And so, here we all sit (again) …

Bring back the Glaciarium, at Southbank, Melbourne. And 12 more rinks, while we’re at it.

And so here we all sit, trembling and sweating over our computer keyboards … which is not what you’re thinking.

It’s ticking towards 10.40 am on Enrolment Day and all over Melbourne, hockey rookies are terrified they won’t get into the Icehouse classes.

The fact is that the system is horrible, even if the Icehouse staff are endlessly friendly and try their best. Every term, we all spend this day not getting any work done, wondering what the ominous words: “Waiting lists are now full for this class” mean, and terrified that we’ll miss the magical moment when the Icehouse website clicks over to “click here to enrol“.

Ice hockey in Victoria has a fantastic problem, when it comes down to it. It is becoming far too popular for its own good. Big Cat and I seem to have hooked into the sport, right in line with the zeitgeist, when a whole bunch of other people also tuned into the brand new Icehouse, and the success of a crack Melbourne Ice unit, and whatever other factors have pushed the sport to this tipping point where too many people want to learn, compared to the amount of class time available.

The big question: who will win the lotto and click their way into Dev League for the next term?

Joey Hughes has set up Next Level Hockey at the old Oakleigh rink, in an attempt to offer other opportunities, but how the sport’s officials must wish rinks in Footscray, Ringwood, and even Bendigo, hadn’t closed down over the past couple of decades. I say we knock down the ABC Studios at Southbank and go back to the days when the magnificently ornate Glaciarium stood there. But this time with glass boards around the rink, so we can karoom each other off them in Dev League.

I once bought a magazine for a joke in one of those Smith Street flea market stores that all seem to have disappeared lately. It was a “Man” magazine from the 1950s; an Australian forerunner to Playboy, as far as I could tell. I gave it to Jay, one of Big Cat’s mates, for his eighteenth birthday, because he’d become a man now, and was ready to look at racy photos of women in pre-Sixties bikinis and one-pieces that left a great deal to the imagination, covering most of the torso.

Of course, I bought it for the articles and was stunned when one turned out to be fascinating. It was a story about the growth of ice hockey in Australia – yes, way back then. Even more amazingly, the writer concluded the piece by declaring that ice hockey could be a successful minor sport in Australia if it could build stadiums seating about 3000 people in each city. You know what? Sixty or so years later, he remains completely correct. On Sunday, Melbourne Ice will play the Sydney Ice Dogs in front of a sold out crowd of 1500 or so at the Icehouse; with all 1000 seats packed in the one grandstand facing the Henke Rink. In those stands, hockey students will ask one another: Did you get in? Which class? Did you have to sign up for the death shift of 11.15 pm-12.15 am Dev League, just to get a spot?

To be fair, it looks as though the ice was pretty crowded at the Glaciarium, back in the day.

So much wild enthusiasm, so many rookies wanting to learn, to skate, to join summer league teams, to become hockey players … and all of three blocks of ice in all of Melbourne. And a great chunk of that rink time devoted to speed skating and figure skating and curling and general skating.

Open for registration already (as I endlessly hit refresh on the Icehouse store) are 15 categories of speed skating classes. Intermediate 1, to choose one at random, has nine separate classes within it.

I love watching the speed skaters and am on friendly nodding turns with the ones who are always present at general skate, looping lazily around the ice like the giant bull rays that circle endlessly under the Lorne pier, or along the Queenscliff dock when I go diving.

But really, how many speed skaters are there in Victoria?

We are loaded to the gills with 30 or more participants in every hockey class (except the 11.15 pm Dev League which is a career-killer for anybody with a job).

Figure skating too, although I concede there are an awful lot of girls doing that instead of ballet.

I guess the stronger Olympic disciplines get some kind of priority at the Icehouse, which is technically Australia’s winter Olympic training venue.

But it’s a shame, for us hockey rinkrats, us rookies who want to play for fun and laughter and competition and fitness and the social circles and all the other reasons that those not aspiring to unlikely Olympic success play for. We remain on the borders of the Icehouse thinking, no matter how many stick& puck sessions and drop-in scrimmages they schedule, usually at 6 am or during office hours.

Damn, I wish I’d discovered this sport when I was a uni student – except that I never was; I started full time as a copyboy at The Herald newspaper at the age of 17 and worked full time ever since.

