Guest writer: Liam Patrick on the Newcastle adventure

WORLD EXCLUSIVE

Vinnie Hughes brings the Cup to the Rookies. Newcastle, 2012. Pic: Jessica Hough

A roadtrip chasing the Goodall Cup.

By Liam Patrick

What a weekend!

It was the weekend the Ice put the fairy tale finish on their documentary by sealing the 3peat in dramatic fashion in the industrial city of Newcastle.

It was weekend that a motley band of Melbourne Rookies travelled up to support our boys in their quest for a third round of glory.

I offered to blog the experience of following the boys into enemy territory and the finals for Nicko.  He asked for not merely a diary of the weekend but ‘an adventure that ultimately ends in glory’.  So here goes…

The now fabled weekend began early.  Very early.  So early in fact, that a certain Rookie managed to throw away his boarding pass before getting through security.  Whoops!  The players had flown up on the Friday but the first flight out of Melbourne to Newcastle Saturday morning was jam packed with Ice fans, the South Pole crew, the Women’s team and the MI players’ partners and families.  There was a genuine excitement in the air before quite a few people took advantage of the 90 minute flight to recharge their batteries.

Newcastle is, somewhat amazingly, a hockey hotbed.  This weekend was to be the North Stars’ ninth Grand Final in 10 years.  In this time they also have secured four Goodall cups, dominated junior hockey in the region and have a successful involvement in a women’s team.  They’ve accomplished all this in a town with only 190,000 residents.  I had never been to Newcastle before.  While driving the 40 minutes from the airport to Warners Bay where the rink is located, I was struck by how just much the houses we saw resembled those in places such as Broadmeadows and other tough, working class suburbs.  From where I sat, I saw a town that was built on the blood, sweat and tears of “hard” men and women.  A tough, fibro city.  Perhaps this is an indication of why hockey is successful.  The people are bred with hard work and physical strength in their blood.  Combine this with a hockey friendly rink, an intelligent and talented management team and perhaps a lack of competition from other sports or pastimes and I began to form my own opinions as to why the team was so successful for so long.  I chatted about it to a few of my fellow Rookies and while we agreed the North Stars are no doubt a power club of the AIHL, maybe my reasoning wasn’t the full answer.

The Rookies underpoooosh their way onto the Novastrian ice, pre-finals. Pic: Jess Hough

The Hunter Ice Skating Stadium was somewhat disappointing for me.  If this is the second best rink in the country then we are further behind that I thought.  Now to be clear, this isn’t a knock on the rink.  It had a beautiful ice surface for general skating and Joey Hughes later remarked it was “perfect” come game time.  It was clean.  It was safe.  It was easy to access.  We could tailgate (translation for non-hockey readers: impromptu drinking and socialising, centralised around the boot of a car) in the car park!   My view, however, is that the finals are the marquee product each season and need to be built to attract lucrative sponsorship dollars, global interest and mainstream coverage.  Furthermore, it should be accessible to fans, in a location that’s attractive for travelling fans and capable of providing modern day comforts such as video replays and quality live streaming.  I felt that this wasn’t achieved at the HISS, but conversely, could have been achieved at the Icehouse.  Yes, I know. I am somewhat biased being an Ice fan.  But at the same time, I LOVED being able to go away with my friends and cheer for our boys (next year we may go global and head to NZ for TTCL!).  I just wish the HISS could have the same facilities and benefits to help build the growing momentum of our sport.

Like many questions facing Ice Hockey’s Aussie family – what is the solution?  Is it good practice or sustainable to always use the Icehouse?  Will the Gold Coast get their rumored stadium that could do the job just as well?  Will a couple of other rinks be up for a facelift soon?  Is this where the dollars need to be directed as the league grows or are there other factors to consider (such as beginning to pay the best players)?  I’m not sure.  What I can say with complete certainty is that HISS had made the most of everything they had and helped put on a fantastic show, all while providing great hospitality.

All this being said, I’ll give you an account of our experience on the weekend and leave you to form your own opinions on the big questions above.

Having arrived in Newcastle before most people were even awake on a Saturday morning in Melbourne, our general skate at the HISS was fun.  The rink wasn’t as packed as the Bradbury – but the weather was a sunny 20 degree so why would you freeze yourself unless you were a true hockey tragic like those of us who pulled on our skates.  Martin Kutek (Lord of the Underpoosh and Rookies sponsee) was unable to play under the “four imports rule” and had been unable to make it up with us. It was Dan D’s lucky weekend when he got to wear Martin’s actual playing jersey for the weekend instead. Proudly displaying the number 13, Dan (playing the part of ‘Kutek’ magnificently) did quite well in an on-ice limbo competition narrowly missing out on a pseudo-Czech victory to an unnaturally bendy six-year-old before stacking it, superman-style, on his final crack at the limbo pole.  The marauding, erm I mean travelling, band of Rookies also took the chance to have a little bit of fun at our coach’s expense, staging a few interesting shots in a series known as “Kutek does….”.  For legal reasons and the fact that Martin can make us bag skate several times per week, these probably need to be locked away in a concrete bunker deep underground, or alternatively, posted to Facebook.

