Guest writer: Michael Coulter at The Crossroads


Although, as the article below suggests, Michael Coulter is somewhat bewildered by the turn of events, he is a regular face among the Melbourne hockey community, doing Icehouse classes and playing Summer League. He also works for The Age, which explains why this piece is so well written.

The line I’m most jealous of is: “At times playing hockey feels like repeatedly drinking glasses of kerosene in the hope that one of them will turn out to be champagne.”

Damn, wish I’d written that. Well played, Coulter.

And who are you kidding? See you on the ice. Nicko

Where to from here?

By Michael Coulter

Hockey and I have a complicated relationship.

I grew up in Queensland, where real men played rugby league and winter was a word in the dictionary, but one of my first memories is of watching hockey on a black and white TV in a Winnipeg apartment. My father spent many patient hours with me in the nets, but the stories of his own youth were all about outdoor rinks and wrist shots, of 90-second shifts and the perfect hip-check. Over the years hockey became an impossible ideal, a perfect blend of speed, skill, toughness and agility, playable only by iron-hard Canucks who’d been raised with skates on their baby bootees and pucks as teething rings.

Oh Hells, yeah! Hockey, 1980 Winnipeg Jets style. How could Coulter not fall in love?

Oh Hells, yeah! Hockey, 1980 Winnipeg Jets style. How could Coulter not fall in love?

My first NHL game did nothing to dispel that impression. It was on a visit to the Peg in the early 80s, when the original incarnation of the Jets were sucking just as hard as they do today. The details are fuzzy, but I think they were getting beaten up by some long-gone franchise – perhaps the Hartford Whalers or the Quebec Nordiques. But I remember as if yesterday the feral crowd, the whack of stick on puck, the hissing crackle of skates slicing the ice, and the unbelievable speed. If it wasn’t sorcery, it was the next best thing.

Back in Australia, of course, there was no way to repeat the experience. Besides which, my one experience of actual skating was somewhat traumatic, ending with a bemused local having to rescue me from an impatient Zamboni driver. But if my conscious mind had developed an abiding suspicion of any body of frozen water that couldn’t fit into a glass, the subconscious was still intrigued. Every four years, come the winter Olympics, I’d feel a restless urge to skate. (Lillehammer got me into a pair of in-lines; maybe if they hadn’t been a size too small, and therefore agonisingly painful, I wouldn’t still be trying to perfect a hockey stop 19 years later.) But it wasn’t until 2010 that a combination of the Olympics, a knee that could no longer stand indoor soccer, and the opening of the Icehouse tipped me over the edge.

From there it’s a familiar tale, except that at no stage did I ever admit to myself what I was up to. At first all I wanted was to skate backwards, which led to a basic class. When I bought my own skates, it was simply to avoid the hassle of renting (or so I told myself), but the fact they were hockey skates dictated the next move: Intro. When I bought a helmet and gloves it was simply to avoid the stinky hire gear (yeah right), but it then made sense to do Intermediate to get some use out of them. When I bought the rest of the gear, it was just to avoid the search for matching elbow pads, but once I had the armour, Dev League seemed only logical …

And so, by a process of incremental self-deception, I’ve now finished a season of Summer League. But there’s been a price. As my 42nd birthday recedes in the rearview mirror, I have a shoulder that hasn’t felt right since last November, kids who see the game as a form of mental illness, and a spare room that smells, in the words of a fellow Shark, of hockey arse.

Michael Coulter tearing it up for the Sharks.

Michael Coulter tearing it up for the Sharks.

Logically, I should give it away. The mortgage means I don’t properly have the money to play, job and family mean I don’t have the time (even with the somewhat amused support of the spouse). There’s no mystery about what I need to do to get better, but in a packed schedule ice-time is always the first thing to go. I love to skate – honestly love it – but improvement is agonisingly slow, and each game brings its fresh crop of humiliating blunders (and for someone more used to individual sports, it’s truly painful to let teammates down). At times playing hockey feels like repeatedly drinking glasses of kerosene in the hope that one of them will turn out to be champagne.

But every so often there’s a fleeting taste of the good stuff. Like the day when it all clicks and a previously impossible technique is suddenly easy, or the golden shift where you’re always first to the puck.  Those are the moments when I think that maybe this game that seems to hate me might one day repay some of the love I’ve shown it. It shouldn’t be enough to keep me coming back, but so far it has been. One day I’ll come to my senses, but until then there’s hockey.

Like I said, it’s complicated.

Relax. You won’t feel a thing …

The scene of today's high drama.

The scene of today’s high drama.

‘You’re just a blog hater,’ I said. ‘This is a valid media. You’re refusing to embrace the future.’

‘Actually,’ he said, ‘I just can’t do it.’

I was lying on my back, half in and half out of the big white tube that is an MRI machine. All I’d asked was that he grab my iPhone and take a quick photo, for the blog.

The MRI technician shrugged apologetically. ‘The thing is,’ he said, ‘if I brought your phone in here, it would be sucked straight into the heart of the machine. Which, you might remember from the pre-scan briefing, is a giant motherfucking magnet.’

