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  Thumbs Up for Hockey
By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Columnist
Saturday, June 13, 1998; Page B1

Thomas Boswell

The whole world is having a debate at the moment about which is more worthy of attention, the best soccer on earth or the best hockey anywhere. Several billion people are voting, with their TV clickers, for soccer's World Cup. Lots of people in Detroit, and some in Washington, are voting for hockey's Stanley Cup. It's a mismatch.

But Detroit and Washington are right. Reviled and almost forgotten, hockey is the better game and the Stanley Cup the more exciting show.

The popularity tally is billions to millions, and soccer wins in a landslide. The World Cup has arrested much of the planet's attention. Outside the hometowns of the Red Wings and the Capitals, the Stanley Cup can't get arrested, and TV ratings are down from last year.

Soccer mania will cause so much planet-wide goofing off during the next month that it will actually slow world productivity. Sometimes, if a country gets hot and wins a few games, the whole nation takes the summer off to watch and party.

For the past 25 years, from the World Cup to pro soccer in both America and Europe, right through the NCAA and high school versions of the sport, I've given soccer every chance. Time's up.

Soccer is a good game. (Hope you didn't miss Cameroon's 1-1 tie.) Or, to be more precise, it's a good game considering it's a sport in which the most gifted part of the human body — the hands — can't be used. (You'll observe that I'm not typing this column with my toes.) Soccer seems not to have noted the evolution of opposable thumbs. What about the upper extremities, fellows? Was the game invented by kangaroos?

Hockey has almost everything that soccer has — plus hands and skates. Hockey has a net, like soccer, and a goalie, like soccer, as well as passing, shooting and saving, like soccer. What soccer never has, not even at the World Cup level, is a game as packed with action, thrills and astonishment, as was Detroit's 5-4 overtime win over the Caps in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals Thursday night at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.

Some hockey aficionados already claim that it may have been the best hockey game ever played. All I know is that it's the first time I ever covered an event that was so fast, so continuous, so exciting and so in danger of being decided at any instant that I couldn't escape to go to the men's room until after it was finished.

There's a difference between soccer and hockey in the pace of play. On Thursday, Caps goalie Olaf Kolzig had 55 saves. That's as many as Brazil's goalie, Claudio Taffarel, has had since the last World Cup. Kolzig's idea of a break in the action is being able to take a breath and blink. In soccer the goalie says, "My, I believe our foe has obtained the ball in the far end and, with luck, may arrive here within the hour."

Actually, I've seen some excellent soccer games and I enjoyed the 1994 World Cup games in Washington. The athletes are excellent, if smallish, and their skills are astonishing, if a tad ornamental. For example, do they really need to do all those extraneous toe flourishes with the ball while they're going nowhere? After all, a seal can balance a ball on its nose, but would we want to watch the activity for hours on end?

Even at its best, though, soccer doesn't match hockey's kick. Speed and violence have their charms. Did someone say violence?

During the regular season, NHL teams disgrace the game with fighting and dirty play. By the Stanley Cup, however, nobody wants to risk a penalty that may lead to the power play that produces the goal that changes the whole series. So, you have all the tough checking and full-speed hits, but without most of the trash play.

Above all, hockey players don't whine. The Caps' Jeff Brown got two assists and a hit on the head in Game 2. Nobody even found out that he was hurt (and out for the rest of the season with post-concussion syndrome) until yesterday. In soccer, some 130-pound tulip farmer with a bruised shin lies on the grass and pretends to be dying until the ref relents and says, "Oh, give the bad man from Morocco a yellow card."

Before getting too carried away, it should be noted that hockey has some problems. Has anybody ever mentioned that you can't see the puck?


Well, you still can't see it.

The main thing that prevents great hockey from being as fine as great baseball, football or basketball is the 50 percent of it that is a total mystery in real time and can be witnessed only on replay.

Okay, that's a flaw.

It's also possible that hockey hasn't totally perfected the art of self-promotion. It takes talent to have a sport this good, yet draw TV ratings that are worse than "Wheel of Fortune" reruns. Yesterday, the Caps gave an illustration of how you do it.

For 24 years, the team has tried to get media attention. On their off day, the Caps could have had a brief skate-around in their $200 million new MCI Center so a small army of reporters and TV crews might be enticed into featuring the team or its facility in their reports. Caps players could have offered gracious reflections about being part of one of the best games in the history of their sport.

Instead, the Caps canceled practice. Coach Ron Wilson and two players showed up at Piney Orchard rink in Odenton, where they gave brief, terse interviews, Wilson in blue jeans and Dale Hunter and Mark Tinordi in their underwear. The gist of their remarks was, "We don't want to be here. Please, go away."

Soon, too soon, the Caps and their Stanley Cup fun may indeed go away. Don't miss it. After all, we'll have another month to study those riveting scoreless soccer epics in Group D.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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