By Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Whether you're sick to your stomach about Sidney Crosby or sick of hearing about Sidney Crosby – is there any in between? – it's important to note this anniversary. It was one year ago – Jan, 5, 2010 – that Crosby took a hit from the Tampa Bay Lightning's Victor Hedman.
It wasn't that big of a hit. It was more of a bump from behind against the end boards. But combined with Crosby's hard collision with the Washington Capitals' David Steckel on New Year's Day in the 2011 Winter Classic – and Hedman’s 6-foot-6, 230-pound frame – it was enough to change the very course of hockey history.
No, that is not overstating it.
Before we fret about Crosby's future and ponder the concussion issue further, let's look at what the captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins has lost already: Virtually a year of the prime of his career. Almost certainly another Hart Trophy as the NHL's MVP, another Art Ross Trophy as the league's leading scorer and another Rocket Richard Trophy as the league's leading goal-scorer. Not necessarily another Stanley Cup, but at least a shot at one.
That Crosby's concussion came at the dawn of a new year makes it easy to illustrate the devastation. Crosby had a hell of a 2010. On home ice in Vancouver, he scored the golden goal that lifted Team Canada to victory over the United States in the Olympic final. He finished one NHL season with 51 goals and 109 points, and he started the next on a 64-goal, 132-point pace – the runaway favorite for all of those trophies. He had added to his legend, separated himself from his peers, solidified himself as the face of the league.
Then the calendar flipped to 2011, and just like that, he was gone. He has played only eight games since the Hedman hit. Eight. He returned triumphantly after a 10-1/2 month absence with a two-goal, four-point performance on Nov. 21 against the New York Islanders, and the hockey world sighed with relief, hoping that he had just picked up where he had left off, that he was past it. But after seven more games, eight more assists, he took a relatively routine jolt from an opponent and collided with a teammate, and he was gone again.
Once again, we are left with irregular reports from the Penguins and few words from Crosby himself, if any at all, and the vacuum is filled with rumor and speculation. Once again, there is no timetable for his return.
We don't know that Crosby will never be the same. It would be irresponsible to be too alarmist.
All the Penguins will say is that Crosby still has some symptoms and is working out lightly, and that is all they can say. They looked foolish a year ago when they repeated the doctors' early opinion that Crosby had a "mild" concussion and would miss "about a week." They won't make the same mistake again with such a tricky injury and such a high-profile player.
Privately, the Penguins are hopeful that Crosby will play again this season; they haven't come close to ruling him out for the rest of the season, the way the Philadelphia Flyers have ruled out their captain, Chris Pronger, on the advice of some of the same doctors who are treating Crosby.
But they don't know when he will be back, either. We don't know whether Crosby will ever be the same, and it would be irrational to ignore the obvious concerns.
There is Crosby's brain itself. There is also Crosby's mindset. He is under tremendous pressure to handle his concussion problems appropriately, as an example for others, and he is under tremendous pressure to be Sidney Crosby when he returns, too. His game – buzzing down low, initiating contact, outworking opponents – requires both top conditioning and full confidence in it. He's a Ferrari, remember? You have to wonder if Crosby is more susceptible to concussions, and you have to wonder if he must be more conservative than others whether he is or he isn't.
It's too early to say the damage has been done. But it's not too early to say some of the damage done has been significant and irreversible. A year is gone, and no matter what happens in the future, good or bad, Crosby can never get it back.
The NHL is studying concussions in detail again this season, and vice-president of hockey operations Kris King said entering the holiday break the numbers were "almost identical" to what they were at this point last season – both in the total number and in the breakdown of causes.
"You'd be shocked," King said. "I was."
King declined to give hard numbers because of league policy. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the league had "decided to move away from giving absolute numbers." Daly said he thought the NHL was "one concussion ahead in the same number of games" compared to last season and noted there had been "no spike in concussions."
But no spike is no victory, because no reduction means there has been no effect, at least statistically, from all the efforts the NHL has made.
