If Sidney Crosby is healthy enough to play a tough, six-game series against the Philadelphia Flyers, he’s healthy enough to play for Team Canada at the IIHF World Championships in Finland and Sweden.
“I feel pretty good,” Crosby told reporters after declining an invitation to play for Canada following the Pittsburgh Penguins’ elimination from the NHL playoffs. “The last year and a half has been tough. It’s been tough to stay healthy. I think the best thing to do is give myself a full summer to get ready for next year and have a full season.”
Crosby missed 101 NHL games over the past two seasons due to concussion-related injuries. But he played in the Penguins’ final 14 regular season games and over 20 minutes per game in a 4-2 first-round series loss to the Flyers in which he seldom shied away from contact despite his history of head and neck injuries.
The Penguins wouldn’t risk letting their star player return unless they were certain he was 100 per cent healthy – and Crosby himself declared throughout his stay on the IR that he wouldn’t play until he was sure he would be the same player he was prior to his first head injury in January 2011.
And he was the same player when he came back. Crosby finished with 37 points in 22 regular-season games and had eight points in the six games against Philly.
So if Crosby was healthy enough to play for the Penguins – including one particularly rough playoff game in which he twice got involved in fights – why can’t he pull on the maple leaf to play for his home country at the finesse-first World Championships?
Make no mistake, Crosby isn’t the only player to decline an invitation to play for Canada. Jonathan Toews and Patrice Bergeron declined in order to heal injuries. Eric Staal declined in order to spend time with his newborn son. Jarome Iginla, Rick Nash and Steve Stamkos flat out said no.
And yes, the Worlds have long been considered a consolation prize for players whose teams didn’t make the NHL playoffs or were eliminated in the first round. It’s an annual event that doesn’t have the same lustre as the World Juniors or Olympics. Canada failed to medal in 2011 and hasn’t won gold since 2007.
But still. Many players would never refuse an opportunity to represent their country at an international tournament. Ask Ryan Smyth – nicknamed “Captain Canada” – who played seven straight World Championships between 1999 and 2005 despite the rigours of a long NHL season or niggling injuries. Or ask Sean Burke, who played 156 games for Canada over his career. Or ask Wayne Gretzky, who played every international game he could in honour of his home country – and to help promote the game to fans around the globe.
The fact is, this year’s World Championships actually mean something beyond national pride. Canada has slipped to fifth in the IIHF rankings behind the Czech Republic, Finland, Sweden and Russia. The IIHF rankings determine which group teams will be slotted into at the 2014 Olympics, which could mean an easier path to the gold medal. Team Russia, in preparation for hosting the Games, will ice a strong team that features Pavel Datsyk, Semyon Varlamov and Crosby’s teammate and Hart Trophy favourite Evgeni Malkin.
Meanwhile, Canada will rely on a patchwork of young players like Jordan Eberle, Evander Kane, Teddy Purcell, Luke Schenn and Devan Dubnyk to improve the team’s position going into the Olympics – a tournament those players likely won’t even be invited to participate in.
Unless Crosby is still suffering from post-concussion symptoms – in which case, he should never have come back – he missed a golden opportunity to step up and show his pride for Canada by wearing the maple leaf in Finland and Sweden. Like Gretzky before him, he could have shown the world what the game’s best player looks like and garnered thousands of new fans beyond Pittsburgh’s city limits. He could have helped Canada going into the Olympics, proved that his head injuries are behind him and gotten some high-pressure game action going into the summer.
Instead, Crosby chose to say no.
It's not likely to happen, of course, but perhaps Team Canada should say the same when Crosby decides he wants to join them at the 2014 Olympics.