The Avengers: a hockey team waiting to happen

My hockey team: Ironman takes Centre. Hulk. you're in goal, big guy.

Well, damn. Having Wednesdays off is something I could get used to. Crawled out of bed at midday, went to a movie, snoozed on the couch then wandered down to Docklands for the usual game of pool at the Harbourside followed by two hours of hockey. That’s my kind of day.

I took a few moments to consider the sacrifice of the ANZACs and to savour Australia’s freedom, but mostly I spent the day thinking that The Avengers would make a damn good hockey combo. Watching the new movie (which rocks) had taken all afternoon, 3D glasses on, and I emerged, blinking, already trying to work out positions for the super-heroes in my new Avengers hockey team.

I’m assuming Hawkeye and Black Widow would take the wings. Hawkeye’s whole thing is that he cannot miss, at least with a bow and arrow, so he’s a handy guy to have in attack. Black Widow is a Russian spy with ninja moves and acrobatic flair, so she’s definitely going to be an asset causing chaos as we head through our blue line. Plus, you know … Scarlett Johanssen. I mean, what? I need to draw you a map?

Centre is a key role but again, it’s an easy fit. Ironman. The guy is the ultimate forward-and-back player, with agility, lightning moves, the ability to fly, strength, great hockey armour built in … he rivals Datsyuk as the perfect centre man, depending on whether Tony Stark can deke. Getting skates on Ironman’s feet might be tricky, given the jetpacks and all, but I’m sure Stark industries, or Bauer, can come up with something.

Plus, Stark is equally famous as a billionaire playboy, so he can be the money behind the team as well. Nice to have you aboard, Tony.

Defence? Captain America picks himself as Right D. Nowhere near enough creativity for a forward role and a possibly too rigid team-first player but solid, always making the right decisions, a big body and shining with leadership. He’s the Lidstrom of the team. And I’d definitely pair him with Thor on the Left D. Not only does the Norse God come from Sweden, a renowned source of hockey talent (just look at my Red Wings) but he can bring lightning to the defence, which will scare the crap out of other teams. It might be tricky to get Thor to part with his hammer so that he can hold a hockey stick, but maybe we can just extend the handle on the hammer and kill two birds with one stone?

Which only leaves a goalie …yes, the big green guy. Hulk.

Hulk as Goalie: penalty-minute concerns ...

One, he’s enormous, completely filling the goalface, two, he’s finally awesome in the new film (after a couple of dubious movie attempts beforehand) and three, nobody’s about to rush the crease while he’s in goal. True, there’s a chance, the big green giant will give up a lot of penalty minutes for over-aggression on the ice, but I think the intimidation factor is high enough to counteract that.

Team assembled, with Big Cat Place, me and the other Icehouse Rookies on the bench and ready to sub in, as required.

Oh yeah, Nick Fury giving the Babcock Glare as coach/GM from the bench, with SHIELD agent Maria Hill as his assistant, just because she’s played by that hot chick from “How I Met Your Mother”. (see Scarlett Johanssen logic, above.)

Who’s up for playing us?

Speaking of playing, we had class/dev league last night.

I’d planned to skate all week but hadn’t actually made it, so I was scratchy in Intermediate; never quite having my skates under me (although, thankfully, I landed several crossovers while all the coaches were looking at me and barracking/sledging, so I dodged a bullet there).

Dev League was okay but again not amazing, for me.

Big Cat Place scored a goal with the most clinical opposite-corner finish I’ve seen from him, which was cool (plus I was on the ice, so technically went to +1 on that play).

My campaign to become known as “Huge Cat Place” failed to gain traction

I was involved in a huge collision with James, which saw him end up on his back and me standing over him yelling: “Mother-fucker! … You ok?” (Yes, I’ve learned to do it in that order, as against earlier hits.)

I attempted and failed a wrap-around goal, which was fun.

But I caught myself being a total spectator a couple of times, was sluggish in my skating and only managed a few genuinely nice plays, so I scored myself harshly on the night, especially after playing my best game last week. Hey ho. Onward to next Wednesday.

… assuming I’m not required by the Avengers team.

Vale the octopus

The legend of the octopus. Every April, at the Joe Louis Arena.

