NHL

Great NHL comeback stories

Sidney Crosby on Monday joined the list of memorable NHL comebacks, including the likes of Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr and Crosby's former teammate, Mario Lemieux.
Mario Lemieux came back with a splash for Pittsburgh on Dec. 27, 2000, earning three points in a win over Toronto. (Peter Diana/Associated Press)

Sidney Crosby's long-awaited return to NHL play after missing 68 regular-season and playoff games due to concussion saw him score early in the first period Monday night against the New York Islanders on Hockey Night in Canada.

He finished with two goals and two assists against beleaguered New York goalie Anders Nilsson, making just his second-ever NHL appearance.

No one ultimately knows how the rest of Crosby's career, and even the season, will pan out.

But regardless, he joins the list of other notable NHL returns, presented here based on star power of the player as well as length of layoff.

Bernie Geoffrion

Geoffrion had missed the two previous NHL seasons, retiring with the Canadiens at age 33 in 1964 to take a job as coach with the Quebec Aces. He was successful at it, but when no jobs were made available further up the Montreal organization chain, a steamed Geoffrion decided to return to the NHL as a player.

The Rangers claimed Boom Boom on waivers in June 1966 and he played for two more NHL seasons. He put up decent but unspectacular numbers, although he burned his old team with a goal and three assists in a Nov. 17, 1966, victory for the Rangers.

Wayne Gretzky

Gretzky didn't have the kind of lengthy absences many other players on this list did, but he feared he might not ever play again in 1992-93 due to a herniated thoracic disc.

Gretzky would miss 38 games, returning in January for the 1,000th game of his career. He notched two assists in a loss to St. Louis.

He would score 16 times in 45 regular-season games, but turned it up a couple of notches in the playoffs. The Kings made it all the way to the Stanley Cup final as Gretzky dazzled with 15 goals and 25 assists in 24 post-season contests.

Gordie Howe

Howe found that working in Detroit's front office in a vague position wasn't to his liking, so at age 45 in 1973, he announced his return to pro hockey with the Houston Aeros of the World Hockey Association.

Howe wanted to fulfil his dream of playing with sons Marty and Mark. He would score just 21 seconds into his first exhibition game, assisted from Mark, against the team he would ultimately join years later —the New England Whalers.

About one month later, Gordie Howe assisted on three goals in his regular-season debut, but wasn't prepared to revel in the accomplishment after the game.

"I stayed out too long on one shift in the third period," Howe told reporters. "I thought I was going to die."

Comeback No. 2

It seems a fitting bookend now, but there was real doubt whether Howe would play when the Hartford Whalers were one of four WHA teams subsumed into the NHL in 1979.

The 51-year-old Howe had been dealing with dizzy spells, but in late September declared himself game for a return after nine years away from the NHL. His inclusion on the roster arguably came at the expense of Marty, who was soon sent down to the AHL.

Mr. Hockey scored his first goal back in the NHL on Oct. 13 —on Pittsburgh goalie Greg Millen — in a season marked by 41 points in 80 games and an all-star appearance alongside teen phenom Wayne Gretzky.

Guy Lafleur

Lafleur wasn't happy with the way things ended in 1984 as a member of the Canadiens. Out of hockey for four years, he was signed by the New York Rangers and general manager Phil Esposito, a former NHL foe and 1976 Canada Cup teammate.

Given no promises of a job, Lafleur earned a spot in training camp. By doing so, he joined Gordie Howe as the only players to return to the NHL after being named to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Lafleur scored his first goal in nearly four years and added an assist in a mid-October game against Vancouver.  On Feb 3, 1989, he marked a memorable return to the Forum, scoring two goals on Montreal goalie Patrick Roy in a 7-5 loss.

Eric Lindros

Lindros had been knocked out of the game for about 16 months on a hit the whole hockey world witnessed, a headshot delivered by New Jersey defender Scott Stevens in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final in 2000.

Along with the concussion, his relationship with the Flyers had been irrevocably damaged by a series of disputes with the team brass, and when he returned to the NHL, it was as a New York Ranger (sensing a theme yet?).

Lindros scored in his first exhibition game with the team, on Sept. 19, 2001, which also happened to be the first pro team sporting event of any kind to take place in New York City after 9/11.

His season debut wasn't as successful — six hits and minus-2 in a New York loss — but he posted a respectable 37 goals and 36 assists in 72 games with the Rangers. They would be his best numbers post-concussion, with repeated injuries and false starts to follow in a career that lasted five more years.

Mario Lemieux

Lemieux shocked the hockey world in early 1992 by announcing he had Hodgkin's lymphoma.

After enduring 22 radiation treatments, he boarded a plane to Philadelphia for a March 2, 1992 game, earning a standing ovation from the bitter rival's fans. He scored and added an assist in his return for the Pens.

Lemieux then embarked on perhaps the greatest comeback in the game's history, scoring 30 goals and adding 26 assists over one 19-game span. He even marked consecutive games of four goals to win the Art Ross Trophy with his highest point total in four seasons.

Ultimately, the Penguins were unable to win a third straight Cup in the playoffs, upset by the New York Islanders.

Comeback No. 2

While Lemieux had a number of small "c" comebacks due to recurring back woes, the next biggie occurred in late 2000 when, while a part owner of the Penguins, he announced he was returning to the NHL for the first time since the 1996-97 season.

In a memorable Hockey Night in Canada contest, he set up Jaromir Jagr's goal just 33 seconds into his return against Toronto, and finished with a goal and two assists in a 5-0 win.

Lemieux would finish with 35 goals in 43 games, with the back end of his playing career also including a 2002 Olympic gold medal and a turn skating alongside rookie Sidney Crosby in 2005-06.

Cam Neely

Neely's career path was altered in the 1991 playoffs when he took a knee-on-knee hit from Pittsburgh defenceman Ulf Samuelsson.

The knee, and related hip issues, would limit him to just 26 regular-season and playoff games with Boston over the next two seasons.

Neely deemed himself able to play for a large portion of the 1993-94 season.

It didn't turn out that way, but it was remarkable just the same. Neely scored the insurance goal in his first game back against the Rangers en route to a stunning total of 50 goals in 44 games, reaching the milestone in fewer games than anyone not named Gretzky. 

Bobby Orr

Orr hadn't played since the previous November with the Bruins due to left knee surgery, but was pencilled in for the 1976 Canada Cup roster. His participation was in doubt as camp opened; he didn't arrive until days after the rest of the team.

It would turn out to be a swansong of sorts. He notched three assists in Canada's first tournament game against Finland, and was named player of the game in a win over Russia.

He scored his first two goals in nearly a year as Canada won the first of two games in the final against Czechoslovakia, and was named tournament MVP.

Orr would return to the NHL days later as a member of the Chicago Blackhawks, who needed to go through the courts to get him to play due to a squabble over compensation with the Bruins.

Orr would provide a boost with the Blackhawks but the knee woes soon continued, ending his career a year later.

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