WORLD EXCLUSIVE: Nicko writes: I met Will Brodie through mutual writing/journalism friends quite a few years ago, and before my hockey adventure began, so the fact that he’d played as a kid didn’t resonate with me at the time, as it does now. However, as he’s rediscovered his love of the sport, and played a vital role in getting media oxygen for the AIHL at The Age Online, and now through his excellent book, ‘Reality Check‘, it’s been fun to see him reestablish himself in our crazy world. A while ago, I invited hockey players to write for the blog and had a series of guest writer ‘origin stories’ as a result. That offer has always remained open (and remains open, for anybody who wants to tell their story). Will found time, between marketing and selling ‘Reality Check’, to tell his yarn. Here it is:
A tale of two hockey lives
By Will Brodie When I chatted to Nick Place about his hockey journey, he remarked that the experience of those who first played in the 1970s was unknown to many of those who have taken to the sport since the advent of the Icehouse. He suggested I write about my origins in hockey and what it was like back then, and I was keen to share reminiscences of a formative, fondly remembered era.
I have had two hockey lives. My first began when I was a young child in the early 1970s, when I used a sawn-off stick as I mucked about with mates including Glenn and Tim Grandy at our Dads’ senior Blackhawks practices early on Sunday mornings. When senior scrimmage took over the entire ice surface, we repaired to the worn floorboards of St Moritz to improvise endless games with pucks made from balled-up discarded stick tape (suspiciously like electrical tape in those days). If we bribed our fathers at the right moment we would get cokes in small bottles, a style revived decades later as a ‘retro’ marketing/packaging ploy. Later we all played together in the Blackhawks juniors, starting as 10-year-olds playing under-16s. When I was 14, playing a game of footy and two games of hockey each Sunday, I hurt a knee, perhaps inevitably. The initial niggle came in a way unique to rough rinks in those days – condensation or leakage from the roof dripping down and forming nasty little yellow stalagmites which rose off the ice surface. I skated over one, felt a twinge and a later tackle from behind in a footy game finished my cartilage off well enough for me to spend weeks on crutches. Living on the suburban/urban fringe, I had started attending school in the city and, when I recovered, the prospect of training at midnight Friday – with a merged team which included members of our previous arch-rivals – was not enough to bring me back. I never made a decision to never again play, merely not to play that year, then the usual adolescent distractions intervened and by the time I was into young adulthood, the five-rink league of my youth had shrunk to just Oakleigh. As I write in Reality Check: “I meant to get back to hockey but never did”.
This first age of hockey of mine was blessed by a golden age of rinks in Melbourne. Like visiting VFL home grounds, playing at Footscray, Ringwood, St Moritz and Oakleigh was exciting and fascinating, each rink possessing a unique atmosphere. Dandenong was a good size, but felt like the converted factory it was; St Moritz was a magnificent faded relic, all art deco timber, and all too vulnerable to a cynical match; Footscray was always wet and less scary than you thought it would be; Ringwood was like the MCG of the sport, housing the slick Rangers and home to the brief incursion of the sport on to ABC TV; Oakleigh was the tiny, combative rink where they played stirring American marching band anthems ahead of senior finals games.
We played the Monarchs, Pirates, Hakoah, Rangers … Many of the clubs familiar to players these days are unfamiliar to me. Jets? Sharks? They are long-established but they were the product of mergers or changes which came long after my playing career. When we weren’t playing, we were often forming a very small, shrill cheer squad for the seniors, banging on the hoardings at the Dandenong Coliseum. When I walk through the Icehouse’s St Moritz bar these days, many of the names on the trophies are those of friends of my Dad that we cheered for, friendly hockey types who held court at the backyard barbecues where Glenn and I played hockey with fallen lemons. My Dad and his hockey friends consistently lunched long on Fridays, bottled wine to raise funds for the club and the Australian national team and went on holidays with their families together. They eventually all bought a property together, in the glorious bush of the Victorian Great Dividing Range. I still camp on that property with my family. Old hockey sticks were redeployed alongside our tents as prospective ‘bong-bong’ sticks in case errant snakes strayed too close to habitation. My brother still has a relic of one of those sticks, a shrunken red Titan. To me, Titan sticks were the fancy newcomer – I had grown up accustomed to KOHO and Sherwood, but such is the foreshadowing of memory; Titans were probably around for most of my childhood. The first impressions remain the strongest.
