An actor/performer friend of mine, Bert Labonte won a Helpmann Award this week, for brilliant work on stage. He fully deserves it. Another friend, Chelsea Roffey, just got named to goal umpire the AFL Grand Final on Saturday. The first woman ever to achieve that honour. I couldn’t be more happy for her. Another friend just finished a film with Robert Duvall, another showed me his latest novel last week and my partner, Chloe, is well on her way to producing Hollywood blockbusters.
Me? I was getting led off the tiny, dilapidated Oakleigh ice rink on Sunday by a member of the Melbourne Ice hockey team, on this occasion moonlighting as a referee, to sit in the penalty box. My first-ever official penalty in a hockey game. So proud.
It was only a one minute penalty because in this Spitfires practice match between my team, the Interceptors, and the Fighters, the periods were short. Even so, the Fighters scored while I was sitting on the little blue bench, forcing my team into an unfamiliar penalty kill. Oops.
So tangling my stick in the legs of a Fighter as we battled for the puck wasn’t my finest moment but it was completely accidental, and the secret guilty truth was that I enjoyed feeling kind of bad-ass being escorted from the ice.
What was worrying was that on both benches, my friends were apparently shaking their head and thinking or even saying: “Oh no, it’s Nicko.”
Because it’s been a strange few weeks since I last blogged. Not just a greater intensity at work, and the small matter of a very tight deadline for the difficult third edit of the 80,000 words that will turn into my first adult crime novel when it’s finally published in March (hence the absence from blogging), but a heightened level of aggression and bizarre activity on and off the ice (thankfully, not always involving me).
In Intermediate Class, words have been exchanged as people got sick of ‘attitude’ among classmates, or of blatant disrespect. In Dev League, a few hits have been harder than is reasonable and there has been some downright nasty play, such as a smallish female player being boarded, and another player repeatedly having shorts tugged from behind. Lots of Facebook discussion asking people to cool it and play nice.
Last Wednesday, we had our final week of term, which means ‘scrimmage’ for Intermediate, and Lliam Webster, serene and peaceful after playing like a demon to help secure Melbourne Ice’s three-peat not long before, sat on the bench in his beanie and Icehouse tracksuit top, shook his head and observed, “That’s hilarious.”
“What is?” I panted, fresh from a shift. Watching two players puffing their chests out on the far boards.
“When you guys try to act tough,” he said.
I agreed with him. I have always thought this. My eyebrow has raised many times towards the dick-swingers among my fellow hockey students who talk a big game when it comes to the prospect of on-ice violence, about dropping the gloves or about Kronwalling. Because the absolute truth is that 99 per cent of us are NEVER going to have to back up such talk. Maybe one or two of the several hundred hockey students in Melbourne will be a natural, be a gun, and somehow get to the Melbourne Ice kind of level where full contact hockey can occur. Even then, it’s actually not supposed to. At AIHL level you can be boarded, can fully collide (Lliam coaching: “In this situation for us, we have to choose, are we going to go for the puck or take the body? For you, it’s only the puck”) but you’re not supposed to fight. Of course, fights occur and players are thrown out for weeks (Vinnie Hughes and then Joey Hughes this season) because it’s intense and hard and for real at that level.
Us? We’re in Development League. L-Plates or P-Plates metaphorically around our neck, and the best we can hope for is a likely hockey career in summer recreational league, or maybe even winter, where hitting, punching, intense take-the-body boarding is still not allowed.
So any tough talk is only that. Or should be. Which is a relief for us middle-aged rookies.
Mid-year, I wandered up to Army, and asked how many fights he had been in during his career? Roughly? Hoping he could narrow it down to the nearest hundred maybe. Matt Armstrong, Canadian, now 15 years or so into a professional/semi-professional hockey career, squinting as he considered the question. Finally, saying: ‘Um, geez, I dunno … probably … ten.”
“Ten?” I said. “Ten fights your entire career?”
“Yeah, about that. Joey would have had more.”
I turned to Lliam. He was already mentally calculating … finally said: “I think five.”
The big bad “Respect the beard” hard man of the Melbourne Ice. Five career fights. Seriously?
“Well, yeah, drop the gloves, actually ‘we’re gonna go’ fights? Five tops, probably.”
But what about all those times you’ve jumped the boards, charged out there, ready to defend a teammate?
“Well, nothing much happens, usually. You push and shove, make a presence. You don’t actually fight,” he said. “Joey would have had more.”
So I had to ask Joey, just for journalistic credibility if nothing else. At Oakleigh on a Friday, I posed the question and Joey hated me asking, I could tell. Could see it heading straight to the blog as a headline.
