Feel my power!

The kind of monument I think the Icehouse should consider, to celebrate my first broken stick ...

I hit the puck so sweetly I felt the shot right through my forearms in a good way, and right across my ribcage. The puck fairly flew into the bottom right hand corner of the goal, Otto the goalie beaten pointless. And then I realised: the crack of my wooden hockey stick turned out to be a genuine crack of my wooden hockey stick.

This is why I’ve been walking around with my fists under my biceps all week, in case you were wondering. This is why my Play-Off Beard is unfeasibly bushy after only one round of the NHL Play-Offs.

I broke my first stick. It’s a big moment for a budding hockey star. Let me explain …

It all started on Good Friday. Three men. One Perth chick. A lot of ice.

Mack, Georgi Kay, Will and I take advantage of a public holiday to hit a “Try Hockey” session at the Icehouse.

There are only a few people on the Heinke Rink and Georgi – Perth’s hottest music sensation (yes, soak up that free gratuitous publicity, George – who, did I mention?  is playing around Melbourne over the next week: see you there, hockey fans) – proved to be a decent skater, drawing on lots of inline experience. Mack, for a kid who hardly ever joins us on the ice, looks solid, wielding a stick for the first time. He later said he wants to sign up for Saturday morning Intro to Hockey sessions! Three Places on the ice? Too good to be true … we could have our own line in a team!

Over time, the session sorts itself out so that most of the newbies wear themselves out and leave the ice, while a bunch of hardcore hockey dawgs are at one end, enjoying an actual goalie in net, deflecting their shots. And a few of us are at the other goal, with the standard “fake” goalie – let’s call him Otto the auto-goalie for Flying High fans– protecting the net.

Otto the Auto-Goalie. Beaten pointless by my stick-breaking shot.

I’m practicing cross-overs and feeling pretty balanced, while also stick-handling to control the puck. And I’m working on really hitting my shots at goal. Until now I’ve only pushed at the puck. I can send a decent pass across the ice, stroked firmly, but haven’t really wound up on shots for goal until now. So I do, trying to balance on my right foot as I throw my weight and upper body into slapshots.

And towards the end of the session, I start getting it right. Send some cannons into the holes in the corner (still can’t lift the puck to aim above Otto’s shoulder) and then I really hammer one. Well, it feels like it. Big swing, puck flies, perfect aim. Goal. I’m strutting as much as is possible for a guy with dodgy balance on newly sharpened edges.

And then I go to get another puck and realise the bottom of my stick is swinging in a sickening way.

And I’m prouder than ever – I have just broken my first hockey stick, and while scoring a goal. I have become a hockey man.

Sure, it’s expensive, given it was an eighty buck stick (and I end up replacing it with a much better composite stick that costs three times that) but hey, it was worth it for the testosterone rush.

Tommy Powell, of Melbourne Ice and Australian fame, is well impressed when I skate back to the bench for a new stick – they hand them out for Try Hockey sessions, if you need one – and congratulates me on having reached such a milestone, asking what I plan to do with my souvenir – as in, the broken stick? It’s a good question. How much does it cost to frame a hockey stick? Does Ikea run to cheap and nasty frames measuring 180 cm in length?

This was all a forerunner to my return to Intro Hockey class, which was also a lot of fun. Strangely, it feels as though at least two-thirds of the class are repeaters like me so everything that Lliam and Army introduced was met with an air of: “Yeah, sure … swizzels? Let’s go”, but they had to explain them anyway for the true newbies.

I was enjoying the sheer sense of knowing what I was doing. Forward swizzels, for example, where you push off your inside edges and bring your legs around like a frog kick, practicing balance and edge control, took me weeks and weeks first time around – a whole couple of months ago. Now, I was able to just reel them off. Next!

I’m not too cocky though. My snowploughs weren’t in great form and I usually pride myself on them. And the bastard that is the pivot and other such horrors are to come.

