The eyes of the hockey world — and much of Canada — will be on Pittsburgh tonight, where the Penguins' Sidney Crosby is finally getting back in the game.
It was almost a year ago that Crosby suffered a concussion after being hit hard twice. That sidelined the NHL's best player, but it also ignited a serious debate about concussions in hockey.
"Sidney Crosby hasn't been away from hockey this long since he was a kid," the CBC's David Common reported from Pittsburgh. Still, his return was his choice.
"Doctors cleared him," said Common, "but the team has been doing well enough without him that there wasn't added pressure."
P.O.V.How do you feel about Sidney Crosby's return? Take our survey.
The Penguins' captain has been out of the lineup since Jan. 5, due to a concussion — a span of 61 consecutive regular-season games. The former league MVP and perennial all-star will rejoin his team at the start of a three-game home stand.
The 2007 NHL MVP spent the last 10 months undergoing a painstakingly thorough rehabilitation that left many wondering when — or even if — he'd play again and prompted the league to take a harsher stance when it comes to policing head hits.
His return ends weeks of speculation that appeared to put the ever-polite Crosby on edge but hardly bothered his teammates. The 24-year-old declined repeated interview requests in recent weeks as the speculation about a possible return date reached a fever pitch.
Crosby missed the remainder of the 2010-11 season after taking a hit from Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman on Jan. 5. The expected brief absence turned into an extended one that rendered him a spectator for Pittsburgh's loss to the Lightning in the opening round of the playoffs.
He vowed to be ready for training camp but spent much of the summer in seclusion, his silence fuelling speculation his career may be in jeopardy.
Crosby came forward in September and — flanked by the two doctors who have overseen his recovery — said it was "likely" he would be back this season.
Live stream & chat
You can watch Sidney Crosby's return in the game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the New York Islanders Monday night on a special edition of Hockey Night in Canada. At the same time, you can interact with fans from coast to coast.
Click here to join in starting Monday night at 7 p.m. ET.
The game will also be aired on CBC Television.
The veteran play-by-play team of Jim Hughson and analyst Craig Simpson will call the game from the broadcast booth, with Glenn Healy providing analysis from between the benches. Ron MacLean will set the stage for the game as he hosts from the CBC'S Hockey Night in Canada studio
He began training camp wearing a white helmet to signify he wasn't to be hit, working feverishly for a month before switching to a black helmet after being cleared for contact on Oct. 13.
Head coach Dan Bylsma preached caution, though his teammates did their best to accommodate their captain, jostling with him in practice when given the opportunity.
Crosby has travelled with the team throughout the season. He's missed one skate since camp began in September, skipping a practice in Los Angeles on Nov. 5 so he could travel back east to visit with his medical advisers.
No word on linemates
His teammates stressed there was no need for Crosby to rush, and the Penguins have been one of the league's top teams through the season's first six weeks behind the crisp goaltending of Marc-Andre Fleury and a dynamic offence led by Evgeni Malkin and James Neal.
Despite a miserable road trip to Florida that ended with losses to Tampa Bay and the Panthers, Pittsburgh enters Monday with an 11-6-3 record and is tied for the Atlantic Division lead with 25 points.
Crosby was cleared on Sunday after meeting with his medical team, and Bylsma could feel Crosby's excitement when he was finally given the OK.
"He's excited and anxious," Bylsma said.
So are the Penguins, who have been good without Crosby. His job is to make them great.
Bylsma said Sunday he will pair Crosby with Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz. How many shifts Crosby will see is unclear, though Byslma said it's highly unlikely he'd throw Crosby out there for 20-plus minutes.
Not that it matters. Not this week anyway. His return will start with a three-game homestand that will generate the kind of buzz normally reserved for late spring.
"We know what he means to this team, this city," defenceman Kris Letang said. "He's a special player."
One that spent months dealing with "fogginess" that at times made it difficult for him to drive or watch television. He also endured painful migraines and likened the recovery process to a roller-coaster.
The ride appears to be finally pulling into the station, sending Crosby out into the great unknown.
For all the steps he's taken during his recovery, the real test will come when he gets hit for the first time at full speed, though the nature of the game may be changing thanks in part to Crosby's ordeal.
New discipline czar Brendan Shanahan, only three years removed from his playing days, has been suspending players for taking unnecessary head shots at opponents. It's a movement Crosby embraces.
"A guy's got to be responsible with his stick, why shouldn't he be responsible with the rest of his body when he's going to hit someone?" Crosby said. "Whether it's accidental or not accidental, you've got to be responsible out there."
He hasn't backed down during practice, often being one of the last to leave the ice before heading to the dressing room.
The Penguins have raved about Crosby's intensity during even the more informal skates. While he's looked perfectly fine to the naked eye, Crosby wouldn't allow himself to come back until he was at full strength.
"Maybe I can get by with 90 per cent, maybe I couldn't, but I'm not going to roll the dice with that," Crosby said in September.
When he finally glides onto the ice in his No. 87 jersey, Crosby will put to rest speculation his career was over. His teammates, who did their best to give Crosby distance over the summer, never doubted he would return.
"I figured he was getting enough of it from everywhere else," teammate Jordan Staal said. "All that matters to us really is that he's healthy. All that stuff you thought you heard, I didn't pay any attention to it."
How quickly it takes Crosby to get back to his pre-injury level is uncertain.
He was playing arguably the best hockey of his brilliant career before getting hurt, leading the league in goals and points as the Penguins steamrolled through the first three months of the season.
The team soldiered to a fourth-place finish in the Eastern Conference despite missing Crosby, Malkin and Staal. The magic disappeared in the playoffs as the Penguins lost in seven games.
Crosby's comeback pushes a team considered a Stanley Cup contender into a Stanley Cup favorite. But after months and months of rumours and worry, Crosby's return is cause enough for celebration.
"We know how badly he wants to play," teammate Matt Cooke said. "We want it too, because it means that he's healthy, and that's all you ever really want for him."