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