As we watched Jonathan Toews hoist the Stanley Cup two nights ago, my husband said, "What are you going to watch now that hockey is done?"
The obvious replacement, especially coming immediately on the heels of the Stanley Cup Final, is the World Cup. Lots of incredibly talented athletes trying to score goals on either end of a playing surface, plus an offsides rule.
But it's just not the same. Hockey has ruined me for soccer.
It's not a matter of sheer ignorance. I grew up watching soccer on PBS, which showed Premier League and Bundesliga matches regularly. I was left with a love of Liverpool and Kenny Dalglish that remains undiminished.
I lived in England for a year. I attended a Premier League match (Everton at Chelsea -- far more staid and corporate than I'd have imagined). I've watched World Cup matches in packed and crazed London pubs, and a group of friends and I somehow wound up celebrating France's victory over Italy in the quarterfinals in 1998 along the Champs Elysee with tens of thousands of French fans, the tricolor hastily painted on my cheeks by some friendly (!) Frenchwomen in a cafe.
Many of my closest friends, some of the people I admire most, are soccer-mad. My pal Chuck Culpepper wrote a wonderful book about being a clueless American living in England and becoming an ardent follower of scrappy Portsmouth, called Up Pompey in the UK and Bloody Confused here, and it really made me want to care about soccer.
And yet soccer leaves me cold, and for that, I blame hockey. Soccer seems slow and pointless -- sometimes literally -- after the end-to-end action of hockey. After one of the best NHL postseasons ever, soccer looks even less compelling. It's not just that hockey is lightning fast and soccer is plodding by comparison. The main thing that drives me nuts about soccer is the flopping and the diving. Down goes a player, clutching his leg like he'll never get up again, moaning about infractions that clearly never happened, and as soon as play resumes, up he pops, right as rain.
Hockey players, meanwhile, lose seven teeth on a play and they're right back in a shift later with a gaping smile. (Duncan Keith, you'd get a Conn Smythe vote in this corner.) At the end of NHL playoff series, there's suddenly a long list of injury revelations and it turns out that many players were still on the ice despite awful health issues, like Nicklas Lidstrom's "nearly catastrophic" testicle injury last year. If Ivory Coast's Didier Drogba does come back to play with a broken arm, that will show me something.
By the same token, a fit of pique -- hi, Wayne Rooney and David Beckham! -- likely would be a two-minute gaffe in the NHL, if not simply handled by just a quick fist or two at center ice or laughed off entirely. You don't see much babyish behavior in the NHL; as musician Jon Fratelli, himself a soccer fan, told me last week, hockey is a sport for men, not boys. But in two out of the previous three World Cups, England lost two of its most significant players because they couldn't control their tempers during their sport's most important tournament. That's a turnoff. International soccer stars often come across as spoiled, petulant brats. The hockey stereotype? Blue-collar tough guy. (Or slightly off-kilter goaltender. I think that's probably true in both sports. You have to love the goalie, no matter what the game.)
Stoppage time: just weird.
Here is one thing I do appreciate about soccer. The main reason I love hockey is that it rewards hard work like no other major American pro sport, and that is true of soccer, too: lots of hustle plus a lazy opponent, you've got a chance against a team with superior talent. And like hockey, soccer players don't have to be big to be stars -- small and quick works, too.
OK, it's unfair to compare two sports that have far more differences than similarities. So I'll try to put aside my hockey-is-tougher-and-faster bias for a month. I'll try not to cringe when a perfectly fit athlete falls over at a gust of wind, screaming that he was fouled. I'll embrace the inevitable upsets and the one wildly unexpected quarterfinalist, while averting my eyes from reports of hooliganism and poor international behavior.
And I'll wait patiently for October, when people will stop telling me how great soccer is and I can go back to watching hockey in peace.