When the coaches fly

A cat trying to use your crotch as a scratching post is not a great pre-hockey omen. And sure enough, in dev league last night, I felt like my skating was off, my knee inexplicably hurt, my shots at goal were powder puffs, and being an offensive threat when genuine IHV summer hockey starts in six weeks or so felt a million miles away. But you have nights like that; well, I do. I had a few good moments, but also got mown down on a clear breakaway, which sucked. I think I need to do some sprinting, off ice, to get more grunt in my legs. Even footy once or twice a week isn’t enough, it seems.

However, the real mistake I made with regard to my self-confidence was hanging around to watch Melbourne Ice train straight after our session. I hadn’t watched the Ice practicing for a long time. Usually the Mustangs follow our scrimmage but the Clippyclops are done for the season and so Melbourne Ice got the rink ahead of the weekend’s AIHL finals at Icy Obriens (probably sold out but check for tickets).

The Ice on Tuesday night, preparing to hopefully add a new addition to the banners on the far wall.

The Ice on Tuesday night, preparing to hopefully add a new addition to the banners on the far wall.

I’ve probably written this before but I love watching our coaches go flat out. For almost six years, I’ve had a front row seat of Matt Armstrong, Lliam Webster, Tommy Powell, occasionally Jason Baclig, Rob Clark and women’s Ice captain Shona Powell, and Ice star Georgia Carson, as they coach us wannabes week in, week out.

But, of course, they are only ever in second gear, at best. Even when they jump into a scrimmage, I’m always super aware that they’re coasting, that they have so much power and skill they’re holding back. (Sure, we students still can’t help but get an insane burst of euphoria on the rare occasion when we manage to actually strip one of the coaches of the puck, but it is usually followed seconds later by being unceremoniously separated from said puck by the same coach, moving briefly to second-and-a-half gear.)

I think my favourite moment in scrimmage ever was waiting, huddled over my stick, in my usual Left Wing position for a face-off in our defensive zone when Tommy Powell, proud Alternate Captain of Melbourne Ice and, oh yeah, Australia, skated casually over and said, ‘When they drop the puck, just go.’ He tilted his head minimally towards our goal, almost 200 feet away down at the other end of the ice.

‘Go?’ I said.

‘Go,’ he confirmed.

Tommy wasn’t even taking the face-off as he was playing defence, but I knew better than to argue. The puck was dropped, I didn’t even look. I just skated flat out down the ice away from everybody. And sure enough, like a magic trick, the puck came tumbling out of the air above me, landing neatly about two metres in front of me, and bouncing gently a couple of times before it was on my stick and I was on a breakaway 20 metres or more clear of any defenders. I still have no idea how he did it, but I have been forever in awe of his confidence, that he knew he could step in, get that puck from the face-off turmoil, find space and then lob it perfectly half a rink to exactly the right spot. Holy shit.

The Ice working on shots, Tuesday before finals weekend.

The Ice working on shots, Tuesday before finals weekend.

So last night, back in street clothes after our dev league hit out, Big Cat, Will Ong and I stopped to watch, before leaving Icy Obriens. And I was struck again by the sheer skill and skating of AIHL level players. It really is something to see and if you’re a hockey player of any level, I would advocate going to watch the Ice train. It’s one thing to watch games, where they duke it out with other teams, but there’s a lot they can’t control there, and all sorts of pressures that they’re dealing with. The Ice love to tic-tac-toe cute passes in attack to end up with a clear scoring chance once a defence is bamboozled, but it’s natural that a lot of those ambitious attempts derail midway.

In training, the skills of the players can shine, uninterrupted. From the moment they took their positions in four groups on the opposing blue lines, everybody knew every drill intimately. A swirl of players looked terrifying, as two skaters would skate fast, fully-committed half circles around the red circle, with pucks crisscrossing the zone, but never in danger of colliding. The skaters would give and receive several hard fast passes, from opposing corners, before suddenly sweeping towards goal.

And that’s when you notice the little things. Lliam Webster received a hard pass half a metre too far behind him. Somehow he kicked it, absolutely smoothly, onto his stick without breaking stride or losing any pace, went in and slotted the shot straight past the goalie.

