PITTSBURGH – He didn't like driving. He didn't even like having the radio on in the car. He didn't like watching television, and when he attended a team meeting about a month into his recovery, he felt that just watching video was stressing his system because he had to work so hard to concentrate.
We've heard so many harrowing stories since concussions have become a huge issue in the NHL. We've heard worse. But this was Sidney Crosby(notes) speaking Wednesday, the captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins, the undisputed best player in the game when he was injured last January. He is "the Ferrari of hockey players," in the words of one of his doctors, but he was bothered by the simple, everyday task of getting behind the wheel.
The good news is that Crosby has made great progress in recent weeks. He said he feels the best he has since he suffered his concussion, that he is more likely to play this season than not, that he has not considered retirement, and that the chances he will never play again are "pretty slight."
"I wouldn't bet on that," Crosby said.
Micky Collins, director of the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program in Pittsburgh, said he is "supremely confident" Crosby will have no long-term problems from his injury, based on his experience and Crosby's progress. Ted Carrick, distinguished professor of neurology at Life University in Marietta, Ga., went even further. He said the hope is that Crosby's nervous system will function better than ever.
"I'm very optimistic that we'll see Sid have a very fruitful, long NHL career," Collins said.
The bad news is that there remains a lot of uncertainty about Crosby's comeback, at least in the short term, and though Crosby has joined the chorus of those pushing for zero tolerance on hits to the head, his case actually illustrates just how difficult – if not impossible – it is to prevent concussions from happening in hockey.
Everyone insists Crosby will not return until he is 100 percent, and no one will put a timetable on that. That is obviously wise. Players who have not fully recovered are at an increased risk of further problems. Concussions are complex injuries that affect each athlete differently, and recovering from them is a fluid process. If anyone even ventures a guess as to how this will go, it will be used by fans and media to chart his progress. Is he ahead of schedule? Behind? What does that mean?
But think about it. It's safe to say he won't be ready for the start of training camp Sept. 16 and probably won't be ready for opening night Oct. 6. It's fair to wonder how much longer it will take and how well the Ferrari will run once he returns to the track.
First, Crosby has to be able to exert himself 100 percent without symptoms reoccurring, when he hasn't been able to push past 90 percent yet. Then, Collins said, contact will be introduced carefully – light, then moderate – and "we're not even close to that now." Collins said he could "guarantee you that we're not going to make any mistakes in this case."
Once Crosby passes all those tests, will he then be able to pick up where he left off? We can only speculate. Maybe eventually, but it would be unfair to expect it immediately or even relatively soon. Remember that Crosby had just reached a new level even for himself, with 32 goals and 66 points in half a season, a pace that would have produced the best offensive statistics the NHL had seen in years. Understand that this injury affected the very thing that sets him apart – his brain's ability to process split-second information and control his body amid the blur of the rink – so the bar is higher than it is for others.
"Sid is a Ferrari," Collins said. "His vestibular system is better than anyone else's. That's why he is the most elite hockey player in the world. That system is where Sid excels at. That system is why Sid is who he is."
Remember when we were wondering whether Crosby would be ready for the All-Star Game? The All-Star Game was Jan. 30. By then, Collins already knew Crosby faced a long recovery. In fact, he said he knew it as soon as he first saw Crosby on Jan. 6, the day after Crosby took a hit from behind from Victor Hedman(notes) of the Tampa Bay Lightning, six days after his Winter Classic collision with David Steckel, then of the Washington Capitals.
Crosby had headaches. He was foggy and fatigued. He was sensitive to noise and light. He had a hard time thinking, and testing showed significant problems with his cognitive functioning. "The types of symptoms Sid had initially are exactly the type of symptoms that we see that end up taking the longest to recover from concussion," Collins said.
Most of those symptoms have cleared. Carrick said Crosby's spatial reasoning has improved. Collins said he assessed Crosby on Tuesday and he was encouraged that the data approached normal limits. "I'm just dealing with headaches right now, a little bit of headaches," Crosby said. "Trust me, that's a long ways from where I was in January."
Crosby still has to progress to the point where he doesn't suffer any more setbacks. He has been frustrated in the past. "As positive as you try to be, it definitely takes a toll and it's mentally draining," he said. "It's a roller-coaster."
Since Crosby suffered his concussion, the NHL has strengthened its return-to-play protocol and broadened the rules for boarding and illegal checks to the head. Crosby said the league can do more. He reiterated his opinion that all contact to the head should be outlawed.
"The odd time, maybe there's accidental contact, but for the most part, we can control what goes on out there," Crosby said. "For sure, it's a fast game, but we've got to be responsible, too. A guy's got to be responsible with his stick. Why shouldn't he be responsible with the rest of his body when he's going to hit someone?"
The thing is, a guy can control his stick. A guy like Steckel can't control the fact that he's 6-foot-5. He was skating up ice when Crosby, listed at 5-foot-11, curled into him, head turned, not watching where he was going. Crosby's head struck Steckel's upper arm. Assuming it was incidental contact, as Steckel has insisted it was, as the league agreed it was, how was Steckel supposed to avoid the collision?
The real problem in this particular instance might have been that Crosby played the rest of the Winter Classic. He complained only of neck pain, played against the Lightning and took a hit from Hedman against the end boards. What if he had taken a cognitive test after the Steckel collision, as he would have to do now under the new return-to-play protocol? What if Hedman had avoided a dangerous play along the boards, which the rewritten rules address?
Asked if taking two hits in succession made Crosby's problem worse, Collins said the first hit "certainly didn't help the situation. â¦ You have repetitive injury without even being aware there was something going on in the first place, and there being no outward signs of difficulties going on. This is an invisible injury a lot of times. It's just a very complicated, convoluted, cryptic thing to go through. â¦ It just took a perfect storm to get in this situation, but we're doing well. We're moving forward. Is he going to be ready by Oct. 6? I have no earthly idea. There's a process here that we have to go through, and I'm not putting any timelines on it."
We must do all we can to reduce concussions. Maybe we should ban all checks in which the head is hit -- not just those in which the head is "targeted and the principle point of contact" -- while still allowing for incidental contact. But when it comes to Crosby, all we can do is what we've done for the last eight months.
Wait. "He will be worth the wait," Penguins general manager Ray Shero said. "He won't be rushed."
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