Here’s Waiting For You Kid

On September 7, 2011, the Pittsburgh Penguins held a press conference to update the media and hopeful fans about the progress of their star captain Sidney Crosby. By this point, the concussion Crosby suffered on January 1 was old news. It had been a long seven months of hopeful anticipation for Crosby, the Penguins organization and fans of both. There had been setbacks in his recovery and no one was quite sure if Sid would ever lace up his skates again. But this press conference had a positive atmosphere. In fact, Dr. Ted Carrick – the Director of the Carrick Institute in Cape Canaveral, Fl. and one of Crosby’s neurologists – made an announcement that eased everyone’s worry. He said Christmas had come early for the young superstar.

“The reason this is Christmas is because Sid shouldn’t have any problems in the future…This case is one of the good outcomes.”

At this point, Sid wasn’t out of the woods yet, but it appeared that he was making a tremendous recovery and everyone’s doubts that his concussion may put an end to his career were basically washed away. Dr. Michael Collins, the Director of the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program had evaluated Crosby just a day before and he agreed with Carrick about the improvement that Sid had made.

“The progress first of all is excellent that Sid will not have any long term problems from this injury. In fact, I’m supremely confident in that issue,” he said. “His data is the best we’ve seen. It is approaching normal limits.”

Thirty-seven days later, Crosby was officially cleared for contact in practice and 39 days after that, he was cleared to play in his first game in more than 11 months. During that return, there were a bunch of things I was looking for. I wanted to see if he could maintain normal shift time on the ice. (He did). I wanted to see if he was still aggressive and adventurous near the net with or without the puck. (He was). But most of all, I wanted to see him get hit. And honestly, I wanted to see him take a rough blow to the upper body. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely wasn’t hoping someone would target his head and cheap shot him, but I wanted to be reassured that he could go through a normal amount of blows during a typical game so that I could be sure Crosby would be the same as he always was while moving forward into the season. I’m sure that Sid himself felt the same urge.

Inside his mind, he wanted the same reassurance I did. After all, until he took some good shots, that doubt would linger somewhere deep down and the “what ifs” would remain. If he proved to himself and everyone else that the concussion was completely gone without any increased chance of return, it would be a weight off of his and everyone else’s shoulders. That would mean the time for worrying and frustration was gone, so Crosby could focus on the goal of winning another a Stanley Cup.

It indeed proved to be an emotional night for Crosby and everyone watching him at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh. Crosby scored four points with two goals and two assists and it was as though the concussion had never even happened. The city of Pittsburgh was whole again and Crosby was once more the main focus of NHL community.

But that optimism and positivity didn’t last long. Only seven games into the start of Crosby’s season, he suffered yet another setback. Following a 3-1 loss against the Boston Bruins, Sid began to experience headaches and he was shut down by the Penguins once more. Crosby wasn’t quite sure what had caused the return of his symptoms, but he speculated that a hit he took from Boston center David Krejci may have done it.

It remains unclear how badly Sid is feeling and the official report said that he did not suffer another concussion, just concussion-like symptoms. Crosby has passed the baseline testing (an ImPACT test), but he still has a headache and doesn’t feel right.

It is also unclear how long Crosby will be out. Currently, he is not practicing and it feels like his concussion situation has reverted back to the level it reached this past summer, when Penguins fans were supremely worried about the future of the best player in hockey.

Since sustaining a concussion through two hits last year –the first coming from Dave Steckel of the Capitals on January 1 and the second coming from Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning only a few days later – Crosby missed a total of 64 games between now and when he first left the ice, 41 games last season and 23 this season. The first concussion sure was disappointing, made worse by the Penguins’ early playoff exit in the first round of the playoffs, but I always felt that Crosby would fully rehabilitate himself and return to the ice at 100 percent. It looked as though he did, scoring 12 points in only eight games this season. But now, I’m not so sure Sid will ever be the same.

I believe Crosby will return sooner or later from the latest concussion symptoms because I’m an optimistic fan, but I now have a strong fear that any amount of contact may spur yet another re-occurrence of symptoms and Sid will continue to miss large chunks of games in both the long and short term. I’m also positive that Crosby does not want to go through the same strenuous rehabilitative process he went through this summer. Although the specifics of this rehab have never been truly revealed, during the September 7 press conference, Crosby’s doctors explained the process in some detail. “The brain allows you to know where you are in space and where space is in reference to you. In Sid’s case, that was not exactly correct,” Dr. Carrick said. “Areas in space were not in an appropriate grid to where he would perceive them, so we developed strategies to build him a new grid.”

