Corey Crawford returns to practice, but he shouldn’t return to games this season

GLENDALE, Ariz. — It was a very simple question. But the four-second pause before Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford started talking and the five-second pause that came two words in made it clear there was a very complicated answer.

How is Crawford feeling?

‘‘Not bad,’’ he finally said. ‘‘It takes some time. . . . I want to get back playing, but it’s a process to get there.’’

Crawford took a giant step Monday in his recovery from a head injury, joining the Hawks on the ice for their morning skate for the first time since his last game Dec. 23. He took some shots from Patrick Sharp and Ryan Hartman before the skate officially began and did some other work with goaltending coach Jimmy Waite throughout the 40-minute session.

Corey Crawford hasn't played since Dec. 23. (AP Photo)

There still is no set target for his return, but there should be one: September.

The Hawks should shut down Crawford and stop flirting with the idea that he might return and somehow save this lost season.

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There are three priorities in play here. One is making the playoffs this season. Another is being at full strength for next season. And the last is Crawford’s long-term health and well-being. The first one almost certainly isn’t happening. The second one is more important. And the last one is by far the most significant.

Head injuries are as cruel and mysterious as they are dangerous, and the recoveries are often long and maddening. One day, you might feel like your old self; the next, you might need to spend the day in a room with the lights low and the curtains drawn. These things aren’t linear, nor are they predictable.

Former Bruins forward Marc Savard announced his retirement last month, nearly seven years after playing his last game, his prime years robbed by two concussions and their lingering effects. Penguins star Sidney Crosby missed the last 48 games of the 2010-11 season and the first 20 games of the next season with a concussion. Eight games later, he was back on the shelf for another 40 games as he continued to deal with the aftereffects of the head injury. And Hawks winger Marian Hossa surely would have missed the start of the 2012-13 season had it not been for the lockout, as he was dealing with concussion symptoms for months after being laid out by a dirty hit by the Coyotes’ Raffi Torres in the 2012 playoffs.

The good news? Crosby and Hossa eventually recovered and returned to an elite level of play. But every head injury is different. The nebulous timetable is a big part of why concussions are so frustrating — and so frightening. So this might be the one silver lining in the dark cloud that has hovered over this Hawks season: They’re so far out of the playoff picture that there’s simply no reason to consider bringing Crawford back this season. Training camp opens in seven months. Give him all seven to get right — and to be sure he really is right.

Coach Joel Quenneville said Monday that shutting down Crawford hasn’t been discussed internally yet. And Crawford, as you’d expect, bristled at the idea.

‘‘First of all, our team always has a chance, every game,’’ Crawford said. ‘‘You never count this team out. . . . We’ve gone on streaks before, and no one has doubt that we can go on another streak and fire off a bunch of wins and put ourselves in a position. There’s no question about that at all. As far as I’m concerned, right now, for me, we’re just looking at it day-to-day to try to get better to put myself in a position to play. That’s all.’’

The NHL has a track record of mishandling head injuries, from its insistence that there’s no scientific link between hockey, concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy to teams frequently rushing players back from concussions.

The Hawks have been accused of doing it themselves. A TSN report last year revealed unsealed emails from a lawsuit that showed an unnamed NHL team doctor questioning how the Hawks allowed Martin Havlat to return from a concussion two days after he was knocked unconscious during the 2009 Western Conference final. And Dave Bolland has admitted he ‘‘probably came back too soon’’ from a concussion in 2011 to help the Hawks rally from a 3-0 series deficit against the Canucks. It’s a leaguewide problem.

Here’s a chance to do the right thing. Crawford is only 33, with plenty of good years ahead of him on and off the ice. That should be the focus, and the risk of rushing him back for an improbable playoff push is too great.

Shut him down. Do it for the team. Mostly, though, do it for him.

Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com