- Football season is over, but CNN's Jason Kurtz has your guide to reasonable substitutes
- Hockey's back after a 113-day lockout that cost the NHL 625 games and over half a season
- As for college basketball, Kurtz says to "expect the hardwood to heat up significantly"
- Michael Jordan will turn 50 on February 17 during the NBA's 62nd All-Star Weekend
Football season is officially over. All 726 collegiate Bowl Games are in the books. The ink is dry on National Signing Day. And after a safety and ensuing punt officially closed the lights on the NFL season, sports lovers are left to ponder one extremely heavy-hearted question: "Now what?"
With all due respect to the boys of summer, pigskin has shoved its way ahead of all other sports, using two heavily gloved hands to grab hold of the mantle as America's Pastime. But simply because football has taken a knee for a few months, that doesn't mean the average fan needs to go into hibernation. Here now, seven suitable substitutes to keep us all warm during the winter.
1. NHL -- In case you were unaware, which would be entirely understandable, relations have thawed between the world's best ice hockey players and those who sign their checks. (Note: It's likely that most financial transactions actually occur care of direct deposit, but let's not split hairs, especially when it comes to those sporting iconic mullets.) The business is no longer in the front, and the party is in fact back, because after a 113-day lockout, which cost the league some 625 games and more than half a season, in mid-January the NHL returned to rinks across North America.
Now with a condensed season (48 games for each club) that began roughly three weeks ago, each skate means that much more. "Barns" will be a rockin', and teeth will go a flyin', as goal-scorers and enforcers alike are forced to ratchet up their intensity and sharpen up their elbows. So pull your favorite team sweater out of the closet and dust off your abacus -- it's time to re-calculate "plus-minus." And toss the Gillette Fusion ProGlide back into your medicine cabinet, because it's never too early to start cultivating that playoff beard.
2. PGA -- We're still a handful of J.B. Holmes drives from hearing Jim Nantz's signature "Hello Friends" as the CBS mic-master welcomes us to The Masters in Augusta, reminding all that it remains "a tradition unlike any other." And while April and Amen Corner truly announce golf season, there are early signs to suggest the PGA is nearing full swing.
On January 31, Phil Mickelson came within a breath of posting only the sixth sub-60 round of all-time, and three days later South Korean rookie James Hahn took the training wheels off golf's first celebratory Gangnam Style putting green jig. Certainly, we're a far cry from seeing PSY paired with Bill Murray at Pebble Beach, but weekends spent watching the world's best play 36 holes, against some of the world's most captivating backgrounds? That's one way to beat February's frozen tundra.
3. College Basketball -- There is a prevailing theory that suggests the average fan doesn't begin paying attention to on-campus hoops until after the Super Bowl. OK then, here we go! With perennial powerhouses like Duke, Kansas, Indiana, Syracuse, Arizona and Michigan all littering the top 10, the rankings feel like a familiar throw blanket under which one might curl, as temperatures in Big East and Big 10 country drop to mirroring single digits. But with no undefeated or one-loss teams to be found, and four schools having claimed the No. 1 ranking in each of the last four weeks, expect the hardwood to heat up significantly as we dribble toward Selection Sunday.
4. The NBA's All-Star Weekend -- If you're feeling old, this won't help. On February 17, the greatest player to slip on sneakers turns 50. While Michael Jordan's Hall of Fame career often centered around an epic accumulation of numbers (more than 32,000 points, 10 scoring titles, 6 world championships,) seeing a sixth decade is an accomplishment unique unto itself, especially in as much as it will occur exactly on the evening of the game in which he starred 14 times.
Beginning February 15, the NBA's All-Star Weekend blasts off from Houston, and "His Airness" figures to be prominently featured throughout the festivities. Long before "King James" and the "Black Mamba" had their own signature swoosh, every kid in America wanted to "Be Like Mike"
5. The Daytona 500 - Unofficially referred to as the "Super Bowl of Racing," the green flag drops from Northern Florida on February 24, bringing about a season that will feature such fanciful phrases as "restrictor plate racing" and "Boogity Boogity Boogity!!!"
Now why the sport holds its biggest event to begin the season is still as curious as the notion that NASCAR could list the left-directional as the sport's most important piece of equipment. Nonetheless, with "The Great American Race" just around the corner in Turn 3, it's time to refamiliarize ourselves with a world in which "drafting" has nothing to do with the Army, nor anyone's baseball keeper league.
6. The World Baseball Classic - Speaking of all things diamond, we're officially within a week from hearing the four most magical words in any baseball fan's vocabulary: "Pitchers and catchers report." But in the event that the start of spring training isn't enough for the average fungo fanatic, this years Grapefruit and Cactus League schedules will wrestle with the welcome interruption that comes care of the World Baseball Classic (first pitch, March 2).
Created in 2005 as an answer to hardball being pulled from the Olympics, the 2013 tournament will be the third edition of the international event, and it arrives carrying a catcher's mitt full of story lines. Can anyone dethrone two-time champion Japan? How will opposing WBC pitchers deal with a loaded lineup coming out of Venezuela (Marco Scutaro, Pablo Sandoval, Miguel Cabrera and Carlos Gonzalez hitting 2-3-4-5)? And just how slick will a Dominican Republic infield be that could put Hanley Ramirez, Robinson Cano and Jose Reyes all on the lip of the grass at the same time?
7. NFL Combine - Even though fans will be without the pleasure of watching an actual, meaningful football game until after Labor Day, there will be plenty of tertiary topics to digest between now and the next series of opening kick-offs. Switching into a three-day format in 2010, and gobbling up a primetime position in the process, the popularity of the NFL draft has increased exponentially, comparing favorably with the vertical leap and 40-time of your average "Mike" linebacker.
But before a single war room phone rings, and prior to the donning of any brand new Nike team caps, a week at the scouting combine in Indianapolis (February 20-26), gives football fans the chance to punch up the NFL Network and join stopwatch-toting GMs in evaluating the latest crop of linemen as though they were livestock.
In the days that follow, avid NFL aficionados will wear out their index finger refreshing Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay's latest mock drafts. And iPhones coast-to-coast will overflow with push notifications blasting the latest trade rumors.
Come the April 25 draft fans will descend upon New York City's famed Radio City Music Hall in hopes of hearing their favorite club call the name of a left tackle who can protect their quarterback's blindside for the next decade. Until then, the Kansas City Chiefs are on the clock
For the rest of us, there's plenty to watch.