Time for the NHL to Get Head Smart

Nostalgia on Repeat

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The Timetable: Sidney Crosby’s Lost Year

He was supposed to save the game, but "The Next One" has become a poster boy for hockey's concussion crisis

T he NHL has always wanted Sidney Crosby to be its poster child. Before he was even drafted he was anointed as “The Next One” — hockey shorthand for the next Gretzky, the next player who could bridge the gap between hockey fanatics and casual weekend watchers of NBC.

Until January, everything was going according to plan. Actually, it was going even better than that. Crosby’s 2010 included an overtime gold-medal-winning goal at the Vancouver Olympics, a starring role in HBO’s universally beloved 24/7 Penguins/Capitals: Road to the NHL Winter Classic documentary, a 25-game point streak spanning the months of November and December in which Crosby recorded 26 goals and 24 assists, and even, for good measure, a nonchalant home run during batting practice at Pittsburgh’s PNC Park.

A few days before the Winter Classic, the heavily hyped outdoor hockey game that would feature Crosby and the Penguins against longtime foil Alex Ovechkin and his Washington Capitals, no less an all-timer than Mario Lemieux said, in a rare press conference, that “what [Sid's] doing now is much more impressive than what I did years ago.”

And it was during the Winter Classic that it happened: an away-from-the-play hit brought Crosby to his hands and knees.

Crosby is still a poster child — except instead of being one for the league’s glories and talents and excitement and skill, he’s now the face of the NHL’s most vexing problem: how to save the brains, and in many cases, the future lives, of its players in a sport built just as much on physical violence as elegant speed. This isn’t a problem specific to hockey, of course; see: Mike Matheny, Brian Scalabrine, and, most recently, Michael Vick. Nor is it a new problem in the NHL, as anyone who loved Patty LaFontaine or Eric Lindros can attest. But it seems, these days, to be one of hockey’s biggest problems of all.

You may not know much about Crosby, or you may be Superfan no. 87. Either way, consider this timeline a useful resource or a primer or just a helpful reminder that you might not want to put too much credence in anything anyone (and/or their “three sources”) says, particularly when they’re talking about the aftermath of one’s brain sloshing around against the insides of one’s skull. Above all, consider it a story of the fragility of talent and health in professional sports, and the difficulty in trying to make sense of it all.

January

January 1: With a few seconds remaining in the second period of the Winter Classic and the Capitals up 2-1, Washington’s David Steckel collides with the back of Crosby’s head in the Penguins’ offensive zone. Crosby, who never saw it coming and wouldn’t learn until after the game who had even hit him, goes down hard, gets up wobbly, and glides unsteadily to the bench for intermission with his head bent low. After the game he denies being hurt by the play and says it’s barely worth talking about, but says that Steckel “got my head, that’s for sure.”

January 3: With 4.5 million viewers, the Winter Classic is deemed the most-watched NHL regular-season game since 1975.

January 4: After viewing tape of the play, Crosby has harsher words about the hit. “How tall is Steckel?” he asks. “I find it hard to believe that his shoulder hit me in the head … at 6-foot-5 … by accident.” His teammates agree, calling it a “dirty” play. (The league declines to discipline Steckel, and Sports Illustrated‘s Stu Hackel writes that “fair or not, Sidney Crosby’s unfortunate reputation as a whiner won’t be fading anytime soon.”) Crosby is named the NHL’s First Star for the month of December. The final All-Star votes are tallied: With 635,509 votes, Crosby leads all NHL players by a factor of more than 150,000 votes.

January 5: Crosby is driven into the boards from behind by the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Victor Hedman on what appears to be a routine play. (Hedman will later shrug that he barely even remembers it.) Crosby finishes the game.

January 6: Crosby is scratched from the team’s next game against the Montreal Canadiens with an “upper body injury.” Coach Dan Bylsma confirms that Crosby has a “mild concussion,” but says that the injury was suffered specifically against Tampa and he would not have played in the game if he had suffered a concussion on the Winter Classic hit. Sportsnet’s John Shannon, however, writes that “sources confirm that Crosby was indeed concussed” on the Steckel hit.

January 17: David Shoalts of the Globe and Mail writes that Crosby is considering skipping the All-Star Game to protest the league’s lax treatment of head shots and dirty plays. “The word filtering out of the Pittsburgh Penguins is that Crosby is an angry young man, angry enough to pull his considerable star presence from one of the league’s showcase events because he does not think the NHL is doing enough to protect its players,” he writes.