Damn, I wish I’d discovered this sport during my childhood in Canada, where frozen lakes and rinks in every suburb would have fed my young craving. Except that I was born in Melbourne’s suburbs and Burwood wasn’t known for its quality ice in Gardiners Creek.

Sigh, I guess, like the other rookies, I just have to fight for whatever ice-time I can get.

10.54 am …

Refresh. Refresh. Refresh.

UPDATE: The site finally opened for registrations at about 11.44 am. We all pounced. It crashed. No idea if I’m sitting out next term or not. This is truly pathetic, Icehouse. For the record.

Tumbleweeds. Crickets. Horses eat one another. Somewhere, a dog barks …

Remember all that freaky stuff in Act Two of MacBeth? – oops, sorry. The Scottish play?

Horses eating one another? Something about an owl handing a falcon its arse*? I seem to remember my high school English teacher patiently explaining that old Shakey was setting up that unnatural things were about to happen, getting the audience on the edge of their Globe Theatre seats.

The crappy non-hockey view at our crappy non-hockey apartment in Coathanger City. Pic: Some rockstar-looking guy.

Well, last night was a similarly unnatural evening. A Wednesday night without hockey. Classes finished with last Wednesday’s Game Night, and here we were, rookies without an ice date.

It was as horrific as you’d imagine. I had been in Sydney since Sunday, doing the meetings thing, and saying hi to a few good friends who live in the shadow of the Giant Coathanger. I’d taken a guitar north, to give back to Katey, who had lent it to me a year or so ago, and so felt like a (completely fraudulent) rock star, wandering out of the airport and around Sydney lugging a guitar case. (No, dear readers, I can’t play guitar for shit.) The good news was that the faux rockster act seemed to work at the very tall apartment block we were staying in and I got an upgrade to the 73rd floor, which is not far off the highest point in the city.

So life was good until Wednesday, when I flew home (now guitarless and therefore status-down) and hit a hockeyless Melbourne wasteland.

I won’t bore you with the gnashing-teeth details of my desolate evening. The welcoming hug from my gal after days apart. The offered glass of great red wine. The dinner cooked for me. The laughter. The foot rub. The cool French music (Melanie Pain – look her up. Ex-Nouvelle Vague) … any hockey player knows that none of this could possibly console the absence of two hours of bruising intermediate and dev league action, right?

Tomorrow is enrolment day, which remains probably the most traumatic day of the entire hockey calendar, pre-term. It’s the day where all of Melbourne’s hockey students have to poise, finger twitching, over their PC for hours, waiting for the Icehouse to open registrations for the next term. There are nowhere near enough spots for everybody who wants to do the classes, let alone dev league. I’ll be finger-twitching for myself, Big Cat and Mack Nyquist, the third member of our future all-Place line (eat your heart out, Hansons).

And then what? Keep endlessly trawling Red Wings fansites and Detroit media for any news about free agency breakthroughs or other good news to somehow offset the unbearable loss of Nik Lidstrom, Brad Stuart and maybe Tomas Holmstrom? Play some street hockey with Big Cat and Mackquist? See if Alex is up for a puck lunch, where we whack pucks at one another in the office car park? Go to the gym? Box? See if I can remember how to run 6 km or more? Maybe even break the back of the second draft of my detective novel, which is currently handing my creative arse to me even more than an owl to a Shakespearean falcon*?

But alas, no hockey classes until the week of July 16 or something … and so there is time to be filled, especially on a Wednesday. Brendan Parsons beat me to publishing a photo of the bizarre Edmonton Swastikas, so that’s one diverting Google-search out of the way, damnit.

But there are plenty of other Google-inspired ways to kill time in a non-hockey week:

What does it mean when your team’s coach is Mike Babcock, and a Detroit schoolkid called Michael Babcock gets invited along to the Wings’ prospect camp?

Why doesn’t the Australian media get to report local sports officials saying things like trading a future hall of famer was my greatest screw-up ever?

Did the makers of the film, “The Gay Blades” envisage that their hopefully timeless classic might take on a different hue by a new millennium?

Why did this picture end up in Google images on a “Gay Blades” search?

How did anybody survive before helmets? (and how beautiful is this photo?)

OK, I’ll stop. Better take my inlines down to Lorne on the weekend. I’m getting antsy.

* My words, not Shakespeare’s.

He shoots! He scores!

