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Crosby returning but NHL's concussion woes continue

There is genuine cause for celebration on Monday night because Sidney Crosby, hockey's brightest star, is finally going to play again, nearly a year after a concussion put him on the shelf.

However, as happy as this day is for the NHL and the Pittsburgh Penguins (and maybe not so happy for the struggling New York Islanders who have to play him and the jacked-up Pens), there are some things that need to be remembered. Such as the fight against concussions is far from over, especially in the NHL, where at least 19 players are sidelined with concussion symptoms.

First, though, the good news side of this story.

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Given Crosby's star status, there was no shortage of stories during his absence and no shortage of speculation about the possible end of his career, even considering his tender age of 24. It is too early to say this means Crosby's career will simply take up where it left off, as the best player in the NHL, but watching him in practice recently showed a player who is as close to the top of his game as you can be without getting into one.

The big question, though, is how will Crosby fare when it comes to contact. He was cleared for contact by his doctors earlier this month, but took almost no hits in practice. Can you blame any Penguin for not risking his employment by nailing Sid the Kid?

Recent findings in studying concussions suggest a player has a better chance of resuming his career without further problems if he does not come back until the effects of his first major concussion are completely gone no matter how long it takes. Crosby appears to follow that thinking.

"Maybe I can get by with 90 per cent, maybe I couldn't but I'm not going to roll the dice with that," Crosby said in September.

On the cautionary side of this story, it must be remembered the NHL has a well-deserved reputation as an outfit that likes to gloss over things. The league is going to trumpet Crosby's return and it should, but some things need to be noted.

Despite the NHL's recent intimation that concussions are down about 50 per cent this season from last season when more than 80 were sustained by players, the league cannot say it is turning the tide on the problem. The NHL's policy of hiding or obscuring injuries makes it difficult to document them or verify the league's claims.

Dustin Fink is a certified athletic trainer in Decatur, Ill., who operates The Concussion Blog, an authoritative source for information on the topic. He does credit the NHL with a decrease in concussions this season, But Fink says in that he can find only a 23-per-cent decrease so far this season in the NHL up to Nov. 8 (23 concussions) from a similar period in 2010-11 (30). While this is "encouraging," according to Fink, it cannot be said for certain.

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For example, by Sunday there were 19 players listed with concussions or concussion symptoms on NHL teams. But there were an additional 14 said to have "upper-body" injuries, which makes a true concussion figure impossible to track.

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About the Author
Hockey columnist

A native of Wainfleet, Ont., David Shoalts joined The Globe in 1984 after working at the Calgary Herald, Calgary Sun and Toronto Sun. He graduated in 1978 from Conestoga College and also attended the University of Waterloo. More

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