Camp Tour: Sidney Crosby's appearance brings normalcy after tragic summer

PITTSBURGH -- The guy hasn't even stepped on the ice for his first formal workout of training camp, so perhaps we're reading far too much into this. But there was something about listening to Sidney Crosby on Friday morning that felt alarmingly like optimism.

After a summer of unspeakable tragedy that left the hockey world reeling, hearing Crosby talk about being cleared to at least skate with his Pittsburgh Penguins teammates (starting with the team's first drills Saturday morning) was akin to a fresh breeze. It was almost normal. And there is comfort in normal as NHL teams got back to the business of hockey around the continent Friday.

"I'm cleared to practice without contact, so that's good news for me. [I'm] excited to get going," Crosby said Friday morning after players went through medicals. "Pretty happy with the way things have gone the last week or so. The exertion's been pretty high and that's where I'm at right now."

The game's biggest star, who suffered a concussion in early January and has not played since, has also not ruled out being cleared for contact during training camp.

"I hope everything goes well in the next little bit and I'm not ruling that out at all," he said. "But, at this point, I'm just kind of worried about this step and just getting through it.

"I think camp will be a pretty good indication. It's going to be pretty intense. Even without contact, I'm sure it'll be a pretty good pace, so I'll see how things go then."

A week ago, when Crosby, Penguins GM Ray Shero and two top concussion doctors met with the media to update his status for the first time since late April, there was optimism, but it was guarded at best. All parties agreed Crosby would not play in an NHL game until he was 100-percent recovered. When that would be no one would hazard a guess. No one was guessing Friday, either, but somehow it just seemed that day may not be as far off as anticipated a week ago.

"It's hard to say what I've actually gone to [in terms of a percentage], but I feel like I've done pretty good tests of exertion at different points and responded pretty well," Crosby said. "So, yeah, I think the main thing is, I feel pretty comfortable and confident with where I'm at heading into camp here."

The Penguins will ice three different groups of players to start training camp and coach Dan Bylsma said Friday that Crosby will skate with the group that does not scrimmage each day.

"He'll be at the same pace and tempo that the other guys are going to be in," Bylsma said.

The defending coach of the year pointed out that Crosby has been skating with his teammates for a few days now in informal workouts, but acknowledged Saturday morning represents something else.

"But in terms of seeing Sidney Crosby on the ice in a jersey and participating in practice, I think it's always good to see," Bylsma said. "It's always been good to see that and he'll be out there with his teammates participating."

As for drawing a line from A (Saturday morning's workout) and B (seeing Crosby in game action), Bylsma wouldn't go there.

"There's no prediction, there's no idea of a prediction. It's not really something that we talk about in terms of 'can we put a prediction on it' or 'can we put a timeline on it,'" the coach said. "I think he's doing well. I think he's doing better, and when you see him on the ice participating, you're going to see a guy who looks a lot like Sidney Crosby looks on the ice. He's a talented player ... it's evident when he steps on the ice and that's a positive thing."

Hockey players are creatures of habit. They thrive on routine and disdain things that take them out of those routines. Crosby has been out of the NHL loop now for almost nine months as he's struggled to return from this concussion. His media conference last week was the first time he spoke publicly about his condition since the end of April. But Friday morning was different. He was sitting at his stall in the Penguins' dressing room surrounded by reporters.

That's part of his routine, as it is for captains and elite players around the league. It doesn't mean he likes it, necessarily, but it's part of his gig. He was asked if he thought this camp would be any more "special" to him given what he's endured these past months.

"I don't know about special," he said. "I think I'm just excited to be with the guys and practice with the team and prepare and go through all the fun stuff of being a hockey player. As challenging as it is, as tough as it is, that's why you play the game -- to go through this process, so [I'm] happy to be a part of it."

One player doesn't define an entire league. The game went on without Crosby after early January. There were compelling stories and dramatic playoff series. The same will be true if he cannot start the season in Vancouver on Oct. 6. But even those who aren't fans of Crosby or the Penguins have to acknowledge the game is a richer place for having Crosby in it.

And it is a richer place for having Crosby on the ice, even if it is just the first set of drills at training camp.

After a long summer of too many hard stories, it's refreshing, even liberating, to tell a different story, even if it is a small one.