But well played, Mustangs. Definitely the better team on the day. Well played.
Heads up, Ice. Had a good year and were classy and gracious in defeat.
And now, back to my Richmond scarf …
But well played, Mustangs. Definitely the better team on the day. Well played.
Heads up, Ice. Had a good year and were classy and gracious in defeat.
And now, back to my Richmond scarf …
THIS IS A COMMUNITY SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT FROM NICKO PLACE TO ALL MELBOURNE HOCKEY FANS
Okay, Melbourne hockey fans. We need to make one thing clear as we head into this giddily exciting weekend of finals at the Icehouse with the ‘Stangs and Ice in contention for the Goodall Cup.
You need to pick a side.
I don’t want to hear any of this ‘I just hope one of the Melbourne teams can do it’ crap.
I don’t want to hear: ‘Oh, you know, I know a few guys in the Mustangs and I have a few of my coaches playing for the Ice so, you know …’
I don’t even want to overhear: ‘It’s just great for the overall sport in Melbourne that we have both teams in the finals.’
I don’t want to hear any of that.
Choose a side.
And barrack as hard as you humanly can. Until that side is eliminated or wins the whole enchilada.
And then celebrate or seethe.
I have been aware, over the past couple of years, of hockey folk who openly confess to liking both the Melbourne teams. I’m not going to name names but they’re out there. The shift from the Ice to the Mustangs of the Hughes boys, and Martin Kutek, muddied the issue of barracking for a lot of Next Level enthusiasts. I get that. But I’m saying it’s time to choose.
Red wire or blue wire?
You’ll have a lot more fun this weekend if you foam at the mouth, one way or the other.
One of the fundamental joys of sport, from where I sit, having watched A LOT of it, as a journo and an enthusiast, is the sheer joy that can only be found through complete emotional commitment.
In the AFL, you cannot barrack for Essendon and Collingwood on Anzac Day. (Screw them both. Go Tigers!)
In the NHL, you can’t watch the Red Wings versus the Blackhawks, while barracking for both sides.
It’s fine not to care which team wins, but that makes you an ‘unaligned hockey fan’, not a true Detroit or Chicago fan. (Let’s Go Red Wings!)
Or, if you watch Federer v Nadal and just enjoy the game, you’re a generic tennis fan, not a Federer or Nadal fan. (Go Fed!)
It’s Holden OR Ford at Bathurst.
It was Ali OR Frazier.
It’s Australia OR England in the Ashes.
I could go on …
Trust me, I know of what I type. This is coming from a long-suffering Richmond supporter in the AFL; a fan who still clings to those dusty memories of being 15 years old and at my first ever Grand Final when the Tigers won the flag in 1980, of yelling and chanting myself hoarse, of feeling the delirium of premiership success after going to almost every game that season. And never wavering in my support through all the dark, bleak, losing years since. I’m still a true believer and can’t wait to finally sing the song as they raise the cup, whether that’s in a year or 20. (And yes, I am extremely aware that it might not be in my lifetime.)
But I digress. I’m actually trying to do you, my hockey brothers and sisters, a favour by demanding you choose a side this weekend and ride that choice to glory or despair. It’s the only way to achieve the true bliss of Goodall Cup glory.
Me? I’m a Melbourne Ice fan. Through and through. I deeply want The Beard, Army, Tommy, Bacsy and all the other Ice players to raise that cup one more time. I’ve never actually seen an Ice championship in the flesh and I want Sunday to end that bizarre quirk.
In fact, let’s get shit started and rev into the weekend.
I DON’T want those frauds, the Mustangs, to win for several reasons:
Sure, I have friends who are diehard Clippyclop fans and I’ll be grudgingly happy for them if they win. Jess Kirwan, for example, I fully respect your one-eyed passion for the team. And a shout out to the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, who I have always admired and respected as a hilarious and interesting group.
I’ll be happy for you guys if the team wins. But I don’t want that to be this weekend, because my team is also playing.
As for the reborn Canberra, well, I guess victory would be one of the biggest achievements ever for crowdfunding as a concept but I still struggle to get excited about anything to do with Canberra, especially while politicians are as crap and vision-free as they are on all sides of the House at the moment.
And the Ice-Dogs? Meh, they won it last year so that’s enough success for them and anyway, there’s that whole bullshit Sydney versus Melbourne rivalry that I don’t usually buy into but this weekend, why not? Plus, I fundamentally don’t believe dogs can skate. I’ve seen my labradoodle skitter helplessly while trying to run on the wooden floor boards at home, and I’m pretty sure she’d be even more crap on a white frozen sheet.