Tommy Powell took a shot and then hockey stopped from full pace to a complete halt in one fraction of a second, snow flying, like an old animation of the Road Runner going from a blur to dead-stopped, so that he was camped for a potential rebound.

Big weekend coming up for the Ice.

Big weekend coming up for the Ice.

And so it went. Two fast laps, a standard of any training session I’ve ever been part of with any team, was frighteningly quick, with Danish import Lasse Lassen particularly noticeable for his low-gravity style and smooth skating. We also noticed that Joey Hughes has got his trademark long hair back and there are some strong play-off beards in evidence.

Eventually we left them to it and headed off into the night. On the weekend, we’ll be back, hoping the Ice can make it through the semis to Sunday’s Grand Final and then hopefully salute for the first time in a few years, since the glorious days of the threepeat.

I’m not going to mozz them by saying anything more about how sharp and ready they looked. I’m sure the other three teams in finals contention look great in training too. It’s all about bringing it on the day, two days in a row. My feeling is that for the Ice this year, it’s only a question of whether they can mentally turn on when required. The 2016 squad, for mine, is as good as any they’ve had. But they need to blinker-out the inevitable provocation and needle that’s going to come in the semi, secure that win, and then peak for when it matters on Sunday afternoon.

I’ll be there, mouth-agape at the level of play they can achieve, from my viewpoint as a summer trier. And loving every minute. Especially if they trounce Canberra.

Ice, Ice, baby. Go get ’em.

 

The door in the jungle

The adventurer’s eyes widened as he spied what looked like a door. Could this really be it? Had he found it against all the odds, after all this time? His heart began to beat in his chest. His breathing quickened. He struggled to contain his excitement, to remain calm.

The adventurer hacked away at the jungle between him and the door, fighting to get closer.

The wilds of Fitzroy North

The wilds of Fitzroy North

Until finally, there it was, right in front of him. Ageing, paint peeling, almost buried in dust and cobwebs, the door’s handle stiff and resistant after how long without human touch?

He used the machete to sweep aside the cobwebs, used some leaves to clear dust. Then took a deep breath, used all his might to creak the handle to vertical, and then yanked. The door opened.

And there it was.

His hockey gear. Resting against the only bag used less over the last 15 weeks, his scuba diving gear.

The adventurer dragged the bag out of the back shed, and wincing, expecting the worst, opened the zip.

And was relieved to find that the hockey smell wasn’t bad at all. That last big airing, after the Cherokees’ lost final, had done the job.

The dormant bags of adventure.

The dormant bags of adventure.

The adventurer flexed his dodgy calf, which had twanged out while running to receive a handball the previous Friday. The adventurer coming off several weeks in a row of gym, boxing, football twice a week and now ready to step back onto the ice. Having been to a few Melbourne Ice games lately, against the Sydney Bears and Newcastle on Saturday. Feeling the anticipation as the nation’s best players swirled and smashed their way around the Henke Rink at Icy O’Briens. Exchanging looks with Big Cat, knowing it was only three more sleeps until they finally stepped back onto that same ice.

Tuesday 6.45 pm scrimmage, a star-studded cast of players from all levels of competitive hockey. Big hellos to the coaches, who he hadn’t seen in months. Big hellos to the players. Big enjoyment of the locker room banter, and the long, complicated donning of the armour, skates and sock tape. That memory jog to take off the skate-guards before stepping onto the ice surface.

The moment of nervous fear as he jumped the boards for warm-up, and didn’t land flat on his face. More moments of uncertainty, gingerly testing hockey stops and turns, his calf holding, his unpractised skating technique mostly holding.

The Ice and Bears get acquainted on Henke Rink. Pic: Nicko

The Ice and Bears get acquainted on Henke Rink. Pic: Nicko

And then playing his first hour of hockey for months and months. Not setting the world on fire, only landing a few good passes, only having a few not-particularly-threatening shots on goal. Falling a few times, taking what sometimes felt like minutes to complete a fast turn , feeling two steps too slow.

But back. Skating. Managing a breakaway or two. Remembering. And smiling.