The big moment: I’m in the red helmet. If you look carefully, you can see the puck just over the line to the left of the goalie. Pic: Wayne McBride

It had become something of a running joke at Dev League that I had never scored a goal. I know it’s probably hard to believe that hockey players would hang shit on one another, but it has been known to happen. Roughly 4000 times per game, in my experience.

Last Wednesday was “game night”, for intermediate, which is the traditional end-of-term scrimmage, meaning Big Cat and I were shaping up for two hours of solid game play, including the usual Dev League hour-long scrimmage where black and red teams blissfully beat the hell out of one another.

And I scored a genuine goal. Sure, it was in the Intermediate game, and sure, the puck bounced off my shoulder onto the ice and I reflex-poked the puck over the goal-line with my stick, but that’s a goal, mofos. It counts.

Big Cat gets an official assist because it was his hard, off-balance shot that cannoned into the goalie’s chest, before ricochetting onto my shoulder as I did a Holmstrom and crowded the goalface, looking for the rebound, which miraculously came.

It was such a fun moment. I did everything but stop for autographs, although I resisted the urge to ride my stick, like a rodeo horse, down the ice. Apparently, according to Lliam, you can get a 10 minute penalty for that – he had a friend in a Canadian game who got a hat-trick in the first period, and sat on the ice, using his stick to row like a canoe, and got the 10 minutes. “Why, exactly?” I asked. “For being a dick,” Lliam shrugged.

Still too many times where my legs are flat-footed like this. Pic: Wayne McBride

So I stopped short of the rodeo-celebration that I’ve been working on. Shared the moment with Big Cat, Alex, my team and then got on with things. Minutes later, as I skated along, coach Army said, with a large element of surprise in his voice: “Did you score?”

It means a lot, knowing he believes in me so unwaveringly.

Army and I have a healthy vocal dialogue going most of the time. On Wednesday, we should have received a penalty for some atrocity and I yelled out: “Oh, umpire!” and Army pointed out it’s ‘ref’ in hockey, so I pointed out he was wearing a Collingwood beanie (which he only does to annoy people at the Icehouse) and he said that still didn’t mean I could use ‘umpire’ instead of ‘ref’ and I told him to just go out there and do some umpiring (now using an affectation English accent) and he would have dropped the gloves, I’m sure, if he had been wearing any, or cared. I love hockey.

At the face-offs, Liam Patrick and I were having even more fun, trash-talking one another mercilessly. I got my stick to the puck and pushed it away, yelling back at Liam, “Did you see that, Patrick? Yet another face-off win to Place!” … Except that I had hit it straight to one of their players. At the next face-off, coach Lliam said: “You know, you didn’t win that last face-off.”

Liam Patrick v Nicko Place at a face-off. Words were occasionally said. Pic: Wayne McBride

“Do you mind. I’m trying to sledge here,” I replied happily. Which worked well until Patrick scored with a really slick first-time slapshot about 30 seconds later. Another rookie Wayne McBride was taking photos and there’s a great sequence, post Liam’s goal, where we’re both yapping insults and smiling.

And so another term ended. My third round of Intermediate and my second time around in Dev League. I am definitely getting better – we all are, you can really see it, all over the ice – even though I know what I still need to work on. In what is not exactly a shock twist, it’s mainly my skating. I was actually really happy with my passing on Wednesday – I was genuinely creative with the puck, hustled players away from it, controlled it, scored that goal, and got an assist in the better-standard Dev League game. I’m chasing the puck now, believing I belong on the ice and can be a factor (even if my attempts to rename myself “a scoring threat” since Wednesday has met with stony silence from Big Cat, with all his fancy goals). I actually think they were my best games of the term, and that one drop-in session a fortnight ago has made a difference to my passing.

… and more words, after Liam’s (very good) goal.

But in so many of the photos from Wednesday, my legs are still planted, far apart and flat-footed on the ice. Yes, there were many more photos this time where I was moving, genuinely power-skating, which is pleasing. But I really have to get my outside edges happening and I really need to move my feet while controlling the puck.

But it will come and it can happen. I’m not intimidated by the challenge – I just have some bad habits to drop. Best of all, it’s stuff I can work on in general skating, on inlines and in stick & pucks, starting tonight where there’s an unexpected 8.30 pm session.

What else would you do on a Saturday night but don rain-soaked armour and skate joyfully onto the Henke Rink ice yet again?


