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The Comeback Kid

Sidney Crosby finally won a second Stanley Cup, seven seasons after his first. Will the concussion issues that once threatened his career derail him again as well?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When hockey players break the rules on the ice, their punishment is to get cooped up. No one enjoys being sent to the penalty box: Players smash their sticks, spike their water bottles, fidget like kids on a pew. They are restless and anxious, agitated by the forced inactivity. They start opening the door before they’re supposed to, and they bust out of confinement as if they’re on fire.

The penalty box isn’t the worst punishment in hockey, though. There, players can at least keep one eye on the clock. The worst punishment in hockey bends time, lasting for a blink of an instant and the rest of your life. “You’re just kinda told to rest,” Sidney Crosby said in 2013 to the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge about being diagnosed with a concussion. “Which is the worst thing for any athlete, just to sit there and rest.” The worst punishment in hockey breaks spirits, even if it has little to do with breaking any rules.

After winning a Stanley Cup in 2009 and Olympic gold in Vancouver in 2010, Crosby missed 107 games in 2011 and 2012 after a pair of on-ice collisions sidelined him with concussion-like symptoms and left frustrating blanks where the prime of his career should have been. At his lowest moments, he told Mansbridge, he worried whether he’d ever play hockey again. Since then, though, he’s played some of the best hockey of his life. He won another gold medal at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, and was MVP of this past September’s World Cup. Last season, he finished third in the league in points. Last week, he chilled at the White House to celebrate the Penguins’ June Stanley Cup win, and he was at Monday’s ring ceremony for the same reason.

But when the NHL season begins this week, Crosby will not be on the ice for Pittsburgh’s Thursday opener against the Washington Capitals. On Monday, the Penguins announced what Crosby fans have been quietly dreading for years: Hockey’s hottest player once again has symptoms consistent with a concussion. There was no cheap shot to argue over, no difficult video clip to watch. According to Crosby, he “just kinda got tangled up” in practice on Friday, and he woke up with a headache on Saturday, and now no one can say precisely when he’ll be back.

Just reading the words “Sidney Crosby” and “concussion” in the same sentence again is enough to trigger secondhand claustrophobia. The diagnosis has a shapeless, smothering enormity, like an overstuffed duvet, or humidity. Concussions can be effectively career-ending — star players like Pat LaFontaine and Eric Lindros were never really the same after suffering them — or they can just mean laying low for a couple of days and then returning to business as usual. On Tuesday, Crosby seemed optimistic, saying that he had skated and felt decent. The Penguins even tweeted a photo to ward off truthers.

But the team had done pretty much the same thing during a Crosby skating workout in March of 2011, and he didn’t return to the ice for good until a year after that.

There’s an irony to Crosby’s recurring concussion issues. Physically, he is almost cosmically optimized to his chosen environment, and yet this unseeable injury holds him back. In the same way Michael Phelps was artisanally molded by the evolutionary angels to have the ideal wingspan and torso for swimming, Crosby’s enormous ass was put on earth to skate on ice. (He’s been oddly muscular since he was a kid.) For the time being, he sits infuriatingly idle.

In his 2013 interview with the CBC, Crosby said that the frustration of a head injury isn’t just that it causes an athlete — a machine of perpetual motion — to stop in his or her tracks. It’s that there’s no timetable for when anything can start up again, or any certainty it even will. For competitors who are used to aiming for specific goals and milestones while rehabbing from any other injury, recovering from a concussion can leave them feeling utterly out of control.

Crosby has said more than once that when he won his first Stanley Cup, in 2009, he assumed it would be an “annual thing.” He was 21 years old then, and several other top guys on the Penguins — Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Kris Letang — were no older than 22. Coach Dan Bylsma was an intriguing young hotshot, one of the team’s owners was a local and international legend, and there appeared to be no end in sight. Crosby was discussed in the same breath as that owner-legend (and former player-coach), Mario Lemieux. Their styles of play were distinct, but their impact was the same: Both had brought immeasurable joy to Pittsburgh. (As an oft-cited fun fact, both lived in Lemieux’s house.) But if Crosby revered his landlord-boss, and hoped to win multiple Cups the way Lemieux had, he knew not to emulate everything about him.

When Lemieux was around the age Crosby was upon winning his first Cup, he supposedly ripped cigs on the regular and had an offseason regimen that he described to his teammate Ron Francis as so: “Starting August 1, I don’t order french fries with my club sandwich.” Crosby, in contrast, took the Cup home to Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, in 2009, made the obligatory rounds — he later expressed regret for going to bed lamely early during his two days with the Cup — then turned his attention to what he truly wanted to be doing. Convinced that his outside shot was a weakness in his game that made him easier to defend, Crosby tinkered obsessively with it for the rest of the summer. The following season, he tied with sniper Steven Stamkos for the league lead in goal-scoring.

