Penguins Set NHL Model for Handling Head Injuries After Crosby Concussion Woes

Jonathan Willis@jonathanwillisNHL National ColumnistOctober 11, 2016

Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby talks with reporters at his locker after skating at the Penguins' practice facility in Cranberry Township, Pa., Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2016. Crosby was diagnosed with a concussion by team doctors Monday. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Associated Press

Sidney Crosby, the NHL’s biggest star and best player, lost nearly a full calendar year in the prime of his career to a poorly handled concussion. After suffering another one Friday, however, Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins aren't taking any chances.

Instead, they’re demonstrating how these events ought to be handled.

Crosby held court with reporters Monday in a video tweeted out by the team’s official Twitter account. He confirmed he suffered his concussion in practice Friday, that he first started showing symptoms Saturday and that he would go through the usual concussion protocol:

Going through it, you just understand the process. Progress is a good thing, and you just go day by day. I don’t think you don’t look too far ahead. I was happy to be able to skate today, and you just understand there’s a progression. You just look at that and make sure you do everything right to get back out.

Crosby’s willingness to take a by-the-book approach to his health, not cutting any corners, has been strongly endorsed by the team. In an interview with Postmedia’s Mike Zeisberger, Pens general manager Jim Rutherford took the same stance.

“All I can tell you is this: We’re not going to put Sidney Crosby back into the lineup until he’s feeling 100 percent and not any time before that,” he said. “We are not going to take any chances.”

If this sounds mundane and unsurprising, it’s worth remembering that, just five years ago, the team wasn’t as careful with its superstar centre.

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David Steckel’s hit on Crosby at the 2011 Winter Classic is perhaps the most remembered moment of his 425-game NHL career due to the consequences.

At the time, though, Crosby didn’t even leave the game for good, returning for the third period and playing nearly 25 minutes over the course of the contest. Nor did Crosby sit out the next game. He played 19:03 against the Tampa Bay Lightning four days later, taking a hard hit from Victor Hedman in the process. It would be more than 10 months before he’d play again.

The entire timeline is laid out on NHL.com, with the league taking care to spell out the initial confusion over whether Crosby had a concussion or had merely suffered a neck injury on the Steckel hit. In hindsight, it’s hard to believe the Penguins took the risk of letting Crosby play, but five years ago, the perceptions around head injuries were different than they are now.

Crosby’s been a big part of that. Player and team alike were ill-served by how the Steckel hit was handled, but the hockey community as a whole may have benefited from it. Few things underscore the stupidity of playing through head injuries like the league’s biggest star losing 10 months in the prime of his career.

Krejci (left) and Crosby
Krejci (left) and CrosbyRichard T Gagnon/Getty Images

It’s worth remembering, too, that the fears about Crosby’s health and career lasted a lot longer than those 10 months. When he had more concussion trouble after taking a hit from the Boston Bruins' David Krejci in late 2011, it was worth asking if he would ever be consistently healthy again.

“Will we ever see him dominate the game again?” wondered Cam Cole in the National Post, channeling the thoughts of many observers. “Will he survive the first really good lick someone puts on him, upon his return?”

Hockey culture has long held the ability to play through pain as a virtue—and understandably so. In many situations, where the long-term repercussions are minimal, having a star player fight through an injury can be beneficial to a team both on and off the ice. Head injuries are a different animal, though, given the potential for catastrophic consequences both to a player’s career and to his life after hockey.

Crosby accepting the Conn Smythe Trophy as the NHL's 2016 playoff MVP.
Crosby accepting the Conn Smythe Trophy as the NHL's 2016 playoff MVP.Bruce Bennett/Associated Press/Associated Press

Crosby has been fortunate. He’s missed a grand total of nine regular-season games in the last three seasons, and he was named either a first- or second-team All-Star in each of them. Those fears that he was finished as a superstar were not realized. Nevertheless, they made it clear that the hockey community had to change the way it viewed and responded to head injuries.

This time around, the team and player are doing things right. The aftermath of the Steckel hit was a cautionary tale and lesson in how not to handle injury. Now, the game’s most prominent player and the defending Stanley Cup champions are setting a template for how to respond to concussion concerns.

“We’ve learned so much, even in a short period of time,” Crosby told those gathered reporters Monday. He’s right, and his past misfortunes have played a big role in changing for the better the way hockey players and coaches at all levels treat suspected concussions.  

             

Statistical information courtesy of Hockey-Reference.com

Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.