Marc Savard's future is sadly no surprise

It seems like a long time ago that we were sitting with Marc Savard in a downtown Atlanta restaurant talking about his long road back to the NHL.

It was December 2010, and Savard had already traveled such a long road, but he shared so much hope that day.

"Maybe this is a blessing in disguise," Savard said, looking out the window of that restaurant.

At the time, he was days from returning to the NHL after a long rehabilitation from his third career concussion, a devastating blindside hit courtesy of Matt Cooke of the Pittsburgh Penguins back on March 7, 2010.

He must have been imagining a future far different than the one that has unfolded for the talented center.

Boston Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli confirmed published reports Wednesday that Savard won't play this season and that his return to hockey at all remains in doubt.

Sadly, none of this comes as any real surprise.

A little more than a month after our luncheon meeting in Atlanta, we happened to be in Denver when Savard and the Bruins were playing an afternoon tilt. Early in the second period, Savard was taken heavily into the boards after a race for the puck with former teammate Matt Hunwick.

It was a tough but innocent play, so unlike the Cooke hit, and yet, as Savard went to the ice, was there anyone who didn't give a grim shake of the head and wonder, "Oh boy, what now?"

Savard left the Bruins' road trip and went back to Boston. He never played another game and made only periodic appearances at the rink as the Bruins went on to win their first Stanley Cup since 1972.

Although it was treated as breaking news, it would have been a much greater shock if Chiarelli had announced Savard was planning to return at some point this season.

That we have assumed the worst about Savard's future, given his past, speaks volumes about what confronts the NHL and its players in 2011.

Certainly part of that ominous thinking comes from education.

So much more is now known about the nature of blows to the head and concussions than even a decade ago.

Players are taking longer and longer to return from those injuries, the symptoms more keenly tracked, recovery matched against baseline tests. The sensitivity to the issue has never been greater even as the league wrestles with how to keep the game safe for its players. Every hard hit involving the head, whether it's deemed "clean" by the NHL's ever-evolving rule book or not, gives everyone pause.

And it should.

Yet, there is still so much unknown that we grapple with an element of the bogeyman when it comes to concussions and their aftereffects.

What is it that allows one player to get up and skate on without missing a beat, and causes another to miss weeks?

How do the game's masters keep the inherent physicality of the game, part of the game's DNA, while allowing for a game that doesn't see the casualties mount every season?

Maybe someday the NHL will stop fussing and squirming and simply ban all blows to the head. Until that point, these will be the stories that insinuate themselves into the daily discourse on the game.

It is why the uncertainty over Sidney Crosby's return from a concussion looms as "the story" of training camp.

The game's best player hasn't played since early January.

No one knows when he'll play again.

Some have wondered aloud -- whether for shock value or out of some real concern, we're not sure -- if Crosby's career is over.

It seems impossible, even absurd, that a chance collision between Washington's David Steckel and Crosby during January's Winter Classic might end the career of someone as obviously special as Crosby. But when we see Wednesday's news out of Boston and if we're honest, we accept the reality that any shift can be the last shift regardless of a player's pedigree. Given Crosby's long absence from the game, it is natural to wonder about the worst. Thanks to Savard, we know what the worst can mean.

Crosby is not alone, of course.

Pierre-Marc Bouchard missed 104 games for the Minnesota Wild while recovering from concussions issues.

David Perron hasn't played since early November and won't be ready for the start of the season after a cheap shot from Joe Thornton.

Let's assume that both Perron and Crosby will return to action at some point. The manner in which the Savard story has played out will follow those skilled players like a shadow as they try to rediscover their games.

Every hard hit will bring an extra moment of "whoa," of wondering whether we are watching "the hit," the one that opens the door to the end.

That will be Crosby's lot in life. Perron's, too. And so on.

Savard played just 25 games last season. He scored twice and added eight assists before the Hunwick hit. In those games, Savard didn't look much like the player who'd amassed 359 points over a four-year span after the lockout.

But sitting in that Atlanta restaurant, Savard remained hopeful, not just for the return to the game but that his time away would make him a better person, a better teammate, father, husband.

His candid discussion about the depression he suffered after the Cooke hit and his thoughts of retirement last summer were a breath of fresh air. Chiarelli said that as soon as Savard opened up about his issues with depression, other GMs called saying they had players with similar issues.

In the end, the future Savard envisioned was very different from the one he encountered. Here's hoping that hard road wasn't traveled in vain.