Punch him in the nose! Really?

Hartford Wolf Pack vs. Hershey Bears
Hartford Wolf Pack vs. Hershey Bears

About three quarters of the seats in Hartford’s XL Center still reveal their blue color. Taking in the atmosphere in the wide round, I find it to be quite similar to previous hockey experiences. A multi-purpose arena of respectable size, spectators clothed in hockey jerseys, the ice down below, safely guarded by scratched Plexiglas, and the mild chill that makes me hold on to my jacket for the moment.

I meet an old friend this evening. People around me are relaxed. Engaged in friendly conversation, they follow the action on the ice. They overlay the game with a comfortable feeling of coziness like a swarm of hummingbirds on a Sunday morning stroll through the forest.

Those who are not talking have humanities best friend at the ready – the smartphone. Good luck finding a public event where people don’t showcase their love for this tiny (well, sometimes not too tiny any more) marvel of technology.

The day I started my trip to the U.S. General Consulate, the place where I would have my visa interview a day later, began in the cold air of Oberhausen’s train station. The train was delayed so I walked up and down the track to keep warm. Head down, eyes fixed to a small screen, headphones over their ears, fingers flying over the thin glass layer, the people I passed looked out of place. Or am I out of time? They notice nothing. I wonder what they would do if someone would collapse right next to them. Would they even notice? Everyone around me was standing in the same position, enslaved by a piece of technology.

After nine hours on board of an Airbus A380, the two hours of standing during the train ride to New Haven were a nice change. People came and left during the ride, they had all one thing in common. They all isolated themselves from their environment through their smartphones. Heads down, ears closed, hands busy. I’m trying to find a pair of eyes; it’s impossible.

I can’t even count the screens I see around me. For some people, it appears, the game is being played on their screens. Others play a game of hide and seek – whipping out their devices in-between two sentences and hiding it just in time for them to lead the conversation once again.

By the way, the Hartford Wolf Pack are playing the Hershey Bears – an American Hockey League (AHL) game, also referred to as minor league.

“Hit ‘em!” someone around me shouts. Whoa, something exciting must be happening on the ice. This outburst of emotion elicits a flashback.

My dad had taken my brother and me to a football game in a neighboring city. If desired and weather permitted, it would even be possible to ride the bike to the stadium. The team is called MSV Duisburg and that day they played 1860 Munich, the smaller out of the two big teams based in Bavaria’s capital.

For a reason unbeknownst to me, we stood with the Munich supporters. I don’t recall any of the game, but I do recall one incident. “Bring him down, it’s not your brother!” I heard a man shouting out in his thick Bavarian accent. He had caught a rather silent moment and his cry for a foul echoed through the stands. His fellow Lions supporter approved, letting out compliant laughter.

“Punch him in the nose!” someone sitting near me shouts out and summons my concentration back to the here and now. Although the atmosphere is still so similar to my first sports encounters in America this year, there’s a certain level of aggressiveness in the air.

A group of young men in the row behind me add to that. “Fight, fight, fight!” I can’t even count how many times I hear them rallying for a little extra performance. But I also hear that people like that are not a typical part of a hockey night. Thanks, Joe. I was beginning to think that hockey was just an excuse to punch one another.

Another part of the hockey experience seems to be eating. Let’s be honest, a visit to almost every sports event is connected with eating, the same thing on both sides of the big pond. But there’s a difference. Hot dogs are prominently advertised. A couple sits a few seats to my left. They’ve just finished their menu and the trash-filled tray that I see on the floor shows empty soda cups, popcorn remains, and ice cream.

Surprised by the variation in foods, a sudden noise draws my attention back to the ice. The howl ometer works as a wake up call that reactivates the Wolf Pack supporters. The cheering gets louder and the red indicator on the screen rises by the second; probably not really depended on the actual noise levels in the arena, though.

Intermissions change the atmosphere. As if they were the reason some people come to the arena, the level of excitement rises. Animated by the mascot, people go wild in the attempt to catch one of the few t-shirts thrown into the audience. Trivia questions are being asked. Dance performances, commercials, and a hot dog contest fill the rest of the break. I’ve never understood what fascinates people about such eating contests, but everyone around me stares towards the fast eaters.

The game – similar to both basketball games I’ve seen lately – heats up towards the end. While the first period went by with few highlights, the final seconds see the Wolf Pack trying to seal the game after they had been down 0-1. Nothing much happens during overtime, so a shootout has to decide the game.

