Sidney Crosby is a polarizing figure in hockey. Everyone has an opinion on him, whether they think he is the best player in the game or not (for the record, I think he is).
But Crosby has been in the spotlight over the last year not for his dazzling on-ice abilities, but as a victim of concussions due to getting hit in the head.
Sid the Kid was on pace to shatter modern NHL scoring records when he was felled by back-to-back concussions in early January 2011, and he didn't return to the ice until November 2011.
In that time, the Penguin's star used his profile as the face of the NHL to advocate for changes, calling for head shots to be removed from the game.
And change indeed did happen thanks to Crosby.
In the Stanley Cup Finals, the NHL decided to draw a new line on what was allowable, suspending Aaron Rome for an unprecedented four games for the kind of hit that made Scott Stevens a star.
This was unprecedented both due to the length of the suspension and because the NHL changed the rules (or interpreted them differently from one game to the next) during the most important playoff series of the year.
And during the offseason, Brendan Shanahan took over as the NHL's sheriff, with a mandate supported by official rule changes (unlike the Rome suspension in the finals) to remove intentional head shots from the game.
And this all came about because of Sidney Crosby.
Prior to Sid getting smoked by David Steckel and Victor Hedman, we saw plenty of head hits and blindside hits that caused outrage, but nothing changed in terms of enforcement.
Matt Cooke ended the career of Marc Savard.
Mike Richards took David Booth out for most of a season.
The Penguins' own Evgeni Malkin forced Willie Mitchell into a dark room for six months after a dangerous hit.
But until the face of the NHL was lost to concussion and started using his soap box to advocate for change, there was a lot of talk and no real changes.
And Crosby has been the story this week, returning to the Penguins and registering seven points (two goals, five assists) in his first three games.
Crosby should also been in the spotlight for another incident that occurred in a game against the Ottawa Senators on November 25th. Senator Nick Foligno got tangled up with Marc Andre Fleury and landed on the Penguins' goaltender.
Crosby was the Pens player on the spot, and he responded as he should have to defend his goalie, landing a few cross-checks on Foligno in the crease as play continued on along the boards.
But when Foligno responded with a cross-check of his own, Crosby decided to escalate and throw an elbow into the face of Foligno. The end result was Crosby with an elbowing minor, and luckily Foligno wasn't injured.
The man who spent all summer talking about how the players need to respect each other and the NHL needs to step up with discipline, who had a personal crusade to eliminate head shots from the NHL to make it safer for players, threw a head shot himself in his first week back from concussion.
"It's not a big deal, but it is something that he preached all summer about that we should limit that and then he goes and does it, so I was just a little disappointed," Foligno said to TSN after the game.
It makes Crosby look like a hypocrite, doesn't it?
And if the NHL doesn't at least review the situation, it will just undercut any future actions by Shanahan, as it fuels the perception that there is a second set of rules for stars (or make that a third set of rules, as there already is a second set for Bruins, just ask Ryan Miller).
I'm betting the NHL just sweeps it under the carpet, not wanting to damage the good PR Crosby has generated this week.
Now, I said above that Crosby decided to throw the elbow, but did he really? That he threw an elbow isn't up for debate.
But was it a conscious decision or was it reflex?
I'm betting on reflex. It takes a long time to change muscle memory and conditioned responses. Just look at how long it took players to stop hooking and holding when the rules changed after the lockout.
We'll see a similar learning curve on the new head shot rules.
But that doesn't change the fact that Crosby himself missed 10 months due to head shots and then couldn't even go a week without throwing one himself.
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