In March, the NHL strengthened its return-to-play protocol, requiring players suspected of having a concussion to be taken to a quiet area and tested.
After the season, it outlawed all hits that targeted the head, regardless of direction. It strengthened the boarding rule, because so many concussions occurred near the boards. It installed curved glass at termination points, to mitigate the kind of blow the Montreal Canadiens' Max Pacioretty suffered last season when he was pushed into a stanchion by the Boston Bruins' Zdeno Chara.
Commissioner Gary Bettman also created a department of player safety and named former NHL player Brendan Shanahan the new discipline czar. He had Shanahan explain every suspension via video and meet players team by team – to better educate them on what is and is not acceptable.
Still, the stats were the same up to the holiday break. Maybe they would have been worse if not for all those efforts. Maybe some of this is the Crosby Effect – heightened awareness of concussions, more fear of taking a second hit – and maybe some of this is the nature of the game as it is today.
Through March of last season, the NHL found 44 percent of concussions were caused by legal hits and 26 percent were caused by accidental events. What does it mean if those percentages are still about the same? King expects the hockey operations department to present another concussion report at the general managers' meetings this March.
"We just don't know why the numbers are what they are," King said. "But I'm a true believer that the players now know when they have a head injury, they're telling people and they're getting treatment for it. I don't think that's a bad thing. …
"How many times are accidental plays happening in a game where guys are getting hurt? How many times are guys getting hit clean and getting hit into the boards and getting hurt? I mean, we've changed the environment. The boards are softer. The glass is softer. The game's faster, and the players are bigger. Force, speed, mass, collisions. It happens."
Talk to old-timers, and they agree something is wrong. They just don't agree on what.
Opinions were all over the place after the Rangers-Flyers alumni game at the Winter Classic. Some of the retired NHLers said players don't respect one another as much these days; others said players don't protect themselves as well and put themselves in vulnerable positions. Some said the removal of the red line is to blame; others aren't so sure. Some disagreed on the red line but agreed that the crackdown on obstruction is to blame.
Talk to former Flyers captain Eric Lindros, who retired because of concussions. He continues to rail against the elimination of two-line passes after the lockout of 2004-05.
"By taking out the red line, the game really did increase in speed," Lindros said. "It's faster. It's exciting. Is it any more exciting than the past? Maybe. But the players are going at a clip right now – at a rate of speed right now – that is just over the point of being safe."
Talk to Flyers legend Bobby Clarke, who hasn't seen eye-to-eye with Lindros on things in the past but agrees on this.
"They've got to get the red line back in and let players defend their partners, defend each other," said Clarke, now the Flyers' senior vice-president. "If I'm going to take a run at you, you should be able to step in front of me so I can't hit you. When they took that out, it was just foolish. The NHL, since the lockout, is the cause of all the concussions. There's going to be concussions because of the sport, but the rule changes that they put in are the cause of all the concussions. It's an epidemic. Suspending players is not going to change it."
Now talk to Mathieu Schneider, who played defense for the Rangers and other teams during his NHL career and is now the special assistant to NHL Players' Association executive director Don Fehr. He isn't a fan of the trapezoid that prevents goaltenders from playing the puck in the corner and helping their defensemen. But the red line?
"I'm not sold on the red line argument," Schneider said. "Personally, I'd like to see a little more interference allowed back in the game, maybe in limited areas. But again, some guys you talk to would agree – mostly defensemen – and a lot of other guys may not. We need to come to a consensus, and it's give and take."
The disagreements speak to the complexities of the issue, the difficulty in reaching a consensus and the law of unintended consequences. Though Clarke said it was "foolish" to make some of the changes the league did coming out of the lockout, that's only with the benefit of hindsight. Ask Clarke what he thought of those changes at the time.
"The first time I saw it, I said, 'Holy man, this is going to be great,' " Clarke said. "I loved it at the start. I liked the game because it was so fast. … But all of a sudden one player after the next is going down."
