Reckless and beloved, Blackhawks’ Corey Crawford brushes off concussion concerns

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It’s been a hard two years for Corey Crawford, but he’s not ready to skate off for the last time. | David Banks/AP

Some of the legendary characters in Chicago sports history are known as much for their compelling personalities as their excellence, and Corey Crawford surely is part of that group.

Whenever he’s done, and that probably won’t be anytime soon, Crawford will be remembered for winning two Stanley Cups with a daring style in net.

It’s not just what he has accomplished, but how. That part might actually leave a greater imprint. Nobody’s ever going to forget his epic, profane victory speech at the 2013 championship rally. His recklessness and relentlessness make him lovable.

Until, that is, he starts talking about his health after two straight seasons wrecked by major concussions and a future that’s uncertain to seemingly everyone but him.

“I mean, whatever, man,” Crawford said this month. “You can get in car accident and have the same thing happen. I don’t know. I’m not really thinking about it right now, especially after the treatment and how I feel now. I’m not too worried about it.”

He’s a man of the moment, an approach that has often served him well.

Crawford is the type of goalie who can struggle for two periods, forget all of it and lock down the net when it counts most. And even after missing 80 games over the last two seasons, all that seems to matter is how he feels today.

When Crawford returned from a concussion in late February, he rode out a rough start and put together an impressive string of 13 games to end the season: a .933 save percentage, a 1.85 goals against average and the crown jewel of a 48-for-48 shutout to beat the Canadiens in his hometown.

He went into the offseason steaming over the Hawks missing the playoffs again, but knowing he delivered elite play down the stretch. That seemed to carry more weight with him than any health concerns, and he gave no indication that the concussion scares have caused him to reevaluate how much longer he should keep doing this as he approaches his 35th birthday and the final season of his contract.

“I feel 100 percent right now,” Crawford said. “It was tough to go through and it wasn’t very fun to miss that much hockey, but right now I feel great. So I’m gonna play as long as I can.”

The all-time Crawford moment, from 2013. | Jessica Koscielniak/Sun-Times

The all-time Crawford moment, from 2013. | Jessica Koscielniak/Sun-Times

Resolved to return

This is one of Crawford’s least favorite topics, and it took repeated prying to get him to reveal the depths of what he endured. The more recent concussion wasn’t as severe as the one he suffered in 2017, but it was still a harrowing ordeal.

A breakaway went haywire late in the first period of a mid-December game against the Sharks, and Evander Kane hit Hawks center Dylan Strome into Crawford. The collision sent him backward, and he hit the back of his head — the only spot relatively unprotected by his mask — on a goalpost.

Crawford knew right away he wasn’t going to shake that one off. He lay on his back and immediately covered his head with his hands. He tried to get up, but stopped and stayed hunched over on his hands and knees before being taken to the locker room.

In the aftermath, he was resolute about playing again, but the symptoms were brutal.

“It’s hard to really think about,” he said. “When it lasted that long, I was just wondering when is it going to be over? How long is all the stuff going to last? Like the pressure in the head and that stuff … That was probably the worst.

“There’s blurred vision. And I didn’t really realize how bad it was until now where I’m [back to normal]. The pain wasn’t the worst pain in the world, but it was still kind of annoying day in, day out, 24 hours a day. After going through it and seeing how good I feel now, you realize, wow, that wasn’t fun.”

His climb out of that hole and the superb play that followed earned a nomination from the Pro Hockey Writers Association for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, an award given to the player who best displays “perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.” The winner will be announced in June.

The upside in Crawford’s recovery was that he had some sense of what to expect after his previous season was derailed the same way. He also had support from the locker room and empathetic coach in Jeremy Colliton.

Colliton, a hair younger than Crawford, wishes he was still playing. Concussions ended his career at 28, and he hung on as long as he could in a Swedish professional league before conceding.

He was adamant about taking it slow with Crawford and held him out well after Crawford believed he was ready to play. He constantly pushed back on reporters’ inquiries about his status, which might have exasperated media and fans, but was clearly the right approach for his goalie.

“Weask him how he’s doing as a human, but the last thing he needs is to answer the question [of] how he’s feeling 35 times a day,” Colliton said in February. “It’s not helpful… We’ve had a couple of conversations. But part of my experience is to leave him alone and let it play out. No one wants to come back more than him, and we’ll know when he’s ready.”

Corey Crawford walks the red carpet before the 2017 season opener. | Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Corey Crawford walks the red carpet before the 2017 season opener. | Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Time to go?

It’s easy for everyone else to tell Crawford he should walk away while he can. He’s gotten more out of his hockey career than most would dream.

In 12 seasons, he has two rings, two All-Star selections and an estimated $40 million in career earnings. He’s in good health at the moment and has a young family.

But it’s always hard for these guys to let go. Most pro athletes have been doing this since childhood, and it’s their identity. There’s a limited window to play in the NHL, and nothing in retirement will give them the same high.

It’s even harder to step away when it’s abrupt. If Crawford retired now, it wouldn’t be the natural cycle of young talent pushing out those who are a step too slow. If this conversation was strictly about his play, the guy had a career-high .929 save percentage last season and looked tremendous at the end of this one.

“He’s a pretty unique guy to be able to miss time like that and it’s like he never missed a beat,” Hawks general manager Stan Bowman said. “He’s the sharpest he’s even been. So that’s reassuring knowing he has a lot of game left.”

The Hawks have $6 million invested in Crawford being able to keep it going for at least one more season, then he hits free agency next summer. If everything goes well, he’ll almost certainly keep playing, and re-signing him could be an option even with Collin Delia chosen as goalie-in-waiting.

Crawford never thought of quitting during the two and a half months he was out and didn’t have any doubts about how he’d play once he got back. That gives some insight into how he views this stage of his career.

“I take things day by day and just kind of go with the flow,” he said. “I wasn’t really worried about being terrible. I just kind of just go out there and play and stay positive.

“With time and enough games, I was pretty confident I could get back to the way I play. Maybe it was just for everyone else watching to make sure that I was back to where I could be at.”

The divide he touched on will exist the rest of Crawford’s time in Chicago: Him playing fearlessly, everyone else watching fretfully. Watch how quiet the United Center goes next time he gets knocked down. The organization won’t be able to help holding its breath whenever his mask flies off. The underlying fear will always be there, for everyone but the man himself.

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