Saturday night special: Come & Die sessions

Saturday night, pre-Christmas. Melbourne is a cauldron of parties and celebrations and socialising. Anybody who’s anybody is drinking Yuletide cocktails, dancing, laughing loud at great jokes over the noise of a cool stereo.

Naturally, winner that I am, I am not at any of these fabulous parties. Instead, I’m at the Icehouse, wearing full hockey gear, sans shoulder armour. It’s only because I’m accompanied by the socially in-demand Kittens Place that I can hold my head up.

The great Come & Try hijack in flight.

And we are not alone. In fact, the Henke Rink is busy with a swarm of hockey players, most in full kit except for shoulder pads, some just in jeans and a T-shirt, gloves and a helmet, all zooming across the ice at speed, practicing their moves or slapshotting at the empty net goal.

It’s basically an expression session for everybody from Intermediate players like Kittens and I through to vastly experienced players looking to hone their craft.

Hilariously, the title of this Saturday night hockeyfest is the increasingly inaccurately named “Come & Try!” session.

Starting at 9 pm and running until 10.30, these sessions were designed by the Icehouse to give people who had never tried ice hockey a chance to wobble around in a helmet, gloves and with a stick, discovering just how difficult it is to hit a puck with a long hockey stick while skating. Imagine a large car park cleared out for only learner drivers to hesitantly drive around …

… which is hijacked by V8 Supercar drivers for high speed practice sessions.

“Come & Die” * would be a better name for anybody wanting to use this time to take their first step into the hockey world.

Because here’s the thing; a swarm of hockey players around Melbourne, forever starved of quality ice time, realised that anybody can pay $25 and hit the ice during these sessions. In an early blog on this site, I talked about showing up for a Come & Try and being asked seriously by the Icehouse staff not to wear my full hockey kit because I might terrify the newbies out there, which I thought was pretty funny given I could barely skate at the time.

These days, all such considerations have been swept away and the “rink rats” have taken over completely. A true newcomer to the sport would have to be made of stern stuff to even attempt to step onto the ice.

The session is only one referee and a hint of organization from becoming a full-tilt Drop-In hockey game. In fact, as Kittens commented to me, there were the same number of players on Saturday as at an Intermediate class, or a Dev League game, but without any order.

Near-collisions are regular, pucks are hit hard as players practice smacking the rubber disc into the boards and skaters go in all directions, often backwards and fast.

Good luck, newbies. What could go wrong?

By the way, have a great Christmas and New Year, everybody. See you on the ice or in this virtual world in 2012.

Cheers, and thanks for reading this self-indulgent hockey diary. It’s almost one year old!

Holiday safe,


(*See what I did there? Professional writer at his peak.)

Triumph and disaster

“If you can meet with triumph and disaster,

And treat those two imposters just the same”

–       if, by Rudyard Kipling.

That quote is above the final doorway as tennis players make their way onto centre court at the All-England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club, better known as Wimbledon.

I’ve always loved it as a quote, since I discovered in it my misspent youth as a tennis writer. It is so fucking true. Let me be the one to tell you, humble readers, that, in life, you’re going to win big, and you’re going to lose horribly. Triumph. Disaster. They’re waiting for us all but I’m with Kipling: see them both for what they are: temporary. For better or worse.

The Dev League game last night. Will AKA Kittens in orange socks mid-ice. Ray, still vertical, behind the goals.

A heavy start to a blog? Nah. All is good. Happily, we’re only talking hockey – even if the first thing I saw as I arrived at the Icehouse last night was a stretcher being loaded into an ambulance. Turns out it was a general skating disaster, so nobody I knew, but it had me wondering; especially because this was Week 10. Scrimmage week. Which meant everybody would be going their hardest.

Every other term this year, in this week, I’d been nervous, excited, fearful I was going to be found out for my lack of skills (justified), worried for my shoulder (End of Intro, second time around – fully justified), hoping I might even briefly feel like I knew what I was doing (end of Intermediate – occasionally justified) … feeling all kinds of emotions.

