This Game 7 between the Penguins and Capitals will be a must-watch, but for me I’ll be thinking about off-ice matters. Specifically, as they relate to Sidney Crosby. It’s very easy to interpret this as a wishy-washy, pearl-clutching article, but for the first time in my experience watching the magician Crosby perform his tricks, I’m hoping that he hangs it up after this playoff run.
Naturally, I’d love for him to hoist Lord Stanley’s chalice one final time in June and then quietly announce in the afterglow of another parade down Grant Street that he’s retiring. That’s the storybook ending. Under this scenario, he would have won 3 Stanley Cups and could retire with his 1027 points in just 782 games knowing that he’ll be a first-ballot Hall of Fame inductee three years from now. Even if the Capitals knock the Penguins out tonight, he still has 2 Cups and he still is a lock for the Hockey HOF. There is no shame at all in his career.
Of course, there will be the nagging ‘what if’ among fans and media for years to come if he retires, the same one that plagues me from time to time when I think about Mario Lemieux’s career. I look at Lemieux’s 1.88 points/game, which includes the tail end of his career when he was essentially a human version of one of those inflatable advertising guys that dance around, trying to draw fan interest to the team, and wonder where he could have ended up on the all-time scoring list. When Lemieux retired for the first time in 1996-97, he was 31 and won the Art Ross Trophy for leading the league with 122 points. He still had it and retired (at the time) with 1494 points. When he came back four years later at age 35, time had eroded some of his skills, but he still accrued 229 points in 170 games over parts of the next five seasons (1.34 points/game). It’s not unreasonable to think that Lemieux could have hit 2000 points if he had five continuous, moderately healthy seasons after that age-31 season.
Just as Lemieux made the choice to retire because of his debilitating back issues, Sidney Crosby must deal with something perhaps even more scary and pressing than that. Backs are primarily a structural issue; they can be fixed with surgeries that may seem draconian, but still preserve a quality of life for the patient. There are no ways to surgically repair a brain damaged by multiple concussions. Living life from day-to-day with concussion syndrome and the symptoms of it can rob a person of their dignity and, in some cases, their will to live.
Crosby will be turning 30 this August. He is a young man in the prime of both his hockey career, but more importantly, his real life. He’s made his money, more of it than he can spend in this lifetime, presumably. He’s got his rings, he’s got his trophies, he’s achieved everything that every Canadian boy skating on his local pond ever dreams about. But concussions are rearing their ugly head again after getting smeared twice within one week by the Capitals, first on this team up by Ovechkin and Niskanen in Game 3…
…and then Monday night, the Capitals’ team picture (with maybe an assist from Braden Holtby’s stick to trip him) ran Crosby head-first into the boards with this handiwork…
At this point in his life, I hope that Crosby, or people very close in his inner circle, are asking him — Is this worth it anymore? Yes, getting millions and millions of dollars is great, but again…he has plenty. He strikes me as someone that doesn’t need to live a lavish lifestyle. The intensely private Crosby doesn’t talk much about his social life, but if the rumors of his long-time girlfriend Kathy Leutner are true, he may want to consider his standard of life if he keeps getting concussions.
Hockey has been his whole life. When you’re destined for greatness from an impossibly young age and you actually achieve it, it’s a burden to continue living up to it. Life without hockey may not be something Crosby wants to consider. It may leave a void too great in his life. But it would be more dangerous for him to continue playing and create an intangible void in his post-hockey life with his mental health.