January 18: Crosby refutes the story, calling it “not even close” to accurate.

January 24: The Penguins announce that Crosby will not be attending the All-Star Game and will instead “continue to relax and recuperate in hopes of returning to our lineup soon.” Crosby calls the time off “brutal.” “People say mild concussion, but I don’t think there really is such a thing,” he adds.

January 29: Crosby is cleared to begin off-ice workouts.

February

February 8: Sources suggest that Crosby will not resume activity for at least a week, and that he may not return to action until March. Penguins GM Ray Shero says that “nothing has changed,” but Sportsnet’s Mike Brophy causes a stir on Twitter when he writes: “Told Crosby tried light workout and immediately saw black dots and stars. Not even close to starting light workouts again.” Pittsburgh officials call the story “all [barnyard expletive]” and “NOT TRUE straight from Sidney.”

February 10: Crosby returns to Pittsburgh after a doctor-ordered vacation to an “undisclosed warm-weather location” and is ribbed by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review‘s Rob Rossi about his skin tone, which Rossi describes as “not quite tanned but slightly warmer in tone.” Crosby says that he didn’t want to stay out in the sun too long and risk more headaches. Of his recovery, he reiterates that “there’s no time frame.” He cracks a smile when discussing the trendy rumors that he is secretly battling a tumor on his spine. “That would be a bad year,” he says.

February 14: Following a chaotic, brawling Penguins-Islanders game in which 346 penalty minutes are assessed, Penguins team owner Mario Lemieux releases a withering statement. “We, as a league, must do a better job of protecting the integrity of the game and the safety of our players,” he writes. “We must make it clear that those kinds of actions will not be tolerated and will be met with meaningful disciplinary action. If the events relating to Friday night reflect the state of the league, I need to rethink whether I want to be a part of it.” Many commentators are quick to point out the hypocrisy in Mario’s statement, given that one of his own guys, Matt Cooke, is known as one of the league’s fiercest and dirtiest players.

February 16: Pittsburgh radio personality Mark Madden writes on his blog that people within the organization are split on Sidney’s eventual return. “Penguins hockey ops wants Crosby to play again if reasonable opportunity beckons. The business side of the operation is leaning toward concluding that bringing Crosby back this campaign would constitute risk beyond potential reward. Protect the long-term investment at the expense of the current season.” Later that night, Toronto Maple Leafs forward Mikhail Grabovski is checked from behind into the boards, crumples onto the ice, has to be revived with smelling salts — and then returns to the game to score the winning goal.

February 24: ESPN Boston’s James Murphy tweets out a radio report from the Globe and Mail‘s Stephen Brunt that he is hearing “whispers” that Crosby will not return this season.

February 28: Pat LaFontaine, whose own brilliant career was significantly shortened by a series of debilitating concussions, speaks out about the league’s concussion problem. “This thing is running us over and we’re not stopping it,” LaFontaine tells Sporting News. “Players are continually having to retire because of head injuries. You have to put a stop to it. God forbid if it’s Sidney Crosby next.

March

March 2: Dan Bylsma tells reporters that Crosby is still feeling symptomatic and that while the team hopes he will return to “100 percent health sometime this spring,” he “can’t give you any kind of date on it.”

March 8: Elsewhere in the league, a devastating hit by the Bruins’ Zdeno Chara on Montreal’s Max Pacioretty breaks Pacioretty’s neck.

March 11: FAN 590 radio personality Bob McCown claims that Sidney Crosby’s family is urging him to retire. Both Crosby’s father, Troy, and Crosby’s agent, Pat Brisson, deny this. “We’re just trying to get him healthy again. However long that takes, that’s how long it’s going to take,” says Troy, while Brisson adds that “he’s progressing, but there is no timetable.”

March 14: For the first time since January, Crosby gets back on the ice for a light skate, his first of three in three days. (The team releases exclusive video of his short workout” as if he were a hostage they needed to prove was still alive and well,” as the Toronto Star‘s Brendan Kennedy will later write.) He describes himself as symptom-free for several days, and gives a quick “no” when asked if he’d considered retiring. Meanwhile, the league announces a new concussion protocol agreed upon at the annual GM meeting: Any player suspected of a possible concussion will be evaluated by a doctor not out on the bench, but rather in a private, quiet room.

March 21: Pittsburgh’s Matt Cooke elbows the Rangers’ Ryan McDonagh in the jaw. Don Cherry blasts him as a “little rat with a visor” and calls owner Mario Lemieux “one of the biggest phonies I’ve ever seen.” Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma has harsh words for his own player.