Actually he didn’t say that last sentence but he didn’t have to. I did remember I was lying in a massive magnetic core, so the photo became a lost dream. Science versus creativity: will that battle ever end?

So I finally got around to having my knee scanned. ‘Just lie still for 20 minutes,’ the technician had said. ‘Don’t move your left leg at all, if you can manage it. The machine is incredibly loud so here are some headphones. Would you like some music?’

‘Sure,’ I said.

‘What sort?’

“Dunno … classical, Triple J. Anything but easy listening because then I’d have to kill myself.’

He settled it by forgetting to turn on the music. So I lay there, for an endless age, listening to the whirring and pulsing and grinding of this massive machine; feeling strange tingling and currents in my knee. Giving the joint a little talking to inside my head: ‘Well, whose fault is this? Don’t start blaming me for gamma rays coursing through you, stupid knee.’

I’d spent a few schoolboy minutes sniggering at how the brand of the machine, Siemens, sounds like something else, but even that distraction wore off by the second half of the journey. Buzz. Whir. Clank. Grrrrrrr … Of course, all I wanted in the whole world was to move my fricking leg. But tried not to.

Lying there, it occurred to me that this entire moment was actually a minor miracle; that for the first time in two and a half years of playing hockey, I was undergoing something more medical than a Magic Enzo osteo session. I really can’t complain to have gotten this far without a major injury or wound. And I’m still not even sure if it was hockey or a 38 degree Bang footy session that blew the knee out late last year.

It was worth it just for the adventure of an MRI. Luckily it was my legs being examined so my head was outside the machine. I’ve heard that it can be claustrophobic if you have to be fully inside it.

The whole thing runs on magnets moving the atoms in your body around while radio frequencies pick the movement up as images. Or something. Its full name is Magnetic Resonance Imaging and it raises your body temperature and basically pushes and pulls the nuclei of the atoms around as you lie still.

‘If my head is in there, I can feel my hair ties lifting off my head,’ said the MRI department’s registrar, a blonde chick with tied back hair.

‘Do you do that at lunchtime, just for kicks?’ I’d asked her.

An MRI machine. Riddle me this: how did this camera not get sucked into the machine? Shenanigans.

An MRI machine. Riddle me this: how did this camera not get sucked into the machine? Shenanigans.

‘No’, she said. ‘It’s actually weird and freaks me out.’

Sadly, my hair was untied and so I felt nothing. But I wouldn’t want to attempt an MRI after a joint. It could be amazing or terrible.

But anyway, it’s done. And so now what? I wait at least five working days for the results to go to my doctor, the Christmas hepcat who I saw at Lorne. When I last saw him, he looked up ‘knee’ on Wikipedia.

But I rang a top knee specialist recommended by a hockey buddy, Tony Sheng, and was told I needed a doctor reference even to get an initial appointment. This doctor reference thing is the biggest legal lurk going around; fifty bucks or so to be allowed to just get in the diary of a specialist so he or she can start fleecing you in creative new ways.

I’m going to do it though. I just signed up for the Nite Owls winter Sunday comp (for old bastard skaters only) and am about to sign for dev league and maybe the Icehouse Academy. Plus I can’t kick at the Bang while the knee stops me running.

Time to get it fixed. Hang the expense.

And to see if I developed any super powers while those gamma rays were flying around. That’s what happens, right?

Guest writer: Brendan Parsons on scorekeeping

The scorer's box, looking down on the Ghetto's ice. @ Oakleigh.

The scorer’s box, looking down on the Ghetto’s ice. @ Oakleigh.

A change of gear today. Ever wondered who is operating the scoreboard and compiling the teamsheet at any given game? Even in Rec D, summer league, in Melbourne, a bunch of tireless almost-volunteers work to make it happen – and we are damn grateful. (I’ve only been in there long enough to feel sheepish that I don’t help more.)

A big thanks to Brendan Parsons for taking us behind the glass, ice-side, to explain the magic.

Hockey scoring: not for the faint-hearted

By Brendan Parsons


“What was that?”

“I didn’t see! Get ready whatever it is.”

“What number?”

“Use double zero, just make sure you get the two in right, we can fix it after.”

“I’m on it.”

“Hey can I –“

“Shut up!  Hold on a second – watch the ice – anything coming in on the radio?”

“No…  OK, we’re good.”


“Fourteen twenty seven.”

Radio hisses

“Hey, you there?”

“Yep, what was it?”

“Fourteen, tripping, two minutes.”

“Ok, got it.”

“Sorted – shot on – two shots, home.”

The score box at Oakleigh ice rink is nothing short of parody of a TV newsroom– but without the Sorkinesque hallway walking.  Scraps of paper litter the eagles-nest perched high above the stands.  Aged, yellow control boxes operating the scoreboard and clock flash their analogue red LEDs alarmingly and intrusively.  Only the edges of the vintage, leather stools are used by the scorer and timekeeper; the scorebox is no place to sit in comfort despite its relative warmth.  Snacks and coffee sit safely away from the equipment, but close at hand for the occasional 20 second break.  The computer hums and grinds to process the demands of the byzantine excel spreadsheet.