Laughing and light, on the drive home with Big Cat, who had been just as rusty but looked better and better as the hour progressed.

Hockey players once more.

And it felt good.

 

An important announcement

Melbourne, Tuesday, June 21 (AP): The Braves Hockey Club and management for Nick Place were pleased to announce today that they have agreed to terms for the upcoming 2016-17 Ice Hockey Victoria summer season.

‘We think it’s a great deal for everybody,’ said Braves President Liam Patrick. ‘If Place pays his fees in full and on time, buys a new jersey, drives himself to trainings and games, doesn’t open his mouth in the changerooms, and doesn’t get in anybody’s way, we might let him play very limited fifth line minutes for the Cherokees in Division 3.’

Place managing to stay vertical in a previous summer. Pic: Luke Milkman

Place managing to stay vertical in a previous summer. Pic: Luke Milkman

Place’s manager, Nick Place, said: ‘I, I mean my client is thrilled that the Braves have agreed to let me, I mean him, don the famous black and yellow for the forthcoming season. I think there’s definitely a role for older, wise veterans in today’s hockey world. When I think of Jaromir Jág-‘

He was then cut off by President Patrick, who whispered: ‘Stick to the agreed script or it’s over.’

President Patrick told reporters, ‘There had been some hope-I mean thought that Nick might consider retirement at the age of 67 but, trooper that he is, and photos of me that he has, he’ll be allowed to go around this summer. What I need the hockey world, especially the Braves family, to understand is that legally we can’t stop him. If he pays his fees, there’s nothing I can do. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.’

The news of Place’s resigning was greeted with universal joy across the league with opposition teams admitting to being rapt with the development. ‘Place’s son, Will – AKA Kittens – AKA Big Cat – would be a huge offensive threat under most circumstances,’ said one coach. ‘So the fact he’ll be totally hamstrung by having to put up with his dad’s ineffectual skating and passing on the left wing should cut his point production in half at least, and is a boon for all of us.’

Cherokees coach Georgia Carson was not available for comment. Friends say she was enjoying a quiet night yesterday evening when she received a txt that appeared to horrify her. ‘They promised! They promised he was gone! They told me it was over!’ she screamed before storming out of the house to a nearby speakeasy bar. She has not been seen since.

Place left immediately after the press conference, telling reporters he was heading to a secret training camp to prepare for September’s action. However, Braves officials confirmed he actually just went to work.

 

Play like a girl

When my hockey linemate, Big Cat Place, was a boy, he played footy for a while, like most Victorian kids who are marched down to the local oval by footy-made fathers (guilty). He was roughly 12 when he decided the sport wasn’t for him, and announced before a routine mid-winter game that it would be his last for the Kew Comets. The coach tried to discuss it, but clearly hadn’t spent much time with Big Cat, because then, like now, once that kid’s mind’s made up, that’s it. In the end, the coach shrugged, said fair enough and arranged for Big Cat to be chaired off the ground by his teammates, as though he’d played 300 games, instead of about 20. Which was a nice touch.

Hello elite women's footy. Goodbye noses. Pic: Getty

Hello elite women’s footy. Goodbye noses. Pic: Getty

One of the kids chairing him off was a girl, whose name, I think, was Megan – it’s a while ago and I’ve had no real reason to remember, until now. She was a gun footballer. In a team of ambitious boys, some of whom were the drilled and burdened with expectation sons of Hawthorn’s Eighties premiership players, she stood out. She was slight, with her blonde hair in a ponytail, but she ran and ran and ran. Megan went in and got hard balls, emerged with them, dished it off and was somehow then a downfield option. She was a midfielder who could play inside or outside, racking up dozens of possessions every week and was quiet, unassuming and humble in the rooms. She could play tall, tackle, do it all. Megan was a runaway Best & Fairest for the team in Big Cat’s Under 12s year and probably went on to win it again in his farewell season. Again, I’m not sure of this but I have a feeling she might have won the overall league’s Best & Fairest too.

