A day is a long time in skating

By Nicko

On Wednesday night, on the Henke rink, in Dev League, I had one of those tiny moments that can give you hope on a crazy quest – like trying to become a hockey player in your forties.

Wayne McBride is a very decent player, despite the remorseless shit we throw at one another, and he took off on a breakaway, with another good skater, Nicole Cliff, alongside him.

Wayne was hammering up the boards but here came the unlikely figure of Nicko Place, new stride flying, to somehow get past Nicole and close Wayne down against the boards as he flew through the blue line.

For every night like this …

Wow, I thought, as I staggered to the bench moments later. Who knew I could backcheck, and against quality players?

The only reason I’m bragging about this is because it was a rare moment of skating proficiency, and even more so given how I remorselessly sucked at Oakleigh 23 hours later. We had our first team training for the Spitfires; both the Fighters and Interceptor teams on the ice – well, about half of our Interceptor team thanks to the lurgy sweeping around Melbourne, and a few players being away at the snow or on other adventures.

I was terrible; to the point that I felt embarrassed in front of the coaches of the night, Next Level’s Martin Kutek and Tony Theobald. My crossovers were rudimentary, my transitions clumsy, my positioning and thinking sluggish. What was wrong with me?

Those guys have put time and energy into me on several Friday nights and now I show up, as acting captain of the Interceptors, no less, barely able to remain vertical on my skates.

I’m exaggerating, but not much. I’ve felt bad that Friday nights have proven, as I feared, to be a close to impossible night for me, so I haven’t been able to take advantage of the generous efforts of Joey Hughes, Martin, Tony and Scott Corbett to push my skating to, yes, the next level. Now, I finally turn up with my team, and have a shocker.

… there can still be a night like this.

“Skate, Nicko, skate!” Martin kept saying and I was trying hard not to be flat-footed, but it was one of those nights where I had to will myself to move. Was a step slow for passes. Was accused of being lazy – and oh, I hate that. For my many often-confessed faults as a skater, or hockey player, I hate being thought of as lazy.

Maybe, just maybe, my ageing legs weren’t up for skating hard a night after Wednesday’s two hours of Intermediate/dev league and a 2 am sleep time? Is that what went wrong? I’m not conceding that. I pride myself on generally skating as hard as everybody 20 years younger and unless this proves a trend, I’m not factoring that excuse.

Although … if it wasn’t that, well then, shit, it was just plain embarrassing. I had hit the ice hard a couple of times the night before, including once where I rattled my helmet, crashing the goalie in a slot-battle late in the match, which left me bruised up my back and with a headache. But it wasn’t anything that should have left me unable to move my feet or balance on a blade the next evening.

A bunch of Melbourne’s hockey community are headed to Newcastle on the weekend for the AIHL finals (Go Ice!), which may mean slightly less crowded ice for those of us who stay behind. Maybe I can get a stick & puck session in on Sunday, to try and rediscover my mojo?

Or maybe I should just put on my old pork pie journo’s hat, and raise a glass or 12 to all the departing hacks from News Ltd and Fairfax, which is finally happening for real. A major piss-up is happening tonight, which will be the Melbourne media equivalent of a dead cop wake in Baltimore, as portrayed in “The Wire“. Toasts, speeches, laughs and memories as journos with 20 or 30 years on the clock walk out the door.

There’s a lot of fear in my industry at the moment. A lot of uncertainty. Dozens of people who have been incredibly skilled, intelligent, professional, loyal writers, editors, sub-editors, layout subs, photographers, graphic artists or other crucial cogs in the newspaper machine for decades are suddenly staring at an unexpected future. Hopefully it turns out to be a future of new opportunities and adventures.

Change is something some people embrace better than others. I’ve always been lucky in that my natural curiosity and sense of adventure has pushed me into trying new things and not becoming set in my ways and I was talking to a media colleague earlier this week about how highly I would recommend taking on a wildly challenging new activity (such as, say, hockey, or skiing, or scuba, or a martial art, or anything else that gets the blood pumping) for anybody in their late 30s/early 40s. It’s a great gear change to keep the rest of your life invigorated.

But that was a choice for me. It’s much harder when change is forced on you and you’re kicked out of the safety of what you know.

The Melbourne media tonight might not break into “I’m a freeborn man of the USA“, crowded around a body on a pool table, but there will be a sense of change and of the reality that things will never be the same.