Collins added that Sid had suffered a vestibular type of concussion (vestibular meaning the space and motion system of the brain.) “Sid’s vestibular system is better than anyone else’s,” Collins said. “That system makes Sid who he is… At this time, Sid has no vestibular symptoms.”

Crosby, the Penguins and his doctors handled the injury the best way they possibly could. Ray Shero, the general manager of the Penguins reiterated this fact numerous times during that press conference. But even though there was basically nothing else that could have been done for Crosby, his problems are flaring up once again and that’s very bad news.

Many questions were posed to Crosby and his doctors at the press conference, but one in particular caught my attention. Stan Savran, who covers the Penguins for Root Sports Pittsburgh, asked if there would come a point where there would be no evidence that an injury ever occurred and if Sid would be more susceptible to further head injuries, despite his recovery from this one. Collins answered back confidently. “Yes, there will be no evidence that this injury is there anymore. Our research and many others in this field understand that if you have full recovery, the outcomes are far less in terms of recidivism and problems reoccurring. And I expect that to occur in this case,” he said. “I’m very optimistic that we’ll see Sid have a very long and fruitful career.”

Taking that statement into account, as well as knowing that every precaution possible was taken for Crosby, I feel that his fate can only be determined by sheer luck. Now, I really have to question if a prior concussion can increase the chances you’ll suffer another one in the future.

I’ll keep an open mind of course, because I am a Penguins fan and a Crosby fan. So I’ll say that there is still a chance that Crosby is NOT concussion-prone, just unlucky.

There is also a tiny chance that Crosby had never taken a legitimately heavy shot to the brain in his career prior to the Steckel hit. That could indicate that his concussion tolerance was low to begin with and he had actually been lucky throughout all the hockey games he had ever played in before and had not taken any major contact to the head. Sid has said himself that he had never been diagnosed with a concussion before. This scenario is pretty much impossible, however. Hockey is a violent game and there’s no chance, in my opinion, that Crosby was lucky enough to avoid a shot to the head in all the years he’s played hockey. That means that Sid has almost definitely taken hits to his head, but none of them before Steckel’s were hard enough or direct enough to deliver a concussion.

Now that he fell victim to a big enough shot to his brain to concuss him, it seems likely to me that he simply does not have the tolerance to concussions that he did before Steckel. The Hedman hit may be evidence of that. Remember, the shot in the Winter Classic delivered the initial concussion, but Crosby didn’t miss any games because of it. He went on a few days later to play in the very next game four days after the Winter Classic against Tampa Bay. That is when he was hit by Hedman and he didn’t play another game that season. In my opinion, that goes to show that something permanent has occurred inside Crosby’s head. It may not be detectable, but there is some kind of switch that flipped in his brain that he cannot switch back. And hear me right, I’m not talking about some sort of mental fear that Crosby has. That’s not my point at all. I’m talking about a permanent physical condition that cannot be treated and cannot be cured. It is a bell that cannot be un-rung, so to speak.

During the summer press conference, Crosby’s doctors stated that he was “approaching normal.” So hypothetically, let’s say that today, Crosby is once again approaching normal. (Which I believe is unfortunately a little too optimistic.) Initially, it took a total of 75 days after the press conference for him to fully recover and return to action. That would mean that he would be cleared for contact in practice 37 days from now, which would put us at January 21. After another 39 days, he would be cleared to return to games, which would be on February 29 against the Dallas Stars. This scenario would leave only 19 games left in the regular season. In total, he would miss 55 regular season games. Last season, he missed 14 games LESS than that. So hypothetically, this season could ultimately prove to be even more frustrating than the last.

I can’t remember any other time in my life that I’ve ever wanted to be proven wrong so badly.

So I and the rest of the Penguins nation will wait with bated breath. There is no time table and there are no speculations. Again, the Penguins organization will take its time and do this whole thing the same way as before, the safe way and the right way. And hopefully—knock on wood, pull a four-leaf clover, pick up a heads-up penny and walk under a horseshoe—that pays off better than it did the first time.

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About Pete Dombrosky
Pete is a graduate of Penn State University and a life-long Steelers, Penguins, and Pirates fan. He covered men's hockey, golf, tennis, swimming and the enterprise beat as a reporter at the Daily Collegian, Penn State's award-winning, independent student-operated paper. He currently serves as the Assistant Managing Editor for Thrillist Media Group (www.thrillist.com).

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