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Sidney Crosby getting better, but no timeline for his return to the NHL

Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby, center, and Dr. Michael Collins, right, listen as Dr. Ted Carrick, left, describes Crosby's progress in his recovery from a concussion he suffered in January 2011 during an NHL hockey news conference in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2011. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

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Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby, center, and Dr. Michael Collins, right, listen as Dr. Ted Carrick, left, describes Crosby's progress in his recovery from a concussion he suffered in January 2011 during an NHL hockey news conference in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2011. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

PITTSBURGH, Pa. - Sidney Crosby will make a full recovery from a brain injury and will play again in the NHL. He is certain of it, and so are the concussion specialists who are treating him.

The question is when. Right now, neither the medical experts nor the Pittsburgh Penguins can make an accurate guess when the NHL's signature star will play again.

Despite the rapid, measurable progress Crosby has made since being bothered again by post-concussion symptoms while doing arduous conditioning work last month, there is no accurate estimate when he will play again for the Penguins.

Next month? Next year? Who knows?

"I have no earthly idea," said Michael "Micky" Collins, who heads the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's concussion testing unit.

Crosby, speaking publicly Wednesday for the first time since late April, said only that he was sure he would play during the 2011-12 season, which begins next month and runs through the Stanley Cup final in June.

"This is the best I've felt for a long time," Crosby said at a news conference that attracted a large number of reporters from the United States and Canada. "The last three weeks have been really good. I feel myself getting better and better."

The Penguins, relieved that Crosby apparently will make a full recovery from the type of head injury that has ended careers, cautioned he won't be back on the ice until he is fully recovered from a severe concussion that occurred following hard hits in successive games Jan. 1 and 5.

He was the league's leading scorer when he suffered the head injury.

Crosby missed the rest of the season and it now appears likely he will miss at least the start of the 2011-12 season.

Still, Penguins general manager Ray Shero said, "He's worth the wait."

No doubt that's a widely-held opinion, as the 24-year-old Crosby is one of the NHL's prime box-office attractions.

At an age when some players are only breaking into the NHL, Crosby has won a scoring title, an MVP award and the Stanley Cup. At 22, he was the youngest captain in league history to lift the Cup. And, in one of the greatest sporting accomplishments in Canadian history, his overtime goal in Vancouver carried Canada past the United States in the Olympic gold medal game 19 months ago.

Because Crosby is the NHL's showcase star, the state of his health has been a prime topic of discussion in every province for months. As a result, there were nearly as many Canadian reporters at Crosby's press conference as there were those from Pittsburgh.

Crosby was asked twice by Canadian reporters if he ever worried that his brain injury, one that caused severe headaches, sensitivity to light and sound and considerable fatigue, might be career-ending. There have been rumours for months that Crosby's condition was worse than the Penguins were saying, and that he might not be forced to retire if he did not start improving.

Crosby, flanked by the two concussion specialists who have been overseeing his recovery, showed a flash of his renowned competitiveness—and, too, a little anger—when the retirement issue came up.

"Pretty slight, I wouldn't bet on that," Crosby said.

Then, elaborating, he said, "Retirement? No. I always thought about the consequences of this injury and making sure I'm smart with it because at the end of the day (retirement) is the last thing I want. That being said, I did not give a whole lot of thought to (retiring)."

It was the length of his recovery that was worrying Pittsburghers, who already have placed Crosby on a plateau beneath that only of franchise icon Mario Lemieux.

Crosby, the runaway NHL scoring leader with 66 points in 41 games when he was hurt, resumed practising March 31, only to shut down his workouts when his symptoms returned during Pittsburgh's first-round playoff loss to Tampa Bay.

He was cleared in early June to resume working out, and he began more strenuous on-ice work in his native Nova Scotia in mid-July. But, shortly thereafter, he had more post-concussion problems that forced him, in the Penguins' words, to adjust his workout schedule.

About then, Crosby began working with Ted Carrick, a professor of clinical neurology at Life University in Georgia and a specialist in patients who have experienced concussions involving the vestibular system. That part of the brain, among other functions, controls a person's ability to move naturally and the sense of balance.

Crosby, so uncomfortable after being injured that he couldn't concentrate on watching game video with teammates, has experienced measurable gains since he began working with Carrick.

Considering how far Crosby has come since he couldn't ride in a car last winter without being disoriented, Carrick is pleased that a full recovery now appears to be imminent. Carrick said it's almost like Christmas for Crosby and those treating him because he is so close to being normal.

Collins, who initially diagnosed the concussion and has worked with Crosby since, estimates Crosby is now about 90 per cent back. The Penguins said he won't be cleared to play or practice until he is 100 per cent.

Crosby will keep pushing himself during his workouts until he has reached his usual level of proficiency without experiencing any setbacks. Then he will be cleared for light contact. Again, if there are no problems, he will get the go-ahead for full contact in practice. Only after that will he be cleared to play in an NHL game.

Could be a while.

"We will introduce contact in a very careful way and we're not even close to that right now," Collins said. "We need to make sure Sid is able to recondition fully without any return of these symptoms.…When he's ready, we'll know."

While there is much left for Crosby to accomplish during his recovery, Collins said, "I'm very optimistic that we'll see Sid have a very long, fruitful NHL career. The prognosis is excellent that Sid will not have any long-term problems from this injury. I'm supremely confident of that issue. The return to play issue, I'm equally confident. I think we'll get there. We're not there yet and we have work to do before we get there."

The Penguins open training camp Sept. 16, but there was no mention of Crosby taking part. He hasn't been ruled out of the Oct. 6 season-opening game in Vancouver, though it would seem unlikely he would be ready since he hasn't had any contact in eight months.

"Sid has made exceptional progress toward improving and becoming normal," Collins said. "In order for him to go back to play, he needs to be reconditioned 100 per cent without having symptoms.…There is no timeline on this."

Bruins forward Marc Savard—injured by a blind-side hit from Pittsburgh forward Matt Cooke in March 2010—is expected to miss the season because of concussions issues, and may not play again. Savard's injury illustrates to Crosby, and the Penguins, how much worse off he could be.

"It's been a tough road," said Crosby, who skated at Consol Energy Center before his news conference.

One that finally may be at its end, even if it's not in the next few weeks. Or months.

"(We wanted to) ensure that Sid has a very fruitful and positive life, that he can anything he wishes to do in hockey and after hockey," Carrick said. "This is going to have a very good outcome. Sid shouldn't have any problems in the future."

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