By Tom Thompson
Like all hockey fans, I was thrilled by Sidney Crosby's comeback to the NHL. I have witnessed some of the frustrations encountered by world-class athletes as they try to recover from the effects of concussions. They must hurdle many obstacles before they can spy light at the end of the tunnel. In typical Crosby fashion he "shot the lights out" in his return game, registering two goals and two assists, and deserves all the credit he has received.
All of it, that is, until one specific comparison was made. Some commentators compared this comeback to the one made by Mario Lemieux two nights after Christmas in 2000. By any objective standard, there is no comparison. Lemieux's comeback was the most remarkable feat of its kind in my lifetime. All others must play second fiddle.
Crosby is 24 years old. His last game before his injury took place slightly less than 11 months prior to Monday night's game. Although Crosby has had some groin problems in the past, he has suffered no major injuries requiring surgery. The concussion was the first major roadblock in his NHL career.
Lemieux was 35 years old at the time of his comeback. People have a hard time believing me when I point out that more than 44 months elapsed between the time of his "retirement" in April, 1997 and his comeback in December of 2000. Prior to that time, he had played 12 seasons in the NHL. He missed major portions of three seasons with a back injury that required surgery. Unfortunately, infection developed following the surgery that delayed his recovery. He also missed a considerable part of another season undergoing treatment for Hodgkin's disease. His body was ravaged to the point where he sat out the entire 1994-95 season. His first comeback actually took place in the fall of 1995 when he played two more seasons, winning the scoring championship and being named to the first all-star team both years and winning another Hart Trophy as MVP of the league. When he retired in the spring of 1997, it truly looked like the end of the road for Mario. The big guy had squeezed every ounce of performance from his body.
Crosby's comeback was eagerly anticipated by the hockey world. Fans had agonized with him at each stage of his recovery. Debates ensued about the forms of treatment and there were always rumors about the projected date of the comeback as well as any setbacks on the road.
Lemieux's comeback stunned the hockey world. Until the last few days prior to his comeback game, there were not even rumors of what was to take place. He had periodically worked out with the team of which he was now part owner, but few people foresaw the seriousness of his intentions.
Crosby is undoubtedly focused on returning to his position atop the hockey world. Debates concerning his abilities compared to those of such players as Alex Ovechkin can rage long into the night, but at the top of his game, Crosby does not have to take a back seat to any other hockey player. A comeback to any level of status below the top of the hockey mountain will not be judged as successful.
At the time of Lemieux’s comeback, the hockey world realized standing atop the hockey mountain was not a realizable goal for him. Playing at a respectable level where he would not tarnish his previous reputation was ambitious enough. Hockey fans remained nervous throughout his second comeback that the next collision or twist could end his career for good. Over the next five seasons, Mario played just 170 games as he encountered two serious hip injuries before retiring for good in January of 2006 at the age of 40. During this time, he scored a remarkable 229 points and captained Team Canada to a gold medal at the 2002 Olympics where he scored six points in five games.
Go get them, Sidney! The hockey world definitely needs all of its marquee performers going at full throttle. All fans of the game admire your dogged determination in pursuing your comeback. But be fair to Sidney. Let his exploits on the ice rank him with the greatest of all-time. Lemieux performed the greatest comeback of all time. This is not challenged.
Tom Thompson worked as head scout for the Minnesota Wild from 1999-2001 and was promoted to assistant GM in 2002, a post he held until 2010. He has also worked as a scout for the Calgary Flames, where he earned a Stanley Cup ring in 1989. He currently works as a scout for the New York Rangers. He will be writing his Insider Column regularly for THN.com throughout this season.