So there.That wraps it up for the quasi contenders.
Go Ice go!
Local fence-sitters: pick up ONE scarf, right now.
Paint your face blue, red and white OR black, white and gold.
Be prepared to cry with your chosen team or celebrate wildly.
If it does happen to be a Clippyclop-Ice grand final, and it’s a lopsided scoreboard, there’ll be NO sneaking off to the Icehouse toilets at the end of the second period on Sunday to change colours and clothing. You hear me? There’ll be none of that! I might even check. And I’ll do a sweep of the toilets near the Bradbury Rink as well, in case you’re thinking of getting sneaky. I will. I’ll do it. Don’t think I won’t. You’ve been warned.
Jockeys don’t change horses mid-race in the Melbourne Cup. And neither should we. Which is why sport is torturous and fun.
Good. Then see you there.
So, this weekend is shaping up.
The Melbourne Mustangs and Melbourne Ice finished the AIHL regular season in first and second place on the ladder and so the finals, at the Icehouse on Saturday and Sunday, hold the tantalizing promise of an epic local derby as the grand final.
Which is not to get ahead of myself. The reborn Canberra Brave and the reigning champions, the Sydney Ice-Dogs, also have genuine claims, so it’s going to be a hectic and tough weekend of hockey.
It’s hard to gauge where hockey in Australia is at, I reckon, as we head into the weekend’s finale. On the surface, it looks super healthy, especially if you’re sitting in Melbourne as a fan of the Ice or the Clippyclops. Both Melbourne teams draw close to sell-out crowds and, as always, the only real problem in Melbourne seems to be the lack of much-needed extra rinks.
Perth, which didn’t make the play-offs, turned up last weekend and beat the Ice twice. Most of the teams in the AIHL were competitive this season. Media interest (the vast majority of which can be placed under the name of Will Brodie, from The Age, who has carried the sport into the mainstream media on his back) and Fox Sports coverage continues to grow. Life’s rosy.
But there are issues, from where I sit, as a fan. For starters, the sheer battle of Canberra to exist this season was a wake-up call and several other teams appear to struggle financially to get to the line each season. It’s never about the passion or skill of the players. It’s purely about the cost of running a team, and the ability of state bodies or owners to make it happen.
Meanwhile, the finals format isn’t great. To battle for the entire season, finish first or second, and then find yourself in a cut-throat semi-final doesn’t seem particularly fair. The top team in each semi gets ‘last change’ rights, and ‘home bench’ but so what, really, after months of intense competition? If the grand final does happen to be a Mustangs-Ice clash, those two teams have their own benches anyway so, in practice, the Mustangs would only have ‘last change’ as the competitive advantage for all that work and success.
Of course, it would rock if the finals series could happen across two weekends. One weekend of best-of-three semi-final match-ups. It would be brutal, but compelling and would have a greater chance of revealing the best team in each series.
Then the grand final could be held the following weekend. Again, a best-of-three finals series would be so much better than one hour of no-tomorrow to judge the whole season.
The arguments against that, or other potential formats, are mostly financial, and reasonably so. I get it. As it stands, with one weekend, locked in for Melbourne or Newcastle or another venue months before the actual date, everybody can book tickets as soon as they confirm their place in the top four, achieving cheaper flights etc. Teams are generally not financially flush enough to be flying around for extra weekends, and the league doesn’t seem to have the cash to make that happen, but it’s a shame. It feels like the intensity of the AIHL season comes down to one very fast, very ruthless weekend where the best side all year can have an off five minutes or a dubious penalty or two and that’s it, they’re done.
Of course, you can equally argue that this is exactly what makes the weekend exciting; that everything needs to go right. The Melbourne Ice famously achieved the three-peat not so long ago, so teams can get it done.
But wouldn’t a more considered, more-matches, longer finale be cool?
The other huge issue, especially in Melbourne, is the lack of rinks. It’s been talked about endlessly – the Icehouse is amazing, Oakleigh heroically provides ageing, quirky back-up. There is no third rink. Beginner classes and intermediate classes continue to churn out super-enthusiastic wannabe players, just like I was three or four years ago and, Hell, continue to be. But the summer competition is groaning at capacity, in terms of the maximum number of teams and the number of players per team. Our 2011 influx, the Rookies, was followed by a group of hockey class students who called themselves the Ferals, and now there are ‘Black Ice’ jerseys all over the rink at classes. What worries me is that, with only two rinks, there’s going to be nowhere for these players to actually play, and I fear people will lose interest and drift away. Or get thrown into a higher grade of competition than they should attempt and be smashed and limp away.