Through all this my beloved Red Wings had sat on their bums, watching hockey on tellie. Detroit swept the first round of the play-offs against the Coyotes, becoming the only team to move into Round 2 on a 4-0 scoreline. Most of the other first round series went into a sixth or seventh game, so the Wings rested then practiced to keep sharp, as potential opponents beat the Hell out of each other and wore themselves out travelling across the country. My guy, Hank Zetterberg, was able to return to full practice, having recovered from a knee that saw him miss all four games against the Coyotes.

Now the question, as the Wings prepare to face the San Jose Sharks, is whether all that time off will leave them flat against battle-hardened opponents, or fresh and eager against tired skaters? The Sharks were a tough team for us throughout the regular season. But, hey, all games from here against any opponents are going to be knife-edge. My play-off beard might have a week or a month or more to keep getting all Wild Man of Borneo … who can say?

My play-off beard: after round one.

It’s already been a Play-Offs to remember … The Canucks only edged past the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Chicago Blackhawks, with an Overtime goal in the decider, Game Seven. And then Boston did the same, to sneak past the Montreal Canadiens.

By the way, there was a great article about Detroit’s Russian wonder, Pavel Datsyuk, in Sports llustrated. In raving about his sheer talent, it talked about his best trick being to sneak up behind an opponent who has the puck, gently lift the opponent’s stick an inch off the ice with his stick and steal the puck, without them realising he was even there. This is all at extremely high speed. Sometimes they go to pass or shoot the ghost of the puck and it’s only then they realise it’s long gone. All this after he arrived in 1997 as a scrawny kid who was spotted in Russian junior leagues while the Red Wings scout was there to see a more known, bigger, highly-rated kid. But couldn’t help but be amazed by this weedy genius of a teenager.

How can you not love Datsyuk?

The most fun you can have with your pants on.

“So,” I said to Morgan and Ray, drinking our first beers at the Harbourside Hotel, all our eyes shining. “Are we hockey players now?”

Nicko (black jersey) v Will (white jersey) in our first-ever Face-Off. Pic: Jay

Their response was immediate and definite. “Yes!”

And damn if we’re not. In the previous hour or so we had taken hits, and delivered them. We had skated the ice in an actual game of hockey. In the final hour of our 10-week beginner course, we had divided into teams of dark jerseys and white jerseys and played actual hockey.

And oh man, you can never know how good it felt. Will’s friend, Jay, came along, with Mack, and took exactly 653 photos. In just about every picture featuring me, I’m grinning like an idiot. Even now, typing this, I can’t help but smile.

In fact, now I’m thinking of when I was a tennis writer, in another life a long time ago. In a hotel bar, I found myself drinking with a long-time member of the Indian Davis Cup team who should remain nameless for this story, and mentioned that I had covered a tie a couple of years before, where the lightly-regarded Indian team had somehow upset Australia on grass. (These days, when a team from Liechtenstein would test Australia, such an event doesn’t seem remarkable. Back then, there was a national outcry.)

Anyway, the Indian player smiled at the memory and stared into the middle distance. Then said, “Ah yes. Most fun I’ve had in Australia … with my pants on.”

That’s kind of how my first hockey game felt.

We had suited up, full of expectation. One of my great learnings of the past 10 weeks (apart from : there is no easy way to get to Docklands at peak hour) is that I had forgotten the joy of a locker-room. Most Sundays I play in The Bang, a loose-knit collective of guys who are mostly old enough to know better but train hard as a footy team without a competition, devoted to the pure pursuit of marking a footy in your hands in front of your face, and delivering a perfect pass on the run. The banter and camaraderie there is every bit as important to me as the actual fitness and skill of playing.

Hockey has emphasised again what I love about team sports. All learning, brothers and sisters in L-Plate skating and hockey, we’ve really bonded, and so there was sadness as we gathered for the last time. We’ll see each other around at the Icehouse, I’m sure. Melbourne Ice or Mustangs games, we’ll be crossing paths between or in classes – beginner repeaters like me, or intermediate classes – or just glide past one another in general skating sessions.

But this was our last stand as a group, and we knew it. So we went and beat the shit out of each other in competition.

I’m proud and happy to record that Place N (Dark team) and Place W (Light team) stood in opposition at the very first Face-Off – hockey’s equivalent of the centre bounce. “Look at this,” crowed Lliam the coach. “Bring it!”

