Thursday, February 25, 2010

Some Brief Words on the Hockey and the Football

I've written before that football seems to be the one sport in which match analysts, newspaper reporters, bloggers and fans all begin to sound like film critics.  "There wasn't much quality in the first half," "Not a classic by any means," "There was a great tempo to the match" and so on and so on.  It's not enough for a team to win, it has to be formally and aesthetically pleasing.

That seems unique to the sport.  You don't, for example, hear it often said in my neck of the woods that, "that was a really, bland, cynical display of conservative baseball out there today."  And while there is certainly a qualitative difference in the quality of play witnessed in Canada v. Russia and Finland v. the Czech Republic last night, aesthetic concerns about the quality of play are not usually on the minds of most hockey fans.

The reasons why become obvious the more you watch the sport.  A four goal lead in the last ten minutes of the third period often doesn't mean a damn thing.  Two consecutive power plays can change the course of a game in a matter of minutes, sometimes seconds.  There is little to say about the formal symmetry of attacking formations in a sport that involves back-checking, fore-checking, tying up the slot and, as players like to say, "putting the puck on the net and hoping for a good bounce."  Hockey might not always be pretty, yes, but it's usually relentless.  It is constant pace, turnovers, skating skating skating, shots from the point, rebounds and two on ones, three on twos.  Watching it, heart pounding, face hot and mouth dry, you sometimes begin to feel like Dave Bowman disappearing into the monolith.  I often refer to hockey as a cleanse from the slow, exacting nature of football.

Last night Canada beat Russia 7-3 in the mens hockey quarterfinals in the Olympics.  To say Canada has a special relationship with Russia in hockey is a gross understatement.  While Americans have their "Miracle on Ice," beating the Russians Soviet Union in the 1980 winter games, hockey was not and never will be the American national sport.  That victory was meaningful for the Americans in the same way it would be meaningful if the US beat England this summer.  A "miracle" in international sport for the US usually involves beating other countries at a sport Americans don't even really like.

In Canada, ten year-olds could expound on the importance of the Canada-Soviet 1972 Summit Series and Paul Henderson's final, series-clinching goal.  Common folklore has it that the Americans had the ICBMs and Senator McCarthy in the Cold War; we had Phil Esposito.  But even though our battles raged on hard ice, by grappling in a sport mutually adored by two winter nations, Canada and Russia bonded in a way the US can't understand.  We hated the Russians because they loved our national sport, and that's why we loved them.  You can still find Canadians rocking the CCCP with more than a little sense of nostalgia.

And that's why this morning, watching Russian hockey fans with heads bowed into their beers and Ovechkin shirts pulled over their heads, hearing from the Russian press that a gold in hockey would have make up for their disappointing tally in the 2010 games, makes you more proud to be Canadian than any shots of jumping, Maple Leaf-clad Vancouverites. Not because of the schadenfreude, but because of the lingering power of a fifty year, nation-defining struggle with a worthy and familiar foe.  Everyone spoke about how last night was going to be about Ovechkin and Crosby, but in the end it was about Canada v. Russia.  As it has always been.

This Sunday sees two finals, the Olympic Gold medal game in mens hockey, and Aston Villa v. Manchester United in the Carling Cup.  Two finals, two different sports.  While Canada still needs to beat Slovakia on Friday, chances are good they will be there on Sunday.  I can't recall the last time two teams I care about have faced off in a medal round on the same day.  While football is still my wife in the sporting realm, hockey will always be my mistress.  Here's to not having a heart attack.


Elliott said...

The Summit Series is worth a watch for any fan of sports and I will now begin searching for it on youtube - bless you Richard for bringing it up!

Also, hockey has had its different approaches - do you remember the "no forecheck" Devils of the late 90's that led to a rule change? There also is considerable debate on the diamond powerplay vs. the two point powerplay.

But then I again I digress all sports to mental masturbation...

Lanterne Rouge said...

A fascinating post to those of us from - usually - snow and ice free countries. Canada's hockey fixation would appear to have similarities to New Zealand's love affair with rugby union. Kiwi anguish after their World Cup exits against France - a country of which only the southerly portions take the game seriously - has been a sight to behold.