But I really like Joey. He shirks nothing and respects everybody’s hockey journey as he hopes they respect his. He looked me right in the eye, with those dark eyes of his, and said: “Look, I’m not proud of this, ok? The number is probably 60, but you have to understand I’ve had a different career to those guys.”
Siting on the Oakleigh boards, he explained it and he was right. His career is different. Army played almost all his hockey in Canada and then Europe, before coming to Australia for the lifestyle. Worked out Melbourne Ice was a way to scratch the hockey itch while enjoying Australia as a place to settle. In Canada and Europe, fighting is not common – especially in European leagues. Yes, you protect yourself from hits, yes, you occasionally “man up” as Army put it one day, but you don’t go onto the ice expecting UFC action.
Lliam, likewise, in his international stints, hasn’t played much in North American leagues where fighting is common. Or hadn’t felt a need to prove his toughness when he did. Joey had, from a young age. Told me about turning up at teams where there was fighting in camp, just to see who was the real deal, to see if this cocky Australian freak had backbone. Joey fought his way to credibility and, as a younger man, testosterone flying, no doubt felt like a warrior as he walked down the street of pure hockey towns, looking people in the eye because 1. He had proven he could play and 2. he wasn’t scared to fight. A long, long way from the Olympic rink in Oakleigh.
But that was a different time and that’s why Joey doesn’t like to be asked about it, to appear to glorify it, even though he was decent enough to answer my query. He doesn’t go looking for fights these days, even if he was rubbed out for six weeks or something in the season just gone for taking on the entire Sydney Ice Dogs bench. The way I heard it, and not from Joey, he was being held by a referee and an Ice Dog hit him with a huge uppercut to the face, while Joey could not protect himself. A very cheap shot, at which point Joey took issue with the situation, shall we say.
So that is where things stand regarding hockey fighting. Way over-rated, much rarer than anybody outside of hockey believes. Even more rare if you exclude the NHL where it definitely remains part of The Show in certain situations.
And then there’s last Wednesday when I had enough of getting pushed, held, niggled by my Interceptors teammate, Michael Donohue, playing for the opposition in dev league this night, and decided to give one back the other way. Possibly a little crude in the execution because I’m not experienced in such matters, but making my point. Donohue, always a mad man, usually in a happy way, dropped the gloves and came after me and I found myself testing my new skating speed, thanks to Army, Lliam and Joey’s stride lessons, as fast as I could to stay away from him until he tired chasing me. He said later, as we laughed in the rooms, that he only ever intended to push me over in response (“What else was I going to do? You were wearing a face cage?”) and I finished my shift as he was thrown out of the game.
Back on the bench, Lliam Webster was smiling quietly, as I returned; a full hour after his “That’s hilarious’ observation.
“I know that appeared cowardly,” I said. “But I did the right thing, yeah? You’re not supposed to fight in dev league.”
“You looked incredibly cowardly,” Lliam clarified. “But yes, you did the right thing.”
I’m convinced that dev league refs should call penalties – even if only sending people off the ice if they transgress – to stop everybody taking liberties because nothing short of a chainsaw attack seems to get called. Not being pulled up for hooking, tripping, checking etc, is teaching everybody, especially defenders, bad habits.
But the tension and aggression of the past few weeks has felt like more than that. There have been insensitive comments in change-rooms, and on the ice, as well as increasingly physical play. Is it just something in the air? Something in our veins? Is it the fact that summer league is around the corner and people are insecure, or nervous? Real competition at last after two years of thinking about it?
Dunno. All I know is that I know the penalty I gave away on Sunday was not even vaguely malicious on my part; just an agricultural and slightly inept puck-attack. Luckily my “victim”, James Oliver, knew that too, wasn’t hurt and held no grudge.
Shit happens on the ice, but we all need to retain the right spirit. The great news, alongside all this turbulence, is that my group of Rookies has taken our hockey to new levels in the past couple of months. You can literally see the improvement, as we train as a team under Martin Kutek and the Next Level coaches, or push Dev League harder and harder. I feel like a hockey player now, not just a wobbly wannabe (any comments on this topic will be deleted).
Hockey is currently taking out Sundays and Monday nights, keeping me away from my beloved Bang footy, and boxing classes, which bites, as well as eating into non-hockey windows, but as summer league approaches, I’m prepared to devote myself. I need to and I want to. I’m loving my team, loving meshing as a group, and supporting each other. Loving playing alongside Kittens aka Big Cat, for what, for all I know, may be our only summer campaign together before he gets good enough to go to Winter comp. I want no part of politics, awkward conversations, or needing to physically stand up to people with tough guy delusions on the ice.
Hopefully everybody else is feeling the same way.
We all need to chill out, smile and enjoy. Thrive on getting better, not get tense because actual competition awaits. We’re about to join Summer League and play for real. It’s supposed to be fun, and it is.