Army dropped the puck, Will’s reflexes were, of course, faster but not fast enough and he swished at air as the puck bounced over his stick. And so history will record that I won our first-ever father-son face-off with a controlled push to the grandstand boards where a Dark wing was waiting. Oh yeah!

We were away. Unlike last week’s five minutes of scrimmaging, where there were 10 players all hacking away in the same ice, chasing the puck like dogs after a ball, this time people tried to play position and there was more room to move.

Plenty of falling, plenty of collisions. I found myself against two opponents who were threatening a breakaway and, with such limited skill to call on, basically cannoned into both of them, taking their legs. Ten pin defence.

I won’t bore you with a play-by-play of the hour. I played mostly as a centre, only clearly lost one face-off,  ended up personally +3, and our team won in a Shoot Out, 5-4, after leading 4-2 at one stage.

Having said that, my skating clearly isn’t up to the real thing and, while I had a crack, I am still too uncertain in turning and stopping to play for an actual team. Repeating beginner course, underlining the skating skills, will only be good for me.

Will controls the puck.

My friends Rich and Stavros, who had heroically turned up to watch, judged that Will was the better skater but I was more willing to get down and dirty in the clinches – “chase the bone”, as Rich eloquently put it, being a highly decorated sports journo and all.

My best shot at goal was a nifty backhand push around my left hip, shooting almost behind my back. The puck glided to the goal and was pushed in by a teammate. Technically an assist to me. I reckon it would have gone anyway but Will retains his record as the only Place yet to have scored a goal (he was unlucky last night, missing by a bee’s dick at least twice).

Lliam says he never tires of teaching the newbie class, because of this game at the end. People who could barely stand on skates 10 weeks ago now flying in all directions, colliding, slamming into boards, scoring goals while sliding on their butt (hello, Morgan).

Never has a beer felt so earned. In the happy post-game chatter in the locker-room, we marvelled at how much more exhausting actual play was, compared to drills and training. Several players had to sit out shifts towards the end because they were spent. And we were all sweating like you wouldn’t believe.

Between shifts.

Damn, it was fun. I didn’t feel 46 years old last night and today I am not sore at all.

“You addicted now?” Lliam asked, knowing the answer.

Next week, I go back to Week One, Beginner course. “This is a skate. It goes on your foot.” Should be fun. I’m going to pay full attention. I want to learn to skate better than well. I want to be a hockey player. For real.

More pics: here.

Pucks fly with a week to go

Nicko, mid-drill. Pic: Stavros.

Christmas came early to the Icehouse yesterday. Well, ok, not Christmas. That would be December 25, and it was only April 13, so it’s a ridiculous analogy.

What did happen is that our hockey coaches admitted they’d stuffed up the dates and this was only our second last week of training. Say, huh?

We’d all turned up, sad it was our final week, pumped for scrimmages (actual hockey game play) but found ourselves with an extra week. Coolness!

We instead spent the majority of the session on gameplay drills, which I actually love, so no complaints.

We did the off-side drill, where two skaters take off together, passing the puck. The one nearest the boards then keeps going, while the other peels off to the left. This is happening at both ends of the ice so you end up with a player skating hard along the boards from both ends, looking for those players peeling into the centre from the opposite end, right near the blue line nearest each goal. (Don’t worry: we get confused and we’re on the ice, watching it.)

It all ends up with the board-side player either passing to the peeling player, if they haven’t crossed the line and therefore are not offside. Or carrying the puck over the line and then passing towards goal.

Another drill was simple passing, with one player doing figure eights between two stationary players who alternate long passes to one another and shorter passes to the moving skater between them.

This drill was hilarious only in how many ways apparently intelligent skaters can screw it up. Before you get to errant passes spraying past sticks, or dodgy traps not capturing the pucks, you had the stationary players heading to the centre, or both doubling back to the same end or … it was chaos.

We also did our first one-on-one drill, where a defender had to skate backwards as a forward tried to get past them, to have a free run at the goal. Really tricky. As Michael, one of the coaches, pointed out, this drill emphasised how important backward skating is in hockey. Not many of us are genuinely good enough at backward skating to pull off the defender role flawlessly. Lots of defenders left flailing as the forward made one feint and then was home free.