Last night, not least because I’d stood out of formal classes for the term, I found myself sitting in a three-hour Board meeting for my kids’ film festival while my hockey rookie buddies met their moment of game-play reality on the ice.

By the time I got to the Icehouse, and dodged the ambos, most were through it and full of their various tales of triumph or disaster; everyone eating Aimee Hough’s magnificent puck-shaped chocolate cake and with many wearing the Icehouse Rookie jerseys organised by Chris and designed by my boy, Kittens, who hilariously had “K.Place” printed on the back of his. What started as a Facebook bet is turning into something bigger; I’ll have to remember to show him that old classic film, Cat People.

Our custom jersey.

Anyway, I digress.

I heroically ate some cake, having not skated, felt my belt buckle strain, and wandered over to watch the Dev League end-of-term clash. Lots of my old classmates are now in Dev League so there were many big hellos, as Damon Runyon‘s Broadway narrator liked to say. After a huge day of what I understand to have been boat-based Christmas activities, possibly involving alcohol, a member of my original Intro crew, Ray, gave me a bone-crunching hug and thankfully announced he wasn’t going to skate, which definitely saved another ambulance call. Ray lurched to behind the goals where he grinned happily and supportively at the goalkeeper, whether a goal had gotten through, or a mighty save had been achieved. Ray was loving everything and everyone.

On the ice, Kittens and the rest were hard at it for an hour. I believe the score was 6-1 to the reds, over the  blacks, but whatever. I sat in the stands with Renee, who’d skated the Intermediate game, and started to get excited for 2012.

I realised that in my self-imposed exile to learn to skate, I’d built up in my head how far ahead everybody else must be getting. Had this idea that those doing Intermediate second time around, as well as Dev League, must be sub-NHL standard by now, – all budding Pavel Datsyuks – while I’m still wobbling around, battling to hockey stop.

Without taking anything away from those on the ice last night in the Dev League game, it was a relief to see falls, to see skates slip, to see passes miss or occasionally shoddy stick-work. Skaters wobbled.

Dev League action

Not that I wished anybody a lack of success; just that I was able to breathe out and think, ok, I’m not on another hockey planet from these guys after all.

Of course, some were flying. But that’s always been the case in every class.

And I definitely noticed that most could chase a puck, hockey stop hard when they got to it, and be ready to use it. I’m not sure where I’d be at with that.

But it was what I needed to see. I know I’m not a natural skater, not a genius, however I don’t feel like a total rookie any more. I’m definitely signing back up for Intermediate next term. I need to get back into class, skating skill or not.

And you know what? Fuck it. I think I’m up for Dev League too.

It will be a triumph or a disaster but I’m fine with that.

Or die trying, right?

Keep that ambo in the precinct. Classes start February.

Stop, in the name of love (well, hockey)

The hockey stop. It’s one of those annoying manoeuvres that some people seem to get in their opening five minutes on the ice while others struggle for years.

I guess I’m somewhere in between because I’m closing in on a year, as against years. And I remain determined to master the bastard.

In fact, this move has been my main focus over the past two weeks. Even on Wednesday, when the Icehouse helpfully closed half the public rink so seven people – that number again, seven – could enjoy a curling Christmas party, as everybody else – speed skaters going in second gear, figures skaters having lessons, hockey players cooling down or warming up, general skaters and newbies wobbling around – all crammed into a space smaller than a public swimming pool. But icier.

I found occasional unpopulated corners of ice where I could keep working on kicking my heels, trying to snap my skates around to a sliding, sudden stop; arms held in front, as though holding a stick in front of my chest, so that my shoulders don’t move with the stop, just my hips and legs.

This is just one of the roughly eight million pieces of advice or teachings I have absorbed re the hockey stop. I’ve watched untold videos, spoken to skaters who clearly know their stuff, watched smartarse hockey players stop on one foot, or backward hockey stop or just go from 100 kph-zero in a nano-second, next to the boards.

