There used to be a debate over who is the best player in the game. But through Olympic Games, last spring’s Stanley Cup and this fall’s World Cup, that argument has atrophied.
Today, the conversation has taken on more gravity than that. It would be fun to watch McDavid try to take that mantle away, but watching Crosby lose the belt to concussions would be the opposite of that. The champ, KO’ed by the mystery of brain injury. There isn’t a voice in the hockey world that wants to report on that story, I can assure you.
As he sits out the Pittsburgh Penguins season opener on Thursday against the Washington Capitals, the question becomes whether Crosby’s health strips him of his title before the next great young player?
“Woke up Saturday morning and didn’t feel great. Got tangled up in practice,” Crosby told reporters in Pittsburgh Tuesday morning. “Just a headache, basically. Just didn’t feel good.”
A first-hand expert on brain injury, Crosby — who is still just 29 years old — knows now to go straight to the Penguins’ trainers when he gets that feeling, described by some as being hung over on a morning after you didn’t have a single drink the night before.
The symptoms are different for everyone, we know that now. But what we don’t know is, how does Crosby manage what has become a cumbersome concussion portfolio throughout the rest of his career?
Can it be managed, in a contact sport like hockey?
Crosby’s latest concussion happened on Friday at practice. It wasn’t a big open-ice hit — those observers who were there noticed nothing — but of course we realize that it doesn’t have to be a Scott Stevens hit anymore. When two NHL players collide in a battle drill, or even during line rushes, the impact can be enough to bounce one’s brain off the inside of one’s skull.
So we are left to wonder: Did whatever happened to Crosby in that Friday practice have a worse effect because of his concussion history? And will the next one require incrementally less force, and less force, until contact sports are no longer an option for Sid?
Is it possible that Crosby and concussions become in 2016 what Bobby Orr and bad knees were in the 1970s? We surely hope not.
“They happen, in a lot of different sports,” Crosby said Tuesday, having skated alone and shot some pucks before the Penguins practiced as a team. “Guys have multiple concussions and they’re fine. You just have to treat them the right way, and make sure that they handle it right and that you’re honest.
“I’m comfortable and confident that things will be OK.”
His demeanour during that interview Tuesday gave us reassuring signs. In a league that has been guilty of glossing over or outright hiding concussions in the past, in a perverse way it’s a good thing that a player of Crosby’s stature (or Patrice Bergeron in Boston) is in the position of leading concussion protocol, and removing the stigma of admitting that something isn’t right.
You know that Crosby is well aware of the ramifications of opening this jar again, after having missed so much time in his career due to concussions. The fact he is doing so — and the Penguins are openly announcing the injury for what it is (we should applaud them for that) — is both disconcerting and reassuring at the same time.
“Frustration at this point is a useless emotion,” said Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan.
Removing emotions is job No. 1 here. Emotions used to keep concussed players in the game, both because players wanted to be the tough guy and keep playing, or coaches did not want to lose their services.
We don’t do that anymore. Or at least, it becomes the rarity, not the norm. And in hockey, we can thank Crosby for that.
“You understand the process,” he said. “You just go day by day, and you don’t look too far ahead. I was happy to be able to skate today, and you just understand…”
Let’s just hope that understanding keeps Crosby healthy. If he remains the best hockey player on earth, that will be a bonus.