Me? In a miracle, I was barely moving backwards at the moment I totally committed to stealing the puck off my opponent’s stick and somehow pulled it off. Wham! As a commentator recently called it in an NHL game: “A magic wand steal”.

Lliam was observing as I did it, pumped my fist and yelled “Kronwall!” (a slightly obscure Wings defender) and so he had a laugh … then gave us a lecture about the need to actually be moving backwards while defending. Sigh. Bloody world champions … think they know it all.

Finally, with about five minutes to go, we broke into light shirt and dark shirt teams and played our first game of hockey. I was a defender for the first shift of the whites (Medicine Hat Tigers home jersey) and got a couple of touches. I also had a stick hook my legs out from under me, at the same moment I got one of my touches, so that went well.

So much fun though. Another player went down much harder than me and, back on the bench, I said to our crew of whites: “Nice collision.”

“That was me,” admitted Morgan, not looking as sorry as he probably should have. “I cross-checked him … like, I totally cross-checked him.”

We all chuckled.

Will in flight. I love this pic. (Nice one, Photographer Stavros)

Hockey as a non-contact sport doesn’t really work.

Will was playing for the dark shirts in the second shift (Medicine Hat Tigers away jersey) and of course scored a goal. The term “Teenage Strut” really doesn’t cover the aftermath of that event. Ever supportive, I said in a stage whisper to our friend, Stavros, who’d come to watch and take pics: “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, you send a gentle pass to Will, completely unmarked and a metre out from goal, and he’ll sink it several times out of 10.”

Will grinned the f-you smug grin of a goal-scorer.

And so we reeled away from hockey, with the promise of another week of pure game play ahead, and raced into the city to see Simon Coronel’s “Manipulations” show of illusions and comedy (awesome show – part of the Comedy Festival. Go see it!). I had a gaggle of friends from different parts of my life there, so we had a few drinks then a bunch of us, including Simon and the magic crowd, went out to the Italian Waiter’s Club for dinner. Doesn’t get much better.

Me? Scary?

I’m on the ice, talking to Tommy Powell, still glowing as a member of Australia’s World Champion (Division 2) hockey team, as of Saturday night when Australia beat Serbia, 4-2.

I’ve never met Tommy before, although I am on nodding terms with Shona Green, his girl, who cannot be described as a WAG because she’s a fully-fledged kick-ass member of the Ice’s women’s team. Maybe Tommy is her WAB? BAG? HAB? Whatever he is, he’s a world champ.

Shona Green in action.

So it seemed only reasonable to say congrats. Tommy was gracious, pleased, looking forward to the next step up, Australia having won through to Division 1, where teams like England, Poland or the Netherlands await. Big European countries that take hockey more seriously than Mexico or New Zealand (no offence to either – and no, I didn’t get me a Mexican jersey, dammnit).

“What happens if you guys win Division 1?” I ask Tommy. “What’s next?”

“Elite,” he says, barely daring to say it. USA, Canada, Russia, Sweden, Germany  … too heady to even consider.

As we have this conversation, Tommy is surrounded by 10 year olds, wobbling past, holding hockey sticks. It’s school holidays and a foam-suit Homer Simpson is gliding around on the adjacent Bradbury Rink. I idly wonder which member of the reigning Australian champion Melbourne Ice team is drowning in stinky sweat inside that suit, peering through Homer’s eyes and getting taunted by holiday skaters? Our professional hockey players don’t get much glamour. For every moment, like Saturday’s triumph, there are so many hours supervising the Icehouse crowds.

Tommy has just been digging pucks out of the goals on the Henke Rink, the home rink for Melbourne Ice and my training ground every Wednesday. For the school holidays, the Icehouse is hosting “Come & Try Hockey” sessions on the Henke, which gives us long-suffering never-enough-ice-time wannabe warriors a chance to actually hit the ice with sticks and practice puck control.