Last Sunday was the anniversary of a quirky piece of Red Wings’ history. It was exactly 60 years ago that a Detroit fan, and the owner of a local fish market, Pete Cusimano, in cahoots with his brother, Jerry, tossed an octopus onto the ice of the Olympia stadium, at the start of the 1952 play-offs. At that time, a team needed to win eight games to lift the Stanley Cup so the Cusimano’s symbolic gesture was that the Wings needed one win for each cephalopod leg*.

The Wings didn’t lose a game from that moment, sweeping the semi-finals and final to lift the Cup. The legend of the octopus was born and Red Wings games have been routinely interrupted by octopi landing on the ice ever since, especially during the play-offs. It remains perfectly acceptable, come April and the play-offs, for Detroit fans to declare: “Respect the octopus!” without anybody looking sideways.

Of course, the real losers in his tradition are the poor sacrificed octopi, and the sourpusses at NHL headquarters who have tried repeatedly to stop the tradition, to the amusement of Wings fans. The Wings’ Zamboni driver, Al Sobotka, is the one who usually gets handed the octo-remains by a linesman and he has the endearing habit of waving the octopus above his head as he leaves the ice, which doesn’t exactly discourage fans.

Al Sobotka does his best to discourage Wings fans from their favourite prank.

In fact, the Wings’ play-off mascot since 1995, Rally Al, a giant purple and ferocious-looking octopus that hangs from the rafters of the Joe Louis Arena, is named after Sobotka.

Anyway, anniversary or not, none of this helped the Red Wings in this year’s play-offs. As of this morning, Melbourne time, they’re already out. First-round losers to the Nashville Predators, having won only one game and having failed to score anywhere near enough goals to threaten to progress. Even with all our alleged forward firepower.

It’s the earliest exit since 2006 and follows two pretty limp efforts in second round exits in the previous two seasons.

I’m gutted but not surprised. We started this season strangely and slowly, then hit a golden mid-season run of form. But lately, with a badly-timed rash of injuries and a complete, inexplicable lack of mojo when it mattered, we’ve looked off the pace.

You get the sense that the Wings’ owner, pizza czar Mike Ilitch, general manager Ken Holland and coach Mike Babcock are going to be having some serious discussions in the wake of this one. I’m even nervous for Babcock’s job, and I generally like him a lot as a coach. The fact is, our wildly-talented team – good enough to set an all-time NHL record for consecutive home-wins (starting the day Big Cat, Mack and I left town, as you may recall) and briefly top the entire competition, barely gave a yelp against the Preds.

Nik Lidstrom, post today's loss. I so hope this isn't the last shot of him in the No. 5.

We need new blood, new tactics or new energy, from somewhere. And we’re no longer talking a few tweaks here or there.

Depressing, but the good news is that the Melbourne Ice team starts a new season next Saturday, and the Richmond Tigers are showing definite signs of finally becoming a team worth barracking for in the footy (he wrote nervously – I have said that before and been proven wrong, and Richmond plays Geelong on the rebound, at Geelong, tomorrow. Gulp).

But one thing about sport, in your moment of disappointment, you can take comfort in the fact a new season will bring fresh hope and memories. The Wings will rest, players will go, players will be hired, our veteran defender, captain and inspiration, Niklas Lidstrom (nickname: The Perfect Human), will hopefully decide to play again, and maybe the cards will be reshuffled into a better team than the one that just lost.

From my point of view, it was the most memorable Red Wings season ever, simply because Will, Mack and I made our live NHL debut and actually saw the team live, four times, in Washington DC and then at the fabled Joe – an absolute life highlight, regardless of the play-off fizzle. I’m still eyeing the idea of trying to get back to Motor City for the Winter Classic.

The city of Detroit’s official flag features not one but two Latin quotes: Speramus Meliora and Resurget Cineribus. Written after the great Detroit fire of 1805, when the entire city, apart from one building and one chimney, burnt to the ground, they translate as: “We hope for better things” and “It will rise from the ashes”.

For Red Wings fans, they both resonate today.

(* See, and you thought you didn’t learn stuff on this blog).

See you next year, Rally Al.

Down with the Hockey Temperance League!

Look, I don’t see it as my job to be socially responsible. I never asked to be a role model, as other maligned celebrities such as footballers, Natalie Portman and Jessica Rabbit have long maintained.

So here’s the thing: I want all you Melbourne hockey players to drink more on a Saturday night.

