Believe it or not, half of the NHL season is officially behind us. To commemorate the milestone, and look at both things past and to come, Cold as Ice co-editors Stephen and Jay sat down to discuss the season so far. In part two, they talk about the Winter Classic (including HBO’s series 24/7), the growing concussion problems of the NHL, and our predictions for the second half.

Stephen:  Speaking of hockey’s growing popularity, the Winter Classic has really been a boon for the sport. I read one writer says that hockey now owns New Years like football owns Thanksgiving (obviously not to that level, but it’s nice to see regular season hockey draw viewers).

Jay:  Yeah, I know the ratings dipped slightly this year, but that was as much because of the game being on Jan. 2 (because New Year’s was on a Sunday, hence NFL competition) as anything. The game itself was a little dull at first, but from the last seven minutes of the second right to that game-ending penalty shot, it was exciting.

Stephen:  Yeah. It really ended up being one of the more memorable games in the series history. Just missing overtime. And that final penalty shot. You’d almost have thought HBO planned it just to make their 24/7 series end on such a perfect note. (and I think New York’s coach accused as much).

Jay:  Did you watch 24/7? Goddamn, such a great show. I wished it would keep going.

Stephen:  Yeah, I did too. As someone who passionately hated both teams, I left actually having some respect and even fondness for the two clubs. It really is one of the best sports documentaries around.

Jay:  Ha, I hate them, too! But the all-access stuff is terrific, even as some of the guys have started hamming it up for the cameras a bit. Still, those between-periods locker room scenes with Tortorella and Laviolette dropping f-bombs while they yell at their teams was great.

Stephen:  Yeah. And the on-ice mics just add so much to the tension and action there. Sure some of the parties and stuff may be played up, but you really get a sense of the sport in a way on air broadcasts can’t convey. So any guesses for next year’s match-up? I think it’ll head back to the West (as four of the past five match-ups have been East conference teams). Or maybe even an inter-conference game?

Jay:  Actually, word has it that Detroit’s a lock to host it at the University of Michigan’s football stadium. They’ve had outdoor college games there before, and the place holds 100,000. I’ve seen some stories that it may even be Toronto who is the opponent, which would be awesome for me and of course, Canada. But NBC may prefer to have an American team, possibly the Sharks or Kings? Whoever plays, it’d be a great setting. I can’t see them actually playing the game out West or down South simply because of the weather.

Stephen:  Right. Their only possible hosts are really Chicago, Detroit, and Minnesotta. Unless they decide to head up to Canada.Possibly Columbus or Colorado, though Columbus needs a hockey team first (burn!)

Jay:  Well, they’ve done the Heritage Classic in Calgary and Edmonton. I’m sure NBC wouldn’t want a game in Canada. I’ve heard that Washington has really been pushing to host it, so that could happen in a year or two.

Jay: Hey, let’s talk concussions. Obviously, they’ve taken a toll on many of the big stars in the game, most notably your boy Sid Crosby.

Stephen:  Yeah. I would have never guessed a year ago when he dropped to injury that he’d be still gone a year later. But he’s just one of many. Pronger is gone. Giroux was (and some are worried he rushed back). And then you have stories like Derek Boogard, the young enforcer whose tragic death may have been tied to chronic concussions affecting his psyche. It’s a big problem for the NHL.

Jay:  I know Brendan Shanahan has tried to crack down on hits to the head, but the hits just keep on coming. Part of the problem, I think, is the league is faster than ever. Taking the red line out after the lockout was designed to boost offense and allow for faster play, but it also leads to more collisions and opportunities for injury. We’ve even seen teammates colliding and causing concussions (Giroux’s happened when teammate Wayne Simmonds actually kneed him in the head). Now I’m not advocating a return to the clutch and grab of the mid-’90s. That was ugly. I’m not sure what the answer is, frankly.

