By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Dec. 14) – Sidney Crosby and Eric Lindros are seperated by a lone jersey digit and their National Hockey League careers could be intertwined by an even slighter margin.
Though it is terribly disheartening, No. 87 seems to be haunted by the path that No. 88 stumbled upon after his abbreviated juncture atop the hockey world. The prime differences are two-fold: Lindros, despite a premature retirement forced by repeated head trauma, at least spent the better part of a decade as one of the game’s dominant figures. Crosby was accorded less than half that time before the inescapable concussion menace disrupted a career that may have paralleled other legends of the sport; to these eyes, only Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux could dominate a game in a manner similar to the pride of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia.
Complicating immediate matters, yet offering improved prognoses for the future, is the emergent understanding of sports-related head trauma and its accumulative peril – information that was not so readily available to Lindros at the height of his battle, but is now crystal-clear at the most basic level: concussions can only be added to, not subtracted from. We have learned that susceptibility to bruising of the brain increases alarmingly and exponentially with each incidence – the element less understood, but grievously foreboding, is the manner in which repeated head trauma may sacrifice quality of life in later years.
From all indications, Crosby – at the tender age of 24 – is rapidly approaching that fork in the road: having to choose between the mounting hazard of placing his damaged brain in harm’s way and the gut-wrenching specter of leaving well-enough alone, which would preclude further involvement as a player. At our deepest understanding, none of us could possibly imagine the emotional turmoil of being confronted by such an option. Crosby spent the bulk of his youth – without a shred of anonymity – building toward what even Gretzky predicted to be one of the great hockey careers of all time. The slightest notion of having to walk away so prematurely must be appalling to the Penguins’ star, but his viable alternatives are limited.
It is inevitable that Crosby will sustain further head trauma if he continues playing. Many journalists are quick to blame the NHL for all that ails, without posing practical solutions – likely because there aren’t any. If there were an easy answer, you have to think that someone; somewhere would be all over it by now. As it stands, professional hockey players in the 21st century cannot possibly avoid the force of impact that leads to concussion. Crosby’s latest set-back occurred in a mid-ice collision with his own line-mate, Chris Kunitz, at the Consol Energy Center last week. If players on the same team cannot avoid one another, how is it possible for opponents in a competitive environment – moving at a high rate of speed – to circumvent such peril?
If the NHL should be blamed for anything, it’s a lack of foresight. With the exception of Madison Square Garden (New York); the Nassau Coliseum (Long Island); Rexall Place (Edmonton); Joe Louis Arena (Detroit) and the Scotiabank Saddledome (Calgary), all league facilities have been built post-1993; a number of them in the new millennium. This provided NHL owners a glowing opportunity to expand the playing surface commensurate with the evolution of today’s bigger, faster athlete; the ever-increasing science of training and nutrition, and the modernization of equipment worn beneath the uniform. Instead, and owing to the insatiable pursuit of revenue, we have the equivalent of caged animals violently crashing into one another on generally the same-sized playing field as in the 1960s and ’70s. With a second referee, there’s an additional person on the ice today. What real chance of avoiding head trauma to these guys have?
NO ONE WANTS THIS TO END. BUT, SHOULD IT CONTINUE?
As it pertains to Crosby, there must be terribly conflicting elements. No one with the slightest affection for hockey wants to see his career terminated. The financial implications of such an outcome are mind-boggling at both the club and league level. As a result, Crosby isn’t likely receiving impartial or dispassionate advice.
A doctor I visited on Wednesday with abundant interest in hockey, though obviously no involvement in Crosby’s care, had this to say: “I find it impossible to believe that the medical personnel entrusted with Crosby’s concussion rehab – particularly those independent of the Pittsburgh organization – were comfortable with him returning to the ice this season. Even to someone like myself, with no direct knowledge of his medical care, it seemed frought with risk. But, I understand that additional pressure comes to bear on people that are either compensated – or chosen – by professional sports teams to make medical determinations. I’m not convinced those conclusions are solely in the best interest of the athlete.”
As always, the final call in any medical decision rests with the individual involved. I have no idea whether Crosby – in light of his current set-back – has considered, or been advised, to hang up his skates, though the notion of either is hardly implausible. During a press conference prior to his initial comeback, Crosby was asked that very question and he returned a gaze that suggested the inquisitor had just arrived from the planet Neptune. Whether Sid the Kid is more willing to consider long-term implications today is known only to him, and perhaps to those in his tightest circle.
By any reasonable measure, though, we can all come to the same unhappy conclusion: only retirement will ensure that No. 87 can live normally and fruitfully beyond his playing days.