The Icehouse was recently rumoured to be on its way to becoming apartments but has since been sold and looks like it will remain a rink, which saves the sport’s arse in Victoria right there. But any new rink must be a couple of years or more away from being built, even if it’s commissioned, so the time lag is a serious concern.
And yes, time marches on. Has this year flown or what? Spring is definitely in the air – 18 degrees and sunny as I type this – and Ice Hockey Victoria’s winter competition is coming to an end, with finals underway. That means summer competition is looming closer for us lucky enough to have a spot on a team, and everybody I know is suffering ‘ice fever’ as Alex McGoon called it today. We Cherokees can’t wait to reform as a team and play. Facebook banter is hitting unprecedented heights.
Off social media, Big Cat and I have loaded up with new sticks – a stick and puck on Monday was very ugly, for me at least, as I tried to come to terms with a slightly different length and different curve on my stick, compared to my beloved but definitely now dead Reebok 9k. Off-ice and on-ice training remains intense as we get ready.
Spring also means the business end of the AFL, with my beloved Tigers heading to Sydney to try and knock off the Swans and somehow complete their unlikely mission to make the Eight, from the ridiculously terrible mid-season position of 3 and 10. They probably won’t do it, but I’m all about whether the turnaround will carry into 2015. Or am I? As far as this year’s campaign goes, I’m doing my bit for the team by heading overseas, so I’ll be in Europe for the grand final and the most unlikely Richmond flag ever.
In my other spiritual home of Detroit, the media and the fans are counting the days until Red Wings training camp, which is now less than a month away. Will Dan Cleary train the house down and make the line-up? Will Tomas Jurco be sent down to Grand Rapids? Will a right-handed d-man appear out of nowhere, but without costing us Tatar or another treasured rising star? Will Stephen Weiss be healthy and ready to stop being the invisible man? So many questions and ever closer to the puck-drop to start the 2014-15 season. Personally, I think the Wings are going to be better than people think and will give the whole thing a shake. So there.
So much to look forward to, but only after this weekend. As somebody who somehow managed to never be there at the moment the Melbourne Ice won any of the three straight Goodall Cups, I can only say I’m leaving Sunday free and clear for a trip to Docklands. I plan to be in my seat and cheering, no matter which of the four teams lift the Cup. But I know who I’m barracking for.
Go, Ice, go.
So, Wednesday night has a new routine. Big Cat, Alex McGoon, Big Dan Mellios, Willie Ong and my other usual on-ice partners, all dress in the red and white Icehouse jerseys for 10 pm development league. I walk out of the change rooms wearing something else, like my black Red Wings training jersey, or maybe my blue Grand Rapid Griffins jersey.
And I go seek out Icehouse coaches Army or Tommy who, six weeks in, I’m pretty sure see me coming.
‘How are you for numbers tonight?’ I ask every week.
‘I think we’re okay.’
‘Someone in the change rooms was saying that it looks like the teams might be short,’ I say. ‘I’m supposed to be doing power skating, but I don’t mind switching if you need more players.’
By now, they’ve totally clocked me. ‘Listen Place, if you want to skip out of power skating and play dev league, we don’t care. Just play.’
‘No, no, I’m totally up for power skating,’ I completely lie. ‘I’m only offering to help.’
‘It’s your call, Nicko … totally up to you.’
Knowing eyes and grins. Damn them to Hell.
I trudge off to the Bradbury rink to Power Skating, and an hour of pain.
I tried Power Skating once before, in February last year, but had to stop after about four classes because it was The Year Of The Knee and my injured, then-undiagnosed left knee simply couldn’t handle the work. That, matched with my ineptness on skates when trying some of Zac’s more ambitious manoeuvres, beat me at the time, as I tried to just remain fit enough to play for my summer league team on weekends.
Since my knee recovered, I’ve done all my usual tricks of playing endless dev league and off-ice work, but I hadn’t had the stomach to return to Power Skating. One move that killed my knee (skating backward on one foot, landing sideways, on the outside edge, of the other foot, spinning 360 degrees on that edge and landing back on the original foot, ready to go again) still haunted me. And yet … in games, I know deep down that it’s my skating ability that holds me back and that others are skating better and better every week, while my improvement has been slower.
It was time to take action, to shake things up. And so this term I resolved to miss the fun and competitiveness of dev league, and go work on my moves.