1. Anybody who thinks ice rinks are cold should have been with Sammy Tanner, Chloe and I on a boat, going through the Heads, last Saturday, to dive the Coogee wreck off Barwon Heads. It was 13 degrees in the water and, at 30 metres down, a lot colder than that. Fun though. Murky though the water was, my trusty GoPro captured things:

 2. RIP Daryl Joyce, a friend of mine who went upstairs to read, and listen to his beloved Cats play footy last Saturday, and passed away, just like that. Sad memorial service. Generally shitful. I’ve written before about how we all need to make the most of the life we have, right now, while we have it. Lesson learned, again.

 3. In happier news – well, sort of – a former Red Wing, Darren McCarty, and his wife have been in court, slapping restraining orders on a group of friends, or something. Strange case. Their argument is that they feel threatened by these people, which led to this beautiful piece of writing in the Detroit News:

  • “(Defence lawyer) Abood suggested the protection orders were simply an effort by the McCartys to “cut off” people they didn’t want to associate with anymore, rather than a product of genuine fear.
    At one point, when Abood asked McCarty how many fights he had been in, the judge interjected: “He’s a hockey player.”

That’s my kind of judge.

And finally, how much do I love this sequence from the Dev League scrimmage?

Bwahahahaha! (Actually, I was asking if he was okay. Lucky Lliam didn’t hear that.)

A question without notice

So, a strange thing happened on Wednesday night in the Icehouse change room.

A friendly member of the local hockey community … unlike that prick, Nicko Place.

Walking off the ice from Dev League, I congratulated my opposition winger, Theresa, on a good game, and she returned the compliment.

Then, with a big smile, said to me: “So Nicko, are you coming to the Melbourne Ice Gala?”

The Gala is a big swanky annual sit-down dinner where the hockey community gets dressed up in formal gear (well, more formal than armour and sweaty jerseys, and mostly favouring shoes instead of skates on the dance-floor). This year is a big one because it’s to celebrate the club’s 10th anniversary.

Theresa, welcoming, ever the energetic social driver of our crew, asking me if I wanted a seat on the Rookies’ table? To which I replied, without even thinking, in a question-without-notice reflex action: “No.”

Theresa’s smile dropping. “How come?”

And I replied, honestly: “I just don’t do those kind of things.”

Which was honest but kind of blunt.

(** and yes, this entire post is a way of apologising, to Theresa, and Wayne, who is – * spoiler alert * – still to come in this anecdote…)

Outside, back in street clothes, about to head off into the night, another Rookie, Wayne (see, told you), asked the same question: “Coming to the gala, Nicko?”

“Nope,” I said. “Any night at the pub with you guys, I’m there. Not the gala.”

And off I went, safe in my suddenly unexpected crowning as the antisocial bastard of the night.

But not feeling great, despite the glory of Aimee and my “perfect” two-on-one tic-tac-toe goals during Intermediate, or some decent efforts by me in Dev League, even if I did screw up in the final minute which led directly to an opposition goal. Oops.

Anyway, doing my usual Wednesday night post-hockey thing of lying wide-awake until after 2 am, I thought about it. Why would my instant reaction to the gala be no? I love the hockey crowd, I would be happy to sit and break bread with pretty much anybody in that world. I like alcohol, a lot. Especially with friends.

So why my instant, brutal dismissal of a fun, formal night out?

It took me two days to work it out, and the good news is that it’s baggage from my past; nothing to do with hockey. In fact, it led to an even deeper love of hockey … I’ll explain.

You see, I was a sportswriter for many years, for The Herald and then The Age and Sunday Age newspapers, as well as The Age online and more recently my own company, Media Giants. I also worked for ten years, off and on, as a reporter/producer/writer for the Seven Network.

It was a great life, in a lot of ways. I covered tennis, including all the Grand Slams (Roland Garros remains the best event I think I ever covered), as well as boxing (including a lot of Jeff Fenech’s world title fights), field hockey and other sports.

Mostly I covered AFL.

And here’s where Wednesday night’s knee-jerk reaction came from.

In tennis and AFL, there are players and there are fans. Football likes to talk of itself as a “family”, but it’s not. There are those who have set foot on a VFL or AFL field, and the rest of us.

(Another warning: there’s some name-dropping ahead. I promise it is to make a point.)