Part of the solution might lay in the equipment Schneider and King wore for the alumni game. Schneider wore a set of barely-there shoulder pads. He isn't saying players should wear replicas today, but maybe they should move in that direction.
"That's pretty much what I wore for most of my career unless I had injuries," Schneider said. "Generations of guys wore those. I happened to be one of the last. To me, something's got to be more substantial than that. The game's too fast. But we've gone so far the other way."
We've gone so far the other way that players feel invincible. They launch themselves into each other without consequences. The idea is to find a balance – so players are protected well but the equipment doesn't become a weapon.
King wore an undershirt with built-in padding that a player could wear under a lighter set of shoulder pads. He said it was the first time he had tried it himself. He found it comfortable and effective.
"Lindros ran me over in the corner, and I didn't feel anything," King said. "So you know what? We're almost there. We're trying all kinds of different things."
Schneider has been working closely with Shanahan, who also wore a set of barely-there shoulder pads when he played in the NHL. A dozen NHL players are currently testing prototypes of lighter shoulder and elbow pads – Schneider didn't provide names, but said there were "some prominent players" and a mix of physical and skilled guys – and the league and union are starting to gather feedback from those players. Equipment companies are continuing to work on new ideas.
"I think the prototypes the companies have come out with lately are amazing, the materials they're using," King said. "They've been able to do an awful lot with them. So I'm excited about it. I think we can really make a difference with the equipment."
A difference, but not the difference.
"That's not going to be the answer, either, one thing," Schneider said. "You're going to have to sit back and really analyze what's going on in our game. It's a combination of things that I think need to happen in order to make the game a little more safer. That comes through working with the guys that are actually playing the game. Those are the guys that have the best feel for it.
"It's difficult to have those conversations during the year. We do on a limited basis, but I suspect this summer we're going to have a lot more discussion – try to really get a handle on, I guess, slowing the game down a little bit.”
1. Boston Bruins: One of the great games of the season is Saturday at TD Garden, when the Stanley Cup champions host the Stanley Cup runners-up, the Vancouver Canucks. Let's hope we see the same passion we saw in the final, without the same shenanigans.
2. New York Rangers: John Tortorella, you just won the Winter Classic. What are you going to do now? Well, instead of saying he was going to Disney World or something, Tortorella questioned the integrity of the referees. Look, Torts, you won, first of all; you were wrong, second of all; and, you were dumb to do that at a time when the league is trying to reach a larger audience, most importantly. You deserved every penny of that $30,000 fine.
3. Chicago Blackhawks: Another one of the great games of the year is Thursday night at Wells Fargo Center, when the 2010 Stanley Cup champions return to the place where they won it all. They will do it without Dan Carcillo – a member of the team they beat, the 2010 Flyers – as he begins serving a seven-game suspension.
4. Detroit Red Wings: Ah, it's Wings-Leafs on Saturday night – one of the great Original Six matchups we used to love and rarely see in today's NHL anymore. Let's see it next year when the Winter Classic almost certainly comes to the Detroit area.
5. Philadelphia Flyers: Absolutely loved the Flyers' Winter Classic jerseys for some reason. It wasn't that big of a departure from the current model, but the slightly darker shade of orange, the black across the shoulders, the striping – good look.
6. Vancouver Canucks: Come on, AV. Don't start Cory Schneider on Saturday. You gotta go with Robert Luongo, if only to see how he'll react.
25. New York Islanders: The Isles have won three in a row, and though they are 14th in the East, they actually aren't out of it. They have played 37 games, tied with the Rangers for fewest in the East, and they are only seven points out of eighth.
26. Montreal Canadiens: No matter how you feel about the language issue, you've got to feel for Randy Cunneyworth. He gets his shot as an NHL coach. Right away his owner cuts out his legs, and not long after that his GM apologizes for hiring him about the same time two of his top players fight at practice.
27. Edmonton Oilers: The last thing the Oilers needed was a shoulder injury for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the No. 1 overall pick who leads all NHL rookies in goals (13) and points (35). They obviously will give him all the time he needs. No rush.
