Penguins center Sidney Crosby hasn't been cleared to play after suffering… (Andy Clark / Reuters )
Reporting from Calgary, Canada — Talk about a perfect (hockey) storm.
Don Cherry goes on national television in Canada on Thursday night and calls three now-retired enforcers "turncoats," "pukes" and "hypocrites," claiming they had flipped on their NHL brothers and wanted fighting out of the game.
At least he didn't call Brendan Shanahan, the NHL's new disciplinarian, any of the aforementioned words, but Cherry did rip Shanahan and the league's attempt to crack down on head shots, saying that if players are given an excuse not to hit, "they will not hit."
Then, who should arrive in town less than 24 hours after the debate had been reignited but favorite son Sidney Crosby, the same Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins who has not been able to play in an NHL game for nine months because of lingering post-concussion issues.
His status has triggered debate about head shots and the way the game should be played, renewing the conversation in Canada and the United States. Crosby, though improving significantly, has yet to be cleared to resume contact.
"Everyone is always going to have opinions," Crosby said after practice Friday at the Saddledome, referring to the likes of Cherry and TV analyst Mike Milbury. "They're going to have really strong opinions, so I think it's a matter of adjusting.
"Nobody wants to see the physical play taken out of hockey. I said before, you talk about that stat, there's 50,000 hits a year and you're talking about maybe taking out 50. I don't think we change the game. The game is faster probably than it's ever been. Guys have to make sure they're smart and responsible. It's still a pretty good product out there. I think everyone can agree with that."
The product has suffered from the continued absence of Crosby, 24. He was a spectator when Pittsburgh won in a shootout against the Canucks in the season opener Thursday night in Vancouver, the place where Crosby cemented his legacy with his gold-medal-winning overtime goal for Canada at the Olympics in 2010.
Still, he has not been wallowing in self-pity. Crobsy looks fit and has enjoyed being with his teammates again, taking solace in the symptom-free days, which turned into symptom-free weeks. He is expected to consult with his team of medical experts once the Penguins return home from this short trip.
"I've gone as hard as I can and tried to push it as much as I can," Crosby said. "And I've responded well. It's more a matter of time than pushing that next level. If there is a next level, it would be contact and how I respond to that. Everything else leading up to this point has gone well."
The summer of Sid was a wild one in terms of rumors. Crosby didn't speak to the media until early September, and the guesswork regarding his sketchy future reached the silly stage, a byproduct of his stature in the sport and the speed of the Internet.
Pittsburgh Coach Dan Bylsma wasn't about to pester Crosby with continuous questions during the off-season.
"I knew what his situation was. I knew how he was doing, generally knew his schedule and I pretty much left him alone," Bylsma said.
"I did know what was ridiculous, and most of it was ridiculous."
Ridiculous is also how many described Cherry's comments. On Friday, he did go on a Toronto radio show to say he regretted using the word "pukes" in describing retired tough guys Chris Nilan, Jim Thomson and Stu Grimson.
Grimson, who is a lawyer in Nashville and played for the Kings and Ducks, said he was "stunned and perplexed" by Cherry's attack.
"I challenge Don to point to any news article where I've been quoted saying, first of all, that I am for an outright ban on fighting and, No. 2 , the role of enforcer somehow causes this lifelong addiction to drugs and alcohol," Grimson said in a telephone interview. "I've never said either of those things."
In fact, Grimson took issue with some in the hockey community who attempted to link the recent deaths of three enforcers. He had to retire because of post-concussion syndrome.
"I do take some comfort in that any informed hockey fan, hockey player up there recognizes that Don Cherry is just not somebody to be taken all that seriously," Grimson said. "Ever. And certainly any more.
"He's a little bit like that eccentric old uncle that sits down at the far end of the table at Christmas dinner and every now and then he breaks into the conversation and interrupts with something completely illogical and hard to comprehend. Then everybody goes back to the discussion, kind of shaking their head."