To say that Andrew Luck shocked the entire sports world on Saturday night would be a gross understatement.
Despite standing at the top of his profession while just days away from an NFL season in which early projections had pegged the Indianapolis Colts as potential Super Bowl contenders, Luck’s seemingly never-ending cycle of injuries and rehabilitation — in which he’d admittedly been trapped for the past four years — proved too much to bear.
To him, what came next was simple. Facing yet another early-season stint on the IR and a gruelling path back to the field, the 29-year-old quarterback did what any otherwise sensible person with the requisite financial security and long-term concern for their health would do: he retired.
Luck’s decision, frankly, was entirely rational — albeit only when stripped of the context of sport. What else did he have to prove? Injury- and rehab-induced isolation had robbed him of his competitive fire. In Luck’s mind, it was simply time.
The watching public, though, could not remove that context. It’s ingrained within their experience, making Saturday’s news a legitimate sucker punch that was felt nation-wide. NO ONE saw it coming. Many people believed ESPN’s Adam Schefter, the reporter who broke the news, had been hacked.
Of course, he wasn’t. And now days removed from the official announcement, the tremors of Luck’s retirement have still not ceased, and likely won’t for quite some time.
For a legitimate superstar, a borderline generational talent, to walk away from the game before the age of 30 may come as a complete shock. Doing so on his own accord only adds to the confusion. But make no mistake, Luck’s decision will not be the last of its kind. His choice birthed a phenomenon that is only just beginning, and fans may not like its end.
As the long-term effects of contact sports continue to reveal themselves in greater and more frightening detail year after year, questions as to whether the long-term risk balances out the short-term reward will begin to permeate the mind of every athlete.
Eventually, those questions will filter into hockey, too.
For most, the answer will be simple. One’s love of the game will not be tempered by mere studies. In fact, it can’t be. It’s just not that cut-and-dry. For every Andrew Luck, there are thousands upon thousands of professional other athletes with livelihoods that depend on stipulations as minute as roster bonuses, and whose lack of financial security forces them to treat these long-term effects for what they are: long-term.
Others may see things differently, though. And by “others”, it will be those who can.
Luck’s professional standing is what precipitated his decision. The money and respect he’d earned first as a former top draft pick and then as top-five NFL quarterback for practically the entirety of his seven-year career guaranteed Luck a future outside of football that would be just as fruitful, if not more so, than the one he’d have inside of it.
That is not the case for 99.9% of his peers. Then again, maybe it doesn’t have to be.
At the moment, Sidney Crosby is one ill-timed hit away from succumbing to Luck’s fate. His decision won’t benefit from the luxury of freedom Luck’s was given. One more hit, and Crosby won’t have a choice.
Of course, the Luck-to-Crosby comparison is not a perfect one, at least from the standpoint of pure performance. Crosby was hockey’s best player for the better part of the past decade and arguably still holds that mantle to date, while Luck, on the other hand, has yet to ever reach football’s ultimate apex and now likely never will.
But these two aren’t exactly polar opposites, either. In fact, the careers of Luck and Crosby share more than a few notable traits. Traits that could foreshadow a similar end.
First, the ancillary: as a pair of former number one overall picks, both Luck and Crosby were anointed as their given sports’ “Chosen One” before even setting foot on a professional playing surface. Subsequently selected by teams with matching midwest locales and rich histories of success, both players entered organizations wherein the performance of any newcomer would be instantly judged against that of a recently-departed franchise icon — for Luck, it was Peyton Manning; for Crosby, Mario Lemieux.
The parallels don’t stop there, however. Despite putting forth debut seasons the likes of which, if observed within a vacuum, would have been hailed as historic, both Luck and Crosby watched as their league’s supposed “flashier” rookie took home that year’s hardware; Alexander Ovechkin won the Calder Trophy in 2006, Robert Griffin III was named the 2012 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.
But these similarities are, as mentioned, ancillary. They’re interesting tidbits meant to fill the comment section of one’s fantasy league.
Where the trajectories of Luck and Crosby truly, and meaningfully, align is on the topic of their health.
Crosby’s medical history is typically underscored by his repeated bouts with concussions. It’s a history that is both seemingly distant and terrifyingly real.
From October of 2011 to May of 2012, concussions or concussion-like symptoms forced Crosby to miss a combined 101 total games, with yet another concussion, this time in 2016, sidelining him for the first six games of the season after an apparent mishap in practice. Roughly one year later, Crosby was then held out of Game Four of Pittsburgh’s Eastern Conference Semi-Final series with the Washington Capitals due to a concussion he sustained from a dangerous collision in Game Three.
That last instance, in particular, is important to note.
Crosby never should have played another game in the 2017 playoffs. Given his brutal and repeated battles with head trauma in years past — those which, at one point, threatened to rob the sport of its greatest current player — Pittsburgh’s medical staff not only allowed their franchise pillar to return to game action following a mere one-game absence, but they permitted him to participate in an official team practice as well just four days after Crosby was cross-checked in the head while skating at nearly full speed.
