By Cathal Kelly
The Toronto Star
November 20, 2011
Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby(notes) participates in hockey practice with teamates on Thursday, Nov. 10, 2011 in Pittsburgh. (AP)
On Sunday afternoon, Sidney Crosby let the NHL off the hook.
In a one-sentence release, the Penguins announced that Crosby will return to the lineup on Monday night against the Islanders (7 p.m., CBC). He’s been gone nearly a calendar year — 61 games over two seasons.
Pittsburgh insisted all along that whenever this happened, it was going to be just another day in the hockey schedule. They flinched at the end, making the announcement more than the promised 24 hours ahead of Crosby’s appearance, ensuring that the hockey world could book its pilgrimage in time.
While Crosby was wearing a white “don’t hit me” helmet in practice and complaining of dizziness while watching television, the Penguins understandably did not want to make a big deal out of this.
Now that it’s real, now that he’s ready, it’s going to be a grand occasion. As it should be.
Crosby’s return is cause for celebration for fans, for his team and, most especially, for one of the game’s greatest practitioners.
Losing Crosby at age 24 would have been a sporting tragedy. We avoided that, though we may never know just how close a thing it was.
No one, however, will celebrate half as hard as the league.
There’s the obvious — they’ve built an entire marketing strategy around only two men.
One is in the process of becoming a disaffected journeyman at age 26; the other hasn’t been playing at all.
Now that they have the Crosby half of the equation back in place, perhaps the equally troublesome Alex Ovechkin component will rediscover his vim for competition. Monday night’s reappearance could solve two problems at once.
Without Sherlock to measure himself against, maybe this is what would have happened to Moriarty — a career-threatening depression and a 70-point season in the making.
That’s the NHL’s easier problem. The temptation will be to let the harder one burn off like morning fog.
Now that Crosby’s back, the league can’t be blamed for helping to destroy its most valuable asset.
Now that he’s back, the NHL will never have to admit what this was. It was not just an injury to a star. It was an existential crisis.
As long as Crosby was “in recovery,” a very ugly discussion was put on hold.
Now that he’s back, it never has to happen.
But it should. What would the NHL have done if Crosby had never returned? Or been medically advised to retire? Or had gotten sicker? Or publicly blamed them?
It’s not a morbid exercise to ask those questions now, because as long as he plays, they will never be far from Crosby. Every time he is laid out on the ice from now until he quits, the first thought that will roll through the minds of 20,000 spectators is, “Is this the one?”
The NHL’s lax policy on headshots — changed specifically because of Crosby’s injury — nearly cost them a generational talent. We know now that Crosby should never have come out for the third period at the Winter Classic after being nearly decapitated by Dave Steckel. We know a lot of things now that we didn’t a year ago.
We know that hockey is bigger than any one man, but that in this case, not by a whole hell of a lot. Fans will always follow the game, no matter who’s playing. But love is personal. You fall in love with a player. A lot of people love Crosby, and it was clear that if he had been forced out, they would have turned their anger on the league. That anger was held in abeyance. Now that he’s back, it will dissipate. But it will gather again when the next star is poleaxed and broken. It will be exponentially worse if that player is Crosby.
If Crosby plays another five years and is pushed out by gimpy knees, people will blame luck. If he is ever forced out by head trauma, people will blame the NHL.
Therefore, the NHL might not want to think of this as the end. Better to imagine it as a second chance.
Getting Sidney Crosby back was an important first step — the answer to “When?”
Now there is the far more vexing and ongoing question of how to ensure — as much as that is possible — that this never happens again.