By Dominique Liboiron
In this second part of a series that sheds light on concussions, we’ll learn how an injury to a star player, while unfortunate, was what the sports world needed to begin taking brain injuries seriously.
No one in hockey was talking about concussions twelve years ago. Even five years ago, the subject was only on the fringes of discussion. That changed when Sidney Crosby got hurt.
In early 2011, Crosby was the NHL’s top scorer and he was still every Canadian’s hero for scoring the gold-medal-winning-goal at the Vancouver Olympics. During the Winter Classic against the Capitals on Jan. 1, Crosby was blinded-sided by David Steckel. Sid the Kid was shaken and obviously impacted by the hit and yet he resumed play. His neck was sore, but he had no symptoms of a concussion.
On Jan. 5, Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman checked Crosby forcefully into the boards. The next day, Sid flew to Montreal to play the Canadiens, but had to go back to Pittsburgh because of concussion symptoms. Crosby was diagnosed at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center by Dr. Michael Collins, a specialist. Dr. Collins confirmed that his patient was concussed and that Crosby’s vestibular system was injured. (Your vestibular system is located in your ears. It’s what allows you to maintain balance.)
Crosby’s concussion made him tired, sensitive to light and sound, and reduced his ability to focus. He couldn’t practice for three months. Playing was out of the question. He practiced for a few weeks in April, but his symptoms returned. He missed the last 41 games of the season. The Penguins got eliminated from the playoffs and Crosby spent time in France to relax and recover.
The 2011-12 season began without him. He missed the first 20 games, but returned Nov. 21. He scored two goals and two assists against the Islanders. His first goal was classic Crosby. After a burst of speed out of his end, he took a pass and settled the bouncing puck with poise and precision then entered of the offensive zone and blasted past the defence before putting a backhander in the top corner. What he shouted after the goal can’t be published. Let’s just say you can see the jubilation in his face and we’ll leave it at that.
But the superstar’s return was short-lived. A David Krejci elbow to the head sidelined Crosby again, this time until March. Afterwards, Crosby finished the season. Then the lock-out allowed him more time to heal.
Crosby’s concussion put the NHL in a delicate spot. They realized they could lose their most valuable asset. After all, Sidney Crosby is the face of the league. He’s worth millions in ticket sales, apparel, endorsements, advertising and more. A lot of influential people would lose a lot of money if Crosby was forced to retire due to concussions.
That being said, money isn’t the only factor. There’s the tragedy of a young man who dedicated his life to hockey and could be permanently side-lined while in his prime. The fans would suffer as well. Crosby is an amazing player to watch.
The NHL realized they were in a similar situation to the tobacco industry – their product causes health problems, serious ones.
The league responded, albeit slowly, with a rule change meant to protect the players’ heads. Fighting, which is arguably the leading cause of concussions in hockey, is still allowed. But let’s be honest – the powers that be don’t care if a goon gets concussed, a fighter can be replaced easily whereas a talent like Sidney Crosby comes but once in a generation.
Let’s be even more honest. The fans don’t care either if an enforcer gets concussed, the fans who’ve never had a concussion, that is. Fighting will be a part of hockey for years to come despite the heavy toll it exacts from players who drop their gloves, which we’ll discuss in Part Three of this series.
As far as Crosby is concerned, his brain injury made the league realize they had to finally take steps to protect their most valuable assets and their bottom line. It’s probable the NHL wouldn’t have reacted if goons were the only players side-lined with head injuries. At least some good came from a challenging and dark episode in Crosby’s life.