Rested, happy and finally healthy, Sidney Crosby eager for return to NHL action

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

PITTSBURGH — Where were you at 5 a.m. ET on Sunday? Sidney Crosby was sound asleep at home in Pittsburgh. His phone buzzed. He woke, rustled in bed, grabbed the phone from the nightstand and found a three-word text message from teammate Craig Adams, the Pittsburgh Penguins' union rep.

Out of the darkness, a ray of light.

"Deal is done."

Crosby thumbed his phone furiously. He had questions, so many questions. What were the details? When do we start? He had so many questions that after a while Adams stopped responding. Adams had been up all night in New York as the NHL and NHL Players' Association reached a tentative labor agreement in a marathon negotiating session. He was tired. He was done.

But Crosby was fired up. He was getting started. Finally. He logged onto the Internet to find out whatever he could. He talked to other players to see what they had heard. He went back to bed about 8:30 a.m. – for, like, an hour. Then he spent the entire day talking to teammates and buddies and whoever else, as if he were a prison inmate granted his release and an unlimited voice plan.

"Yeah, I'm just excited," Crosby said. "I just want to get in that first game and get going. I know it's probably going to take a couple to feel good, but I'm just excited for the opportunity."

Excited? Exciting? Crosby said the words over and over again. He never stopped smiling as he spoke in the Penguins' dressing room this week at Consol Energy Center, back in his old spot, back in his old routine. Training camp starts Sunday. The season starts just six days later, with the Penguins reportedly visiting their cross-state rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers.

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"Just the anticipation, all those things kind of one after the other, is exciting," Crosby said.

Especially after all the things that have happened to Crosby one after the other – reaching a new level, suffering a concussion, struggling to recover, seeking out unorthodox treatment, coming back, suffering a setback, identifying a neck problem, coming back again, training hard over the summer, feeling better than ever before, getting locked out, getting involved in talks … getting sick of practicing and riding the emotional roller coaster and waiting to do the one thing he wants to do.

Crosby, the face of the game of hockey, has played only 28 hockey games in more than two years.

"He seems so happy," said Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen, who skated with Crosby during the lockout. "He comes to the rink every day, puts in a ton of work. He's having fun. You can tell he's hungry to play. I'm sure he more than any of us just can't wait to start playing games again."

"I'm with him every day," said Penguins winger Pascal Dupuis. "I work out with him on the ice every day. This guy not playing for three months was a shame. Now that the game's going to be back on …"

Dupuis paused for effect.

"Watch out."

Thanks to his injury and the lockout, Crosby has lost a huge chunk of his career. He will never get it back – the games he didn't play, the goals he didn't score, the points he didn't produce. That will affect his place in history. There is nothing he can do about that now.

But he has already made plenty of history – the Stanley Cup and Golden Goal, the MVP and scoring title and goal-scoring title. And with his injury and the lockout behind him, he has a chance to make plenty more history and help pull the NHL out of the muck once again.

He is 25 years old. Sid the Kid is no longer a kid. But he has grown as a person and should still be in his prime as a player. He is more comfortable sharing his opinion, and he wants to keep improving. He doesn't want to be only what he once was. He wants to be more.

"I never looked at the past too much when it was really good or when it didn't go well," Crosby said. "I've always tried to get better. So … I'm looking at this year and being my best, and we'll find out whatever that is."

Crosby's health will be a concern for the foreseeable future. Every time he takes a hit, people will hold their breath.

But you know when he last had concussion symptoms?

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"Last year," he said.

And you know when he last saw a doctor about his head or neck?

"Uh, I couldn't even tell you," he said. "March or something like that?"

He still has an occasional headache, but like anyone else does. He doesn't freak out. There is a big difference between having a headache and suffering from concussion symptoms, and unfortunately he is experienced enough to know that difference.

Though specialists once said he needed to rewire his brain, because he had damaged the very neurological system that made him special, that work is done. He was healthy enough to come back and stay back at the end of last season, and he was able to go through a full off-season training program for the first time in two years.

"I think I've really tried to push myself to make sure that's something you don't have to think about, because that's the last thing you want to do, have those thoughts in your mind," Crosby said. "So to feel good, to be able to push yourself as much as you can, to know you're not going to get any symptoms, that's a good feeling. You feel like you're able to improve and get better when you are able to do that.