In tennis, where players are told by coaches, family, everybody that they are only a peg or two down from God because they hit a decent forehand when they were 11 years old, the Us and Them is very pronounced. Think rock stars egos with racquets. I remember one story where an Australian player had her arse handed to her at Eastbourne, the women’s pre-Wimbledon event, and her furious coach decided it was time to lay it on the line, let her know that effort was simply not good enough, to really strip things down to the horrible truth … he walked into the players’ lounge and found said player reclining, enjoying a foot massage from her mummy, while her daddy held her hand and literally spoon-fed her, her agent tut-tutting sympathetically off to the side. This player was in her 20s at the time.

Trust me when I tell you that if you’re a journalist who writes that a player who lost 6-1, 6-0 didn’t play well, you can expect attitude from the player and his mates. Seriously. I’ve been there. Had the walls go up from the Australian players as a collective, because I didn’t write the usual excuses and “gee, he tried hard” crap. For all the glamour of covering Wimbledon or the French, Davis Cup in exotic locations, I was happy to leave that world. The players can’t work out why the media isn’t just an extension of their fan club, which includes everybody who makes money out of their success, and star struck fans.

The Woodies – Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge: great people on and off the court.

I’m generalizing here, obviously – and there are distinct and welcome exceptions, who I’m going to name because I’d be horrified on the off-chance they read this and thought I was talking about them. So I am explicitly excluding Mark Woodforde, Todd Woodbridge, Nicole Provis, Yannick Noah, Ivan Lendl, and a bunch of the Swedish players, who generally, in my experience, didn’t take themselves so seriously, including former world No. 1s Stefan Edberg and Mats Wilander. Even Rod Laver – total gentleman, and unaffected by his astonishing record. Others were cool too; including Steffi Graf who showed a lot of poise and grace while carrying a heavy load of battling English and German tabloids.

And then there’s the AFL. I would like to think I have made some genuinely good friends out of footy, and there are wonderful people and players and ex-players who have a welcome perspective on their world.

But many do not and that’s where the Ice Gala comes in (at last). I have suffered through so many AFL functions where there are the players, and everybody else. The players place such a premium on “one-for-all, all-for-one” and all that locker-room crap that they have trouble turning it off once they’re in public, if they even try to.

Fans will approach their table at a club function and the players will mostly be polite, pose for photos etc, but their hearts are rarely in it. Their eyes are often empty, veiled. Media, fans, sponsors … we’re all a kind of annoying sideline to their fame.

And this is what I unwittingly projected onto the Melbourne Ice Gala, when Theresa landed that unexpected question.

It was only on reflection that I realized part of me had gone back to footy/tennis mode. And that was wildly unfair, because the beautiful end to this rant is that hockey is so, so, so different.

One of the reasons I love this world is the lack of pretension, the lack of egos. There’s Matt Armstrong, currently one of the top scorers in the AIHL this season, a veteran of seriously high-quality international competition, driving the Zamboni on a weekday, laughing with us rookies and teaching us with endless patience. Likewise, Lliam, Tommy and Shona, all Australian representatives but never once looking down their noses at mere mortal strugglers like us.

Joey Hughes teaching his unique philosophy and hockey skills at the very unglamorous Oakleigh rink. Giving, giving, giving.

So, I hate that I projected AFL sensibilities onto these people. I swear to remember, wherever possible, how grateful I am to be in this underground, cult-like, happy, friendly, intense world of Melbourne hockey. Solidarity, brothers and sisters. That gala would actually be a lot of fun, and I hope everybody there takes a moment to realize how special it is that the Ice players like Lliam, Army, Tommy, Jason et al, are genuinely happy to chat with fans and rookies, instead of just doing their time because they have to.

Army keeping it real in the local hockey version of an ice bath. Pic: Melbourne Ice

Take it from me, who has sailed the wider waters of international sport. This is a rare treasure.

And no, I still won’t be there … turns out it’s the same weekend that my kids film festival, Little Big Shots  is at the Sydney Opera House, so I’ll be in the Opera House green room, smiling quietly as artistic egos fill the room.

But Theresa, Wayne and other rookies, Lliam, Army and co, have a drink for me. Keep your eye out for how Ice Man manages to drink through that helmet of his … I’ve always wondered. And can he fit a tux over his armour?

I genuinely wish I could be there. Really.

The (second last) final frontier


For more than six months, those two words have caused me quiet fear.

Other rookies have signed up for sessions, including Big Cat a long time ago, and not only survived but come back raving. For those who don’t know the term, in Icehouse hockey parlance, it’s a session where anybody can turn up and play hockey. You sign up for $20 bucks, get a white or blue Icehouse jersey, and make your way to a bench. And play. There might be 30 players at a session or 10 (which usually ends up as half-rink). The only requirement is that you have full armour and your own stick. There might be a bunch of elite players working on moves in these pick-up games, or just fellow rookies feeling their way. There’s no way of knowing.

