OTTAWA – When Canadian hockey great Sidney Crosby hits the ice Monday night, many will be scrutinizing his every move for any sign of the concussion that took him out of the game for nearly a year.
The 24-year-old star of the Pittsburgh Penguins was sidelined on Jan. 5 when he sustained a concussion after being nailed by two hard hits in back-to-back games.
The Penguins thought he would be back before the end of last season, but Crosby was out for the entire summer, with concussion related symptoms including a sensitivity to bright light and loud noises, dizziness and fatigue.
Even when the symptoms started to fade in September, Crosby stayed off the ice opting for a patient approach that would see him return in top form.
His return will be a landmark case study in how long athletes need to recover from concussions and whether they return at the same level of play.
“There will be some pretty trained eyes watching, and probably, they won’t be able to notice a big difference,” says Dr. Michael Cusimano, a neurosurgeon at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. “But the research suggests that people have been injured in the way Sidney Crosby has been never quite return to the same level they were before.”
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Cusimano says, like the Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemeiux before him, Crosby’s advantage lies in his brain, not his skates or his stick-handling.
“All these superstar guys, what distinguishes them is how smart they are, and that’s the word for how quickly their brains work in the sport,” he says. “These guys are fast thinkers. They are multitaskers. They are able to anticipate. Brain injury effects that very severely.”
Even if Crosby’s mental reaction time slows slightly, Cusimano says he won’t have the same edge as before.
In announcing Crosby’s return, his coach Dan Bylsma said it may take a few games to get Crosby fully warmed up, but his progress is promising.
“In practice he is one of the best players on the ice, he is the best player on the ice,” Bylsma said.
Crosby took a time-out with an MVP title, a Stanley Cup win and an Olympic gold medal already under his belt.
Dustin Fink, a certified athletic trainer, specializing in concussions, said as long as Crosby’s brain has truly healed, there’s no reason he can’t continue to rack up the achievements.
“You shouldn’t go back on the field or the court unless you are playing at 100 per cent because you’ll be at risk of injury again,” he said. “Crosby himself will be playing at the best of his ability at this point.”
Fink, who curates theconcussionblog杭州夜网, said that in his experience athletes who return to play without fully healing their brains can’t compete at the same level as before the injury, but those who give it time have no problem returning.
“When you receive a concussion, you do sustain some sort of damage on the brain,” he said. “When the brain recovers, the brain figures out a correct way to do the same processes as they knew before.”
Former NHL player Jesse Wallin knows just how tough it can be to recover from a concussion. The coach of the Red Deer Rebels hockey team had to cut his career as a player short after he couldn’t shake concussion-related symptoms.
But he says not all concussions are equal. Wallin said he suffered several concussions, most of which he was able to shake after a day or two.
“You recover, get back to health and you are right back at it,” he said, referring to most concussions.
The last concussion was different though, Wallin said. The symptoms never really went away and he had to walk away from playing the game he loved.
Wallin said that as a player, you always want to get back out there and fast, but that it seems Crosby has handled his injuries with care.
“If he is returning there is no question he can return to form,” he said.
Hockey fans won’t know what form Crosby will be in until Monday at 7 PM ET, but regardless the NHL community has been buzzing with excitement about his return.
Fink said he expects Crosby’s return to show athletes that it is possible to come back from a head injury.
“You can still play sports, but the road to recovery isn’t going to be four or five weeks,” he said. “(Sidney) let the symptoms be the guide. That’s the most important thing.”