were being so cautious about returning him to play. It’s probably a combination of both, but there was a time not all that long ago when a player of Crosby’s ilk would have been put back into action earlier after a head injury.
Hockey is a contact sport. Always has been and always will be. For players who are as involved in the play and have the impact Crosby does, that potential for contact is increased multifold. And if you subscribe to the theory that the original hit by Dave Steckel in the Winter Classic was unintentional (put your trusty correspondent in that camp), there are times when contact finds players even when they aren’t looking for it.
So this is the reality with which Crosby must deal. Most hockey observers who have followed Crosby over the years expect him to return to being the player he was prior to the injury. Don’t look for Crosby to tiptoe around the ice trying to find his sea legs again. In fact, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if he went looking for a hit on his first shift.
Modern science, the best care in the world and an organization that looked out for the best interests of the player have all but guaranteed Crosby will be exactly the same player Nov. 21, 2011 and beyond that he was Jan. 5 when Victor Hedman hit him into the end boards.
And for that we can be thankful.
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column.
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