World Cup-itis

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, or don’t have access to any form of communication at all, you will know that the 2014 World Cup is in full swing.

For those of you who are not sports fans, I’ll sum up this work-stopping, life-stopping quadrennial event briefly.  32 national teams will compete for the title. There are three stages of play: group play, playoffs and the final. The 32 teams are split into 8 groups of 4, one or two of which are almost always titled the “Group of Death”, meaning that all 4 teams have a strong chance of advancing to the next stage, thus, all games are crucial. The top 2 teams from each group advance to sudden death playoffs, until we reach our final. Tricksy stuff ensues when you advance from the group stage to playoffs. Teams are awarded points for wins, and ties. If you have the same point total as another team, tiebreakers determine seeding. Ultimately, the more goals you score, the bigger buffer you have in the event of a tiebreaker.

It’s fairly straightforward, but for true non-soccer fans, I say this: take up a hobby for 30 days, because the rest of the planet will be watching the World Cup.

Group play is awesome. There are a generous amount of games (3 daily) for two straight weeks. You get to see powerhouses crash out in a ball of flames, (Yes, I am referring to Spain disappointing everyone, including most sports pundits), little engines that could, (Uruguay! USA! Switzerland!) and perennial heartbreak (England) unfold before our eyes. Even the most passive soccer fans will throw their support behind a national team, based on absolutely nothing more than “I liked their jerseys” or “well, I’m part *blank* nationality, I think?”

In any case, the beautiful game is firmly in the spotlight, and it is glorious. Now, obviously, I am a fan of soccer, I follow the English Premier League and a smattering of club teams throughout the normal year. We should, also note that I am a woman. And as such, World Cup is the female equivalent of the Victoria Secret Fashion Show for us. Listen, I know what you’re thinking, this girl talks about hockey as being her first love and blah blah blah. It is, and always will be. Let’s get real here for a moment though, there are very few, and I mean very few good looking hockey players (who have all of their teeth) in the NHL. Occasionally, pure superficialities beat out superior athleticism.

Now, World Cup-itis as I like to put it, has firmly stuck in my household. I have an American brother in law who was rather crushed at the USMNT defeat last week. (I was not). The real joy though has been reconnecting with friends abroad and near and all having the same topic of discussion. Take, for example, an acquaintance I met in Germany in 2009. He’s Swedish, we met in line at Oktoberfest. Until this summer, we touched base only now and then to see how the other was doing. For some reason, this year, that acquaintance has moved up in rank to good friend, and we have spoken everyday for almost a month now. He is not the only case of this happening. I can guarantee, if it weren’t for the World Cup and a healthy dose of technology, this would not be the case.

I’ve had an on-going argument with an American lately, (not the brother in law), about which sport is more popular on the world stage. Usually I would argue it would be hockey. For a few reasons: more nations than Canada play, it’s gained notoriety in the last few years and it has tournaments on the World level- the World Championships and the Olympics.

At the root of it

I am wrong. Take note of these three words, I will never utter them again. But I am so very wrong. It’s soccer (or football). One-hundred percent it is. It is global, you just need a ball, or something that will move like a ball, and find something to use as a net or goal posts. Bam, you have your equipment if you can move your feet. Sure, it’s not perfect, there is a lot of drama, corruption and diving. At the root of it though, no other sport is played by over half our planet. No other sport can be the harbinger of doom or sheer joy as this. I’m not even Spanish and I was shocked at their ousting. I’ve had a love-affair with Italy and my heart broke a little when they didn’t advance.

World Cup-itis has absolutely settled in. There is no known treatment, we just have to embrace it. Now please excuse me. Half time is over between Netherlands and Argentina, and a team in orange needs my attention.

A True Sports Fan’s Guide to Playoff Hockey

So, your hometown team didn’t make the playoffs.  In fact, they went from being an absolute lock for a playoff spot and a contender for the Western Conference title to pathetically stumbling to the finish line with a team being held together by some scotch tape, glue and probably a lot of cortisone shots.

Now what? Pack up and go home for the summer? No, not this girl. I may not watch nearly as avidly or intently as I would during the regular season, but if it’s a good match up, and the potential for a knock-down drag-out series, I’m all over it. (See: Chicago v. St. Louis, Boston v. Montreal). I will get my butt out of bed for the crazily scheduled 10AM game on a Saturday morning. Hockey is hockey, and I for one think you should take what you can get, while you can still get it. (I’m looking at you, Gary-ye-of-the-lockout-happy-Bettman).