For those of us who made the trek, what was most interesting to observe was the mixture of emotions which played themselves out like silent movies across our faces over the course of the weekend.  Personally, I had been very busy moving houses and starting a new job so I hadn’t given much thought or considerations to the weekend other than “thank fuck I have a holiday coming up.”  Even while general skating, I was more worried about my “hockey hangover” (11:30pm finish to NLHA the previous night-30 min drive home-washing to be done so my housemate didn’t kick me out over the stench had meant I was running on three hours of sleep and very dead legs), rather than shift my focus to Finals and the main event. Others, such as MasterChef Rach, a 10-year supporter of Melbourne Ice, were beginning to show outward signs of nerves on behalf of our boys who were about to put it ALL on the line.  This was sudden death playoff hockey – nothing was assured and the best team on the day would take the spoils.  Unlike the NHL and AHL, there was to be no coming back from an off night this weekend.

The general consensus was that the Ice boys should progress to the final.  We had the Sydney Ice Dogs to get past and they would be a Scoobie Snack for us (see what I did there?!). The dogs are a team we had embarrassed 9-1 at the ‘house and then won another 4-3 in a spiteful away game which saw Joey Hughes (one of the Rookies favourites, coach and arguably the best player in the country), having a “brief” 5 game holiday after finding himself on the wrong side of the opposing bench.  Needless to say, the Rookies did not care for the puppies.  The other semi was definitely going to be more interesting.  The local North Stars who had finished one point clear of the ice for the minor premiership, were taking on the Adelaide Adrenaline.  As a Victorian, I found myself torn.  The North Stars were probably the best team all year (marginally ahead of the Ice who slowed a little in the final month as fatigue, injuries, suspension, pressure and other factors seemingly took their toll.)  We wanted to play the Croweaters whom we had beaten 3 times during the year and had smashed in last year’s semi.  But could I really cheer for a South Australian team in the semis?  Don’t they have “Kick a Vic” on their license plates?  We at least knew our $70 tournament pass was going to give us three great games of hockey seated fairly close to the glass.

The nerves finally kicked in while downing the first beverage of the weekend as we tailgated prior to the Stars game.  A brick suddenly dropped in my stomach.  I knew the boys weren’t in great form.  Two losses to Perth before a hard fought win, followed by a tough game against Gold Coast.  There had been so many hurdles for the club this season.  From Vinny having a controversial holiday, Tommy Powell injuring his knee and seemingly not quite having his killer edge (even if his Chemistry with the Bearded one is always exciting to watch), Baxxxy nearly losing his finger/hand/arm (he later admitted it wasn’t back to 100% but even now, still can handle a puck like its glued to his stick, bastard), Joey’s aforementioned battle, Szalinski getting poleaxed during a shattering 4-0 shutout, a taxing Trans-Tasman triumph, Todd Graham having to return to college, 10 year celebrations, the pressure of the 3Peat, a documentary being shot (which I am hanging out for) and I’m sure all the other pitfalls of a team environment.  From my perspective, our last month had been well below what our boys were capable of…

I comforted myself by looking for the positives.  After a slow start, the Bearded one (i.e. Lliam Webster) had been a beast of late.  Averaging over 2 points per game, using his size to keep opponents off the puck while slick and dangerous in his own puck-handling.  Marcus Wong had the pace and skill to be thorn in anybody’s side – and he hits anything that moves. Hard. Coach Jaffa looked like a hardened warrior who wouldn’t let his boys be anything other than perfectly prepared and enabled to use their skills and flair.  Army was up and about.  Sturrock was a rock in defense on the veteran pairing with Vinnie.  And Godammit!  The Rookies would yell ourselves hoarse for our boys no matter what was to happen!