Hence my fear.

All I could think was that I’d step onto the ice against the semi-pro members of the Melbourne Ice or Mustangs, or against Division A, B or C guns. My theory was that I’d wobble around and seriously risk hurting myself or them, by skating straight into their path. The idea of Lliam, Army, Tommy, Jason or another star AIHL player missing games because idiot rookie Place wasn’t able to turn right and veered inexplicably left was too unthinkable to think about.

Lliam Webster, my coach, in flight. Thankfully, this was not during yesterday’s drop-in.

The mail from fellow Rookies had always been that it was fine. That the really good players gave newbies space and time, made an effort to pass to them, and were really welcoming. That the games are usually fast, and your weaknesses will be shown up, but in a good way.

Even so, I didn’t feel ready for a long time. Even this week, almost two full terms of Dev League under my belt, I was nervous.

But then I had another Nico, a Frenchman and the partner of an old friend of mine, come to stay at my place and it turns out he has been playing hockey since living in Canada a few years ago. He’s followed my obsession and so brought his skates (good ones – bought for 35 Canadian dollars in 2003, damn him) to Melbourne. I saw there was a drop-in session at 2.30 pm Thursday. He was super keen. I had no reason not to, apart from cowardice.

And so, just like that, without any time to second-guess, I found myself wandering down to the white jersey team’s bench five minutes late for the session. An awkward hi to the two guys hanging out on the bench and then shit, I realised I was playing drop-in.

Everything everybody had told me was true. The bulk of the players were Division B and C, as far as I could tell, apart from goalie Mark Stone, roaming around as a player, which was nice because at least one familiar face was there to good-naturedly sledge me mercilessly as I skated past, and vice versa.

The standard was strange. Clearly, most were seriously good players and every now and then they’d turn on the afterburners on their skating, or show their stick-handling skills, but they were also relaxed, hooning around, just playing for fun, not with super intent. Which made it great for me, because if I screwed up, nobody really cared. It was kind of like being in the surf with a bunch of really good surfers, who are catching waves and enjoying themselves, showing their moves, but also out there for a laugh and to chill between sets. If that makes sense.

And all the drop-in veterans did pass the puck to me, the newbie, often, and they did encourage me at every turn, and they did tell me I wasn’t sucking, and they did give me advice – so thank you, anybody reading this who was there.

Nico was skating around for the blue team, wearing his own leg-guards, which are pieces of plastic that look about two millimetres wide, and made him look like he was some polio-stricken kid, with tiny chicken legs, among all of our usual, serious leg-padding. I scored a goal, and then he did, which sounds impressive except that most of the regulars (and they clearly all knew each other, and had strong understanding, so I was assuming they turn up each week for this session – or play in the same team) didn’t even bother having shots.

Instead, they’d work through the gears as they liked. In a second, players would go from gliding, bored-looking skating, to flying up the ice, weaving between three opponents (Me trying not to get in their way, if it was my team on the rush).

Clear on a break-away, they’d charge the net, and then instead of shooting, veer off to the boards and look for another team member to pass to. Inside the blue line, four or five sharp, crisp passes would fly between sticks – whack, whack, whack, whack, whack, before finally, somebody might have a shot for fun, or a defender would intercept. Or they’d pass it to me and I’d have a little less control.

Every now and then players wandered over to the bench, and there were no “fast changes”, just: “Yeah, I’m done. Have a skate …” and somebody would get around to putting their gloves back on.

On the bench, one guy sent texts on his iPhone, others chatted. It was like kick-to-kick in footy, but on skates. All we needed was coffees instead of drink bottles.

And yet, when a blue teamer came at me with the puck early in the session, I steeled myself, puffed up my armour, grounded my stick, challenged for it and, like a magic wand, his stick moved in a blur in four different directions, and he was gone and so was the puck; me unable to help grinning at the dazzling stick work I’d just been a victim of. I loved it.

As promised, I saw all my failings on the ice clearly, as well as some strengths. My stick-handling held up pretty well (until I got tired and made some sloppy errors late in the piece). I was still heavy-legged from Wednesday night’s class and dev league, but, regardless, my skating was nowhere near their calibre, which was no surprise really.