Sure, I could watch the Memorial, or World Championships, but the calibre of hockey would still not be as high as in the NHL. And, arguably, the guys playing for the Memorial or the World Championship title would MUCH rather be fighting for Lord Stanley’s Cup. I’m serious.  There’s a reason the Stanley Cup is the hardest trophy to win in professional sports. There are no first-round byes in hockey, 16 teams are in contention from the go,  MLB has 8 by comparison. You have to win 16 games to come out on top, or play up to 28. That is a LOT of hockey, if you factor in overtime, where 2 and 3OT is not a rare sight. That’s 2 60-minute games, in one night.

It takes a team to win this championship, a clutch 3-pointer, 70 yard end zone run, or home run isn’t going to seal the deal. The entire team, physically and mentally needs to persevere with each round, facing tougher opponents and ever-ailing bodies. 82 games a year, and another 28 in the playoffs at full throttle will wear on the best, and it certainly does. I mean seriously, who plays for a championship with a broken rib, separated right shoulder and a punctured lung? Hockey players, that’s who.

Stories like these of the injured players fighting as hard as they can, and their superstitions are the reason I still watch hockey this late in the year. I like to see who is arrogant enough to lift or touch the conference trophy on the way to the Stanley Cup Final, how their personalities change in locker-room interviews the closer they get to the holy grail. Call me a nerd, a geek, a silly fan (if you call me a puck bunny, you have another thing coming), but THIS is what hockey is all about. And this is why I don’t pack up and hang out by pool all summer, like Junior over there.

Playoffs

How to Deal When You Love Hockey, But Your Team Majorly Sucked This Season

Obviously, if you’ve read any of this blog in the past two years, you can safely determine that I am a tiny bit of a hockey fan. So, recently, faced with a new “my-Canucks-sucked-so-bad-they-didn’t-make-the-NHL-playoffs-and-oh-my-God-the-team-is-going-to-blow-up” world, a thought occurred to me. What’s it like to be a hockey fan in the depths of summer, when you have no one to cheer for? I posed this question to a friend of mine, we’ll call him Junior, and asked him to write his take of life deep into the most exciting time of the year, with nothing at all to be excited about. Is it really about the world’s best and most beautiful sport? Or do allegiances taint the love?

Junior:

It’s Wednesday, May 14th and the eyes of the hockey fans around world (really, mostly North America) are focused on the TD Boston Garden where the Bruins are set to face the Montreal Canadiens in Game 7 of their war of attrition 2nd round playoff series. As a Vancouver Canucks fan, you would think that I would be greatly anticipating the prospect of the Bruins’ season ending at home – to a Canadian hockey team no less.

The sad fact is: I just don’t really care either way. I guess it’s a symptom of watching your favourite team’s season end before the playoffs even begin. Without a vested interest in the NHL playoffs, you find yourself saying things like “that Marchand is a talented two way forward” and “Milan Lucic sure seems like a classy fellow.”  Yes – you can become a bandwagon fan for a few weeks and cheer for a feel good story – there’s nothing wrong with that. (Editor’s Note- There is, 100% absolutely something wrong with BOTH of these former statements, and I have supporting evidence to both, but I digress.) But if you have not spent an entire season following a team through its highs and lows (and being a Canucks fan, there have been plenty of crippling, deeply dark, lows lately), that emotional component that makes the road to the Stanley Cup so exhilarating is noticeably absent. In other words, I could give a duck. It’s impossible to feel good about hockey in general when you realize that in the span of about eight months, your team went from being a high-calibre, playoff ready squad, to having two rookies in net, lowest scoring totals in half a decade, and an injury list that could reach Los Angeles.

Playoff Hopes

 And this is how I have come to feel strangely indifferent about the NHL playoffs this spring without the Vancouver Canucks’ involvement. There were never any potential second or third round match ups to worry about. Never any lineup controversies to get into a heated argument discuss with co-workers. Never any ridiculous time pumping quotes to analyze. No, being a hockey fan come playoff time when your team does not even qualify for postseason play is an altogether dreary experience. It’s like knowing someone’s going to win the lottery, someone you know, maybe even like a little, and you’re not even getting a penny of it. Maybe admitting this fact makes me a sad excuse for a hockey fan, but it also makes me an honest hockey fan. I’m a one-team, and one-team only kind of guy.

 The rest of you can enjoy watching hockey well into June. I’ll be sitting by a swimming pool somewhere eagerly awaiting (and maybe dreading) October.

Church is in Session (The NHL is upon us)

The first week of October is brings with it many great things. Pumpkins start arriving on porches throughout my neighbourhood; the few deciduous trees in my lovely province begin to turn elegant shades of yellow, orange and red;  and cooler temperatures arrive, meaning sweater weather is upon us. Best of all, this means I can dust off my superstitions and get ready for another year for heart palpitating, anger-inducing and family-tie-testing hockey.

