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Mishkin's Musings: Learning the language of a sport

by Dave Mishkin / Tampa Bay Lightning

Mishkin’s Musings: Learning The “Language” Of A Sport

As I made my way up to the press box before last night’s game between the Lightning and Washington Capitals, I heard Dave Andreychuk delivering one of his “Hockey 201” seminars to fans seated in an otherwise still-empty Amalie Arena. Andreychuk, the former Lightning captain and current VP of Corporate and Community Affairs, makes these presentations prior to various Lightning home games. There is also a Hockey 101, which explains the basic rules of the sport, and Hockey 301, which deals with more intricate components. The content of Hockey 201 is, obviously, somewhere in between the other two. The seminars are a terrific way for fans to learn more about the sport. Andreychuk utilizes actual game footage on the Lightning Vision scoreboard to supplement his explanation of different rules or plays. By the way, if you’re interested in attending one of these seminars, you can sign up by clicking here for more information. They’re free as long as you have a game ticket for that night’s game.

When I entered the radio booth, Andreychuk was talking about the concept of “cycling” the puck. The term is an apt one, because when forwards are effectively cycling the puck in the offensive zone, they – and the puck – are continuously moving, similar to a cycling wheel. I was reminded of how hockey has its own unique language for describing certain situations. Just as other sports do. And other professions. I know nothing about rocket science, for example, but I’m sure that when rocket scientists have discussions, they use terms – or shorthand – that may be unfamiliar to the rest of us.

Veteran broadcasters covering a sport are well-versed in the language of that sport. But learning it takes time. Time spent listening to coaches and players speak. Put an experienced play-by-play broadcaster in a booth of any sport and that person can likely accurately describe what’s happening. But someone new to a sport may not know all of the terminology. Therefore, the broadcast sounds unusual – a little off-kilter. In hockey, a defenseman under pressure in his own zone may “rim” the puck around the boards, in hopes of getting it to a forward positioned at the “half-boards”, or simply to force it past the opposing defenseman at the “point”. A broadcaster new to hockey might not know to use the word “rim”. Perhaps the announcer might say, “Smith shoots the puck around the boards”, since “Smith” is putting extra oomph on the clearing attempt.

In 1997, I was calling hockey games for the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League. That year, Hershey Entertainment and Resort Company (HERCO), which owned the Bears (and still does), put a professional soccer team into the “A-League”, which was at the time a feeder league to Major League Soccer. Similar to what the AHL is to the NHL. Since HERCO already had a sports broadcaster in-house (me), I became the play-by-play announcer for the new soccer club, called the Wildcats. (The soccer season ran in the summer months, so I was able to call games for both the Bears and Wildcats).

To say I knew nothing about soccer would be untrue. I’d watched some soccer over the years (usually the World Cup) and even played a little as a kid. So I knew the rules. Also, from a play-by-play standpoint, hockey and soccer aren’t that dissimilar. Action is fluid, so much of the work boils down to identifying players quickly and describing what’s happening in real time. And obviously, scoring goals in the objective in both sports. I quickly noticed that it’s harder to see the numbers on soccer jerseys, in part because the press box in a stadium is usually farther away from the playing surface than in a hockey arena. Also, since soccer jerseys are really shirts, the numbers on the back can be smaller. And most don’t have a sleeve number. But on the flip side, players in soccer don’t change on the fly and they usually keep to their position on the field. In other words, most of the time, a left midfielder stays on the left side of the field. In addition, soccer players don’t wear helmets, so hair color and style helps with identification.

So the nuts and bolts of soccer play-by-play I could handle. What took me much longer, however, was learning soccer’s specific language. Here are some examples.

-Hockey and soccer both have players assigned to prevent goals. In hockey, it’s the “goaltender”, or “goalie”. In soccer, it’s the “goalkeeper”, or “keeper”. A hockey goalie guards the “net”. A soccer goalkeeper defends the “goal”.

-A “square ball” is a pass from one side of the field all the way across to the other, but from side-to-side. A left “fullback” (one of usually four defenders positioned in front of the keeper) might, to alleviate pressure on his/her side, deliver a square ball to the right fullback, who then has room to “dribble” the ball upfield.

-A “diagonal” ball is a forward pass from one side of the field to the other. A right fullback might launch a diagonal ball to the left midfielder.

-Such a diagonal ball might be “put into space”. (No, this doesn’t mean to kick it as high as you can). It’s putting the ball into an open, undefended area where your teammate has a chance to “run onto it” before the opposition can.

-A “through ball” is a pass, often on the ground, that is pushed through several defending players and “into space”. A teammate has begun to “make a run” as the through ball is delivered so he/she is at top speed when running onto the ball.

-A “set piece” is any play after a stoppage, so the ball is stationary. Usually the term is used when an attacking team has a dangerous chance, such as a free kick within 30 yards “of goal”.

-A “hospital ball” is a pass to a teammate in jeopardy of being aggressively “tackled”. The implication is self-explanatory.

This is just a small sample. There are many more. To soccer aficionados, they are common knowledge. To a casual fan tuning in to soccer every four years, these terms used during broadcasts might sound a little strange, but the accompanying picture helps clarify. In my case, however, I didn’t know them before my first soccer broadcast. So I likely called those early games utilizing unconventional terminology. (And anyone familiar with the sport would have been able to tell immediately that this was my first soccer rodeo, so to speak). But slowly over time, I began to learn. I spent three seasons calling games for the Wildcats and enjoyed the broadcasts immensely.

So the “multi-sport” broadcasters might not be in the same class as Deion Sanders or Bo Jackson, but they are capable of learning more than one language. And take it from me, that doesn’t happen overnight.

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