The (Other) Beautiful Game

Shannon Szabados

I grew up on a steady diet of the Denver Broncos. My family moved to Denver, Colorado in 1972 when I was just six years old. I can honestly say that since the age I was actually interested in sports, I have been a Broncos fan. For a long time the NFL was the only sports league that really mattered to me. Though I never played the game (at least not an organized, wearing pads and helmets version of the game) I grew up loving it and following it religiously. I knew stats inside and out. I knew my team inside and out. I have vivid memories of going to their training camp and meeting some of my heroes in person – Tom Jackson, Steve Watson, Jim Turner, and my all-time favorite player to suit up in the Orange and Blue, Randy Gradishar. I bought Topps trading cards and opened each package in anticipation that there might be a Broncos player in that pack (hopefully not right next to that dry and dreadful stick of gum as that would stain the card).

I made it to one regular season game in all my years of fanaticism: a Monday night game in 1981 when they played the Minnesota Vikings. That night is etched in my mind. I refused to leave my seat to use the bathroom because I didn’t want to miss a moment at Mile High Stadium. My bladder was hurting by the end of the game but I was cheering my boys’ last-second-field-goal victory along with about 75,000 other zealots. At one point I owned five orange t-shirts, one for each day of the school week, so I could proudly display my affection in bright, bold colors.

We had the Denver Nuggets, too, of course. I was a kid in those NBA halcyon days of Alex English, Dan Issel and David Thompson. I remember keeping the radio on while my Dad was away at evening meetings just so I could give him the score of the Nuggets game when he came home. I really loved the game of basketball and was a true fan of the team with the ridiculous nickname. But they never held sway on my heart quite like the Orange Crush.

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I also remember an oddity that arrived and blundered around awhile in Denver, never gaining much traction: the Colorado Rockies. I’m not talking about the long-awaited Major League Baseball team; they arrived years after I had moved away from Colorado. I am referring to the sad sack NHL franchise with the god-awful uniforms and even worse on-ice product. Hockey, to me, was a strangely foreign sport. I couldn’t skate, didn’t know the names of any famous players (except Wayne Gretzky), and didn’t follow the league one bit. I remember being intrigued by it, this curious thing: men on blades with sticks in their hands, some helmeted and some helmet-less, some wearing what looked like slacks, occasionally beating the ever lovin’ crap out of each other. But it was merely a blip on my radar, something to pass the time during the Broncos off-season.

However, life takes curious turns. My memories of childhood will always be in an orange-ish hue but the Broncos and the game of football don’t dominate my sports love like they once did. Interestingly, it is hockey – that odd and eccentric entity – that claims my heart these days. In my adult years I can name much more star hockey players than I can star football or basketball players. When April and May come around I am entranced by the Stanley Cup tournament. I strongly support my hometown team (the Ottawa Senators) as much as I strongly despise their bitterest rival (the Toronto Maple Leafs). I tune into games on the radio and carve out time for “Hockey Night in Canada” when my team is on. For a couple of years I even subscribed to “The Hockey News” magazine. And, most interestingly, currently find myself behind the bench of my son’s hockey team, serving as trainer and sometimes door opener-and-closer, spending time at the rink, watching the Zamboni, feeling the chill, and loving it. It is, to me, the (other) Beautiful Game.

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Life is a giddy thing. It takes strange twists and turns and leaves you wondering one day how you got there. How did I end up a “Hockey Dad”? How did I end up in love with a sport I had never played in my life? The easy answer is to point out that I married a Canadian. Certainly that must be the reason! Nope. Not that easy. She isn’t a hockey fan, never played the sport, and didn’t really influence me in any direct way. Perhaps it was my love for her that inspired a love for all things Canadian. Maybe that was part of it. One can never discount the power of one love inspiring another love.

My first serious dabbling into the sport came when my home state gained a truly legitimate hockey franchise, the Colorado Avalanche, in the mid-90’s. It didn’t hurt that the team was stocked with star players and – oh, yeah – just so happened to win the Stanley Cup in their first season in Colorado. Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Patrick Roy – I had a new, ready-made set of sports heroes to follow. When I had a chance to catch a game I would try to absorb every detail. What are the rules of this game anyway? Why are guys jumping on and off the ice so much? Is there any strategy or positional play in this game, ’cause it looks like very fast chaos to me; athletic ad-libbing at a furious pace. I quickly learned to love my Avs and hate their bitterest rival (the Detroit Red Wings). And I quickly picked up the lingo, the rules, and an appreciation of the ultimate team game.

