Crosby's full involvement in practice brings optimism
PITTSBURGH -- Sidney Crosby is a full go -- at least for practice.
Crosby took a long-awaited step Thursday in his concussion recovery, participating in the Pittsburgh Penguins' morning skate without limitations, and without the white no-contact helmet he has worn since the start of training camp.
"Yeah, it's full contact, so it's a good step in the right direction," Crosby said following his first full-scale practice since January. "It's a big step … it's a big one and we'll see how things go."
He offered up one more word to explain how he feels: "Excited."
"Usually you're a little hesitant, that's normal. ... I might have to do something to get them to hit me, maybe. Maybe have to bump them a little bit and get them going. (Get it as) close to a game situation as we can get it." --Sidney Crosby on his teammates reluctance to hit a player returning from injury
The next step: Getting cleared for games, though neither Crosby nor coach Dan Bylsma would guess when that might be. All they know is that Crosby's return is a lot closer than it was only a few days ago.
"I'm not going to give you a timetable and I'm not going to make one right now," Bylsma said. "Going through training camp, (after) where he came from, was significant and helped with that process. He's been with a line, he's been in full drills, even in some drills that had contact although he had the non-contact helmet. It's significantly different than coming back halfway through season. That helps with the situation."
What doesn't help is the Penguins are playing 13 games in October, a crowded schedule that doesn't allow for much practice time. This week, for example, they're playing three games in five nights at home following only a one-day break after starting the NHL season with three games in four nights in Western Canada. Next week, they play on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
As a result, Bylsma might have to create morning skate situations where Crosby can get bumped around, jostled and treated like any other player.
Even if Crosby hasn't been any other player since the day he broke into the NHL at age 18 in 2005, winning the Stanley Cup, an Olympic gold medal, a Hart Trophy and the Art Ross Trophy by age 22. In 2009, he became the youngest captain of a Stanley Cup winner when the Penguins defeated the Detroit Red Wings 2-1 in Game 7 at Joe Louis Arena.
Last season, he was enjoying a career-best season with 32 goals and 66 points in 41 games before hard hits in successive games by the Capitals' David Steckel (Jan. 1 in the Winter Classic) and the Lightning's Victor Hedman (Jan. 5) left him with a concussion. He has been recuperating ever since, withstanding stretches in which he fought through symptoms that included headaches, dizziness and sensitivity to light and loud noise.
Crosby was visibly upbeat during training camp, when he was symptom-free despite going at a 100-percent exertion rate for the first time since he was injured. Before that, he was forced to reduce some of his summertime workload when the post-concussion symptoms reoccurred.
"Yeah, I've been good since around (the start of) camp," he said. "Everything's gone pretty smooth."
Staying patient hasn't been a problem, Crosby said, because he has understood all along this wouldn't be a brief recovery. The concussion affected his vestibular system, the part of the brain that affects a person's balance, stability and ability to move freely.
"When you've waited this long, you want to make sure you do everything right," he said. "It's exciting, if anything. I don't think it's hard to be patient at this point. I'm getting closer and I want to make sure I respond well in the next however long it is."
Crosby joked he might have to instigate contact himself, given that teammates often are reluctant to hit a player who is returning from an injury.
"Usually you're a little hesitant, that's normal. … I might have to do something to get them to hit me, maybe," Crosby said. "Maybe have to bump them a little bit and get them going. (Get it as) close to a game situation as we can get it."
Because Thursday's morning skate was contact-free, there weren't any noticeable changes in Crosby's routine, other than him wearing a black helmet like the rest of his teammates. He received the clearance after meeting with concussion specialist Michael "Mickey" Collins, a neuropsychologist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center who has been in charge of Crosby's recovery since he was hurt. Penguins team physician Charles Burke also was required to sign off on the move.
"I feel like I have more freedom to go out there and do things, for sure," Crosby said. "But today (there) really wasn't hitting, so nothing really changed."
Still, given the 24-year-old Crosby's competitiveness, Bylsma doesn't think that will take long for him to start taking hits. Bylsma mentioned that Crosby and defenseman Ben Lovejoy always go all out when opposing each other during penalty kill drills in practice, for example.
"He instigates contact and he'll do something that will warrant that from a player," Bylsma said. "There will be some jostling and hitting going on. Every training camp, he's always ended up in some jostling with players and that will happen because of the way Sid competes."
Now, Crosby understands that even the slightest contact during practices and morning skates will be watched even more closely than before. And that he will be asked every single day if his return is imminent.
However, Collins said last month there are multiple stages Crosby must go through in full-contact practices before he gets the go-ahead to play in games. What no one is currently saying is whether that means weeks more of carefully charted practicing before Crosby can play again.
Crosby doesn't know what those steps are -- to him, all he must prove is that he can handle any kind of contact that's thrown at him, or he instigates, now that he's no longer the can't-be-touched skater in the white helmet.
Obviously, he enjoys being back in Penguins' black.
"Just get hit, see how I respond," Crosby told NHL.com when asked what he must do to prove he's ready to play again. "I'm sure there are always final tests and stuff before they clear you to play, give you that clearance, but as far as hockey-wise, it's (just get hit)."