"Since the end of the summer and coming into time for camp, there was no doubt in my mind that I was ready to play and I was healthy. … Going into September, for sure, I was in the best shape I've ever been in as far as off the ice. On the ice, I felt like I was pretty much there, too."

Crosby did not give specifics – if he put on weight, if he cut body fat, if he could bench more. But Crosby said it wasn't about measurables but feel, and he felt strong and quick. He felt everything come a little bit easier.

That made the lockout even more frustrating. Off-season programs are designed to peak for training camp – and there was no training camp. Crosby couldn't keep pushing his body like he had been, not knowing when the season would start and he would need to be fresh. He didn't go play in Europe, partly because of the high cost of insuring his 12-year, $104 million contract. So he had to try to maintain his conditioning in practice, skating four times a week when in Pittsburgh, attending minicamps in Dallas, Phoenix and Vail, Colo.

As much as he loves to practice, he got tired of it. He got tired of the ups and downs of negotiations, too. He missed preparing for opponents. He missed the competition. He missed the wins and, man, even the losses. He missed his teammates. He missed the game.

"Hockey's a team sport," Crosby said. "You're not a tennis player or a golfer. … The times that were tough were more when there was a lot of buildup and you felt like it was getting close."

But if there was a blessing in disguise, it was this: extra time for his brain to rewire, extra time to add to his arsenal.

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"It can't hurt," Crosby said. "It can't hurt not having to get hit. I mean, if I could take anything out of it, maybe it is that. … I feel like I was able to work on some skills that maybe you wouldn't necessarily get that much time to work on. So you try to make the best of the situation."

Crosby has been famous for improving parts of his game each season – his face-offs one year, his shot another. This time, he focused on speed.

"He looks like himself," Niskanen said. "The highlight-reel-type goals that we're all used to, you're starting to see that, where he's really creative. He'll blow by a guy. He's just got that extra burst. I think that is kind of the thing that jumps out to me. You can see just by looking at him walking around in a T-shirt that he's obviously put a lot of work in to get back."

More than any other player, Crosby is tied to sponsors, owners and his peers. He sells shoes. He sells merchandise. He sells tickets. He has lived with one of his owners, Mario Lemieux, while trying to be one of the guys in the dressing room.

He is in a unique position. It is both delicate and powerful, and he knows it.

He didn't have to do anything during negotiations. He already had signed his long-term deal, so the new rules wouldn't affect him personally. He could have done more, too. With so much star power and influence, he could have put more pressure on one side or the other.

But he straddled the line, letting other players take the lead for the union, but staying informed and involved with both sides – more out front than other stars of his stature have been in the past, more outspoken than he might have been in the past.

He stood next to NHLPA executive director Don Fehr during news conferences, allowing himself to be part of strategic photo ops. When he flew from Phoenix to New York for talks in early December, he traveled with his agent, Pat Brisson – and Penguins co-owner Ron Burkle.

"I wouldn't say it was easy," Crosby said. "But I think that it was something that I believed in, and I felt like I wanted what was good for everyone. I wasn't going to sit up there and say, 'You know what? I want to take everything from the owners and get as much as we can get.' I knew it was important for both sides to come out of the deal happy, but I knew there were certain things for us that were important, too. I was willing to support those things."

Crosby said he knew what his intentions were. Asked to be clear about what he meant, he said: "Just to be supportive, to be supportive of the players. I felt like during the whole process, the things that were important to us were very clear. It wasn't a take-it-or-leave-it mentality. It was very much, 'We're willing to negotiate, but that being said, we'd like you to understand that these are important to us.'

"I felt like we had understood where the league was coming from pretty early on with regards to [a] 50-50 [split of hockey-related revenue]. We knew that was very important to the league, and we were more than willing to go there because we knew it was important to the league. So when it came to [contracting rights], it felt like, you know, that's something that's specific to a player.

"There's no hiding the fact that guys are well taken care of financially, but when you're talking about a profession and what's important regarding the profession, the opportunity to possibly move from team to team or the difference of potential money on a salary cap, that's more jobs. Guys, this is their livelihood. They need a team to play on. So I think it's fair to push for that a little bit."

