Guest Post from an English fan
Many years before I ever considered buying tickets to hockey games, when I first came to this country, I was in a bar talking to a Canadian hockey coach. The man was dedicated to his sport and had nothing but scorn for all others - apart from one; soccer. Or football as we Brits call it. I asked what he admired about football, and he said, "Y'see, football is the same as hockey. It's a game where defence plays a very important role. Look at the size of a puck, or a soccer ball, and look at the size of the goal you gotta get it into. Yet they only score once a twice a game if they're lucky. Now look at a basketball, and compare that to the size of the hoop they gotta get it into. There's barely a couple of centimetres of clearance around it, yet they score dozens of times every game, hundreds even! That's 'cos they don't play a real defensive game. They can't."
This business of the couple of centimetres of clearance was a new one on me. I'd never thought of it like that before. Both hockey and basketball were screened on TV in England when I was growing up in the 70s, but there was one big difference; the "basketball" was actually Harlem Globetrotters games but the hockey was real NHL games. Basketball was on Saturday morning, along with the Jackson 5 cartoon and Sesame Street. By contrast, hockey was featured on the grown-up sport show, World of Sport, late on a Saturday afternoon. Kids watched the Globetrotters and marvelled at the exotic names of the players, like Meadowlark Lemon and Curly Neal. Not many people knew the names of the NHL players, but it was far more interesting to us Limeys. Something about the speed of the skating, the fact that play could extend behind the goals (unlike soccer) and especially the fights, was addictive. It was a mystery why there were teams from both the US and Canada competing; weren't they two different countries?
Now I really know what hockey is. At least I think I do. It's a game played by big, scrappy dudes, kinda like rugby players but maybe a bit wirier and on skates. In England, when you see rugby players in pubs and clubs, everyone knows not to mess with them, and I suspect hockey players are of a similar ilk. Nasty buggers, born killers, or at least maimers. But that's what provides the momentum for the sport. It's why we love having our noses pressed against the glass while some supersonic butt-ending bruiser steams into his opponent like a shark making a run on a surfer. It's why Norm MacDonald has an edge (despite never having played professionally), or why we watch Slapshot whenever it's on TV, even though we've already seen it twenty six times. We English have long poked fun at yanks for their helmets and pads in their version of football, we laugh at baseball as a bad attempt at cricket and basketball was regarded as entertainment but never taken seriously as a sport. Hockey, or ice hockey as we call it, was the game that fascinated us most. With good reason.