This isn’t scoring a cricket match – an ice hockey game moves at the speed of the ref’s whistle (which is the speed of sound, so it’s pretty fast.)

With the growth of beer-league hockey in Melbourne, the league should not have been surprised by the massive response to their call for timekeepers and scorekeepers in the summer league.

I answered the call to give back to the league which I have been only taking from so far.  After volunteering, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was a (modestly) paid gig. The pay nearly covers the cost of the non-kosher snacks (for wannabe hockey athletes at least) consumed within the box.

Working in the box has given me a new appreciation for the support structure required to play hockey, and the importance of doing things right; like wearing clear and consistent numbers on your uniform, handing in proper team sheets, and only playing registered players.  In a recent game, the numbers on one player’s back, arms and helmet didn’t match – and they wonder (and complain) how the ref may wrongly attribute a goal.

Rookies Rachael Hands and Lliam "Apollo" Patrick man the scorer's box during a Rookies v IBM social game.

Rookies Rachael Hands and Liam “Apollo” Patrick man the scorer’s box during a Rookies v IBM social game.

The box requires two people.  The time keeper is predominantly in charge of keeping the clock running, keeping the scoreboard up to date, displaying penalties and, at Oakleigh, controlling the walkie-talkie which serves as our only link to the ref.  The score keeper operates the flawlessly macro-ed score sheet.  Both need to watch and record all shots on goal – a call requiring consensus, as not every goalie’s ‘save’ is a shot on goal.*

You begin to appreciate the teams that play cleanly – minimizing penalties, playing around the opposition and not through them.  You notice the teams that continually lob pucks to the net, like a prisoner in solitary confinement with only a tennis ball.  You start to feel how each team constructs, and reconstructs, their lines through the game.  You see how goals and assists are not the golden metric against which to measure a player’s skill.

With all the sound and fury of a hockey game below you, from your cloistered, anonymous, impartial isolation, you can see the beauty of the game in its rarer moments. It’s a haven from the regular week; removed from quotidian mediocrity.  A Zen Koan, not requiring anything from you but the application of the rules. No hype, not fans; just the game itself.

But mostly, it’s a pleasing way to spend a Thursday night, or a lazy Sunday afternoon; watching hockey from a heated room.

*A shot is counted only if, with the goalie removed, it would have been a goal.  Brilliantly catching a puck that was not going straight into the net unfortunately does not count.

A final game sheet, as produced by the scorers from every official IHV game. Oh, wait, did I happen to pick one out where No. 4 (Nicko Place) got an assist and an unassisted goal? Wow, what are the odds?

A final game sheet, as produced by the scorers from every official IHV game. Oh, wait, did I happen to pick one out where No. 4 (Nicko Place) got an assist and an unassisted goal for the Interceptors? Wow, what are the odds?

Brought to you by …

Not Nicko Place hockey-themed shoes ...

Not Nicko Place hockey-themed shoes …

I’ve had a lot of strange emails lately. It seems there are companies that now target blogs, offering to provide ‘quality editorial’, free of charge. As far as I can tell, this ‘quality editorial’ happens to mention a company name here or there, or maybe links off to a website. I’m often not sure if they even realise this is a hockey blog. I’m pretty certain they don’t care.

These are strange times in commercialism, online and off. Whether you’re the Australian Ice Hockey League, wondering how to parlay the new FoxSports deal into dollars, or a blogger wondering if you can justify several hours a week writing about your passion, but at the expense of real work, or a super-hero, wondering how to feed yourself while patrolling the mean streets of the American north-west, sponsorship and making money from what you do continues to be an issue.

Yes, me and the rising number of real-life superheroes apparently have this ethical dilemma in common. I’ve followed Phoenix Jones, self-proclaimed Guardian of Seattle and a founder of the Rain City Super Hero Movement, since he first started patrolling the streets a couple of years ago. Back then, he was an anonymous, masked vigilante do-gooder. It turned out he had a wife, Purple Reign, who started a campaign against domestic violence, also wearing a mask until she suddenly had a revelation that victims of domestic violence should not ‘hide’ and publicly showed her real face. Which was brave and clever. They seem like quite the couple.

I worry a lot for Phoenix – it turns out he’s an ex-MMA fighter and by day is/was a school teacher. Both he and Purple’s identities have been revealed – I think he was in a court case, from memory, where the court record dispassionately gave his full name and address, which shows how long Bruce Wayne, Peter Parker and co would have lasted as secret identities outside of the world of comic books.

But Phoenix is still out there, breaking up fights in the hours when only trouble can happen on the streets of Seattle; occasionally a little too enthusiastically, leading to complaints. He writes IN CAPITALS on his Facebook page and gets grumpy when people question his motives or methods. And then over the past week, he suddenly became a walking super-billboard for Nike.


I’m not making this up.

Phoneix Jones in full facebook flight ...