Yes, it’s Christmas in October for us die-hard fans. This year is especially great, coming off an NHL lockout that tested loyalties last year, a new collective bargaining agreement in place and rosters set, we can finally get rolling on a real season. I mentioned superstitions before, and I was not kidding. I take hockey very seriously. Last night, the first game of the season was on deck for my team, the Vancouver Canucks. I never, ever, watch the first game of the season. The handful of season openers I have watched, we’ve lost, embarrassingly so.

It’s for this reason I did my absolute best to avoid it on TV last night. Unsurprisingly, my brother-in-law turned it on at one point. Of course, I couldn’t look away. What was the result? Up 1-0 after two periods, and lost 4-1. I told them. I explicitly said, I don’t want to watch it, I can’t. So, thanks RDK, thanks a whole damn lot. I mean, sure, the Canucks historically seriously suck in October, but we didn’t need to start off with a loss.

Now begins 8 months of agony and boundless gloating. Things on the family front will stay stagnant until about December, then with the holiday cheer will come new levels of torment from kin and friends. This is life in Canada. People actually do get together on Saturday nights to “watch the game(s)”, it is our past-time. The Americans have baseball, football and Budweiser. We have hockey, poutine and Don Cherry. It’s just how the cookie crumbled.

Buckle up, gang this blog will continue to have light hockey commentary until hopefully June 2014. Next year is the year that keeps on giving in that sense, NHL and the Sochi Games will take place, and hopefully a Canadian repeat is in store for gold.

Hockey Heartbreak

I am writing this in advance of my team’s fourth (and potentially final) game of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs.  I am by no means admitting defeat, in any way shape or form, of my beloved Canucks to the San Jose Sharks.

Today, I am here to confess that I am a hockey instigator. In no way do I claim to know all about hockey, rather the opposite.  However, I am no slouch. I know teams, most relevant stats, player statuses and rumours inside and out. It is this knowledge that becomes my best friend and mortal enemy during playoff season.  You see, I am not what one would call a “silent spectator”. Sure, I watch games in relative silence, I enjoy the peace, for goodness sakes we all know I have to watch the first period of a regular season game on mute! Playoff hockey brings out the Jekyll in me. I am a raging, high-strung, stressed-out, heart-racing, clawing-at-my-jersey, monster. A monster. There, I said it.

This can best be exemplified by my actions last Friday evening. I was having a girls day out, ending of course in time for puck drop to go spend the evening with my boys. We watched Ottawa and Montreal play, Montreal winning 3-1, and I convinced the keeper of the remote to play the Vancouver-San Jose game immediately after. Down after 20 minutes, Ryan Kesler (Kes-lord to you plebes), strapped the Canucks on his back to score twice in the third, ensuring a Canucks win, with a minute left to play, right?  Wrong. Patrick Marleau, ever invisible, scored the game-tying-goal at 19:04 in the final frame.

Now, until this point, I was quiet. Occasionally looking skyward, praying to the hockey gods for a goal or four to break the opposing goalie’s Berlin Wall-esque demeanour. There were  a few groans on bad hockey plays, and a few instances of shouting at the TV while the boys looked on at me in disbelief. I only acutely resembled this guy, I swear!

At 19:04 of the third, everything changed. I made the quick decision to split, immediately.  Forcing myself to bust-my-butt to get home for the start of overtime (OT).  I explained to the boys that I did not want them to see me “that way”, and scurried out the door. You see, OT makes me freak out. The sit in a corner of my room, rock back and forth and repeat “come on boys” kind of freak out. I am a mess when it comes to sudden-death overtime, why? Because that’s it. That’s all she wrote. No re-dos, no play out the rest of the period, that’s it.  Your goose is effectively cooked, and being down 2-0 in a series is never, ever a good thing, even worse when your next two games of a seven game series are in the other team’s house. Last Friday, I made it home for OT. I loaded up a stream in time to hear iron ring and pray to God that puck hit the post a few inches inside the bar, and not out.  God did not answer those prayers. A minute later, the Sharks scored, the game was over and my team is headed for what many feel is a second consecutive ousting in the first round of the playoffs.

Losing did not sting as badly as it should have. Losing in OT, when your team out hustled, out hit and out shot the winners is the stinger.  This, friends, is hockey heartbreak, and this is why I am writing this today, ahead of game four, down 0-3 in the series with supposedly no hope left. Friday night was heartbreak night, Sunday was time to be enthused and hopeful for 40 minutes, and then watch your team implode night. I have hope. There will be a game 5, at least. There has to be, because if not, I have to hear it from my “friends”, the Leafs fans, in particular, who after 9 years of ridicule, shame, and constantly cheering for a team who fails to live up to expectations, they will seek their revenge.

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And Then, There Was Hockey.

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It is a very well known fact that I love hockey.  I make no effort to hide my passion, nor do I apologize for feigning paying attention to people when they are poorly positioned in front of a screen showing a game.  Nothing about this side of me improves between April and June of every year (barring a lock out).  I hermit away with friends, mostly male, and follow the NHL playoffs as though our lives depend on the outcome (they do).  The race for Lord Stanley officially gets underway this evening, and I for one, could not be happier.

