Head knocks weigh on NHL general managers
By Rob Rossi, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Monday, March 14, 2011
Sidney Crosby's concussion is causing a headache for the Penguins on the ice and the National Hockey League off it.
Nobody knows when Crosby might play hockey again, and continued speculation about his health is as frustrating to the team as it is confusing to fans.
"I'm sick of talking about it," Penguins General Manager Ray Shero said this week, reiterating that Crosby's status is "not something we talk about every day."
Crosby missed a 29th consecutive game Sunday when the Penguins played the Edmonton Oilers at Consol Energy Center.
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said Thursday there was "no change" to Crosby's status since he was hit in the head Jan. 1 during the Winter Classic by then-Washington forward David Steckel and struck from behind four days later by Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman.
A lack of significant progress from one of the NHL's marquee players almost 10 weeks into recovery is a concern to the Penguins and the league.
Head injuries will be a major topic during three days of meetings by the league's 30 general managers starting today in Boca Raton, Fla. -- and not just because Crosby, widely regarded as the face of the NHL, has cast a spotlight on the subject.
Clearing up rumors
Crosby told the Tribune-Review on Feb. 23 that he was "getting better" but said he still experienced headaches. He declined comment for this story but, through his agent and a Penguins spokesperson, addressed rumors from social media websites and out-of-town reports:
-- He did not cut short a haircut because of a sudden headache.
-- He was not made sick by lights and music at a recent Lady Gaga concert at Consol Energy Center.
-- There is neither a tumor nor a fractured bone along his spine.
"I don't know any of those things to be true," said Crosby's agent, Pat Brisson. "I can't say if he's going to play in two weeks, two months or seven months. All I can say is Sid's progressing, but he's still having symptoms. So right now, he's not ready."
Some of Crosby's closest friends are concerned.
"There's more to this life than hockey," said former Penguin and current Toronto forward Colby Armstrong. "I don't know what protocol is for something like this, but to have headaches every day like he's been having is a scary thing.
"I know personally it's eating at him (to be out this long). His hands are tied, though. He's just got to do what's best for him."
Taking a toll
According to The Concussion Blog, a website devoted to head injuries in professional sports, 72 NHL players reportedly have been diagnosed with a concussion this season. Here are some of the notable players and their status or recovery time:
Player, team Position Status/recovery
Sidney Crosby, Penguins Center Out since Jan. 5
Drew Doughty, Kings Defense Out from Oct. 20-Nov. 4
Marian Gaborik, Rangers Right wing Out from Feb. 20-March 6
Mike Green, Capitals Defense Out since Feb. 25
Dan Hamhuis, Canucks Defense Out from Feb. 9-22
Paul Kariya, Blues Left wing Out all season
Matthew Lombardi, Predators Right wing Out since Oct. 13
Brad Richards, Stars Center Out from Feb. 13-March 9
Marc Savard, Bruins Center Out for season
Sources: NHL.com; theconcussionblog.com
Crosby has not been cleared by the Penguins' medical staff for physical activity, other than light work on a stationary bicycle.
No timetable for return
Gone are the days when a trainer held up two fingers, asked a player his name and sent him back on the ice. Today, a player can return only after being free of symptoms and passing a test to gauge normal brain activity. The final decision-maker is the team doctor.
Crosby has not taken that test since his concussion diagnosis Jan. 6. He left the team in Montreal that day to be tested by team doctors in Pittsburgh because of symptoms that included headaches, neck soreness and nausea.
Few of Crosby's teammates feel comfortable talking publicly about his condition, though defenseman Paul Martin said players have no expectations for him to play again this season.
"Right now, we realize that he's not doing anything, and especially the guys in here have to expect it's just us," Martin said. "Obviously, if he comes back for the playoffs, I'll be as thrilled as anybody, but you can't sit back and wait and think when he comes back he'll make it better."
Team doctors initially labeled Crosby's concussion as "mild" and instructed Bylsma to tell reporters that Crosby would miss "about a week." The team since has insisted there is no timetable for his return.
The Penguins medical staff is led by Dr. Charles "Chip" Burke, but Shero said neurological experts from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center consult on treatment for concussed players.
Burke declined to comment, per team policy regarding injured players.
Dr. Julian Bailes, chairman of West Virginia University's Department of Neurosurgery, said every concussion is different. Speaking without specific knowledge of Crosby's situation, Bailes said that more than two months generally "is a long time to be out" with a concussion.
Florida forward David Booth missed four months because of a concussion last season. Three current concussed Penguins -- forwards Arron Asham, Eric Tangradi and Nick Johnson -- are into their second month of not playing.
Bailes, considered a leading expert on head injuries because of his work with the National Football League Players Association, added it might be best for Crosby to scrap this season altogether.
"We do that with patients who have other problems to their nervous system -- nerve problems, stingers to the neck or shoulder and spinal-cord injuries," he said. "The benefit to it is time and allowing the brain to completely heal. We think in some concussions there is a tearing of fibers, and the brain can heal that -- and in some people time is what it takes."
Concussions on rise
Head injuries are "the topic du jour again" in the NHL after the subject dominated discussion late last season, Brisson said.
Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy studied the brain of former NHL enforcer Bob Probert, who died last year at age 45. Reports surfaced recently that Probert, who lived a hard life that included substance abuse, had brain damage and disease at the time of his death.
Last week brought a major injury to Montreal forward Max Pacioretty after a gruesome hit by Boston defenseman Zdeno Chara. Pacioretty was injured when Chara drove him into a stanchion, leaving Pacioretty with a concussion and cracked vertebra.
As with Steckel and Hedman after their hits on Crosby, the NHL did not fine or suspend Chara. That prompted a letter from Air Canada, a major NHL sponsor, to commissioner Gary Bettman, in which the airline called the league's response to the incident unacceptable.
The NHL long touted itself as a leader among pro sports leagues regarding concussions. It began studying brain injuries in 1997 and created baseline neurological tests to prevent concussed players from returning before they achieve normal brain function.
Bettman said in January that concussions increased this season, despite a new regulation -- Rule 48 -- constituting blindside hits as illegal for the first time. He did not say how many concussions occurred this season.
The rise of concussions, combined with Crosby's stature and recent events, have added to the feeling that this week's general managers meetings are potentially a defining moment for the NHL.
"That combination warrants a serious discussion," Penguins CEO and President David Morehouse said before making clear the organization's stance. "We think head shots should be banned, period."
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