My second hockey life began in 2010 when my brother Craig took me to a game at the recently opened Icehouse. I fell back in love with the game instantly, amazed at the venue – the seemingly grandiose, unrealistic dream of decades previous made real – and the remarkable crowds, but mostly just the game itself, better than it had ever been played in Australia, and presented so much more ‘professionally’, with music and announcers. My hockey renaissance via the Icehouse came at around the same time Nick and so many others were taking their newfound enthusiasm to the next level by buying skates, taking lessons and learning how to play. Nick is a wholehearted sort of hockey lover – he had to play, not just watch. For those of us who have played but been away for a long time – the itch to play again never goes away. There is nothing like playing hockey. If you don’t play for a long time, it seeps into your dreams. I had my first skate in 30 years in mid 2012 and did my (other) knee (on terra firma) a week later. I don’t drive, I am not wealthy and my lower limbs are faulty – returning to playing hockey is not an easy choice to make at 48, especially when I have such vivid memories of being a competent junior. But the more I watched, the closer I got to the players and the ice surfaces by writing my book about the AIHL in 2014, the more the hockey dreams returned. The smell of sweat in the cold. The smell of lacerated rubber matting, decades old. The clacking sound of sticks, skates, pucks, boards. It is little wonder that the subconscious is activated by hockey – while one is sleeping, the most affecting sensations have their run of the mind and soul. Asleep, there is no rational mind saying ‘you’re too old/hurt/poor to play again’. My hockey dreams bring back very specific moments and sensations. I remember the jelly-legged fear and excitement when pulling up at a foreign rink ahead of a game. I remember the intoxicating odour drift of exhaust in the pre-dawn fog at Sunday morning practices as a diesel-powered tractor with chains on its tyres trudged up and down to clean the ice. The same tractors I would see in the fields near our camping getaway; Massey Fergusons rolled through my childhood like pets. I remember the forbidding holes at the corners of some rinks where snow was shoved down by flat, wide person-powered shovels. The red digital scoreboards which glowed either warmly or tauntingly depending on the numbers they exhibited.
I recall the completion of pulling a jersey over your gear before a game, and suddenly being transformed into a player; the perfect satisfaction of a pass setting up a goal-scoring mate; the oxygenated agony of stops and starts; the post-practice glow, with all of Sunday still stretching ahead; ignominious losses that taught me that teams beat talent; the sensation of gliding a circle after having hustled for speed; the sensation of beating a goalie, sometimes a mystery worthy of In Search Of investigation, sometimes as simple as just being there in the slot. The game gets brutal at about the point I left it as a teenager – the need for elite physical conditioning and mental and physical toughness kicks in and angsty veins pump anger around the rinks. I may not have been tough enough to go far in hockey, and I was certainly not a good enough skater to end up playing for Australia like Glenn did. But if I had learned how to handle myself, I would have enjoyed that rush and slide of hockey for a lot longer. Truth is, when the game shrank to just Oakleigh, it took rare dedication to keep rocking up, travelling long distances, putting up with yet another year of the cold. You had to be a complete hockey tragic, and thank god there were enough of those wonderful beasts to keep the sport going. And thank god for the Icehouse, which gave the softer hockey lovers like me somewhere to reignite our passion for the game. If I was to play again, I would want to start by marching from Huntingdale station to brave frigid old Oakleigh. For the first time with a stick in my hands at least, I would have to reconnect with the rough charms of my childhood hockey, where everything is reduced to your skates, your stick, the ice and your teammates. Then I would accept the luxury of the Icehouse without shame, and maybe pull some strings to get them to put on that John Phillip Sousa marching music so I could imagine I was about to play a senior final. * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * THE PLUG: Will Brodie’s new book, Reality Check, is a personal account of following the Melbourne Mustangs and the Melbourne Ice through the 2014 AIHL season. Will went on all the road trips with the teams and hung out behind the scenes at the Icehouse. It’s a beautifully crafted and fascinating account of an exciting year in the AIHL, and the players, coaches and volunteers who make hockey happen in this country. I fully recommend it, and not just because Will is a mate. It’s a cracking read! CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE REALITY CHECK.