August 30, 2011

Fischler Report: Two sides to Crosby story

by Stan Fischler

Sidney Crosby (photo: Getty)

While speculation about Sidney Crosby’s health dominated the spring and summer, the Penguins and their star have periodically offered updates. The latest point-counterpoint follows:

Part I: Crosby, Pens say it’s just a matter of time

The latest steps in Crosby’s recovery from a concussion have been visits to leading specialists around the country to monitor his progress. Their conclusion is that he will make a full recovery – it just takes time.

Crosby is expected to be back in Pittsburgh in the next few weeks, where he will continue to work toward a return to the ice, although no specific timetable has been set.

“I appreciate all the support I’ve received from my family, friends, teammates and fans, and from the entire Penguins organization,” Crosby said. “I know they only want the best for my health, and for me to be fully ready when I return to game action.”

“We always knew this was going to be a progressive recovery – based on how we felt,” said Pat Brisson, Crosby’s agent. “With a concussion, there is not a finite recovery period like with a shoulder or knee injury. That’s why we’ve never even set a specific goal for a return date like the start of training camp or Oct. 1 or anything else. He will play when he is symptom-free.”

Part II: Zach “The Zipper” Weinstock on the effects of the sabbatical

Crosby’s agent, coach and general manager want the rest of us to calm down.

In statements last week, Brisson, coach Dan Bylsma and GM Ray Shero downplayed the fact that 7½ months since his season-ending concussion, Crosby still experiences symptoms. They tried to defer the story until training camp, as if another month will carry Crosby through some magic timetable for concussions.

There is no magic timetable for concussions, but forgive the Penguins for what may seem like relative lack of alarm. Frankly, Crosby’s team has less staked in his timely return than does his league.

Without him, the Penguins still have a strong roster, a new arena, a large fan base, recent back-to-back conference championships and the opportunity to dominate again, should he ever return to form.

The NHL, on the other hand, has a bunch of good players but no immortals. The timing could not be worse.

The NBA lockout and the debut of the NBC Sports Network promise to give the NHL unprecedented access to the casual American sports fan this season. Nationally- televised hockey games will be greater in quantity and promotional artillery, with no competition from pro hoops.

During the most recent NBA lockout in 1998-99, ESPN’s and FOX’s national hockey ratings failed to improve. That season’s lone highlight was Wayne Gretzky’s final game -- FOX’s highest hockey rating in three years -- which did 57 percent above the season average.

Twenty months later, Mario Lemieux’s comeback gave ESPN more than twice its usual audience for hockey.

It seems fans are attracted to icons. What do Gretzky and Lemieux have in common? They both had the type of legendary, "once-in-a-generation" career that Crosby was having until January.

They were also both non-factors during the last NBA lockout. In 1998-99, Gretzky scored nine goals, Lemieux did not play and casual fans did not watch.

The casual fan ignores everything but superstars. Crosby’s ability with and without the puck transforms the game into something more accessible to the average viewer. The easier he makes it look to play hockey, the easier hockey is to watch.

Crosby and his Penguins were in the middle of their best season yet, when he caught David Steckel's shoulder during the Winter Classic at Heinz Field.

Whether outdoor games are more dangerous than indoor games is a topic for another discussion, but what matters now, in this year of increased exposure, the buzzwords around the NHL will be either "comeback" and "point streak," or, once again, "concussions."

Gossip

* Matt Cooke, who is directly responsible – via a vicious elbow – for Bruins center Marc Savard’s abbreviated career, vows to turn over a new leaf in 2011-12, and not the Maple Leaf variety, either. Cooke has promised Penguins boss Mario Lemieux that he’s learned his lesson and will “tweak” his game in a more positive – that is not dirty – direction.

Apparently, Cooke believes that he can rewrite the maxim about a leopard not being able to change his spots.

* No American goalie has received as enthusiastic a Cup celebration as Flint, Mich., native Tim Thomas.

Thomas returned to his high school in Davison, Mich., taking with him the Cup, the Vezina and the Conn Smythe, and stood on the town’s football stadium in front of friends and family. Roughly 2,500 people showed up to the celebration – which is about half the town’s population – to salute the hometown boy who made good.

And, best of all, Thomas came home to discover he even had a bridge in town named after him!

* Even more good news in Beantown: Nathan Horton – who was sidelined in Game 3 of the Cup finals when Vancouver’s Aaron Rome blindsided him to the head – has declared himself as symptom-free and ready to start the season.

* Just Wondering Dep’t: What if Nik Lidstrom wins another Norris Trophy next June? Does that mean that the indomitable D-man plays yet another season in 2012-13, or does he once and for all retire, calling it a marvelous career?

One guess is that if the Red Wings win the 2012 Cup, why shouldn’t Nik the Quick do another Gordie Howe and just keep rolling along?

Stan Fischler can be reached at FischlerReport@gmail.com.