PITTSBURGH --Sidney Crosby, a player capable of making the seemingly impossible look easy, suddenly found it difficult to perform the easiest of tasks. Watching television taxed his senses. Riding in a car proved intolerable. He had headaches, fogginess and fatigue.
Crosby, so gifted that he won a Stanley Cup and an Olympic gold medal by age 22, didn't need someone to tell him something was seriously wrong. But even as he dealt for months with a severe concussion, he was certain he again would be the player called the "Ferrari" of the NHL by one of his doctors.
The Pittsburgh Penguins superstar, speaking Wednesday for the first time in four-plus months, said he never considered retiring despite a head injury that forced him to miss the second half of last season and still causes him headaches.
Asked if there was a chance this injury still might be career-ending, Crosby said, "I wouldn't bet on that," and flashed one of those competitive glares for which he is known.
After making rapid progress in his recovery the last three weeks, Crosby now is certain he will play this season, though he won't guess when. There was no mention of his participation in training camp, which begins next week.
"I have no earthly idea," said Dr. Michael Collins, the director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's concussion study unit, when asked when Crosby will play.
Crosby understands that a full recovery -- and Penguins general manager Ray Shero said Crosby will not play until there is one -- will take more time, take much more effort, take more out of him than any playoff series or any previous injury ever has.
"He's worth the wait," Shero said of Crosby. "He won't be rushed."
Crosby, clad casually in a polo shirt and jeans, talked of feeling "times of frustration" during the past eight months, when tasks so simple that he previously never thought of them became so difficult.
"It's definitely frustrating," said Crosby, talking of the ups and downs he likened to being on a roller coaster.
Collins and Dr. Ted Carrick, a professor of clinical neurology at Life University in Georgia who began working with Crosby last month, said Crosby first must be symptom-free before he can resume the normal life of a hockey player. Then, Crosby must be cleared for moderate and then full contact -- throwing his body around and absorbing shots -- in practice. After that comes the final step of being cleared to play.
Currently, Crosby is about 90-percent recovered from the injury, which affected his vestibular system, the part of the brain that allows an individual to stand upright, maintain balance and move through space. An irregularity can cause a person to believe he is drifting, rather than moving normally.
"Ninety percent is good, but at the same time, if there's symptoms, 90 percent isn't good enough," said Crosby, who skated at Consol Energy Center in advance of the news conference. "I'm putting myself in position to get hit and mess that (vestibular) system up again. Maybe I can get by with 90 percent, but I'm not going to roll the dice with that."
However, Crosby said he has improved significantly in recent weeks, and is reaching a point where a full recovery not only is probable, but imminent. He already is much better than he was in July when, after he began exerting himself at 90-percent of capacity while ramping up his conditioning work, his post-concussion symptoms returned.
Since that setback, Crosby is starting to feel normal again and his cognitive testing is showing measureable gains.
"Mentally, I feel the best I've felt," Crosby said. "It's been a tough road."
Carrick compared Crosby's recovery to Christmas, saying the payoff is about to come following a long, arduous wait. Crosby began showing measurable progress after he began working with Carrick last month.
“I could tell you that his data is the best we've seen," said Collins, who examined Crosby on Tuesday. "It's approaching normal limits. It's not there yet, but I was encouraged by what I saw. Right now I would classify Sid's case in that we're in reconditioning mode. He needs to be reconditioned 100 percent (before he plays).There's no timeline on this; we can't predict when it will occur. But he will be 100-percent normal when he plays."
Crosby hasn't been officially ruled out for the Penguins' Oct. 6 opener at Vancouver, though playing so soon doesn't seem likely. However, Collins said he is convinced that not only will Crosby play again, there will be no signs of any previous injury when he does.
"I'm optimistic Sid will have a long, fruitful career," Collins said. "The prognosis is excellent that he won't have long-term problems from this injury."
The word "lucky" was tossed around more than once as Crosby recovers from a severe concussion that resulted from hard hits in successive games Jan. 1 against Washington (David Steckel) and Jan. 5 against Tampa Bay (Victor Hedman). Collins, who treats 4,000 sports-related concussion victims per year, said it is evident the Steckel hit contributed to Crosby's condition.
Crosby said he only felt soreness in his neck after absorbing that blow, and the concussion symptoms occurred only after he was driven into the boards during the Lightning game. Such a condition is referred to clinically as Second Impact Syndrome, or the effects of a second injury-causing blow that closely follows the initial one.
When Collins realized the seriousness of Crosby's symptoms, he understood it would be a lengthy recovery -- even as the Penguins themselves were describing the injury as a "mild concussion."
Wednesday marked the first time Crosby has spoken publicly since April 29, after he halted practicing during Pittsburgh's first-round playoff loss to Tampa Bay.
Crosby had resumed practicing March 31, raising hopes among Penguins fans that his return might be imminent by skating at full speed and snapping off shots that broke water bottles atop the net. But recurring headaches caused him to stop practicing, and he did not resume working out until after the Penguins were eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
After taking some time off, Crosby was cleared to resume working out June 2 -- normal offseason work that did not include any contact. His strenuous workouts began July 15, and he was up to about 90 percent of his normal exertion rate when those workouts were altered late last month.
Crosby's injury halted what was shaping up to be his best season offensively; he had a commanding lead in the scoring race with 66 points in 41 games.
Crosby broke into the league at age 18 in 2005 as arguably the most awaited prospect since Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux and has lived up to every expectation. He has an Art Ross Trophy a Hart Trophy, and became the youngest captain of a Stanley Cup-winning team when he helped Pittsburgh win the title in 2009. Eight months later, his overtime goal in the Olympics won Canada the gold medal at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.
Partly because of what he has experienced, Crosby now favors the elimination of head shots. Only last week, it was revealed Bruins forward Marc Savard -- who sustained a serious concussion while absorbing an unpenalized blind-side hit from the Penguins' Matt Cooke in March 2010 -- won't play this season.
Penguins co-owner Mario Lemieux and Shero began lobbying for the elimination of head shots last season. Shero's son, a high school hockey player in Pittsburgh, sustained a concussion last season about the same time Crosby did.
"At the end of the day I don't think there's a reason not to take them out," Crosby said. "I read a stat that there were 50,000 hits a year. We're talking about 50 head shots. To take those out, the game's not going to change. As professionals, the odd time maybe there's accidental contact, but, for the most part, you can control what's going on out there."
For our team, as a group, we've never been this far before, and so it's just more lessons learned, and sometimes you have to go to the school of hard knocks to find out what works and what doesn't. We've got a young group. They've played some unreal hockey here to get us this far, and we showed if we're not going to play the proper way, a really, really good hockey team is going to beat you, and that's what they did. It's a lesson learned.
— Lightning coach Jon Cooper after Rangers win in Game 6 forced a Game 7 that will be played at Madison Square Garden on Friday