But, fellow hacks, that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Life can be better, and every day is a new day. Which is lucky, given a man’s skating can switch from encouraging to embarrassing in the space of a day. Skate to where the puck will be, not where it is. We have team training again on Monday. Watch me go.

Monday notebook: Rookie triumph, the Jets and lockouts.

by Nicko

Friday night lights

A social match on a Friday night. A bunch of Rookies making up the numbers against mostly better credentialed players who share a love of IBM computers, or at least a pay cheque from IBM. Several players I would normally be with – especially Jake Adamsons – are wearing opposition jerseys. We grin at one another across the face-off line. Pre-game, Chris Janson, who organised it (and thanks for inviting me, Chris), has a DVD on the main scoreboard with pictures of us and our career highlights. Which, for most of us, is pretty short on reading.

After eight minutes, the Rookies are five goals down. It’s ugly. As captain, I call a time-out. I have no idea what to say. My team looks to me expectantly, except Jay the goalie, who is in his own quite loud self-loathing world of pain off to the side. Goalies do it hard. They can’t ever feel like the buck doesn’t stop with them.

“These guys are really good,” I say. “Forget the scoreboard. It’s a social match. Have fun, don’t panic with the puck, give Jay more support in D, challenge yourself against better players. Who cares about the score?”

In the second period, we roar back to 5-5. We’re skating, Jay has heroically held it together and then started holding his own.

Then we hit the front. My boy, Big Cat, has a couple of goals with his mum in the crowd, which is a nice B-plot. I’m concentrating on trying not to fall into my wide-legged flat-footed trap, instead skating hard off both feet, always moving. I anticipate where the puck will be and sprint end to end, and immediately back, at one point, getting it right both times and with the feeling that I haven’t skated that fast in a game ever. The new stride is working. My legs are screaming as I stagger to the bench. It’s awesome. Meanwhile, I have an assist or two, deliver some passes then get pushed hard in the back and find myself sprawled on the ice near the boards. Things are getting that tense (I received an apology later in the rooms, which was cool). Army, reffing, said he thought about calling it but didn’t. Off the next face-off, I push it to Liam Patrick, Apollo Creed to my Rocky Balboa, who buries the one-timer goal. So sweet. Army skates over to the bench a minute later: “That’s exactly how you answer stuff like that,” he says with something approaching paternal pride.

At the end of the second period, things are level.

Game winner: Aimee “Christmas Angel” Hough.

“Forget everything I said earlier,” I tell my team. “Let’s kick some arse.”

We get out to an 8-6 lead.

They peg it back. It’s level with three minutes to go. The hockey is furious. Army is grinning like an idiot. We’ve made his night; two social teams of varying degrees of ability playing like our kids are hostages and their survival depends on the result. The Rookies are intent, hoarse from screaming on the bench, skating and playing at a level that, for us, is thrilling.

Having said that, through it all, I’m aware that IBM’s very good players, such as Pete Sav, are rarely moving out of third gear, often coasting in second, which is gallant of him, of them. We’re throwing everything at them but they respect our limited skills and choose not to burn us anywhere near as much as they could. I have no illusions but, in the moment, taking it to them is so much fun.

And then we get a ninth goal, from Aimee “Christmas Angel” Hough, who has never previously scored in any kind of game. Rookies celebrate as though we just won the Goodall Cup. “Game winner! Game winner!” we yell at Aimee as she returns to the bench. Somehow we control the puck for the remaining two minutes and, while it’s unconfirmed, it might just be that Nicko Place gains a small piece of hockey history as the first player ever to captain a Rookies team to victory. (We won a game once before but didn’t have a captain.)

All of us head into the night, buzzing. The IBM team is gracious in defeat. Summer League, and actual competition, is about a month away and none of us can wait. If this was a taste, in a game that actually had nothing on the line, genuine competition is going to be epic.

Ready for take-off

It appears I am officially a Jet. The final step towards “N. Place: hockey player” is right there.

A few months ago, one of the Rookies, Theresa, called for interest in forming a summer team and a bunch of us put our hand up. Now, weeks and weeks of backroom dealing, surfing the politics of local hockey, seeing who was genuinely interested and meeting in McDonalds kid playrooms (no, really) later, we have two teams set for summer league. Under the auspices of the Jets, we will be the Spitfires – split into the Fighters and the Interceptors (I’m an Interceptor, which has pleasing Mad Max connotations).

