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In All-Star gala with head-turning results, Crosby's neck is top story

OTTAWA -- The most frothy of hockey concoctions is always at risk of being overtaken by events of rather more gravitas, which made the latest iteration of the ever-changing NHL All-Star game -- Team Chara 12, Team Alfredsson 9, in case you care or had the over in Vegas -- not much different from any of these modern mid-winter festivals of shinny.

Because it's always bound to be something, the conventional wisdom was All-Star bonhomie might be hijacked by the gathering clouds of the uncertain labor situation. If the league and the Players Association don't make nice, there could be a lockout when the current agreement expires in September, the kind of concern that potentially could have trumped the fast skaters and hard shooters and Patrick Kane as Superman and a glorious career appreciation, two-goal day for Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson.

Of course, The All-Star weekend turned out not to be about the CBA, after all.

It was all about the AMA.

Like a Kardashian's marital status or a Twitter account, there are some things in life that demand constant updating. Foremost among them now is the health of Sidney Crosby, best player on the planet. Shortly before 6 p.m. on Saturday, a radio host who works for Rogers Sportsnet, a Canadian sports network, broke the news that Crosby has, or had, a problem with his neck. While the neck bone obviously is connected to the head bone -- Crosby had been diagnosed with a concussion more than a year ago, which led to a hiatus interrupted only by a return in November for eight games -- the C1 and C2 vertebrae apparently were a fresh area of concern. His agent, Pat Brisson, told a media scrum in the corridor outside the dressing rooms that night that "he's safe, he's not in danger," which is the good news about the neck woes.

But Brisson did not attempt to pin a smile button on the lapel of the situation. When asked if he and Crosby were dissatisfied by the care that the Penguins captain had received from the team medical staff, Brisson said, "I really can't comment on that." When pressed specifically if Crosby were upset, Brisson said that he had not heard that from his star client. You could drive a Zamboni through the opening in that response. Crosby, who complained of neck pain and not concussion symptoms when he was injured initially almost 13 months ago, has been scurrying around the United States, seeing his chiropractic neurologist in Atlanta and specialists in Utah and California, including Dr. Robert Bray in Los Angeles. According to a statement issued by the Penguins, who have been entirely supportive of Crosby seeking outside opinions, Bray had diagnosed a neck injury in addition to Crosby's familiar concussion.

The guessing game is when Crosby sustained the previously undiagnosed neck injury, which, the Penguins noted in the statement, will be further "evaluated by independent specialists" in the coming days. The obvious choices are:

A: Jan. 1, 2011, in the ill-fated Winter Classic, when David Steckel, then with Washington, collided with Crosby -- inadvertently apparently -- in the second period.

B: Jan. 5, 2011, when Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman rammed Crosby into the end boards.

C: Dec. 5, 2011, in a game in which Bruins center David Krejci accidentally struck Crosby with an elbow in the head. The Pittsburgh center also collided with teammate Chris Kunitz during the match.

If the answer is anything but C, there could be problems that go beyond the quotidian issues of rehab for a man whose medical dossier became the only stat sheet on All-Star weekend that ultimately mattered.

Crosby might not have to have said anything directly to Brisson about his treatment by the Penguins. There surely are surrogates, people close to him, who could fill in the blanks if Crosby truly were reticent about sharing his thoughts with a man who has been his agent for almost a decade. People close to Crosby have mused that if the Penguins had noticed how out of sorts he looked after being dinged by Steckel, and if the team had not allowed him to play the final period or in the match against Tampa, a year-plus odyssey might have resulted in several weeks on the sideline instead of several months.

Crosby revitalized a franchise, laid the groundwork for a new arena and captained the team to a Stanley Cup. Penguins GM Ray Shero is a splendid executive. If there is a rift over Crosby's medical care, the GM surely will not allow it to become the out-of-control conflagration that once engulfed another hockey prodigy, the Flyers' Eric Lindros, and ruined the relationship of an earlier Next One with his franchise.

So now that the last All-Star dangle is done, all the hockey world can do is wait. The NHL always seems to enter a state of suspended animation today, awakening only after the Feb. 27 trade deadline passes. Rumors will rule. For the next month, the possible will swamp the actual. But the most critical wait centers around something with no timeline, no end game and no guarantee. For once, hockey will hold its breath not merely for the Stanley Cup playoffs but for the fallout from the convoluted tale of Crosby's health. Crosby, 24, has been the fulcrum of the NHL since he entered the league in 2005. Now you wait to see how the independent doctors categorize his condition and how he and his team smooth over any possible rift. And mostly you wait to see if he can resume an exceptional career that barely was entering its prime. The Crosby saga might not be the end of the world, but the 2012 NHL schedule could start looking vaguely like the 2012 Mayan calendar.

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