Interestingly, I discovered that I have a habit of stopping when not involved in play – and it is potentially dangerous. These guys, playing at their level, hardly ever seem to stop. They’re cruising, gliding, looking, looping, between bursts. So they’d apparently register where I was, skate hard and then get a surprise when it turned out I was still there. Mentally, they had obviously factored in that I would have moved by the time they got to that space on the ice. Several near-collisions later, I tried to keep moving, no matter what.

And I skated hard from end to end, whenever the puck changed possession, just for the work-out, because how often do you get that kind of empty ice time, without the pressure of a Dev League game (which have become increasingly competitive – and yes, I did suffer my first loss of this term on Wednesday night, thanks to what was almost certainly Big Cat’s best goal yet. Credit where it’s due.)

So, all the usual mantras apply, even more so, post-drop-in. Keep working on skating, and keep working on puck-handling; especially passing, as several of mine were easily picked off without getting to my target. I can se that the progression from dev league needs to include faster, snappier passing. I’m totally up for that.

But the good news is that my bench-buddies praised my positioning and my effort, and my hockey smarts, which pleased me. And I did land some canny passes, to teammates in full flight. I didn’t suck.

Which was all I could have hoped for as I popped my drop-in cherry.

Fellow Rookies, specially Dan Byrne, the champion of drop-in, were wildly supportive, as ever, at my stepping up and I can’t wait to go back.

In fact, only one frontier remains: joining a team for Summer League competition. Of which, moves are underway.

Somehow, hockey just gets more exciting.

Old Dog. New tricks.

Tonight, as the rain and the wind rattled an old warehouse in Kensington, I stood in a boxing ring, the canvas floor mercifully clear of the puddles elsewhere in the gym, under a leaky roof.

My hands were taped up and gloved, and I was in a singlet and shorts, sweat flowing freely. I still haven’t forked out for proper boxing shoes, so my trusty but expensive Asics running shoes were being slaughtered in the side-to-side, front-and-back shuffle of sparring.

Sam Visciglio, grey-haired, lean as a whippet, ever-encouraging, with a face that shows a lot of life lived and with flat, concentrating eyes that miss nothing, stepped back, pads relaxed, and said: “See, that hand (the left) is the cocky kid from – where are you from again, Nicko?”

“North Fitzroy,” I panted.

“- from North Fitzroy. It’s loose, it’s the right side of the brain controlling that left. Loose, creative. But this hand (pointing to my right) needs to be at your chin, in front of your jaw. That’s left side of the brain. Defend. It’s controlling the elbow tucked into your side, protecting your ribs.

Sam works on the battered face of one of his fighters. No doubt with calm, soothing words when they’re needed.

“And now, when you land that left, I want you to turn the fist so you punch with these knuckles here (index finger, middle finger). Turn on impact. Back to the chin. Turn on impact. Back to the chin.

“And put that cassette into your head, and hit ‘play’. It’s the cassette marked ‘agile’. I want you thinking that word: ‘agile’, ‘agile’, agile’. Footwork. Keep moving. Do you hear what I’m saying? I want you to reprogram your feet.”

“Sam,” I said. “I’m not sure anybody my age can be termed ‘the cocky kid from Fitzroy North’.”

Sam laughed, patted me lightly on the face as he does to say: “Good job”,  and called another fighter into the ring, while I went back to belting the heavybag. A cassette in my head saying the word, “agile” over and again, with my feet moving accordingly. Right fist planted in front of my jaw as the left jab snaked out. Another lesson absorbed.

I love Sam. He trains fighters alongside my mate, Mischa Merz, Australia’s very own queen of the square ring, and an old journo mate of mine when she’s not being hit, hitting people or training people to hit and not be hit.

I learn so much from these two. All that stuff about how old dogs can’t be taught new tricks? It’s not true. For starters, since Fly Dog the Magnificent did her Achilles tendon on Christmas Day (hello $3000 worth of surgery and vet bills), she’s mostly learned to obey my: “Slow! Fly, slow!” command, and she only wants to chase balls like she used to every hour or so, instead of every minute.

Likewise, the old dog that is her owner is learning new things all the time. On Mondays, Mischa and Sam teach me fundamentals that I really should know after so many years of dabbling in hitting heavy bags, floor-to-ceiling bags and training pads with endless jabs, hooks and bodyshots.

Fly Dog The Magnificent, as she spends more of her time these days, post injury: being driven around.

