On Friday the 13th, if you chanced to be watching television (and I suspect most of you were) you had a sports smorgasbord at the click of a remote.
There was the first full day of competition at the World Cup, with Mexico getting past Cameroon, Chile thumping Australia and the Netherlands producing what is likely to be the stunner of the tournament — a 5-1 win over defending champion Spain.
If soccer isn’t your bag, there was the U.S. Open, with German golfer Martin Kaymer making Pinehurst look like a mini-putt course.
The Canadian Football League opened its exhibition season with the B.C. Lions and the Edmonton Eskimos.
Oh, and there was a little hockey game out on the Left Coast, with the Los Angeles Kings winning their third overtime contest of the final, this time in double OT, to oust the New York Rangers in five games and win their second Stanley Cup in the past three seasons.
The Kings did it the hard way throughout, beating four of the league’s toughest teams in San Jose, Anaheim, Chicago and the Rangers, coming from behind so many times that when New York took the lead in Game 5 you sensed the Kings had them right where they wanted them.
The Kings are a terrific team, perhaps the mentally toughest we’ve ever seen. But they won’t repeat next spring for a simple reason. The date: Friday, June 13, 2014. When the 2014-15 season begins Oct. 2, the Kings and Rangers will still have knocks and bruises that haven’t healed, not to mention acute mental exhaustion.
This time, it took the Kings 26 gruelling playoff games to get their rings. They were close to the golf course in April, down 3-0 to the San Jose Sharks and ripe for a sweep. Instead, after losing Game 7 to the Kings on April 30, the Sharks had a May 1 tee time — and nearly seven weeks of extra time to recover and plan for next season.
At the risk of stating the obvious, the NHL season is too long. Two of the Kings, Jeff Carter and Drew Doughty (who should have won the Conn Smythe) were also part of Canada’s gold medallists at the Sochi Olympics, while goaltender Jonathan Quick backstopped the U.S. squad and Anze Kopitar played for a surprising Slovenian team. Slava Voynov was part of Russia’s abbreviated run and Marian Gaborik, without whom the Kings don’t make this run, played for Slovakia while he was still a member of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
For players like Carter and Doughty, it’s too much to ask. The same applies to star strikers Diego Costa of Spain and Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal heading into this World Cup. Costa’s Atletico Madrid team won the Spanish La Liga title before losing the Champions League final to Ronaldo’s Real Madrid in a penalty shootout on May 24.
Not surprisingly, both Costa and Ronaldo are banged up starting the World Cup barely three weeks later. Costa is nursing a hamstring injury that sidelined him early in the Champions League match and Ronaldo reportedly has a troublesome knee.
It’s all part of the bloated, never-ending sports schedule, with sports overlapping other sports, major competitions following one another with hardly a break, the ravenous maw of television and the greed of players and owners alike imposing brutal timetables that test the human mind beyond the limits. And it’s likely to get worse.
Even insatiable fans have to be overwhelmed. It’s somewhat different in my case, perhaps, since it’s part of my profession — but in the past two months I’ve watched a couple of dozen baseball games, the Giro d’Italia, the NBA playoffs, the French Open, every Formula One race, the Masters and bits of the U.S. Open in golf, covered the Canadiens playoff run and watched as many games involving other teams as I could squeeze in. And I watch far less than many fans.
Where does it all end? This week, I was stunned to see Rafael Nadal playing the Halle Open in Germany, a couple of days after defeating Novak Djokovic to win the French Open. Nadal, not surprisingly, was ousted by wild card Dustin Brown (not THAT Dustin Brown) but what was he doing there at all when Wimbledon begins on June 23?
Because of the money they’re making, fans have little sympathy for the athletes. But money doesn’t heal a strained hamstring or make a sore shoulder hurt any less. For the Kings to play 26 games of a fast, violent, physical sport after exhibition games, an 82-game regular season and the Olympics is astounding. It’s a wonder some of them could even stand, much less hoist the Stanley Cup at the end of it.
It won’t change, of course. The NHL may elect to bow out of the Olympics in favour of a so-called World Cup (a huge mistake, in our view) but that won’t significantly alter the demands made on the star players.
Soccer officials talk of easing the burden on players, but with national federations and club owners at each other’s throats over player availability, talk is all it is. Tennis players can skip tournaments despite pressure from the ATP and WTA to play, but they do so at the expense of the rankings.
The problem is most severe in hockey. A football player on a team that wins the Super Bowl will play roughly 20 games, a Stanley Cup winner more like 110 games. The sensible thing would be to cut the NHL regular season back to 70 games, maximum — but that will happen when flying pigs throw snowballs in heck.
The only way fans can keep up with it all is to stay in training with lots of beer, nachos and thumb callisthenics. The World Cup is my favourite event on the entire sports calendar, I love Wimbledon and the Tour de France, which begins July 5 — a week before the World Cup ends.
No wonder I don’t have time to go to the gym.
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