As Sidney Crosby circled the ice at SAP Center with the Stanley Cup raised over his head Sunday, seven years to the day after the last time he had the honor, it was almost easy to forget the hell the Pittsburgh Penguins captain had endured.
After all, it wasn't that long ago that Crosby himself questioned whether he'd be able to play again.
For many, the lasting image of Crosby is of the 21-year-old kid who led the Pens to a championship in 2009, the youngest captain in NHL history to do so. At the time, Pittsburgh looked like a team with the potential to become a dynasty (the Penguins had lost in the final the season before), and Crosby, who had scored 15 goals in 24 playoff games, was the guy who was going to lead them there.
But the hockey gods had other plans, and by early 2011, Crosby found himself battling a rash of injuries that put his team's drive toward greatness on hold while putting his own future in the league in jeopardy.
The downturn started on New Year's Day 2011, when Crosby, at the time the reigning Richard Trophy winner as the NHL's leading goal-scorer, took a blindside hit to the head from David Steckel of the Washington Capitals during Pittsburgh's Winter Classic game at Heinz Field. Though Crosby was shaken up on the play, he stayed in the game, not realizing the damage that had been done.
Four days later, Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman checked Crosby into the boards, causing Crosby's head to hit the glass behind the Tampa Bay net. Once again, Crosby remained in the game, but two days later, Pens coach Dan Bylsma told reporters Crosby had suffered a mild concussion and estimated that Crosby could be sidelined a week as he recovered.
Instead, Crosby missed the rest of the season, which ended with Pittsburgh squandering a 3-1 series lead during a first-round loss to the Lightning. Meanwhile, Crosby's father was forced to refute reports that he had urged his son to retire as a result of the injury. Those rumors were exacerbated by the fact that Crosby was still not ready to return by the start of the 2011-12 season.
Crosby eventually did take the ice, making his season debut Nov. 21, 2011, against the New York Islanders. Crosby scored two goals in his return, but he was benched yet again in December following a big hit in his eighth game back. Crosby finally returned in March but appeared in only 28 total games, including all six games of a first-round loss to the Philadelphia Flyers.
Still, Pittsburgh showed extreme faith in their golden goose, signing Crosby to a 12-year extension in the summer of 2012 despite having their star for only 63 games during the previous two seasons. The start of the following season was then delayed by a lockout, and after an initially productive return, Crosby missed 13 games after taking a Brooks Orpik slapshot to the mouth.
Crosby subsequently returned for all but the first game of the playoffs, but Pittsburgh was ultimately swept by the Boston Bruins in the conference final. And several months later, in an interview with the CBC, Crosby admitted that he'd questioned whether the concussions that plagued him for years might someday keep him off the ice for good.
"It crosses your mind," Crosby told the network. "I think when you're not able to do your everyday things, let alone be a professional athlete, be at that level you need to be at -- I mean, that seems like it's miles away. So yeah, absolutely that crosses your mind. I'd be lying if I said it didn't."
By the time the 2013-14 season started, however, Crosby appeared to be back to his old self. That season, Crosby led the league in assists and points and brought home a host of postseason awards, and the following season, Crosby played in 77 games. However, Crosby's reputation as a glass-jawed player had seemingly been established, just as Pittsburgh had been tagged as a playoff flameout -- a label that was further earned in consecutive postseason eliminations at the hands of the New York Rangers.
But this was the year that changed all that, thanks in large part to the play of the inimitable centerman Crosby, who was awarded the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP.
After a slow start to the season, Crosby scored 30 goals and added 36 assists in his final 52 games. Then he scored three goals and added five assists as Pittsburgh exorcised its demons against the Rangers in the first round. And while Evgeni Malkin and newcomers Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel have all been crucial to the Penguins' long-awaited return to the top, one can't help but feel a particular empathy for Crosby, who couldn't be blamed if he thought he'd never have the opportunity.
Once the fresh-faced symbol of the Penguins' future, Crosby survived a three-year low point that could have defined him for good and emerged as a seasoned veteran who could still, yet, lead Pittsburgh to the heights that once seemed inevitable.
Earlier this week, Wayne Gretzky described Crosby as the best player in hockey, and at this point it's hard to argue that he's wrong. Crosby's skills were never up for debate, of course, but his brittleness gave many cause to pause, making his return to form all the more inspiring. And while there's no guarantee that another concussion won't someday put Crosby back on a path toward becoming an Eric Lindros-like cautionary tale, that's the farthest thing from his mind right now.
Simply put, whether you love him or hate him, Crosby's resilience has been remarkable. And after what he's gone through over the years, he deserves this moment -- a championship and another celebratory lap around the rink that that, frankly, is long overdue.
You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.