Female footballer Tayla Harris displays a flawless kicking technique. Pic: Getty

Female footballer Tayla Harris displays a flawless kicking technique. Pic: Getty

I can remember feeling desperately sorry for Megan. Because I knew and she probably knew that she only had a couple more years of footy to enjoy before it would be over for her. Standing on the boundary, clutching takeaway coffees, the freezing-our-arses-off parents would sigh that she couldn’t graduate to elite AFL levels like the better boys hoped to. Back then, a decade ago, the options for a girl wanting to play into her teens weren’t great. There were female leagues but they had a certain air about them, almost underground, more roller-derby demographic than eastern suburbs parklands; not particularly welcoming to a 15-year-old schoolgirl. Change has been slow but in recent years, I’ve noticed Fitzroy has an all-women’s team running around on the Brunswick Street oval, and now the whole thing is set to go up another notch.So, of course, I thought of Megan yesterday when the AFL announced the eight teams to start an official women’s league under the AFL banner. If only she’d been born a few years later. While she would only be 23 or so now, potentially in her playing prime, I’d be surprised if she’s managed to stay motivated for the years when it looked like her footy dream ran into a dead end.

Georgia Carson flying, for the Melbourne Ice.

Georgia Carson flying, for the Melbourne Ice.

One of the things I’ve really loved about playing hockey has been the unisex nature of it. My team, the Cherokees, is coached by a member of the Australian women’s team, the feisty Georgia Carson (Note to coach: ‘feisty’ is a compliment), and features several women. I can honestly say that mid-game, it makes zero difference whether you’re chasing a puck or battling for it against a female or male opponent. In fact, in five seasons, I have yet to be part of an Ice Hockey Victoria-sanctioned team that has been all-male, which I like. I prefer teams where potential dick-swinging testosterone is dissipated by some feminine controlled aggression. Sure, we’re playing Division 3 – a lower level and firmly non-checking – but several of the women I’ve played and trained with have kicked on to higher divisions. At least two of the women who took up the sport around the same time I did have played in the AIHL’s women’s competition. Sometimes at Wednesday night training, we’d scrimmage and the coaches would join in, allowing Shona Powell, captain of Melbourne Ice women’s, and Australia, to effortlessly dominate.

Likewise, in boxing training, one of my favourite gyms was Mischa Merz’s Boxing Central. I’ve written about Mischa before; a journo mate who fell in love with the allegedly sweet science and ended up winning an Australian welterweight title, as well as international belts. Her gym is perfectly balanced between encouraging men and women to work on their skills and fitness, without some of the rampant testosterone that can dominate other dank sweaty rooms full of heavy bags scattered around a square ring.

The Vixens' Geva Mentor. She rocks.

The Vixens’ Geva Mentor. She rocks.

I covered a lot of women’s sport in my time as a newspaper reporter. In tennis, especially on grasscourts, I found women’s matches more engaging because they didn’t hit the ball quite so hard (this was pre-Serena). Tennis is better with more strategy required than just two lanky giants seeing who can land the most 200 kmh serves. I was lucky enough to cover most of Steffi Graf’s career and her mix of power, balance, skill and strategy was breathtaking. (Then again, so is Federer’s, so I guess I just love the artists, whatever their sex.)

Any idiot who thinks women can’t ‘bring it’ to sport hasn’t watched Australia’s women’s field hockey team in action. Again, I covered that team for a while as they were en route to winning Olympic gold, and holy crap they played hard.

A few weeks ago, I went to a Melbourne Vixens netball game and was dazzled by the speed of the passing and the amount of physicality in what’s supposed to be a non-contact sport. The Vixens’ full back Geva Mentor, who is basically a female Alex Rance – one of my favourite Tigers – was magnificent, prowling and yelling encouragement to the team up the court and ensuring the opposition forwards earned every touch, as much as you can in a sport that seems to heavily discriminate against the defenders.

So, the point of this blog? Just to say that an official pathway for women to play football is well overdue and that I’m proud that hockey is way ahead of the AFL on this one. Women playing sport, either against one another or against/with men where possible, like non-checking hockey, is good for the world, good for everybody involved. Now we just need Richmond to be given a license next year so I can have a team to barrack for.

