WINNIPEG - Watching Alex Ovechkin, Thursday night, and recalling some of the best moments of his still-developing career, I couldn’t help but think of Sidney Crosby.
The two broke into the NHL together six years ago, instantly became heated rivals and looked ready to push each other to greater heights for years to come.
Only today there is no Crosby, and it seems all of hockey is suffering. Including Ovechkin.
But as Crosby, just 24, waits out the side effects of what everybody fears was another concussion, and this one brought on far too easily, a troubling thought occurs.
What if we’re seeing the beginning of the end of Sid the Kid?
I know, we’re not supposed to say these things out loud. But the facts are the facts.
After missing the second half of last season with a concussion, Crosby still had symptoms when this season began. And when he finally made it back, he lasted all of eight games.
Crosby is threatening to become the modern day Bobby Orr, the best player in the game cut down in his prime by an injury modern medicine doesn’t have a very good grasp of.
With Orr it was his knees, which in the 1970s were treated savagely, compared to how we’d treat the same injuries today.
Instead of a scalpel slicing through tendons and muscle just to get at a tiny piece of cartilage, today’s knee often sees nothing more intrusive than a scope.
One wonders if, 40 years from now, we’ll look back at the way we treat brain injuries and shake our heads.
Both Orr and Crosby broke into the NHL at 18 and immediately became stars. Both were first-team all-stars by Year 2, Stanley Cup winners in Year 4. Both averaged 1.4 points per game.
Orr began losing the bone-on-bone battle with his knees when he was 27. Over the next two years he’d play just 30 games, then sit out a season altogether, before giving it one more, painfully brief try in 1978, then calling it quits — at 30.
The game wasn’t the same without him.
And it’s not the same without Crosby.
Veteran Jets goalie Chris Mason doesn’t quite go back to the days of Boston’s No. 4, but he uses a similar comparison.
“It’s enormous,” Mason said of Crosby’s absence, Thursday. “He’s the face of the NHL right now, internationally, North America — he’s the best player in the game. He’s a great ambassador, somebody that probably 99% of Canadian kids look up to as an idol.
“He’s like Wayne Gretzky, when I was growing up. I can’t imagine having lost Wayne Gretzky in the prime of his career, when he was 24, 25 years old. That would have been pretty devastating for the game. It’s the same magnitude here. It would be a terrible loss to lose Sidney Crosby to a concussion at this point.”
That seems unanimous, whether you play against him, cheer against him or simply observe, and admire, in neutrality.
“Obviously when you play against teams like that and their star players aren’t in, it’s easier to win games,” the Jets’ Eric Fehr, a former Washington Capital and, therefore, heated Crosby rival, said. “At the same time the league needs him.”
Over in the dressing room of Fehr’s former team, full agreement.
“As much as I hate him on the ice, he’s a big part of the NHL,” Capitals defenceman John Erskine said. “It’s not good for the game.”
“It’s unfortunate he had a setback again,” Caps head coach Dale Hunter said, “because he is one of the faces of the league, just like Ovechkin is ... We need them in our league.”
Even the Great Eight himself, who’s chirped at and exchanged elbows with the Kid, who’s always been compared to him — “Crosby has a Stanley Cup, and you don’t” — acknowledges things just aren’t right without No. 87.
“I hope he’s going to be back soon,” Ovechkin said.