No… I must be bad luck. Everywhere where I turn up these days, the home team looses. But the shootout is not decided with the first missed penalty. People’s focus is now entirely with the players on the ice. We all see how they get back into the shootout, thanks to their goalie and a few nicely converted penalties. One more goal and the game’s theirs.

The player begins his move, lures the goalie, and fires the puck. Everyone is standing by now, waiting for the decision. The puck closes in on the goalie, passes him, and must have hit the net from the right side because people are in each other’s arms and celebrate the victory. Let’s go, Wolf Pack!

Level Up

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Walking across the packed parking lot in front of Quinnipiac’s TD Bank Sports Center, the freezing cold air is filled with expectations and excitement. The arena compares to a regular multi-purpose arena. It looked familiar to arenas I’ve been to before, and I knew U.S. universities had professional sports venues. This state-of-the-art edifice is located on a hilltop, overlooking Hamden. I’m energized seeing it in front of me. A line at the box office is visible through the doors, although I’m still 200 yards away.

Tonight’s event is again a basketball game, college basketball to be precise. I know instantly that this is the next level. This is not a gym that is attached to a high school – this is more.

A woman, wearing a blue uniform, checks my ticket electronically. After the view is cleared, I realize something about this area that presents a surprise – it’s a two-in-one complex. There’s a basketball arena to the left and a hockey arena to the right. Both look identical, except the fact that to the left I can see a basketball court and to the right a hockey rink.

With a capacity of approximately 3,500 seats, the basketball arena is by no means large, but when I walk down the stairs, I feel remembered on some of the smaller and more modern soccer arenas that I’ve visited in Germany. It’s not that this arena would reach the size of those stadiums. It’s not that it looks similar to them. It’s just a feeling of similarity. A visit to one of those stadiums from last year came to mind when I followed my two classmates down the stairs.

The second division in German soccer, called 2. Bundesliga, is home to several teams from smaller towns and areas that have neither the use for nor the financial opportunities to build bigger stadiums that would meet the requirements for a World Cup.

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Favoring a team that takes a detour through this league once in a while has the side effect that one’s got the chance to visit some of those exotic places in person. Despite the differences between an arena and a stadium, many of them don’t stand a chance compared to the TD Bank Sports Center. They are run-down, feel antiquated, and come with an amateurish touch. This here feels professional from top to bottom.

Having the chance to observe my first encounter with the Bobcats right from the sideline came unexpected. With the regular spectators in the back and the players right under my nose, I begin smelling both similarities and differences.

The cheerleaders to my left wait in excitement for the start of the game, parents chat cheerfully with each other while their children use the space in-between the rows as playground. It’s a relaxed atmosphere that reminds me on the high school game. At the same time, it is clear that this is a much more professional setting.

The table in front of me is filled with countless sheets of paper. I skim trough them, find an informational brochure about Quinnipiac’s women’s basketball team, stats about the teams playing tonight (the Bobcats Men’s basketball team is playing the Siena Saints), and welcome sheets for the members of the press.

The lights go out, music fills the arena while a strong voice announces the players. This looks similar to how I remember the same procedure from the NBA game I saw a couple of years ago.

Of course, I hear the national anthem again. I have a feeling that if my education in American sports continues at this rate, I’ll soon know the American anthem better than the German. This time, however, it’s not a recording; it’s a live performance. Boomer, the Bobcats mascot, adds a nice touch to the performance by ending it with some encouraging dance moves.

The game begins. I feel dwarfed when the players appear in front of me, just across the table. The gameplay is fast, much faster than high school basketball. Looking into the players’ eyes, I see focus and determination. This is serious basketball.

The game feels much more physical. Players handle each other differently. It seems like the protecting layer high school provides is gone. While the high school game had surprisingly few fouls and free throws, things are heating up between the Bobcats and the Saints.

The coaches level up as well. While I was surprised how professional the high school coaches were, this here comes with the feel of professional league coaches. At one point, the referee feels the need to calm down the visitor’s coach.

“That coach is a mean old man!” I hear a female voice shouting from somewhere behind me. Other than this one outburst of emotion, there is a lot of conversation going on among the spectators of tonight’s game. It makes me feel at home.

In a soccer stadium, occasional conversations are quite common, even during the games. Over the years, I’ve been let in on all sorts of personal stuff going on in the life of this one woman that used to be seated right behind me.

Before the game, during halftime break, and even while the action was going on down on the pitch, scraps of conversations she had with her neighbor reached my ears; I had no chance to escape.

