In the next few days, Sidney Crosby may learn if he can fulfill his wish to play in the NHL again before the end of the season.
Crosby, 24, and the Pittsburgh Penguins are waiting for the opinion of yet another specialist, who is looking at the results of a magnetic resonance imaging test and a computed tomography scan done last week by Robert Bray in Los Angeles. Bray discovered Crosby suffered a previously undiagnosed neck injury in addition to the concussion diagnosed on Jan. 6, 2011, that has sidelined him for most of the last 13 months.
News of the discovery, which Crosby's agent, Pat Brisson, said could be cracked vertebrae in the player's neck, set off a furor on the weekend. It is not known if the injuries to Crosby's C1 and C2 vertebrae occurred during either of the two hits he took on Jan. 1 and Jan. 5 last year when he was originally injured, or on Dec. 5 when he was forced out again eight games after he returned to the Penguins' lineup due to a collision with David Krejci of the Boston Bruins. While Crosby had what the Penguins call "concussion-like symptoms" after the Krejci hit, he did pass an ImPACT cognitive baseline test, which is one tool used to assess head injuries.
There was also speculation Crosby, his family and advisers were not happy with the Penguins' medical team. The neck injury marked the second time a serious injury was not immediately diagnosed by the team doctors. After Crosby was hit on Jan. 1, 2011, he was allowed to play on Jan. 5 and was hit again, resulting in his prolonged absence.
On Saturday, Brisson played down any friction with the Penguins' doctors. "I can't really comment on that. I haven't heard it from Sidney," he said.
Both the Penguins and Brisson said Dr. Bray told Crosby the neck injury is healed and he is in no danger of any further problems. Brisson said Crosby, who has been skating for the last two weeks, hopes to play soon as long as the doctors approve.
"He's definitely trying to play this year," Brisson said. "There is no doubt his goal is to play hockey this year. He wants to come back quickly but safely.
"The doctor said, 'You're safe. You're not in danger.' That's No. 1."
While there were reports Crosby suffered a second concussion as a result of the Krejci hit, Brisson said only one concussion has been diagnosed.
The Penguins' only comment came in a statement posted on the team's website:
"The diagnosis of Dr. Robert S. Bray, a neurological spine specialist based in Los Angeles, is that [Crosby]had suffered a neck injury in addition to a concussion. Dr. Bray reports that the neck injury is fully healed. Those findings will be evaluated by independent specialists over the next few days. The most important goal all along has been Sidney's return to full health, and we are encouraged that progress continues to be made," the Penguins said in the statement.
Earlier on Saturday, Penguins general manager Ray Shero said he hopes Crosby will be able to play before the end of this season.
"We'll see, hopefully, next week where he is [after]we get the reports from California," Shero said. "The thing with Sidney is we want to continue to look to see how we can get this under control and manageable. Hopefully we'll have him back here at some point soon."
Paul Echlin, a London, Ont., doctor who specializes in treating concussions, said it is not uncommon for people who suffer concussions to also sustain injuries to their vertebrae. He said he cannot offer an opinion on Crosby's latest injury because he has not examined him, but did say the C1 and C2 vertebrae are the two most important ones in the cervical spine.
"Those are the ones your neck rotates on and the ones you're most careful about making sure are not involved [in a head injury]" Echlin said.
Echlin also said it is difficult to make a prognosis about when Crosby will play again because the neck injuries complicate the situation. It is already difficult to make predications about concussions, the doctor said, without other factors.
Even if someone said Crosby could return for the NHL playoffs in April, Echlin said, "those are big projections for anybody to make."