For comparison, the GTHL, the Greater Toronto Area’s premier minor hockey league, enforces a rule that bars any player who has been diagnosed with a concussion, minor as it may be, from participating in on-ice activities for a minimum of seven days. The NHL, apparently, doesn’t.
It took Crosby 78 seconds to return to his feet under the assistance of two surrounding teammates. And while he later made an effort to frame his speedy return as a decision of his own, Crosby did so while also noting “It’s not really up to me”.
Contrast Crosby’s experience to that of Luck, now, and you’ll find parallels that are much more than ancillary.
Following three initial injury-free seasons, Luck’s first extended medical absence came via a sprained shoulder in Week Three of 2015. In the grand scheme of things, though, the aliment seemed relatively minor. Luck missed just two weeks and returned to action in Week Six without skipping a statistical beat. All appeared to be fine. But the precipice of Luck’s downward health spiral was waiting right around the corner.
One month removed from his recovery from the sprained shoulder, Luck reportedly woke up on the morning after a win over the Denver Broncos and noticed blood in his urine. Obviously, this was cause for alarm. Alerting the Colts medical staff, Luck was then diagnosed with a rap sheet that was more befitting of a war veteran than a football player: a lacerated kidney, partially torn abdominal muscle and, as would eventually be revealed at the end of the season, torn cartilage in his ribs.
The wasn’t that simple, however. As The Indianapolis Star’s Stephen Holder would later report, Luck actually tore that cartilage during the same game in which he originally sprained his shoulder. Regular injections of painkillers were then required for him to continue playing, with the team never choosing to step in and preserve their star quarterback.
And yet, even in light of these revelations, even after the Colts’ were made aware of the near-insurmountable pain their most important player was permitted, by them, to deal with, the team reportedly did not “intend to place Luck on injured reserve because of the kidney injury, the thinking being that he could play in the postseason if the Colts somehow overcome nearly impossible odds and qualify.”
Just as the Penguins seemingly did with Crosby, Luck’s employer decided that the allure of possible postseason glory outweighed the potential long-term health implications which threatened their franchise face.
Crosby returned to the Penguins lineup one game after succumbing to head trauma on national television. Luck hit the field for Week One of the 2016 season and played all the way through to November, before a concussion landed him back on the sidelines.
Luck would return to action one game later.
At what point is a fifth, a sixth, or a seventh concussion one too many? At what point does a person simply say “enough”?
Hockey doesn’t know the answer that question yet. And, in all likelihood, the person who shows them will not be Crosby. The 32-year-old hails from a generation in which the facade of “toughness” is built upon ignorance of pain. To them, injuries, like most things in sports, are ancillary. To them, nothing matches the love of the game.
Those from Crosby’s era play ascribe to the “play now, hurt later” mentality. Their stories of pain earn status as monuments to their honour, repeatedly heaped with praise in lieu of questions that ask why they were even allowed to happen in the first place.
You know them well.
Gregory Campbell threw himself before blistering slapshots on a broken leg; Rich Peverly asked to be put back in a game despite, seconds prior, having suffered a heart attack; Patrice Bergeron played through Game 6 of the 2013 Stanley Cup Final with, among other things, a punctured lung. Those are only a few examples.
Talking heads and bygone commentators alike will continue to pine over these displays of “heart” and “grit” and “pugnacity” long after the players who actually endured them begin to feel the brunt of their effects. Why wouldn’t they, after all? The sport established long ago that preserving hockey’s old school aura takes preference over harsh reality.
That is, until now.
Crosby’s generation is no longer the most recent. As the NHL continues to usher in its next wave of enticing young stars, this new generation has begun to reclaim the otherwise entitled rights a culture of silence and conformity had barred Crosby’s from. These rights extend all across the proverbial board, from negotiating power, to free agency, contract term, and, notably, health.
The modern NHLer has never been in more control of their own body.
Not simply seen in the use of maintenance days and optional skates, today’s player and, particularly, today’s star, has final say over their own status. Auston Matthews can ease himself back from a separated shoulder instead of playing through it, doing so without the threat of internal ostracization. That is a choice Crosby, at the same age, would not have had.
Of course, the balance of power still leans in the direction it always has, especially for those who lack the status of a Matthews (Zach Hyman did play half of a playoff series on a torn ACL, after all). But this step forward, incremental as it may be, is visible nonetheless.
Sweeping change doesn’t happen overnight.
Perched at the beginning of an entirely new era, the most health-conscious, forward-thinking, and collectively aware generation in NHL history just witnessed an athlete at the top of his profession make the conscious choice to place his own health and wellbeing above the only life he’s ever known. And not only that, they saw him get praised for it. Universally, so. Those factors are hard to ignore.
While initially earth-shattering, Andrew Luck‘s watershed decision to take back control of his own life may very well alter the way in which we view an athlete’s career. And maybe, for the first time, hockey will be at its forefront.
The quality of life of their athletes may depend on it.