The same thing is going on tonight. People are engaged in friendly chats while the game fades to background noise when they talk about private stuff. Yet, they seem to keep an eye on the game because as soon as something noteworthy happens, say a controversial referee decision, the topic changes and the game is all they talk about.

The atmosphere gets more tensed towards the end of the game. The score is close, too close to call a winner. The cheering gets louder; people wait in excitement what happens in the final minutes and seconds of the game. It’s an interesting change to observe. Everyone is now focused on the court; the off-topic conversations have ceased. Time-outs interrupt the game now; two minutes feel like 10.

Dancing Boomer, chanting cheerleaders, and a focused crowd are, however, not enough tonight. The Bobcats loose 70-72. But the game had its effect.

College basketball fits nicely in-between high school and professional NBA. I am surprised how close it compares to the pro league, however. I have been to professional soccer matches in Germany that weren’t as professional. And what better way to get introduced to the world of college sports than with a game observed from the press row. A victory, obviously, would have been nice, but there’s still time for that…

It’s just a whole new language…

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Nine innings. Strike zone. Pitcher. Batter. Bases: First base, second base, third base, home base. Pitching staff. Top of the inning vs. bottom of the inning. Court not pitch. Touch down. Ballpark. Off season. UFC. Umpire not referee. Wrestling. Bullpen. MLB. NBA. NFL. MLS. NHL. WFAN. ESPN. Spring Training. Floyd Mayweather. Mike Tyson. The Klitschko brothers. Trivia questions. Debate. Fanaticism. Mike Francesa. TV deals. Raw SmackDown.

How do you feel? Is your head still spinning? Do you feel as if you were surrounded by a hundred Chinese speaking people who won’t stop throwing strange words and cloudy sentences your way? Welcome to the world of sports talk in America!

I made first contact with this social phenomenon even before I had my first class meeting. Surprisingly, academic advisement took a pause while I learned about the violent nature of American football and a study about concussions and football that was going to take place. Did you know that the job of a football helmet is not to prevent concussions but to prevent skull fractures? I didn’t mind, did even enjoy how leaned-back the conversation had gone by. But I was surprised to find myself involved in sports talk in this situation.

I became the next dose of sports talk right before my first class meeting. Entering the classroom, I was greeted by the hectic and emotional exchange of arguments. I just wanted to pitch in and say “hi”, but the pace of the debate made it impossible to find a moment of silence to do that.

I tried to follow them, tried to understand what they were talking about. A-Rod. Some TV deal. NBC Sports. Money. USA Network. Entertainment. Wrestling. Yankees vs. Red Sox. Team owner XYZ. I gave up. It just didn’t make any sense.

Same location, different day. With more and more sports talk crossing my way, I wanted to try a different approach: note taking. Ah, I remember that name. Wait, how do you spell this guy? T-a-n-? No, don’t… Too late, they’ve already progressed to another topic; from baseball to football to hockey and back to baseball in split seconds. How am I supposed to learn to understand what you’re talking about if you’re constantly switching topics and sports? Frustrating.

Sports talk seems to be a social activity that is always on. It connects people, breaks the ice, and seems to make people comfortable talking to people they don’t even know. Drop a reference to any type of sport and life around you stops. Everyone has an opinion about everything. Even people who are not into sports either participate or make clear that they are not a fan of whatever people are talking about.

Sports play a major role in German society as well. European football is all over the place, but I’ve never experienced this kind of sports talk. Sure, it still connects people, it’s still THE icebreaker, but it feels different. It’s more rational (despite being far from rational), less heated, and – for sure – a lot slower.

When Germans talk about sports, they talk about football. That’s what I had expected to find here as well – people talking about one sport at a time. But involving all sports into a conversation, jumping from one to another and back in the middle of an argument? That’s new, and that’s what made it so confusing in the beginning because it was impossible to find a starting point from where I could begin to work my way into the field of American sports.

Thanks to the fact that I’m being inundated with sports talk, I’m beginning to understand. This is not supposed to sound negative because it really is not. Sports is just a huge part of the American culture. It’s part of the experience to learn all about it and eventually understand at least the basics. And just recently, I had my first success in my efforts to decode the language of sports. More about that soon!

Welcome to the World of Sports in America

High school basketball - Cheshire vs. Fairfield Prep
High school basketball – Cheshire vs. Fairfield Prep

We turn right onto a wide parking lot. The buildings, not higher than two or three stories, are a good distance off the main street. The Star-Spangled Banner is prominently positioned. I’m about to enter my first U.S. high school, and it looks exactly like I had imagined.

