It only takes a brief visit to the comment section on an NHL message board to learn how fans of the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins view one another; and the emotions run more deeply than clever monikers like Filthadelphia and *****sburgh can truly capture.
However, in the last few days, even the most rabid of fans of these two teams have found common ground with one another, beginning with concerns for the players, who—no matter how you feel about them—are good for the sport of hockey.
Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby recently returned from a ten-month stint recovering from a concussion sustained during last year’s Winter Classic.
Crosby picked up where he left off, totaling 12 points in eight games. But the announcement came down today that he was experiencing concussion-like symptoms after a physical game against the Boston Bruins.
Hockey’s household name is sidelined indefinitely, and while he is optimistic about a quick return, all bets seem to be off when it comes to head injuries. Few people would have predicted that his Winter Classic issues would keep him off the ice for almost an entire calendar year.
In Crosby’s absence, Philadelphia’s rising star stepped into the spotlight.
Claude Giroux overtook the league-lead in points last week and looks poised to become the first player on the Flyers roster that Philly fans can fairly compare to Crosby (if they’re following Max Talbot’s lead).
Mere days after Giroux became the league’s top offensive player, he took a knee to the head as teammate Wayne Simmonds attempted to leapfrog a sprawling Giroux.
Giroux immediately went to the bench and soon after made his way into the locker room. He has not been seen on the ice since.
Reports have indicated that Giroux’s injury is whiplash, not a concussion, but the cloud hangs over the head of Flyers fans as to whether or not Giroux will go the way of Crosby. This includes subjecting himself to a long recovery, subjecting the team to the struggles of playing without its best player and subjecting the league to the prospect of missing out on following a true superstar as he joins the ranks of the league’s elite.
The fact that Giroux and Crosby are experiencing this bout of head injuries simultaneously is pure coincidence, but the attention given to both players and the hatred between both teams makes these events seem just a tiny bit serendipitous.
Crosby Brings the C-Word to the Forefront
For the time being, the Flyers and Penguins are linked at the forefront of hockey’s fight against head injuries.
The league has recently adopted a hard-line stance when it comes to concussions in an effort to prevent players from suffering avoidable physical and mental damage due to the athletic mantra of “playing through pain.”
As the league ramped up efforts to curtail chronic concussions, Crosby found himself as the unfortunate poster boy for the cause when Dave Steckel and Victor Hedman made contact with Crosby’s head in consecutive games.
Crosby’s plight actively brought to the forefront the battles that some players have been fighting for years.
Many speculate that Crosby’s long road would have been much shorter had concussion testing been detailed enough to detect that the initial Steckel hit had rattled the Pens’ star. Had Crosby not been cleared to play against Tampa Bay four nights later, the story may have entirely changed.
Furthermore, Crosby has become the prototype for a player attempting to fully recover by any means necessary. No matter how badly Crosby wanted to help his team in the playoffs or at the start of the new season, the Penguins and the league made full-recovery the top priority.
His recent injury status is the result of similar caution—caution that was not taken with players only a few years ago.
Concussions Take Their Toll in Philadelphia
The Philadelphia Flyers know the effect of prematurely returning from a concussion all too well. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the Flyers saw two team captains go down with multiple concussions, injuries that shortened both players’ careers.
Eric Lindros, praised by many in the same way that Crosby has been praised as being the future of the sport, was the most prominent sports figure in Philadelphia from the moment he arrived in 1992. He won a Hart Trophy, took the team to the Stanley Cup and famously feuded with GM Bobby Clarke.
Despite all the success and drama, Lindros’s career is largely remembered for one reason: the concussions.
Lindros is an example of an enormous talent cut down by head injuries. In his tenure with the Flyers, he suffered a total of six diagnosed concussions, including four during the 1999-2000 season. The player who once looked sure to be a Hall-of-Famer played the remainder of his career in relative obscurity, never regaining the luster of his pre-injury years.
Similarly, Flyers captain Keith Primeau had his career cut short by concussions and has been very public about the detrimental long-term effects of the injuries. Primeau remains active in lobbying the NHL to address the problems with concussions and to take an active role in preventing players from subjecting themselves to further damage by returning from injuries too soon.
The Struggle Between Winning and Protection
The Flyers can find concussion issues in their past, but they are a prominent part of the team’s present as well.
Along with Giroux’s still somewhat-unclear head injury, the Flyers are coping with concussion-like symptoms in their captain, Chris Pronger (out indefinitely), and their top prospect, Brayden Schenn (out indefinitely).
The team finds themselves between the rock and the hard place that is protecting the health of their stars and still giving the franchise the greatest chance to attain the ultimate goal—a Stanley Cup championship.
Last year’s Pittsburgh team took the Tampa Bay Lightning to seven games behind a team of unknowns and call-ups, so it is easy to imagine that Crosby’s presence would have been enough to take the team deep into the playoffs.
Yet the Penguins put no pressure on Crosby to crack the postseason lineup.
Perhaps out of genuine compassion for his health, perhaps out of self-interest in the team’s long-term future, perhaps because Crosby simply couldn’t play at a high level while still recovering. Regardless of the motivation for the Penguins, they made the right move by keeping him sidelined.
And for the second time in less than a year, they are forced to make that right move again, a move with which their cross-state rivals are becoming all too familiar.
Does the NHL do enough to fight concussion problems in the league?
There will be no love lost between the Flyers and Penguins. The gloves will continue to drop; the fans will continue to trash-talk, and the head-to-head matchups will continue to provide great entertainment for fans of the NHL.
But for now, the two teams—and their fans—are inextricably linked. They are the focus of hockey’s most difficult, but most important issue: the long-term health of each and every player in the league.
The mistakes of the past, the decisions of the present and the inability to know the future will resonate in the minds of players, staff members and fans associated with both teams in the coming days, weeks and possibly beyond.
We all accept that the health of all players, not just superstars, is good for the sport, but we are not all willing to accept changes to rules and procedures in order to attain this goal.
Perhaps if the league and the fans see that two franchises willing to do almost anything to achieve the upper hand in the rivalry acknowledge the fact that health transcends even the most vicious rivalry, then steps will be made to protect everyone on the ice from reliving Eric Lindros’s nightmare.
Until then, the Flyers and Penguins find themselves fighting side-by-side—hopefully very briefly—against a common foe.