Tuesday, November 01, 2011


The Toronto Football Club is not very good. I don’t know enough about soccer- yes, I will call it ‘soccer’ throughout, because I’m American and that’s how we roll- to know that, but in case I missed it, the season ticket holder insists on telling me.

“Just look at this mess. Fuck! No, no, no, nononono, FUCK! What was that?”

The season ticket holder hates the TFC. So far, in this game, they’re up 1-0, which as I understand it means there probably aren’t going to be any more goals in this game, so he ought to be happy, but his commentary is one long string of profanity and pain, as though every kick of the ball was a kick to his own personal balls.

“This isn’t even football. I’ve seen football. I saw AC Milan once. THAT is football. This is shit.”

As crass as he is towards the team, the man is perfectly polite to me. Even friendly, in that nice-drunk way, and trying- I think- to be helpful. But right now, I am trying really hard to learn to like soccer, and he is not making it any easier.

“This is shit. These guys, they don’t know how to play football. But it’s cheap. Cheaper than the Leafs, right? Cheaper to see this crap than that crap.”

“Something you don’t want is too expensive at any price,” I suggest.

“Hah. You’ve got… FUCK!! WHAT THE FUCK? Oh, my God, I don’t know why I even come here.”

My ticket was free. I think it was still too expensive.

I want to like soccer. It seems like the sort of thing I ought to like. It is the sort of thing that people of my genre- overeducated, underemployed twentysomethings who’ve seen a bit of the world- generally like, especially the males of the species. I would probably be much more popular with the gentlemen if I was into soccer.

But I’m not just after popularity and free drinks. For me, the real appeal of soccer, the reason I wish I could love it, is that soccer is natural. It is not, despite its reputation, an especially beautiful game, but it is a very organic one. Other than one tiny little gimmick and a few painted lines, it is a perfectly prototypical team sport. Field, ball, goal, bodies, done. A game could hardly be simpler and still be a game.

It is this simplicity that makes soccer universal. Soccer is for everyone, everywhere. You can play a relatively accurate approximation of soccer on a farm or in a ghetto, on a mountain plateau or a desert valley, from tropical jungle to boreal forests. No other game is so relatively egalitarian, so accessible, so easily appreciated across cultures and climes. I feel like an appreciation of soccer would tie me in, somehow, with the rest of my species.

Unfortunately, the exact same things that make soccer universal are the things that make it boring. Soccer is people running around a field. I have seen people run in a field before. I have run in fields myself. Running in fields is utterly commonplace, wholly unremarkable. It is devoid of interest. Yes, okay, professional soccer players run better than me, and kick better than me, and suchlike, but that fact remains that running and kicking are very plain activities no matter who does them.

Oh, they say, but the strategy. If only you understood the strategy, you would enjoy it. This might be true, but it’s true of anything. If I spent enough time watching kabaddi, I would start to understand the strategy, and more time beyond that I would probably start to feel invested in it. Everything in life has a strategy, everything is interesting if you look at it long and hard. I could become a connoisseur of vanilla, if I wanted to be. But I don’t want to be, and neither do I want to force myself to appreciate soccer. It’s just not worth the investment of time and willpower necessary to appreciate the subtle nuances of fundamentally dull things.

Hockey is the only sport I do not find boring, and I fear that speaks to a severe character flaw, because hockey is not natural. It is, in fact, the most unnatural of games. It requires a lot of people, and a lot of very detailed rules about zones and contact and faceoff locations, and an absolutely enormous quantity of stuff. Weird stuff, too. Skates and sticks and a puck and, strangest of all, ice. Proportionally speaking, almost nobody in the world has even one of these things, much less all four, and that’s just the absolute beginning. To play properly takes about twenty people, each with a dozen pieces of equipment, and nets, and boards, and glass, and more nets, and a Zamboni. Yes, this is the sport where you need a special kind of vehicle just to maintain the playing surface.

It’s kind of gimmicky, really, all these things, and in most of the world, that’s what hockey is: a gimmick. A rich man’s novelty. The cost of all those things is astronomical even by Western standards- in an unfrozen land, it’s unimaginable. Most people, in most places, could not even dream of hoping of thinking about one possibly playing hockey. In hundreds of countries, hockey is permanently, inevitably, profoundly exotic and elitist. Only the very privileged, by birth or by wealth, get to play hockey.

