"It's a bad day if we're making the Stanley Cup relevant to the conversation," Keith Primeau was saying yesterday. "It should be irrelevant to the thought process. We're talking about an individual's health. The game of hockey is only a certain part of your life. And you've got a lot more life to live beyond X-number of years as a professional athlete.
"If we're worried about the ramifications from ending one season of your professional sports career early for your health, then we are way off target."
Now here comes the irony. Primeau admits if he knew then what he knows now, he would not have been any more careful in managing the multiple concussions that forced him to retire at 34.
"That's the sad part for me," he said. "And that's why I know we're so far away. Because I don't think I would have changed much. Which is really sad."
Playing through injuries is as much about being a professional athlete as scoring and defending are. Doug Collins often boasts about his artificial hips and knees as if they are trophies. Most of us have banged our heads and gone to work the next day, which, by the way, Crosby may have done after receiving an open-ice hit from Washington's David Steckel during the Winter Classic on New Year's Day.
He wasn't diagnosed with a concussion then. Five days later, pausing dangerously along the boards behind the net after moving the puck, Crosby was banged by Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman.
The diagnosis then: mild concussion.
One month and a few days later, Crosby's return date keeps getting pushed back. Sound familiar? Pittsburgh's medical staff is feeling the same kind of heat the Flyers' medical staff felt in the cases of Primeau, Simon Gagne and Eric Lindros, the same kind of heat the Eagles' medical staff felt when they sent Kevin Kolb and Stewart Bradley back out to play in the season opener against Green Bay.
Primeau said it looked to him as if Crosby suffered a concussion from the New Year's Day hit, but that, "It's still nobody's mistake. Because it's still so hard to identify or diagnose even though he might be suffering from some symptoms."
If we have learned nothing else about these things, it is that the people diagnosing and deciding return dates are still learning, too. Concussion symptoms, for example, don't always manifest themselves right away. And when they do, the symptoms do not always reflect the severity of the injury, or the time needed for it to be completely healed.
There is no athlete-friendly surgery, no special oxygen tank you can sit in to accelerate your return. Recovery time seems to vary by individual, but there is little doubt that the more time a brain is allowed to repair itself, the better chance of avoiding recurrence or long-term effects.
Primeau has reached out to Crosby's agent, telling him he's available to talk should the Penguins star want to. Five years removed from his last concussion as a player, the daily life of the former Flyers captain - and father to four - reminds him of the lasting effects of the choices he makes.
Some days are better than others, some months too.
"I actually had a very difficult summer and early part to my fall," said Primeau, who runs several small businesses with his wife, Lisa. "And it was very discouraging. I actually felt that I had regressed. I was really uncomfortable and not very happy."
The last 4 or 5 months have been better, since utilizing prolotherapy injections, he said. Made along the spine, the injections are said to regenerate damaged ligaments and settle down irritated nerve endings. The effectiveness of the treatment is still debated in the medical industry, still not covered by most health insurance plans, but it helped Gagne and now it seems to be helping Primeau.
"I am over 5 years removed from my last concussion, and, really, there's only about a 3- or 4-month window when I actually felt myself," he said. "Otherwise there's been some type of low-grade headache or head pressure, or stiffness in my neck. And with that comes the irritability and the gamut of emotions and sometimes with exercise the onset of symptoms - spinning and such. It's been a very long road."
Crosby should read that. The people deciding upon his return should, too.
Better yet, pick up the phone. The medical world might be far from having their collective heads wrapped around brain trauma. But guys like Primeau should at least serve as caution flags.
"I'll take the blame," he said. "It was my burning desire to compete and excel and win the ultimate prize. But at the end of the day there is the realization that it wasn't that important to the big picture. I've got to be able to wake up and be functional and look my kids in the eye and have a fairly normal existence." *
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