Phoneix Jones in full facebook flight …

And in case you were wondering, the PJ 22’s are presumably the very sweet Nike concept runners I’ve pictured, lifted from a photo on his Facebook page. Along with the Nike swoosh on his utility belt. And, in case you hadn’t picked up the theme, a photo of him in a Nike cap.

I can only assume he hasn’t seen Mystery Men, where Captain Amazing, the greatest super-hero going around, is sponsored from cape to toe. Which turns out to be an issue.

The endorsement feels wrong to me, and I’m trying to work out why, beyond the bizarre image of him and a bunch of sports executives “discussing crime fighting” in a swanky Oregon board room. I wrote to Phoenix’s wall, saying I was stepping away, wishing him luck but saying that I didn’t think being a walking billboard was what he was about and I was disliking his page. It’s not often you can go toe-to-toe, ethically, with a genuine super-hero. Confusingly, he has since ‘liked‘ that post. So I am not sure if he agrees with my stance, or maybe just thinks it’s hilarious that an Australian hockey wannabe has dared to pipe up, or possibly he just ‘likes’ everything posted on his page. Who can question his super-motives?

The more I’ve thought about it, he hasn’t actually done anything wrong. I mean, why shouldn’t he get Nike to pay him a fortune for the right to become the first sportswear company to actively brand a real-life superhero? Why the hell pay millions to Roger Federer or Tiger Woods when there are goddam super-heroes walking around? If you were a Nike company executive in Oregon, the idea of putting your brand on Phoenix would be pretty damn attractive. But if I was a marketing exec there, I’d be worrying about stomach ulcers. Because this one could go wrong. Sitting here, half a world away, in mostly gun-free Melbourne, I constantly worry for Phoenix Jones. He ain’t from Krypton and he ain’t safe from harm by the fact that his entire universe exists on a page, being written by someone like me who loves heroes and understands that no matter what obstacles a comic throws up, the hero will overcome. (And I have written two super hero novels, so I feel qualified to know the difference.) In actual Seattle, it feels like any day some gangbanger could ‘do a Nike’ but decide to make his mark by being the first corner-boy to pop a genuine super-hero. I totally hope I’m wrong. I think Phoenix and maybe even more so Purple Reign have done a lot of good and I admire them for their bravery and initiative.

But somehow, Phoenix Jones, brought to you by Nike, doesn’t have the same doing-this-for-justice ring that Phoenix has previously argued. It used to be that Phoenix was truly heroic because he was out there all night, at risk, helping the police, trying to be a force for good, very much at his own personal cost. Now it’s potentially for personal gain. That’s the worrying difference.

Maybe this is all swirling in my head because I have to give a talk at Swinburne tomorrow night (unpaid, for the record – speaking to graduate journalism students and even missing dev league to do it). I’ll be trying to impress on them the difficulty between writing what you love or what you know, and how to make a living from journalism or writing content (not necessarily the same thing) in this crazy new online media world. How do you not sell out and yet pay the rent? Especially when you can’t do what I did as a teenage Jimmy Olsen and somehow luck your way into a major metropolitan newspaper as a copyboy. That shit just hardly happens any more.

I’m not sure what the answers are, for Phoenix or me. God knows, filling his utility belt and having all that sweet armour made up must cost a bomb. Likewise, hockey has been an expensive sport for me to take up, what, with the equipment and the endless lessons and the practice sessions and the Summer League registration fees and the jerseys and the T-shirts that we just had to get to mark the final game … but I’m still in it for the love. On Saturday, the Spitfire Fighters played a final against the Wolverines at Oakleigh (sample video from my phone, below) and a bunch of us turned up, despite torrential rain, to watch and cheer, or do a live podcast or be volunteer officials or just to be involved in our sport, the lowest level of competitive hockey you can play for points. That’s how I like it.

Donning my blogging cape, I’ve decided to hold firm against commercialism for now, for the same reason. I might whack Google ads onto this site, to see what happens, if it brings in any easy sending money, because, shit, I’m writing the blog anyway, and don’t have to endorse products. But I don’t think I’m going to embrace the semi-regular offers of ‘quality content’. I wrote to a couple of these new blog-targeting companies, asking what they were planning to pay me for access to the editorial segment of my site; in other words, would they reward me for totally selling out my editorial credibility in the name of krill oil supplements or a gambling site? Oh, came the somewhat startled replies. We thought giving you free content would be payment in itself. Um, I guess we could pay you $50 … one offered $US150 a year to place articles or, better, to have me write articles for the blog, mentioning their brands.

Which wouldn’t stand out at all, would it? Not like the fantastic cars being offered by Larry Love, the greatest car salesman ever!*

I wrote back to one of the companies, explaining why I was opposed to krill oil as a supplement, because whales and other marine creatures need it to survive much more than ageing hockey hacks like me do to ease creaky joints. They didn’t reply. I don’t think they had foreseen a marine conservation stand from a hockey blogger, or maybe I’m just not cut out for commercialism. Oh well.