I want you guys who can really play to spend more time getting maggoted of a Saturday evening, truly donning those beer goggles, so that you’re in absolutely no fit state to, say, as a completely random example, attend an 8.30 am Stick & Puck session on a Sunday morning.

Is that too much to ask? I’ll even buy the first beer … before slipping away like smoke into a flame, as Paul Kelly sang (“Jundamarra“), to ensure I get a good night’s sleep, ready for, say, as a random idea, a Sunday morning Stick & Puck session.

How the rink was supposed to look when we arrived on Sunday morning.

As you may have guessed by now, my Sunday didn’t go according to plan. Showing admirable dedication to the sport, my puck buddy (yes, that was a ‘p’) Alex McNab vowed she was attending the 8.30 am Stick & Puck, pre-starting Intermediate tomorrow night. Her sister, Scarlett, declared that she was also in and, damn it, so was I. (Big Cat Place’s reply: “You’ve got to be kidding?”)

What the McNabs and I hadn’t counted on was turning up to find the Henke Rink logjam full of players, many of whom were clearly advanced players using the session for intense one-on-one defending/attacking drills, end-to-end skating and other high-standard drills; stuff that left us Rookies with very little clear ice on which to practice passes or, in my case, fall over. (Right-foot front-foot outside-edge turn getting ever closer.)

I’d gotten home at about 1.30 am the night before, after making the ill-advised decision that riding my pushbike to a party in Reservoir wouldn’t be much of a ride from my place. Ten mostly uphill kilometres later, I was ready for a drink and several whiskies later, I made the excellent decision to escape before the karaoke machine in the front room claimed my soul, or at least my dignity.

The ride home contained a whole bevy of adventures not related to a hockey blog, but the bottom line is that the alarm sounding at 7.30 am was a shock. Undaunted, I vaulted out of bed. The dream of clear ice, of an empty training session where I could skate free, the breeze in my helmeted hair, was too inviting.

How hockey players should spend Saturday nights ...

Right up until we walked in and saw the ice was packed.

So, I mean, really, hockey players. Get it together. Do I need to spell this out to you?

Hockey is a working class, blue-collar, hard-drinking, fighting, cussing, rough-and-ready sport. There is no place in the game for disciplined trainers who are clear-eyed and ready to skate just after dawn on a Sunday. OK?

Glad we’re clear on that. Enjoy your Sunday sleep-in. Or else.

The saucy burlesque edition

Burlesque diva Radha Leigh and a fellow burlesquee pretending to be a lion. To the best of my knowledge, neither of these women are hockey players.

“So, Will”, I said to Will Ong, usually of my Wednesday night development league crew but notably absent on Wednesday this week, for the final night of scrimmaging. “Are you hurt?”

Being a highly trained investigative journalist, I miss nothing, and on this occasion the give-away clue was leaning next to Will in the LuWow tiki bar on Johnston Street in the form of a pair of crutches. Turns out he did his medial ligament in last week’s late shift scrimmage and is off the ice for three months, a disaster I’d caught hints of in snatches of conversation this week, between games on Wednesday, without ever quite hearing the full story.

Will said he had a reasonably innocuous fall while playing, limped off at the end of his shift and thought he was fine right up until he jumped the boards, from the bench, to start his next shift and his right knee said: “Um, no.”

Then the knee cooled down and really screamed. Ouch. This is on top of a broken leg for Dan, another local player, stitches for a skate-slashed arm for goalie Mark Stone and other assorted ailments eating into our Rookie crew. Anybody would think hockey is a potentially dangerous sport, I thought as Will discussed his physio regime and knee brace.

As is standard for hockey players, Will and I had this conversation at a tiki bar between sets of burlesque dancers stripping down to undies and pasties over their nipples to such songs as The Lion Sleeps Tonight*, and Jungle Boogie.

The kind of company your average Icehouse Rookie keeps on a non-hockey evening ...

Fellow Icehouse Rookie Brendan Parsons, Melbourne’s recognized pimp of burlesque – I’m sorry, I meant to say costume co-ordinator and producer to burlesque – had invited us along for opening night of Amazon Cabaret, knowing that any Melbourne International Comedy Festival show is going to struggle unless it can claim to have at least three leading Melbourne ice hockey players in attendance.