But man, it’s hard. After almost four years of this hockey adventure, Power Skating is still able to just poke every single element of my game that I haven’t mastered. That’s the entire point, I suppose, but it doesn’t make it an enjoyable hour. Put it this way, I’ve found myself reading articles on negative thinking and how to ward off ‘I can’t do that’ negativity that gets in your way in life. And skating.
Every class starts with intense forward C-cuts, and then crossovers. Then the same thing, going backwards. Backward C-cuts. Backward crossovers. Occasionally raising a leg in the air, to glide on one outside edge for a while until Zac tells us to resume skating.
This is the opening ten minutes … a stark reminder of how dubious I remain at backward skating, at crossovers on my lesser side, at performing a genuine C-cut. On the plus side, there are elements of these that most skaters cheat on, and I’m trying really hard not to cheat on technique in this class. Pulling off a genuine toe-to-heel, never-let-your-skate-leave-the-ice C-cut back to heel-meeting-heel is bloody difficult, forward or backward. I know lots of really fast, really nimble skaters who I bet couldn’t do it, if Zac forensically made them show the technique. Of course, it doesn’t matter in a game. See the puck, get the puck. How you scramble down the ice on a breakaway doesn’t actually matter as long as you’re fast enough or nimble enough to outskate and outwit the opposition players. The Shots On Goal stat is ultimately more important than the Flawless Skating Technique stat, even if everybody knows the latter will always help the former.
Power Skating has no scoreboard, gets rid of the excuses and shortcuts of game play, and that’s why I struggle so much. It makes you concentrate intensely on exactly what your feet are doing, and how your weight is balanced, and whether your knees are bent (they never are: never enough) and everything else that, as Melbourne Ice import Sean Hamilton put it to me recently, falls under the essential skater learning category of: ‘Ass to ankles.’
On the adjacent Henke Rink last night I heard the horn blow as one side or another scored a goal (turns out two of them were Big Cat Place, showing some pre-summer form) but I was lost in puck control while high-stepping backward down the ice, or performing double fast-start crossovers in gut-busting races across the ice, or those bastard backward crossovers, or – mercifully – learning saucer passes and flip-passes where, finally, my slightly more presentable puck-handling skills got some airtime.
Zac as a teacher is endlessly patient and supportive. He skates like nobody you’ve ever seen, teaching this stuff since he was a teenager back in Canada. It’s always fun to watch the entire class sag as he shows how a move should be done and casually pulls out some one-foot, crazy-angle snow-flying hockey stop at the end without thinking about it.
Everybody has been telling me that this Power Skating class will be good for my skating. That I will emerge a little faster or with better outside edges or just more complete as a skater. God, I hope so. It’s a truly difficult and challenging class. But I want to hit summer in the best shape I possibly can and I want to make breakaways count and not falter mid-turn when it matters in a game.
As they used to say in one of my favourite ever TV shows, The Wire: ‘All the pieces matter.’
(In fact, the full quote suits my purposes even better: ‘We’re building something here, detective. We’re building it from scratch. Alllll the pieces matter.’)
A few more Wednesday nights of pain won’t kill me and might even do a lot of good. Hell, if I have gained even one kph of extra speed, I might sign up again for next term. Don’t quote me on that.
I’ve been going to a lot of Melbourne International Film Festival screenings over the past week. French films about relationships, relationships or, maybe, relationships. A strange Icelandic film about horse sex and people who are slightly mad. A beautiful but strangely emotionless Japanese animation. Robert Connolly’s fantastic new live-action kids film, Paper Planes. Between sessions, we walk from the Forum to the Capitol or maybe Hoyts at Melbourne Central, rugged up in puffy jackets and beanies, huddled against the biting breeze.
But then, on Facebook yesterday, somebody posted: ‘Only six weeks until daylight savings.’ I blinked. Really?
Meanwhile, in the AFL, it’s coming down to the wire with less than a month to the finals, which means two things: Richmond will finish ninth and the sun will start to shine and the grounds will become less muddy.
At the Bang, my footy brothers and I will stop and sniff the Spring in the air and start to lairize even more than we do now, with one handed marks, drop-kick attempts and other shenanigans we’re too old and only occasionally skilled enough to attempt.
And, most importantly of all, Ice Hockey Victoria’s summer season will loom and my team, the Cherokees, will again continue our quest to be competitive in Division 3.
Just like all the other summer players, we’re busy getting ready, doing the training, hoping we’re better than last season.
I can hardly wait for the competition to start. Last summer was pretty much blown out for me by the much-chronicled Year of the Knee, as I could hardly skate or, when the knee finally repaired, didn’t have enough legs to feel like I was at my best.
