Sidney Crosby's latest concussion-related layoff may not be a concussion after all, but rather a more-treatable neck injury that went undiagnosed for weeks if not months.
After meeting with specialists on both U.S. coasts during the last week, the Pittsburgh Penguins captain was told Tuesday he has a soft tissue injury that is causing swelling in his top two vertebrae. Multiple doctors agreed there is no fracture.
While another concussion has not been ruled out — he was sidelined for 61 games over two seasons with one — Crosby was told the neck problem can cause symptoms much like those associated with a concussion.
"The biggest thing I can take from this is this is something I can work on. I can come in and get my neck worked on," Crosby said Tuesday night. "There is a pretty big possibility this [the neck problem] could be causing some of the issues. I hope that's the case and with treatment it will improve and hopefully that's the end of it."
There is nothing more that Crosby and the Penguins want than for this to be the end to a medical nightmare that has forced the NHL's biggest star — and its most marketable asset — to miss all but eight games over the last 13 months.
"From what I've been told, this is something pretty commonly linked with concussion symptoms, and in a way that's encouraging," Crosby said. "There's no magic to get rid of it but, if this is contributing, this is something we can obviously treat and work on and hopefully it will go away."
The star centre is currently limited to skating only and cannot practice with the full Penguins team. But if the neck treatment proves successful, Penguins general manager Ray Shero is hopeful that Crosby can return later this season to a talented team that is seen as a Stanley Cup contender even without him.
'There's no magic to get rid of it but, if this is contributing, this is something we can obviously treat and work on and hopefully it will go away' —Penguins sniper Sidney Crosby
Shero emphasized that no doctor — and numerous physicians and specialists have been consulted — believes the problem might be career-threatening.
"He's a hockey player and wants to play hockey, and he sought out other medical treatment to get back to playing the game and hopefully, through his efforts , this is going to happen soon," Shero said. "There's been no indication from any doctor where he would have to shut it down for the season or retire. We're going to try to manage these symptoms and get them under control and get a handle on this and get him back on the ice."
Crosby skated at Consol Energy Center with injured teammates Jordan Staal and Simon Despres on Monday and Tuesday. He will not accompany the Penguins to Toronto for the second half of a back-to-back series Wednesday.
News of the previously undiagnosed injury broke last weekend, after Crosby met with Dr. Robert S. Bray, a Los Angeles-based specialist. A CT Scan and MRI revealed the neck injury, and Bray gave Crosby an injection to reduce the swelling.
Crosby does not believe he will require further injections.
Bray's report was analyzed by Dr. Alexander Vaccaro, a spinal trauma expert at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, and he and other specialists — including Crosby's Pittsburgh-based medical team — determined Crosby's neck wasn't broken.
All the doctors involved held a conference call Monday, when Penguins co-owner Mario Lemieux, team CEO David Morehouse and Crosby's agent, Pat Brisson, met in Philadelphia with Vaccaro.
Crosby not angry with treatment
While the Penguins-assigned doctors did not discover the neck injury — doctors don't know if it's recent injury or developed more than a year ago — Crosby said he is not angry or upset with his treatment.
When news of Crosby's latest medical misfortune broke during the all-star weekend in Ottawa, there was considerable speculation that the issue might cause a rift between the Penguins and their biggest star.
Crosby, whose current contract expires after the 2012-13 season, insisted that wasn't true.
"The team has been very encouraging and there's not a lot of answers with this stuff," said Crosby, who was urged by the Penguins on multiple occasions to seek outside opinions.
Shero said the goal of all the doctors involved — whether they work for the team or not — is to get hockey's megastar star back on the ice, and as soon as possible. Crosby, who is 24, won an NHL scoring title, an MVP award, the Stanley Cup and an Olympic gold medal by age 22.
The unstated message: It's already been far too long for the Penguins to be without the sport's premier player.
"We're all in this together," Shero said. "The one thing we're trying to find out is what's causing symptoms, and how we can get him back safely to play. He will not return to play until symptoms disappear and that's the goal of everybody here."
Crosby first complained of neck pain after being leveled by a David Steckel hit in the Capitals-Penguins outdoor game on Jan. 1, 2011, in Pittsburgh. Crosby was not initially diagnosed with a concussion, but was told he had one after absorbing another hard hit, from Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman, on Jan. 5.
Crosby, who was enjoying his best season to date, didn't return that season amid a lengthy medical melodrama subsequently played out for month after month.
Crosby wasn't ruled to be symptom free until being cleared to play Nov. 21, when he made a memorable comeback by scoring two goals during a four-point night against the Islanders. But he played in only seven more games until the concussion-like symptoms returned following a physical game against the Bruins on Dec. 5.
Now, as it turns out, the concussion might not be a concussion after all.
"Maybe this is an issue that is causing some of these problems and, if we get that under control, that would be great news," Shero said.
Still, as Penguins coach Dan Bylsma cautioned earlier in the day, Crosby is not yet close to being cleared for full contact, much less game action.
But, given how little good news the Penguins have received concerning Crosby for the last year, perhaps this is a breakthrough.
"I just want to get back out there and I'm trying to do everything I can to do that," Crosby said.