A burlesque show was more or less the perfect end to a packed week for me, not least because I’m a big fan of hot women dressed as lions or Tahiti Princesses stripping down until they’re swinging their tits in pasties, but because I was destroyed from a threatening lurgy as well as a huge hockey week and just needed to rest, drink tiki cocktails, listen to music and well, watch hot women dressed as lions or Tahiti Princesses stripping down until they’re swinging their tits in pasties.

On Monday, Big Cat (the artist formerly known as Kittens), Mack and I had come back from a beautiful easter break at Lorne in time for Big Cat and I to hit a Come & Try session at the Icehouse. This was amusing because a joyless easter staff at the Icehouse decided it was wrong and horrific and disastrous that a bunch of Icehouse Rookies should dare to show up and pay honest money to attend the session. “This is supposed to be for learners, for first timers,” we were lectured. “You shouldn’t be skating or wearing your armour.”

I pointed out that I was only wearing armour because I really wanted to work on a front-foot outside-edge turn that my coach, Army, had workshopped with me last week, and I knew I would be hitting the ice repeatedly, if practising this move was to happen. Anyway, there were about three people for the actual L-Plate part of the session, so … what? It was worse to have 10 or so ice hockey students practicing moves at one end of the Henke Rink than to only have $75 worth of newbies (3) stinking up the ice?

The bottom line was that shock, horror, nobody died, we Rookies all had enough sense not to barrel through a seven-year-old kid holding a hockey stick for the first time, or to hit head high slapshots into the intro crowd (3).

Instead, it was a lot of fun. There were a bunch of Rookies there, including Big Cat, the Hough gals, Wayne, Happy Feet and Alex (sicker than eight dogs but heroically present – even if snot did fly through her face grill after a hard landing on her butt). We all practiced tricky moves, passed pucks around, and played a spirited game of half-rink hockey (the terrified, intimidated newbies having cleared the ice for the last 10 minutes of the session). I scored the game winner, when Big Cat somehow hit a shot over everybody’s heads, including the goal, so that it bounced off the glass and landed at my feet, as I happened to be standing next to the goal. Fun.

Intro Rookies dive into scrimmage action on Wednesday night.

But not as much fun as Wednesday. It was end-of-term night, which means scrimmages. We arrived early, to watch the 7.30 Intro class actually play a scrimmage for the first time. Then revealed to Army and Martin, a new import for the Melbourne Ice who coaches at Oakleigh, that the Rookies were sponsoring them this year. Then suited up and played two furious hours of hockey – Intermediate class scrimmage and then the usual 10 pm dev league.

Hockey heaven. In fact, put it this way: at the start of my last shift of the night, I jumped the boards, found myself next to Army, who was refereeing, grinned and spontaneously said: “Army, how much fun is hockey?” to which he smiled, laughed and replied: “Oh, it’s outstanding!”

And it simply is. I’ve finally hit a level where I feel I can mostly compete, and so I enjoy hitting the ice, trying to carry the puck to the goal, actually having shots, battling for it against the boards, standing my ground in defence, competing. Sure, I can be beaten badly by better players, and the puck can bounce the wrong way to leave me stranded, but I don’t care. Every week gets more fun as I get better. Increments of improvement, sure, but improvement and I have definitely crossed a line from newbie wobbling around to dev league journeyman.

On Wednesday night, I had a break-away where I hit my shot cleanly and in the air, even if the goalie gloved it to deny a goal. I had another moment where I controlled the puck from the defence blue line to a shot on goal, holding all opponents at bay for the duration. I had a genuine assist where I won the puck in defence, in a “stone cold steal”, and passed it along the boards to a teammate who scored.

OK,  sure … I also got beaten pointless by Morgan, one-on-one and watched him goal as he left me in his wake. I fell over repeatedly. I got out of position as a defender more than once. And, most memorably, I tried to change direction at pace near my own goal, lost it, cannoned into the goal with my stomach, landed hard on my back, taking out the goalie, and took seemingly minutes to flail and roll and climb back to my skates. Everybody got a laugh out of that one. Including me. As stated: even when you fuck up, hockey is outstanding.

Tragically, Wednesday night’s action was the end of term.

Miraculously, a whole new term of 8.45 pm Intermediate class and 10 pm Dev League starts next Wednesday.

Amen. I can’t wait.

