So here’s something that I love about hockey; this allegedly crazy little cult of a sport in Australia, half a world from the heartland of chasing pucks.
On Saturday night, I went to a poker game being run by a friend from work. His name is Ben Laden, which I, being the sparkling world-renowned wit that I am, couldn’t help but notice was a similar name to a certain terrorist, recently dispatched. Turns out that Ben has a lot of trouble at passport control whenever he enters the USA – or did, pre-Abbottabad. Sometimes the entire passport team would ask to pose for a photo.
He’s embraced his fate and on Saturday night, we played for the Aussie Ben Laden Cup, and a stack of cash from the buy-in stakes. Ben’s a pretty keen player and has regaled me with a lot of stories about long, intense poker nights between him and his mates. Some have played professionally or semi professionally. Intimidating just to hear about. So I went in, knowing I was up against it.
But actually, the jeopardy wasn’t that great because I had all of 50 bucks on the line, the cost of buying in. Two tables of 8 players each. Two rounds of play. Best combined finishes went to the final table.
I fancy myself at cards so into the pot went my Edith Cowan.
Naturally, I was dressed as a cowboy. “Aussie” had convinced me that dodgy poker skills could be minimized by startling dress sense in this company. He was wearing a truly appalling and genuine Hawaiian shirt, so lived his preach. That afternoon, getting ready for the evening ahead, I donned my trusty cowboy shirt from a ramshackle second hand shop in Williamsburg, New York, and cowboy boots from the same store, and headed to the Icehouse to coach one of our rival Summer League teams, the TigerSharks.
Say what? You thought this was about poker. Well, eventually it is but first there was a game to get through, as they were down a bench coach. Kittens and I shared the duties – Kittens bravely donning his favourite poncho so I wouldn’t feel out of place as a cowboy. We were definitely setting new trends in bench coach fashion.
We were coming off a disappointing loss on Thursday night, never quite able to get the Interceptors rolling in the fog that envelopes the Oakleigh rink when 30-degree humidity outside meets a melting iceblock inside. The Blackhawks played really well on a night where the goalies could barely see beyond the red line, so pucks could come out of nowhere. I got an assist and played a decent game without ever feeling like I lit it up, so I wasn’t sure how I’d go trying to tell a Summer League rival team how to play.
It was my first taste of hockey coaching and it turned out that I loved it. As I think I’ve written before, I have a lot of friends in the TigerSharks and have enjoyed games against them, because they have a similar intensity-meets-have-fun attitude to the Interceptors.
Suddenly, here I was, two years into this whacky hockey journey, with a change room full of armoured players listening to my pre-game advice. How did that happen? And what I do know?
Only just enough, apparently, and yet not enough, because the game against the Devils was a 1-1 draw. The TigerSharks had most of the attacking but the Devils’ defence was resolute, with their goalie, Mark Stone, standing on his head to deny them time and again. I tried to observe and advise stuff other than the obvious and battled with not knowing all the players, yet found myself totally caught up in the moment, desperately wanting my team to win; a TigerSharks team that I was thrilled to beat a couple of weeks ago, while wearing my Interceptor #17 jersey. Now I was a cowboy, willing them to find that final goal. Suddenly I could see how much fun coaching would be, if you had a team for a whole season. Maybe, if my knee collapses completely, or I get too old to skate (never!), this could be a hockey path I could explore?
Although I would run out of cowboy shirts pretty quickly.
And so finally through the heat to the top of Sydney Road (I still can’t help but think of that area as Jill Meagher country) and on to the poker game. Battling 15 other players, 14 of whom I had never met and had no connection with. And as I said at the start, this I where I found yet another thing I love about hockey. Sitting outside on the deck playing for hours on a hot night, a couple of strange smelling cigarettes and light beers down, I finally took off my cowboy shirt to reveal a Zetterberg #40 Red Wings T-shirt underneath.
Immediately, one guy on my table, with a Canadian drawl, said: “You’re a Wings fan?”
Turns out he grew up in Quebec and played as a kid.
Inevitably, my stack dwindled, I had not much left to lose, went all in on a couple of picture cards that turned out not to be enough and was out of Round One, appropriately losing to Wild Bill Hickok’s “dead man’s hand”.
At which point, a tall guy from the other table, also out, wandered over and said: “Did I hear that you play hockey? I used to play for Queensland in goals, inline and on ice, in juniors. I’ve been in England for the last eight years but I’m looking to get back into it.”
And so we spent Round Two yarning about Datsyuk’s genius, and Thomas Jurco coming up behind, and inline hockey in London, and the standard of the local scene, and how he can join the Icehouse rookie family.
Do the maths. Sixteen players in a card game: three, including me, with a hockey connection. At the northern Brunswick end of Sydney Road, on a Saturday night. There are allegedly a thousand or so registered players in Australia, plus a few thousand keen fans, and yet here were three of us, out of 16. What are the odds?
If I could work out ratios like that in my head, I might have made the final table.
So long, 50 bucks.