* (I can’t believe that Larry Love ad is real, but if it is and Larry, in the unlikely event you’re still in business, you can have that one for free.)

Doppelganger unchained

Big Cat Place and I trucked along to Hoyts on a hockey-night off to finally see the new Tarantino movie, Django Unchained. I liked it a lot, from the usual kick-ass Tarantino soundtrack and visuals to some humour and nice buddy movie moments.

But mostly, I couldn’t take my eyes of Christoph Waltz. That beard, those mannerisms. Even, kind of, that accent.

What Quentin Tarantino has managed to capture on film is a flawless glimpse into the future. Because what I was looking at was Detroit Red Wings captain, super-Swede Henrik “Hank” Zetterberg, as an older man. Am I wrong? (He certainly did a better job of capturing older Henrik than he did of capturing an Australian accent, in a cameo.)

Oh, and while we’re on Zee, if you don’t think Zetterberg is doing a good job in his first year as Wings captain, just ask his country’s media and they’ll set you straight:

(Thanks to Red Wings blog Winging It In Motown for that link.)

Christoph Waltz or Hank Zetterberg once he's hung up the skates?

Christoph Waltz or Hank Zetterberg once he’s hung up the skates?

Zetterberg, today.

Zetterberg, today.

From the vault: ‘Mystery, Alaska’ film review

Mystery, Alaska chick-flick attempt poster.

Mystery, Alaska chick-flick attempt poster.

A million years ago, I used to be a film reviewer for The Sunday Age newspaper and on radio. As part of a new even-more-self-indulgent-than-this author site I’ve been setting up, because of the new novel, I happened to dig back through my archives to show different forms of writing I’ve made a living from.

Anyway, among the film reviews I found my take on ‘Mystery, Alaska‘. It’s so funny to read now because back then (1999), ice hockey meant nothing to me. I wish I could jump in the Wayback Machine, drop in on that pre-millennium version of Nicko and say: “Guess what, clueless? This sport’s going to rock your world in a decade or so. Pay attention!”



By Nick Place

Things sure are weird up there in deepest, coldest Alaska. The local sheriff gets around on a snow-scooter, people have affairs and nobody seems to mind, and a man is all but cheered for shooting a sales rep for a big American chain. Plus the local religion involves men on skates, wielding sticks as they chase a puck around a frozen lake.

Yes, the latest celluloid homage to sport as religion, garnished with some left-field country characters and the can’t-go-wrong spine of an underdog’s day in the sun has arrived on local screens. If you’re thinking Northern Exposure with hockey sticks, you wouldn’t be too far from the mark, even putting the Alaskan setting aside. Written and produced by David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal), there’s the overbearing mayor, the handsome, cruisy local youths and the gorgeous, independent women. Plus some old timers with plenty of attitude.

Our Rusty Crowe as a hockey player. How come he threw his weight behind the Rabbitohs in NRL instead of the Sydney Ice Dogs?

Our Rusty Crowe as a hockey player. How come he threw his weight behind the Rabbitohs in NRL instead of the Sydney Ice Dogs?

It adds up to a likeable enough package, even if it is a little difficult for Australian audiences to access, given the fact that most of the action takes place at 10 degrees below, while we’re coming off a baking summer, as well as the reality that most Australians know about as much about the finer points of ice hockey as they do about ichthyology (fish vets excluded).

The plotline goes that the citizens of Mystery, Alaska, love their remote setting and savour hockey as the basis of their existence. The Saturday Game, when the very best skaters line up to do battle in endless “intra-club” matches, is Everything for the men who play and the gals who cheer them on. When a local man who moved away to New York (his biggest local crime was that he was crap as a skater) writes a piece for Sports Illustrated about how Mystery is the pure origin of hockey, an exhibition game between the prestigious New York Rangers and the local good ol’ boys is organised.

At this point, the whole thing veers off into country somewhere between Bull Durham and Local Hero. The actual concept is so ludicrous that you must suspend all disbelief. In reality, imagine if the AFL Kangaroos’ best team was to take on a country footy side that fancied itself – no, not pretty. Yet, Mystery, Alaska aims to be Rocky On Ice. The premise is raised that while, admittedly, on fenced NHL ice, the Mystery boys would be slaughtered, on fenced local ice, they’re half a chance. In fact, the only thin ice is in the plot.

The biggest shock of all is that the Mystery team is being led by none other than a Sydney boy, in the form of Russell Crowe. Clearly, the Crowe-man wanted to score some cheap Husky, Handsome Hero Points after his ugly, sweaty, stress-filled but fantastic performance in The Insider. Either that, or he was putting in an Alaskan pre-season for Gladiator, the Ridley Scott Roman battle epic that opens soon.

Mystery, Alaska: alternate poster.

Mystery, Alaska: alternate poster.

Directors have a habit of casting Crowe in brooding roles, where he looks people in the eye and is straight as an arrow yet a man of few words. In Mystery, Alaska, there’s the extra element that his character is getting on in hockey years and nearing the end of his powers (yep, more parallels with Kevin Costner in Bull Durham). Crowe does a good job of looking like he’s right at home in the snow and the skating scenes are shot well enough that his hockey stand-in is a lot less obvious than Don Adams’ used to be in Get Smart action sequences.