March 24: Cooke is suspended by the league for the remaining 10 games of the regular season and the first round of the playoffs. Cooke vows to change, and owner Ray Shero says that the team is committed to trying to help Cooke follow through on his intentions rather than cutting him loose.

March 25: Crosby dazzles in his sixth on-ice workout since March 14, knocking a water bottle off the top of the net with a backhand. “It’s stronger than my forehand,” teammate Maxime Talbot jokes with trainers before yelling at Crosby: “C’mon champ, you’re fine.”

March 27: The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports that a return “doesn’t appear to be far off” and that “those associated with the Penguins are expecting to hear ‘Crosby is cleared’ sometime soon from a team physician.”

March 29: “According to a report released by the Pittsburgh Penguins organization Monday, star forward Sidney Crosby, who suffered a severe concussion last January, fatally succumbed to intracranial complications Monday at the age of 23 and is expected to make his first start in nearly three months tonight against the Philadelphia Flyers,” writes the Onion in a report that is just about as accurate as any of the rest in this timeline.

March 31: For the first time, Crosby skates with the rest of his team in a no-contact morning skate. His teammates say they have no doubt he’ll make a full return. “We’re talking about Sid,” says goalie Marc-Andre Fleury with a smile.

April

April 3: Sidney Crosby participates in his third practice in as many days with no symptoms. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette‘s Ron Cook pens a bizarre column that begins, “Heard all of the reasons Penguins star Sidney Crosby shouldn’t play again this season. Not buying a single one.”

April 8: ESPN.com’s Johnette Howard, on the other hand, implores the Penguins not to let Crosby return this season. “The Penguins should fight everything the culture of hockey suggests,” she writes, before quoting no less an expert than former Flyers star Keith Primeau, whose career was ultimately ended due to concussions and who still regularly suffers from symptoms. “I couldn’t say it for myself at the time, but I can now, and I told Sidney’s agent this — it’s just not worth it,” Primeau says.

April 10: The 2010-11 regular season ends. Despite missing 41 games — a full half-season — Crosby nevertheless leads the Penguins in power-play goals (10), total goals (32), and total points (66) for the year.

April 13: The Penguins prepare for Game 1 of the playoffs against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher tells the media that his team is operating under the assumption that Crosby will be on the ice. “He’ll play. That’s how we’re approaching this,” he said. “He’s a warrior. I saw the gleam in his eyes.”

April 16: With the series tied at 1-1 and nothing but silence from Crosby and the team regarding his status, Toronto Sun columnist Rob Longley wonders: “Could the official silence from the club be a playoff ruse and Crosby be much closer than most believe?”

April 17: Hockey Night in Canada‘s Cassie Campbell tweets, “No Crosby at pitts morning skate … at hotel SPECULATION is he was seeing doctors … wait and c … I still have hunch we’ll c him back!”

April 19: Crosby is absent from practice for the third day in a row. Rob Rossi reports that “Crosby’s confidants stressed that his absence … is not a sign that concussion symptoms, specifically headaches, have returned.” The NHL announces that it has signed a blockbuster 10-year, $2 billion deal with NBC Sports. It is an enormous coup for the league, which only five years ago had to all but beg NBC to show their games for free. The Winter Classic is widely praised as contributing to hockey’s turnaround.

April 22: With the Penguins up 3-1 in the series, Dan Bylsma tells the media that there is no timetable on Crosby’s return, and the Penguins emphasize that “he is not getting ready for next fall’s training camp and he is not being used as a decoy. Nobody knows when the next step will come.”

April 28: The Tampa Bay Lightning defeat a still-Crosby-less Pittsburgh team 1-0 in Game 7 to eliminate the Pens from the playoffs. (Tampa goaltender Dwayne Roloson, asked if he ever thought he’d win a Game 7 in a shutout, fires back: “Do you ever go in there writing an article and figure you’re going to win a Nobel Peace Prize?”)

April 29: Crosby admits to NHL.com that his symptoms had returned as he attempted to get back in shape. “I started trying to ramp things up a bit … I had a setback, all the stuff [headaches] that goes along with it.” He adds that he may never know if he was actually concussed in the Winter Classic or not, and says that he will accept nothing less than a complete return. “I can’t play different. I only know one way to play. I’m not going to change my game or anything like that. I have to play the same way. The reason you make sure you’re recovered is so you can do that. If not, you put yourself in a pretty bad situation.” Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero downplays the return of Crosby’s symptoms. “The great news is that he’s got all kinds of time on his side right now,” Shero said. “Dr. [Michael] Collins expects a full recovery. It’s just a matter of time with this injury.”