We are in Cheshire, just a few miles north of Hamden. I feel, however, strangely reminded on Hamden. There’s a wide, busy road going through the town from south to north, restaurants, supermarkets, and drug stores are located to the left and right of it. We pass the agglomeration of stores that flag up on both sides of the road. Are we back in Hamden? This here looks identical to the shopping district there. But it can’t be, it’s the opposite direction.

The reason for this visit to Cheshire’s high school is another first for me – high school basketball. I’ve only seen one live basketball game before. A good friend of mine took me to a Raptor’s game when I stayed in Toronto a couple of years ago. I loved the experience – thanks, Jon! So I had an idea and a certain expectation of both the game and the event that awaited me tonight.

High school sports is non-existent in Germany. We have sports classes and we exercise, play even basketball or flag football, but we don’t have teams and so no competitions or events like this.

Obviously, I didn’t expect to see a spectacle that could compare to a full-fledged NBA game. But I was interested to observe this part of American culture. Just dive in, I thought, and be part of the culture.

When I think back to my high school, I see the two gyms we had, a small and a big one. Depending on what kinds of sports we practiced, we used either one.

Entering Cheshire’s gym, I notice small stands along both sides of the hall – maybe ten rows high. I am surprised, hadn’t expected to find a gym double the size of our big one. I don’t even begin to speak about the stands. The red and white colors of Cheshire High embellish the location, robbing it of its cold appearance.

People enter the gym. Slowly, the stands get packed. The game is about to begin, I can’t find too many empty seats.

I am surprised and, at the same time, not surprised to find myself in the same family-friendly atmosphere I had experienced in Toronto’s Air Canada Centre. I am not surprised because I had connected basketball with families ever since. I am surprised, however, because I hadn’t thought that high school basketball would feel so similar.

In contrast to the *basketball atmosphere*, European football (in America also known as soccer) takes place in a more aggressive atmosphere. Applauding for the players of the visiting team? It’s the opposite. And booing is just a mild form of rivalry you would experience in a stadium. When a team disappoints over a longer period, things can get rough. Hooligans like the ones you will see in the video below, however, are only a few in contrast to hundreds and thousands of peaceful fans. But watch for yourself what happened after the last relegation of Cologne’s football club.

Even before the game begins, I run right into another first; the playing of the national anthem. I feel out-of-place, standing up, listening to the well-known anthem that’s not mine. I look around, notice in their eyes the connection most of the people in attendance have with the music.

The game begins, the stands are packed, and I am surprised yet again. The game is actually entertaining. Cheshire are supposed to be the underdog here, but they head off to a great start, leading Fairfield Prep by six or seven points. The Cheshire supporters zone, diagonally across the gym, goes wild.

The longer the game goes on, the more surprises come my way. Everything looks so professional. The coaches are dressed in a business like style, the refs seem to wear the same uniforms as the professional ones. And there are so many of them. When we played basketball, our teacher was the coach, wearing a jogging suit.

I am excited. I take a couple of photos. I’m perplexed when I see the scores again. The favored team had managed to turn the tables. They now lead Cheshire by fifteen points or so.

The final surprise of the evening is that Cheshire are able to celebrate a comeback. The game is too close to call almost till the final seconds. The crowd is visibly and audibly disappointed as the final pass glides through the hands of one of their players. The gym transforms from the center of excitement into a place of silent within a split second. The game was over; even I had realized that.

I’ve come here with Joe, who needs to write a story about the game for our class. While waiting for him to finish his interviews, I’ve gotten the chance to observe the family atmosphere once again. The parents gather on the pitch, children are racing all over the gym. I hear chatter from all across the hall, sweet laughter pierces through every few seconds. It’s a relaxed atmosphere, everyone has a brilliant time. Exactly how sports should be enjoyed, completive during the game, but forgotten are all the rivalries afterwards.

I notice how densely the walls of the gym are decorated with banners, telling of past successes. School sports has a complete different value in America. It’s important to people, it means something. Now, Joe’s description of the function of high school sports as a gradual process from town to high school to college to professional teams, makes perfect sense.

Watching this game and being immersed in this atmosphere is why I’m here. I’ve dived into American culture and have learned about a side of the country that had been hidden before. It’s exciting to discover all those differences, smaller and bigger ones. Thanks, Joe!