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The face of the NHL has a broken jaw. So when the Stanley Cup playoffs started last week, Sidney Crosby was far above the ice, in the press box at Pittsburgh's Consol Energy Center, watching his team dismantle the Islanders 5--0 in Game 1 of their first-round series. With 13:42 remaining, Crosby and his fellow inactive players headed to the elevator. He had already seen that his team did not need him. But his sport does.
Crosby made his playoff debut two days later, after getting clearance from his doctor. He is not the first celebrity to arrive at a gala fashionably late, though Hollywood stars generally show up with more teeth. But even before he arrived, he had arrived. He has elevated himself from one of the best players in the world to an alltime great.
And as Pittsburghers know too well, the 25-year-old Crosby is always worth the wait. He returned from a 13-game absence in Game 2 last Friday and scored twice in the first eight minutes of what turned out to be a 4--3 Penguins loss. Then, on Sunday, he assisted on three more Pittsburgh goals—including the game-winner and another on a beautiful backhand pass—in a come-from-behind 5--4 overtime win that put the Penguins (the No. 1 seed in the East and the favorites to win their fourth Stanley Cup) up 2--1 in the best-of-seven series.
Here is the most amazing thing about hockey's most amazing player: The more he sits out, the better he gets. From the start of 2009--10 until a January '11 concussion sidelined him, Crosby averaged 1.43 points and was +35 in 122 games. When he returned the next season, he averaged 1.68 points and was +15 in 22 games.
Then came the NHL lockout and another nine months off. In this season's exhaustingly packed, 48-game schedule, Crosby averaged 1.56 points, was +26 in 36 games and was widely acknowledged to be playing the best two-way hockey of his life. Then in a March 30 game against the Islanders, a shot that had ricocheted off a skate broke his jaw and knocked out several lower teeth. He was out of the lineup for almost a month before somebody finally passed him in the scoring race; he finished third with 56 points despite playing only 75% of the season.
If this is how you succeed in the workplace, we should all call in sick. But this wait was particularly scary. Crosby always maintained that he would return from his 2011 concussion, but agent Pat Brisson says now that "he had moments where he was questioning whether he was going to play again. After so long, he got nervous, especially when it wasn't getting any better at one point."
Following his concussion, Crosby says, "I couldn't do normal stuff that I probably took for granted: driving, going for a run, playing tennis—being active, really." Loud noises and bright lights (from watching television, for example) exacerbated the symptoms. Riding in the passenger seat of a car made him carsick.
Then, on March 30, he found himself headed to a hospital again. His father, Troy, rode with him, but there was not much for a dad to say, and Sid couldn't say anything—he had to be careful not to swallow blood.
Waiting for Sidney Crosby is not so much fun when you are Sidney Crosby. But the wait was worth it for him, too.
Playoff hockey is mesmerizing largely because of the constant anticipation. The loudest cheer of the first two games in Pittsburgh may have come when the 5'11", 200-pound Crosby skated out for warmups in Game 2. Thousands of additional fans gathered for the privilege of catching the games on a huge TV in the arena parking lot.