Nicko in flight, for the Rookies.

Well played, Theresa.

I haven’t written about any of this on the blog because I wasn’t sure it would happen; as in, we’d actually be given a place in the competition, but now it’s looking likely. The chances are that Jake Adamsons will captain the Interceptors, with me as an AC, which will be a challenge. God knows how I ended up in a captain’s role, given I still spend time trying to remain vertical on the ice.

A few hockey friends are in different teams or have splintered off, which is sad. But I will be playing with a bunch of mates, which rocks. The only unsettling angle is that everything feels more serious as summer looms. Joey at Next Level has ramped up his offerings of classes, and so a heap of Rookies will be training at Oakleigh instead of at Docklands, and everything is starting to focus on competition, instead of the previous journey to simply master a bloody outside edge.

In a way, for me, this is great because I just love playing, I’m competitive now and my skating has to step up when under pressure. Then again, my coaches Lliam, Army and Joey  – especially Joey – believe that playing endless dev league might not be great for me as I fall back into my bad habits instead of working on the fundamentals.

I honestly don’t think I can do another term of Intermediate at the Icehouse – if nothing else, I should clear out a space for somebody coming out of Intro, having done something like four tours of Intermediate duty.

But I simply can’t make it to Oakleigh every Friday night, despite Joey’s endless patience and generosity, so I’ll have to work out how to keep my quest for better skating skills alive around team training, dev league and then Spitfires game play once it happens. A good problem to have but I’m hoping the fun aspect of hockey remains, and my sense of being on a longer journey, once weekly VHL points are on the line.

NHL lock-out looks likely

Every day, it appears less likely that the NHL season will start on time, because of the Owners v Players dispute. The Wings players put their chances of getting onto the ice at 50-50, which isn’t a good sign. September 15 is the day that the current agreement runs out and the owners don’t seem to be particularly worried about that imposed deadline sliding by, meaning no hockey.

I had pretty much given up on being able to make it to Detroit for the Winter Classic, but now there might not even be a Winter Classic to yearn for. It all seems kind of dumb. The game is healthier than ever, lock-outs in the NFL and NBA have pretty much set the bar of where player earnings as a percentage of the game should sit … get on with it, negotiators.

Monday question: Do Wolverine claws beat harsh advice?

Potentially Earth-shattering realisations over the weekend as I pondered whether Eric Millikin is now my favourite non-hockey columnist at the Detroit Free Press? Consider this sample:

Man uses Wolverine claws to attack roommate who is dating his mom

KSL Utah says: “He is accused of using a knife and a replica of the claws associated with the Marvel Comics character Wolverine in his Aug. 8 attack on his 20-year-old roommate. … [His] mother was also stabbed in the left arm during the incident as she tried to pull him off his roommate. [His] mother is dating his roommate, the sergeant said, noting that the two men have been ‘best friends since they were younger.'”

Eric says: I don’t care how many “yo mama” jokes you’ve endured or what kind of mutant super hero you think you are, a Wolverine-claw stabbing is no way to treat your best childhood friend and/or future stepfather.

Until I discovered gems like that from Eric, I’d been loyally devoted to relationships consultant Carolyn (“Also, remember, even a ‘happily married woman’ is just a couple of turns of fate away from an emotional abyss. Puts smugness right back in the bottle.”) Hax. Technically she writes for the Washington Post and gets syndicated, so maybe there’s room for both in my life?

Hax has no hesitation telling those writing for advice if they’re an idiot, selfish, or worse. If only more relationship columnists in Australia had her frankness: Hey, dickhead, stop being a dickhead.

Check out her reply to this guy who worried his ex writing negative things online would damage his reputation:

Brought to you by the letter S, for Snap!

 

FINAL NOTE: Big ups to the Melbourne Ice – including Lliam, Army, Joey, Tommy Powell, Martin Kutek and Jason Baclig – as they chase their third straight Goodall Cup, skating in Newcastle this weekend. Big Cat and a bunch of hockey fans are going to watch. I couldn’t make it. But I’ll be cheering from the south. Good luck and Go Ice Go.

