PITTSBURGH -- So now we know the answer to the question “when,” but as the hours tick down to the return of Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, we are left with a much more imposing question: “What now?”
The hockey world has waited and wondered and pondered that first question for more than 10 months, since Crosby last skated in an NHL game Jan. 5.
His absence, the result of being clipped by Washington’s David Steckel late in the second period of the Winter Classic last Jan. 1 and then by being rammed by Tampa’s Victor Hedman a few days later, has focused even greater attention on the NHL’s ongoing issues with how to deal with concussions and blows to the head.
Crosby has been vocal, if not strident, in his calls for a complete ban on head shots, something the league is not yet ready to embrace.
But as Crosby’s absence turned from weeks to months, and he missed his first playoff games as a Penguin and then failed to return for the start of the regular season, the questions about when Crosby was going to return morphed, at least in some quarters, into “will he ever return?”
Crosby insisted before the start of training camp that he never thought about retiring or that he’d never play again, but the waiting game created a cottage industry in rumor and innuendo that simply drove the tension meter up as this season began.
There were some that suggested the story was being over-reported.
As if the story of the health of the game’s best player and arguably the game’s biggest single asset could ever be over-told.
All of that is moot, now, of course.
Instead the hockey world will watch Monday evening to see what all of this time away from the game has meant to a player who was en route to what would have been a career season when he was felled by the concussion, registering 66 points in 41 games, running away with the NHL scoring race.
“I’m excited for Sid. It’s been a long journey for him,” GM Ray Shero told ESPN.com on Sunday night.
“He’s ready to go.”
Monday will begin a journey of a different sort for Crosby.
At an early September news conference at Consol Energy Center, doctors insisted they would not clear Crosby to play unless he was 100 percent healthy, but likewise insisted that when he was ready to play, there would be no reason he could not become the player he was -- or better.
But the seriousness and uncertainty that surrounds players’ ability to rebound from concussions makes that prognosis at best an educated guess -- at worst wishful thinking.
Shero’s teenage son suffered from similar symptoms after being concussed and missed six months of activity. As a parent, Shero worried not just about another blow to the head and a recurrence of the injury when his son returned to action, but for his confidence getting back into a place where he was enjoying the game.
It’s hard to imagine, having watched an energized Crosby step onto the ice during the first day of training camp and then take on full contact in recent practices, that he will suffer from a lack of confidence. Nerves?
Of course, Shero said. But loads of excitement and not just from the captain but from his teammates.
Head coach Dan Bylsma said in a Sunday conference call that one of the challenges for the rest of the Pens will be to not become bystanders given the emotion that will invariably course through sold-out Consol Energy Center.
Crosby’s return comes after the Penguins were swept in a mini, two-game trip to Florida. But they have forged an identity as a resourceful, resilient team in the absence of Crosby and other top-end talent like Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Brooks Orpik and Zbynek Michalek through the last half of last season and the first quarter of this season.
As of Sunday night, the Pens’ 25 points were tied with Atlantic Division foe Philadelphia for the most in the Eastern Conference.
With Crosby’s return, it will represent just the third time in the past 110 games that all three of the Penguins’ top three centers -- Crosby, Malkin and Staal -- will be in the lineup at the same time.
“It’ll be good to get those three guys back together again,” Shero said.
With all three healthy, the Penguins look like a team that could take a trip to another Stanley Cup, as they did in 2008 and 2009, falling in the final to Detroit in ’08 and then beating Detroit in ’09 in a classic seven-game series.
But late May and early June is a long way away, especially with Crosby yet to take his first shift.
We were on hand back in December 2000, when current owner Mario Lemieux returned from retirement brought on by back injuries and Hodgkin’s disease. Magic? Oh you bet. Lemieux racked up 76 points in 43 games.
He lit up Toronto virtually from the moment he stepped on the ice in one of the most lasting emotional athletic moments we have witnessed.
We also happened to be in Denver almost a year ago when Marc Savard, the victim of a vicious blindside hit from Crosby’s teammate Matt Cooke, was trying to regain his standing as one of the most skilled players in the league. Ridden hard into the boards by Matt Hunwick, Savard has not played since, and it’s widely believed his career is over.
And so though the anticipation will be at a fever pitch, there is more than a little apprehension at how Crosby will react to NHL-game punishment being doled out for the first time in 10 months.
“I think it’s natural to wonder how the physical end of the game will go,” Shero said. “Once the game starts he’ll be fine I think.
“I’m not sure how it’s going to go. But he has to start somewhere.”
He has to start somewhere. And somewhere is Pittsburgh on Monday night.