The Cult of Joey

Meanwhile, whatever happened to that Nicko guy?

By Nicko

The coldest place on Earth, certainly under an Australian flag, is reputed to be Ridge A, 14,000 metres high on the Antarctic Plateau. The average winter temperature on Ridge A is said to be minus 70 degrees, Celsius, although nobody has ever set foot there.

But I’d challenge the Australian and American scientists, who declared this finding in 2009, after exhaustive satellite probing and climate imaging. I’d say to them: Oh yeah? Try hanging out at the dilapidated Olympic ice rink, in Oakleigh South, deep in the Melburnian suburban tundra, during mid-winter.

That, my whitecoated friends, is fucking cold.

The magnificent if chilly Oakleigh rink.

Wearing four layers, a beanie and gloves, I pushed through the front door a few Fridays ago, ducking the straps of plastic presumably designed to stop some bizarre breed of Ice Age-ready mosquito, with my trusty Reebok stick in one hand, and my bag of gear over my shoulder. I was nervous. It was the second time that week I had strapped on my armour and skates and tested the Oakleigh ice. On the Wednesday night, some Rookie friends and I had hired the ice for a scrimmage, which was a blast, especially for those of us debuting on this particular rink, which is tiny – much smaller than the Henke Rink we’re used to – and has no glass, meaning to be boarded involves being jammed against a fence about waist high. Even better, down the end where an ageing Zamboni creaks out between sessions, the ice dips away and there are holes in the bottom of the boards, so that a puck might disappear in there, mid-battle.

Believe it or not, until the 2009 season, this was home to the Melbourne Ice and it is still the scene for many games of winter and summer season hockey every year. As the only surviving rink in Melbourne, outside of Docklands, there isn’t much choice. It’s actually magnificent in its decay and history and authenticity as the last of the suburban hockey rinks.

On this Friday, I was in Oakleigh to finally come face-to-face with the Cult of Joey.

A while ago, I wrote a blog about how I’d found myself in a hockey funk; feeling like I wasn’t improving, wasn’t pushing myself … basically it was a written rant to kick myself up the arse and work harder, which is what I did almost immediately after writing it.

But an unexpected result of that piece was that I was publicly “called out” on Facebook by Joey Hughes, a star of the Melbourne Ice, to let him train the funk out of me.

It was an unforeseen twist, not least because a) I hadn’t realized this blog was being read by a wider hockey community, including my coaches Lliam and Army, let alone Joey Hughes and his Ice-import coaching partner, Martin Kutek, and b) I had recently raised questions about the violence of Joey’s brother, Ice captain Vinnie’s in an Ice game.

Joey Hughes, in action for the Ice. Pic: Canberra Times

So Joey Facebooking that he challenged me to come to Oakleigh and lose my funk was a shock, yet I had to politely say thanks but no thanks, because I was on a novel deadline, travelling a lot and couldn’t find the time to commit. Joey was having none of that and so, finally, here I was, pushing through the door and watching the fog hang over the ice of this tiny rink.

A couple of hours later, after my first Intro session of Next Level hockey, I sat on the boards with Joey, for a genuine chat. It wasn’t quite so cold that your words froze in front of you so that you had to read what each other was saying, but it wasn’t far off. Put it this way, I had sat, in my armour, for an hour, during the Intermediate class that followed mine, fully intending to play Game Time scrimmage, but was so bone-core frozen, I eventually abandoned the idea. Plus everybody looked too skilled for me, so I decided to watch a scrimmage or two before poking my skate out there.

Joey could pass for Latin, or maybe native American, or Italian. He has dark eyes and hair and carries himself like a dancer, but with an intense, harder edge, which comes out on the ice where he is something of a warrior. According to the NLHA website, he has been skating at Oakleigh since he was 11 years old, just before he took off to North America to chase his hockey dream. He’s been a hockey player all that time, and now he’s back at the Olympic rink, training a new generation of players.

The local hockey community is small and very welcoming, but I feel there has been a shade of Us & Them over the past year or so, where you’re either an Icehouse skater or a member of what I laughingly call The Cult of Joey. Many of the Next Level Hockey devotees have an evangelistic loyalty to their coaches, Joey and Martin, along with Tony Theobold, Vinnie Hughes and no doubt others I don’t know about yet.

Any chance they get, Next Level students will tell you about the personal attention, how their skills have improved dramatically, how Oakleigh is where you become a really good hockey player …

I had no reason to doubt them, I just always felt a loyalty to Lliam and Army, and the other Icehouse coaches, who have patiently watched me stumbling around for a long time now. (I spoke to Lliam about it once, and he shrugged that it was great Joey was doing his thing, just turning out more and better hockey players, which was the whole point.)

Even so, I couldn’t afford to drive out to Oakleigh at least one night a week on top of my Icehouse commitments. Real life didn’t have a window that large, regardless of my worry that I would be left behind in terms of development.

And so I’d hear the Cult of Joey rave about Oakleigh, and wonder. Until now. On this Friday, I joined Intro and quickly had all my usual technical faults identified. Told to bend my knee to 90 degrees, while my non-skating foot was horizontally in front of me, I managed maybe 30 degrees, which had Joey skating along beside me, saying, “You gotta be kidding me?” and me giving him a colourful explanation of my age compared to his and where he could shove his deep knee bend. To which he laughed and explained why I simply have to bend my knees more, even though – like everybody – I totally thought I was already.

And so it went.

Part of the Next Level way is to drive its students to be better, to buy in, to forge together and commit. It’s definitely a more driven, different atmosphere to the Icehouse classes where Lliam and Army push us hard, but in a slightly more casual, shambolic way. Lliam’s description of how to fire a wrist-shot (which in his case, is a bullet) was along the lines of: “Look, I learned this at age four and I can’t really explain it, but it works, so do it like this.”

As you know by now, I love these classes and have improved more than I ever could have imagined over 18 months of training and lessons.

Talking to Joey, on the boards after my class, he explained that he had read my “funk” blog and felt a genuine desire to help. He said he read about a passionate rookie who’d hit a wall, and rode in to help if he could. Fresh eyes, is all he thought. Even as an elite international player, Joey said he benefits hugely from new ideas, new voices, different slants on the same technical or fitness issues. So he wanted me to come along and hear something new.

And he’s been totally right. Martin has already given me some amazing tips about outside edge work, everything Joey has said has been useful. It’s great.

And on Wednesdays, Lliam and Army have begun the long road of Intermediate classes again, with encouragement and enthusiasm for our improvement.

I’ve relaxed and can feel improvement happening, even in Dev League where I’ve been in the thick of things. We’re in good hands at both venues, and talking to Joey, just like Lliam, that’s the whole point. There’s an excitement about how many rookies are swelling the ranks of the playing numbers in Victoria; a genuine problem at Ice Hockey Victoria level of how the Hell to accommodate so many people who want ice time.

The Cult of Joey might exist in the enthusiasm of NLHA skaters, but not among the coaches. Joey and Lliam, as Victorian born and bred stars, are mutually enjoying the ride as hockey surges in Australia.

As am I, now savouring personal, friendly, expert teaching from so many Melbourne Ice stars, and with my rookie mates both encouraging me and hanging shit at me at every turn.

Life’s good and the funk is gone.