Sidney Crosby has a timeline. After months without one, he got it last week, from what we know, on the Tuesday — that’s when he told us about it, anyway. Maybe he showed it to someone, his timeline, but if so they weren’t talking. I imagine a small pocketwatch kind of a device, maybe with its own fob in the front of his shoulderpads.
He’d been cleared for contact, if not exactly lift-off: that wouldn’t come until Sunday, when he’d be skating out in Boston for his first game since December. In the meantime CBC Sports reported that at practice his teammates were only too pleased “to bump and jostle him.” Dustin Jeffrey and Eric Tangradi, specifically: they got into some “bumps and pushes” with their captain. Was it too much, though? Should Crosby have, at the very least, left his timeline in the dressing room? As Sunday approached, Crosby wasn’t sure he’d be ready. He felt “pretty good.” But? “I need to get to another level as far as the extent of the physicality out there.”
There wasn’t anybody who was going to question that. So his timeline is faulty, losing whole days — what matters is that his head’s okay. Oh — and his neck, too. His neck that was injured, that we didn’t know about, and did the Penguins not know, too? Is that how it happened? There was a stretch there where we lost track, a little bit, of Crosby’s head, and didn’t like to be hounding him, anyway, give the kid a break, let him heal in peace, that’s the important thing.
For him, of course, his own self, but then also — well, for hockey. He is the best player in the game, after all, and to have him go down like that, it shook the game. It was already shaking, the game, in its crisis of concussions, with all the unsettling new evidence of what head trauma does to the long-term health of hockey players, while trying to do its best to champion player safety without taking a serious look at fighting. To lose the game’s best player during what was shaping up to one of the best-ever individual seasons ever — if it wasn’t a reprimand or an portent or … something ominous that wasn’t going to end well for anyone, why did it look so much like it was?
To his teammates, Crosby isn’t an emblem of hockey’s unresolved institutional issues. They don’t worry about what his return means or doesn’t mean to the game at large. They’re pleased for him, relieved. It will be good to have him back in the dressing room. They know better than us what he’s capable of, and I’ll guess that they won’t be surprised if he outdoes himself, again. They have to be anxious. They have to wonder, a little bit, whether there’s a level of bumping and jostling that will prove too much for —
Or maybe that’s something the players don’t think about. Maybe that’s something they leave to the rest of us. Should he rest up until next year? Don Cherry thinks so. It’s not as if the Penguins need him, goes another argument — they’re already the best team in the league. He better not (mutter certain online discussers) knock Malkin off his game, or ruin the chemistry the team has brewed up without him. And then there’s the CBC radio host who spoke up earlier in the week: “As a hockey fan, I’m excited, but as a mother … I don’t know.”
Crosby turned his timeline off and on to recalibrate it. As the new week started, it was pointing to Thursday’s game in New York against the Rangers. The Penguins announced it on Tuesday. So that’s it, then: tonight. Coach Dan Bylsma is going to start him out centering the third line. He may play the point on the first powerplay unit. Talking to reporters, Crosby sounded happy not to be talking about symptoms and how he was feeling and when he’d be back. It wasn’t just him on his own, off apart from the team, any more: he was back in the plural again. “We’re going to try to move our feet and control the puck down low and generate some good chances, hopefully, off the cycle,” he said.