It’s clearly a matter of feel and I continue to probe away at that sliding, hopefully horizontal, full-skate edge that becomes solid enough that I can dig in, really dig it, and not either feel my skates slide out, or stop dead so that the rest of me keeps going, sans ankles. I just need to dare to fully commit, and I’m determined to hockey stop on both sides. Many players are great on their preferred skating side, but wobbly on the other. I want to Jedi-stop both sides. Aim high, right?

In Chicago, a local player, John, who saved the lives of Will and I by driving us away from the mean streets of west Chicago to Gunzo’s hockey store and then back to where we were staying, admitted he took three or more years as a kid to truly perfect the hockey stop. That gave me hope (apart from the well-established fact that I’m no kid).

Even talking to the coaches, Lliam and Army, has left me strangely confused; as to whether the weight is on the front leg or the back leg, or both legs. It’s a pimped-up snowplough, yet the back leg plays a role. One of my Hockey Rookie mates, Chris, gave me a crucial tip when he managed to convey that I wasn’t getting my front leg perpendicular enough to my body (something Will, admittedly, has been trying to tell me for months), and I definitely need to snap my heels, so I don’t curl into the stop. Or do I?

One thing’s for sure: I need to keep wearing elbow pads and a helmet while I nut this one out. I actually haven’t fallen in two weeks, while working on the hockey stop, which either suggests I am tantalisingly close, or I’m not committing hard enough for death-or-glory stops that will solidify the move. Like the bastard that is the pivot, I certainly still can’t hockey stop at speed. From a cruisy pace, I’m not far away.

I’m close enough that I can feel how much fun it’s going to be when I finally get it. I reckon it’s the coolest move on the ice.

Tonight (Friday), a bunch of us were invited to train with one of the summer league teams, at about 10.30 pm. I am choosing instead to join my band of Giant and ex-Giant desperadoes for a night of drinking and shenanigans, throwing out any chance of Hockey Rookie of the Year. A price has to be paid sometimes.

And what the Hell, in honour of this quasi-Christmas party tonight, let’s get in the mood with the mighty Paul Kelly, and his anthem. Sing along, peoples.

The goalie’s lament

A goalie's dread: the puck in the net. Pic:

We might have lost one. The Icehouse Rookies, as our class of 2011 has taken to calling ourselves, is a member down after the weekend.

I am not standing in judgement. I want to make that clear from the start because this is a difficult post to write.

Summer league is currently happening and on Sunday the Tigersharks played the Devils. No sugar-coating, it was a massacre. The final score was, I believe, 20-0. That’s a goal every third minute, assuming it was a normal length hockey game.

The losing side’s goalie, Jason, appears to have hung up his pads in the wake of such a caning. I’m hoping that’s not the case and this entire post is premature but our Icehouse Rookies’ Facebook group (which rocks, btw, as a community) has been fielding requests for a potential fill-in goalie for the next game and beyond.

Jason must be in a bad place and it got me thinking about the attrition rate over the course of this year. As I wrote in my very first nickdoeshockey post, I have always felt just one bad fall, one vital broken bone, away from this whole hockey adventure crashing to a halt.

I’ve seen that happen too; players with broken collar bones or other nasty injuries. One woman in my second Intro class was a decent skater but landed hard on her chest during supermans, hobbled to the bench in pain (I have it on good authority this is chick equivalent of being kicked in the balls), cried a little and it occurred to me weeks later that I had never seen her again.

I’ve stepped out of classes right now because I felt exposed and potentially humiliated by my lack of skating skill (especially once most of a Division 4 team joined my Intermediate class for extra training, skating literal rings around me, and becoming frustrated when us lesser players couldn’t keep up with their drilled moves).

But this is the first case I know of where somebody has actually walked away from the game.

The reality is that us rookies are forever bordering on exposure as the starters we are, and the system, as it stands, doesn’t do much to protect us. It’s skate to keep up, or fail publicly. Of course, for the goalies, this is magnified hugely. I read a book while in America called “Open Ice” by a former Sports Illustrated hockey writer, Jack Falla, who had spent his youth as a goalie. He talked about the endless hours of taking shots, on the ice, in his driveway, anywhere he could absorb thousands and thousands of pucks/shots. I was doing other things for 45 years before January … and given my age as a rookie, I’ve been painfully aware of all the people who started skating 30 years or more before me. For goalies like Jason, it’s, again, magnified.

