Once and For All: What's Better? Hockey or Soccer?

With the NHL and Euro 2020 running in parallel for nearly a month and the pandemic not quite having run its course, I have found myself watching a sport I have long held in contempt (Soccer/Football) when there was no hockey to entertain me.


I wondered if I had judged the sport too harshly in the past. I decided to take the continued lockdown as an opportunity to see if I could find redemption in a sport that has professional leagues on every continent except Antarctica.


SPOILER ALERT. I didn’t.


In fact, I may have found new and improved reasons not to watch. However, since the two sports have their flagship events happening at the same time, I can’t think of a better time to do a comparison of the two.


I understand that the criteria by which I define sports and entertainment may not be the same as a soccer fan. I didn’t define the popularity of sports either.


TIMING/SCHEDULING


It doesn’t bother me that soccer has two 45 minutes halves. It also doesn’t bother me that their overtime or extra time is two 15 minute halves either (well maybe a bit).


In hockey, the clock is vital to the pace of the game and the decisions being made. When the clock hits 00:00, the period or game is over. How the game is played and the urgency and intensity ratches up as the clock winds down. Goalies are pulled based on time left on the clock and the score at the time and when a game is over, the horn sounds, the winning team celebrates and the losing team doesn’t.


The sport of soccer can’t even get that right. When the half hits 45 minutes or when the extra time hits 15 minutes, there is an arbitrary number of minutes assigned as “stoppage time” by the official. We aren’t just talking about a minute or two either. I have seen as many as 5 minutes added on.

Instead of stopping the clock from running when a player is injured (more to say on that), a foul is called, the ball goes out of bounds or when a goal is scored, an extension is given for the trailing team to tie the game.


Amazingly enough, goals in stoppage time are not unusual. In fact, Croatia scored twice in stoppage time to force overtime against Spain. I will concede that this was very exciting to watch. However, it would have been equally as exciting if they had scored two goals between minutes 87 and 90.


I can’t reconcile with a game that ignores the scoreboard clock.


PACE


This may seem unfair given that hockey players move with the aid of skates and a slippery surface, however, I am not just talking about that.


I am also referring to the number of times the referee blows his or her whistle. The number of occurrences that can stop a soccer game are beyond reckoning.


Fouls are called for the most innocuous reasons and God forbid the official has to pull out his naughty and nice list and book the offender giving him a yellow or red card. The ball goes out of bounds dozens of times per game. Set plays can take forever to set up.


I have seen continuous play in a hockey game for more than half of a 20 minute period. Have you ever seen a soccer game play continuously for more than a minute or two? I didn’t think so.

I don’t question the physical fitness of soccer. However, the pace of the game would be improved 10 fold if players could be substituted on and off the pitch throughout the game allowing players to play at their peak when they are out there.


SKILL


I would view these two sports as a tie. Don’t confuse my dislike of the sport of soccer with thinking their players are not talented. I don’t like rap music but I will concede that Eminem, Ice Cube, Dr Dre, Snoop Dogg and Drake are brilliant.


I know Brian Burke says that hockey does everything that other sports do, but they also do it with skates on. There are things soccer players can do that hockey players can’t and vice versa.

I truly admire how fast soccer players can run while having a ball between their feet. It’s equally impressive how they can actually juke another player while having the ball on their feet.


Finally, their goaltenders somehow manage to make saves in front of net that is bigger than my two-car garage without the aid of equipment. Admittedly, they have more help in front of them. It still takes a great deal of athletic ability to cover that much ground.


Hockey player skill is not just being able to play on skates. It is their ability to make plays at top speed and to also stop opposing players at that top speed. Of course, they are aloud to touch the opposition. However, the checking in hockey is as much a part of their skill repertoire as their skating.


As well, though I admire soccer goalies, they aren’t trying to stop a miniscule piece of vulcanized rubber coming at them at over 100 MPH. Nor do their defensive counterparts throw themselves in front of those shots with little regard for their own health and welfare.


I am comfortable calling this one a tie.


OFFICIATING


Though I find the frequency that an official in soccer calls fouls to be a drag on the game, in the playoffs at least, I find that they make up for this by being willing to make a decisive penalty call at a critical time in the game somewhat redeeming.


NHL officials, whether by choice or by direction, seem to not want to be the referee who called a penalty leading to a game winning power play goal. The game management that is likely systemic in the regular season, as evidenced by Tim Peel’s indiscretion, is sorely lacking in the post season.


Ironically, this has had an impact on the outcome of games. In their attempt to get out of the way, they have actually managed to get in the way.

Both of these sports could find a middle ground here.


Soccer officials seem to want to impose their will on games to the detriment of the pace and entertainment while NHL officials get gun shy.


If regular season officiating for the NHL was the officiating I saw in the playoffs, I would say that officiating in hockey was better. As it is, I will call it a draw.


OVERTIME


As if the soccer games weren’t long enough, extra time in the World Cup and Euro events involve two 15 minute halves and it’s not sudden death. It is not unusual to have both teams score in extra time (not to be confused with stoppage time). Knowing that the game is still going to continue takes away from the drama of the goal being scored.