The female contingent of friends in my life do not understand this “craziness”, as they call it.  Most of them could care less about the carnage that will be left in the wake of the Los Angeles Kings- St. Louis Blues series.  They won’t have a vested interest in the outcomes of  Boston and Toronto or Montreal and Ottawa.  The sideline stories will have no consequence, either.  Who cares if Number 87 battled back from a concussion. You probably remember he was out for over a year. Then he had his jaw broken by a puck. Crosby’s head has been through a lot.

No, to the ladies in my life, it does not matter that the Maple Leafs will be facing every terrible trade they’ve made in the last decade stare them in the face at puck drop against the Bruins.  This is all OK.  They (for the most part) understand that for about 3 and a half months every year, my priorities change around.  I am not interested in martini night, shopping or lady gossip.  I would much rather toss on a pair of jeans, my favourite Canucks T-shirt, grab a beer and sit in silence and watch a game or three in one evening.  Bless their hearts for putting up with me.

This will be the first year ever, that I will be attempting to follow my hometeam’s playoff run from a different time-zone, and I cannot say that I am looking forward to it.  Catching a Canucks game in Ottawa is hard enough during the regular season, but add in that their first round games all have a start time of 7:30PM PST, and it’s near impossible to find establishments or friends with appropriate cable packages to exploit.  It is my quest, this playoff season to rectify this injustice.  I will politely cheer for the adopted home-team’s victory over Montreal and revel in the superhero-like recovery of the Senators hot-shot defenceman, Erik Karlsson.  And at 10:30PM EST I will plead with the person in charge of TV programming for the evening to please turn on, and turn up the real hockey game.

That’s it, ladies and gentleman, hockey’s second season has officially arrived, and I take no prisoners or fault for what may be said in the coming weeks in this blog.

Adieu, and good luck, fellow NHL fans.

P.S. Go Canucks Go!

 

Hockey 101

I am blogging once again during the intermission of a Canucks game. (Quick update- we’re on a three game win streak, capped by a lovely outing against the in-laws’ team, Detroit, Wednesday night). The theme of tonight’s post is based on the request of my friend to “teach her hockey, fast, so she can talk to a boy”. Well my dear, it’s Christmas, so your wish is my command. (It’s a one-time deal, so consider yourself cashed in). Below is my “cliff-notes” version of Hockey 101 for rookies.

Long story short, she’s interested in a Senators hockey-fanatic guy, and by proxy would like to learn the game to a point where should there be a potential for some quality time, she could pass with flying colours. Let’s start with the basic layout of the game.

Hockey is played in three 20 minute periods with intermissions of 15 minutes between. There are five men per team on the ice during play: the forwards- Right Wing, Center, Left Wing, Left and Right Defensemen and the Goalie. The players are formed into lines (the forwards), and pairings (Defensemen), both rotate throughout the course of the game. The goalie is the only player who normally plays a full 60 minute game, whereas the players average around 15-25 minutes per game, depending upon their position. So, to the rink we go. I’ve attached a photo of the rink layout below to help this explanation along. NHL rink specifications of 200 feet (61 m) × 85 feet (26 m). The corners are rounded in the arc of a circle with a radius of 28 feet (8.5 m). The NHL attacking zones are expanded, when compared to international ice sheets, with blue lines 64 feet (20 m) from the goal line and 50 feet (15 m) apart.

Next up, we go over a few basic penalty calls. Penalties are called when an infraction occurs against the NHL rulebook and the penalized team services between 2 minutes and 4 minutes in the box, giving a man advantage to the opposing team. When a penalty is handed out, the penalized team is on the “PK” (penalty kill) and the team with the man-advantage is on the “PP” (power play). Below is a basic run through of penalties that can be called during play.

Boarding– Checking a player violently into the boards.

Charging- Violently hitting an opponent as a result of speed and distance traveled, or by leaving their feet to deliver a hit.

Elbowing- Using an extended elbow to make contact with an opponent.

Holding- Impeding an opponent by grabbing onto them.

Butt-Ending- Jabbing an opponent with the knob of their stick.

Cross Checking- Checking an opponent with the shaft of the stick held in both hands.

High-Sticking- Hitting a player in the head or shoulders with a stick. A penalty (a single minor-2 minutes if no blood is drawn; a double minor-4 minutes, if blood is drawn).

Hooking- Impeding an opponent by placing the blade of a stick into their body.

All right, after this, I’m not sure anyone can handle more information. But, these are the basics to get you going, to sit through a game, comprehend it, and most of all enjoy it.

Who said you can’t wear heels and be knowledgeable about hockey?