 

 

Guest writer: Winifred Beevers

WORLD EXCLUSIVE:

Today, a big chance of pace as we hear from a skater who spends her time on the Bradbury Rink, not the Henke. Yes, a figure skater joins this crazy blog. She’s got a name that should be a hockey team, and she does all those figure skating moves without frickin’ armour. Full respect from this skater.  Introducing Winifred Beevers …

The figure skater on L-plates

By Winifred Beevers

I came to hockey via ice-skating.

I grew up mostly in Queensland where roller skating and large shoulder pads ruled – it was the 80’s. My mother would not allow me to go skating as she’d heard stories about the panel vans in the car park.  I came to Melbourne to do a music degree. Fast forward to 2011 and I take the kids to the Icehouse one school holidays. To my astonishment my kids fell constantly whereas I didn’t. I’m amazed that I can even go forwards when I want. I start wondering if this is something I can do.

I sign up for Adult 1 lessons and immediately stand out as the person most likely to fall. I spend weeks choosing and buying skates over the internet. My hands are important to me. I buy wrist guards and graduate to Adult 2.

This pic is kind of an unfair choice by me, but I haven’t had a chance to run it since early 2011 … Nicko

Soon after beginning lessons I venture onto public ice in a morning session. There were three people skating: me, and two guys. One is Bill,  Icehouse’s resident “legendary old dude”. The other is some guy in hockey skates, also feeling his way. I practice going around one of the circles – forwards – and we smack into each other. We grab each other by the shoulders, freakily stay upright and start spinning. I WISH I could do this intentionally.

I am finally doing backward crossovers and occasionally doing mohawks. The coaches have all been unfailingly friendly and encouraging. I still fall often, resulting in one episode of mild concussion. I now wear an Ice Halo. My next purchase will be pants with hip and coccyx protectors.

I really enjoy the time in a new world, with my new skating buddies from classes. I love watching the hockey guys pivoting so easily and really wish I could do a spectacular hockey stop. Actually just stopping intentionally would be nice.

Recently I was on freshly sharpened blades. During class warm up I was zigging across the ice just loving the speed and the sensation of flying. It was sooo good! Suddenly realised that I couldn’t stop and then I did. Full body and face slam into the glass and boards of the Henke rink. I leave an impression of my nose and chin in the glass. No concussion this time (Ice Halo works!) just bruised knees, nose and chin. My family and classmates cheekily suggest swapping to hockey just for the protective gear.

Speaking of hockey – my family wanted to see something on ice. I figure hockey is a good start. Any competition where Australia is up against New Zealand is always going to be a good spectator experience. Bring on the Trans Tasman Cup.

Melbourne Ice vs. Southern Stampede. It is a pushover for Ice. We have a ball trying to work out the rules, loving the fights with boundaries and the speed of the game. I’ve always enjoyed the rugby, this is rugby on ice! The musician in me wishes they had live music and lyrics on the big screen for the respective anthems. Next time call the Vic Police band, or the defense force bands.  Hey, even one of the community brass bands would do a terrific job. I’d also love to see the Haka performed on ice

The next day– my scholarly and tech savvy husband having had a blast decided to stream the last match on our large TV. We’ve now watched several AIHL matches via the web AND we’re subscribing to the streaming thingy from the NHL.

The only real question is – which team?

Yes – Melbourne Ice, almost without question. I don’t have the necessary faith to love a team that wins rarely as opposed to often… But the NHL ones? I appreciate Nicko’s philosophy of supporting the team with the best logo. RedWings’ is a stand out for visual design. I’m a music therapist. I want a team with a song with great lyrics that I can easily learn and play. Melbourne Storm had a winner in Chumbawumba’s ‘Tubthumping’. Wish they’d kept it. I want a song that is easy to sing, not one with a chord riff and intro I’ll never replicate.

Any suggestions?

Postscript – Saw a guy at Icehouse wearing a shirt with a blue music note! St Louis Blues with a song that is suitably daggy 

Guest writer: Clayton Powell

WORLD EXCLUSIVE

Today’s guest columnist is brave. I’ll let his writing speak for itself, however, Clayton, I will say a) I have absolutely felt the same way, especially when there are people around the  hockey circles we share who seem to never actually leave the rink at any point in their lives, and b) I’m jealous as hell that you scored a game-winner. I had my first ever penalty shot last Wednesday and couldn’t quite sneak it through the five-hole. Dammnit.

Other than that, thanks for providing a different perspective for the blog. See you on the ice. Nicko

The Ice Hockey Imposter

By Clayton Powell

I don’t love hockey.

