Rabu, 05 Oktober 2011

Crosby's smile could light way

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Penguins' locker room was a bustling place Tuesday morning — players packing, bags getting tossed on carts, orders being barked. The team was bound for Vancouver, where its 44th NHL season will open Thursday, and everyone seemed to be in a rush.

And why not?

This is a shout-it-out-loud Stanley Cup contender, maybe the favorite out of the Eastern Conference.

It's easy to list all of the reasons for that, from Evgeni "This is a new me" Malkin to hope for a vastly improved power play to the sport's premier penalty-killers to a seven-deep defensive corps to a better-than-ever Marc-Andre Fleury backing it all up.

I'll settle just for this: The Kid is smiling again.

Sidney Crosby lingered on the ice 15 minutes beyond the hourlong practice yesterday at Consol Energy Center. He skated sprints, punctuated by violent stops and starts. He took several bonus shots on Fleury and Brent Johnson, playfully poking for rebounds. He flipped the puck on his blade like a flapjack -- as only he can -- near the center circle. He engaged in a game of long-shot.

By the time Crosby finally got around to unlacing those skates, after his formal session with the media, I mentioned to him that it looked like he was having fun out there.

"Yeah," he said, looking up. "I missed it."

We did too.

Not one among us can imagine what these past few months have meant to the Penguins' captain, from personal or professional standpoints. But it's clear even from the outside that it made for a massive fall.

Rewind to Crosby's previous visit to Vancouver. On Feb. 28, 2010, his overtime goal - that sneaky wrister through Ryan Miller's pads - instantly lifted Canada to Olympic gold over the United States. It happened in GM Place, the same building where the Penguins and Canucks will play tomorrow, and I expect to remember it forever as the most electric atmosphere of any sporting event I've covered.

Crosby was on top of the sporting world, thanks to the global stage of the Olympics. He transcended hockey. It seemed like he couldn't get any higher.

Later that same year, though, Crosby broke through to a new level with the Penguins. Nearly every shift was dominant, and his improved shooting and faceoffs made him a more complete player than ever. Mario Lemieux was moved to suggest Crosby was out-performing him at his peak.

Then, with those two head shots in January, all that was taken away. Crosby's glory, his dream existence, was replaced by months of incessant headaches, sitting in dark rooms to avoid light, stumbling as he walked because of dizziness and, cruelest of all, feeling better only to feel worse. He openly acknowledged uncertainty about playing again.

That's why the smile matters.

He still doesn't have all of the answers. He'll accompany the Penguins on this three-game trip through Canada, but he said yesterday he doesn't expect to be cleared for contact in that time, largely because he won't meet with members of his concussion team until returning to Pittsburgh. More won't be known, of course, until he can ditch that white helmet and take some hits.

And yet, you get the feeling Crosby already knows. He was skating around late last season, too, but he was comparatively quiet, withdrawn, uncertain, frustrated. All of that's been wiped away, and it's easy to tell.

"To be honest, I'm just happy to be out there and working hard," he said. "For a long time, I wasn't even able to do that."

It's been exactly nine months, as of today, since Crosby last played.

"I think you try to take away everything you can from each situation good or bad, and I tried to do that over the past few months. ... It maybe makes you appreciate everything all the more."

Try to picture the scene when the No. 87 is called out for the starting lineup, and the new building shakes to its Fifth Avenue foundations. Or when he scores that first goal. Or, best of all, when he takes a check and skates away cleanly.

I'm guessing he'll appreciate it way more than any of us.

Photo: AP

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