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Updated 38 minutes ago
Playing hockey in an NFL stadium provided Sidney Crosby with one of his most memorable moments and one the Penguins star wishes he could forget.
Crosby's shootout goal surrounded by snowflakes in the inaugural Winter Classic provided a 2-1 victory over the Buffalo Sabres at Ralph Wilson Stadium and sparked the Penguins' run to the 2008 Stanley Cup Final.
The blindside hit to Crosby's head by Washington Capitals center David Steckel in the 2011 Winter Classic at Heinz Field caused a concussion that led to the darkest days of Crosby's career.
When the Penguins play the Philadelphia Flyers in an NHL Stadium Series game Saturday at Heinz Field, Crosby has a chance to change that storyline.
“I'm looking for a bit better outcome than last time,” Crosby said. “Playing outside is something that's special, no matter where it is. To be here at home again and, hopefully, have a better memory of playing outside, that's kind of the way I'm looking at it.
“We're pretty lucky. There's a lot of teams that would love to have the opportunity to play as many outdoor games as we've had — and to be able to host a couple of them is even better.”
If the NHL wants to market its marquee player to stage such special events, the league owes it to Crosby to put player safety at a premium.
The game should be played at optimum conditions, especially considering this unusually warm weather. If that means delaying or postponing the start time, then so be it.
The 2011 Winter Classic was played in the rain and at night, and the one player typically most aware of his surroundings was caught off-guard.
“It's such a weird play all around, to collide the way we did,” Crosby said. “When you're out there, the rink definitely feels a little smaller just because your whole perception of things is different.
“It's hard to say. I could watch it 100 times and still not be able to tell. It's just one of those things that there's no great explanation. It's just one of those things that happened.”
Crosby was playing at the peak of his career, averaging 1.6 points a game, when the concussion cost him 101 games over two seasons.
Who knows how many scoring titles, if not Stanley Cup championships, the injury cost Crosby and the Penguins?
“Until months went by, you didn't really know the implication of one hit that was something that caught a guy on the side of the chin,” said Penguins left wing Chris Kunitz, Crosby's longtime linemate.
“It wasn't like a chippy game and someone took a shot. It was something after that was played over and over because of how many games lost and what it cost him to be at his peak and not be able to play those games.”
Six years later, Crosby once again has 66 points entering the outdoor game — an ominous number, given Mario Lemieux's history of injury and illness in his prime.
If there's a positive, it's that Crosby's concussion forced the NHL to take traumatic brain injuries more seriously and overhaul the protocol.
“That was definitely an unfortunate thing that happened in that game,” said Penguins center Eric Fehr, who played for the Capitals in '11. “You never want to see somebody get injured, especially not one of the league's top stars. That was tough for the whole league for almost a year after that.
“... That was the most talked-about story, the most talked-about hit the whole year. In the last couple years, they've been more cautious about concussions. You tried to pay a little bit more attention to it. Before that, I don't know how talked about it was. We had some rules and different procedures put in place to try to protect the players.”
Not that Crosby wants to be the poster boy for concussion, or that he enjoys even discussing his history at Heinz Field.
Trust me, he doesn't.
There is a risk that comes with playing outdoors, even if it reminds NHL players of pond hockey. The league has every reason to celebrate its centennial anniversary, as do the Penguins their 50th, by honoring the game's heritage.
Since that fateful game at Heinz Field, hyped by HBO's 24/7 series previewing the event, Crosby has played in a Stadium Series game at Chicago's Soldier Field in 2014.
So, Crosby isn't as star-crossed about playing at Heinz Field as you might expect. He's expressed excitement about playing there again, with no reservations except for how small the rink seems inside the 67,000-seat stadium.
And I'm not suggesting Sid sit this one out. This isn't some exhibition event. It's a regular-season game, and the two points at stake are important in a competitive Metropolitan Division race.
“When you think about it, you immediately go back to that game. That's your initial reaction. Your thoughts go back to that game,” Crosby said. “The good thing is, we've played an outdoor game in Chicago since then. If anything, it'll be fun to have an opportunity to hopefully have a better outcome than the last one.”
This represents a chance for Crosby to play an outdoor game in Pittsburgh and leave the ice on his own terms.
“Not so much rewrite the script, but have a better experience as far as trying to enjoy the moment,” Crosby said. “You get to play in different things. That was our second outdoor game at the time. You think it's going to be something you're going to get to do a lot, so you maybe take it for granted that you'll get to play in things like that. You go from thinking it's going to be a great experience to almost not playing for a year.”
Crosby wants another unforgettable memory, not the other way around.
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