I was becoming a hockey fan before my very eyes. Things accelerated, however, when I moved to Canada in 2000.

Hockey is not just a passion in Canada. It is not accurate to call it a “religion”, either. I’d say hockey is in the (frozen) water here; it gets into your system, you ingest it, sometimes without even trying. It is so much a part of the cultural makeup of the country that the two will most certainly never be separated (at least not for many,  many generations). There are the Haters, of course; people here who can’t stand the sport and reject it as part of their Canadian-ness. It would be unrealistic to think everyone who lives here lives and breathes hockey. Canada is many things and is most definitely not that one-dimensional (thank the Lord!). But you’d be hard-pressed to find someone here who did not watch or does not know of the Golden Goal, when Sidney Crosby potted the OT winner against the U.S. on Canadian soil at the Vancouver Olympics of 2010. Even the Haters were Lovers that day. Let’s just say that if the Americans had won that game, they would’ve celebrated but it would never have become a country-defining moment. For Canada it was epic; epic because it was hockey.

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Certainly, moving to Canada, coming in with a growing love of the game, combined with the cultural juggernaut that is hockey in this country, all conspired to make me a fan. But the love part has its roots not so much in my adopted homeland as in my children.

I have two kids, a girl and a boy. Calling them a “girl” and a “boy” these days seems strange. They are actually now, more accurately, a young woman and a young man. But they were only five and three years old when we moved to Ottawa. It just so happened that we bought a home across the street from one of the thousands of public skating rinks in Canada. It is a simple patch of ice, no boards; a glorified frozen puddle, really. But that rink became the source of hours and hours of winter fun and exercise for myself and my kids years ago. I’d take them over there to skate, they’d carry their little wooden sticks, and we’d attempt to glide around shooting pucks at a cheap plastic net, playing our own games of shinny (pick-up hockey). I didn’t start skating until I moved here so I was not much better on my blades than they were. But it was Canadian fun, family time in a long tradition of Canadian fun, family times.

We also began to tune into Senators games together. Some of my fondest memories with my kids are around our home team’s drive to the Stanley Cup final in 2007. They were by my side cheering and groaning through that spring time. They grew to love the game and the team, too, and it was a great thing to share.

But the role of hockey in my life took a major leap forward through my son, who really, really wanted to play the sport for real. Of all of us, he was the catalyst to get us out on the ice. His skating got better and better and he spent countless hours either on the ice in the winter or on the pavement in the summer, stick in hand, firing pucks or balls at his net. I was out there a lot with him and was witness to the sport taking hold on his heart and life like no other. I had tried to get him interested in basketball but to no avail. He was hockey, hockey, hockey all the time. So when the opportunity presented itself, we signed him up for house league hockey at the age of eleven.

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Suddenly I was charged with buying equipment I was pretty much clueless about and getting my son ready for a sport that I had never played in my life. It was a daunting task at first and, frankly, a tad disconcerting dressing your little man in such gladiator-style fashion, as if he was going to war. The first chance to get him dressed for a hockey event was at a power skating session. I had to ask other dads in the room what to do with the tape on the socks. I really had no idea. But my son? He said to me that day, “Dad, I feel like I’m in the NHL!” He was hooked. And seeing my boy hooked, well, it hooked me in good, too. His love inspired my love and hockey became a part of my life in a way I could never have imagined just a few years ago.

He and I have walked this hockey journey together. I have seen him grow to be a great skater, quite literally doing circles around the rest of us whenever we are out skating together. He has a slapshot that knocked a stick out of a goalie’s hand this year. And he has a hockey bag’s worth of memories of good games, bad games; good teams, bad teams; tournaments and changing rooms and smelly gear and tape. Hockey has become a integral part of his makeup and his character. It has taken root in him in such a way that I would be shocked if his own kids didn’t lace ’em up one day and follow their Dad onto the ice.

