Welcome to the first edition of NHL He Said, She Said. In this new weekly column, Bleacher Report NHL Featured Columnists Adam Graham and Alison Myers will each give their take on hot topics from around the league.
This week, there was a lot going on as the NHL closed out 2011 and jumped head-first into 2012. ESPN made a glaring error by not including any hockey players in their tribute to sports figures who passed away in 2011 and only back-tracked when hockey fans wrote to the channel in droves to complain.
On a lighter note, the fifth Winter Classic took place in Philadelphia, Penn., with the New York Rangers playing spoiler to the host Philadelphia Flyers.
And of course, there is the never-ending debate of concussions in the NHL, especially the longer Sidney Crosby sits out of the Pittsburgh Penguins lineup.
Also, click through to find out Alison's and Adam's picks for NHL games you should watch this week!
Adam: Obviously, this was a horrible omission by ESPN, but should it really come as a surprise that a network that doesn’t have any type of monetary relationship with the NHL is ignoring them in their coverage?
Let’s be honest. This was a business decision and not a sports decision. As much as ESPN likes to think of itself as the “World Wide Leader in Sports,” it’s far from it. Sure, if you’re a big fan one any of the properties it owns, then you love it.
Unfortunately, the NHL chose NBC/Versus to be their chief rights holders in the United States, and now, ESPN is making them pay for it. This also has a trickle-down effect to other hockey leagues like the KHL.
It’s also the reason they rarely show NHL highlights on SportsCenter, and when they do, they come near the end of the show and usually last for less than a minute. It’s not an oversight, as you can bet that ESPN has plenty of employees that would prefer to give hockey a lot more coverage. However, if Gary Bettman doesn’t want to do business with ESPN, then their front office executives will continue to dictate the sports they cover and talk about accordingly.
At the end of the day, it’s really too bad that ESPN takes this type of business-first approach in their sports coverage, and it’s a travesty that it went so far as to intentionally ignore several human beings who gave their life to the game of hockey. However, it’s the reality of their business relationship with the sport, and it’s not going to change unless the NHL makes more of an effort.
As a result, it might be time for Gary Bettman to think about striking a deal with the network that millions of Americans tune into every night for their sports coverage. It might not look like the best business deal for Bettman and the owners on the surface, but once the coverage from ESPN starts increasing, so will the interest from the casual American sports fan, which will inevitably help the NHL in the long run.
Alison: ESPN decided to air a tribute to those in the sports world who passed away in 2011. A lot of prominent figures were lost, and of course, my condolences are with the families of those who left us.
But in such a tragic year for the NHL, there was no reason for ESPN to totally skip over mentioning the hockey players who died, especially since two active players and one recently-retired figure were among the dead. The circumstances of their deaths may have caused the NHL to look into how they handle serious issues like substance abuse and brain injuries, but that doesn’t mean these players should not be celebrated as people.
Furthermore, how could a major sports network completely overlook the plane crash that killed the entire Lokomotiv Yarsolavl KHL team? While most of the players were unrecognizable to American fans, that doesn’t mean all of them were, as there were some former NHL players onboard that plane.
Luckily, ESPN listened to their viewers and included these hockey players in their tribute. While it was nice that they understood what fans were saying, it was something that should’ve never happened in the first place.
Adam: What else is there to say about Sid the Kid? It doesn’t look like he’ll be returning anytime in January, and possibly not at all this season.
There’s really no way to prevent hits to the head in hockey, considering it’s a collision sport. Brendan Shanahan and the rest of the NHL disciplinary sheriffs are doing their best to deter the intentional and reckless hits to the head, but when Crosby suffers a serious concussion due to a couple of fairly minor hits, there’s not much anyone can do.
Unless, of course, the NHL finally decides to mandate new elbow and shoulder pads that are at least a little bit softer than the medieval body armor the players are wearing now.
I’m not in the equipment industry, but surely someone can design pads that are less dangerous to the player getting hit while still providing the same protection for the player delivering the hit.
Hopefully, this is the first and last time we’ll have to talk about concussions in this feature, but something tells me that’s wishful thinking.
In fact, we’ll probably be talking about it again next week at the rate that star players are going down these days.
Alison: I’m not sure this is going to be a column if we don’t discuss Sidney Crosby’s health.
Last week, an article in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review came out that said some of Crosby’s teammates were starting to get concerned for his health. While defenseman Matt Niskanen and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said they tried not to let Crosby’s concussion problems overtake their thoughts, they are both eager to get him back soon.
Niskanen told the Trib’s Josh Yohe:
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about it. There is always that scare, guys out there like Marc Savard, who probably aren’t coming back. It’s always a possibility.”
The day after, Yohe published an article with a report from head coach Dan Bylsma that Crosby is still suffering concussion symptoms and there is no update on a possible return date.
This is too bad for the Penguins. Just when they thought the Crosby saga was behind them, they are back to fielding questions about it and wondering if their captain will ever be the same player.
It can also hurt the fans, who were no doubt tired of hearing about Crosby’s health and Bylsma’s “no update” remarks when asked when Crosby would be back in the lineup. The latest setback has led fans to wonder if Crosby will retire or sit out the rest of the season. It's also disappointed those who are buying tickets to games to see Sid play, only to find out he is not in the lineup.
