National Post columnist Andrew Coyne breaks it down:
With the just-completed hockey playoffs coinciding this year with the World Cup of soccer, as well as the overlapping basketball and baseball seasons — also Canadian football, the U.S. Open of golf and, later this week, Wimbledon — we are afforded a rare, eclipse-like opportunity to compare the major spectator sports at close range. Compare, and declare: There is one game that stands out as objectively, scientifically, mathematically superior to the rest. I am of course talking about “the best game you can name,” le sport des glorieux, the gentlemanly sport of hockey. Let’s break it down by category.
There is more action in five minutes of hockey than in your average 90-minute game of soccer, whose fans live for the moment when, by some mischance, the ball strays within 50 yards of the net. Basketball suffers from the opposite affliction: As the comedian David Brenner argues, they should start both teams at 100 and make the games two minutes long, since that’s what every basketball game comes down to. Only hockey combines frequency of scoring chances with difficulty of actually scoring: Fans, especially at playoff time, are kept in a state of near-permanent hysteria, the prospect of a game-altering goal ever present.
Hockey is fluid, where baseball and football are static. It has been calculated that a 60-minute football game, though it takes nearly three hours to complete, adds up to no more than about 10 minutes of actual playing time. The rest is huddles, signal-calling, etc. Baseball players spend half of every game sitting around on the bench, chewing tobacco. The rest is spent standing around in the field, chewing tobacco. But oh, the geometry.
“The beautiful game?” I’ll tell you what’s beautiful: a perfectly timed hip check at mid-ice, sending the other player cartwheeling onto his head. It’s ice dancing, only with more bruises and fewer sequins.
There is no greater test of endurance in sports than the Stanley Cup playoffs — four consecutive best-of-seven series, as many as 28 games, each one an all-out war. To be crowned NFL champion, you have to win at most four games, total: about 20 minutes work for the average team member, offensive or defensive, less for those assigned to the risible “specialty teams.”
Baseball players go through a similar process to reach the top, but, well, it’s baseball — how hard can it be? Basketball? I don’t see any playoff beards on those pampered egomaniacs. The only thing I can think of that comes close is the Tour de France — if there were hip checks.
There’s also the matter of the cup itself.
The Stanley Cup, I have observed, is the object of some considerable fascination, even reverence, among Americans. You can see why: It’s the oldest of the major sports trophies, and the classiest. It’s not the Burger King Stanley Cup, after all. You’re looking for a trophy for your major-league sporting event? Ask yourself these questions. Can you remember its name? (I don’t even know what they give the NBA winners.) Can you drink champagne out of it? Does it have engraved upon it the names of every team and every player to ever win it?
One of the oddities of soccer is how light the penalties are. You trip a guy as he’s about to kick the ball, and … he gets to kick it again. If it’s a particularly flagrant foul, the referee might show you a yellow card. You trip a guy in hockey, and you lose 20% of your skating manpower for two minutes or more.
But then it hit me: It’s a matter of incentives. Soccer has a serious problem as it is with players taking dives in hopes of being awarded a free kick. Imagine the operas of agony they would perform if the penalties were more severe.
Diving is not unknown in hockey, and may be getting worse, but it’s still frowned upon. It’s not — yet — part of the culture of the game, the way it is in soccer. There’s still an honest, workaday quality to hockey, even as played by millionaires. Of course, what I really mean is: It’s Canadian. Everyone’s moaning about American teams winning the Stanley Cup, Americans taking over our game. I prefer to think of it as an example of reverse cultural colonialism, a little piece of Canadian culture that has conquered the hearts of millions of Americans.
Mind you, there is one area where hockey falls short: colourful nicknames. There is no hockey equivalent to baseball’s “Oil Can” Boyd or “Catfish” Hunter. Hockey nicknames are formed in one of two ways: by dropping the last syllable of the player’s name, or by adding -er or -ie (sometimes by a combination of the two).
There’s a simple reason for this: exhaustion. It’s all a hockey player can do to gasp out “go Wayner” or “attaboy, Mess” between shifts. Baseball players, on the other hand, have all the time in the world.