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To me hockey is a Beautiful Game. I know soccer (or Football) has a claim on that title but hockey can be a thing of beauty, too. It has its idiotic moments, of course. Fighting is a prime example of the kind of ugliness that is part of the game. But if the fisticuffs are enough to keep it from being considered a Beautiful Game, then the ridiculous diving and feigned injuries of soccer, usually accompanied by an acting performance that is laughably bad, should take that sport from beautiful to ugly, too. Really, no sport has a claim to being perfectly beautiful. Each has its flaws and blemishes.

Hockey is beautiful to me for a few reasons. It is beautiful for the incredible skill that comes together to make someone a hockey player. Not many people have to learn to run up and down a field or a basketball court. Since coming to Canada I have been floored by the skating ability of so many folks in the Great White North; not just hockey players, either, but figure skaters and speed skaters, too. In Ottawa we have the Rideau Canal skateway each winter where the awesome Canadian ability to skate is on full display. Quite a sight to behold. Combine that with the hand-eye coordination, the speed, the stick work, etc. and you have a sport that has to be worked at from a very young age in order for it to become second nature.

Hockey is also beautiful to me for its team spirit. There is no game so egalitarian has hockey, where the preening and braggadocio of basketball or football are almost non-existent. Hockey players and their humility seem like an anachronism in an age of narcissistic self-promotion. The constant shift changing of the game, goals celebrated as team accomplishments, and all-for-one, one-for-all mentality of hockey makes it a place for valuing collaboration and teamwork. My son has picked up this value in his life. He is a humble young man who has always elevated the team game over his individual game and I can’t help but feel this value will serve him well in his life, wherever he ends up and whatever he ends up doing.

Mostly, though, hockey is beautiful to me because I will forever associate it with my son and with our relationship together. I cannot think about hockey without thinking about him, too. That is probably why this love for the sport has gone so deep into someone like me who never played the game. My love for him has inspired a love for the game. Likely this means a love that will last my lifetime which will only grow if, one day many years from now, I am skating around with my grandkids in a little game of shinny. To be honest, I can’t wait for that day. Then I’ll see a love beget a love which begets another love.

Maybe that’s where I see the greatest beauty in the game, in the eyes of my child, in the connection between son and father, in shared memories that nothing can take away from us. It is a beautiful game in and of itself. But it becomes so much more when it is part of the fabric that holds you together with someone you love.

Young ice-hockey players enjoy a game on

Hockey: It’s a beauty, eh?

The World’s Game and Our World

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Recently one of my co-workers, in explaining his zeal for the World Cup, said, “It’s the world’s game and I love the world!”

Football. Futbol. Soccer. Whatever you call it, there is no denying its international appeal. No other form of sport can claim such world-wide loyalty and support. In fact, on a scale of universal popularity, the “Big 3” of American sports – Baseball, Basketball and their version of Football – are the poor cousins to the Beautiful Game. It is played and loved with reckless abandon on every continent. A glance at the crowds at the World Cup will give you red and yellow, black and white;  cultures as disparate as dancing Ghana and stolid Germany; cries and chants and songs in Portuguese, Korean, Dutch and Arabic. In a world that seems to be more fractured than ever, this simple game unites. It is quite literally a level playing field that crosses boundaries, ethnicities, politics and languages. Every four years the nations gather together to kick, pass, tackle and flop their way through the Great Ballet de Ballon. Even if you are a Hater, you have to admit: It is the World’s Game!

That being the case, I began to wonder: What does the World’s Game tell us about our world? If so many billions can share a love for football, then what can football tell us about ourselves? I’d like to share with you some observations I have made while watching and cheering and groaning my way through the World Cup 2014 in Brazil.

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First, after all these millennia, we remain very tribal.

My tribe, your tribe: Associated with the negative side of this perspective is the term tribalism, i.e., to view your group as being better than another; believing in the innate superiority of your tribe over other tribes. This in and of itself is a human tendency but left unchecked it can lead to oppression and violence. Certainly, our world history is full of examples of tribalism, whether based in an ethnic tribe, religious tribe, political tribe or national tribe, that have led to atrocities and horrors galore. Unfortunately, these events are not just part of our past but also part of our present. For some reason we persist in our tribalistic tendencies, needing a reason to elevate ourselves over others, to promote our tribe at the expense of another.

