PITTSBURGH, Pa. - It took Sidney Crosby only a few seconds before he began skating with his accustomed bursts of speed and power, and he never took his foot off the accelerator during an extended practice that encouraged him and his team.
Crosby, eight months into his recovery from a concussion, was barred from contact Saturday as the Pittsburgh Penguins officially opened training camp. It remains uncertain when hockey's biggest star can accept and deliver hits, a necessary step before he can play again.
But if there were any thoughts that No. 87 lost some of his speed, intensity or competitiveness during his layoff, they vanished as he pushed himself physically at a higher level than he has since he last played an NHL game on Jan. 5.
"I worked as hard as I possibly could out there," a visibly fatigued Crosby said a few moments after ending an hour-plus practice. "That’s the longest I went at that pace. It felt good."
Now, after exerting himself fully for the first time since he last wore a game uniform, Crosby plans to do so again Sunday, and every other day during a training camp he intends to treat like any other — concussion or not.
"Yeah, that’s pretty much the plan," Crosby said. "It's a day-to-day thing, and I'll talk to coach (Dan Bylsma) and see what he thinks. This is camp and guys need to work on being physical, so it doesn't make sense for me to be in certain drills, but we'll communicate through that process."
Crosby has made considerable progress in his recovery since he began experiencing concussion-related headaches last month, while ramping up to a 90 per cent exertion level during workouts in his native Nova Scotia.
The thousands of fans who took advantage of free admission for Saturday’s practice sensed that Crosby was feeling much better.
They gave him a loud and extended standing ovation when he hit the ice a few minutes past noon, three hours after the first of three practice groups began working out. Not long after, Crosby put a hard wrist shot into the back of the net during the first of a series of full-speed drills.
Pittsburghers have waited two-thirds of a calendar year to see Crosby in uniform — though he did participate in a few practices late last season — and even a not-cleared-for-contact Crosby was good enough for them on this encouraging day.
"That was really nice," Crosby said of the ovation. "I want to get back and do everything I can in my power that's as soon as possible. That being said, there are steps to take and I’ve got to make sure I do that."
The Penguins are intent on not pushing Crosby, to prevent any setbacks that would further delay his return, and they are giving no sign when he might be fully cleared for practice.
Ted Carrick, a neurologist who has been part of Crosby's medical team, disappointed the Penguins by telling a Pittsburgh radio station Friday that Crosby is as ready for contact as any other NHL player who showed up for camp this weekend.
The Penguins intend on taking a much more deliberate approach, and they won't allow Crosby to take part in any contact drills until they are convinced that he is symptom-free and will remain so.
"As far as the final say, that will be our team doctor (Charles Burke)," Crosby said. "At the end of the day, he's got to be the one who clears me to play. It will be up to him. There is constant communication. Everyone will be well aware of everything before each step is made."
Burke was the same doctor who oversaw Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux’s recovery from a back injury and infection that shelved the longtime Penguins star at the end of the 1989-90 season and the first half of the 1990-91 season. Lemieux recovered in time to lead the Penguins to the Stanley Cup only four months after he resumed playing.
No doubt the Penguins are hoping for a similarly successful recovery by the 24-year-old Crosby, whose only other extended injury layoff occurred when he sat out seven weeks of the 2007-08 season with a high ankle sprain.
The smiles that Crosby flashed a few times illustrated how much he is enjoying the humdrum routine of a training camp that precedes a six-month regular season. Crosby also had no complications after taking part in an informal practice on Friday.
"I was really happy to be back out there," Crosby said. "Obviously it was fun to go out there and work hard. It's never fun when you're tired, but at the same time, you miss that and the fatigue and having to battle through that."