Tonight, finally, he returns, and perhaps the black cloud lifts.
A whole lot has happened in the National Hockey League since the first week of January, but it has been impossible to measure it other than by Sidney Crosby’s absence. Good nights, bad nights, even the Boston Bruins’ stirring Stanley Cup run, and the Vancouver Canucks’ crushing failure, were played against the subtext of who wasn’t there.
When last seen in game action, Crosby was en route to one of those lap-the-field kind of years that have been in modern times the exclusive property of guys named Gretzky and Lemieux and (at least when measured against fellow defencemen) Orr.
Given how scoring in the NHL waxes and wanes with changing styles of play, the best statistical gauge of a season is how much distance there is between the top guy and his contemporaries. Judged by that standard, Crosby was in the process of settling the whole 1 versus 1A debate when it came to him and Alexander Ovechkin — that was before Ovechkin’s joie de hockey mysteriously disappeared — while firmly establishing himself as the best player of his generation. (It will always be worth noting that playing precisely half a season, Crosby still wound up as the scoring leader of a not-bad Pittsburgh team by 16 points.)
He had won a Stanley Cup. He had won a gold medal. He was far closer to the beginning than the end.
Then, poof, he was gone, felled by consecutive head shots four days apart, and ever since, with only the occasional and necessarily vague on-the-record comment to back off the speculation, the question has been when — or, in the bleakest moments, whether — Crosby would be back.
Meanwhile, the National Hockey League had its feet held to the fire over the issue off head shots and concussions more than any other game, because no other game had the personification of its future trapped in brain injury purgatory.
Think there’s a little bit on the line tonight?
You can throw out the modern era comparisons when it comes to comebacks. Wayne Gretzky returned from a back injury that at one point threatened his career, but that wasn’t at his Oiler peak. Mario Lemieux came back from injury, from cancer, from retirement, and everyone remembers that first game against the Maple Leafs when he registered an assist 30 seconds in, wound up with three points, and rolled on to put up 76 points in 43 games and wind up as a finalist for the Hart Trophy — but really, that was the end of his greatness.
You can fix and rehab a back injury, a knee injury. Even with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, you can be declared in remission, at some point declared cured.
As hockey fans know from their short course in brain trauma over the past 10-plus months, this process is not so linear. And this is a player at the same stage as Gretzky after the second Stanley Cup, Lemieux after his first, and the names that no one wants to invoke are Eric Lindros and Paul Kariya and other bright lights who had their brains rattled and were never quite the same.
It would be a devastating loss for hockey, for sport, for Pittsburgh, for Canada, for the business of the NHL, if Crosby is in any way diminished. There is always a best player in the game, but there is not always a player-for-the-ages in the game. The NHL’s leading scorer this morning is Phil Kessel, and no slight at all to him, or to his fabulous start this season, but he’s not and never will be a Crosby.
So we watch and we hold our breath a bit and we think of all of those reports of how good he looked in practice and we imagine he won’t miss a beat. And we know that, even within the rules, a hockey rink is a dangerous place, that whatever slack Crosby might be granted will disappear the minute competitive juices start flowing, that there will be no protective bubble, that neutralizing — or disabling — the other team’s best player has always been one path to victory.
For a night, for a little while, everyone who loves hockey ought to be a Penguins fan. Sometimes it’s about the greater good, and about what we all could miss.