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.

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