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Eric Hassli, Vancouver Whitecaps forward and one of the top goal-scorers in Major League Soccer, poses for a portrait in Vancouver, British Columbia, Thursday, August 18, 2011. Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail (Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail)
Eric Hassli, Vancouver Whitecaps forward and one of the top goal-scorers in Major League Soccer, poses for a portrait in Vancouver, British Columbia, Thursday, August 18, 2011. Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail (Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail)

MATTHEW SEKERES

Whitecaps striker Eric Hassli falls in love with Vancouver Add to ...

You can pinpoint the moment when Eric Hassli became a Vancouverite.

The French forward “fell in love” with the city as soon as he arrived in March, and did the same with his Vancouver Whitecaps FC and the style of play in Major League Soccer, where he is challenging for the Golden Boot (the award given to the leading goal scorer) along with countryman Thierry Henry and U.S. international Landon Donovan. Like many in these parts, Hassli watched Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final and said a piece of him “died” when the Canucks fell to the Boston Bruins on June 15.

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Four weeks later he was in Los Angeles, en route to the ESPY Awards as a nominee, in a limousine with Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas, the most valuable player of the NHL playoffs and Vancouver’s nemesis. With tension in the air, Hassli turned to a dumbfounded Whitecaps official and in his mother tongue deadpanned: “Am I supposed to kill him?”

That the 30-year-old has adjusted to life in North America isn’t a surprise, given his explorer’s curiosity, born of an upbringing in northeastern France. He arrived here just nine days before Vancouver’s MLS debut, saying he was looking for a change in life, and six months later, he’s head over heels.

His English is progressing toward conversational, but he’s still timid about using it with strangers, and feels guilty when Vancouverites reply to him in broken French. But over a lunchtime interview in his native language, it is clear that Hassli has much to say about his journey here, rising from a hardscrabble childhood to a Coal Harbour apartment overlooking Stanley Park.

“Everybody tells me: ‘You’re not French, you’re an international,’” Hassli says. “I don’t know how to put this, but I adapt well. That’s what I got from growing up in a tough neighbourhood.”

Sarreguemines, a city of 25,000, is near the border with Germany. Hassli was raised in a “ quartier difficile” amongst a virtual United Nations of children who played soccer in the street and knew to keep their dukes up on Saturday night, when visitors from other quartiers passed through.

“We learned difference, we learned tolerance, we learned respect,” Hassli says. “It was the school of life.”

That exposure to multiculturalism, Hassli said, led him to seek out experiences around the world. He has played professionally in three countries, and said he was ready to settle in England – even if the food was terrible – the second he set foot in Southampton in 2002.

In Vancouver, he’s found his Shangri-la. He is busy playing tourist in the city, visiting beaches and restaurants, emphasis on the latter.

Hassli doesn’t cook, and he’s French, so cuisine and restaurants are important to him, part of his daily life. The city chefs will be pleased to know that he approves, wholeheartedly, saying every new eatery he tries is better than the last. One of downtown’s finer Italian establishments has even taken to sending him away with a take-home meal, much as it does for Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo.

This civic love affair started seconds after his plane landed on March 10, when he elbowed his agent while walking through the terminal and pointed at a mountainous view in the distance. They skipped like schoolboys to baggage claim, knowing that they had found a home.

The storybook continued when Hassli scored twice in the Whitecaps’ MLS opener against Toronto FC, but soon hit a sour note when he took three red cards in the first nine matches, one for an excessive goal celebration when he removed his jersey and tossed it into the Empire Field stands.

He admits that he was too careful after those episodes, avoiding contact and sheepishly picking his spots to engage. Since then, Hassli says he has found a better balance, and believes that his 6-foot-4, 200-pound frame is an advantage in North America, where officials allow physical play.

His size and bull-in-a-china-shop style were an issue in Switzerland’s Super League, where he played for Zurich but was often on the wrong side of the referee’s whistle. After several injuries and inconsistent production, he was ready for a change.

That allowed Tom Soehn, the Whitecaps’ director of soccer operations, to swoop in and sign Hassli. He became the club’s first “designated player,” signing a two-year deal with options worth $900,000 (U.S.) a season.

With 10 goals in 17 games, Hassli has been worth the expense. His goal against Seattle on June 11, which was nominated for best play at the ESPYs, is about the most magnificent strike you will ever see and has registered millions of views on YouTube.

For Hassli, there is no place else he would rather play than Vancouver, and he hopes to finish his career by helping the Whitecaps build their franchise. He’s already branded himself a Canadian, with maple leaf tattoos on his right arm.

“The maple leaves are because I landed in a country that agrees with me, and where I feel good,” he said. “After 1 1/2 months of living here, I went and saw the tattoo artist and said: ‘Listen, I want Canadian maple leaves, and after that, you do what you want with the rest of the arm.’ It’s an homage. And it’s going to stay there the rest of my life.”

Follow on Twitter: @mattsekeres

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