Over the 1988-89 and '89-90 seasons, the great Mario Lemieux averaged a whopping 96 assists for the Pittsburgh Penguins. During that same stretch his not-so-great teammate, defenseman Rob Brown, averaged 56.5 assists, despite never tallying more than 25 in any other season of his 13-year NHL career. Brown was a poster boy for the NHL's officially sanctioned coattail riding, otherwise known as the assist. Forget airborne octopi and two halftimes: Hockey's most perplexing tradition is the seemingly random awarding of assists. In a sport in which scoring often occurs by accident, it's bad enough that the precursors to such accidents are treated no differently than the finest pass of Wayne Gretzky's career. Even harder to stomach is that hockey allows two assists on a goal, regardless of situation or intent. Worse still, there is no official delineation—in a league that separates losses and overtime losses—between a first (read, intentional) and second (read, puck-dumping) assist. Such generosity cheapens a statistic that, in a low-scoring sport, should be far more significant The goalie under duress who randomly throws the puck forward, where a teammate corrals it and dekes his way through the defense and sets up another teammate for a score? Why, give that masked man an assist!
How important is the assist in soccer? Upon learning that David Beckham, one of the sport's greatest passers, had broken his left foot, British prime minister Tony Blair interrupted a cabinet meeting to console a grieving nation whose World Cup prospects seemed to have suddenly gone the way of the dodo. In no other sport is scoring more dependent upon the transfer of the ball from one teammate to another. Whether it's the well-timed corner kick or downfield touch to an onrushing forward, the perfect pass is the prettiest play in the Beautiful Game. Such exchanges are also absolutely necessary—without them, scoring would not, could not, occur. The breakaway? Unless you're Pel� or Maradona, forget about it. Other than the occasional penalty kick or rebound, the vast majority of soccer goals would make Mom proud, engineered by players who understand that it's better to give than to receive.