Miracle-free on ice, at Hisense Arena

USA v Canada from the cheap seats, at Hisense Arena. ... Meh.

USA v Canada from the cheap seats, at Hisense Arena. … Meh. Pic: Nicko

So, Melbourne just hosted its long-awaited two-night extravaganza of USA v Canada playing hockey for something called the Douglas Webber Cup, at Hisense Arena.

Big Cat got along to both games – Friday night’s 11-9 win to Canada, and tonight’s 10-9 (OT) victory to America.

Mackquist and I joined him and a bunch of our hockey friends for the Saturday night game and I think it’s fair to say we were as underwhelmed by a shoot-out victory, after a 9-9 full-time score, no less, as it’s possible for hockey fans to be.

Don’t get me wrong. This blog is not about to kick the shit out of the USA v Canada concept, or the organisers. We got pretty much what I’d expected for the $88 per ticket or whatever it was. The temporary rink was dubious but held together. It was a game featuring a handful of NHL players (including Canadian captain Kyle Quincey, a genuine Red Wing) and there was some pretty skating, and beautiful passes, and lots of goals with little puffs of artificial fire behind the goals after each score.

But as a stage to show Melbourne just how awesome my sport is, I think it fell short, although for a reason that it couldn’t really help: the game was an exhibition, played like an exhibition. And usually, in any sport, that means it’s going to suck for people who actually know and love the real thing.

I’d spent the afternoon at the MCG, watching my beloved Tigers put in a solid four quarters to see off the dangerous Adelaide Crows by more than six goals. Chloe heroically came along, and it cost me $31 for her ticket, less than half a ticket for USA v Canada. We watched more than 100 minutes of hard, tough, relentless football. Fully committed teams throwing themselves at the ball, and into one another, in pursuit of four premiership points that really mattered for each side. In the last term, with the game pretty much safe, several Tigers were clearly hobbling, carrying ankles or calf injuries, but they refused to come off, chasing and harassing and tackling and pushing, pushing, pushing until the siren mercifully blew and Richmond was in the Eight.

We sang the song long and loud.

Richmond's captain Trent Cotchin leads his team down the race. Pic: Nicko

Richmond’s captain Trent Cotchin leads his team down the race. Pic: Nicko

A quick change of Tiger scarf for signed Lidstrom Red Wings jersey later, I was on my pushbike, riding to the London Tavern where a truly surreal scene greeted me. Awash with happy Richmond fans, in their traditional post-match haunt, the Tavern also found itself home to a large number of hockey jerseys. Winnipeg Jets, Red Wings, Calgary Flames, Boston Bruins, Penguins, Melbourne Jets, Rookies, and so many more. A rainbow splash of hockey colour among the more traditional Saturday evening yellow and black.

We walked in an ever-growing tide of different jerseys past Richmond station, across Punt Road and on to Hisense Arena, with every NHL team and many teams not at that level represented in the largest hockey crowd I’ve seen in Australia.

So things looked promising, right up until the players took the ice.

I’ve long held a theory that you know how good a sporting event is going to be by how desperate the organisers are, and whether anybody talks over the actual event. Tonight’s event failed both my tests. The on-site commentators were annoying and shrill and increasingly, obviously concerned by the lack of crowd atmosphere. It reminded me a lot of some boxing and mixed martial arts event I covered as a journo, with ramped-up hoopla trying to artificially raise the roof because nobody watching a mediocre event from the bleachers was about to. Interviewing some TV actor mid-game, only mercifully ended by the crowd – gasp – cheering a goal, was a major mis-step and told me that the people behind tonight’s event didn’t trust their own product. If the hockey was excellent, just let the paying customers enjoy it … right?

There is nothing better than the intense silence of a major sporting event being contested: the opening minutes of an AFL grand final when everybody is watching, desperately, for a sign of strength or weakness between the combatants. The opening salvos of a Test match in cricket. The moment in a tennis match when you know a few crucial points are going to decide a Grand Slam title and history. It can be strangely quiet but it’s because it is so gripping, so focused.

The USA-Canada game instead had huge explosive fireworks as a kind of defribulator to try and get hearts pumping. If in doubt, more flames behind the goals, and talking over the action, including increasingly desperate pleas to ‘Let’s hear some noise!’

Flames behind the goalie can only mean one thing. Canada scores at Hisense. Pic: Nicko

Flames behind the goalie can only mean one thing. Canada scores at Hisense. Pic: Nicko

The reason there wasn’t any noise was because the game was mildly interesting, and nothing more. Yes there were a lot of goals. Wowee. Yes, there were some fights – tellingly between the same two fighters as at the Friday night game. Melbourne fans know their sport. Even more so, Melbourne hockey fans – or Canadian Melburnians coming along out of a sense of homesickness – know their hockey.

