— The face of hockey could be placed on a milk carton.
Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby is nowhere to be seen, and no one knows for sure when he’ll be seen again.
Such is the heinous world of post-concussion syndrome.
That’s bad news for Sid The Kid, and one horrible development for the National Hockey League, because there’s worse news here.
What we know about hockey players who suffer concussions is limited, but based on past experience, those who incur one generally suffer more, each coming easier than the last and bringing with it more powerful symptoms that take longer to clear.
When he returns, and as he continues in hockey, it’s entirely feasible that Crosby might devolve into a player who is the shadow of his once-great self.
It’s no secret that the league has tied both its short and long-term marketing plan squarely to the shoulders of Pittsburgh’s sensational No. 87. And like Crosby or not, you have to agree that it’s been working.
He’s delivered the goods, bringing a Stanley Cup to Pittsburgh, winning Art Ross, Rocket Richard, Lester Pearson and Hart Trophies, while bringing more and more fans to the rink.
Television audiences and internet presence of the NHL continue to grow. Would HBO have been the least bit interested in Winter Classic 24/7 minus Crosby’s presence?
Not a chance.
Suddenly though, with one shot to the head delivered by Washington Capitals forward David Steckel in that Winter Classic game, Crosby, and the NHL, are both skating on thin ice.
Actually, Crosby isn’t skating at all.
A week out of the lineup has grown to a month, and shows no sign of any light at the end of the dark, foggy tunnel in which Crosby currently finds himself imprisoned.
Crosby hasn’t played since Jan. 5. As of Wednesday, he’s missed 15 games and the rumors are rampant that he won’t play again this season, that he hasn’t been able even to participate in light workouts without suffering some sort of concussion symptoms.
The Penguins flatly denied these allegations and insist that shutting down Crosby, as the Boston Bruins did earlier this week with multiple-concussion sufferer Marc Savard, has not even been discussed.
“We just have to be patient,” said Penguins general manager Ray Shero, and the evidence suggests that Crosby might remain a patient for quite some time.
He went home to Nova Scotia to stay with his parents last week. That doesn’t bode well for the presence of Sid The Kid between the boards this season.
How big of a deal is Crosby’s concussion? In Canada, where just a year ago he scored the gold medal-winning goal in overtime against the United States in the Vancouver Winter Olympics, politicians are calling for a Royal Commission to look into concussions.
Generally, they only call Royal Commissions relating to hockey when Canada comes home from the Olympics without a medal.
Keith Primeau, another NHLer whose career was scuttled by frequent concussions, has reached out to Pat Brisson, Crosby’s agent, advising that if Sid needs someone to talk to, he’ll be there for him.
When will Crosby be there for the Penguins again?
That’s anybody’s guess.
Primeau committed the fatal error of coming back too soon from a serious concussion he suffered while playing for the Philadelphia Flyers during the 2000 playoffs.
Leveled by a check from Pittsburgh defenseman Bob Boughner in the final game of their second-round series, Primeau nonetheless suited up for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final against New Jersey, ignoring the pleading of his wife.
“I'm a father and a husband, but I'm also a hockey player,” said Primeau at the time, turning a blind eye to the growing evidence of lingering damage from concussions and a deaf ear to his wife's concerns.
Today, he suffers the lasting effects of that decision. Dealing with headaches, irritability and huge emotional swings are a regular part of Primeau's daily routine.
All the evidence suggests that this is probably what the future holds for Crosby. Although brain trauma remains as mysterious as the overwhelming success of Justin Bieber, medical experts do know a few things about concussions.
Once you have one, you’ll have more. And each recurring concussion will come easier than the first, with frighteningly powerful symptoms.
Imagine living life in a permanent haze, waking up each morning to searing headaches, blinding light and a general, overall fuzziness.
“It's almost like a light fog,” said former Toronto and Colorado defenseman D.J. Smith, whose pro career was scuttled by concussions in 2004. “You're in a bad fog, you just can't think straight.
“To go with that, you can add jaw pain, head pain, really bad sensitivity to light.”
This is what Crosby can expect his future to consist of as he continues in the game and suffers more head injuries.
For Smith, there was a lengthy battle to get back to where he could even feel somewhat normal.
“I went for over an 18-month span where I couldn't work out, really couldn't do much of anything,” Smith said. “The only time you feel good is while you're sleeping. Throughout the day, it seems like the pain gets worse and worse. It gets better as you sleep, but then when you get up, as you do more activities, it gets worse and worse.
“You get up every day hoping that it's going to clear.”
When his symptoms grew unbearable, Smith took drastic measures in an attempt to relieve his agony.
“I remember going into the closet just to be in complete darkness and be away from the pain,” he said.
The long road back is a never-ending one, for there is no finish line for sufferers of post-concussion syndrome, only the hope that someday, they'll get to a comfort zone and be able to function again.
“It's a brain injury and, like any other brain injury, brain functions don't regrow,” Smith said. “There's no permanently coming back from this, but I guess I got back as close as I can to normal.
“I've never been completely clear. I still have sensitivity to light. I still have some fogginess on some things. If I really push myself physically, then it starts to feel like it used to be.”
Another thing we know for sure about concussions — those who suffer from them on a persistent basis are never again the same player. Let’s go down the list: Primeau, Eric Lindros, Pat LaFontaine, Scott Stevens, Simon Gagne, Patrice Bergeron, Savard — all multiple concussion sufferers, all of whom became shadows of the player they used to be.
Generously listed at 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds, Crosby plays with a physical style and is willing to mix it up with much larger players. That will put him in more precarious situations than a player who seeks to avoid hockey's high traffic areas. That he always seems to have the puck also puts him in more danger of physical contact. And you also have to wonder how long-term damage from brain trauma might impact his incredible vision on the ice and his Albert Einstein-like hockey IQ.
Crosby wouldn’t be the first NHL superstar to see his career disrupted by serious injury. As great as Bobby Orr was, were it not for the knee injuries that literally tore apart his incredible speed and shiftiness on skates, ending his career at 30, who knows how much more he would have rewritten the record book?
Lindros was the Crosby of the 1990s. The NHL wanted to hitch its wagon to the man deemed The Next One, but when concussions turned the hulking power forward into a periphery player, he faded from the headlines.
Now the hockey world waits with justified concern as to the future of Sid The Kid.
Only 23, it’s quite possible that we may have to accept the reality that when Crosby eventually comes back, we may have already seen the best of him as a player.
That’s sad news for Sid, and a horrifying reality for the NHL to consider.