The player skates fast, flying on edges, behind my net and I move to block the space where he has to come out. He flicks the puck straight over my stick, catches it and then taps it between my legs. As I try to process this, which has happened inside less than a second, he’s gone, like smoke into a flame, and by the time I turn around he’s skating through the blue line.
‘Goddamn it, Army,’ I call when I’ve skated to a point where I can yell at him. ‘You could at least try to pretend like that was difficult.’
Matt Armstrong, Melbourne Ice star, Canadian and former European pro, just laughs and apes my habitual legs-too-far-apart stance and cruises effortlessly away, faster than my fastest skating. I cuss quietly to myself and go chase the puck, because now Shona, captain of Melbourne Ice and Australia, is streaming through the middle and I know a pass will be coming if I can get to the right spot.
The final night of Hockey Academy at the Icehouse is always a lot of fun. Our coaches throw away any pretense of teaching – apart from schooling us in real time on the ice – and jump onto the ice for a scrimmage.
It’s actually not humiliating at all – I just really wanted to use that headline. It’s a night of miracles and wonder, although not in the Paul Simon kind of way. It’s a night where you can battle your way to the far goalpost and pretty much know that Tommy Powell (Australia and Melbourne Ice) will somehow weave the puck through eight legs and four sticks and a goalie, to land it right on your tape for the tap-in goal. It’s a night where Lliam Webster (captain, Melbourne Ice and Australia) will calmly stick-handle for what seems like an eternity, all within half a metre of his body, as hockey students flail and fail to steal the puck. It’s a night where goalies have nightmares, watching giant Melbourne Ice defender Todd Graham wind up from the blue line or watching Matt Armstrong come swinging in, deeking and curving, all angles and power, winding up and then last-second passing off to a player they hadn’t noticed to their left who has an open net. Or where Shona will just skate alongside a player, gently separating him or her from the puck without them quite realising until it’s too late.
It’s so much fun. And it reminds you how good the best actually are.
I’ve been really lucky to experience this moment across several sports, from my time as a sports writer. I once drove laps of a raceway with Bathurst veteran Jim Richards in his Targa Rally 4WD Porsche. It had rained – real Queensland rain – for an entire day beforehand and the track, on the outskirts of Brisbane, was underwater. Richards drove at roughly 200 kph around wide corners and faster down the straight, hurtling past smaller, hard-revving cars before jamming the brakes, screw the weather, to take a sharp right hander. Then flooring it, going through gears back to 200 or so. While doing this, casually chatting with me – I was surprised how easily we could hold a conversation given the screaming engine and the fact we were both wearing race helmets.
‘You’ve got the best fucking job in the world,’ I said, meaning it, and he laughed, shoulders shaking, even as his hands and legs worked the car down through gears and brakes for a corner coming up, like, NOW.
People asked me later if I was scared but I wasn’t at all. In fact, what struck me more than anything was that this was Richards driving at a sponsor open day, giving supporters (and one feature writer) laps in the car. He was probably driving at 70 per cent of capacity, not about to push the car anywhere near its limits with passengers alongside. The speed and torque and thrill weren’t even at maximum revs, which had me wondering what it must be like when he really turns it on.
I had the same thought once in my tennis writing days. I can’t remember if I’ve written about this before but I used to play a lot of tennis and I hit possibly the best serve I can ever remember hitting in my life to Jason Stoltenberg, then a top player, at a Tennis Australia media open day. I decided, on a big point in a friendly doubles match, that there was no point playing for percentages. Stolts had been chirping me mercilessly as I bounced the balls at the baseline, preparing to serve, and so I wound up, swung from the ankles and somehow, against all the odds, absolutely creamed it. I swear I could not hit a tennis ball any better than that and my serve was the best part of my game. This one was aimed at the sideline of the backhand court and it hit the outside edge of that tramline, skidded off the paint and was gone, man, gone.
I barely had time to register the extent of how legendary I was, before a green blur passed my feet as it landed just inside the baseline and disappeared. Stolts had taken maybe half a step to his left and effortlessly backhanded the return past me before I finished my follow-through.
