NEW YORK --
Thierry Henry, the soccer player in the commercial with golf superstar Tiger Woods and tennis phenom Roger Federer, is one of the world's most accomplished athletes, a champion recognized throughout most of the world for his victories in Euro 2000, the 1998 FIFA World Cup, three FA Cups and two English Premier League championships.
But, it was hockey that recently brought the soccer superstar and a few friends to the NHL Store on Sixth Avenue.
"I'm picking up a few Detroit Red Wings
' items," Henry said. "I'm a Red Wings' fan, even before they won this Stanley Cup this year. I always loved the logo. As a kid, it did it for me. Now, I like players like Henrik Zetterberg
. I like the way he plays his position. He's a forward, also, so maybe that's why I like him. I grew up when Wayne Gretzky
was playing and I remember Eric Lindros
when he was one of the best."
Henry has twice been nominated for the FIFA World Player of the Year, was once named the PFA Players' Player of the Year and was voted by soccer journalists as Footballer of the Year three times. He is remarkable for his combination of speed and stamina plus, of course, his great ability to score goals.
Henry left Premier League side Arsenal as that club's all-time leading scorer before joining Spain's Barcelona in 2007. He is also France's all-time leading scorer in international competitions.
With those credentials, it's not surprising then to discover what Henry likes about hockey.
"The speed of the game attracted me,” he said. "It's pretty close to what we do. I'm a big admirer of American sports although I haven't become as big a baseball fan. I don't know why, maybe the lack of speed in it. I love the NHL, the NBA and the NFL.
"I haven't had the chance to watch a live NHL game because our schedules overlap. I watch on television and I can see that it is really fast and they are amazing skaters. I can only imagine how fast it is.
"I've never met an NHL player. We have a lot of Europeans playing in the NHL but I haven't met any of them. We don't have a lot of French players in the NHL and I've never met them either."
Henry was reminded that goalie Cristobal Huet
, who recently signed a lucrative free-agent contract with the Chicago Blackhawks
, hails from France. Henry said he is rooting for Huet's success, in the hope that he can open doors for other French hockey players. Philippe Bozon
, who played for the St. Louis Blues
from 1991-95, is the only other NHL player from France.
"I saw a documentary on Huet recently on television," Henry said. "He's been doing tremendously well recently. I'm very happy for him. He's been given an opportunity and he's done well with it.
"Hopefully, more French players will see that and come over here and try to increase the recognition of French hockey players. Perhaps some day, the NHL teams won't think twice about taking a French player."
Henry was preparing for the start of Euro 2008 – the Eurpean version of the World Cup -- and couldn't follow the Stanley Cup on a daily basis although he was aware that "his team," the Red Wings, was doing pretty well as things progressed.
"We were busy with the Euro and I had to sleep so I couldn't see any of the games," Henry said. "They were on too late. Really late. Sometimes, we get up early or stay up late to watch NHL games but I couldn't do it during an important tournament.
"I followed what was going on. I don't mean to say I knew the Red Wings would win because you can't know, that but I thought they had a really good team and they were doing well right up until the Stanley Cup. So, I thought they would do well."
The biggest difference is the vision because the hockey player's vision has to be all-around. As a forward in soccer, it's pretty straightforward: I usually only go forward, rarely go backwards. In basketball and soccer, the transitions are instantaneous. In baseball, nothing similar. - Thierry Henry
Henry said the soccer championships are similar to winning the Stanley Cup in that winners get to spend some time with the trophy. Henry has won a lot of championships, so he has a lot of stories about what happened to those trophies, but that stuff stays in the dressing room, Henry said.
"When we win an important trophy, we bring it back home and have a parade. It's basically the same thing," Henry said. "We don't let as many people touch the World Cup, or the Euro Cup, or any trophy, because they are not as strong as the Stanley Cup, nor as heavy. You want to share it with your teammates as much as possible because it is true that you win and lose as a team.
"The FA Cup is one of the oldest championships in the world and there are so many stories that go with it. I had a chance to win it. They had to refurbish it a couple of times because of damage. We won the European Cup when I was with France and someone unscrewed the bowl from the base and it fell apart. We all drank champagne from it."
Henry sees many similarities between some North American sports and soccer and some important differences, especially as they pertain to his position, striker.
"The biggest difference is the vision because the hockey player's vision has to be all-around," Henry said. "As a forward in soccer, it's pretty straightforward: I usually only go forward, rarely go backwards. In basketball and soccer, the transitions are instantaneous. In baseball, nothing similar.
"What is similar is the vision that you have to have. You need to see things quickly. One thing we have in common in hockey and soccer is the contact. You get hit when you are trying to control the ball. The last similarity is that you have to be accurate, despite the speed and the contact. You have to control the ball while someone is pushing you.
"The one thing that is really different is that we have to do that with our feet. That's not normally a part of your body that you use to control something. Usually, we use our hands to grab something. Hockey players use their feet for skating and the stick for controlling the puck."
Henry's contract prohibits him from doing many things, like parachuting and motorcycling. Hockey is off limits too and for that, Henry is grateful.
"I can't skate. I tried. I can't say I didn't try but I looked like a penguin. I wasn't that great," he admitted. "We are not allowed. I'm not saying everyone obeys the rules all the time, but we are not allowed. It is stupid to jeopardize your career just to go skiing or whatever.
"Your career isn't that long and you have to concentrate on it. You have teammates and a team that is relying on you. Doing those other things that might be risky isn't what I'm here for."
Henry doesn't know if any of his teammates or European rivals are also hockey players but he figures there might be some from the more northerly European countries.
"Maybe some of the Swedish soccer players or the Russians because they had hockey right from the start," Henry said. "France has some cold winters but not that cold!"
Henry has one sports idol that wouldn't surprise you and another who definitely does.
"When I was younger, my idol was Marco van Basten," Henry said of the great Dutch player who recently resigned as manager of his national team after Euro 2008. "Another was Michael Jordan. Whether you like hockey or basketball or soccer, whatever you like, Jordan's courage, the desire of the guy and his willingness to always do whatever it takes to win, you had to admire that."
Henry is only 31 years old but he has been playing professionally for 14 seasons. The star of FC Barcelona, Henry struggled with injuries last season and is looking forward to a healthier campaign this fall.
"I had a couple of injuries last year and I always say the worst enemy of athletes is injury," Henry said. "You can't express yourself when you are injured so I'm just hoping to stay injury free."