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Road to Recovery

There’s no doubt Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma would’ve welcomed Sidney Crosby back into the lineup during the Stanley Cup playoffs. But even Bylsma admitted he would’ve been nervous to see Crosby back on the ice had doctors cleared his superstar captain to return from a concussion suffered earlier in the season.

“I know if Sidney Crosby would’ve come back I would’ve held my breath. Every shift, every game,” Bylsma said during a recent public appearance. “I’m not sure he was ready to come back, even though he was getting close to returning.”

A crushing 1-0 loss to Tampa Bay in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals ended the Penguins’ season, but it assured Crosby an additional four months to recuperate from his nagging injury.

“When he comes back and gets into the flow of training camp, preseason games, and regular season hockey, a lot of that trepidation will fall by the wayside,” Bylsma said.

At least that’s what Crosby and the Penguins hope for.

But Bylsma isn’t the only one who anticipates a full recovery from Crosby.

Penguins general manager Ray Shero also expects to see the face of the franchise at training camp in September.

Crosby, after taking several weeks to vacation in Europe, was recently cleared to resume his off-ice workout regimen in preparation for the upcoming season. Dr. Michael Collins, the assistant director of the UPMC sports medicine concussion program—and a nationally renowned expert in sports-related concussions—will monitor Crosby’s progress while he works out in Cole Harbor, Nova Scotia.

“He’s in great hands,” Shero said. “The great thing with Sid now is that he has time on his hands.”

That’s the best news for Crosby and the Penguins, according to Dr. Edward Snell, the director, primary sports medicine fellowship at Allegheny General Hospital.

“I can’t speak to the physiological aspect or severity of the concussion because I haven’t managed (Crosby), but he should be able to return to normal level of participation, really without any problems or dips in performance,” Snell said.

Still, Snell said a only small portion of concussions take this long to recover from.

“By far, the majority of concussions dissolve within about a month,” said Snell, who is also the head team physician for the Pittsburgh Pirates and the president of the Major League Baseball team physician association. “Sometimes they resolve within a couple days.”

But Crosby is a unique case, much like Minnesota Twins slugger Justin Morneau, former Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Jason Bay, and Boston Bruins’ center Marc Savard, all of whom battled long-term concussions.

Crosby missed 48 games, including the playoffs, thanks to his concussion, believed to have been suffered between Jan. 1 and 5 when he took two blindside hits in the span of four days. Crosby, who was on pace for a career year, led the National Hockey League with 32 goals and 66 points at the time of his injury.

“It’s a category we don’t see very often, where the concussion is taking longer to heal,” Snell said.

In March, Crosby skated for the first time since Jan. 5 and, in an attempt to return for the playoffs, was cleared for non-contact practices a month later. But another setback, which included headaches, halted his comeback efforts.

“My expectation probably wasn’t that I would play, but I was just trying to make sure that if there was any chance that it was possible to come back that I would be ready,” Crosby said at the end of the season. “Exertion-wise, I was almost going full speed. When you do that you have a good idea of where you’re at, and obviously I wasn’t there yet, but the fact that I was able to get on the ice and feel like an athlete again was a small victory.”

Doctors can’t physically measure effects of a concussion, so that’s why Snell said it’s vital that athletes convey their symptoms.

“Symptoms are a big part of managing and diagnosing concussions and understanding how severe the injury is,” Snell said.

Crosby understands this, which is why he didn’t push workouts any further after experiencing headaches.

“I think the common message is not to rush it,” Crosby said. “And if your body is telling you something, you listen to it. That’s basically what I’ve tried to do. I just want to make sure that when I do start to workout again, I don’t have to deal with symptoms.”

The severity of Crosby’s injury was questioned throughout the process as inaccurate rumors of retirement swirled around the 23-year-old Penguins’ superstar.

“It’s almost an epidemic at this point,” Snell said. “I think public awareness is up a tremendous amount and people understand what (concussions) are. There’s a lot of trepidation about the consequences and certainly in young people it raises the ante.”

But most aren’t worried about Crosby’s concussion now that the season is over.

“I think it’s realistic to think he’ll be good to go come mid-September,” said Phil Bourque, former Penguin and the team’s current radio color analyst. “I don’t allow myself to say ‘yes, he’ll absolutely be in camp,’ but I think having nine months off will hopefully be enough time for everything to settle down and feel 100 percent.”

Troy Loney, a former Penguin forward, also expects to see Crosby in training camp.

“He’s driven to excellence all the time and I think he probably feels a lot of energy to come back even better than he was, which is great for Pittsburgh fans,” Loney said. “He’s a guy who thrives on adversity and the more adversity you throw in front of him, the better he is.”

Former Penguin defenseman Peter Taglianetti sees Crosby being cleared for off-ice workouts as a step in the right direction.

“It’s encouraging that he‘s going to be able to start the process again,” Taglianetti said. “He’s the face of the NHL and the franchise and they’re going to do everything they can to protect him.”

Snell makes sure his patient’s cognitive functions are normalized before slowly introducing exertion like walking and riding a bike.

“After light exertion, if factors haven’t worsened, you can go toward more strenuous activities like skating, sprinting, jogging and running,” Snell said. “Once you do that for a graduated time, you can go back to more risky parts of the activity like shooting.”

Taglianetti, also a fitness expert, believes Crosby should stay away from all contact until training camp, but still include exercises like riding a bike or skating.

“The big thing is that he’s able to do things without any type of injury,” Taglianetti said. “Even a pulled muscle will set him back because he hasn’t done those type of activities in months.”

Though doctors expect a full recovery, it’s difficult to assess the odds of another setback or gauge how Crosby will react to another shot to the head, particularly in a sport that involves consistent, relentless, physical contact.

“I don’t think anybody can answer that, not even the doctors,” Bourque said. “Every time he gets hit, we’re all going to hold our breath. That’s the reality of it.”

The key is Crosby’s mindset as he deals with the injury.

“I think, as an athlete, if you’ve ever been hurt, you can’t think about getting hurt because that’s when you get hurt again,” Loney said.

Crosby assured he won’t change once he is fully recovered. He knows he can’t change the way he plays. His career depends on it.

“I only really know one way to play. I can‘t play any different,“ Crosby said. “The reason why you make sure you recover is so you can do that and if you don’t you put yourself in a pretty bad situation.

“I have to play the same way.

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