Pens' worries reside overseas
David Morehouse's greatest fear as Penguins CEO is not taking a call from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and hearing the season is lost.
It is taking that call and then a few weeks later learning from general manager Ray Shero that Sidney Crosby and/or Evgeni Malkin was injured while playing overseas.
Talk about a potentially cold winter.
Injuries to their franchise players while they play with other teams is a nightmare scenario for the Penguins if the NHL and Players' Association fail to find common ground by Friday — Bettman's deadline for a labor contract necessary to end the four-month lockout and play a 48-game season.
Sources said the Penguins are concerned for Malkin's well-being while he stars for his hometown Metallurg Magnitogorsk of Russia's Kontinental Hockey League. The sources said the Penguins desperately do not want Crosby signing with a team in Europe, as he almost certainly will if the NHL season is sacked.
The Penguins fear not only injuries to their franchise centers but also not being in control of their treatment. If Malkin or Crosby were injured while playing for another team, immediate care would be in the hands of unknown physicians using possibly outdated equipment.
“My confidence in overseas team physicians would depend on the country,” said Dr. Charles Burke, an orthopedic surgeon who spent 27 seasons as the Penguins' team physician.
“The question you want answered is: ‘What are those team doctors' specialties?' Sometimes you cannot get an answer because there are language barriers and things get lost in translation. It is a legitimate concern, the credentials of the doctors treating those players.”
Burke, a past president of the NHL Team Physician's Society, said Switzerland, Sweden and Norway are among the seven overseas hockey-playing countries that are part of an exchange with North American orthopedic surgeons and sports medicine experts.
Russia and the Czech Republic are among four countries with professional hockey leagues that employ doctors who North American medical experts “never really see or speak with,” Burke said.
“You don't know what they're up to sometime,” he said. “That doesn't mean the in-game treatment is bad, just that you don't really know. When it comes to the players being treated by other doctors, you would like to know what is going on.”
Team personnel face up to a $1 million fine for making public comments related to the labor dispute. Shero is prohibited from speaking with his players during the lockout.
Malkin produced an MVP season, also winning his second scoring title, a year after tearing two right-knee ligaments in February 2011. He no longer wears protective gear to support the knee and said in August he was not worried about medical treatment he would receive if injured while playing for Magnitogorsk.
Former Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar, a Magnitogorsk teammate of Malkin's, said Metallurg players are treated with top-level care on par with that in North America.
As is the case with any player injured during the lockout, Malkin could seek alternate care from a non-team physician, including Burke, who performed his knee surgery.
Initially, though, he would be diagnosed and treated by the Magnitogorsk medical staff.
Overseas treatment of orthopedic injuries such as an injured knee or separated shoulder are less concerning than a neurological issue, Burke said.
Crosby, 25, has played in just 28 NHL games dating to Jan. 5, 2011, because of concussion symptoms, though he has shown no signs of symptoms while practicing with Penguins teammates at Southpointe during the lockout.
His agent, Pat Brisson, has not said with which European team Crosby would sign if the season is canceled, but sources close to Crosby said he likely would play in Switzerland.
Brisson said he projects it will cost a team $400,000 monthly to insure Crosby, who in July signed a 12-year extension worth $104.4 million with the Penguins. That deal starts next season, is guaranteed and is not insured against concussion.
While negotiating with Crosby during the summer, Shero made clear to his representatives that ownership wanted to keep Crosby and Malkin throughout their careers. Malkin's contract expires after next season, and the Penguins are prepared to pay him more annually than Crosby.
Crosby said he is fine with Malkin being the Penguins' highest-paid player if that is what is necessary to keep the pair together.
Malkin, 26, said he has no wish to play for another NHL club. He believes playing with Crosby gives him the best chance to win championships.
Shero believes that, too. The Penguins' plan for success is to keep Crosby and Malkin under their control.
A canceled season could cause untold damage to the league, but it absolutely will prevent the Penguins from maintaining control over Crosby and Malkin.