What does the future hold for Sidney Crosby?
Pittsburgh Penguins officials were cautious in discussing their star's latest head injury, reportedly suffered during Friday's practice. Crosby felt ill when he reported to the rink before a Saturday exhibition game against Columbus, and was subsequently scratched from the lineup. When his condition hadn't improved by Monday, he underwent the NHL's standard concussion protocols and was diagnosed with a concussion.
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan, after saying there was no timetable for Crosby's return, said Monday that people shouldn't read too much into that, and it's possible Crosby will enjoy a quick recovery.
But given his history, it's difficult to not wonder if this could also be a serious, career-altering moment for one of the game's best-ever players.
That's the frustrating thing about concussions. You just never know.
Those who watched Crosby's final practice did not recall any bone-rattling hits of the sort normally associated with traumatic head injuries. But Crosby's history of diagnosed concussions started with the most innocent looking of plays – a collision with the Washington Capitals' David Steckel in the 2011 Winter Classic outdoor game that put him on the sidelines for the better parts of two seasons, dealing with postconcussion syndrome.
The scary part with this latest injury is that Crosby had been undergoing a remarkable run of good health the past three years – he'd missed only nine games, five of them with a mumps diagnosis two years ago when the illness weirdly swept through the NHL.
Crosby's last serious injury came in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season when he was on his way to a scoring championship but was struck in the face by a shot from teammate Brooks Orpik; a broken jaw forced him to miss the final month of the regular season. Crosby returned for the playoffs and managed a respectable 15 points in 14 games, the year Jarome Iginla showed up to play on his wing, reprising their partnership from the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Crosby had been absolutely on top of his game since Christmas of last season – an MVP performance for Canada at the recent World Cup of Hockey followed his MVP performance for Pittsburgh in last spring's Stanley Cup playoffs.
Crosby had effectively reasserted his claim to being the best player in the world.
Now this: more uncertainty and more discussion about the cumulative effects of concussion and how, once a player has endured one, the next one could happen again at any time.
"We take all concussions seriously," Sullivan said. "We always have our players' best interests at heart. Their health is the priority."
Because of his injuries, the Penguins have plenty of experience playing without Crosby. Even if he misses an extended portion of the season, the Penguins are strong enough to withstand a slow start – they did that last season. They were 12th in the Eastern Conference at Christmas before a coaching change – to Sullivan from Mike Johnston.
They righted their ship and got on a roll that didn't stop until they won the second NHL championship of Crosby's career.
"He's obviously an important player for us, but our team has dealt with injuries in the past to some of our key players," Sullivan said. "That's the nature of our business."
The Penguins will raise their 2016 Stanley Cup banner Thursday against their archrivals, the Washington Capitals and Alex Ovechkin, whom they eliminated in the second round of last year's playoffs.
It remains to be seen if Crosby will be well enough to be in the building for the celebrations. Concussion patients generally don't do well in loud, noisy, brightly lit environments.
Crosby is now 29. This would have been the start of his 12th NHL season, after going first over all to the Penguins in the 2005 entry draft. Ovechkin, 31, made his debut that same season, and in that span has played 839 NHL games, compared with 707 for Crosby. For reasons that are hard to explain, even though Ovechkin plays a far more physical brand of hockey than most, he has missed only 39 games in his career.
The NHL has taken steps to upgrade its concussion policies for the coming season, empowering spotters to physically remove players from games if they appear dazed by blows to their heads. But the new in-game protocols would have made little difference to Crosby – or to many incidents or accidents that might occur in a practice. As long as body contact remains integral to the sport, players will get hurt.
"Injuries are a part of our game," Sullivan said. "Part of the challenge is for us to try and help Sid get healthy as quickly as possible – and that's what we're going to do. We don't look at it any other way. For me, frustration at this point is a useless emotion."