* Pro Karaoke Tip: Never attempt this song at karaoke. Slightly drunk, in the mood for a sing, flicking through the song catalogue, it’s easy to only think of the easy “a-whim-a-way, a-whim-a-way” part of it, and completely forget all the super-high almost-yodelling bits. A friend of mine, Katey, once fell into this trap and has never recovered. In fact, she left the country not long after to try and establish a new non-karaoke-haunted life in France. Stay safe out there, kids.

We get our pucks on the coast

I’m typing this after attempting some puck-handling practice at Lorne, on a netball court at the poetically named Stribling Reserve. It was about 30 degrees (Celsius, for any Detroit folk reading – as in, 100 degrees F; hot!) but the view is spectacular, down the hill to crashing surf and the Lorne pier. I maintain that the adjacent footy oval, home to the mighty Lorne Dolphins (“We get our kicks on the coast”) is the most scenic place to watch Aussie Rules in Australia. But I might be wrong. I haven’t been to every oval, as a mate, Matt Zurbo, is currently attempting.

Hockey training at Lorne. Bad skills. Good view.

So I half-heartedly tried to learn how to roll my wrist to make wrist shots fly, rather than fizzle along the ground. Big Cat Place (the artist formerly known as Kittens) patiently instructed me on the various elements required to make this shot and none of them came together as I became more dehydrated and warm, the puck rolling ever more slowly. Down below, waves crashed and looked inviting. Been a while since I surfed …

All this is on Good Friday after a typically eventful hockey week. The Red Wings beat the Blues in a thriller, away, then lost what should have been an easy win at home. No idea if they’ll switch on in time for the looming play-offs. Meanwhile, in my hockey world,  Tuesday Dev League was the worst game I’ve been part of.

Tuesday’s crew seems to divide into established, well skilled players who can really skate, and people like me just finding their way at a Dev League level. Tuesday is supposed to be “intro dev league” after all. Usually, we’re all mixed together so the game is pretty even (last week, I scored two goals, so that gives you an idea of the level) but somehow, on Tuesday, all the good players got together on the dark team, against the P-Platers in white.

And it was ugly. You suddenly had guys who play for real teams, like the Ice Wolves, and play together, full-ice passing to one another, operating with teammate understanding and stripping our team of the puck if we got halfway own the ice towards our net. Plus we lost two guys off our bench – one to a strained stomach muscle, the other to a nasty cut to the bone, when a skate sliced his forearm as a player jumped the boards between shifts. I think the final score would have been something like 25-4. And of course, it was the first game that a French girl I’d like to impress had come to see what all the hockey fuss is about. So much for that plan.

Wednesday was a lot more fun. Midway through Tuesday’s debacle, while I was on the bench, muttering darkly to Army the coach that it was great to play against the Red Wings’ dev team, he said my skating needed work. I resisted the urge to say: “No, shit, Sherlock” and instead asked what specifically he saw as the problem. He said my legs are too far apart when I glide, so that I end up camped on my inside edges – which I totally agreed, but had no real idea how to fix.

So Wednesday, Army grinned and said: “Because it’s your birthday, we’re going to devote the class to your skating.” And pretty much did – nothing but remorseless and difficult outside edges/inside edges/pivots/transitions. Scuba, a former Melbourne Ice player and one of our coaches, who had been missing for months, setting up a new business, turned up because Lliam and Tommy are overseas with the national team, so it was great to see him, and to watch how well he skates.

So we stumbled and fumbled and looked for outside edges. Army dragged Big Cat and then me aside for specific pointers, and it turns out he was telling us exactly the same thing, for the same foot, which was kind of weird.

Hereditary skating issues?

The cool thing was that in one of the final drills with Scuba, where we had to skate around traffic cones quite fast in a square, front foot on an outside edge taking us around the corner, I started to “feel it” for the first time. As in, I genuinely found the outside edge and turned sharply, weight on the leg, just like you’re supposed to. Everybody has been telling me (especially coach Michael) that once you commit, lean, and feel it once or twice, it gets easier and maybe that’s true? I hope so because for the first time, I feel like I know what it should feel like and maybe I can get my legs and weight in the right place to make it happen. Easter Monday has a Come & Try session in the afternoon, where the search shall resume. Possibly painfully.