 

 

 

 

Now is the winter of my content

This blog has had radio silence for a while because I’m taking winter off from hockey. It’s going mostly ok. I had a consultation with a personal trainer who remarked that I was in great shape ‘for my age’, and then had the awkward moment of hoping he didn’t notice the one-third empty bottle of single malt whisky in my sporting backpack. At 11 am on a Saturday.

I’m having a break because I felt flat after the mighty Cherokees fell out of the finals, and realised I’d been busting my arse, on this crazy adventure, for more than five years, without a meaningful break.

I’m a big believer that rest can be as important as training, so it won’t hurt me to step away from those late night Wednesday training sessions and the endless quest to improve, to be hopefully competitive, for a while. I miss the social aspect of Icehouse life, hooning with the coaches and Wednesday regulars, and I miss my teammates, but I haven’t stood on skates now for a couple of months and it’s been kind of nice. I guess I’ll see how much I miss the whole thing before deciding to prepare for another summer season campaign. If I happen to decide to hang up the skates, my last official action in an IHV game was an under-pressure backhand thread out of our defensive zone to Big Cat, launching an attack. Which would sum up my career, such as it is or was, nicely.

Uzes, France. A place where you need to watch your head if you try to run through the town.

Uzes, France. A place where you need to watch your head if you try to run through the town.

After five years, a change of gear has been welcome. I completed my first official fun run in a long time – even if world landspeed experts did not sit up straighter in their chairs as the timing stats came in, plus I spent some weeks in France, even going for a jog in the countryside outside the walled city of Uzes. I have had time to see a few films (Captain America: Civil War was fun, Chasing Asylum a lot less fun but vital to see) and have also launched into some time-intensive work projects, one of which has involved spending a lot of time in the Emergency Trauma departments of major hospitals, which is a really, really effective way to make you appreciate your general health.

And I’ve been enjoying trying to work on my fitness in non-hockey-related ways. I’ve joined a new gym and started boxing again; a love that fell by the wayside because of hockey training. I’ve been trying to get back into the Bang, my footy life, but have been called into the front office immediately by my left hamstring to discuss my attempts to sprint and kick a Sherrin, after six months out of that world. The hamstring hasn’t torn but it certainly hasn’t been thrilled by the footy revival.

That’s the problem with getting older or playing different sports or maybe both: you stop for a while and it’s so hard to regain your sport-specific fitness and mojo. I’m actually in decent shape at the moment, various hockey ailments like my strained medial being unusually rested, but to then build my hammies back up to running/kicking strength? Difficult.

Nicko, Bang footy version. Trying to get back to this, hammies permitting.

Nicko, Bang footy version. Trying to get back to this, hammies permitting.

I’ll just keep taking baby steps; do hamstring strengthening curls in the gym and try to ease back into full Bang training. Wear a name tag to remind everybody who I am after so long away from the kick.

As this has been going on, a couple of my hockey mates have suffered nasty injuries over the past week. Todd slid awkwardly into the boards during a stick and puck session, and smashed his humerus, which sucks on many levels, not least because he took a year or so to get over a serious knee injury not so long ago.

Meanwhile, another friend has a big knee, after a nasty collision in a game, and looks like he’s up for a full reconstruction.

I’m sure everybody who plays hockey fields questions about how dangerous it must be, from people outside our little world. I always explain that the sliding motion gives you a lot less jarring than running, and certainly footy-running-and-kicking, but yes, there is the ever-present danger of ‘collision’ injuries.

Unhappy humerus. Poor Todd.

Unhappy humerus. Poor Todd.

It’s so unlucky for those two guys and others who are off the ice because of similar incidents. Hopefully, recovery is smooth and quick – well, as fast as can be expected. To play well, you have to push the thought of major injury out of your mind, and I’ve been lucky – the Year of the Knee, notwithstanding, but that was bad diagnosis, more than a major injury. I hope all my other hockey friends currently contesting winter or AIHL seasons, or skating in preparation for summer, are safe out there.