Despite the mounting anxiety I was feeling, it was easy to get swept up in the atmosphere.  An excited bunch of mainly twenty-somethings, sun, alcohol, hockey.  Not a bad way to spend a weekend.  The first game began.  What idiot chose our seats?  We were surrounded by Novacastrians, (thanks to Brenda Parsons for ensuring I used the correct term there), our own little island refuge of navy blue, wedged between the bright superman-esque colours of the Northstars fans.  We were about two metres from the glass and sitting below the ice.  The players looked like giants.  Warriors speeding along smoothly then smashing each other without warning since we couldn’t see the puck while sitting that close to the boards.  The game was a fast, tight affair.  Every time the heavily supported locals drew away, the boys from Adelaide pegged one back.  They weren’t lying down.  It was not just a warm-up game.  It got to the last period.  5-4 Newcastle.  Ray Sheffield (Newcastle captain and one of my favorite non-Ice players) laid a check.  From our vantage point we couldn’t see it but Kittens Place described it as “Not great” and pretty deserving of the five minute penalty and an early shower.  This was it.  At least one goal should be scored.  Maybe two.  Even as a neutral supporter I was edge of my seat.  The logic kicked in: “Let’s hope they go to OT, tire each other out”.  The next five minutes were all about a tight, desperate defense from the offensive juggernaut of Newcastle.  They held on. Just. And that meant they were off to the big show.  Two teams worth of tired hockey gods hit the showers.  One could look forward to the biggest day of the year.  The other, the biggest night of the year and the worst morning after.

It was sometime shortly after that when my nerves ramped up.  Reality hit home.  This is finals.  Anything can happen.  Our boys are good, no doubting it.  But talent counts for nothing when you look at the scoreboard.  Goals marked up there are what entitles you to claim the win over anyone else.

The boys were out kicking the soccer ball around for a warm up.  Joey gave the group an almost shy smile and wave.  Most of us were somewhat well lubricated by now and gave him a big cheer along with any other man clad in a navy blue t-shirt. The Rookies are very ‘equal opportunity’ when it comes to our boys.

We took our seats.  We had survived being accosted by (the aptly or ironically named) Bruiser, the Ice Dogs mascot, on the way in to the HISS, and now the bay next to us was full of Dogs fans in full voice.  My gut twisted tight.  I couldn’t imagine how the boys must be feeling right now.  Maybe they are old hands at this? Many of the Ice guns have played high level hockey around the world, many already having two championships under their belts.  It may be finals, but at the end of the day it’s still hockey.  Skate hard, put that rubber disk past the guy in the leg mattresses.  Should I have been worried?

Fuck no!  Exactly 14 seconds after the first drop of the puck, a Rookies favorite and another sponsee Matt Armstrong, being criminally left unmarked by the puppies defensemen in the slot, put a sexy snipe past the Goalie after some nice passing from Joey and Baxxxy.  BOOM!  The Ice were up and about.  Then another.  And another.  The knot was gone.  Thank fuck!  The overgrown puppies mascot was nowhere to be seen (humping a fire hydrant maybe?).  As expected, the Ice Dogs turned physical, having decided that since they couldn’t beat them, they would beat them for it but, despite a few penalties, our boys heroically held it together.  No doubt they targeted Joey who did well to only take a few penalties.  At one point I remarked: “I just want to go over to the box, tap him on the arse and tell him to get back into it. Don’t worry about those bastards and put a few more in the net”.

The final score for the game read 6-2.  It was almost flattering to the Dogs and our boys never really looked troubled after the magnificent start.  The third line (which was really 5 different forwards who had all had their own moments in the sun during the year) played some minutes giving our powerful top 2 lines some respite.  Marcus Wong looked a metre taller than he really was, smashing anybody silly enough to go near him.  Todd Graham (freshly back from the US for the weekend) was solid as a rock, Dylan Moore looked like he had the decision making to match his skills and was making life really hard in our zone for anybody without the ice logo on the front of their jersey. The old firm of Vinnie and Sturrock looked formidable.  Our D was set.  Our forwards were rockin’; ‘Bring on the locals!’ we cried.

It had been a long day.  But still, despite the early start, it was Saturday so the group met a few other Ice fans in the hotel bar and settled in for a few cold beverages.  We were all obviously very happy with how the day had gone.  No injuries or suspensions to our boys.  The North Stars had played a tough game.  And the bar had something other than Toohey’s on tap!

The next day dawned.  We hoped our boys’ heads weren’t as sore as our own. Over the next three or four hours, all of the Rookies filtered through a local café who apologized for the slow service (45 minutes for that Hot Chocolate, Da Costa?) as they had never been this busy.  Their three tables were clearly a rush.

