Commentary

Crosby injury raises questions

Updated: January 29, 2012, 12:34 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

OTTAWA, Ontario -- Maybe the news that Sidney Crosby suffered some sort of neck injury will turn out to be a moot point.

Maybe Crosby, who has resumed skating and remains hopeful of returning to action this season, will come back, and the neck injury, since healed according to doctors, will not deter him from returning to elite status.

Maybe the fact that somehow this injury was missed by team doctors and the legion of doctors who Crosby saw during his months of rehabilitation won't sour the relationship between the team and its most important player.

Maybe.

But certainly the fact third-party doctors in Utah will be examining MRIs over the next couple of days to determine exactly what was going on with Crosby's neck raises a whole range of questions about how this all went down.

Having spent a lot of time around Crosby and the Penguins in recent years and understanding what he represents to the renaissance of this franchise, it's hard to imagine that what has been a mutually satisfying and wildly successful relationship could go on the rocks. It's also hard to fathom that Crosby, the game's brightest star, would miss almost an entire year because of a concussion, but that's exactly what has happened. Perhaps more troubling is that doctors who insisted last summer that when Crosby was 100 percent he would play as though he'd never sustained a concussion turned out to be completely wrong.

Already some have drawn a parallel between the Crosby situation and the acrimony that developed between the Philadelphia Flyers and star captain Eric Lindros over diagnosis and treatment of his concussion issues. Still, sources from both sides told ESPN.com that there is no acrimony between Crosby and the team. In fact, Crosby was expected to watch the skills competition at owner Mario Lemieux's house in Pittsburgh on Saturday.

Crosby was sensational upon his return, recording 12 points in eight games before developing concussion symptoms again after a game against Boston on Dec. 5. He hasn't played since and has crisscrossed the country talking to even more doctors. Pat Brisson, Crosby's agent, confirmed that New England Patriots' Tom Brady suggested through representatives that Crosby get checked out by the third-party doctor in Utah.

It was during a visit to Los Angeles and neurological spine specialist Dr. Robert S. Bray that the neck injury was apparently discovered.

"Early this week we'll probably find out more and hopefully it'll help us move in an even better closer direction to recovery," Brisson told reporters after the All-Star skills competition in Ottawa. "Dr. Bray's a world-renowned spine specialist, surgeon that I've known for years. Played hockey himself, understands the game, so I thought it was a good idea to bring Sidney there to have another set of eyes and another opinion."

A statement released Saturday on the Penguins' website said, "Dr. Bray reports that the neck injury is fully healed. Those findings will be evaluated by independent specialists over the next few days."

Beyond that, the news surrounding the injury to Crosby's vertebrae, a possible fracture of the C1 and C2 vertebrae, was sketchy. For instance, it wasn't crystal clear when the injury was sustained. The release seemed to imply it was January 2011, given that it said Bray believes Crosby "had suffered a neck injury in addition to a concussion."

What isn't clear is whether the neck injury and concussion were the result of being clipped by Washington's David Steckel late in the second period of the Winter Classic Jan. 1, 2011. Or was it a few days later when Crosby was taken hard into the end boards by defenseman Victor Hedman?

That game was the last Crosby would play until Nov. 21, 2011. If the neck injury was sustained in that Jan. 1 game, was Crosby at risk of an even more grave injury by playing again in the next game?

Multiple medical sites indicate the C1 and C2 vertebrae are the ones that form the joint that connects the skull and spine. The two vertebrae are responsible for turning the head from side to side and up and down, or the nodding motion.

Given that the injury has, according to Bray, healed, perhaps none of that can be known with certainty.

The neck injury could have been sustained on Dec. 5, when Crosby was hit by Boston's David Krejci or when he collided with teammate Chris Kunitz, although it would seem that if there was even the possibility of a fracture of some kind the healing process would require more than the time that's elapsed since that game.

Beyond the timing of the neck injury, there are unanswered questions about whether that injury and the failure to identify it impeded Crosby's return or conspired to multiply symptoms he was enduring during his long rehabilitation.

The news of the neck injury and the lack of detail regarding the nature of that injury provided a stark counterbalance to GM Ray Shero's comments after the NHL Board of Governors meetings Saturday morning. At that time, Shero talked about Crosby's return to the ice last week and his regular workouts, including Saturday in Pittsburgh.

"Hopefully we'll see next week as to where he is and we'll get the reports from California and compare notes to what's been done so far," Shero said following Saturday's meeting. "We want to continue to look to see how we can get this under control and manageable so he can return to play."

The Penguins' GM spoke with optimism about Crosby's ability to return to action this season.

"He's not going to [play] until those symptoms resolve. Hopefully [we'll] have him back at some point here soon," Shero said. "Let's just see what happens this week once we get some more information from his trip to California. I'm optimistic he's going to play."

In the coming days, perhaps more information about the neck injury and its implications will be forthcoming.

Perhaps Crosby will return to action and all of this will become a curious footnote in Crosby's long journey back to health and to stardom.

Perhaps there are things that can be learned from all of this that can be put to use by other teams in other cases.

Perhaps.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.