Even Don Cherry believes game's greatest talent should wait until next season
By Cam Cole
March 14, 2012
Don Cherry said something sensible the other night. Hey, it happens.
It wasn't even the actor playing him in the TV movie, but the real Grapes.
What he said on Coach's Corner about Sidney Crosby's impending return from his latest bout of neck/concussion issues was that if he were the Penguins, he would shut him down for the rest of the season.
Start him off fresh next fall, when everyone's on equal footing.
He said that bringing Crosby back now, when he's at practice speed and the rest of the league is battle-hardened - not merely in regular-season shape but basically in playoff mode - is just asking for another injury.
Give him credit. This, from a guy who was old school before the school was, who has made a personal fortune selling headshot-porn to concussion fans, and who never saw a darned thing wrong with the number of brain-trauma notches on Scott Stevens' shoulder pads.
"Suck it up, kid," has been Cherry's stock-in-trade. "Tape an Aspirin to it."
But on this issue, Grapes feels what most of the rest of us feel: queasiness, worry, fear for the future of the game's best player. That feeling is going to be with us for a while.
When Crosby skates onto the ice of Madison Square Garden to face the Rangers on Thursday night, will there be a single viewer not wondering what's going to happen the first time he gets rocked by a bodycheck, let alone one that even accidentally strays near his noggin?
After a robust skate Tuesday with his teammates, in which he took practice-level contact, Crosby admitted: "You're not going to get hit to the extent that you would in a game. But you've got to test that as best you can."
He will have missed a nice, round 40 games and 100 days this time, since colliding with Boston's David Krejci on Dec. 5.
That was his eighth game back after missing 10½ months with post-concussion syndrome from hits in successive games by Dave Steckel and Victor Hedman in the first four days of January, 2011.
Crosby looked as good as new in his comeback game on Nov. 21, like a man freed from shackles, scoring two goals and two assists in a joyful 5-0 victory over the New York Islanders. He had seven more points, all assists, in his next four games, while giving and taking jabs and punches and just generally looking eager to re-engage in every aspect of the game.
But even before the Krejci hit - a mild-looking, glancing elbow - sent him back to the darkness, his game had begun to fade. When he left for the injured reserve list this time, he was eventually diagnosed with a "soft-tissue" neck injury (first thought to be a stress fracture) that may have contributed to his dizziness and disorientation.
So, he's had eight games in 14½ months now, and he's coming back to a league in full stride, in a road game against the East's top team, with a Penguins squad that has been humming along in superb form - 21-4-1 in its past 26 games, on a run of nine straight wins - without any help from Crosby.
Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma, unwilling to tinker with a winning formula and doubtless wary of the effect his 24yearold captain's return might have on the team's potential Hart Trophy nominee, Evgeny Malkin, plans to start Crosby on the third line between Tyler Kennedy and Matt Cooke, the reformed concussion donor.
But Crosby will certainly see some power-play time as well, perhaps initially on the point. He will play three games in four nights if there are no setbacks - in New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia - before his first home game, next Tuesday against Winnipeg.
That's a pretty rude reintroduction to the game, although "rude" is relative: the Penguins don't have to leave their time zone for the remainder of their 14 games.
"I'm going to try to pace myself a bit, especially with the schedule," Crosby said Tuesday.
"It's going to be [work] enough getting back into it."
"He'll need some games and I think that was a goal for him, to come back this season and not in the second and third game of the playoffs," said Pens GM Ray Shero.
"He wanted to come back as soon as he could to get into the swing of playing hockey games again ... It's a great step for him and our hockey team. He's been trying to get back for a while now."
Ridiculous as it may seem, the issue of just how hard he's been trying has percolated in the background for weeks now. First came a story suggesting that certain unnamed teammates thought he was fine and couldn't understand why he wasn't already playing. Others have surmised that Crosby was so angry at the NHL for doing nothing to punish Steckel and Hedman for the head blows that caused his concussion, he's been in no hurry to return as the league's poster-boy, as if all was forgiven. More likely, though, he and the Penguins have just been ultracautious, waiting until he was absolutely symptom-free to risk him in a playoff-like environment.
In theory, Crosby's return and that of defenceman Kris Letang, also from a concussion, ought to be a palpable boost to a team that's already so hot, a run to the Presidents' Trophy may be in the cards.
If they were both in the lineup Thursday, it would be only the second time all season the Penguins have been able to ice their 'A' team. How long it stays together is another story.
Could Crosby avoid unnecessary contact, and would he be the same player if he did? What of the opposition? Does anybody seriously doubt that each team he will face has at least one player willing to test the soundness of his skull?
Maybe that's why "wait 'til next year" sounded like the better alternative. Not because it would be safer, although Cherry might be right about that. But because it would delay the moment of truth - the moment when Sidney Crosby gets run over, as he surely will, and the audience holds its breath.