I wish hockey could be for everyone, the way soccer is, because I think it would be good for everyone to have it. There are things a body can do in hockey that it will never do anywhere else in life, things so much more beautiful than ‘the beautiful game’, things so much more remarkable than running and kicking. But that will never be. It cannot be.

Once upon a time, there was a place where hockey was natural, where the ice happened on its own and everybody had a few sticks lying around the basement and an arthritic uncle with an old pair of skates to hand down. They tell me it was so, once. But the accretion of things has changed that considerably. They begin as improvements and rapidly become necessities, and then improve year upon year in quality and sophistication, always moving towards more. Hockey is a technological sport, and as it progresses it quickly consigns the paraphernalia of previous generations to obsolescence. Everything needs to be bought, and bought again, and again, and again, from the sticks to the rinks themselves, and in fact the puck might be the only thing much the same today as it was in our parents’ time. Even in its homeland, hockey has completely outgrown nature, the real game pulling further and further from its organic beginning, until they become nearly two different things. The resemblance between the simple hockey of the beginning and the ever-advancing modern game has become so faint as to be almost indiscernible. It persists, to the extent that it does, through memory and imitation, and little else.

One of the tangential benefits of becoming Canadian, I’ve often thought, would be that my hypothetical children would get to learn to play hockey in sweaters, on ponds, the way I never did. Mythic Canadian Childhood, toques and all, with pompoms even. But I don’t know if anyone actually learns it that way anymore, or if that’s just something adults pretend on the occasional cottage weekend, a self-conscious, nostalgic tribute to the Olden Days. Probably my kids’ first experience of hockey will be getting shellacked head to foot in plastic and foam, then whistled through an hour of skating relays and horseshoe drills, and me in the stands wishing against myself that they love it, but not too much, because I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to afford children who are serious about hockey, heaven forbid good at it.

I really need to learn to like soccer.


Stunned Duck said...

In my experience, this sort of thing is idiosyncratic, and different people will enjoy watching different sports for no logically explicable reason.

For me, the boring sport is basketball. I cannot, cannot get up any interest in how they put the ball through the hoop for the 53rd time this game, no matter how great the athleticism and how rare the skill it took to get it there. I have friends who love basketball, and they will be be agog over the incredible moves, and completely engrossed in the tactics, and I can see in their passion the same sensation I get when watching soccer or hockey. Some of them can share that, but others look at a game on grass or ice and shrug.

Soccer can be more beautiful than hockey... but if soccer is, intrinsically, people running around a grass field to you, I doubt it will ever be more beautiful in your eyes. And this is, of course, fine. It is well to have found a sport that shows its beauty to you, and appreciate that.

Chris said...

Your best bet for teaching kids to play hockey on a pond, or a lake, is to have a cottage or permanent residence somewhere remote enough that a real rink isn't accessible, and to be dedicated enough, or to have a husband dedicated enough, to shovel the snow and smooth out the surface of that pond or lake, and then to teach the kids how to skate and hold a stick and play.

Many younger NHLers talk about learning to play like that, or at the very least having some experience of that. Crosby, even, has spoken of his love for childhood pond hockey.

Unfortunately, this has become a rarity, with so many parents having neither the time nor will for it because they often both have a career, not to mention few people living in an area where such a pond or lake is accessible. The task of learning what I consider to be our country's greatest cultural experience is left to intramural or school coaches, where you will indeed have to spend an exorbitant amount of money on equipment and league costs yearly.

Of course, this is all assuming the kid learns on ice. Never forget the value of Canadian children's favourite summer activity--street hockey.

Clare said...

One of the reasons I love this blog, E., is that I get to say crap like I'm about to say without getting laughed off the planet and sent back to my ivory tower.

Man is a tool-user. If hockey is technological, it's in part because it's in man's essence to take what he finds and figure out how to make it work differently, more efficiently, in more circumstances--better, if you want to think of it that way. To me, there is an element of the unnatural in a sport that, like soccer, doesn't embrace this part of human nature very readily.