I do believe Crosby will be back at some point. He is too talented and mentally strong to let this hold him back. He wants to win games and be out there with his team.
However, I feel the same way Niskanen does and admit that I have worried about the possibility that Crosby could be done. I also wonder how Crosby would handle the playoffs, as the incident that knocked him out of the lineup was an innocent collision with Boston Bruins forward David Krejci.
This is the point of the season where play is getting more physical, and if Crosby can’t handle typical hockey plays, what will happen when he returns and faces a higher level of intensity from opponents?
Adam: The 2012 Winter Classic was just that. It was a classic!
For years, I was of the opinion that this event would get old and the fans would lose interest if the NHL tried to overdo it. I thought that an outdoor game every year would eventually lose its luster, and it would be better served to limit the outdoor games to every three or four years.
Clearly, I was wrong. NBC does a great job promoting this event, and the fans eat it up.
As for the game itself, it was quite possibly the best game in the brief history of the event.
The ice was great, which is far from a guarantee in outdoor games, the weather held up perfectly and the two teams were actually able to show off their speed and skill. At the very least, it had the most flow of any Winter Classic game.
Oh, and there was some pretty solid physical play as well. Scott Hartnell’s big hit early in the game comes to mind, as do the numerous unfriendly “gatherings” after the whistle throughout the game.
It did seem like the refs wanted to give the Flyers every chance to tie the game at the end, though. They essentially gave Ryan Callahan two minutes for being hooked in the face as he was trying to seal the deal with an empty net goal. If he did hold Kimmo Timonen’s stick, it was for a fraction of a second, and it wasn’t enough to warrant a penalty.
The penalty shot call with 20 seconds to go was a bit suspicious as well.
I’m not a conspiracy theorist, nor am I partial to either team, but I’d have to agree with John Tortorella’s assessment of the finish when he said, "I'm not sure what happened there. Maybe they wanted to get it to overtime. I'm not sure if they have meetings about that or what, but we stood in there."
As a final note, it was nice to see Marc Staal for the first time this season after he had been out of action for more than 10 months due to a concussion.
Alison: Believe it or not, I watched last year’s Winter Classic between my Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals on Tivo. The time change meant I was going to be at an AHL game and would not see the Winter Classic live. So this year, I was happy to see it live, even acting as a New York Rangers fan for the day.
I enjoyed the fact that long stretches of the game went on for quite a while. It can be distracting when the referees are blowing their whistles every few seconds and completely ruining the flow. It was also nice to see some physical play, as both teams treated this as a very real game rather than just a day filled with pomp and circumstance.
And can I just say how much I love Mike Rupp? I was a fan of his during his time in a Penguins uniform, and ironically, he had a hat trick against the Rangers while wearing black and gold. It was nice to see him step up and play a big part in this year’s Winter Classic by scoring two goals, especially when you’d think the likely hero for the Rangers would be someone like Brad Richards or Marian Gaborik.
I wasn’t thrilled about Scott Hartnell and the rest of the Flyers trying to scuffle after the game was over. In fact, I don’t like that kind of behavior in general. The game is over, and it’s best to just get off the ice and deal with the loss, then figure out what you can do better next time.
Each week, Adam and I will wrap up this column by picking a game we think you guys should check out. Our picks will come from the Tuesday we publish until the following Monday. So for our first edition, we will pick from games from Jan. 3 through Monday, Jan. 9.
Adam: Well, this is a no-brainer. Vancouver Canucks vs. Boston Bruins. Stanley Cup Finals rematch anyone?
Saturday, Jan. 7 marks the only time these two teams will play during the 2011-12 regular season, and it should be a beauty. Anyone who watched the finals last year and read or heard some of the trash talk through the media between these two teams should know how much they hate each other.
This is probably the game of the regular season, let alone the game of the week.
One thing to remember if you plan on watching this game is that it starts early—1 p.m. Eastern, 10 a.m. Pacific. It's not on NBC in the United States or CBC in Canada like it should be, but if you're not in the Vancouver or Boston markets and you have the NHL Network, you'll be able to watch it in all its glory.
Alison: Boy, how am I supposed to top that? Well, OK, I'll try.
My pick this week will be a Thursday, Jan. 5 meeting between the Florida Panthers and the New York Rangers. Both are currently dominant teams in the Eastern Conference and are leading their divisions. The Rangers have 52 points on the season in the Atlantic Division, while the Panthers lead the Southeast with 47 points.
Coming into this game, the momentum couldn’t be anymore different for both sides. New York is coming off a huge Winter Classic win and have won four of their last five games. They have also won two of three games against the Panthers this season, including a 6-1 victory on Dec. 11. Derek Stepan had a three-point night with two goals and an assist.
Meanwhile, the Panthers have lost three out of their last five games. Their misfortunes include an 8-0 thrashing at the hands of the Boston Bruins on Dec. 23, where Brad Marchand tallied a hat trick. This game should tell us if the Panthers should be a threat in the second half of the year or if they will fall from grace and miss the playoffs yet again.