September 28, 2011

The English meet hockey, falls in love

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.

September 1, 2011

I'm tired ...

I'm tired of reading obituaries of hockey players gone too soon.

I'm tired of the soapboxing of some debating the purpose of fighting/role of enforcers in hockey in regards to the deaths of Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak.

I'm tired of reading about the uncertain returns of players who've suffered concussions like Sidney Crosby and David Perron.

I'm tired of reading about players who have to hang up their skates due to head injuries like Paul Kariya and Dave Scatchard.

This summer should have been about celebrating the Boston Bruins Stanley Cup title, the fun of free agency and catching our collective breaths after another NHL season.

Instead, it's been a summer of tragedy and questions about the returns of the NHL's top young stars.

Sports is supposed to be a distraction from real life; a place for fans to remove their brains for a couple of hours and cheer on their favorite team and players before returning back to reality.

This summer it's been the collision of real life into fandom.

This isn't how fandom is supposed to be.

We're not supposed to be reading about players in their late-20s and mid-30s being buried and leaving behind loving families. We're supposed to be debating roster moves, player improvements and predicting how teams will do the following year.

The collision of hockey and reality is scary because behind each player is a person like every one of us. A person with a family. A person with feelings and a person with issues, just like every one of us.

Boogaard, Rypien and Belak all battled demons before they met their end; demons that people in every day life also try to deal with.

Trying to play dime store psychologist with these players is worthless. We can't get inside their heads. We just don't know. It's like trying to talk about how a concussion affects a player in the future. All concussions are different and there's no way for any of us as fans and media to trying to predict just exactly what will happen. We've seen too many times before players feeling great one day and then symptoms return the next. It's a worthless cause to try and figure out -- same with trying to understand what happened to Boogaard, Rypien and Belak.

We don't exactly what was troubling these players right before they died, but it's just another sign that when athletes leave their field of play -- whether they're currently player or retired -- they aren't invincible like we believed when we were kids. They're not infallible. They're human.

Even as a 30-year old adult, I still want that inner child to come out when I watch sports. I want to believe these guys are supermen; that these guys are on a higher level than the rest of us. And they are ... athletically, but this summer has only reminded us that while the talents of athletes separate us, when you take that away we really are just like them: humans struggling with everyday life.

And like you and I, they too sometimes are too proud to ask for help.