Not that Sidney Crosby would never miss another game due to injury in his career. He plays too much of a heavy traffic, go-ahead-and-hit-me game for that to ever be the case.
Avoid contact to preserve his health? Not in Crosby’s DNA.
Indeed, it seemed last year that Crosby had become even more willing to accept punishment to help the Pittsburgh Penguins win a championship, which they did. Images still resonate of San Jose’s Joe Thornton losing his temper and knocking off Crosby’s helmet in the Stanley Cup final, only to see Crosby not respond and simply skate away.
What we had reason to hope for, however, was that the cloud of concussion was no longer hanging over the head of the world’s best hockey player, that the problems that began at the 2011 Winter Classic and limited him to just 69 games over the following two years were behind him, never to reappear.
At least until Monday.
Then came the news, pretty much out of the blue, that the 29-year-old superstar again has a concussion issue that, it appears, will keep him out of action for the immediate future. He hasn’t played a game since competing for Canada in the championship final at the World Cup on Sept. 29, missed practice last Friday and now, unless something drastically changes, is unlikely to open the season in the lineup of the defending Stanley Cup champions.
Crosby was such a central force in lifting the Pens out of 12th place in January all the way to a title that this is obviously a major body blow to Pittsburgh and head coach Mike Sullivan. As talented as the Penguins looked in the playoffs, this is not a team so deep that it won’t be significantly weakened by Crosby’s absence.
Beyond that, the timing just stinks for the NHL.
The World Cup, after all, was just a moderate success. The dreadful performance by Team U.S.A. robbed the tournament of its marquee matchup, Canada versus the Americans, and overall the hockey was solid but hardly spectacular. The competition wasn’t exactly the lead-in to the season the Bettman administration would have liked.
There are lots of other storylines — P.K. Subban in Nashville, Carey Price’s return, Taylor Hall in Newark — but nothing earthshaking. Indeed, the Subban for Shea Weber off-season deal was enormous, but now the flamboyant Subban will be tucked away in Nashville, rarely to be seen on national broadcasts in either country. Ditto for Hall.
Having all seven Canadian teams miss post-season play last spring delivered a punishing blow to NHL interest in the Great White North as illustrated by television ratings, and right now you’d be hard-pressed to guarantee a playoff berth for any of the seven this season. Certainly none go into the season appearing to be challengers for the Cup.
Six of the seven acquired a top young player in the entry draft last June, which bodes well for the future. Toronto got Auston Matthews, Winnipeg got Patrik Laine, Edmonton took Jesse Puljujarvi, Calgary landed Matthew Tkachuk and Montreal selected Russian blue-liner Mikhail Sergachev, who will start the season with the Habs.
But it will take time for these players to establish themselves and become fan favourites, and all the Canadian teams, to different degrees, are still paying the price for questionable management over the past decade. As an example, look at the Oilers, forced to dump former No. 1 pick Nail Yakupov to the Blues for 20 cents on the dollar last week just to be rid of him.
A healthy Crosby can’t be expected to compensate for all of this, of course. Indeed, last year he started the season in terrible fashion, making “What’s Wrong With Sidney?” a popular game to play at home with friends and loved ones, and the NHL didn’t all come tumbling down.
But the way the season finished re-established him, without a doubt, as the best player on the planet, as did the World Cup. He is in his absolute prime, able to drive attention to the league, not by force of personality but by sheer drive and ability.
Connor McDavid may soon assume that role, but not quite yet, and having Matthews in the media-rich hockey capital of Toronto may quickly boost his profile in the sport.
For now, however, Crosby largely stands alone. With football and other sports dominating many U.S. markets for the foreseeable future, and with the Blue Jays poised to dominate Canadian sports television for at least another week, it’s going to be difficult for the NHL to get its season off to a running start, particularly with another season of withered offence likely to be in the offing.
So let’s hope, for hockey’s sake, The Kid isn’t back to where he was five years ago, and that this will be a brief interruption in his playing schedule. The regional nature of the NHL, particularly in the U.S., means many teams focus more on the local squads than larger league stories.
But Crosby is the exception to that rule. He’s the one player who is always a story in every NHL city.
For now, the story isn’t good.
Damien Cox is the co-host of Prime Time Sports on Sportsnet 590 The Fan. He spent nearly 30 years covering a variety of sports for The Star. His column appears Tuesday and Saturday. Follow him @DamoSpin.