This horrifies the Icehouse staff, who picture hardcore hockey types carving viciously through teetering pre-teens, sticks and pucks flying, kids broken and screaming. As I arrive and pay, I am asked not to wear my full hockey kit, as I might scare those having a go for the first time. “Right up until they see me skate,” I point out. But head to the locker-room sniggering at the idea that I could terrify newbies by the sheer fearsomeness of my padding. In the end, I wore my knee guards, gloves and helmet. None of the first-timers fainted in fear, so I guess I got the balance right.

There was a guy in a Rangers jersey who really knew how to skate. I stopped for a while and leaned on the wall, watching his crossovers with a critical eye. Minimalist, easy, not massively over-stepping as I tend to. When I have my full padding, and can therefore more easily bite ice, I’ll have to try that.

I was sore from footy on Sunday – how can a couple of hours of footy hurt my legs so much more than any skating I’ve done so far? Must be the jarring of running … (Will, ever tactful, shrugs that it’s because I don’t work very hard on the ice) – and the gym. You don’t get a body like mine* without putting in, pretty much every day. But I’d been slack with weights, then decided to make myself hurt upon my return, and so I was.

Surrounded by kids and rookies now, I was able to see how far I’ve come; how I’m maybe halfway to actually being a skater who can play hockey. Which was not the case in January. Nothing like watching first-timers to see your own journey.

I didn’t feel a need to be heroic or impress anybody.  I just cruised around, feeling the skates under my legs, controlling the puck, practicing snow plough stops on lines, staying out of the 30 or so try-outs’ way. There were some nasty splatterings among the newbies, but everybody got back up. I’m not sure about giving them sticks before they can skate. It’s surprisingly hard to swing at a puck, even once you’re halfway steady on your skates.

All of a sudden, hockey life has hit the business end of things. Tomorrow, the Red Wings play their first game of the NHL Play-Offs, against the Coyotes at the Joe. The Wings are in worryingly patchy form and my boy, Hank Zetterberg, is still out with a “lower body” injury; read, he’s done his knee. I’m nervous about their chances.

Tonight is my last hockey class for the 10 week Intro course. I’m repeating, starting in a fortnight, but tonight is the climax … scrimmages, which is hockey-speak for game time. We’re going to actually play, actually compete, even if not in a slam-one-another-into-the-boards kind of way. Unless feisty Mel turns up. Then I’ll have to watch myself. Should be fun.

* flabby, creaky, ageing fast, falling apart

Mexican hockey, women’s underwear, Bear Grylls and candles

Australia v Mexico, Icehouse, April 4, 2011.

Quite the week.  Not only did I have to psychologically recover from the news that I had to repeat Hockey Intro, but the Red Wings lost 10-3 the next day – an off-the-wall terrible loss – and my even greater love, Richmond, was totally robbed against last year’s AFL runner-up, St Kilda. Sport, huh? Hang in there, Tigers.

For a change of headspace, Will, his mate, Jay, and I went to see comedian Jason Byrne, and promptly all got dragged up on stage; me to skip rope, Will and Jay to climb, with Byrne, into women’s underwear. As you do.

Will, Jay and Jason Byrne share underwear, on stage at the Athaneum.

Undaunted, I battled on, trying to show Melbourne and Victoria to Tarn, a Thai exchange student, including kangaroos at Anglesea golf course, koalas at an increasingly-less secret spot out the back of Kennett River, the myriad of awesome birds living along the Great Ocean Road, and a whole different kind of wildlife at Chadstone shopping centre.

Of course, I think she loved Chadstone the most, which says a lot about today’s youth, but as long as she is enjoying herself, who cares? Will was claiming to have never been to Chadstone, which I think is now the biggest shopping centre in the southern hemisphere or something like that (might not be … what? I was going to research it?) so he tagged along and 15 minutes later, we’d seen enough. A sea of consumers, endless formula shops, so many checked shirts. I was impressed that Will took a kind of Bear Grylls approach to the adventure, which culminated in him trying to Facebook status update: “Lost in Chadstone food court: better drink my own piss”. Laughing, we ran back into the open air and freedom.