28. Carolina Hurricanes: At least Jeff Skinner, last year's winner of the Calder Trophy as the rookie of the year, has returned to practice for the first time since suffering a concussion. The 'Canes and the league need all the good news they can get on that front.
29. Anaheim Ducks:Cam Fowler is going to be good – maybe even great. But he's still a 20-year-old playing perhaps the most difficult position to master, defense, and now he's playing on a bad team. He was minus-25 last season. He's minus-18 so far this season.
30. Columbus Blue Jackets: Wanna know how to be a bad team? Do what the Blue Jackets have done this season. Carry leads into the third period 16 times, and win only half of them. Even worse, tease your fans and create false hope – then crush 'em.
PLUS: One detail that didn't make last week's piece on Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom: When an opponent tries to chip in the puck on his wing, Lidstrom usually knocks it down along the boards. It's a simple play that has a cumulative effect as Lidstrom repeats it over time. "The guys can't get in our zone, which saves a lot of wear and tear on us," said Ian White, Lidstrom's defense partner. "It gives the puck more into our forwards' hands and gives us more (offensive) zone time."
MINUS: Let's hope the uncertain labor situation doesn't keep Lidstrom from coming back next season. Lidstrom is trying to tie Bobby Orr's record and win his eighth Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman. But if not for the lockout of 2004-05, he might be trying to break it. The lockout cost him a season right in the middle of his run of six Norris wins in seven years.
PLUS: Good to see Shanahan get tough on Carcillo with a seven-game suspension and Rene Bourque with a five-gamer. About time.
MINUS: Took too long to nab Raffi Torres, though. Good to see Torres finally get a two-gamer after all the stuff he's been pulling, and at least now he will be – or at least should be – treated as what he is. A repeat offender.
PLUS:Patrice Bergeron's two goals Wednesday night should help the increasing campaign for him to win the Selke Trophy as the NHL's best defensive forward. Offense doesn't mean defense, but it draws attention to it. The more Bergeron does in one end, the more voters will pay attention to what he does in the other – just as they have done for guys like Ryan Kesler.
MINUS: Blue Jackets coach Scott Arniel shouldn't be telling reporters he'll show them the stats to support his argument when he doesn't know the stats, and he shouldn't be storming out of postgame press conferences no matter how frustrated he is. Unless he has been trying to get fired and he’s frustrated he has failed at that, too.
“Total attendance for first five Winter Classics: 265,225. Total attendance for next year's alone: 110,000-plus. (Wink, wink.) #bighouse”
Again, full disclosure: I am a Michigan grad who lives in Ann Arbor. And again, I want the 2013 Winter Classic to feature the Maple Leafs and Red Wings at Michigan Stadium. NHL chief operating officer John Collins said the event has grown to the point where NBC would OK a Canadian team "if we could figure out the right matchup." This is the right matchup.
Imagine folks from Southern Ontario flooding across the border and helping to fill the Big House, the largest stadium in North America. When Michigan faced Michigan State in an outdoor college game in December of 2010 – at least initially claiming a world-record attendance of 113,411 – so many Canadians came you could hear "O Canada" being sung at tailgate parties.
There are challenges. You'd have to set ticket prices low enough to ensure a sellout but high enough to make enough money for everyone, including the University of Michigan. You'd have to find enough hotel space and off-ice entertainment venues in Ann Arbor – about 45 minutes west of Detroit – or be content with spreading out the festivities across southeastern Michigan.
Then there is Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch. He has long been a booster of downtown and would prefer Comerica Park, home of his Detroit Tigers. Downtown has hosted several large events in recent years, including the Super Bowl, NCAA Final Four and MLB All-Star Game, so there is a ready-made blueprint there. If Comerica Park is the place, it should include the Great Lakes Invitational – the college tournament usually held in late December at Joe Louis Arena featuring Michigan, Michigan State, Michigan Tech and an at-large team.
Comerica Park would be cool. But nothing would beat the Big House and the big buzz, big money and maybe big TV ratings that a record crowd could create.