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Concussions becoming the Penguins' curse–and not just because of Crosby

PITTSBURG, Pa. - Concussions are becoming the curse of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and not just because of Sidney Crosby.

And what equally perplexes and worries one of the NHL's highest-profile teams is that the Penguins don't know what to do about an epidemic of head injuries that has affected nearly one-quarter of their roster, including star defenceman Kris Letang and shutdown defender Zbynek Michalek.

Even coach Dan Bylsma wonders: When does it end?

When will Crosby and his wondrous skills be back—next week, or next year? And what about Letang, whose offensive talents are matched by few other NHL defencemen yet have not been seen since Nov. 26?

"You don't know if a guy is going to be out one week, two weeks, or longer," Bylsma said Thursday, before the Penguins headed off to Ottawa for a Friday night game in which both teams will have stars out with concussions. "That uncertainty makes it kind of tough to plan. The uncertainty of it is difficult."

It's not just seeing so much talent off the ice that troubles Bylsma. It's also watching his concussed players struggle to perform tasks that normally take little effort, to find words that normally slip into their conversation with ease.

Tyler Kennedy, a valuable scorer who centres Jordan Staal's effective line, missed a month with a concussion that caused him to experience fogginess and headaches. Defenceman Roberto Bortuzzo, called up from the minors because so many players were injured, now has a concussion, too.

"It's really frustrating," said Michalek, who also has been out since Nov. 26. "I've never had a problem with my head before. It's not easy to go through. It's part of the game—I guess."

There's no guessing about that, at least not in this Year of the Concussion. The Penguins have lost 151 games to injury this season, a majority of it to concussions; Crosby has missed 64 games this calendar year alone.

And Crosby isn't alone.

The NHL's leading goal scorer, Milan Michalek, Zbynek's brother and the centrepiece of the Senators' offence, won't play Friday due to a concussion. Also out is NHL leading scorer Claude Giroux of Philadelphia. The Flyers announced Thursday that captain Chris Pronger will miss the rest of the season with "severe post-concussion syndrome."

The Hurricanes' Jeff Skinner, the Kings' Mike Richards and the Rangers' Marc Staal have also had concussions.

The Penguins haven't confirmed that Crosby is experiencing his second concussion in less than a year. But he has been out since Dec. 5 due to concussions-like symptoms, a disturbing turn given all the elation that surrounded Crosby's comeback from a 10-month layoff only last month.

Crosby is only 24 and, at this time a year ago, was fashioning the best offensive season by any NHL player in a decade and a half. Now, Penguins fans are worried whether a second concussion-related layoff in a short time will ultimately mean a significantly shortened and less impactful career for a player whose talent and potential accomplishments once appeared to be limitless.

Crosby has not talked to reporters since Monday, when the team announced he would be out indefinitely—again.

Zbynek Michalek said anyone who hasn't had a concussion simply has no understanding how life-disturbing and debilitating one can be.

"Some days you totally feel fine," he said. "But same days you don't."

The Michalek brothers routinely exchange phone calls and text messages, especially when their teams are about to play. Only this time, the conversation is different.

"I just ask him how he feels; he asks me how I feel," Zbynek Michalek said. "We support each other and wish each other the best."

Zbynek Michalek had been hopeful of returning Friday, but he acknowledged Thursday that he still has occasional concussion-related headaches. The Penguins have said that no player will return from a concussion until he is fully healthy.

"One hundred per cent health and getting rid of those symptoms is paramount," Bylsma said earlier this week. "We'll continue with that as a way we treat the protocol for a player's health and coming back to play."

The notion that hockey concussions seemingly have an epicentre in Pittsburgh baffles Penguins general manager Ray Shero, who has been at the forefront of eliminating injury-causing head shots.

After all, Pittsburgh has been known throughout pro sports as the place where players come to obtain treatment for a concussion, not to receive one.

Two University of Pittsburgh MedicalCenter researchers -- Mark Lovell, a neuropsychologist, and Dr. Joseph Maroon, a neurosurgeon–developed the imPACT test that is widely used by multiple pro sports leagues and teams to test an athlete's cognitive skills before and after a concussion.

UPMC concussion experts that include Michael "Micky" Collins regularly monitor Crosby's status, and were visited only this week by Giroux. Yet even with such concussion experts available to them, the Penguins keep watching their players get hurt with alarming regularity.

"You don't like having injuries," Bylsma said. "You don't like having several players that currently have symptoms. It's a fast game. It's physical. And it seems to hit home right now with our situation."

Shero himself gained considerable knowledge about concussions when teenage son, Chris, a high school hockey player, missed three weeks of school last year because of a hockey-related concussion. On many days, Shero received an update about his son before leaving for the office, then was given one about Crosby as soon as he arrived.

What Shero has found, he said, is that "Every concussion is different. And even the players themselves sometimes don't know they have a concussion."

According to The Concussion Blog, a website that tracks sports concussions, there has been a slight decrease in NHL concussions since last season. Over the last 15 years, the number has gone up or down per season with no recognizable pattern.

And no known way to totally prevent concussions. NHL historical data shows that concussions are caused as much by accident, or collisions with the boards or the ice, as they are by a big hit.

"It's very serious. It's a big problem. And I don't know what the solution is," said Zbynek Michalek, reflecting the opinion of numerous players. "The game is so fast, guys are so strong; it's probably the reason why there are so many head injuries. The doctors are well-educated and (so are) the training staffs. They're on top of things, but it's unfortunate. And I don't know what the solution would be."

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