Most professional athletes are disproportionately invested in their chosen sports, but Crosby is a particularly big hockey nerd. He spent one offseason specifically fine-tuning his face-off strategy. In December 2010, leading up to the NHL Winter Classic outdoor game, an HBO documentary series about the Penguins and Capitals showed a number of players out at a festive, prank-filled dinner. The scene then cut to Crosby and Pascal Dupuis’s idea of fun: lying on their hotel beds, watching NHL highlights, and reminiscing about their first hockey fights. This wasn’t the behavior of a guy with too many other hobbies, which is why it was so unsettling, in the wake of the concussion he would suffer just a few weeks later, to see Crosby’s hockey taken away.

In the first few months of the 2010–11 season, Crosby scored 32 goals and 34 assists, and at one point went on a remarkable 25-game point-scoring streak. But in the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day, and again a few days later, Crosby was left reeling by a pair of hits. He missed a few games with a “mild concussion,” and then missed a few more. He withdrew from the All-Star Game, for which he had earned the most fan votes. The weeks rolled on, then the months. His status became an object of scrutiny, the subject of rumors and conspiracy theories and unsolicited advice.

“Why would Crosby risk an invalid’s life in order to return to a game he has already conquered?” asked Cathal Kelly in a Toronto Star column urging Crosby to retire. In some ways, Crosby was already getting a glimpse of that life. He was struggling with injuries to his brain (and, it would later turn out, his neck) and he couldn’t read, he couldn’t watch TV, and he definitely couldn’t play hockey.

The 36 goals and 49 assists Crosby recorded last season are made an order of magnitude more impressive by the fact that his campaign got off to such a thoroughly mediocre start. On December 17 of last year, Crosby was 87th in NHL scoring with 19 points. The Penguins fired head coach Mike Johnston. Sports Illustrated asked hockey executives whether the slumping Crosby might be left off Canada’s World Cup roster. To their credit, most laughed off the question, though Crosby was left out of the NHL All-Star Game.

But by the time the Sidless All-Star Game actually came around in late January, Crosby and the Penguins were getting on a roll that would snowball into the second Stanley Cup championship of his career. And despite an offseason shortened by playoff series and victory tours, he led all scorers in the World Cup of Hockey last month and was MVP of Team Canada’s elite gold-medal squad.

“I just think he knows how good he is,” Canada’s coach Mike Babcock said when asked at a tournament press conference what had improved about Crosby’s game over the years. “He’s more patient with what he’s doing. When things don’t go well, he doesn’t get frustrated; when people cross-check him he doesn’t get riled up. He just knows he’s going to have success over time.”

For a few seasons after Crosby fully returned from his head and neck issues (an initial, thrilling comeback in November 2011 was cut short a few weeks later, and Crosby was sidelined again until March 2012) this wasn’t always the case. In Crosby’s first postseason back following his injury, the Philadelphia Flyers figured out how easily he could be rattled. Claude Giroux’s incessant needling became something of a blueprint for other teams. Until last season, the Penguins had made it back to the Eastern Conference final only once since their 2009 Cup win — and when they did, in 2013, they were swept by the Bruins.

At the 2012 draft, Staal was traded. In 2013, a puck to the face forced Crosby to play with his jaw wired shut. (He told the CBC that he was at least thankful the impact didn’t cause any concussion symptoms.) In 2014, Bylsma was fired. A few months later, as if Crosby’s head hadn’t already been through enough, a massively swollen jowl outed him to the press as a victim of the mumps. That 2009 Stanley Cup season — far from beginning an “annual thing” — receded further into the past.

Perhaps all of this is what made Crosby so resilient last winter, what enabled him to realize that the only way out was through. Most likely, he was well aware that his 3.3 shot percentage, as of last November, was such an aberration from his career average of 14-plus percent that it was only a matter of time before things turned around. Most likely, he had learned that there isn’t much you can do to fight time. Whatever the case, his resurgence was inspiring, which is what made Monday’s news so depressing.

Crosby’s most recent injury comes at a time when concussions, and their link to CTE, is an increasingly thorny issue for the NHL. Last week, commissioner Gary Bettman received a Congressional letter seeking information on the league’s policies and protocol in this realm. (He received, and responded to, a similar letter this summer.) On Tuesday, the league announced that it will use a neutral staff of concussion “spotters” this season who have the authority to have a player removed for observation. (Previously, spotters were affiliated with teams, and only made recommendations.)

It’s possible that Crosby missing the season opener is a commendably prudent precaution by a player and franchise who now know to treat concussions with time and care. But it’s also possible that Crosby will come back, get “tangled up” again in a weird way, and miss another 107 games. There’s no way of knowing. Part of the rubric most people roll out for determining greatness involves durability and longevity: All else being equal, a guy who didn’t spend large parts of his career on injured reserve is probably preferable to one who did. How many goals and assists did Crosby miss out on in 2011 and 2012? What might be his opportunity cost this time around?

Really, to even be thinking this way — trying to quantify loss from a serious diagnosis, mentally rewarding “playing through it” — is to be part of the problem. Our obsession with legacies is often at odds with the realities of long-term health. Seeing anyone trapped inside a concussion is upsetting. Seeing someone like Crosby getting the worst punishment in hockey just feels unfair.