Wednesday’s 10 pm Intermediate Dev League was fun, although I was mediocre. Heavy legged, for no real reason. Just not skating like I know I can, even with the flaws Army is onto. Pre-game, everybody had been promising to gift me a birthday goal and I’d vowed that I didn’t want charity … then spent the game, hoping they’d give me charity. But no. This is hockey.

I actually had a decent shot early in the game but my attempt diverted off a skate, so no joy. I was better in defence, even stopping a shot by Big Cat Place, who hit it straight into my chest, above the heart. Good way to test if my birthday-aged heart is still up to such shenanigans. I caught it off my chest in my glove and calmly cleared the puck from our defensive blue line, unfazed.

Not dead yet.

Celebrating the uncelebratable*

Not sure the snake as goalie is a smart play by the coach. And my money is on the lion to beat the pig, one-on-one.

I’m not a birthday hater. I usually like birthday celebrations. I like that kind of excited feeling you still get, a ghost of kid-dom, even if you’re just heading to work, drinking coffee, doing what you normally do.

But now I’ve passed the turn towards 50, what is there to celebrate? Wisdom? Oh, please. Still waiting for that bus. Maturity? Next. Financial security? Potential 2013 Winter Classic costs blow that out. A chance to reflect on a full life well lived? OK, I might have to hurt you now …

In fact, don’t even attempt to answer. (A big hello to Brendan Parsons who recently called me “an active senior”. Yeouch! – but well played, Brendan)

I’ll be locked in my study with the single malt and loud music.

Well, actually, I won’t. Here’s how my actual birthday diary is shaping up:

7.30ish: Wake up, probably happily sore from the after-shocks of tonight’s 5.30 pm Dev League. Maybe even nursing a mild hangover from pre-birthday dining shenanigans.

Grab Fly Dog The Magnificent and hit Brunswick Street for breakfast and novel-writing, or the New Yorker/Wired mag on the iPad.

Eventually, turn up at Giants HQ; mostly cartooning all day, which rocks, because it’s fun. And writing articles for our fake sport website, The Bladder. Just because it didn’t happen doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Even more fun.

Celebratory lunch with workmates and other buddies in the East Richmond hood.

Post-work. Harbourside Hotel. See if excellent eightball lessons with reigning Australian nine-ball champion Robbie Foldvari work on a pub table. (Robbie said I was a natural, and a “freak”, hitting the ball brilliantly despite a completely wrong, unworkable bridge, among other sins. Then offered to play me for money … what?)

7 pm: Still at Harbourside, meeting to discuss forming a potential summer league hockey team. Yes, a real team. For competition. Excitement.

8.15 pm: Head to the Icehouse; start strapping on the armour.

8.45 pm: Intermediate class for one hour. Second last class … should be puck-handling, game-play heavy. I hope so.

10 pm: Intermediate level, intense but fun Dev League for one hour.

11.30ish: Get home. Say hi to Fly Dog The Magnificent, and Macklin the Younger. Fail to sleep before about 3 am.


Isn’t that how everybody turning 47 (yes, the horrible truth … fuck!) spends their birthday?

Well, whatever. As of now, I’m 37. Prove I’m not.

Or even better, do like I do and try to ignore the artificial human concept of ‘years’ by allowing yourself to be distracted by a selection of the finest hockey-themed cakes I could find in a scandalously fast and un-thorough Google search. Enjoy.

My understanding is that the cake under the beer, and the hockey skate, are edible. I really hope I'm not wrong on the hockey skate. That would be awkward.

Can't work out if this guy is an astronaut, about to plant the flag on a planet, or that's a hockey stick.

OK, this skate is definitely edible. Red Wings backing colours too. Nice.

One for the Canucks... Hello, Alex. Pretty good cake, despite the dodgy team branding.

Sensing a theme here. What is it with hockey players and eating boots?

Full respect. A cake with mood lighting.

OK, it came up under "ice hockey birthday cake". He appears to be wearing a helmet. But seriously? Is that a walking stick or a hockey stick? Richmond FC colours just saves it.

Before biting into puck, see previous comments re hockey skates that may or may not be made of cake.

All round impressive. Players appear to be attempting to hold their positions, although it's obviously a violent cake: down to two-on-two. The Penalty Box cake must be overflowing with players.

* Is “uncelebratable” a word? Hey, I’m a frickin’ novelist. I say it is, as of now. Sweethouse.