I am not a religious man.

I do not attend church with any regularity. If pressed I could likely name seven or eight of the 10 Commandments, six of the 12 disciples, and most of the seven deadly sins.

Thanks to my love of hamantaschen, I know the story of Esther and Haman, and because of zeppole I know about the feast ofSt. Joseph.

I guess I would sum it up by saying Pascal got it right.

There is one exception though (there’s always an exception) – for the past 20 years I have observed Lent. It is the only slice of the liturgical year I actively follow.

Over the years, I have gone without many "essentials" for the 44 days preceding Easter: beer, swearing, porn, booze, peanut M&Ms (man, do I love peanut M&Ms), even modified foods. By far, the most difficult thing I have ever given up was coffee. That was at least 15 years ago and I can still conjure up the cup of warm caffeinated goodness served to me by mother after Easter dinner. Possibly the finest cup of coffee I have ever consumed.

This year for Lent, I decided to give up non-Leafs NHL hockey. Not just the games, even the highlights.

* * *

Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, which fell on February 13 this year. The lockout had just ended and the season was barely three weeks old. It seemed like going without NHL hockey would be a significant challenge and, as someone who usually watches two to three non-Leafs games a week, it would be a bit of a sacrifice too.

The first Saturday of Lent, the Leafs beat the Sens 3-0 (surely a sign that I'd made a wise choice). The late game was Colorado at Edmonton, but I dutifully changed the channel as soon as Reimer’s shutout was in the books. It wasn’t that difficult as I don’t really care for either Edmonton or Colorado and it wasn't exactly shaping up to be much of a match.

Sunday’s tilt between LA and Chicago was the game I wanted to see, but by the time the game rolled around, Liverpool had thrashedSwansea 5-0 (a result I never would have predicted) and I’d spent enough hours in front of the TV for a Sunday afternoon. I skipped the LA game, even though it was apparently a great one.

It did not get tougher.

I expected to miss the NHL. I expected to find myself cheating - pausing on games as I did a lap of the TV in hopes of catching a goal, a big hit or a remarkable save. I expected to find myself looking at the NHL schedule for Sunday, March 31 and excitedly circling a game or two. Noting game times and making plans.

But it didn't happen.

Over the past 44 days, there was only a single time that I really wanted to watch an NHL game and had to make an effort to skip it. That was a Detroit-Chicago game on March 3, which Chicago won in a shootout. I was very tempted to turn that game on, but I resisted.

After that, I was free and clear. I hardly missed the NHL at all. In my twenty years of observing Lent, I've never had an easier time giving something up.

Why was it so easy to give up the NHL? For me, it came down to four things.

  1. The frequency of Leafs games this season. Due to the lock-out shortened schedule, the team is playing something like every 2.5 days. There are no real gaps or break from the season.
  2. A residual hangover from the lockout – I'm just as happy to not give the NHL my eyeballs. I resent the third work stoppage of Bettman’s tenure and I'm disappointed that the latest interruption didn't even attempt to address the broken economic model of the game.
  3. The horrid state of on-air talent surrounding NHL Games. The biggest unforeseen benefit of giving up the NHL, was giving-up the sideshow that surrounds and permeates it. Tuning out non-Leafs games had the unexpected plus of limiting my exposure to the so-called insiders who natter on endlessly about supposed trades, locker room cancers, clutch performances and other inanities. I cannot adequately sum up how fantastic it is to remove that noise from the game I love, nor can I undersell this point. It's amazing and refreshing to take a break from this cacophony of cretinism (Stock, Healy, Cherry, I'm looking at you) and I can't recommend it enough.
  4. The NHL void was easily filled with soccer.

* * *

As I've written about elsewhere, my son is not a fan of hockey but he loves soccer. He’s not remotely skilled on the pitch, but he plays in a summer league, attends a weekly skills session in the winter, and keeps very close tabs on his favourite player Lionel Messi.

In a perfect world, an argument could be made that it would be ideal if my son’s loyalties and interests were with an NHL team. Certainly, if he was more interested in hockey it would be harder to turn away from it for 40+ days. And sure, it would be fantastic if the two of us could bond over the failure and successes of our favourite NHL team, sitting together in front of the TV a few nights a week to take in the on-ice action.

The reality is, NHL games don’t start until 7PM and the boy goes to bed at 8PM. He’d only be able to see the first period. The intermission programming is so inane and ill-informed, I wouldn't even let him watch it.

Contrast that with soccer – the boy gets to watch the whole game, there’s no bed time one-third of the way through, and I don’t have to explain the inane ramblings of a Mike Milbury, Glenn Healy or Don Cherry (or explain the fights).

During March break, the boy and I watchedBarcelona play AC Milan. He wore his Messi jersey, was well briefed on the away goal rule, and was supremely confident his team, Barca, would win by 3, if not 4 goals. The boy yelled at the TV, danced when Messi scored, jumped out of his seat and stood stock still during Niang’s breakaway, breathing only after the ball stuck the post. He was riveted for the full 90 minutes.

I'm not aBarcelona fan, but it was hands-down the most fun I've had watching a sporting event in years. Having your kid be that committed and entertained, and the fact thatBarcelona played so beautifully, makes it an easy rival to the Cardinals last World Series win.

Would I love it if he had the same passion for hockey? Yes. But he doesn't and that affects the time I can make available for the NHL game.

* * *

On Easter Sunday, Lent comes to an end and I will be able to watch all the NHL hockey I want. Like the year I gave up coffee, I thought Easter dinner would be followed with the welcoming warm glow of an NHL game on my TV, that I would be a man getting a desperately needed fix.

Instead, 44 days after I gave up the NHL, I couldn't even tell you who’s playing on Sunday.

I can tell you that Barcelona plays PSG Tuesday afternoon. The boy has set the PVR and we’ll be watching the game together Tuesday night, likely as soon as we get home.