You could probably wait for this one on video and not lose much sleep, but it won’t disappoint on the big screen. The plot is not always obvious and the characters and script are entertaining. A solid cast, including Burt Reynolds, provides support for Crowe.

Mystery, Alaska (THREE STARS, M, 119 minutes) is on general release.

(Well, it ain’t now, 14 years later … it is on DVD.)

The end of summer

Interceptors get ready, before our final game.

Interceptors get ready, before our final game.

Well, somebody had to say it. And, of course, guess who it was.

It was last night, Sunday evening, in the middle of a long weekend. About 6.30 pm, in the Ghetto, which is what we fondly call the Oakleigh ice rink. Yet again, the mighty Interceptors had been handed the tiny, claustrophobic changing room 4, where our bags end up on top of one another because it’s so crowded and we have to take turns sitting on the tiny wooden benches to lace our skates. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

I looked around the room at my team and felt a wave of emotion. “Aw, Nicko’s getting all mushy,” said Alex, true to form, and I shrugged and laughed but said, yeah. Actually. I am.

“I just want us all to take a moment to consider that this team will never play together again,” I said to the ‘Ceptors. And it was true. Whatever future is to unfold, it will never see that group of players combine again.

Given how close we have become as a team, as a little band of warriors, this was no small thing.

At least one player, Savv, is trying his luck in the winter league draft (if you play winter, you can’t play summer) and he’s so good there’s no way he won’t be snapped up. Dan ‘Yoda’ Byrne, a spiritual leader and my fellow alternate captain, is moving to Newcastle with his family in a month. So that’s two. I have no doubt that by the time we have to start actually committing to teams for next summer’s competition, other players will have been injured, or drifted away from the sport, or decided to play with friends in other teams or want more ice time than you get in our over-crowded line-up, or any of the other many reasons why they might not don the Interceptor jersey for the 2013-14 campaign. As Big Cat and I drove out to Oakleigh, through Melbourne’s endless summer heat, I pondered if we would even ever play as teammates again, beyond social matches and scrimmages?

The Ceptors, after one of our games this summer.

The Ceptors, after one of our games this summer.

I have no idea if Big Cat or the rest of the team was as aware of this as I was last night. My long career as a journo, covering team sports, had seen me observe this moment over and over again. Every AFL season, I watch Richmond’s last game and feel that slight sadness, that this team of young men, mates playing in front of 80,000 people at the MCG, having the time of their fucking lives, will never form as a unit again. Last year, the point was tragically underlined when John McCarthy, a player from that last Richmond v Port Adelaide game – a scrappy, unlikely draw at the MCG – died in mysterious circumstances on the Power’s end-of-season trip to Las Vegas a couple of weeks later.

Even away from a freak accident like that, players come and go. The Melbourne Ice team that won the famous three-peat grand final last year has lost several players (imports Matt Korthuis and Doug Wilson Jnr, for starters) and will gain new faces this season. The Sydney Swans team that won the flag in that classic against Hawthorn is already changed for a new season. With the Red Wings, I don’t have this same sense of ownership of a team as a whole because players can be and are traded in and out even mid-season. It’s a different vibe, when players are thrown out of and onto the bus as it rolls along. In football and local hockey, this is not the case, and I prefer our sporting model to the NHL. Each year, I find myself watching Round 22, aware that Tiger rookies and players I have invested in, urged on and despaired over, wanted to be great and wondered if they’ll make it, will receive that dreaded call into the footy manager’s office a few days after the last game, to be told they’re out. Or will retire. Or, their body just can’t go again. Something like a quarter of the listed 700 AFL players across all clubs fall out of the sport and are replaced each year.

Will it be the same in ice hockey, Summer League Rec D? With the Ceptors, the reality is that we will move in directions over the next six months, and it was important to acknowledge it before we hit the ice. Just enjoy this moment where our team – such a close, happy, enthusiastic, bonded team – would strap on our armour for one last tilt.

Against the league’s top side, and with the Fighters’ Nate Pedretti, one of the better goalies in the league, filling in. What could go wrong?

Actually, for our formidable opponents, the Wolverines, pretty much everything. A bunch of their players didn’t show up (far too much room to spread out in their palatial changing room, I’d imagine) and eventually they were forced to forfeit because they couldn’t come up with the bare minimum number of players to compete, under IHV rules. The Interceptors won on a forfeit, giving us a final 8-7 win-loss record for the season and solidifying us in seventh place in the league; almost exactly where I reckon we should sit and a very decent effort for our first season. Hardly any of us had played truly competitive hockey before this summer, so we held up well, I reckon. Especially for a team that barely got to train together because of scheduling gremlins.

