I managed to get along to an AIHL game yesterday: Melbourne Ice versus the Sydney Bears at the Icehouse, on a Sunday afternoon. Having not been training at all (see previous 4000 whinge-posts about my left knee), or seeing the hockey gang on Wednesdays at Dev League, I feel like I’ve been very removed from my usual icy world, so it was nice to sit in the stands at the Henke and say howdy to everybody, while cheering Lliam, Army, Baxy, Tommy and the rest of the Ice team.
It was a long afternoon for the poor Bears, who were coming off six straight losses and had to face the three-time champions. There’s a match report here (yes, the Melbourne Ice have official match reports now!) but I was struck by two things, watching the game.
The first is just the sheer continuing strangeness, in modern day sport, that hockey remains a contest where genuine fistfights can and do occur. I know I’ve written about this before but when you’re watching a fight in real time, it can still strike you that it is sort of bizarre. Yesterday it happened early in the third period, as Ice import Chris Frank and Bear Michael Schlamp dropped the gloves and were both thrown out of the game, but not before Frank had won the fight and waved cheerily to the crowd in celebration while being led to the bench and the locker-room.
For hockey fans, this was no big thing. Neither player appeared particularly hurt and in the understood arena of contact hockey, such a fight is not a particularly rare thing or considered outrageous at any level. This wasn’t like Vinnie Hughes’ ugly hunt down of an opposition player last year. This was just a ‘you-want-to-go?…ok!’ scuffle.
But if you zoom back to take a wider sporting view, how many sports allow a player to genuinely beat somebody up without serious consequence or alarm?
It happened a few weeks ago in a rugby league State of Origin match, leading to mixed reactions (old skool: ‘he was flying the flag, being awesome, being a tough guy’ and new world: WTF?) as eloquently captured and discussed by a friend of mine from the Bang, Ned Manning.
But it hardly ever happens in AFL any more and would be seen as dinosaur behavior if it did. Soccer, basketball, netball, tennis, golf, triathlon, Trugo? Nope. Officially, fights aren’t encouraged or particularly condoned in Australian hockey – in fact, as somebody pointed out in the stands yesterday, it’s really only the NHL that still casually allows fights – but if one does take off, the refs still stand back until somebody hits the ice. In summer league, where I play, a fight like yesterday’s would mean you are probably out for the season, which is good for encouraging kids to take up the sport. But I don’t think many people at the game yesterday had an issue with Frank and Schlamp testing one another out. in fact, most of the crowd loved it.
I know people who won’t go to hockey or take an interest because of the violence of it, or the perceived violence of it. Yet stamping out that violence, even a stoush like Frank-Schlamp – would remove a key component of the sport. Toughness is an essential part of this level of the game. It’s not just fisticuffs either. Hulking Ice defender Todd Graham twice put the same Bears player, the much smaller Silvan Maeder, into the boards yesterday and it would be fair to say Maeder did not appear to enjoy it. He stayed down, face first on the ice, for quite a while after the first hit (which was actually just Graham guiding him gradually into the glass with his arse) and shook his head, either in pain or frustration, after the much harder second hit.
But he copped them both and was still slugging it out at the end, for which I admired him.
The second element where hockey is weird is in participation numbers. How many other sports don’t care if one team starts a game with dramatically more players than the opposition?
In yesterday’s game, as far as I could count (which isn’t well because, let’s face it, I’m a hockey player), the Bears started with only 12 players, including one goalie. The Ice had at least 18 players, including Dahlen Phillips between the pipes, and probably a second goalie dressed on the bench, who I didn’t happen to notice.
So the Ice had several lines of forwards to run, while the Bears were almost shift-on, shift-off. And it got worse when Schlamp was ejected, as noted, and so was another Bear, Spencer Austin, for the almost farcically undisciplined acts of tripping an Ice player with his stick while being sent to the box, and then swatting the puck down the ice for a further misdemeanor.
Austin tried to regain some tough-guy credits by breaking a stick on the bench boards on his way out but nobody was buying it; especially, I’d imagine, the other Bears. In fact, Holy crap, I wouldn’t have wanted to be Austin when his exhausted teammates finally staggered back into the rooms at the end of the period/game. When he got thrown out for being a dick, the Ice was narrowly holding off the gutsy Bears, 4-3, but now, two men down (compared to the Ice only losing Frank and having plenty of cover), the Bears tired dramatically in the last 10 minutes to lose 7-3.
In my Sunday Nite Owls comp and in summer league, this can happen, where one team barely has enough skaters to legally compete while the other team has up to four full lines of forwards and three lines of D.
It’s very strange and yet another test of your confidence and skill and fitness, if you happen to be on the team with less bodies. I secretly love it when that happens; digging deep, deep and deeper, to keep my shaking legs moving and a cool head, against a larger army.
It’s just another way that hockey is challenging and bizarre and entertaining and uncertain. Long may it stay that way, as long as I don’t find myself bare-knuckle shaping up to Chris Frank. He’s quite a big guy.