In hockey, games can go for an indefinite number of overtime periods. However, it’s first goal wins and this, in my opinion, is what makes overtime great. Seeing players flood the ice after an overtime goal is all part of the fan experience. Television highlights show the coaches jumping for joy and players clearing the bench on replay as often as they do the game winning goal.


No matter how you slice it, sudden death/victory is hands down more dramatic and exciting for the players and fans.


SHOOTOUTS


This is the only aspect of soccer which I feel is done in a better format than hockey.


In fact, if I only saw the shootout of a soccer game, I would likely be alright with it. It seems almost unfair to the goalie having to cover a net that size with no equipment. Yet, there is always a miss or two.


It is very unusual for a soccer shootout to have 15 rounds like the one that led to Marek Malik scoring against the Washington Capitals in 2005.


It has happened.


In fact, that same year, the Namibian Cup Final between KK Palace and Civics had a 48 round shoot out which lasted two hours. The winner won 17-16 which, amazingly, means that the winning team missed seven penalty kicks out of 24.


I would never want an NHL playoff game to be decided by penalty shots and that is largely because of the entertainment value. Perhaps it’s because of how the rest of the game is played. I just don’t find a player wandering in from the red line at a pace nowhere near game pace exciting.


PLAY BY PLAY COMMENTATORS


This one is closer than you might think. Hockey play by play announcers have the benefit of not trying to make a boring sport sound exciting. That is one obstacle that soccer commentators deal with on a frequent basis.


As much as Bob Cole’s denouement led to him making mistakes calling names etc, his voice inflection was second to none when it came to putting people on the edge of their seats. Even when I was watching on TV, he could still make my blood pressure soar. Perhaps it had something to do with the painful Senators vs Maple Leafs playoffs series anguish we all suffered in the late 90s and early 2000s when Cole was still in top form.


It is not just Bob Cole. Danny Gallivan popularized words like scintillating. Chris Cuthbert, Gord Miller and even our local man, Dean Brown, have a way of making whoever is listening or watching sit up and take notice. We have all heard Brown yell “SCRAMBLLLLLLE”.


Soccer announcers have mastered the art of making ordinary events seem like they are witnessing the birth of new species. However, there is something to be said for a high-pitched British voice describing a header or set play strike that actually worked after 25 previous attempts in the same game.


Despite their best efforts, not only is the on-ice product superior, the people off-ice describing it are equally superior.


INTEGRITY


I have mentioned this earlier in the article. However, integrity merits its own paragraph as this is at the crux of where soccer detractors, like myself, tune soccer out.


I have no doubt that hockey players bend the rules. There are players taking substances they shouldn’t. Some have been caught and punished accordingly. There are also players on ice who embellish to attempt to draw a penalty. Much like banned substances, this is tracked and players get fined for it.


Even more fitting is that referees have the discretion to call an embellishment penalty to offset a power play. I have never seen a player get an embellishment call on his own. From a pure pride perspective, would you want to be on a list of players frequently cited for embellishment in a sport like hockey?


The point being that the league is concerned about how its fans will perceive players “pulling the chute” so to speak.


When a player in hockey is laying on the ice writhing in agony, you can bet there is something very wrong with him and he likely won’t be seen again in that game.


Soccer players hit the ground in every game I have ever watched. Those same players miraculously recover as though Oral Roberts or Jimmy Swaggart had come out onto the field and healed their injuries through divine intervention. Minutes later, they are having an impact on the game.


The worst part is that games have been decided by those antics and the officials seem, for once, unwilling to use that book in their pocket to sanction these divos for trying to insult their intelligence and the intelligence of their viewers.


Again, there seems to be a code amongst the vast majority of players in hockey to play it straight and there is some form of means at the referees and league’s disposal to deal with offenders.


Hockey all day long baby!


So why is the sport of soccer so much more widely accepted and cheered for around the globe? Why do fans not change the channel?


Three main reasons jump to my mind.


Television viewing options. When I ask why fans don’t change the channel in protest of ridiculous embellishment, I am reminded that there is soccer on the other channels in those markets as well. Hockey just isn’t the television viewing phenomenon on continents other than North America.

Weather is also worth considering. Many climates don’t have snow around the world and it’s no surprise the top hockey nations in the world (Canada, United States, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Czech Republic, Slovakia etc.) all have winter weather.


Finally, hockey by virtue of the cost of equipment alone, has become a have/have not sport. Forgetting about being an elite player, outfitting a boy or girl head to toe with new equipment year after year — even from Play It Again Sports — is a costly endeavour. Having multiple kids wanting to play hockey can be enough for any family, much less a family from a country whose means may not be same, to choose the soccer aisle at the sporting goods store. A new pair of cleats and shin guards is far more affordable than a pair of skates or goalie pads.


Having said all that, straight up on the merits, hockey is a better sport from an on-ice product and fan experience perspective. If hockey can ever get its shootout experience to the level of soccer and consistent officiating regardless of the time of year, it won’t even be close.


By Pat Maguire | Sens Nation Hockey