Nineteen goals each game tells you something about the standard, at least of the defence. Plus, the refs appeared to be under orders not to call off-side or icing, which helped the attacking players no end. Sitting where we were, up in the nosebleeds, I was really struck by how claustrophobically small a NHL-sized rink is. With a genuine NHL-standard defence guarding the goal, plus an elite goalie, the miracle is that anybody can score at all.

In fact, you know what? Earlier this week, the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins went at it in Game One of the Stanley Cup finals. This was a match that mattered, big time. This was when hockey players cared.

After the teams were 3-3 at the final buzzer, they went for the best part of three overtime periods without managing to score a goal. Almost an entire game, on top of the game already played; exhausted, out on their feet, and out of fresh attacking ideas. Yet never conceding, not giving anything up. The winner, when it came, was a cruel deflection of several legs, to beat the keeper.

It would be fair to say that at Hisense Arena, we saw nothing like that.

Which is fine. It’s an exhibition. Guys like Quincey would be under stern orders from head office not to risk their multi-million contracts with a genuine injury playing such a novelty event in Melbourne, Australia. I get that.

Watching a golf-cart or something dragging a wet net impersonating a Zamboni, I would have been nervous about my players too, if I was a NHL or AHL manager. As it was, former Melbourne Ice coach ‘Jaffa’ Wilson was among the American coaches, urging on players who were probably more interested in how the overpriced merchandise was selling than whether the Canadians had gotten one back. Plus, you know, one player handed a female friend of mine a puck with his name, jersey number and mobile number on it. Which impressed her a lot until she realised he had a box of the pucks and was using them for some kind of shotgun pellet pick-up-chicks approach. While applauding such brazen chutzpah, it would suggest to me that the Australian trip is a lot closer to an end-of-season trip for such players than a driven quest for Douglas Webber glory.

In the end, feeling extremely unmoved by the whole spectacle, I came to a realization that actually pleased me. I realized that what makes great sport is not just the rules of a game, or the location, or the shape of the ball or puck or bat or stick or mallet or whatever. Whether tennis or boxing or footy or cricket or rugby or European handball or hockey, there is one truth: what makes great sport is passion. It’s the participants’ commitment and courage and complete dedication to the task at hand. That is what can elevate sport to something magical and worthy. This is what I love.

Moreso, when that is missing, it cannot be faked. In a game like tonight’s – ostensibly, on paper, a rematch of the last Olympic gold medal match (LOL) – when it is an exhibition, and nothing more, it cannot rise to great heights. Defenders will hold off, sometimes very deliberately and at some effort, on finishing their checks. Players who in a NHL game would find depths of effort to skate when exhausted, to reach a puck that they really shouldn’t be able to fight for, won’t.

And so the level drops, and becomes pedestrian.

It’s okay. It is what it is.

But nothing more.

No amount of shrieking commentators demanding we yell and scream and stand up or get wildly fakely excited about a shoot-out (that they didn’t actually know how to run, and then couldn’t count to realize that America had won) … none of this will make an exhibition game find heights.

And so our money was spent on exactly that, and we wandered into the night, having enjoyed seeing some actual NHL stars, even if they were just doodling around. And enjoying seeing so many hockey fans and Canadians and Americans and Australian hockey fans in the one place, even if we were tepidly excited for the evening. And so we decided against spending $30 for a souvenir puck. And so we headed off, wishing Melbourne Ice was in town so we could drift to the Icehouse tomorrow and watch some real hockey. Watch players who cared.

Luckily I’m on the ice at 10 pm tomorrow, in Night Owl action. And that’s a good thing.

It’s just like porn versus sex: why watch people faking it, when you can do it for real? Amen.

Comments

  1. I thought it was OK, but nothing compared to the real stuff, at any level. Exhibitions lack a level of authenticity, limiting the ability to get right in the thick of it emotionally. What I love about the game; players prepared to grind, physically robust play sprinkled with moments of exquisite skill through adverse scenarios just can’t happen in that environment.

    They put together a decent show, it was well presented and I enjoyed having a stadium experience here in Melbourne shared with thousands of like minded fans. I hope the people who went out of curiosity get around the AIHL, because the level of authenticity and meaning that comes through from the way these guys go to work will provide a stark contrast to tonight’s fare. It’d be enough for me to get hooked all over again.

    • Yep, Andrew, exactly! Newbies, get thee to an AIHL match immediately … I literally do not know one person who has attended an AIHL game who has not been impressed, fallen in love with the sport.

  2. Adam McGuinness says:

    Well put Nick. From my Facebook response to Theresa’s post last night:

    When this was first advertised I did a little research based on the NZ tour a couple of years back, and found various posts from people who seemed to know what they were talking about, they had the same sentiment i.e. it was not authentic.

    So your playing in third tier leagues in North America (a few players are higher) and someone offers you a free trip down under with possibly some coin as well. Are you going to say no? However what have you to play for in terms of club pride, glory, your hockey career etc? Are you going to put it all on the line? I don’t think there are scouts in the stands, except from perhaps the AIHL.

