Markus Naslund and Kevin Bieksa of the Vancouver Canucks play a game of soccer as they warmup. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)
Soccer balls are actually pretty standard equipment at hockey games. Lots of NHL players – even ones whose first language is English – warm up before games by bouncing a soccer ball with teammates to get the muscles loose and the blood flowing.
With a good portion of the world captivated by the European soccer championship being held in Switzerland and Austria right now, what better time to establish a few things Earth’s fastest game can learn from the beautiful game.
United We Stand
Look, I know athletes never smell terrific, even before a game. But why is it, during the pre-game national anthems, many hockey players insist on standing so far apart? I love how soccer players band together, often draping arms over shoulders, and belt out their country’s song before a game. Makes me think they actually want to go to battle together.
Hockey players seem to believe there’s a huge correlation between blank stares before the contest and success once the puck drops. I’d rather see a little emotion on the verge of a big match.
Set It Up
The knock on soccer in North America is you’re more likely to see a Vespa tossed from the stands than having more than one or two goals in a game. But the thing that makes the sport great is its tension. A lot of that is created by the fact teams try to control the ball until a perfect opportunity presents itself. The drama builds slowly before the action culminates with an explosive strike on goal.
Seems sort of odd that one of hockey’s main strategies is giving the puck to the other team, then putting all your resources into recovering it. Isn’t that a bit like me waking up, throwing my car keys in my backyard and then frantically searching the lawn for them so I can go to work?
Of course, one notable team believes in possessing the puck as much as possible. They’re the guys with red sweaters holding the Stanley Cup.
At the end of a soccer game, one player, the man of the match, is identified as having played a superior game to that of everybody else on the pitch.
Hockey feels the need to identify three stars who’ve distinguished themselves in a certain contest. How far off are participation ribbons?
Pick your man, slap his back, and be done with it.
OK, now that we’ve identified some ways hockey can learn from soccer, here’s a few things the world’s game could stand to incorporate from the ice gladiators.
Acting is a Subtle Art
Hockey players dive. Some even flop. But soccer players take faux tumbles to a level that incited one THN staffer to joke a player might fake die one day.
It really does undermine the integrity of the sport, not to mention make the referees’ lives hell. And, according to people I talk to who know about these things, it’s got better in recent years.
In hockey, diving is a method of drawing a penalty. In soccer, players would make method actors envy their performance skills.
Remember all that stuff about slowly building drama? Well, there’s a happy balance to be struck. Hockey players understand that you can draw up plays and make pretty passes, but sometimes the best approach is simply to let ‘er go.
Soccer players spend so much time searching for that perfect window of opportunity they forget about the physics of a small ball, a freakin’ huge net and a rocket right foot.
Shoot the ball!
Give the Goalie a Chance
Could you imagine if, before a hockey shootout, the linesmen skated over to each goalie, confiscated their sticks, gloves and blockers, tossed them over the glass and then let the shooter close in?
That’s about the equivalent-hope discrepancy a soccer keeper faces when staring down a world-class boot from about 12 yards away. When goalies are reduced to flinging their bodies in a direction they hope the ball will go, it’s an indication the confrontation is too one-sided.
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays and his column, Top Shelf, appears every second Friday.
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