Monday November 21st, 2011

MONTREAL -- Some 475 miles to the southwest, in the NHL's Gotham City, Superman has peeled off his drenched black Pittsburgh Penguins undergarments, his morning skate a tasty hors d'oeuvre in anticipation of the feeding frenzy that will accompany his re-entry into the superhero racket that night. Meanwhile, up in the Bell Centre, Patrice Bergeron of the Bruins stands by his stall in the visitors' dressing room, dipping into his own past, ladling out his own truths, in an effort to frame the return of the Caped Crusader -- like Clark Kent, "Sidney Crosby" is an alias -- in the proper perspective.

Bergeron and Crosby are friends. They were linemates on Canada's world junior powerhouse in 2005. They were linemates briefly on the 2010 Olympic gold medal squad, before Bergeron drifted into the role of Team Canada's 13th forward and Crosby elevated himself into national hero with the tournament-winning goal in overtime against the United States. During the past 10-plus months, with Crosby mired in darkness, they exchanged frequent texts.

"Not as a mentor," Bergeron quickly points out, "but as a friend."

Stay patient. Stay positive. The messages were hardly profound, but they came from the heart more than the thumbs.

Their bond is deeper than hockey.

They are in the Brotherhood of the Concussion.

You remember, don't you? Maybe too much time has passed since Oct. 27, 2007, when Bergeron was checked from behind into the end boards by Flyers defenseman Randy Jones and left Boston's arena, unconscious, on a gurney. Or maybe we have become inured to recalling the hit vividly because we have witnessed too many other more recent concussions, including Crosby's, David Booth's and the one suffered by Marc Savard, Bergeron's teammate whose career is all but officially done.

Anyway, Bergeron had hoped to make it into the lineup for the playoffs that season, but did not return until the start of 2008-09, during which he would sustain another concussion and miss a month.

There are returns and there are comebacks. They are not necessarily the same. When asked by SI.com in September how long it had taken him to really feel like himself again after his return, and to approach the high standards he'd set prior to his initial concussion, Bergeron replied that it was almost a year. (Indeed, an argument can be made that Bergeron, who averaged a little more than two-thirds of a point per game in the three seasons after the Jones hit really did not play to his level until the 2011 playoffs, when he had 20 points in 23 games and was Boston's best player besides goalie Tim Thomas.)

Bergeron now equivocates, but stresses that "timing and rhythm" are not necessarily subject to immediate recall. He says he felt fine on the ice after his return, but he wasn't exactly himself, you know? He was doing good things, but all the goals and assists and face-off wins were adding up to something less than 100 per cent.

There will be metrics demanded of Crosby, things that announce him in a tangible way. Indeed, proposition lines were set Monday by an oddsmaker: Would he bag a goal against the Islanders? Would he get a point? How about Bodog's 8-1 odds of Crosby winning the Hart Trophy? Bergeron cautions that there are no sure things.

"He's been delivering since people have been scrutinizing him (as a teenager)," Bergeron says. "I always think good things are going to happen when Sid is back playing 100 per cent. I'm not surprised that people are expecting (so much of him). He's a great player. He's a special player. So you never know. No one should be hard on him if it doesn't happen, but he's such a great player that anything could happen."

So when does a player who has had a serious concussion know the moment is right to return?

"I guess you just feel it," he says. "I think it's in your mind, in your head. You're going to know when everything's behind you. Sometimes you feel tentative in practice ... that's not the good time to come back. You clear all that out of the way. I don't know exactly how to describe it, but you know when you're ready.

"Obviously there's a nervousness (about the first game back)," he continues. "You're anxious. You're excited. You want to get that first one out of the way. I'm sure he'll feel the same way, although I can't really speak for him. Everyone's different."

Crosby, of course, is not merely different. He is exceptional. He was playing perhaps the best hockey of his life when he was concussed last January. The NHL looked and felt like his junior days back in Rimouski when he seemed to have oodles of time and plenty of open space to do whatever struck his fancy on the ice.

Now, like the mythical Sisyphus and his boulder, the summit could be beyond his capability.

Timing will tell, as Bergeron might put it. Only this is certain: for a league that has lagged artistically during his long absence -- Crosby's often brilliant foil, Washington's Alex Ovechkin, has been particularly uninspired -- a healthy Crosby is fabulous news.

HACKEL: Crosby and Ovechkin at crossroads

And if Crosby plateaus into merely good after being indisputably great, if hockey's Superman ultimately is undone by the kryptonite of concussion, then the attention he brings to an issue that bedevils contact sports will form an even more substantial segment of his legacy.

"We're definitely going in the right direction (in terms of concussions)," Bergeron says, "There's been a lot more awareness with those type of hits (to the head). The league now is doing a great job with those kinds of hits. We hear about (concussions) more. The doctors are doing a good job of recognizing them. The equipment companies are trying to find things that help. A lot of things are going on. The awareness between players is better, too."

Crosby makes us all aware.

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