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.
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