Even in a relatively violent sport like hockey, the area in front of the goal is like a lawless world. Hits and slashes and other rough play that might draw a penalty call elsewhere on the ice are routinely let go by referees looking to keep the game flowing.
To most viewers, a double-hit against Sydney Crosby in a recent playoff game looked like a vicious assault. The slash and subsequent cross-check to the head forced him to leave game three of the second round NHL playoff series between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
But, to the surprise of many, few ‘insiders’, if any, blamed Matt Niskanen, who delivered the cross-check. Analysts pointed out that it was the slash from Crosby’s counterpart on the Capitals, Alex Ovechkin, that threw Crosby off balance and put his head into harm’s way of an otherwise acceptable cross-check.
While Niskanen received a penalty and was ejected from the game, it was understood that it was really only due to the fact that Crosby suffered an injury and, if he hadn’t, the play may have only drawn the minor penalty or have no consequence at all.
But, regardless of how it happened, it was the post-game diagnosis of Crosby’s injury that caused the most alarm.
“Sid’s been diagnosed with a concussion, and he will be out for tomorrow’s game, and we will evaluate him day-to-day from there,” reported Penguins assistant coach, Mike Sullivan following a practice the day after the incident.
It was troubling news. It was at least the fourth concussion of Crosby’s NHL career. If there is one thing that everyone understands about concussions, the more of them you suffer, the more difficult it is to recover each time.
After his first concussion, Crosby missed 68 games, split between parts of two seasons. But his return from that injury lasted only 8 games before Crosby suffered his second concussion in an accidental collision with a teammate. 40 more games were missed recuperating from the second concussion.
Crosby went t concussion-free until training camp in 2016 when he became ‘tangled up’ during a practice. He missed the remainder of the preseason and six regular season games.
So there was more than a little surprise when, after missing only one playoff game, Crosby was back in the Penguins lineup for game five of the playoff series, only four days after suffering his fourth concussion and second concussion in seven months.
With a greater awareness of the short- and long-term effects of concussions, the NHL, like most major-league sports, has instituted a concussion protocol that must be met before any player can be cleared to play. Crosby’s quick return to action made fans and media alike wonder how he could have been cleared so quickly to return from the concussion.
And the reasons for Crosby’s early return highlight some of the misunderstanding that still exists about concussions. Indeed, the incident shows two major issues that still require further study, based on current findings and understanding about the effect of concessions.
1. There is No Standard Period of Recovery from Concussion
Chris Nowinski, executive director of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, told USA Today that “the guideline is to treat every concussion on its own merits. Each one is different. It’s not impossible to pass the protocol within five days.”
2. Recovery Does Not Necessarily Mean ‘Back to Normal’
The same USA Today article points out that research exists to show, even after all the clinical criteria for recovery are met, it doesn’t necessarily mean the brain has fully healed.
Other studies confirm the existence of increased cerebral vulnerability (ICV) in the days immediately following a concussion. That means that the sufferer is susceptible to serious health consequences if another concussion is suffered while ICV exists.
We can only hope that Sidney Crosby has recovered fully form this latest concussion, not only for the sake of his own health and wellbeing, but for his millions of fans and the contribution he makes to our national sport.