Clayton Powell: part-timer made good.

I can feel the boos and hisses raining down on me already. Perhaps I better go back to the beginning to explain.

One of my friends told me that he was taking ice hockey classes. At first I thought he was pulling my leg. I didn’t even know that ice hockey was played in Australia, let alone that ordinary folk like us could play it. I was quite intrigued by this and after asking a few more questions decided to give this exotic sport a go. So I signed for a term of introductory hockey school.

I really enjoyed the challenge of learning to skate and learning how to play the sport. But at the end of that first term I had a choice to make. Hockey was fun but I wasn’t going to progress much further using the hire skates. They were just too uncomfortable and felt different every week. So either I gave it all away or got my own skates. I decided I would probably never be any good at it but was enjoying it too much to stop. So I bought some decent skates. I then got a little impulsive and within a few weeks I had my full kit.

Walking in to intermediate hockey school at the start of next term with a full kit of my own hockey gear felt really weird. I felt like an imposter. I was a barely adequate skater with poor puck handling skills. I had never played a real game of hockey and felt it unlikely that I ever would. I felt very self-conscious wheeling that bag in and tried very hard to put all the gear on correctly without asking any questions.

The turning point for me came in the last week of the term. Our scrimmage game ended as a tie. So we had a shoot out. I was near the front of the bench at the time the game ended. The first five shots on goal were blocked and it all came down to the last shot. Me. I thought very seriously about letting somebody else take it. Who was I kidding? I’m not a hockey player. I decided I couldn’t do any worse than the five guys who preceded me so out on the ice I went. One on one. Face to face with the goalie.

My main concern was not to lose the handle on the puck. After that it didn’t really matter. I couldn’t lift the puck and had no power in my shots so there was no way it was going in the net. I did a bit of a loop to get some angle and pushed the puck. By some miracle it went through the goalie’s legs.

I was in a daze as I skated back to the bench with my arms in the air. My wife and two young children were outside the rink screaming and my teammates were skating towards me for high fives. And I began to think.

I was really enjoying learning and playing but felt out of place. Maybe I’m not that good? Maybe I never will be great? But maybe, just maybe, there is a place here for me too? Some really good players took shots before me but I was the one who managed to get it done. In a team sport, everybody has something to contribute, no matter how small.

Clayton on the ice: Army’s support was vital.

A little while after this, while doing a general skating session, I bumped into Matt Armstrong. I began chatting with him about the different skating courses. I said I would probably be doing intermediate the rest of my life. There was no way I’d ever be good enough for dev league. Let alone an actual hockey club. He told me not to sell myself short. It was just a matter of keeping on trying and I’d get there. To be told that by one of the stars of the Melbourne Ice was a real shot in the arm. And the way he was completely approachable helped to bring down the barriers in my mind between us ordinary folk and the hockey players.

After reading the other guest articles on this blog, I feel like an imposter all over again. Hockey has not changed my life. It has not saved me. I really enjoy playing hockey but it has not taken over my life. Having a young family and a mortgage means I have very limited time and money to devote to hockey.

So, is their room for a part-timer among all the true believers? I sure hope so. With the rookies/spitfires making the prospect of playing on a real team a reality, I’m really looking forward to what this summer holds for all of us. Bring it on.

Guest writer (origin story): Will Ong

WORLD EXCLUSIVE

Just back from a nasty “lower body injury”, Will Ong has found time to give us his hockey origin story. Good to have you back on the ice, Will, and this is a really good piece. I’m learning so much about my fellow hockey travellers through these origin pieces. Might have to get you to talk me through outside edges one more time …

How hockey scratched that itch

By Will Ong

My hockey journey started a few years ago after returning from a working holiday in Canada.

Our band of Aussie and Kiwi travellers lived in Cowtown – home of the Calgary Flames and Stampede.  Only a few of us knew anything about hockey.  Being poor travellers we couldn’t afford tickets to the Saddledome to see what this “ice hockey” was all about.  We had to settle with watching the Flames at the local sports bar while smashing down 50c wings.  (Flames smashing Wings?!)

We did manage to scrape together the Toonie charge to get into the local college match though.  It was the Mount Royal College Cougars – women’s team.  We did Bay 13 proud with our vocal support for the local girls!

Little by little, we were being indoctrinated into the national sport.

