The (second last) final frontier

Drop-in.

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.

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