I'm so grateful for Hal Gill. Sure, I know I was among the skeptics when we watched him handle the puck like he had shovels for hands all season. I sighed as gustily as anybody when he chugged up ice like a disabled aircraft carrier, with a comparable turning radius. When the playoffs came, though; when games really mattered and the big prize was on the line, he gave an actual pound of flesh in his determination to win. He fearlessly blocked dozens of shots that left his carcass splotched with bruises in various shades of livid. Playing with fifty-two stitches in his left calf had to have hurt like a bugger, but aside from a little awkwardness in his stride, you'd never know he was skating with more thread in his hide than a leather coat.
I bring this up now because of the World Cup. Like many of you, I've substituted hockey obsession with an interest in the big soccer tournament, at least to kill some time before the NHL draft. I don't watch a lot of soccer, aside from a passing interest in the English premier league. Still, I figured, it's the biggest competition in the world. Nation versus nation, passion, pride, skill and glory. Aside from the psychotic-episode-inducing drone of the vuvuzelas, what's not to like?
I'll tell you what: the diving. Oh. My. God. Watching these supremely-talented athletes throw themselves to the grass, writhing in agony after the slightest brush of an opponent's boot, makes Mike Ribeiro's theatrics in the 2004 playoffs look Oscar-worthy. It's so ridiculous. They grimace and flinch, clutch their body parts and shout in agony...then take a hand up and continue as though nothing happened. And it's not just once or twice. It happens seven or eight times a game, and nobody's above doing it. For a hockey fan, this is unbelievable.
We're used to watching guys like Gill, and Bob Gainey, who played with two separated shoulders. Travis Moen had fifty stitches in his face and missed one game. Andrei Markov had his tendon severed and came back to play weeks ahead of schedule. We're accustomed to players who will come off the ice under their own power unless they're unconscious. Soccer players, to a hockey fan, are big, rich, talented wimps. I'd like to see one of them nailed in the corner by Zdeno Chara, or blocking a MAB slapper. They think soccer cleats hurt? I'd like to see them take a skate in the leg like Gill did, just so they'd know the difference between "ow" and "HOLY LORD, there are only ten pints of blood in the human body and four of them are on the ice!"
I can appreciate the significance of the World Cup, and the strategy of the game. When it comes to pure admiration of the athletes, however, give me hockey every time. If I'm going to watch a game played by men, I want to see men on the playing surface. Guys faking injuries on every play just don't impress in quite the same way. Hal Gill might not have the dexterity of Messi or the speed of Ronaldo, but he's got real courage. For that, I'm glad he's on our team, and I'm glad to be a hockey fan.