Stephen:  Neither do I, but I think that Bettman’s hinted strategy of “waiting for more studies” is not a good one. It’s a combination of rules, young talent, and faster play leading to this hits, and whether it’s adopting new safety tech or tweaking the rules, it isn’t something the league can sit on its hands for. And even if Shanahan is perfect, as you said with the Giroux incident, some of these are just going to happen when you have ten guys going that hard and that fast, even if they follow all the rules.

Jay:  Yeah. And speaking of which, it seems every week we have a player doing something incredibly stupid to injure another player. During the Cup rematch game last Saturday between Vancouver and Boston (which was a terrific game, BTW), the Bruins’ Brad Marchand saw Vancouver’s Sami Salo bearing down on him and took him out at the knees with a low-bridge hit. Shanahan suspended Marchand for 5 games, and rightfully so. Marchand and the B’s argued that he was just protecting himself, but you can’t do that shit. Salo, of course, landed on his head and suffered a concussion, but he could have had a career-ending knee injury just as easily.

Stephen:  Exactly. I know it’s a rough and tumble sport, and no one wants to admit their team is playing dirty, but the league needs to lock down on crap like that. It doesn’t help that in the YouTube era players that make those big showboat hits get the fame, not the ones making smart, clean plays.

Jay:  So the second half has begun. Any predictions on the stretch run?

Stephen:  Honestly, with the exception of a few teams, it’s still conceivable for any team to make the playoffs. I predict we are going to see a radically different Eastern Conference field though, with Ottawa, Winnipeg, Toronto, New Jersey, and Florida all in reasonable contention. And they may be out for now, but I like Colorado getting a berth this season with their young guns like Landeskog.

Jay:  I totally agree about the East. But there are definitely a few teams that a step above in both conferences: Boston, Rangers, Vancouver, Chicago. Maybe Pittsburgh if they can get some of their players back. Speaking of the Pens, how are you feeling about the fortunes of your favorite team?

Stephen:  You hold far more optimism than I do, good sir. Honestly, I am not so sure we even make the playoffs this year. The Pens are coming off a six game losing streak, over which they’ve been outscored 18-6. We’re walking wounded with Crosby, Letang, and Staal all out (and Neal narrowly missing a long absence). They looked good when I saw them against the Canes, but I need to see something by the end of January to make me think a depleted Pens roster can keep up in the high stakes East race. Hopefully your hope in the Leafs is a bit stronger?

Jay:  Ha! I’ve been disappointed by the Leafs too many times to be overly optimistic. I do think they’ve got a decent shot at making the playoffs, although I can’t see them going very far, especially if they have to play the Bruins or Rangers in the first round (but they have fared well against NY this year). They’ve got a decent, balanced offense and lots of team speed, but their D is shaky and their goalie situation has been bizarre to say the least. Their number one goalie James Reimer suffered a concussion (!) early in the season and hasn’t been the same since he returned, but suddenly Jonas “The Monster” Gustavsson, who looked awful early on, is kicking ass. The Leafs also boast one of the better power plays in the league, but at the same time have the worst penalty kill (which has improved in the last week). I’m just glad they’re not scraping the bottom of the league, and I hope Montreal continues to do so.

BTW, I saw a stat tonight that the Hawks lost 10 in a row the season they won the Cup, so keep your chin up!

Stephen:  I think I am mostly just reflecting my temporary disappointment, though the losses have come against good teams (Philly, Rangers, Devils, Sens). I will stick with them to the bitter end either way. And with Winnipeg losing tonight, we’re holding on to that number 8 spot for now!

Jay:  Well, I’m rooting for Crosby to make it back, although it may be for the best if he just sits out the rest of the year.

Stephen:  Yeah, I would rather he be safe than back on the ice. We can be a good team without him, though he’s sure dynamite to watch. And I’ll be pulling for your Leafs this season too. Until the playoffs at least. God willing, we can have a Leafs/Pens series that will result in some good-natured Popblerd! beef.

Jay:  Definitely. Good luck!

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