Team officials and players were not supposed to speak to each other during the lockout. But everyone on both sides knew Crosby's relationships with Lemieux and Burkle, and Crosby said nothing underhanded happened.

"It wasn't like we had some secret, that the NHL was saying they wanted something but Mario and Ron were telling me something that they really wanted," Crosby said. "I wasn't negotiating, or they weren't negotiating for the owners. Doing a one-on-one negotiation, it wasn't like that at all."

When Crosby and Burkle arrived together in New York in early December, they went to their separate sides. Crosby said he asked questions and raised concerns in internal meetings like any other player, but he wasn't overly vocal in internal meetings and was less vocal in owner-player meetings, deferring to players he felt were sharper with the CBA. He was discouraged when talks broke off and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman angrily pulled the owners' offer off the table.

"I was more discouraged just because I thought we had made a lot of ground," Crosby said. "I just didn't think it was necessarily the right time to kind of squash everything. … I think we all felt like things were progressing, and then to kind of have it all be capped off like that was … It just felt like it didn't really fit the feel of the last three days leading up to that."

Afterward, Crosby vented his frustration publicly, telling reporters he didn't understand why the sides weren't talking. He has always been available to the media – after every skate, practice and game during the season – but often has been bland and uncontroversial. Now that he's older, he has started to pick his spots on subjects like concussions, head shots and the lockout.

"There's people out there who will share their opinion whether someone likes it or not and whether people really want to hear it or not," Crosby said. "They just like sharing it. For me, I'm not that kind of person. … There's also things I may not know enough about to give my opinion. Sometimes someone may want my opinion, and I don't really want to give it because I don't have a great opinion about it.

"Over time, you get a better feel for things. … I think you come in young and there's a lot of pressure, and you get asked a lot of questions about what's your opinion on certain things, and I think you learn what you're comfortable with and what you feel strongly about. That's just kind of part of learning more and experience, I think. …

"I'm passionate about the game. I'm passionate about things around it. So when I feel like it's something I feel strongly about, there's no doubt I feel comfortable doing that."

Crosby has helped the NHL come back from a lockout before. He arrived in 2005-06, right after a lockout erased an entire season, and he was central to the marketing campaign as a new arena rose in Pittsburgh and revenues rose to record levels in the league.

He knows he could help again – along with so many other stars, from teammate Evgeni Malkin to new rival Claude Giroux to old rival Alex Ovechkin – and there is only one way to do it.

"I think there's a lot of guys kind of in that mix that can do that, but I'm not in that conversation if I'm not playing well," Crosby said. "So I feel like my game has to kind of take care of itself, and if that's what comes along with it, I'm comfortable kind of handling that. It's kind of been something I've dealt with for a few years."

Forever, actually.

"Yeah," Crosby said, smiling. "I think it's good. It's fine. Everything's okay there. But I like to worry about my game. Especially after all those things I've gone through, I would just love to focus on playing and kind of let the other stuff take care of itself."

What is Crosby worried about most? Rust?

"I am," he said, laughing. "I mean, I'm human. I'm like any other guy who misses a lot of time. You have to focus on things. You have that concern of making sure you start well and that you're up to speed and your game's there. I think that's normal. I think that's part of the challenge of playing, and you look forward and are excited for those challenges."

Ah, but rust is relative. Crosby has looked like Lemieux used to when he kept coming back from health problems and retirements.

When Crosby came back Nov. 21, 2011, he scored a highlight-reel goal on his first shot after missing almost 11 months. He had two goals and four points in the game. He put up 12 points in eight games before suffering a setback.

After he came back again March 15, 2012, he produced 25 points in 14 games down the stretch. He had three goals and eight points in six playoff games, and that was disappointing.

Crosby will tell you production is important, but he has never set specific goals and won't this season. He doesn't need to.

"I think you know your game," Crosby said. "We all play long enough to know when we're a factor in a game and we're doing our job. I know what that is. I'm just going to make sure to focus on that from that start. Just getting better. That's important. It's a short season, but I want to get better as the season goes on. So that'll be my goal."

Watch out.

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