But I wasn’t there for the hockey.  I was chasing winter round the globe.  Chasing fresh pow, skiing pillow lines on bluebird days while working on my goggle tan. You know, all that spiritual stuff that Jonny Moseley talks about in Warren Miller films.

Castle Mountain, in the Rockies. Will’s pre-hockey life. (Remember when we had pre-hockey lives?)

Life was all about hitting up the biggest and baddest resorts in the Rockies. Take your pick from Fernie, Revelstoke, Kicking Horse, Sunshine, Castle Mountain…  Life as a ski bum was great!

Then after months of living the life, Sunshine Village ended my season. I flew home to Melbourne broke, broken and bummed.
What now? Where’s the next challenge?  It should have been hitting that unexplored out-of-bounds chute. But instead I was back home bumming accommodation from old mates, sleeping on a beanbag on the floor, unemployed and un-excited about life.

Do I dust off the in-line skates and head back to my favourite vert ramp in Albert Park? In-line had been my off-season saviour to keep the legs working between winters. Something to keep me challenged. Something to scratch that itch.

“Aggressive” in-line had grown to become as important as skiing in my life. It was frustrating when I couldn’t quite get back to where I was on the ramp. Airs were off, grabs were mis-timed, spins and flips all bailed to knees.  Sunday afternoon sessions were never the same.  Where did all my balance and confidence go?  Left on the slopes of Canada, I bet.

So when a workmate mentioned hockey classes at the Icehouse, I signed up immediately. They were six week programs back then. Most of us were pumped through the system and I found myself playing Winter hockey in no time. Keeping up with the play wasn’t a problem at all.  Chasing down the puck like an over-enthusiastic kelpie chasing sheep. A little round black sheep that I didn’t know what to do with once I caught it.

Having so much skiing and skating muscle memory was a big advantage for beginner hockey. Edge control translated verbatim from the mountains. Holding an edge in big GS turns while blasting down a piste and reacting to changes in terrain under foot was a hell of a primer for skating. Pivots and changes of direction translated almost perfectly from in-line. But I had to start from scratch with passing, stick handling, shooting, positioning and teamwork.

Hockey is such a deep sport. I can’t think of anything else that combines so many different attributes into the one activity. Strength, speed, balance, agility, endurance, finess, style, fighting – hockey has it all.

So here I am now, a couple of years into my “hockey career”. I have played a season or two with an awesome club and enjoy hanging out with the Rookies who are making waves in the sport. I find myself in the right position a lot of the time – learning where the puck is going to be and being able to skate there before anyone else. Being quick on your feet gives you just that bit more time to get out of trouble.

My hands are slowly catching up to my legs but I still have a lot learn. That’s a good thing otherwise life would get boring, fast!

The good mountains are a long way away and in-line was what you did back in the 90’s. Thanks to hockey, steeps have been replaced by slapshots and I’ve got a whole new set of skills to master.

Itch, scratched.

Late on a Tuesday

By Nicko

The new stride. Arms swinging, skating on the left foot, heading out towards 11 o’clock, and now the right skate, in the air, touches the left skate at the ankle. Not a bounce, not a click, like Dorothy in Oz, just a gentle touch.

And with that, the right foot touches down, takes my weight and on that foot, pushing through the upper leg and the knee, I glide off to 1 o’clock, left foot trailing and now coming to meet the right ankle, underneath my body, ready for the exchange of weight right under my hockey stance.

The new stride? Hell, this should always have been my stride. Somewhere I went wrong, especially in games, and so I’m back in a General Skate, hanging laps like I was constantly last year, but not so much this year. My skates feeling strange under me, as my weight is in different places, very deliberately not camped on the inside edge, dodging the random learner skaters scattered around the Bradbury Rink, and the figure skaters working on their moves pre-class.

A bearded figure emerges from inside the skate sharpening booth, and waves, so I hop off the ice and am met by Lliam Webster, standing extremely upright and turning like Ned Kelly in full armour to face me and say hello. Or maybe like Val Kilmer as Batman, in that movie where they truly screwed up his suit so he couldn’t turn his head at all and had to twist his entire torso to look around.

Lliam Webster, today.

Turns out Lliam pulled up from the weekend with a sore neck.

I have a bandaged wrist; either from Friday night’s three hours of stick handling or an overly-ambitious Diesel Williams handball attempt gone wrong at the Bang on Sunday, I’m not sure.

Both battered from the weekend. Life’s good.

