The King retires

When it came to following sports, soccer, for a long period of time, was not my favorite.  Hockey, especially living in Metro Detroit and our proximity to Canada, with Hockey Night in Canada every Saturday night, was my original spectator sport.  Then the summer would dry out the champagne that had showered the Stanley Cup with a drought of the dull games of baseball and golf, until the North American Soccer League granted a franchise to Detroit.  The Detroit Express played at the Silverdome, and the magical skills of the man dubbed, “The Wizard” – Trevor Francis – lured me into an appreciation of the beautiful game.  No sooner was I attached to soccer it disappeared for almost as long as it took me to discover it.  If you’re a younger person reading this, we didn’t have the internet back then, or multi-channel cable or dish services.

In 1999, while on a family vacation to our nation’s capital, the spark was lit.  A friend living there took my son and I to a DC United match.  It took about five minutes for the gene that lie dormant within me to activate.  Soon, I was following Major League Soccer and discovered the Fox Soccer Channel and its coverage of the English Premiere League.

I couldn’t tell you exactly when it was, but there was a point in the early part of this century when the Arsenal Gunners became my English Premiere League team.  And it was because of Thierry Henry.

Henry was a scoring machine.  It reminded me of the way Trevor Francis had come over to America and dominated the Silverdome turf.  But Henry owned Highbury, and the rest of the teams’ pitches in one of the top leagues in the world.  He had pace, he controlled the ball well, and had a sense of where his teammates were to deliver quality passes, setting up goals as well.  There was a quiet flair about him that would burst forth with amazing plays and goals.  Then came The Invincibles.  In the 2003-04 season, Henry scored 30 goals as the Gunners went the full English Premiere League season undefeated, with a 26 win, 12 draw, 0 loss record, the only team to do so since Preston North End’s 18-4-0 invincible season of 1888-89.

After eight seasons and 226 goals in all competitions with the Gunners, Henry went to Spain to play three seasons with Barcelona, from 2007-2010.  Then, in the summer of 2010, he arrived on America’s shore, as a member of the New York Red Bulls.  Past his prime, but still a master of the art of football, Henry tallied 51 goals in 122 games with the Red Bulls.

April 7, 2012 was my first opportunity to see Henry live.  The Red Bulls were in Columbus to play the Crew – my Major League Soccer team.  My loyalties were divided.  I wanted Columbus to win by a score of 4-3 so that I could enjoy a Thierry Henry hat trick.  Giddiness hid behind my mature veneer as  I shot photos during the warm-ups.  I couldn’t help sharing the excitement with others who were taking photos, and having their friends/family take photos of them with Henry in the background, excited about the presence of the man with the world class talent.

DSC07255 DSC07263 DSC07278

The game started, and I shot even more photos.  My seat was a just a couple rows back from the touch line between the center stripe and the top of the six yard box of the goal defended by the Red Bulls in the first half.    It only took three minutes for the magic to begin.  Henry had the ball down the right side, just inside the center stripe.  It was like looking over his shoulder as he lofted  the ball toward goal where Kenny Cooper had made his run, heading the ball past the Crew’s keeper, Andy Gruenebaum, to put the Red  Bulls ahead 1-0.  It was a moment of “wow.”  Just writing that flashes the image once again in my mind, sending shivers through me.  Henry scored twice in the game as well, as the Red Bulls defeated Columbus 4-1.

DSC07302 DSC07382 DSC07387 DSC07398

I saw him play again the following summer in Columbus, where the Crew were able to keep Henry off the scoreboard, but not Tim Cahill, giving the Red Bulls a 1-0 win.  Since 2002, I have been to 12 games at Crew Stadium, and the only games Columbus lost were those two against Henry & New York.

DSC01489 DSC01491 DSC01498 DSC01512

With him announcing his retirement today, I am especially grateful for having had the opportunity to attend a friendly at Red Bull Arena this summer between the New York Red Bulls and Arsenal.  Though the game ended as a 1-0 win by New York on a goal by Bradley Wright-Phillips (son of former Arsenal great, Ian Wright), to be in the place where my favorite English Premiere League team and my favorite soccer player displayed the beautiful game was priceless.