All the flag waving and face-painting and chanting at World Cup time can carry a chilling note. Football has its own ugly history of violence, xenophobia and racism; also a past but present reality that can’t be ignored. The Game has often been much more than a game: Its beauty has been marred by scars and has held a mirror up to our world. If it sometimes seems repulsive that is because we as a human race continue to deface ourselves with self-inflicted wounds.

Does loyalty and pride in your tribe necessarily bring you down to depravity? Does it inexorably lead to fractures and divisions? As the camera pans the crowd at the World Cup games, I’m struck by the peacefulness of the tribes often seated side-by-side, cheering for a different colour down on the pitch but all just a part of a great, vibrant mass of humanity. I often find myself smiling and laughing with joy as I see the displays of zeal for their home side. I can’t help but be swept up in this because it is infectious. The positive side of this is the fact that we find so much common ground in our common tribal mentality. Grown men weeping, children jumping up and down, people grabbing each other in spontaneous embraces: How can you not feel part of that, no matter what your tribe? It is so gloriously human.

The world is full of tribal people like you and me but that doesn’t have to lead down a path of self-destruction. It all comes down to either creating division or celebrating diversity. I hate my divided World but I love my diverse World. The World Cup and the World’s Game has the potential to help us all sing and dance in unified diversity.

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Second, despite our increasingly complex world, the simple things remain true.

Technology sets the pace in the world and that pace sometimes feels like hyperspace. What was once cutting-edge is now outdated in a matter of months. Trying to keep up with this race means money, time and the margin in life to stay in step. This complexity points to the ever-growing disparity between the Haves and Have-Nots in our world today. Quite often, the poorer citizens of the earth do not have the resources to keep pace. Mostly they are just trying their best to survive, to support their families, to put the proverbial daily bread on the table and keep a roof over their heads. Those of us in the richer nations take our life margin for granted, believing this is the way everyone lives. However, this is not the case. I have the money to afford the laptop I type this on and the margin in life to have the time to do so. In other words, I have at my fingertips what billions of people in my world do not have the resources to grasp.

Where is the common ground in all of this? Is it even possible to find common ground between the wealthy few and the struggling many? Simplicity is where we find commonality. The simple things of life hold true for me, you and everyone else that shares this small planet spinning in space. Love, family, laughter, music, creativity, work, play – these things are true everywhere and with everyone. And included in that picture is the simplest game ever created. A game that needs only a patch of ground and something that resembles a ball. The Beautiful Game, the World’s Game, could easily be known as the Simple Game because it simply is so.

Twenty-five years ago I was struck by these thoughts as I spent time in a small village in the country of Liberia, West Africa. I was visiting with a professor of mine and a small group of college students from the U.S. and Canada. From Monrovia we were driven deep into the forested countryside, late at night in a place no electric light interfered. At times on the drive in through those ridiculously rugged roads I felt like I was entering Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Our first night we pitched our tents on a large open patch of ground. It wasn’t until dawn that I realized we had pitched on the pitch, that is, the football pitch that had been carved out of the forest for the use of the village. It was certainly not a level playing field; some stumps were left that were too stubborn to remove; out-of-bounds was the dense rainforest that surrounded the pitch. Yet a lot of hard work had gone into making room for the World’s Game in this remote corner of the world.

In that village I saw people living in abject poverty; living without so many of the things I thought were essential. Yet we found common ground in the simple things like sharing a joke, goofing around with the kids, attempting to dance, and even running around on that rough-but-ready soccer field, kicking a ball, playing a simple game together.

Boys play football, Senyah, Liberia, 1989

Boys play football, Senyah, Liberia, 1989

The World’s Game tells me that much of my world is poor because the game can thrive in the poorest of places. It is so simple and takes so little; that is where it finds its genius.

The World’s Game also tells me that my world can find common ground when we lean on the simple things. If we define ourselves in other ways, based on our wealth or power or influence, we create deep divides between ourselves and those who can never attain those jaded virtues. But if we define ourselves based on the simple things, we create bridges that bring us together, that make us realize that we hold much more in common than we realize.

Defining what it means to be human can always be boiled down to the simplest of things. The World’s Game, the Simple Game, has the potential to help us see each other as simply another human being, one with the same joys and fears as me.

It is, in the end, just another game. But also, in the end, I’m just another human being.

Ultimately, what do I take from my observations on the World Cup 2014? It is the World’s Game. And I love the World.