I return to the rink for the last few minutes of General Skate before the figure skaters take over, and work on my still depressingly non-existent outside edges. I creak around corners, trying to move my shoulders, even do the airplane like Martin Kutek showed me. At one stage I fall, but I’ve got knees and elbows on, as well as my gloves, so it’s okay. Eventually I get frustrated and try to skate as fast as I can, which leads to an even better stack, as I lean too far forward at high speed and end up sliding from red line beyond the blue on my knees and gloves. I resist the urge to yell: “Weeeee!”

Shouldn’t I be past incidents like that by now? I guess not. Joey Hughes told me he goes back to the absolute basics for a couple of weeks before Melbourne Ice pre-season training starts. Does everything they teach us in Intro class; swizels, C-cuts, inside and outside edges work, crossovers … if it’s good enough for him, then I can do it, to get my new stride happening, and leave wide-legged, immobile Nicko behind.

I work some more on my edges and then notice a child, flawlessly skating on her outside edge, arms spread in figure skater stance. She cuts a tight left hander and then goes into spins, completing four perfectly before stopping. She bursts into tears and heads for the boards.

Her mum explains to me that she has to get to five spins to complete the move and is frustrated she can’t get that fifth turn. This little girl who literally maybe comes up to my waist. She’s five years old, started skating two years ago.

I’d kill for her outside edges and balance.

She cries gently into the boards as her father consoles her.

I hang a few more laps until Army and Tommy wander past, on their way to the Zamboni garage. They’re heading to Perth this weekend, the Ice needing one win in the last three games to confirm top spot in their division of the AIHL. Joey’s back from suspension for the second game in Perth, giving the Ice two killer lines. Mercifully they’re not flying the plane that lands early on Saturday morning, needing to play later that night. Instead they’ll arrive on Friday and get some sleep. Lliam’s neck is in for a rough weekend.

I wish them luck. Army encourages me to keep working on the stride. Says he’ll see me at class tomorrow. Then kicks me off the ice. I unlace my skates, leave them for a sharpen, wander into the cold dusk, to my car and my dog, and let the real world swallow me whole.

You’ve got to earn your pancakes

By Nicko

Bavarian apple pancakes with ice cream. Chocolate Swiss Mountain malt shake. Never can these things taste as brilliant as at midnight, in a 24-hour Pancake Parlour on Warrigal Road, Chadstone, metres from the South Eastern Arterial freeway whooshing by overhead.

Bavarian apple pancakes with ice cream. Oh yeah!

Even better, Jason Bajada, goalie to the stars (well, the Blackhawks), has shouted me these pancakes, in honour of me beating him for the first time ever in a scrimmage; the only question being whether it was my one-time slapshot from the slot that genuinely beat him, after a beautiful pass off the boards from Liam Patrick, or whether Jason was simply so stunned that I didn’t fresh-air the slapshot that he was swooning as it found the net?

Certainly, my coach for this late night Next Level Hockey Game Time scrimmage, Scott Corbett, reportedly reacted to the goal with, “Shit, he one-timed it,” and head coach Joey Hughes looked equally startled. But nobody more than me. My goal followed a couple of goal assists, in a pretty serious level of hockey for me, and so I tried to overlook the moment where I’d been knocked over, lost my stick and spent what felt like 15 minutes scrambling around on the ice, trying to get myself back together as my teammates peered with amused curiosity over the boards at my sprawled frame, listening to my feeble calls of “Change! Change!”

That was the one moment where my night got the better of me, and my legs decided not to work for a minute or so, but it was fair enough. I had been skating for close to three hours by that point. I’d known it was a potential epic from the moment I’d turned up for the NLHA Intro class at 7.30 pm and Joey had asked: “Do you have plans tonight?”

How much do you love Australian hockey that a leading member of the Melbourne Ice – even one who is currently unhappily on the outer for a minor recent incident where Joey took on the entire opposition bench after some extreme aggravation and what sounded like a pretty worrying lack of referee support – will still be actively wanting you to give him your Friday night so he can do everything he can think of to make you a better hockey player? Not just me, obviously: everybody walking through those awkward double-doors into the refrigerator that is the Olympic ice rink in Oakleigh.

Next Level Hockey Australia students wait to take the ice at Oakleigh. The camera didn’t catch the fog in the air.