DSC06598 DSC06623 DSC06677 DSC06683 DSC06703 DSC06717

Henry’s skill combined with an inspiring level of confidence is what I have admired about this man and his talent.  There are many American soccer fans who will be adjusting to Major League Soccer without Landon Donovan, who also hung up his boots at the close of this season.  For me, I will have to adjust to soccer without Thierry Henry’s mastery of the beautiful game.  He brought me back to soccer, the sport upon which the sun never sets.  Hockey?  What’s that?

The 40-year relationship is over.

January 19th, the NHL season will finally get underway.  I really don’t care.

This should concern me (and anyone who really knows me).  I marveled at the sport ever since the days of my youth.  And even though I’ve never had an athletic bone in my body, in gym class I excelled at floor hockey.

I wasn’t a casual viewer.  No, I was someone who…

  1. still has the program from the first hockey game I attended live (January 9, 1971, Detroit Red Wings vs Buffalo Sabres at the Olympia in Detroit).  Larry Brown is on the cover, and the Wings won 3-2;
  2. collected hockey cards from 1970 up through the late 1990’s;
  3. shared two season tickets to the Red Wings for three seasons (1989-90, 1990-91, and 1991-92);
  4. was the booster club president for the Detroit Jr. Red Wings of the OHL (currently known as the Plymouth Whalers) for two seasons (1992-93 and 1993-94);
  5. photographed the Detroit Vipers of the International Hockey League (IHL) and wrote a column in a local hockey publication for the 1996-97 and 1997-98 seasons (Great Lakes Hockey Alliance);
  6. traveled to places like Kalamazoo, MI; London & Niagara Falls & Owen Sound, Ontario; Montreal & Quebec City, Quebec; Long Beach, CA; Buffalo, NY; and Cincinnati, OH to watch live hockey;
  7. was the commissioner of a fantasy hockey league that spanned over a decade; and
  8. continues to wear vintage Detroit Vipers jackets appropriate for the season.

Why is this forty-year relationship coming to an end?  Perhaps the sport and I have just grown too far apart.

The first signs occurred after the IHL folded.  In 1994, the Detroit Vipers emerged at the Palace of Auburn Hills, which provided quality, entertaining and affordable hockey.  The IHL was a minor hockey league dating back to 1945.  With the NHL locking out its players during the 1994-95 season, the IHL expanded into areas to compete with NHL franchises.  Along with Detroit, the league added teams in Minnesota and Chicago.

I followed the Cincinnati Cyclones the year previous, as my sister and her family lived across the Ohio River in Kentucky.  But it didn’t take long for my blood to flow the aqua and eggplant of the Vipers.  I attended the team’s very first game (a 7-3 victory over the Cleveland Lumberjacks on September 30, 1994) and their very last game (a 3-2 victory over the Orlando Solar Bears on April 14, 2001) at the Palace.  I still have my photo passes for the June 15, 1997 game where they won the Turner Cup against the Long Beach Ice Dogs, and the October 3, 1997 game where Gordie Howe took to the ice for one shift as a Viper.  The memories are endless, and all of them fond.  The Vipers folded, and my passion for the sport waned.

Stan Drulia of the Detroit VipersPhoto by Michael Kitchen
Stan Drulia of the Detroit Vipers
Photo by Michael Kitchen

NHL ownership greed pushed me away.  Three lockouts which shortened this season and the 1994-95 campaign, and completely cancelled the 2004-05 season.  How does a tradition establish and maintain itself with this kind of off-ice instability?  Such gaps provide the opening for other interests to emerge.

The game itself went in another direction.  For each step forward that the league made, such as the elimination of the two-line pass, the game retreated a couple of steps because of the oppressive push to eliminate fighting from the game.  I’m not the biggest fan of fighting, but the role of the enforcer insured that players were held accountable for their brutal acts on the ice.  With that element removed, players have been able to injure each other with intent, and the league assuming punishments of suspensions and fines would provide adequate retribution.