I couldn’t disguise how absolutely gutted I was (yes, my partner and I lost the set), and he almost died laughing, but later I told him it was instructive. Hanging out on the tennis tour, and hitting a few balls here and there, reporters would start to think it doesn’t look so hard, maybe with the right practice I could get out there and aim for Wimbledon … some even entered qualifying for the satellite tour, the lowest rung, and got found out quickly.
But Stolts’ almost-yawning return of my absolutely best ‘100 per cent can’t hit it better’ serve ensured I never had those delusions. (My dad was a genuinely competitive Australian tennis player and thought about going on the world tour when it was ‘shamateur’, but then one day he had to return serve to Neale Fraser at training and Fraser broke 13 strings on dad’s racquet. Dad became an engineer.)
It runs through all sports: think how bloody good at football all those kids who don‘t get drafted into the AFL are. Think how impossibly good Test batsmen are, or bowlers.
So last night, I was there again, being reminded of just how impossibly vast the gap is between those at the top and us everyday mortals. And this is with Tommy, Lliam, Army, Todd and Shone operating at maybe 50 per cent capacity if we students were lucky. And without taking anything away from our coaches, it needs to be remembered that there are then clear levels above them before you get to the rarified air of the AHL and elite Canadian or European leagues, not to mention the NHL. Just how fucking good must Pavel Datsyuk be? Or a younger Wings lesser light like, say, Tomas Jurco, for that matter? Not that either of them are scoring any goals just now, but that’s another story.
Dev League has had a very high standard this term. It’s full of winter players keeping sharp and summer Div 2 players, which means they can play. But the coaches last night made everybody look like P-platers without really breaking a sweat. Not bothering with much armour, getting a puck back if they lost it, just having fun as we worked as hard as we could.
At one point in Dev, Tommy drifted past me as we all set up for a face-off in our defensive end. He said: ‘When the puck drops, just go.’
He nodded towards our goal at the other end. ‘Go.’
As left wing, I huddled over my stick as usual and as Lliam, as ref, dropped the puck, I did as instructed and took off. Didn’t even see who won the face-off. Just skated.
Sure enough, out of the sky comes a puck. Tommy had got it, as he knew he would, and lobbed it high into the air from deep in defence to the red line, the puck landing about a metre in front of me and dying as it bounced so that I could scoop it with my stick and charge the goalie. I have no idea how far behind me the White team opponents were but it felt like I had three quarters of the ice to myself. Of course, I overthought it and tried to go high and the goalie got a glove on it to stop the goal. Dammit. But what a move by Tommy.
Imagine being able to do that. Imagine being able to be like Army who tossed the puck from behind the net over the goal frame and into the goalie’s back and then the goal. Imagine being able to be Shona, not bothering with armour, as she sweeps the puck even off the Melbourne Ice men, turns on the burners and then stick-handles for as long as she needs to before one of us eventually arrives for a pass and maybe even a shot.
Or Lliam who seems to love the crazy stick-handling as mentioned and then the blind pass or the skate-kick pass.
We all struggle to keep up, occasionally feel our hearts soar if we actually manage to poke-check a puck away from one of the coaches, and enjoy receiving their silky passes.
It always means it’s the end of term when we have these games. This time, it’s the end of another hockey year. Every year ticking over gets closer to when playing competitive hockey will get beyond me and so I tend to get melancholy as I drive home through the night. Big Cat wasn’t there tonight either, which felt weird, but I love the hockey community so much that there were endless people to chat with and laugh with and commiserate with after another coach had skated around them, barely breaking a sweat.
After such a shitty week for everybody, with the Sydney siege by that mentally ill crackpot, it was beautiful to be out on the ice, eyes and mind for nothing but the puck. I missed a lot of sweet coach-delivered chances, but I also buried a couple, so it was a good night for me.
Now the skates are drying and my gear is hanging for the final time this year, I’d imagine.
Roll on 2015 and whatever the next hockey adventures are going to be. I can’t wait.
Have a great Christmas and see you all in new year. Let’s Go Red Wings.