Tuesday, November 15, 2011
Written by Dave Sottile
It’s a Sunday afternoon at Giant Center, nearly 100 minutes before opening faceoff, and Hershey Bears coach Mark French walks through his team’s dressing room.
Freshly laundered jerseys and socks hang from each player’s locker stall. Skates have been sharpened. Sticks have been taped. But something is missing.
“It’s weird at first when you don’t see any players. Not one,” French said. “It’s odd, so close to game time. Some are in the training room or workout room, but I know where most of them can be found.”
Home game or away game, it’s always the same.
A large contingent of Bears – sometimes more than 12 or 15 – flock to the largest available open space for a routine that’s equal parts warm-up and social gathering.
Welcome to the world of two-touch soccer.
European players brought to North America
The game itself is part Hacky Sack and part dodge ball. Players form a circle and take turns moving the ball around through the air, using just their feet and heads, as on a soccer field.
It’s called two-touch because each player is allowed only two touches before advancing it to the next player.
When a player can’t control a pass from a teammate, uses his hands or isn’t able to move the ball in two touches or fewer before it hits the ground, he’s out of the game and the circle gets smaller.
Like dodge ball, the game continues until just one player remains. He is declared the winner.
“Guys have fun with it,” Bears captain Boyd Kane said. “It’s not a total warm-up like you get on the ice, but it loosens you up and the guys have a good time.
“Once you get it going, it seems to build each year, where more and more guys come out to play. Usually at the beginning of the year it starts out small, but more guys come as we move along.”
No one is really sure where two-touch soccer originated. Players throughout the National Hockey League, American Hockey League and ECHL have played for more than a decade.
It’s believed an influx of European-born athletes in the 1990s brought the game with them to North America.
“The first time I saw it was when I coached major junior in North Bay,” French said. “We had two Europeans, one from Sweden and one from Finland. They were the first ones I ever saw introduce the soccer ball to warm-ups, and a lot of guys gravitated to it.
“Since that time, every team I’ve known does it. It becomes a real big part of their pre-game routine.”
Andrew Gordon's broken toe
It’s a common site at arenas throughout North America to see the home team playing two-touch at one end of an event-level hallway while the visiting team does the same at the opposite end or inside the Zamboni tunnel lobby or loading dock area.
Of course, the game is not without its issues.
Sometimes in narrow arena hallways, balls can get stuck in low ceilings, and more than one fluorescent light bulb has smashed to the ground after being struck by a ball.
And then there’s the occasion player injury.
“I remember my first year here, we were at Manchester and Andrew Gordon broke his toe playing it,” French said. “Normally I don’t mind it, but I remember I wasn’t too happy with the two-touch soccer game at that point in time.
“There are a few stories of guys getting injured when they do it. Like anything, done the right way and under certain conditions, it’s probably a good thing for them to do.”
'Some real competition'
Two-touch seems to keep growing, especially with players who had been previously unfamiliar with it.
“I never played it until my first year here, and I was really bad at it at first,” said forward Francois Bouchard, who was a regular two-touch player for Hershey before being traded last week by the Washington Capitals. “It’s a good time to talk to the boys, chirp each other.”
Like a majority of players, Bouchard said he looks forward to two-touch as soon as he walks into the arena.
“I hurry up when I get here, get changed and tape my sticks,” Bouchard said. “The next thing I want to do is play soccer, because it’s fun and you get warmed-up. It makes coming to the rink early a lot of fun.”
Of course, it isn’t just a warm-up exercise. The social aspect can’t be overlooked.
“For me, it’s more about hanging out and having a good time,” said Chris Bourque, who started playing two-touch as a Bears rookie in 2005. “You get here two hours before the game and there’s not really much to do before you have team meetings.
“You tape your sticks, get all your stuff ready and then there’s a half-hour window where there’s nothing to do, so you kill some time, play some soccer and hang out with the guys. Plus there’s some real competition involved, too.”