May

May 5: ESPN’s Howard Bryant writes about the tricky position that the NHL finds itself in with respect to violence and concussions. “A tension has always existed on the ice between hockey’s rough and rugged lawlessness and the beauty of its athletes’ skills. … The NHL has simply never quite been comfortable deciding what it wants to be, and has never quite concluded that the sport is strong enough, even among its core, to lose the constituency of fans who are drawn to its frontier justice.”

May 12: The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that Sidney Crosby has not resumed working out since April because he hasn’t yet been cleared by medical staff.

May 17: Photos of Sidney Crosby posing with Jamie-Lynn Sigler in Cannes along with teammates Paul Martin and Jordan Staal clear up exactly why he hasn’t been cleared by team staff: He’s been on vacation.

May 28: Crosby is expected to be evaluated by team concussion specialist Michael Collins.

June

June 2: Crosby is cleared to begin summer workouts. “I don’t want to look too far ahead, or whatever,” Penguins GM Ray Shero says, “but there’s no reason for me to expect him not to be [ready in time for training camp], put it that way.”

June 3: Former NHL player and coach Mario Tremblay says on a Montreal network that the January concussions were not the first suffered by Crosby in his career, alleging that during his time in the Quebec junior hockey league Crosby was concussed twice in the span of two years.

June 4: Crosby’s agent, Pat Brisson, strikes back at Tremblay. “It is very disturbing and disappointing to me when someone from the media and especially an ex-player brings such baseless comments toward the medical status of [a] player,” he says. “Unless a report comes from the medical staff and or an official voice for the player, it’s of no merit whatsoever.”

June 8: The NHL’s board of governors proposes a broader interpretation of Rule 48, the no-blindside-hits-to-the-head rule that was created after Matt Cooke leveled the Bruins’ Marc Savard with an elbow to the head, causing a concussion from which Savard has yet to recover. The new interpretation removes the word “blindside” but does not go so far as to ban head-area contact altogether.

June 9: Crosby’s former coach in the Quebec league, Doris Labonte, insists that “there was nothing hidden and nothing to hide. There were no serious injuries that were not treated. Sidney was a darling in Rimouski.”

June 21: For the sixth straight season, representing each of his years in the league, Crosby’s jersey is the NHL’s best-seller. The board of governors approves the proposed Rule 48 rule change, and also broadens the scope of Rule 41, which covers boarding penalties.

June 23: For leading the Penguins to the playoffs despite losing both Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for most of the season, Dan Bylsma is awarded the Jack Adams Award for the NHL Coach of the Year. Crosby does not attend the NHL Awards ceremony.

June 27: Bylsma says that Crosby has “been working out two times a day and progressing along his normal road of summer activity.”

July

July 15: Crosby resumes on-ice workouts. (Once again, video is released as if to prove it.) Reports that he had experienced a return of concussion symptoms back in April are downplayed by his “confidants,” according to Rob Rossi, who quotes them as believing that “those headaches were the result of a sinus infection and not a recurrence of concussion symptoms.” Team GM Ray Shero sounds optimistic during a player development camp. “Everything has gone well,” he says. “There are no red flags.”

August

August 7: Sidney Crosby turns 24 years old.

August 13: USA Today reports that “the word is that [Crosby] is training and planning as if he will be ready for the start of training camp. The NHL brings its stars to New York for media interviews every September, and Crosby is planning to be there.”

August 14: Sirius NHL Home Ice producer Josh Rimer writes on Twitter that he is hearing from three sources that Crosby won’t be ready to start the season. “I hope it’s not true because the NHL needs its best players!” he adds.

August 15: Penguins GM Ray Shero responds to rumors that Crosby has had new setbacks by saying that “there is no expectation from me that he won’t be ready or he will be ready. … I don’t have September 16 on my calendar for him … or whenever our opening date is.”

August 18: Crosby’s agent, Pat Brisson, tells the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review‘s Joe Starkey that “Sidney progressed a lot this summer. As Ray mentioned, he had occasional symptoms here and there.” Starkey writes: “I don’t mean to be alarmist, but how can one not be alarmed at events of the past week?”

August 22: Apparently based on rumors that Crosby had canceled scheduled ice time in Halifax, a report from Canadian TV channel CTV Atlantic says Crosby had to “shut down” his on-ice training due to a new “setback.” Brisson denies this, saying only that “Sidney hasn’t been shut down by anyone, he’s just adjusted his summer program to address the different needs for his recovery.”