Even, so, I unfortunately did better than Big Cat Place who broke his ankle before the season had found full stride and barely played from that point until the last few games months later.
Big Cat and I committed there and then to play at least one more summer together, both fit, both able to be true teammates, before the inevitable happens and he gets too good to play on the same team as me, and so the summer of 2014/15 is shaping as a critical time of my hockey life.
I haven’t written much here lately because, as always, I don’t want the blog to just repeat the same old stuff and I would get as bored writing it as you would reading about every development league game or Red Wings playoff blowout.
Plus I had a manuscript to finish, which I just have, and so all my writing hours were taken up with that 135,000 word-mountain.
But between my real job and the novel draft, I have been training hard, getting ready for summer. I’m currently heavier on the scales than I have been for a while but feel fitter than I have been for a long time, which either means I’m delusional or I’ve gained extra (heavier than fat) muscle where I need it. Maybe those two things aren’t mutually exclusive.
All I can do is the work. Twice a week I trek to Port Melbourne to meet with the bearded one, Melbourne Ice and Australian captain Lliam Webster, to toil on improving my functional body movement, core strength and explosive power. This training remains the best and most entertaining I have done after years in gyms, lugging weights. It involves everything from Spiderman crawling along the floor to carrying barbells as far and as fast as I can while a giant rubber band threatens to twang me through the opposite wall. Some days I’m pushing a sled loaded with weights across the room, or deadlifting a barbell, other days I’m sliding on the slide board while Lliam has fun frisbeeing plastic cones at me to swat away as I glide.
The muscles being worked are all core hockey muscles and I can feel the extra balance and strength through my deep stomach muscles, glutes and hamstrings. As a happy aside, my dodgy lower back is better than it’s ever been, I have shaken off a shoulder that was hurting me for months and The Knee is now strong enough that I’m hopping onto platforms or over distances and landing on the same left leg.
In other words, for the first time in at least 18 months, I am pain free. Amen.
This has all been a long process involving Fluid Health, acupuncture needles, Enzo the magic osteo and a lot of damage to my credit card, but it feels fine to sit here and be able to write that I am pain free and feeling fit, with a couple of months to go before I skate out in the Braves jersey for a new season.
On days I’m not at Fluid, I hit the gym near my work in Richmond, lifting weights and building upper body strength.
On Wednesday nights, I have signed up for power skating, which is an hour of pure Hell – well, actually, that’s not strictly true: the bag skating and explosive speed stuff I quite like. The outside edge work, not so much, because I remain so shit at it.
But I made a conscious decision – with much support from hockey friends: ‘Do power skating. You need to. You NEED to.’ – to spend at least one term of Wednesday nights working specifically on my still dubious skating, instead of playing dev league.
Getting better on skates is such a slow, gradual thing that it is difficult to chart progression. Some games, friends/opponents vow that they were astonished at how much faster I have become. Other times I know that I sucked dogs balls, as an old girlfriend used to say. Wobbling around like an Intro Class rookie.
One thing, though: I’ve actually reached a significant point in my skating, where I don’t mostly think about it during games. I see the puck and go to get the puck, or make position. I don’t have to think abut my legs or where my feet are moving.
It’s like learning a language where they say you have truly made progress when you think in that language. At some point, skating stopped being something I had to concentrate on and became something happening while I was playing hockey, so that’s an improvement.
But then come those moments where I get run down from behind on a breakaway because I’m not fast enough, or I have to turn fast, clockwise (my “bad side”) and I curse that I’m less nimble. Or I just watch others who I started with, several years ago, who now skate like a dream. Or I realize that there are entire moves, like backward crossovers, that I simply don’t ever attempt under pressure in a game.
And so I trudge off to the Bradbury Rink for skating lessons with Zac, not the Henke Rink for the fun of playing actual games.
Today, I’m hitting the gym at lunchtime for some weights. Tonight I have power skating. Tomorrow, Fluid with Lliam. Friday? Maybe the gym again, if I don’t have a social game of hockey with or against the IBM team. Sunday: the Bang.
This is not to brag. I need to do this to even attempt to keep up with those young’uns I’ll be skating with and against this summer.
I need to do this anyway. I long ago realised how important regular exercise is to maintaining my potentially fragile mental health. I also long ago realised how draining on my emotional and mental health writing fiction can be. So it’s no coincidence that I’m on a big fitness campaign while driving a draft to the line.
Anyway you look at it, I believe that’s known as win-win. My body is coping. I have miles in my legs. Spring is in the air. My book first draft is done. The Cherokees are starting to get excited.
Bring on the summer.
Nicko Place in a rare off-ice moment.