This sounds selfish but the forfeit turned out to be a nice way to end the season. If it had been an official match, I think the Wolverines would have dismantled us – even without refs and playing a friendly scrimmage (because, shit, we were all there and armoured up and on the ice, so why not?) they scored freely and probably beat us about 10-3, but nobody really kept count. I didn’t anyway. Maybe Jay, our goalie, knows how many times he faced down their rampaging No. 5 on a solo breakaway and with our defence trailing behind him. Sorry, Jay.

Period break, versus the Fighters last week.

Period break, versus the Fighters last week.

On the whole, the unofficial nature of the match took all the competitive pressure off. We could just play as a team one last time for fun, and enjoying the ice time. A trademark Oakleigh fog began to settle over the third period as the heat outside the shed battled the coldness of the slushy ice.

I managed to score our third goal and it was a classic example of how an unofficial scrimmage differs from a genuine match.

A puck spilled to the left hand side of Nate, their goalie. I was the first player there (I know, right!) and actually had time to think of how I would usually handle this situation. I think my backhand is serviceable and so I would normally use it to sweep the puck back behind my left leg to the slot, hoping an Interceptor was crashing the net to slot home the blind pass.

This is awesome if it works, but it does also mean you’re passing blind to centre ice, which is a no-no, if the defence can then sweep away up the centre lane.

This time, I had that fraction of a second to devise a different plan. I braked hard, stopping the puck, and sliding my body past it as I hockey-stopped to finish with the puck on my forehand. No real gap between the near goalpost and Nate’s left pad, but what the Hell. I shot, and somehow found that zone of uncertainty. I’m not even sure if it was that first shot that went in, squeezing into that fragment of a gap. I followed the puck and it was lying between Nate’s legs as he looked for it. I poked it into the net, to make sure of the goal.

Like I said, in a genuine game, with high stakes and refs and the Wolverines fielding a less tired, more complete team, maybe I wouldn’t have had the window for all of that to occur? Maybe I would have arrived at that puck under intense defensive pressure and swiped at it, backhand and blind, while I could? Who can say.

As it is, I finished the season with one officially recorded goal, but actually three goals in summer league play, which I’m happy with, given I started the season genuinely wondering if I would score even once. I got a few assists, I improved a lot in my game play, my positioning and my sheer skating. I loved being an AC of my team and I loved feeling part of a genuine team, something I haven’t experienced – apart from the ragtag brotherhood that is The Bang footy – for a long time. Deep in my forties, I had every right to think I would never feel that team spirit again.

High-fiving the bench: we Interceptors have always been good at celebrating goals.

High-fiving the bench: we Interceptors have always been good at celebrating goals.

On Facebook, after the game, Interceptors poured out their emotion at the season being over, at the reality that we won’t assemble as a team, apart from at the presentation night in a few weeks. A bunch of us are carrying knees or other ailments. Big Cat and I hung our black bowties, celebrating Charlie Srour, in safe places until next season.Then went out drinking with the hockey crowd.

I woke late, on a public holiday Monday, watched the fitful Red Wings lurch to a shoot-out loss against the Blue jackets, cursed some, staggered out of bed, hung out my armour in the heat and rode my bike down to Brunswick Street cafes for coffee and over-priced eggs.

In what’s left of this afternoon, I’ll go to the gym, maybe hit the Fitzroy Back Beach (pool), catch a movie, think again about how I organize that MRI for my knee, and then start to tune in on Wednesday night. That’s dev league at the Icehouse or, as I like to call it, the Happy Scrimmage Club, with Army, Tommy and Lliam.

A few ‘Ceptors will be out there, wearing red or black, happily beating each other up. Maybe there’ll be a Wolverine, maybe some Ice Wolves, Fighters, TigerSharks, Braves, Sharks, Demons, Devils and Jets. Possibly even a Nite Owl. I can’t keep exact track of who played for which teams in summer league. And now, apart from those who made the play-offs, it really doesn’t matter.

We’re all the one band of brothers and sisters.

We’ll laugh and collide and skate and shoot and curse and whinge and chase that puck all over the Henke Rink, like we do every Wednesday.

Only 50 hours to wait.

After the game: The original Interceptors team members have left the building, forever.

And we’re gone.

Yo, Ranger! Ever heard of a cage?

Marc Staal wonders if he still has an eye, on Monday.

Marc Staal wonders if he still has an eye, on Monday.

This picture (right) was attached to a story on, a New York Rangers fan blog. Thankfully, the article explains that Ranger Marc Staal is expected to eventually make a full recovery after copping a full-blooded puck to the eye two days ago, against the Flyers.

My favourite part of the photo is the ref in the background. Because he’s thinking what I was thinking, watching Staal writhe around in severe pain and then staggering off the bloodied ice. Arms folded, head on an angle, the ref is clearly thinking: ‘What a dick.’

Readers of this blog know what a sensitive, new age hockey player I am, usually full of compassion and love for my fellow skaters. But sorry, Staal, I have only one thing to say to you when you can eventually see out of what’s left of your right eye if and when the elephant-man swelling subsides: go buy a fucking face cage.