August 23: Toronto Star columnist Cathal Kelly calls for Crosby to retire immediately: “His trophy case is full. He has a championship ring and an Olympic gold medal. He’s been league MVP, leading scorer and the consensus best player in the game. He’s only 24 and his hall-of-fame bonafides are beyond questioning. His material needs are settled for a dozen lifetimes.” The Tampa Bay Lightning’s Steven Stamkos, another of the league’s most exciting young talents, offers up his opinion of Crosby’s potentially prolonged absence: “We need him. He’s the face of the NHL. It would obviously take away from our game not having him in the lineup, so hopefully everything goes well.”

August 24: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review columnist Dejan Kovacevic calls Crosby’s ongoing silence “indefensible,” alleging that he is keeping even his coach and GM in the dark about his recovery. Later that evening the Penguins post a statement on their website that Crosby did indeed experience new symptoms upon reaching 90 percent exertion in his training, and that he has visited leading concussion specialists in both Michigan and Georgia. “Their conclusion is that he will make a full recovery — it just takes time,” the statement says.

August 25: The CBC’s Elliotte Friedman brings up the promising example of the Boston Bruins’ Patrice Bergeron, who was sidelined for nearly the entire 2007-08 season and for part of the next with a serious concussion but went on to recover, return, and play a huge role in the Bruins’ Stanley Cup win. (He does not mention Bergeron’s teammate Marc Savard, whose own brilliant career is widely assumed to be all but over due to the concussion he suffered at the elbow of Crosby’s teammate Matt Cooke.)

August 27: “The silence of Sidney Crosby speaks volumes about his much-speculated-about condition,” writes the Toronto Sun‘s Steve Simmons.

August 29: “Right now Crosby is one of the best hockey players in the world,” Alex Ovechkin says. “If he leaves, it will be a huge loss for people and for the sport in general. I will be very upset.”

September

September 7: Surrounded by Penguins GM Ray Shero and two of his doctors, Michael Collins and Ted Carrick, Crosby holds a press conference at Pittsburgh’s CONSOL Energy Center, his first media appearance since April. “The word ‘concussed’ literally translates from Latin to English to mean ‘to shake violently,’” Collins says, comparing the brain to an egg yolk. Crosby admits that in the early months of his injury he couldn’t drive or watch TV, and that when he tried to go to a team meeting a month in to watch video “it was stressing my system.” He says that despite some headaches he feels better than he has since January, and while he has not considered retirement, he will not come back at anything less than 100 percent, a return he calls “likely.” (CarrickCollins acknowledges that ascertaining this can be difficult: “Sid’s 100 percent is different than anyone else’s,” he says. “That has been a challenge in this case, because he is the Ferrari of hockey players.”) Crosby says that he would support an outright ban on all head shots in hockey: “Guys gotta be responsible with their sticks, why shouldn’t they be responsible with the rest of their bodies when they’re going to hit someone?” he says. Asked the magic question — when will Sid be back? — Collins responds with a now-familiar refrain: “I have no earthly idea,” he says. “I’m not putting any timelines on it. Sid’s not putting any timelines on it. The Penguins certainly aren’t putting any timelines on it.”

September 12: Crosby takes part in the Penguins’ annual tradition of personally delivering season tickets to the homes of fans.

September 17: Wearing a white helmet to signify “no contact,” Crosby takes to the ice on the first day of Penguins training camp and receives a standing ovation from fans. Following practice he says, “I think that’s probably the longest I went at that pace,” and that he feels good. Following a report from Rob Rossi that Crosby’s medical team is “not on the same page” regarding his status and treatment, Crosby disputes that there is a “division”: “I don’t know where that came from,” he says.

September 19: Crosby practices again, and Pittsburgh Tribune columnist Dejan Kovacevic tweets, “Sidney Crosby isn’t just skating right now. He’s SKATING. Flying down ice on drills. Saw him just before, too, laughing, joking.” Later, Kovacevic is moved to tweet again. “This is worth a second tweet: Sidney Crosby is SKATING out there, all-out.” In Boston, Patrice Bergeron tells a reporter about the advice he’s given Sid via text message. “Patience and staying positive is, it sounds kind of cliché, but that’s exactly what it is.”

Katie Baker is a staff writer for Grantland.


Previously from Katie Baker:
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Bake Shop: Advice for Dads With Daughters
Hockey’s Hopefuls
Wedded Blitz!

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Katie Baker is a staff writer at Grantland.

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