Crosby making progress; return unknown

Sidney Crosby listens for a signal to play again

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It was February, the doldrums of the National Hockey League season, when one team meeting tends to bleed into the next video session, and things don't change much from day to day.

Sidney Crosby had been dealing with the effects of a concussion for about a month, but, as the Penguins captain, wanted to participate as much as possible.

"I tried to go to a meeting with our team ... and just watching video was something that felt like it was really stressing my system," Mr. Crosby recalled Wednesday. "I had to work so hard just to concentrate on that."

Body checks in successive games had led to a Jan. 6 diagnosis of a vestibular concussion -- one that affects balance and spatial orientation.

The injury reduced Mr. Crosby from perhaps the world's best hockey player and the face of the NHL to another name on what seems to be an ever-expanding list of concussion victims of all ages and walks of life whose prime objective becomes having the patience to get through recovery.


Although there is great optimism that Mr. Crosby, 24, will play again -- probably in the 2011-12 season and at his stratospheric level -- there is no way of knowing how long it will take for him to achieve the final steps in his recovery. He still needs to become symptom-free, be cleared for contact, then be cleared to suit up.

At a 42-minute news conference along with concussion experts Micky Collins and Ted Carrick and Penguins general manager Ray Shero at Consol Energy Center, Mr. Crosby offered the most detailed look yet at what his symptoms felt like.

"The worst part was probably right away," Mr. Crosby said in his first public appearance since late April. "I didn't really like driving or watching TV. I didn't want to listen to the radio in the car.

"I had a couple bad migraines, stuff like that, that I hadn't really experienced before."

And those were just the physical manifestations. There has been an emotional toll.

Mr. Crosby recovered to the point where he was able to practice with the club in non-contact situations. Then, in April, as he could only watch the Penguins fall to Tampa Bay in the first round of the playoffs, his symptoms began to return.

"A lot of those things started to creep back -- the fogginess, the headaches, that kind of thing," he said.

"It's not easy to go through that. There's no guideline. You've got to listen to your body. You've got to listen to your doctors."

Eventually, he was cleared to go through his summer workout routine, but last month, as he reached about 80 percent-to-90 percent intensity, his headaches flared.

Dr. Collins, director of the UPMC's sports medicine concussion program, helped bring Dr. Carrick into Mr. Crosby's care team. Dr. Carrick, a neurology professor at the Carrick Institute for Graduate Studies in Florida, evaluated Mr. Crosby at Life University in Marietta, Ga., where Dr. Carrick also is a professor.

Dr. Carrick specializes in diagnosing and rehabilitating problems with the vestibular system. He said that in the past three weeks Mr. Crosby has been taught to redefine himself in space and among moving objects. In essence, Mr. Crosby had to relearn how to recognize where he is in relation to other things around him.

It's a major step in his recovery, particularly for someone who plays a fast-paced sport.

In fact, Dr. Carrick said Mr. Crosby's nervous system could end up functioning better than it did pre-concussion.

"It's Christmas for Sid Crosby and for people who care for him, and it's a very good start," Dr. Carrick said.

The question is, will Mr. Crosby be back before it's really Christmas? No one knows.

Asked if Mr. Crosby might possibly be ready for the season opener Oct. 6 at Vancouver, Dr. Collins said, "I have no earthly idea."

Mr. Crosby was leading the NHL with 66 points in 41 games and playing probably the best hockey of his life when he got hurt, and he could be a key to the Penguins making a run to the Stanley Cup as they did in 2009.

Dr. Collins promised that no shortcuts will be taken with Mr. Crosby, who will be monitored and given a cognitive test as he goes through the rest of his recovery.

"It's measuring and assessing the whole way and making sure that the cows are back in the barn," Dr. Collins said.

Although the Penguins initially described Mr. Crosby's injury as a mild concussion that would keep him out for about a week, it doesn't surprise Dr. Collins that the recovery has stretched to more than eight months and is ongoing.

"He was foggy," Dr. Collins said. "It's almost like your high-definition TV is a standard-definition TV. It feels like you're one step behind yourself. It feels like you're in slow motion. He had headaches. He had fogginess. He had difficulty with fatigue. He had light sensitivity. He had noise sensitivity. He had a hard time thinking.

"The types of symptoms Sid had initially are exactly the type of symptoms that we see that end up taking the longest to recover from with a concussion. ... The first time I saw Sid [Jan. 6], I knew we were in for the long run with this injury, and quite frankly I wasn't, nor am I now, surprised that it's taken this long for Sid to start improving.

"And yes, we are seeing significant improvements recently."

Concussions are a growing concern, particularly in sports, and Dr. Carrick used the public forum to push prevention "such as having no tolerance for head shots in this game and in other games," he said.

Mr. Crosby, whose thoughts are often sought on all hockey matters but who rarely takes strong stands in the politics of the sport, also spoke out about a ban on head shots. He absorbed hits by David Steckel, then of the Washington Capitals, and by the Tampa Bay Lightning's Victor Hedman in a span of four nights just before his concussion was discovered.

Recently, youth hockey in Canada adopted a zero-tolerance policy for hits to the head.

"I'm totally in agreement with that," Mr. Crosby said. "It's important at the grass roots. This is all that kids are going to know when they start playing hockey now."

That's not enough, though. Mr. Crosby took the big step of joining what seems to be a growing minority pushing to legislate hits to the head out of the NHL. Mr. Shero has been on the forefront of that movement, but there has been resistance from the old guard, most notably Toronto general manager Brian Burke.

"As a league, as a [players] union, we've all educated ourselves a lot. I think we can go further," Mr. Crosby said, pointing out that shots to the head represent a tiny percent of the overall hits in the league. "At the end of the day, I don't think there's a reason not to take them out.

"To take those out, the game's not going to change. As players, we're professionals. The odd time maybe there's accidental contact, but for the most part we can control what goes on out there. For sure, it's a fast game, but guys have to be responsible. A guy's got to be responsible for his stick. Why shouldn't he be responsible for the rest of his body when he's going to hit someone?"

For more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at . Shelly Anderson: , 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly.


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