But such urging doesn’t mean you’re in for an easy night. In fact, I endured a really difficult Intro session, full of transitions and pivots (including leaping into the air and turning in the air, forward-to-back, back-to-forward, landing on your skates – another genuinely-surprised “Good job!” from Corbie) as well as my first experience of the infamous “under-poosh” skating technique from Martin Kutek, where you crossover in a certain way to try and drive with the backward skate. It feels extremely unnatural. Lots of backward stepping, C-cuts, all the technical skating moves that push me to the limit and that I wrestle with. Joey wasn’t happy, saying my improvement hasn’t been as great as he would like – mostly because I can only get there every other week and can’t make it to general skates at the Icehouse often enough to drive home the improvements.

But even so, he, like my other Melbourne Ice mentors, Lliam and Army on a Wednesday night, patiently persists in trying to make me into a hockey player.

By the end of the Intro hour, I was warming up. “Can I stay on for Intermediate?” I asked Joey. “Sure,” he said and once we were on the ice pulled me aside for a 10 minute one-on-one session, working on my pesky stride; giving me training drills to eradicate that feet-splayed inside-edge habit I’ve written about before. Taking Army’s mantle of trying to teach me how to click my heels together at the end of each stride, under my hockey stance. The new stride felt awesome; a tinker but an important one. We both grinned as I was clearly going faster, and all the nutso drills of Intro had shaken down to make your standard crossover seem much more achievable. Life was good.

Watching the Zamboni chug across the Olympic Rink’s surface yet again, between classes.

“Can I stay on for Game Time?” I asked Joey. “Sure,” he said, “if there’s room.” A few minutes later, he threw me a yellow jersey and I joined a bunch of my Rookie mates in a furious scrimmage, most of which was four-on-four and was also my first experience of playing short-handed with penalties in play (Liam Patrick being benched twice for questionable on-ice atrocities). Finding myself on the wrong end of a five-on-three line-up was a hockey lesson all on its own and I was patchy throughout the game. But hey, two assists and a goal on debut? I’ll take it.

By the time we’d eaten the pancakes (me saying way too late to Bajada: “Just to check, this doesn’t mean I have to buy you pancakes every time you stop a shot, right? Because that’s a bad deal for me if I do.”), everybody shaking their heads that the “old man” had survived three straight hours and still scored, and I’d made the long trek home from Oakleigh, it was 2 am, just like a Wednesday, and so on Saturday morning, as I joined my gal, Chloe, and her family, who are out from France, at a farmer’s market, I was walking in slow motion – not actually sore as much as pure bone-tired.

Three coffees down, I left there to catch up with some Rookies, before the Melbourne Ice-Newcastle game at the Icehouse.

“To be clear,” said Chloe, “You played hockey all Wednesday night, went to a Melbourne Ice game on Thursday night, played three hours of hockey last night, and are now going to drink with hockey friends, and then go to another Melbourne Ice game…”

“Um,” I said, wondering if this was a good time to mention that I planned to be at The Bang the next morning, playing footy on a wet track.

The waterlogged Wattie Oval turf, mid-Bang. My legs are still feeling it.

In fact, playing footy on a track that was a mudder’s dream; down by Elwood beach but very heavy underfoot in one forward line and across a wing. Running through ankle deep mud, chasing a heavy Sherrin, my legs were screaming and today I’m genuinely hobbling. I still find it interesting that when people say: “Doesn’t hockey knock you around/do you get injured?” the honest reply is that I pull up much better from three tough hours on the ice than I do from 90 minutes of hard running and kicking with my Banger mates.

So, fun weekend, finished off by a Richmond 70 point win while a Tiger friend and I sat and chatted about life, family and European trips, all the while clapping an expected Richmond victory (when did the world tilt, that this became possible?) and another trip to the Icehouse VIP Balcony, to watch a disappointing Melbourne Ice loss. (They won the game I didn’t go to, on Sunday, in a shoot out; Big Cat Place representing the family on that occasion.)

What’s the saying? That too much sport can never be enough? My body isn’t sure about that. Usually, French relatives not in town, I choose to spend more time with my amour. Given how I feel today, I’m starting to think that non-hockey/footy time might be saving my life.

Then again, I also plan to hit general skating at least twice this week, aside from Wednesday night icehouse training/dev league, and I’ve already booked scuba diving for this weekend …

Which leads to another saying: “Sleep when you’re dead.”