Because we’d had a brainwave and, like all good brainwaves, it was expensive. A musical drive to Hawthorn (Will crafting his ultimate pre-and-post-Zombie Apocalypse playlist), some even more musical cursing that the Glenferrie Road Fiesta was blocking all traffic, but then success! We made it to Bladeworx, a skater shop, and spent a shitload of cash on two full sets of inline kit. I got some second-hand blades that were allegedly $750 new, but I picked up for under $300. They seem awesome and Bill, the guy who helped us out, seemed straight-up. He even threatened to go look for my novels … so that’s 70 cents after tax I might get back, if he follows through. Win-win!

So now we’re out in the middle of my Fitzroy North street, on inlines, trying crossovers while watching for traffic, Mack, Tarn and Fly Dog idly wondering if we’ll die. Taking bets among themselves. And Will and I are realising hockey inline skates, as against traditional rollerblades (which is all I’d ever tried before, years ago …. Before The Incident*) don’t have a heel brake. In fact, hockey inlines don’t have any brakes. And you can’t snowplough like on the ice. So Will and I have no idea, at this stage, how to stop, apart from falling over, hitting a car or fence, or maybe slowly dropping our speed with some fancy toe-dragging. We need advice from Sam, my dive buddy, who is a big time inliner, or Hotcakes Gillespie, a northern skater, as previously mentioned.

Our theory is that once we work out stopping, we’ll be able to practice pivots, crossovers, backwards, all that tricky stuff, without having to drive across the city to the Icehouse every time. I’m always going to much prefer ice-time, I can tell that already, but this could be good once we get going.

So that was Sunday, and Monday was my birthday (thank you: I have no idea how I remain so handsome and attractive and physically vital at this age, either) so naturally, we took Tarn, Mack and my old schoolmate Stavros to Australia v Mexico at the Icehouse. (Tarn was keen, explained her dad used to play hockey. Of course, he did, there being so much ice in Bangkok. Turns out he studied in the US.)

The IIHF World Titles, Division 2, are on in Melbourne at the moment (Australia, New Zealand, Serbia, Belgium and Mexico are fighting it out for a place in Division 1 – North Korea pulled out late for financial reasons, or possibly because the soccer World Cup didn’t go so well for them last year). My birthday night corresponded with Australia’s first game, featuring our coach, Lliam Webster, of Melbourne Ice fame, so we perched in standing room down the unfashionable (away from the bar) end of the rink.

Goal mouth scramble: Australia and Mexico players get up close and personal.

The game was a lot of fun – Australia won 11-1 and was a lot more physical than the poor Mexican team. Then again, they totally win when it comes to team names back home (Aztec Eagle Warriors, Priests, Totems, all sorts of cool names) and certainly have one of the coolest jerseys I’ve ever seen – I’m trying to work out how to buy one at the end of the tourney. Be awesome to wear to training.

Mexico reportedly has 18 ice rinks and 2200 registered players, including 1800 juniors. According to Wikipedia, the Mexican team’s biggest ever win was 48-0 over Armenia – that number again: 48 – on March 11, 2005, but that was never going to happen against Australia. The sombrero-types were worn down by the Aussies, 1-0 at the end of the first period becoming 5-0 by the end of the second and then goals raining in the third.

Lliam scored a couple of goals, Australia racked up a lot of penalty minutes including one guy getting thrown out of the game for a perceived head shot. If I was the coach, I’d be telling them to wind it back, just a notch, but what do I know?

More importantly, their skating made me want to weep. The international players are so light on their feet; backward crossovers are as easy as breathing, and the way they stop, in an instant, even while controlling the puck, took my breath away. Looks like I have some practice to do. A lot of practice. A lifetime.

(* The Incident: years ago, rollerblading along the Yarra with my oldest friend, Shonko. I gain far too much speed around a long right-hander at the Collingwood Children’s Farm. I go down, hard. All I hear is the collective “Oh GOD!” gasp/wince of an entire tour group crossing a bridge above as I splatter. I wait for the bruise to come out on my butt. I wait days. It finally emerges … at the front of my hip. Went right through. Nasty. Back then, I was so discouraged I gave up rollerblading. Now? I’m a hockey player. I need to go play hockey. Thank you, Brendan Witt.)