Sidney Crosby And The Pittsburgh Penguins Could Revolutionize Concussion Management In NHL

By proving that there is no post-concussion recovery timetable, the Penguins could help extend the careers of Sidney Crosby and a host of other players.

The Penguins have it in their power to begin the hockey world over again. The birth of a new National Hockey League is at hand ...

Okay, okay. I'm sorry.

I'm reading a Thomas Paine biography, so hyperbole is pouring from me. The actual line was from Common Sense and had to do with fully embracing the American Revolution. In Paine's mind, one revolution would spring hundreds of others, effectively democratizing the world.

Stunning, inspiring stuff. But silly in this context, since it has nothing to do with hockey.

But there the line is, stuck in my mind. Dwelling on Sidney Crosby's post-concussion odyssey, and how the Penguins have dealt with the situation, I couldn't shake the feeling that Crosby and the Penguins really do have a chance to change the way hockey, and perhaps even the sporting world, deals with concussions. And it all seems so obvious.

The Not-So-Old Way

On May 4, 2000, Keith Primeau scored the game-winner in the Philadelphia Flyers' hard-fought 2-1 quintuple-overtime playoff victory over the Penguins. Two games later, on May 9, he suffered his first confirmed concussion, knocked unconscious by a brutal Bob Boughner check during his first shift of the game.

Primeau took a crushing open-ice hit from Pittsburgh defenseman Bob Boughner in the opening minute of tonight's game and appeared to lose consciousness. He was carried from the ice on a stretcher and taken to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center for precautionary reasons.

Primeau returned to the ice on May 14, the Flyers' very next game.

Primeau suffered further concussions. How many, he doesn't know. Usually, he'd just shake his head, shrug off the feeling and get back onto the ice. That's what hockey players do. Nothing's torn, nothing's broken. Just man up.

On Oct. 25, 2005, Primeau suffered another concussion, one he couldn't walk away from

"I think a career of concussions has a cumulative effect," Primeau said.

Try as he did to rehab, he couldn't get over that final concussion. Almost a year later, Primeau, then 34, announced his retirement from the NHL.

Just imagine, though, if Primeau had chosen caution over valor. Could his career have been extended?

How about Marc Savard? On March 7, 2010, he suffered an infamous concussion at the hands of Matt Cooke.

Two months later, he returned to the ice for the Boston Bruins. It was the playoffs, after all.

Over that summer, he dealt with further post-concussion symptoms. Yet he returned to the ice again during the ensuing season, only to suffer another concussion, his second in 10 months.

Savard has only played a handful of games since, none in months, and still suffers from post-concussion symptoms. His career is likely finished, according to Bruins General Manager Peter Chiarelli.

These are but two of the many players who's livelihoods were affected by concussions, victims of a physical game and a mentality that if you can't see the problem, there isn't one - so suck it up and get back on the ice.

Or, as the Washington Capitals' Brooks Laich put it on Friday:

"I really don’t care about that awareness crap, to be honest, I’m sick of hearing all this talk about concussions and the quiet room," said Laich, the Capitals’ NHL player rep. "This is what we love to do, guys love to play, they love to compete, they want to be on the ice. How do you take that away from somebody?

"We accept that there’s going to be dangers when we play this game and you know that every night you get dressed,"Laich continued. "Sometimes it feels like we’re being babysat a little too much. We’re grown men, we should have a little say in what we want to do."

Crosby's Case

Sidney Crosby could have gone along the same path as the Primeaus, Savards and the Laichs of the world. He did at first, actually.

After taking a now-infamous, probably unintentional, blindside hit from David Steckel during last season's Winter Classic, Crosby shrugged off what symptoms he may have had, returning to the ice for the Penguins' very next game against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

There, he suffered another hit to the head. He hasn't played since.

First, the prognosis was that Crosby would be out for a few games. Then, a few weeks. Pretty soon, the absence was indefinite. He ended up missing what remained of the regular season and playoffs.

Fans, executives and team officials, no doubt, wanted him back as soon as possible. But the longer he was out, the easier it was, for fans at least, to grow accustomed to his absence, to accept it. This was not a simple situation, there were no simple answers. This wasn't just a brand or an asset, but a person. Before returning him to harm's way, changes needed to be made. To Crosby's condition, and to the NHL.

On March 14, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman instituted a new five-part protocol to attack the concussion problem. Perhaps the most important part, and the one that raises Laich's ire, is that a doctor must examine any player who may have received a concussion before the player returns to the ice.

If any good came from Crosby's injury, it may have been that it prompted the NHL to finally take action.

The Return

Over the summer, Crosby became a firm advocate of eliminating head shots from hockey. He shared his thoughts around the start of training camp.

First, Crosby came out strongly in support of a total ban on blows to the head at the NHL level regardless of whether they are intentional or accidental ...

[H]e said the [NHL] would not be diminished if head shots were outlawed.

"At the end of the day, I don't think there's a reason not to take them out," he said.

This was in early September. While Crosby took a stand against head shots, he and his doctors were non-committal on his return.

Crosby's white helmet became a media meme during the preseason, an indication that while he was now allowed to practice, he was not to be harmed. Updates were daily, and they were all the same.

That changed on Thursday, the first day Crosby was cleared for a full practice. 

When he will play again is still not known. It has been 282 days since he last played an NHL game. 

The Return

The last few moments before Crosby returns to the ice will be breathless. Friend and foe alike will applaud, if only mentally, once his skates touch the frozen water of an NHL rink..

He will not eschew contact. He will take hits. There will be many, and they will be hard.

If his brain has fully recovered, he will survive the hits. He will be able to go through them, go to the net, and do the many things that made him special before he was forced off of the ice.

It's simple, yet difficult to comprehend, that the answer was mere caution. Caution that the sports world as a whole, mind-bogglingly, seems to lack.

Athletes have been taught to throw caution aside their entire lives, playing through the pain. Who can forget Mario Lemieux playing through nearly debilitating back pain, or Jaromir Jagr playing through a groin injury, or Kasparitis and his broken foot? In the NHL playoffs, few are the competitors who don't have at least a hairline fracture or laceration.

And they all play through it.

Here is where the difficult, delicate difference lies: teaching the sports world to unlearn the highly-valued skill that is unmitigated grit. To play through certain pains, but without risking further injury.

The Penguins didn't do anything amazing, like open a concussion awareness institute or create new, technologically advanced protective gear. No, they merely practiced caution, and that could be revolutionary in itself. 

If the the team plays this right, and Crosby fully recovers and enjoys a long, productive career, it could prove a tremendous example to the entire sporting world.

It may, unfortunately, have been too late for Savard once he was finally shut down and given a chance, against his wishes, to fully recover. But, if this works, we may never have to encounter a tragedy of that nature again.

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