I wasn’t at Sunday’s game but, reading the Facebook accounts, Jason faced something like 51 shots on goal. So he stopped 31. In a NHL game, that’s a very good night’s work for a goalie. But of course, 20 got through, which is less thrilling and has apparently drained his self-confidence.

To have that many shots pepper a goalface is an impossible task for a goalie. It means the defence is not working, and the forwards are not playing each-way effectively (sorry to the Tigersharks – trust me, I’m not saying I would have done better. In fact, I’m sure I would have been worse).

But while those players will spend the week nursing nasty plus/minus figures and copping some ribbing from rival teams, Jason can know only the baseline figure.

Twenty. Compared to a shut-out. And feel responsible.

I’ve hung out with Jason at General Skates, stood on the ice with him while he explained new angles and ways of covering the goal that he’d learned in his first ever game the week before. It was a total voyage of discovery and there was no way of gaining this education without playing, and almost certainly losing.

He spoke with passion and enthusiasm, and I hate to think of him this week, deciding the sport is simply too hard. I really, really hope he connects with his temmates or the wider hockey community and realises nobody thinks badly of him for the weekend’s scoreline. We all get it. We will all have our bad days. The Wings’ stand-in goalie Ty Conklin is going through an NHL version of Jason’s angst right now. It never stops.

It seems to me that one of the major issues with hockey in Victoria is that there are a couple of badly needed missing-steps in the development path. Jason just tumbled off one of those unnecessarily large ledges. Summer League, and all the steps past Dev League, are fraught for newbies like us because we step straight onto the ice against potentially much better players. Players coming out of class want to join teams but might not be ready for genuine competition. With such limited ice time, for training as well as competition, players get squeezed into the same matches, and slaughters like the weekend become possible.

Some rookies, like me, are taking it cautiously. Others are charging into teams as fast as they can, on the theory that scrimmages and actual matches will improve them in ways rounds of Intermediate classes never will.

It’s a decent plan except that it means teams can be wildly mismatched, and results like last weekend happen.

Even drop-in hockey, where anybody can show up for an impromptu game at the Icehouse, is open to everybody. So last week, you had Intermediate class members, maybe even Intro players, out on the ice against or alongside Tommy Powell, Army and other Melbourne Ice players. Plus Shona, captain of the Ice women’s team. Tommy is set to represent Australia in Poland next year, but is skating against, potentially, me. This seems dangerous, relying completely on the Ice players to back off the throttle to cater for the L-platers in their midst, which they invariably do, but that must suck for them as well.

We definitely need Intermediate drop-in. We definitely need more ice time for rookie teams to wobble around and get their legs in games, even if we all understand there are only a couple of rinks and only so many hours in a day. But push is coming to shove. Devils smashing Tigersharks does nobody any favours.


Jason, if you read this, one last, left-field thing to consider. I hang out with a bunch of professional magicians and they have an understanding: if you choose to perform card tricks or other sleight of hand, for an audience or just friends, it is recognised that it will go catastrophically wrong probably 10 times in your career. I’m talking, no way out, complete disaster, self-inflicted, user-error, in-front-of-an-audience, floor-open-up-and-swallow-me-please humiliation.

Ten times.

So every time it happens – and oh God, it’s nasty when it does (I’m up to four) – you die a little, but you take a breath and say very deliberately: OK, that’s another of the 10 out of the way, never to be suffered again. It’s a rite of magical passage, so to speak, and is accepted. Hated but accepted.

By 10, you should have your chops.

And so, post-disaster, you lick your ego wounds, work on your card skills, figure out how you fucked up, and find somebody else to perform the same trick too. And you get it right and breathe again …

Put the pads back on, Jason. Nobody wants to see you slink away. You just endured one of the Big Ten. I’m going to as well. It would be awesome to see you at the rink.