David Booth became an unfortunate co-author of Rule 48, after the hit he took from Mike Richards back in October of 2009. He made a courageous return in January of 2010, but 19 games later, a relatively harmless check by Jaroslav Spacek ended his season for good.
Booth’s head has cleared now, and the winger has found a new home with the Vancouver Canucks. But the question remains, did those hits – and the resulting concussions – alter Booth’s career?
When he first came back, the way Sidney Crosby will Monday night versus the New York Islanders, Booth had one thing on his mind: “I just wanted to play the same way. It was unfortunate the way I got hit, but it’s not every game that those things happen.
“You still play the game the way that got you into the league. You can’t say, ‘I’m not going to get physical.’ Or, ‘I’m not going to go to the front of the net.'”
While Booth looks to be retrieving his game now that he is in Vancouver – he had got seven points in 11 games with Vancouver prior to Sunday’s game, still with a pesky minus-6 on his score line – there are scouts who claim they have not witnessed the pre-concussion David Booth very many times since that tumultuous 2009-10 campaign.
Booth’s numbers back those opinions up: In the two seasons before ’09-10, Booth averaged 0.69 points per game and was plus-23. In the two seasons since, he has averaged 0.48 points per game, and is minus-43.
Will Crosby’s production take the same dip? Doubtful, is the consensus.
“It’s a pretty big mental battle,” said Edmonton Oilers defenceman Tom Gilbert, who was KO’ed by Jody Shelley four games into his NHL career and sat out the next month. “The more you think about it, the worse it probably is. You have to just play the way you always play. If (Crosby) does that, he’ll be fine.”
A saving grace for Crosby is that he was injured on a play that is generally accepted to have been accidental. He basically skated into a freakish collision between with David Steckel of which puck possession played no part. Booth, meanwhile, was nailed by Richards while cutting across the middle, and then by Spacek along the boards while entering the offensive zone
“I’m positive, guys who go through that, they remember the spot where they got hit,” Gilbert said. “They become more aware of entering those areas – it’s always in the back of your mind. You don’t want to play the game that way … but that’s the mental part of the game.”
“No,” argues Patrice Bergeron of the Boston Bruins, “that wasn’t an issue.”
Bergeron lost the final 72 games of his 2007-08 season when Philadelphia’s Randy Jones ran him into the boards from behind. Bergeron spent a few days in a wheel chair after that hit, returned the next season, and lost another month after he was concussed while throwing a check against Carolina.
For the Bruins centre, coming back from a concussion presented the same challenges as coming back from a shoulder injury.
“It was more a matter of timing, rhythm, finding my game,” Bergeron said recently from his stall inside the Bruins dressing room. “The issue of getting hit or being tentative on the ice? That wasn’t part of it.
“I felt fine. I wasn’t worried about getting hit, about any issues. I was confident I was ready.”
With the length of time Crosby has been practicing with the Penguins, each player we spoke with had faith that the ghosts of that Steckel hit in last season’s Winter Classic will have evaporated.
But the notion of taking contact in practice? Can it really be the same as contact in a game?
“It’s your teammates,” Bergeron said. “I would say no, it’s not going to be the same impact. But it makes you feel more comfortable, more confident that you are fine.
“It’s one thing to be practicing, to be working out, feeling 100 per cent health-wise. It’s another thing to go on the ice and feel 100 per cent in game shape. The timing, the rhythm of the game – getting all that back, it took me a while.”
So what will it be for Crosby? To a man, these players feel he will become one of, if not the best in the game not long after he finally makes his return.
“All I know is that he’s a guy who doesn’t get hit much,” Booth said. “He’s very elusive out there, he’s a guy who can get away, and he’s very good at using his lower body to ward off those big hits. He’ll be in physical areas… You’ll see him play just the way he’s always played.”
“Sid’s is an exception,” agreed Bergeron. “He’s a tremendous player, a tremendous person as well. Mentally, he’s so strong. I’m not worried about him. I just want him to be healthy, first and foremost, before seeing Sid on the ice.”
Mark Spector is the senior columnist on sportsnet.ca