Me? I’m going to keep hitting heavy bags that don’t punch back, get some more land-miles into my legs and try to convince my left hamstring that the beauty of drilling a perfect pass, lace-out, to a huffing and puffing old man on the lead further down the field is totally worth the pain and suffering of a sporting re-boot. What could possibly go wrong?

 

Losing with a capital L

To be a fan is to be a loser.

I staggered back into Melbourne from overseas late last week, just in time for my beloved Richmond Tigers to get smashed by West Coast. The next day, the Detroit Red Wings got beaten by Tampa Bay, to go 2-0 down in a playoff series that they somehow fell into despite an underwhelming season.

By the weekend, I needed to shake off jetlag so I attempted to go for a run. As I plodded through Edinburgh Gardens, I heard an unmistakable roar from the Brunswick Street Oval on the other side of the tennis courts. Feeling excited, I made my way to the top of the small rise overlooking the oval to see that the mighty Reds (what’s left of the Fitzroy club that used to be a VFL/AFL side) had goaled to edge to within a straight kick of their opponents with minutes to go. Of course, as I watched, the opposition booted two to put the game away. I ran sadly on.

A big crowd in for the 'Roys at home on a perfect autumn afternoon. Shame they lost. Pic: Nicko

A big crowd in for the ‘Roys at home on a perfect autumn afternoon. Shame they lost. Pic: Nicko

It all got me reflecting on how the life of a sports fan, or player for that matter, is almost completely one of ultimate loss, apart from the occasional miraculous occasion.

At the most elite level, I have seen exactly one championship win by a team I support in my half century on the planet. Granted, Richmond won flags in 1967 and 1969, as well as 1973/74, but I was really young and only just tuning in by those Seventies flags, so they didn’t really resonate. By the time I was a foaming at the mouth, dedicated Tiger, we won the premiership in 1980 – my first live grand final at the MCG; the most epic of days, with my lifetime friend and fellow Tiger, Shaun.

I had no idea that by the age of 51, that would remain my only flag.

The Red Wings? I saw them lift the Stanley Cup in 2007/2008, when I fell in love with the team. But I can’t claim it. I only tuned in, as a flu-ridden, bored total hockey novice, for the Stanley Cup finals, and became engrossed over the course of the Wings victory over the Penguins. So I don’t feel that I can claim that as a cup that I ‘earned’ as a fan. Now, eight years later? Yes, I sweat blood for the Wings and can absolutely claim to be among the Motown army, even from half a world away.

Thank God for the Melbourne Ice with a quiver of men’s and women’s titles, and the Lorne Dolphins’ several flags over the years, in coastal footy, because as far as Richmond and now the Red Wings go, every single year except for once when I was 15, the season has ultimately ended badly.

Detroit's 2008 Cup: I was lucky to see it.

Detroit’s 2008 Cup: I was lucky to see it.

Which is pretty standard, unless you happen to be a Hawthorn fan in the AFL, winning life’s lottery over the past three decades. For the vast majority of sports fans, barracking life is destined to end, year-in, year-out, at some stage in failure. Look at the Collingwood Football Club with its vast, ever-cocky army – and exactly one more premiership in my lifetime than the bedraggled Tigers. Meanwhile, my more recent love, the Wings, have made the play-offs now for an unbelievable 25 years straight – through salary cap introduction, through Hall of Famers’ retirements (God, I miss The Perfect Human, in defence), through everything, but it’s eight years since they actually won the Cup and could be a while yet.

The Tigers? God, don’t even start me.

And trust me, in footy I know that I’m doing better than fans of the Bulldogs, Saints and Demons, all without a flag in my half century on the planet, or, in the NHL, fans of the Blues, Canucks, Capitals, Sabres and Sharks: teams that have NEVER won the Stanley Cup.

The Tigers triumph in 1980. My one and only premiership. Back before the world was in colour.

The Tigers triumph in 1980. My one and only premiership. Back before the world was in colour.

Imagine being a player. Matty Richardson for the Tigers, maybe Bob Murphy for the Dogs; playing your guts out for almost two decades and never raising that cup … watching other players who maybe manage 50 AFL games for their career luck out to be on the ground when the stars align and it matters. I feel vaguely disappointed that I’ve played four seasons of summer hockey now without any medals to show for it, so how must they feel? But again, in 2016, for 17 AFL teams and 29 NHL teams, and all but one Summer Division Three team, this will be the way it goes.