The noble hockey art of ‘tailgating’. Pic: Jess Hough

Another general skate was forgone in favour of more beers before some good ole’ fashioned tailgating.  Something I had never done before and loved.  The banter with the other fans – friends and enemy.  More “Kutek does…” photography which may or may not have received many likes on facebook.  It’s certainly a culture I think many Aussies would enjoy.  I have always been kept aghast by the soccer community (thankfully to a lesser extent here in Australia) who need to be physically separated before the start of a game.  Having Glaswegian blood I have heard many stories about the vicious rivalries and wondered how the hell that happens when I manage to sit next to an Essendon fan on ANZAC Day or an Ice Dogs fan in a semi?  It was the same type of vibe in the carpark at the HISS.  Both sets of fans knew they were in for an epic battle between the two best teams and some of the best players across the entire league.  Taylor, Bales, Sheffield and co for the North Stars put up the points while superstar goalie Oliver Martin stood in the pipes to shut-down the mighty Ice warriors.

After a few more slightly warmed beverages (including pre-mixed shots which included a tad too much cream for my nervously churning tummy).  The rink was quickly filling.  The tiny skaters of the North Stars ice crew cleared the warmup pucks from the rink like ball boys and girls at the tennis, much to the moans of the travelling Rookies “aww man, that kid shits all over my skating… Sigh…”.  The team assembled for the national anthem.  The Ice standing like zen masters in their white traveling uniform towered above the plebs in the crowd.  The teams crowded their nets, final words before battle. By this point I was in real trouble.  Stomach churning, sweat pouring off me, edge of my seat. Drop that damn puck!

The two power lines faced off. I later saw a photo of Baxxxy taking this face off. He was grinning ear to ear. It’s very endearing to see an athlete having the time of their life.  Then that black rubber disc hit the ice.

It was on.

Like the day before, the puck was quickly into the Ice zone and Baxxxy’s shot went… just wide.  It was quickly followed by a penalty awarded to Joey.

Oh god.

Fuck.

No. Crap, Fuck.

This isn’t the plan right?  A tough PK later and we were back… until the North Stars slotted one.  The Newcastle fans surrounding us went off like frogs in socks.  The eight or so Rookies in the bleachers (Kittens & co were on the glass, apparently regularly spied drinking via the livestream… in the dry venue) were dead silent with our mouths open, stock still. Our little island refuge of navy blue had been invaded and annexed by crazed North Stars fans. You could even hear our collective gasp over the commotion of the mental crowd.  Then we saw the documentary camera panning onto us.  Oh great, I hope they credit us as “disappointed Ice fans” at least.

Next thing we know we are 2-0 down.  No!

No-no-no.

More glum silence.  My stomach had dropped.  Maybe it was just the nerves but I was feeling really pessimistic.  Our boys were working hard but these bastards were so damn good.  Crack damnit! Rookies around me muttered to themselves quietly. Our collective spirits were a little dampened, not only by the scoreboard but literally by the North Stars fans behind us who had a particular penchant for screaming (or rather spitting) ‘FORECHECK!’ over our heads for the duration of the period. But, in true Ice fashion, by the end of the first we had pegged one back.  Thank god there would be no embarrassing shutout!  The boys had looked good in the last five minutes of the period.  The Rookies were suddenly less worried.  I secretly still felt like we were gone.  Usually we seem to bully teams early then coast home downhill, unassailably. Not today.  We had to want it more.

That’s exactly what happened.

Many internet sites will provide a blow by blow and we all know the Ice won 4-3.  But I merely want to comment on three more moments.

Firstly, the Lumberjack (aka the Bearded One, aka Little Sexy, aka Coach aka Le-Liam or aka Liliam in the official finals program) put away my favorite goal of the year in a spinning one time snapshot from near the blue line into the top corner, and beating one of the country’s best goalies dead cold.  That was when I KNEW we had enough to do it. This was going to be our day. My stomach slowly began unknotting itself.

Confidence didn’t last long though. It never does in a swings-and-roundabouts game like this had been.  When Lliam went to the box with about 6 to go in the third, and the North Stars scored, despair came flooding back.  Oh god. A huge  momentum shift.  Crap.  Here they come.  How much DO the Ice want this?  Are they hungrier than the team they beat last year,  the very successful club without a Goodall cup in the last two years? What influence will the contrasting semis have in these final desperate minutes…

The final 30 seconds of the game was spent ferverishly chewing nails, sweating bullets, squeezing knees and wringing hands by the Rookies.  Six on five with an empty Newcastle net.  My voice was gone.  Muscle and stomach aching with fear and adrenaline.  Tommy Powell lies on the goal line Doug Glatt style, the puck is lost among smashing sticks and bodies.  ‘Stud’ Denman freezes it or the boys dump it.  The mad scramble starts again and again. I look up and see the clock roll down past 00.01.

