How to Soften Hockey Withdrawal

Would I put my foot in it by suggesting soccer?

By Steve Burgess 22 Sep 2004 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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Once upon a time, a rainy Vancouver fall could easily be distinguished from a rainy Vancouver spring. Spring rain held the promise of flowers; fall precipitation signaled the onset of hockey.

So as of now we've got rain and sweet fanny all. Much newspaper ink is being spilled to advise hockey fans on how to fill the gap. CBC's new reality series Making the Cut offers a hockey fix, but as I have been employed in the production of the show conflict of interest prevents me from rhapsodizing further (the two-hour premiere was Tuesday.)

Reading is good, if dangerous--too much of that will lead to dissatisfaction with what passes for English among TV colour commentators.

Something to kick around

Besides, we shouldn't be mixing media here. Rather than encourage people to change their lives and become devotees of Proust, it seems only fair to offer the sports rat a fitting substitute. I think I've found mine, and while it may require some technical instruction the results can be worthwhile.

English football. Soccer, if you prefer. The Premiership season is just nicely underway, holding the same promise as a fresh NHL schedule. England's top teams battle every week, peopled with the same sort of foreign mercenaries whose skating counterparts flock to the NHL. Stop your grieving for the loss of Marcus Naslund and Joe Sakic--dial into the exploits of Ruud Van Nistleroy and Thierry Henry.

There are a couple of ways to do this. It may require you to master the art of VCR programming, an important skill neglected by too many. The Saturday evening hockey timeslot can be filled with goals once more if you simply set your machine to tape Sportsnet's Saturday morning broadcasts of two Premier League football matches (usually commencing at 7AM and continuing until about 11:30--check listings for weekly variations). You can then replay the matches at your leisure.

Another way is to subscribe to Fox Sports, which offers a wider selection of matches and replays them during the week.

Dabble in religion

The real problem, of course, is learning to give a damn. That part can be tough. And thank goodness--our resistance to unfamiliar sports is Nature's way of allowing us the free time required to eat and move our legs. Otherwise we would slowly waste away on the far side of prime time, watching competitive cheerleading and Texas Hold 'Em tournaments.

But soccer is a habit worth acquiring. Stigmatized as dull by North Americans weaned on hockey-style speed and the frantic basket-jamming of the NBA, soccer is the world religion that exists here only as a cult. With a little practice, though, you may find yourself adjusting to the rhythm of "the beautiful game."

It's true that soccer games are not usually a thrill a minute. Mid-field chess matches allow fans plenty of time for lusty singing and random hooliganism. But that reinforces the importance of the eventual goals. Personally I find basketball to be too much of a good thing--there's too much scoring to get real excited about yet another basket. Not much foreplay there. Soccer is the anti-basketball. It's no mystery why so many football announcers respond to scoring tallies with their ecstatic shouts of "Goooooooaaallll… gogogogogoooaaalll…" A long build-up makes for a more satisfying release.

Tough love in the booth

As for English announcers, they are for the most part an acerbic joy. Canadian hockey broadcasters, particularly those lapdogs employed to do local play-by-play, are polite to a fault. English football announcers are more like stage moms. They're never satisfied. "Oh, poor effort there. Not good enough at this level… What was he thinking? Terrible finish…"

Sportsnet also features Spanish league football some evenings, and Fox Sports subscribers can follow Italy's Serie A and the German Bundesliga. European football has competitive elements that are a welcome novelty for an NHL follower--for example, the overlap between league and international play. Top teams in the various European national leagues participate in the Champion's League each year, taking time out from their regular schedules to play an intermittent tournament that goes on for months. It's as if the NHL playoffs were held throughout the regular season, except on a global basis. (On the downside, European football leagues, including the Premiership, have no season-ending playoffs. Topping the standings is the season's ultimate goal. For an NHL playoff junkie, that's a tough anti-climax to swallow).

Then there is Britain's wonderful FA Cup, possibly the most democratic tournament in sports. Like Champion's League, the FA Cup games are sprinkled throughout the season. Imagine a tournament where your beer-league hockey team could potentially take on the Montreal Canadiens and you have a sense of it. Virtually any team down to the lowest level can participate in the FA Cup, and although the big guns usually dominate in the end, fans pray for Cinderella stories, which do occasionally materialize.

Win global friends and influence foreigners

I also love relegation. In the NHL, ineptitude is ultimately rewarded--cellar-dwelling teams end up with high draft picks. In English football, the bottom three teams in the final standings drop out of the league completely, down to a lower division. More than pride is at stake. The financial impact is tremendous as relegated teams lose their share of the Premiership's rich TV contract.

Some NHL owners cynically starve their teams of money, satisfied that loyal fans will still support inexpensive, mediocre clubs (viz. the Chicago Blackhawks). Imagine the difference if such teams knew a yawning chasm lay beneath their feet.

For travelers, a familiarity with "footy" can be a valuable social lubricant. Very few Europeans or Asians will perk up to the topic of hockey. But a discussion of the mighty Arsenal, the troubles of Manchester United, or the current status of traditional continental powerhouses like Real Madrid and AC Milan, is almost always welcome from Hamburg to Hong Kong. You'll be more popular with cab drivers, too.

Or there's always the library.

Steve Burgess, having strayed to Europe for a time and returned, will resume watching screens, small and large, for The Tyee.

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