It’s been raining for two days and it’s cold.
Winter cold; in the heart of spring. For IHV Summer League div 3 hockey.
Wearing four layers and a beanie, you leave it to your travelling companion to play loud music as you navigate the remorseless bottleneck of Chadstone’s road system. Finally, you pull up in the asphalt car park and lug your giant bag and sticks through the door that is slightly too small, then try to jam them and yourself through the even thinner wedge of metal to avoid the public turnstiles. Hockey players don’t pay at the gate.
Inside, everything is that Oakleigh blue, except the dangling nets, like some demented fisherman’s lair, and the glow of the lights on the scoreboard, reading zero-zero. It’s 50 minutes to the puck drop.
Today is an intra-club grading match, Cherokees v Apaches, so you go say hi to Tony, rugged up and cutting edges in the Next Level shop, then head back down to chat with the ‘opposition’ before heading to your respective rooms. Your team shows up in ones and twos, and suddenly dressing room 3 is packed, strangely warm these days now that an effective heating system has somehow been installed.
The coaches read the lines one more time and bark instructions as you lace your skates, apply whatever idiosyncratic sock tape pattern you have evolved, give your teammates a grin or a nod, hang shit on the goalie, and then finally stalk your way on thin steel blades through the door, past the ever-dodgy men’s toilets and up the incline towards the rink.
All the figure skaters, families, kids and fake penguins have been removed, Oakleigh’s antique Zamboni has chugged around and at last you step onto the ice, being careful because the drop is always slightly more than you expect, as the refs flip the goals from upside down in the grandstand to upright on the rink.
Water bottles to the narrow shelf behind the bench, a couple of fast laps of the narrow, claustrophobic Olympic rink, so much smaller than Icy O’Briens and with almost non-existent lines. Just as you finish shooting pucks at Stoney the goalie and gently tap all 20 pucks back to the bench, the rain starts in earnest and suddenly you can’t hear the final instructions because of the noise on the tin roof. The captain, Big Cat, shouts: ‘Kees on three. One … two … three!‘
The crowd is tiny, maybe the occasional partner, family member or two, plus a couple of curious general skaters who have stuck around to see genuine hockey in Melbourne’s last remaining 1970s rink, a long half world away from the true hockey nations of the world.
The puck drops and we go at it.
The game is fast and played in good spirit, both teams getting chances but with strong defences mostly choking breakaways and keeping attacks wide. Tommi in net for the Apaches, and Stoney standing on his head for us, as the heavy rain continues to drive hard and loud into the tin above, and sometimes through the roof, dripping onto our bench, and you wonder if this is going to turn into a famous Oakleigh pea-souper.
The Apaches seem to have only two or three players on the bench, while we have three full lines as well as five D. They get the first goal but we get one back and then another, and start to edge further in front.
In the end, we win, and we’re NHL happy but actually it’s a grading game and the start of summer and the Apaches have beaten us too many times for us to get cocky about managing to snag a win.
We do the handshakes, thank the refs, circle around to thank the coaches. We leave the ice, thank the hockey Gods that you’re allowed to have a beer in the change-rooms at good old Oakleigh, take advantage of that miracle as we get changed, then finish the beers outside, four or five Cherokees huddled in the doorway as the rain continues to fall but less so than during the game. We nod or yell goodbyes to various Braves players from both teams as they scuttle through the puddles to their vehicles, the few of us who are left shooting the shit about nothing in particular before we finally drift to our cars.
The long drive back to town has good music, and play-by-play breakdowns of the action, as we dissect the game and our form.
Next weekend, we’re back in the glamour of Icy O’Briens, Australia’s shiny and well-appointed official Winter Olympic training facility at Docklands, skating out no doubt to the disappointment of the remaining crowd after an women’s Australian Ice Hockey League game featuring Melbourne Ice has finished.
That’s Sunday afternoon.
But this one was classic Oakleigh. Who would have it any other way?
UPDATE: It looks like the crazy weather finally took a toll on Oakleigh’s ice sheet. This was from Facebook, apparently taken tonight, as I was finishing this. No idea how you fix something like this but one thing I do know: the resourceful Victorian hockey community will find a way.