PITTSBURGH, Pa. - Sidney Crosby is one final step away from returning to the NHL.
The Pittsburgh Penguins captain shed the white no-contact helmet he has worn for nearly a month and was a full participant in a morning skate Thursday after being cleared to absorb hits in practice for the first time since sustaining a concussion in January.
Crosby still must show he can handle contact with no concussion-related problems before he can play in games but, after being symptom free for weeks, he admittedly is "excited" to be that much closer to returning to the sport he was dominating when he was hurt.
"It's a good step in the right direction," said Crosby, sweat still pouring off his face following the half-hour practice. "It's a big step … it's a big one and we'll see how things go."
Crosby didn't throw any checks or accept any as the Penguins mostly skated and went through shooting drills in advance of their game against the Washington Capitals. Still, Crosby said he won't be reluctant to instigate contact when he does practice.
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said there is no firm timetable for Crosby's return to games. Neither Bylsma nor Crosby dropped any hints whether it might be — mere days or, perhaps more likely, a few weeks.
"But I don't think it's hard to be patient at this point," said the 24-year-old Crosby. "I'm getting closer and I want to make sure I respond well in the next however long it is."
Crosby's doctors said there were still stages he must go through before playing again, although Crosby said it is relatively simple what he must do.
To him, he simply must show he can handle any and all contact without a recurrence of any of his previously suffered symptoms, such as headaches, dizziness, an inability to concentrate, sensitivity to loud noises or bright lights.
"Hockey-wise, it's just get hit," he said.
The concussion that has kept the NHL's signature star sidelined since Jan. 5 occurred when he was shaken by hard hits from the Capitals' David Steckel and the Lightning's Victor Hedman in successive games during the first week of January.
While the Penguins initially said Crosby had a mild concussion, it was anything but. Instead, it affected his vestibular system, which controls a body's stability and movement. For months, even the simple act of walking with people around him, or of trying to concentrate while watching TV, proved troublesome.
He initially rejoined the Penguins for practice on March 31 but, by the midway point of their first-round playoff series loss to Tampa Bay, he was sidelined again because of concussion-related problems.
When Crosby finally returned to the ice this summer — mostly skating and shooting the puck — his symptoms returned again when he elevated his exertion rate. It wasn't until a couple of weeks before training camp began than he finally began feeling like himself.
On Thursday, Crosby said he has been symptom-free since then and, after handling every training camp drill and every workout without problems, he is ready to see if he can take the final step.
"Yeah, I've been good since around (the start of) camp," he said. "Everything's gone pretty smooth."
Bylsma said it will help that Crosby went through a full camp, which usually isn't the case when a player is returning from a long injury layoff.
"Going through training camp, (from) where he came from, was significant and helped with that process. He's been with a line, he's been in full drills, even in some drills that had contact although he had the non-contact helmet. It's significantly different than coming back halfway through season," Bylsma said. "That helps with the situation."
One complication is that while Crosby can now take part in every phrase of practice, the Penguins aren't practising much. They're beginning the season by playing six games in 10 days and eight in 13 days.
That means Bylsma might have to create some contact-heavy drills especially for Crosby, who said no drill can replicate getting a full-speed, high-impact hit like those that occur in a game.
Bylsma also knows that all of Crosby's teammates will be reluctant to be the first to hit the multi-season all-star.
"But he instigates contact and he'll do something that will warrant that from a player," Bylsma said. "There will be some jostling and hitting going on. Every training camp, he's always ended up in some jostling with players and that will happen because of the way Sid competes."
Crosby joked he might have to be the one to initiate the contact — even if it's with 260-pound enforcer Steve MacIntyre.
"Maybe have to bump them a little bit and get them going. (Get it as) close to a game situation as we can get it," Crosby said.
Crosby was cleared after meeting with neuropsychologist Michael (Micky) Collins, a concussion specialist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center who has been overseeing his recovery. Penguins team doctor Charles Burke also issued his approval.
"Basically, after I talked to the doctor, doing light stuff like that (practice drills) and feeling pretty good, the way I responded the last couple of weeks was a good sign," said Crosby. "We discussed things and we decided I was ready to kind of go to the next step here and go to full contact."
"Full go" are words the Penguins have been waiting to hear associated with Crosby for more than nine months. While it's not full go for games, it's a long-awaited step that has a team with Stanley Cup potential genuinely excited.
The NHL, too. No doubt the league is eager for the return of its marquee star, and the level of talent he brings, as quickly as possible. When he was hurt at the midpoint of last season, Crosby was scoring at a rate — 32 goals and 66 points in 41 games — unseen since Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux's 1995-96 season in Pittsburgh.
Even before what was turning into a career year was interrupted, Crosby had won a scoring title, an MVP award, a Stanley Cup and an Olympic gold medal by age 22. In 2009, he became the youngest captain of a Stanley Cup champion.
Despite being without Crosby, the Penguins gained seven of a possible eight points in their first four games, even with star centre Evgeni Malkin being held out for two of them.
Malkin, the former NHL scoring champion who had surgery to repair two torn right knee ligaments in February, missed games Sunday and Tuesday with soreness in the knee. Bylsma said such discomfort is common following a major knee operation.