The first game I attended back in 1971, no one wore a helmet.  In fact, the Buffalo goaltender, Joe Daley, didn’t wear a mask.  In those days, you didn’t have the concussions and injuries to superstars that you have in today’s game.  The addition of helmets and goalie masks are acceptable safety precautions.  However, it has lessened respect for each other on the ice, and the elimination of instant justice, coupled with the faster pace of the game has allowed for a more dangerous sport, especially for the marquee players.

Dissatisfied, frustrated, and watching the game grow away from me, a past lover returned in my life, which sparked what has become a renewed passion and rekindled love: soccer.

In 1978, I was introduced to professional soccer through the Detroit Express of the North American Soccer League (NASL).  It was their first year in the league and Trevor Francis made the experience magical.  Arriving after the first eleven games of the season (finishing his English season with Nottingham Forest), Francis destroyed opposing team’s defenses scoring 22 goals and 10 assists in 19 matches.  The first game I saw live was July 30, 1978 where the Express defeated the Fort Lauderdale Strikers (and legendary keeper Gordon Banks) 4-2.  Francis scored two goals and assisted on another.  I also attended the first round playoff match – a 1-0 victory over the Philadelphia Fury, with Francis netting the only goal.

Trevor Francis triple-teamed by the California Surf.
Photo by Michael Kitchen

I got to a few more games at the Silverdome in 1979 and 1980, and watched as much of the NASL that was televised.  But then I was off to college and the Express and NASL went the way of other defunct professional sports leagues.

On June 28, 2000, while vacationing and visiting friends in Washington DC, I attended a DC United match.  The LA Galaxy beat DC United 2-1 that evening, but the love of the sport that had been in hibernation for 20 years was reborn.  A couple years later I got to my first Columbus Crew game, and since then, there’s been no turning back.

Eddie Gaven of the Crew dribbles through Stoke City of the English Premiere League.Photo by Michael Kitchen
Eddie Gaven of the Crew dribbles through Stoke City of the English Premiere League.
Photo by Michael Kitchen

The hockey cards I’m slowly selling off on eBay, and in place I have almost a complete collection of every MLS card set available.  I find myself able to watch, at most, a period of hockey, but I can lose two hours in the blink of an eye if Arsenal is on the telly.  I do miss going to Detroit Viper games, however neither the Plymouth Whalers or Detroit Red Wings motivate me to purchase a ticket.  But I’ll eagerly make the four-hour drive to Columbus for a Crew match.  Given the choice, I’d take a ticket to a Detroit City FC match and sit amongst the Northern Guard, Le Rouge Supporters and Motor City Supporters than an ice level seat amongst the suits at the Joe Louis Arena.

I could conclude that the death of hockey’s influence on my life is a part of a maturing process.  Other interests such as civic duties, promoting change and protesting the elements in society that promote a destructive status quo, immersing in my profession, and just trying to make the world a little bit better place then it was when I got here was prioritized higher than being entertained by sport.

Yet soccer has moved in and occupied hockey’s place in my life.  Perhaps that, too, is evident of a maturing process.  Hockey, despite what Gary Bettman tries to promote, is a regional sport, conducive to areas where winter’s breath creates the field of dream in backyards and ponds and streets of everyday life.  Soccer is global and its fans and players are a global community.  The sun never sets on the beautiful game, for I can follow Arsenal in the English Premiere League from August to May, and attend Columbus Crew matches from March through October.  And with matches played on a weekly, rather than three or more times a week basis, a two-hour soccer match once a week leaves time open for other, more noble and mature pursuits.

After forty years, both hockey and I have grown in different directions.  It was fun and formative.  But it is time to move on.

Detroit City FC thanks you for attending.Photo by Michael Kitchen
Detroit City FC thanks you for attending.
Photo by Michael Kitchen