Staal was lurking in front of his own goal when a Flyers defender did what defenders do on the blue line and drove a hard shot through traffic. All it took was a deflection and suddenly Staal was copping a piece of hard rubber travelling extremely fast to an completely unprotected face. If this description is not graphic enough for you, click here. Watch the injury in all its animated gif gory. It’s way nasty.

In dev league and summer league, the ferociously competitive forms of hockey in which my on-ice adventures exist, many players wear the plastic visors that barely cover your eyes. Not many don’t wear anything but that’s because Ice Hockey Victoria dictates an age range for when you have to wear a cage, or a visor or nothing at all. I’m not kidding: it is clearly stated, in fine print, that while my 17-year-old and 20-year-old sons must wear face cages, hacks my age are not legally required to wear any facial protection, presumably on the basis that if we haven’t picked up a life partner with our looks by now, it really doesn’t matter if they’re ruined at this point.

That was my reading of it anyway.

I wore a full face plastic visor for a few months but found the constant fogging, no matter what demisting potions I attempted to use, to be incredibly distracting. It was actually when I was sitting on the bench, breathing hard but not moving, that I couldn’t see a thing. I’d jump the boards pretty much blind, lost behind a pea-soup fog on the plastic in front of my face, and require quite a few strides for the breeze to clear things up.

Early on in summer league, I switched back to a full face wire cage and have never regretted it, even if yes, it clearly does impair your overall vision somewhat.

That’s a trade-off I’m prepared to make. As I say to anybody when this subject comes up in locker-room discussion: “I’m far too pretty not to wear a cage.”

Or to put it another way, this is one extreme, nasty, potentially dangerous injury that I can avoid with the right equipment, so why the Hell wouldn’t I?

A hard puck to the helmet can give you concussion. So will bumping your head hard against the ice, or into the boards. … basically, if your brain bounces hard enough against your skull, a concussion will happen. There’s no real way to protect that.

"Is he dead?" That's what Drew Miller appears to be wondering after Red Wing Patrick Eaves'  face met a puck. Eaves was out for a year. Would a face cage have helped?

“Is he dead?” That’s what Drew Miller appears to be wondering after Red Wing Patrick Eaves’ ear met a puck. Eaves was out for a year. Would a face cage have helped?

But a face cage can stop a puck or, in my experience, a more frequent errant high stick to the face.

Two weeks ago, we finished a game at Oakleigh and were preparing to leave when a guy staggered off the ice, from a team training scrimmage, with blood pouring from his mouth and a big tooth, one of his bottom fangs, in his hand. “What do I do?” he asked us.

I resisted the urge to say: “Well, five minutes ago, I would have said buy a face cage but it’s too late for that.”

Instead, desperately trying to remember the St John’s first aid part of my scuba diving Stress & Rescue training, I suggested he put the tooth back in his mouth and suck it like a lolly. Saliva is actually the best warm, sterile holding material there is. Happily other even more medically qualified people were there and so he was hauled off to the Monash Medical Centre for treatment. I doubt they would have been able to put the tooth back in.

A cage would have stopped that injury ever happening and the case list goes on and on and on, at every level of hockey.

I do recognise that some head injuries are going to happen, no matter what, in a game where bodies, sticks and pucks hurtle around a confined space. The Red Wings’ Patrick Eaves is only just back on the ice after more than a year of “concussion type symptoms” as they call it, having worn a puck to the ear in front of goal. This one was really nasty but actually I’m not sure a cage would have helped him. The puck struck him near the ear as he turned away from it, so I suspect the brain-rattle was unavoidable.

All a cage can do is protect your eyes, nose, teeth and cheekbones. But that’s no small thing. It’s strange that no hockey player would think of heading into a game without elbow and knee protection, yet many skate into battle with unprotected faces.

I firmly believe that most amateur players only wear visors or nothing at all because they watch the NHL and see their heroes manning up in no visor, or a minimal visor. Visors look way cooler, no doubt. Right up until you get hit. I accept that the vision is worse in a cage but I’d counter that all the knee-to-ankle padding impedes your natural skating ability. Yet nobody ventures into a game without leg padding. Imagine the looks we’d give somebody, being helped off the ice with a broken leg, if they said: “I chose not to wear knee padding because it affects my crossovers.”

In two and a bit years of chasing pucks around, I can easily think of seven or eight times where my face cage has been rattled hard ether by a flying or deflected puck, or somebody’s stick waving around, way off the ice, or even an elbow, and I’ve actively thought: “Amen for the cage.”

Now I just need to work out how to protect my inner thigh, having copped a hard drive to that unprotected flesh against the Fighters on Sunday. Between that and my boringly endless troubled left knee, my skating is not at a career peak right now. On Sunday, we Interceptors play our last game of the summer league season, and I think my legs need the rest. Well, actually not rest: I’m getting too much rest, not able to run or ride my bike hard or do any of the usual things that put off-ice miles into my legs. They’re getting sluggish because of this undiagnosed knee. Time to get it sorted, but I wanted to survive the end of the season.

At last, next week, I’ll be able to see the doctors, as they do an MRI. Which puts me ahead of Marc Staal. He’s listed today as out of action indefinitely.