I've said it before--and gotten the inevitable eye rolls for it--but hockey is life. It's beautiful and ugly, skillful and lucky, simple and complicated, parochial and cosmopolitan, thoughtful and instinctual, tough and tender. It is a business that sells passion. It is nature brought to a human level. It changes always with its traditions in mind. It's a community that stretches across a large part of the globe.

I've followed other sports before, and I might become enthralled with them again, but hockey is special.

saskhab said...

My first hockey games were not on ice at all: ball hockey on a concrete pad, floor hockey in the school gym. I played a little shinny on frozen dugouts at my cousins before joining a minor hockey program, but yeah, it takes a lot of dedication to play on a frozen pond. I think the urban backyard rink is more common... this is the Gretzky myth, not the frozen pond.

Once I started playing, my dad would occasionally shovel off the dugout to play, but it took a lot of effort for just three kids to skate around on. Mostly I stuck to shooting in the basement.

Currently, I only play outdoors. Saskatoon has dozens of local community outdoor rinks/ponds that one can play on. And usually you can find a couple with barely anyone using them, or else you can join other skaters in a public game of pick-up shinny.

Charlie said...

You are so funny (amusing?). Love it - thanks. And, yeah, I want to like soccer too but I can't.

E said...

duck- it seems to me that the behaviors and experiences that result from sports fanaticism are very universal, but the causes are often quite particular to the person and the sport. i can totally relate to basketball/football/soccer fans about going through the ups and downs of a season, and what it feels like to love/hate a player, and team rivalries, and so on, but i can never relate to their fundamental interest in their game, nor can they understand mine. i'm sure that soccer gives people something they value highly that hockey doesn't, and somewhere out there is probably a very eloquent defense of it. i just can't see it myself.

so yeah, i agree with you.

chris- i think street hockey is becoming (or already has become) the universal canadian male experience that ice hockey used to be. however, i have no doubt that my future husband will attempt to make some sort of pond/lake/backyard playing surface. i'll put it in a pre-nup or something.

clare- i would agree with you that hockey is a surprisingly perfect metaphor for life, but in asia i was really confronted by it's particularity as an experience. it's an odd sport in that it's very international, and within it people cross borders all the time, but there are so many places that are too poor and too hot to be within its reach.

great point about man-the-tool-maker, though.

sask- i have yet to experience the famed outdoor rinks of toronto. montreal's were both kind of awesome and kind of shitty, in that there were a lot of them, but they were all-natural and very sporadically maintained. no hassle to use, abominable ice quality most days. toronto's are artificial and look more professional all-around, but there are all these schedules about who gets to use the ice for what at which time, so it's not as convenient. we'll see, i suppose.

charlie- thank you! good to know my experience is shared, at least to the extent of one other person.

Chris said...

Regarding Saskhab's comment and your response, E, I want to note that having grown up on the West Island, there was almost always an open outdoor all use ice rink that could be used almost all the time in most communities, if not multiple. In Pointe-Claire there are several, for example. They are usually pretty well maintained, and at the very worst, you bring a shovel and maintain it yourself.

dwgs said...

Another Montrealer chiming in to say that our outdoor rinks (here in NDG) are generally pretty well maintained and pretty numerous. My boys and I regularly play on 5 different rinks within 3km of our house.
Toronto schedules their outdoor rinks? Yeesh.
And I'm happy to say that my kids (5 and 9) are learning their hockey both ways, in full equipment in an organized team setting and we try to get out twice a week to play some shinny outdoors from Christmas until the ice melts.

E said...

see, i lived round about mile end, and i remember all the rinks in walking distance being pretty hard to use most of the time- either covered in snow or half-melted. i even remember there being some discussion about it in the media, the budget for maintenance having been cut. could be that the rinks near me just didn't have any concerned citizens with shovels to pitch in.

dwgs said...

Ah, Mile End, that explains it. Years ago, when I was still considered to be young and in with the in crowd I lived at Esplanade and St Viateur and you're right, it's a terrible place for shinny. When I gave up my street cred, cut my hair, moved to No Damn Good, and spawned I started playing again. You have to have a critical mass of kids around to have decent outdoor rinks.