NHL

Crosby concussions continue to alarm

Sidney Crosby's concussion symptoms have caused the Penguins to put him on the injured list.
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Reid Forgrave

Reid Forgrave has worked for the Des Moines Register, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Seattle Times. His work has been recognized by Associated Press Sports Editors, the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists and the Society for Features Journalism. Follow him on Twitter.

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When it was announced Monday that Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby will again be out indefinitely with concussion-like symptoms, the gasps of worry began in Pittsburgh, where Crosby’s bright star reinvigorated a once-great hockey tradition, and reverberated through the NHL, where Crosby has become the face of hockey.

Sidney Crosby

ONE HIT AWAY

Sidney Crosby and his fans are getting used to a brutal new reality. Reid Forgrave had the story from a recent game.

In his six seasons Crosby has become more than just another great player. He has become a national icon in Canada after his overtime goal won the gold medal for Canada in the 2010 Winter Olympics. His humility and happy-go-lucky nature have netted huge endorsements, everything from Tim Hortons to Reebok to Gatorade. He has led the league in jersey sales and All-Star votes every year, and he has turned a franchise on the verge of relocation into one of the most popular in the league.

At age 24 Sidney Crosby has become the one player whose stardom transcends this sport.

And now the uncertain words describing his return — “indefinitely,” “no timetable” — also perfectly describe the uncertainty that now surrounds Crosby’s entire career.

“I have to make sure with these sort of things that I'm careful and making sure I'm 100 percent before coming back,” Crosby told reporters after missing Monday’s practice. “No timetable.”

Just those few words are enough to bring a pit to the stomach of any die-hard hockey fan.

Sidney Crosby

WE NEED YOU

The Detroit Red Wings may not enjoy facing Sidney Crosby, but they know how important his presence is to everybody in the NHL, including them.

After taking hard hits to the head in consecutive games last January, Crosby was sidelined for more than 10 months with concussion-like symptoms such as recurring headaches. The 2007 MVP’s return to hockey three weeks ago was heralded with a Stanley Cup Finals-like atmosphere in Pittsburgh, and Crosby delivered on the hype, netting two goals and two assists in the game. With that comeback game, Crosby made a statement: He was ready.

Yet the scary part about concussions is that you never know. It’s not like a broken arm, when you wait for the fracture to heal and then get back on the ice. Concussions are more mysterious than that. “It’s not always clear-cut,” Crosby said Monday. “It’s not like a break or something like that.”

And more than a torn ACL, more than a rotator cuff injury, that uncertainty has made the mysterious concussion one of the most feared injury in sports. And now, for the rest of Crosby’s career, we will continue to watch his awe-inspiring play with a nervous fear that any hit could be his last.

Crosby looked like his normal swift-skating self in the ensuing seven games after his comeback performance, but in a 3-1 loss to the Boston Bruins last week, Crosby took two hits, one a hit along the boards by the Bruins’ David Krejci and the other a collision near center ice with teammate Chris Kunitz. After the collision with his teammate, the crowd in Pittsburgh shuddered as Crosby laid on the ice for a few seconds then slowly skated back to the bench, hunched over his stick. The nervous fan base watched him, suffering from a fan version of post-concussion syndrome, where every hit makes fans hold their breath. A trainer hovered over him, and a few minutes later, Crosby was playing again like nothing was wrong.

The next day, though, Crosby skated and things didn’t feel right. As a precaution, Crosby sat out a two-game road trip to Philadelphia and New York. He passed the imPACT test, a baseline test for concussions, which was an encouraging sign. But he noticed those familiar headaches during light weekend workouts. On Monday, Crosby told reporters he felt far better than he did after the hit nearly a year ago that sidelined him for 61 games. Yet that’s the thing about his current state: Every symptom in his head must be watched with an eagle-eyed caution.

In an impact sport like hockey, that’s a recipe for an uncertain, perhaps even doomed, career.

There's no shortage of athletic careers severely affected by concussions. Michel Goulet, a Hall of Fame forward for the Quebec Nordiques and Chicago Blackhawks, crashed into the end boards in a 1994 game and suffered a severe concussion that ended his career at age 33. Eric Lindros, the hard-nosed six-time All-Star who came into the league with the moniker “The Next One,” suffered many concussions in his injury-tainted career. Minnesota Twins slugger and 2006 AL MVP Justin Morneau hasn’t been the same since a 2010 concussion, playing just 69 games and batting .227 in 2011, and the promising Detroit Lions running back Jahvid Best hasn’t played since a concussion in a game in October and is now on season-ending injured reserve.

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The end of a sporting career is one thing. But what players like the 24-year-old Crosby must think about is how these injuries could affect the rest of their lives. And especially in a sport like hockey, where former NHL players Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak died this offseason. All three were enforcers, a role known for getting into fights and absorbing blows to the head. Rypien and Belak suffered from depression. Boogaard suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive degenerative brain disease. Maybe the only good part about these recent tragedies is that they have raised awareness of the issues that arise from head injuries and has helped the league engender an extra degree of caution when a young star like Crosby suffers from a concussion.

On Monday, as reporters quizzed him on how long he’d be out, Crosby looked bewildered.

“You’ve gotta listen to your body on these things,” he said. “I just figured it would be better to be cautious here and not take any chances.”

Crosby said he feels better than last time and that doesn’t expect to be out nearly as long. But the scariest part is that with concussions, you just never know.

You can follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave, become a fan on Facebook or email him at reidforgrave@gmail.com.

Tagged: Bruins, Penguins, Sidney Crosby

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