For some reason, we never look at this big picture, at how we almost always see a season end in despair. Instead, the fans, and players, get lost in the individual games, even in the individual moments within those sirens or buzzers. Players are touted as genius or idiot, rising star or useless, game to game, or minute to minute. Us fans watch it all, riding every bump, pouring with emotions, sweating on the next puck or goal or wicket or farnarkle or whatever happens to be your poison. I read Winging It in Motown, a very enthusiastic and well-populated Wings blog, and the screen seethes with rage and frustration and elation and sorrow and anger and happiness and wistfulness and … well, you get the picture. Sometimes all during a single game feed.

My cluster of Richmond diehard mates are already wincing at another season wobbling alarmingly at the start, with the team down 1-3 and not inspiring much hope of a premiership run. Again. All the parts that looked so bright and formidable in the pre-season, a month ago, now looking blunt and harmless compared to the razor-sharp skills, game plans and promising rookies of other teams. But then again, if the Tiges suddenly win five in a row …

And so the road goes, as ever. Up and down, peaks, troughs, but hardly ever reaching the desired destination.

Alex Rance: life is about more than silverware.

Alex Rance: life is about more than silverware.

Which is actually okay. In an excellent interview with The Age’s Emma Quayle during the week, the Tigers’ charismatic full back Alex Rance spoke about caring too much and about how his unstoppable competitiveness and passion for the game can get in his way. Raised a Jehovah’s Witness, Rance thought about leaving the game, leaning back into his beliefs to consider whether he even wanted to play football any more; worried that in the end it was pointless and took him away from his family and true priorities.

Rance said, ‘I’d play a crap game and think, “life sucks”. Then I’d play a good game and everything was awesome. It was like, how can you survive like this? There were peaks and troughs all over the place. It made me think about what faith is, and what I should really be basing my happiness on.”

You don’t have to be of a religious persuasion to see a general wisdom in Rance’s words. Sure, play hard, barrack hard, live or die on a swirling Sherrin in a breeze, or a deflected puck bobbling near a flailing goalie, or a putt curling towards the lip of a golf hole. But see it for what it is, win or lose; an entertaining aside to the real world that is ever travelling alongside, with much higher stakes and greater highs and lows.

In a day or so? Red Wings v Lightning, Game 4.
On the weekend? Richmond v Melbourne at the MCG.
Down at Lorne? Hopefully the Dolphins will be in action, so I can drink a beer on the muddy step grandstand and cheer the locals.
At the Icehouse? The Melbourne Ice men’s team begins another campaign, searching for a Goodall Cup, something has been tantalisingly out of reach for a few years now, but here we all go again.

I’m excited. As usual.

Giddyup.

Just remember it’s all in the journey.

 

 

 

Bidding for history

I went a bit nuts a year and a half ago and won an auction on a Canadian hockey collectables site. On Wednesdays, at Icy O’Briens training, you see all kinds of jerseys including a lot of novelty jerseys and I’m as guilty as anybody of liking the chance to wear bizarre and obscure colours on the night. With that in mind, I bid for and won a bunch of NHL Old Timer jerseys, as worn by creaky Hall of Famers and other probably long-forgotten NHL stars in exhibition games. My jerseys were mostly from the fifties, with a few Toronto-based ones from the seventies. I still wear one to training on Wednesday nights at Icy O’Briens and gave some as Christmas presents to the coaches that year, because every year I forgot to get them a present and then felt bad.

Lliam Webster rocks out one of the NHL Old Timer jerseys.

Lliam Webster rocks out one of the NHL Old Timer jerseys.

But the best thing about winning this auction was definitely not realising that the exchange rate was steep just then, or that the shipping costs were enormous, or that the other taxes and charges almost doubled the price of what I thought I had agreed to pay. No, none of those joyful discoveries were the awesome bit.