    So yes this is probably the most skilled collection of players on the same rink ever gathered in Australia; however it seems they do not have the passion of an AIHL team which is not surprising.

    The best outcomes will be more fans to the AIHL, perhaps some AIHL teams sourcing imports for next season, and it would be great if this lead to one of those early season NHL games here which they now do in Europe and have done in Japan.

    FYI the team lists are here:
    http://www.internationalicehockey.com.au/2013-roster.pdf

    • Hi Adam,
      Thanks for writing to the blog. And yeah, exactly. I don’t blame the players at all … a lot of fun for them. I’m sure AFL exhibition games in London, post-season, are exactly the same. In fact, knowing journos who have covered them, and players who have ‘competed’ in them, I KNOW that’s the case.

      One good thing is that a friend from Sydney brought his kid along (Carlton-hockey double trip-to-Melbourne … poor bastard) and his son had a great time. Which goes to prove that if you didn’t know much about hockey and turned up in an air of curiosity and discovery, it was probably not too bad.

      As long as you got past thinking those big random explosions behind the curtain were a terrorist attack.

  3. Well written and poignant Adam. As much as I enjoyed the experience of seeing 9,000 Melbournians gather in the one spot for the game I love, the match fell a little flat. The organiser is an arrogant self-centered promoter. I was exposed to him in the VIP experience prior to the game and after him telling us all how extremely important he was, and that it was ‘all about the show’ it all made sense.

    Regardless, we got to see some of the best players that have graced our shores in a big arena. If it draws more kids into the sport, and helps to get us more rinks eventually, then it’s a great thing.

  4. chelseaxavier says:

    I went on the Friday night, on an absolute last-minute whim after working overtime all week. And yeah, it was about what I expected. Most of the game was kinda rubbish, with the USA team playing like they didn’t really give a damn until Jaffa suddenly appeared behind their bench in the third period, but it was a fun atmosphere and I really enjoyed it.

    And yet. I ran into one of my ex’s friends in the intermission. She’d decided to go because the ex in question was a hockey fan (well, NHL fan) and made it sound so great. And I was happy that she was enjoying it, of course, but I just wanted to grab her by the shoulders and say “Wait until you see how much better it can get.”

    • dzurlady says:

      My expectations were low and were pretty much what the game ended up being like (it was much more enjoyable after I drank a glass of champagne), but one of my non-hockey going friends went and really enjoyed it. Hopefully I can get her along to an Ice game this season, and the game does help bring more newbies along to AIHL games.

  5. Nicko, an interesting piece of writing, and one that I don’t overly disagree with save for a couple of the minor details. I worked backstage on this one and have a pretty involved knowledge of the what and why of it all. What I do know is every part of it was planned with the exception of the games themselves. It was indeed suggested to the referees to ensure the game was able to flow (but simply put, you can’t tell referees not to call stuff), and to be honest I think they did this pretty well. Nobody needed them being the stars of the show. The players weren’t (and couldn’t) be told how to play; they just went and did their thing. They weren’t told to fight by any means (although, notably two were brought out since they had a known disliking for each other), and on the second night one lost three teeth, and the other required an operation to insert plates into his newly broken hand.

    Happy to answer any questions you might have that I’m allowed to.

    • Heya James.
      Thanks a lot for writing, and those insights. You know, weirdly, I find it MORE disturbing that those two guys really were beating each other up. To have an event with half-hearted hockey but actual violence feels murkier. If it comes back, the hockey needs to be for real, and fights optional – if genuine.

  6. Nicko, Sorry but I have to disagree with pretty much everything you have written

    Well seeing as I was one of the people behind the scenes. I really have to say I am very disappointed in the fans response and in thinking these guys were not playing with heart. Reading the games were rigged and fights staged! There were 2 players with broken hands one required immediate surgery and a 3rd lost 3 teeth. So if that isnt playing with HEART I am not sure what is.

    Now about the ice!!

    Are you all aware the reason there was no Zamboni? That is because the floor inlay under was not firm enough to hold the weight as was told by the Arena. So in just 2 hours the AussBoni was built and functional. If the people behind the scenes and players didn’t care they would have cancelled the game and refunded the money.
    But that is not what happened. All got together and discussed and did the best possible in the situation the end result was the ice was not the caliber the rink maker nor the promoter or players would have liked and caused for a slow looking skater and slow moving puck. Knowing what we do now about the under floor and so on this will not happen again. Also the building Air Conditioning shut off and made the ice worse on the Friday game and also shut off during the night for Saturdays game. These are things beyond the players control.

    As for the comment about the Aussie Coach helpin the US only in the 3rd that is rubbish he was there the entire tournament at all 3 games!

    Overall everyone learned a ton and the product that will return and the ice they will play on will be much better next year.

    That being said it is still exhibition and they will not being playing like it is the Stanley cup however with better ice you will see a faster harder hitting game.
    Thank you to the people of Australia for having us and look forward to returning.
    PS; to all the AIHL players and fans it is some pretty good hockey good job!

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