In this photo provided by the Pittsburgh Penguins shows centre Sidney Crosby return to the ice for the first time, Monday, March 14, 2011. (AP Photo/www.PittsburghPenguins.com)
CANONSBURG, Pa. - Sidney Crosby is taking it slowly, cautiously, if only because he has no other choice. A few minutes on the ice one day, a few minutes a day or so later.
Normally, Crosby would be racing faster than he does during an end-to-end rush to get back into the Pittsburgh Penguins' lineup after being out for 2 1/2 months. He is a world-class athlete who has known no speed except exceedingly fast during his hockey career and, by far, this is the longest he has been sidelined since his NHL career began in 2005.
Only this injury is different—concussions aren't so predictable, aren't so forgiving. Concussions don't care how many money its recipient makes, how many Stanley Cups he has won, how many Olympic gold medal-winning goals he has scored.
So, for now, Crosby returns to the ice only in short, measured bursts, such as the 15 minutes of skating he went through Thursday at the Pittsburgh Penguins' suburban practice rink. He wants more, a lot more, only his doctors—and his head injury—won't allow it.
"I'm just trying to start real slow," said Crosby, who hasn't played since Jan. 5. "I don't want symptoms and I don't want to rush anything.
It's not something you can rush. I know it's going to take time. Not doing anything for two and a half months, you feel it."
The NHL playoffs are less than a month away and the Penguins, who have surprisingly stayed near the top of the Eastern Conference standings despite being without the injured Crosby and Evgeni Malkin (season-ending knee surgery), dare to dream of getting Crosby back for part of them.
Before he was hurt, while sustaining separate but punishing hard hits in two games over a five-day period, Crosby was having the season of his career, with 32 goals and 34 assists in 41 games. (Alex Ovechkin of Washington, for example, remains three goals behind Crosby despite playing in 31 more games.)
Realistically, though, the Penguins are aware their playoff run, however short or long, may not include their 23-year-old captain. Concussion symptoms can linger so long, even from one season to the next, that the Penguins are not about to do anything to jeopardize their franchise player's long-term future.
For the Penguins, and Crosby, the waiting is the hardest part. He doesn't know, the team doesn't know, the doctors don't know.
"(He's) just progressing slowly, following instructions from the doctors, and he's in contact with them about how he's feeling and his progression," coach Dan Bylsma said. "If he skates, or if he doesn't skate, or what he does off the ice, is based on the doctors' protocol and following that program. ... He is progressing back, but there is no timetable for his return."
For weeks, anything resembling physical activity by Crosby could bring on lingering headaches. Finally, after weeks of inactivity, Crosby could ride an exercise bike without experiencing such symptoms.
Then came an on-ice session Monday, shooting a few pucks and skating around cones. When there were no setbacks, he did so again Tuesday. And Thursday.
"It was nice to get through it, a small victory," he said.
Teammate Arron Asham understands exactly what Crosby is going through. Asham also is getting over his first concussion and said the recovery is painful. Some days, he would get up and feel fine, only to be felled by a headache lasting four hours or more.
"Thank God that's over," said Asham, who is practising again after being out since Feb. 1. "It wasn't fun."
It's also not for Crosby, who might need weeks of conditioning work to get back into hockey shape even after his symptoms subside.
"It is really not on the radar yet," Bylsma said of Crosby possibly returning this season. "So there's no timetable, but (it's) good to see him on the ice and good to see him progressing."
To Crosby, that is what is most encouraging about the worst injury of his career. Finally, there is progress—discernible and measurable progress after so many weeks without any.
Every day, he tells his doctors what he did and they decide what he can do next.
"I'm kind of just going with the progression and what they (the doctors) are telling me," Crosby said. "Right now we're just progressively moving slowly and trying to get back into the swing of things.
"It feels good just to have gear on."
Crosby is not yet skating alongside his teammates, but seeing No. 87 on the ice again is proving uplifting to a resilient team that went into Thursday's games trailing Philadelphia by three points in the conference race. The Penguins don't play again until Sunday, at home against the New York Rangers.
"He's a guy who loves hockey, and it's been hard for him being out of the game so long," goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said. "It's just nice to see him with a smile. ... The main thing is for him to come back when he's ready and not feel pressured.
"He has to make sure he's healthy."
Mainly, he has to make sure he's Sidney Crosby again.
"If you get through one day, it doesn't mean you're out of the woods," Crosby said. "I try not to put too much pressure on that one day.
"I started pretty slow. ... It's just a matter of getting through each day, progressing and, hopefully, not having symptoms."