The awesome part was that the auction house people clearly thought, ‘Huzzah, we’ve got a live one in Melbourne, Australia, peoples!’ and have continued to mail me the catalogue for hockey auctions ever since. They arrive three or four times a year.

It’s spectacular bedtime reading. And it totally speaks to the dweeby history-lover in me as I’ve discovered how amazing and varied the names, nicknames and jerseys of hockey teams through the ages have been and continue to be.

The Fishermen. Damn, I wish I had the funds to have bought this jersey, just to wear around.

The 1920’s Fishermen jersey. Damn, I wish I had the funds to have bought this jersey, just to wear around.

Like a lot of people reasonably new to hockey, I only became aware of mysterious, now-gone NHL teams like the Whalers and the Nordiques as I delved deeper into the sport, and I find myself now actively seeking out strange towns, teams, mascots and leagues. Mysterious foreign outposts of the sport I’ve come to love.

This is where the auction catalogues are great. Brilliant team names and jersey designs of decades ago come back to life; some obscure, some just unknown to me. In my most recent catalogue, among endless signed sticks and jerseys by NHL stars, you suddenly turn a page to discover a gorgeous game-worn Selkirk Fishermen jersey from the 1920s (it sold for $C 533 – man, I’d love to wear that around town in winter). Wincingly-designed but funny are the jerseys of the Quebec Aces, an AHL team from the Sixties, or the magnificently terrible Calgary Cowboys jersey from 1975-76.

I even sort of like the world’s worst ever attempt at a shark logo on the WHA Los Angeles Shark jersey from that team’s inaugural season in 1972-73, which sold for more than $C 8,000, incidentally.

French Aces, and Canadian Cowboys and dubious Sharks.

French Aces, and Canadian Cowboys and dubious Sharks.

I’d love my jersey collection to include a Moscow Dynamo design from the mid Seventies but can probably live without rocking the colours of the Port Huron Flags. If you’re a Wayne Gretsky fan, you might have been keeping an eye on a lot last year, which featured the actually strangely hipster-cool jersey of a junior team he played for, the Sault Ste Marie Soo Greyhounds.

The mighty (and extinct) Seibu Prince Rabbits.

The mighty (and extinct) Seibu Prince Rabbits.

But beyond the catalogues, the list of intriguing, beautiful and often hilarious team names is long. It was through hockey that I discovered the Canadian town of Medicine Hat (go Tigers!) and through hockey that I found the now-disbanded Seibu Prince Rabbits in Japan. Or another team in the same league: the Nippon Paper Cranes. The Asia League also had a team from China with the unlikely name of ‘The Nordic Vikings’. It lasted one season; not able to match up with the more expected red and yellow power of the China Dragon team.

Australia’s national league doesn’t really light it up in this sphere. We have Mustangs and Thunder and Brave and North Stars and Ice Dogs (kind of funny), and Bears and Adrenalin. Plus, of course, the somewhat strangely-named Melbourne Ice (if it was a footy team, would it be Melbourne Grass?) But nothing to match the Fishermen, above. I’ve never missed Queensland’s Blue Tongues so much.

An unhappy turtle and Macon's sexy name.

An unhappy turtle and Macon’s sexy name.

Sports Illustrated once noted the existence of an American team (above) called Macon Whoopee, even featuring a bird and a bee on its jersey, while I am also a fan of the Mississippi RiverKings, starring a very grumpy turtle as their mascot. (I’d back the Red Wings’ resident octopus, Rally Al, to kick the turtle around if they dropped the gloves.)

As hockey moved into new American frontiers after the NHL expansion (almost 50 years ago exactly), lower level feeder clubs were created as well, meaning you got bizarre name attempts like the Orlando SolarBears or names mashing local history and hockey, like the Greenville Swamp Rabbits, apparently named after a train but featuring a bunny attempting to frighten grown hockey players. And while we’re there, a special shout out to the Toledo Walleye, a team that deserves a mention just because there’s something endlessly hilarious about the concept of a fish attempting to play ice hockey.

CRAZY TEAMS: Sun-loving hockey-playing polar bears and lump but cranky fish.

CRAZY TEAMS: Sun-loving hockey-playing polar bears and lump but cranky fish.