But no, there’s always so  much more to learn, so many bad habits to lose. Tonight, with the crazy Melbourne weather, only the hardcore trainers were there. And me. A new guy, Lee, from England is an ex-amateur fighter and knows his stuff. Was trying to punch holes in the heavy bag as he falls back in love with the sport. When we had to spar, trading body shots, practicing our defence, he was great in teaching me how to be ready to attack but able to close the gates of my elbows as required, to ward off shots to my stomach, elbows ready to defend kidney attacks.

Learn, learn, learn.

And that’s before I get to Wednesday hockey and another Intermediate Class then Dev League session with Lliam and Army at the Icehouse.

This blog has been going for more than 100 posts and I still can’t quite convey how much I learn in every session, how the improvement keeps coming. Jason Baclig, from the Melbourne Ice, said last week – when I mentioned my funk, and feeling like my improvement had flat-lined – that there comes a time where improvement is incremental, so you don’t get the big, obvious breakthroughs on a weekly basis. The solution is, of course, to keep working, and I threw myself into last week’s class and Dev League like a crazy person,  with the support and urging of Lliam, Army and my classmates/teammates. Funk, be gone.

Tonight, Sam gave me another tool for the same job. “Agility,” he said. “The perfect footwork for different punches. Imagine yourself doing it, Nicko. Imagine that you can do it. Of course, you can’t. You have to learn, but pretend you can, think you can. Agility. Believe you know how to, and work from there.”

It’s become a running joke among some of my Dev League peers that I remain a Dev League Virgin, as in: I haven’t scored a goal yet. Last week, I was agonizingly close at least once. But no goals yet.

Maybe I’ll carry Sam’s voice onto the ice this week. Believe you score goals, Nicko. Tell yourself that you’re a guy who can put it in the net. Work from there.

If nothing else, I’ll keep my L-Plates proudly on display. Talking to a long-time friend last week, we warily eyed the future; what it would be like to truly become old men. Our solution? Don’t stop learning. Don’t stop setting challenges. God knows, hockey, and boxing, do that in spades.

Nicklas Lidstrom: will be oh so missed! Pic: Detroit News


1. It was in August last year that that I wrote what turned out to be a contentious blog about the state of the Blue Tongues’ rink at the Gold Coast, after attending a game there to watch the Melbourne Ice. Blue Tongues fans went briefly nuts (which resulted in great readership numbers for the blog – the biggest I had until, umm, the entire city of Detroit decided to visit one day.) Anyway, the Ice just went north again and Sunday’s game had to be called off because of problems with the same rink’s ice or boards or both. I will say again what I tried to say in last year’s blog: I am in awe of the Blue Tongues’ players, that they are so good and have such a great team, while training and playing in Australian hockey’s equivalent of third-world facilities, when put up against the Olympic training-standard glory of the Icehouse. Nothing against the people who run that facility, either: how fucking tough a job is that? Maintaining and running an ice rink on the Gold Coast. Like running an outdoor café in the Antarctic. I hope, for the Blue Tongues’ sake, they can stay in the competition and with a decent rink.

2. So long, Nicklas Lidstrom and thank you for the memories. The Wings’ captain and spiritual leader has called it a day, and celebrated by being given a standing ovation at a Detroit Tigers baseball game, being hailed at a Red Hot Chilli Peppers concert and taking a full page advert out in the local papers to thank fans for all their love over the two decades of his career. Yes, he’s that classy. I only came in on the last few years of the magnificent Swedish defender’s career with Detroit but I fully understand why his teammates’ nickname for him was/is: “The Perfect Human”. Four Stanley Cups, seven-times best defender in the NHL (and in the top three almost every other year), a brilliant captain, cool, calculating, composed and a natural leader like few I’ve seen before on the ice, and possessing a slapshot from the blue line that would put a hole in an armoured tank. I am SO glad that Will, Mack and I got to see Lidstrom play in the flesh last year during our epic trip. (And that I bought a signed No. 5 jersey that is now a collector’s item, and yes, I wear it. To hell with re-sale value.)

The fact that Lidstrom has creakily called a halt to his amazing career at 42 years of age must surely sound some kind of warning bells for a 47-year-old second-year rookie, I’m sure, but I’m choosing not to put too much thought into that. Enjoy retirement, TPH. Man, the Wings are going to look different in 2012-13. As coach Mike Babcock said at the Lidstrom presser: “Embrace change.”