Pure.  Joy.

Pure Joy. (Liam Patrick second from left) Pic: Kittens Place

The ice is littered with discarded weapons.  The glass is hammered by over-excited fans.  It was one of those moments where none of the other troubles in the world matter right then to anybody who was on the winning side.  The brick had become a wave of excitement washed over with a tiny bit of relief.  The boys had the fairytale finish to the documentary.  We were the best team in the land.  No matter what the world threw at the Ice family, we would spit it back in their faces and put another puck in the net.

The presentations were made.  Todd Graham was finals MVP, playing a crazy 33 minutes in his second game in as many days.  Amazingly the “third line” didn’t touch the ice Sunday.  Questions were asked by the Rookies, is it a possible depth issue?  Probably not, we decided, as they were all very capable when the big guns were out.

The boys skated the cup around and apparently we made it onto the livestream screaming and hollering against the glass for our boys.  Then Vinnie came running through the crowd holding the cup.  This is probably the best moment of the weekend.  This is how much our boys love the fans and include us.  This is why we come to support them.  Jaffa also went to lengths to include us cheering and waving during celebrations, towards us, saying hello to travelling fans the day prior and all through the celebrations.  On behalf of all the Ice fans, I say this to any of the Ice players or officials: ‘Thank-you, you really are the most welcoming sporting organization I have ever had the pleasure and honour of watching’.

Christmas Angel, Aimee Hough, drinks from the Cup. Pic: Jess Hough

My pride also extended to my jersey. Sitting in my Melbourne colours watching a group of men give everything they had, playing with grit, confidence and determination, made me immensely proud to be part of the family.  I have seen my equally beloved Magpies win a flag, my cricket club with two premierships but this is my favorite victory.  It was won by simply wanting it more than the opposition.

The Rookies snuck onto the ice (perhaps ‘Kutek’ even made some of the official Ice team photos, but we can’t confirm or deny this and will plead the 5th until we die) and grabbed some great photos with our coaches.  The mighty Beard declaring “I’m not putting my arms down.  Get around me people”.  Gladly, and without hesitation, we huddled under his arms then quickly regretted our decision. We stayed long enough for a happy snap then we backed off quickly. The smell radiating from every pore of Lliam like a thermo-nuclear reaction would have choked a donkey! There’s even an awesome photo of me mid-high five with Joey.  We then left the boys to their locker room and families.  After some celebratory beers, a real “crash” feeling occurred as the adrenaline wore off.  Tired but satisfied, we, the travelling Rookies, piled into the van and headed to a buffet dinner.

Soon the boys joined the Melburnian fans and began the celebrations,.  The 103-year-old cup was being filled and ALL in attendance were called upon from Korthuis and Wilson to drink from it.  It may have been Tooheys but damn that was the best beer I’ve ever had!  Was truly a thrill to have the chance to feel so close to the team and, although clichéd, drink from the cup.  Soon the night was moving on and it was time to allow the players their own time to celebrate together.   This upset a couple of people but having played team sports all my life I knew that after such a great success the team had earned the right to lock themselves away and enjoy the moment together as these opportunities in life, not just sport, are rare.

Not to be deterred, the Rookies headed home and spent a very late night talking and drinking.  Despite the best efforts of one Rookie to get some shut eye, the son of a certain older Rookie who happens to be a grizzled ex-journo writing a blog about learning to play hockey *cough* was determined to keep going much to the chagrin of the sleeping Rookie. Incidentally, that same sleeping Rookie was also confronted by two roommates in various state of undress who felt he in his unconscious state really needed a cuddle and were then keen to play upon his somewhat discomfort while flying.

The next morning a few sore heads awoke and made it home in one piece.  The weekend left a very drained but happy group of hockey fans and hockey payers at the airport.

A trip away with your mates is always great fun.  It’s a real adventure of sorts.  Hopefully, you’re exploring somewhere new, chatting too much (always about crap) and forming inside jokes (I’m looking at you Brenda, Kutek does Newcastle and that de-fogger-mister). Throw in a Goodall Cup and what else could you ask for in really for a cracking weekend?!

True Story! The amazing highs, the stressful despair and nerves and a very Disney finish to the documentary.  Thank-you again to the Ice for being a fantastic team, fantastic people, a fantastic family (who love MINGLING), the AIHL for putting on a grade A event, the HISS for providing the best environment they could muster, including a perfect ice surface for our boys to break the Newcastle Hoodoo on, and to my fellow Rookies for putting up with me and not giving me too much grief on the plane!

Bring on an Awesome Foursome!

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