Guest writer: Alex McNab

WORLD EXCLUSIVE

Today, Alex McNab takes us into the hot, sordid, sweaty and potentially smelly world of girls sharing hockey change-rooms with the boys. (And with regard to her last paragraph, she totally had it coming.)

(Next up, “Jess” with a very personal, brave and heart-wrenching story of how hockey changed her life.)

It’s (only mostly) a man’s world

By Alex McNab

“Hi.”

Alex McNab on the ice.

“Hi.”

“I’d like to try on some skates, please.”

“Sure, they’re just over here.”

“No, not the figure skates. Hockey skates.”

“Oh. Oh, okay. Ha.”

This exchange took place late last year, a couple of weeks into my first term of Intro to Hockey, and people’s reactions to “I’m learning to play ice hockey” still range from disbelief to hyena laughter.

Responses of “But why?” or “That’s different …” or “Are there many girls that play hockey?” are pretty standard. If it’s unusual in Australia for a bloke to play hockey, it’s even more so for a girl. A quick head count of those in the Rookies Facebook group (my only point of reference, but surely a good one) shows guys outnumbering girls approximately six to one. This held true in last term’s class, where there were just five girls in a class of thirty. I don’t know if it’s different overseas, but in Australia we’re the minority in a minority sport.

Which is mostly pretty damn awesome.

For starters, away from the ice, there are always people willing to talk about it, hear about it and ask questions about it. You are a curiosity, and if “I play netball” isn’t much of a conversation starter, “I play ice hockey” guarantees a response, especially if you’re wearing heels when you say it.

I’ve been asked some pretty funny questions: Are girls even allowed to play hockey? Do guys go easy on you because you’re a girl? Why don’t you just play a nice, gentle, non-contact sport? Do you have unresolved anger issues? (What the …?)

In contrast, on the ice and in the world that surrounds it, gender doesn’t really come into it. Classes are unisex, changerooms are unisex, leagues are unisex. Even the gear is (mostly) unisex, which results in all sorts of strange sizing and comfort issues when it comes to chest armour. My single favourite piece of hockey equipment isn’t my skates or my stick (no penis jokes here), but my lovely girly chest armour with curved plates on the front, designed to accommodate boobs. And as far as the rest of the gear goes, a lot of smaller girls shop in the kiddie section. (Don’t laugh, at least it’s cheaper.)

Most typically ‘female’ sports – netball, dance, tennis, swimming – are non-contact, and in many mainstream sports there’s enough female participation to warrant separate leagues for men and women. So it’s an awful lot of fun to play a mixed sport where you can go hard, shove if you need to, and not worry about breaking someone’s nail.

Yeah, skating as hard or fast as a guy can be tricky when you’re a foot shorter or thirty kilos lighter, but given my current skill level, that’s the least of my problems, and at least I have a girl’s arse for cushioning when I fall.

Plus, there are some perks to being a girl-in-a-guy’s-world. Lliam, for one, is far more concerned and conciliatory when you fall over in class than he would be otherwise, and he has been known to stage whisper, during scrimmages: “Just hit them. You can do whatever you like to them because you’re a girl. Hook, trip … whatever.” As you say, coach.

And there’s some fine man candy around the Icehouse, for those who care to look. I may still be mourning the departure of the gorgeous Jacques Perreault from the Melbourne Ice team at the end of last season (and Cute Dave ceased to be Cute Dave, and merely became Dave, once he modelled club gear for the wrong team), but sometimes unisex changerooms can seem like a gift.

Alex armoured up.

For the sake of discretion, I duck into the toilets to change – topless girls would probably result more in shock, and less in celebration – but guys have no such qualms about whipping off the gear. So yes, boys, we might just take the opportunity to sneakily check you out while you’re shirtless, and we’re not going to apologise for it – think of it as compensation for the way you smell post match. Certainly, growing up with three sisters and going to an all-girls school did nothing to prepare me for the odour of 25-odd sweaty, post-hockey men in a confined space, but I’m not arguing for it to be changed.

The question of whether girls and guys wanted separate changerooms came up recently. Answer: hell no. Logistically, the changerooms are already stupidly crowded, so an additional changeroom that just four or five people would use at a time would be plain silly. I was also quietly chuffed at the responses of some of the boys: that they like the camaraderie and team spirit of changing together, and that having women around keeps them in check (pun intended, I’m sure). That it’s good to be equal, and that they’d hate us to be removed from the pre and post-match banter – even if this concern was based more on the possibility we might discuss them behind their backs …

And then the discussion descended into a debate about the merits of Bonds knickers.

Hockey isn’t exactly a glamour sport, and we sure don’t do it to look sexy, but despite this the girls I play hockey with are some of the, well, “girliest” I know: Jess, who combines her hockey with pole dancing (hello!), Aimee, who looks like a blonde Christmas angel off the ice, my sister, Scarlett, with her Jane Austen-era sensibilities, Rachael, the Rookies’ answer to MasterChef, and Theresa, the ultimate social secretary. There’s also another woman I see around a bit who sports a “Mother Puckers” jersey. Brilliant. Me? I quit moaning about the cost of skates when it was pointed out to me (by several people) that I had unflinchingly spent that and more on far more impractical footwear in the past.

We like that it’s guys and girls, all learning together. We like the social side of it. We like that we’re not treated differently, that you boys don’t go soft on us, and that we can walk into the changeroom in heels and out of it in skates.

Recently, at a Stick and Puck session, Nicko hooked me and I fell. I wasn’t wearing armour and I played the girly card. He called me out on it: “Quit whinging. I’m a feminist. If you’re on the ice, we’re equals, and you shoved me first.”

Which pretty much sums it all up.

He shoots! He scores!

The big moment: I’m in the red helmet. If you look carefully, you can see the puck just over the line to the left of the goalie. Pic: Wayne McBride

It had become something of a running joke at Dev League that I had never scored a goal. I know it’s probably hard to believe that hockey players would hang shit on one another, but it has been known to happen. Roughly 4000 times per game, in my experience.

Last Wednesday was “game night”, for intermediate, which is the traditional end-of-term scrimmage, meaning Big Cat and I were shaping up for two hours of solid game play, including the usual Dev League hour-long scrimmage where black and red teams blissfully beat the hell out of one another.

And I scored a genuine goal. Sure, it was in the Intermediate game, and sure, the puck bounced off my shoulder onto the ice and I reflex-poked the puck over the goal-line with my stick, but that’s a goal, mofos. It counts.

Big Cat gets an official assist because it was his hard, off-balance shot that cannoned into the goalie’s chest, before ricochetting onto my shoulder as I did a Holmstrom and crowded the goalface, looking for the rebound, which miraculously came.

It was such a fun moment. I did everything but stop for autographs, although I resisted the urge to ride my stick, like a rodeo horse, down the ice. Apparently, according to Lliam, you can get a 10 minute penalty for that – he had a friend in a Canadian game who got a hat-trick in the first period, and sat on the ice, using his stick to row like a canoe, and got the 10 minutes. “Why, exactly?” I asked. “For being a dick,” Lliam shrugged.

Still too many times where my legs are flat-footed like this. Pic: Wayne McBride

So I stopped short of the rodeo-celebration that I’ve been working on. Shared the moment with Big Cat, Alex, my team and then got on with things. Minutes later, as I skated along, coach Army said, with a large element of surprise in his voice: “Did you score?”

It means a lot, knowing he believes in me so unwaveringly.

Army and I have a healthy vocal dialogue going most of the time. On Wednesday, we should have received a penalty for some atrocity and I yelled out: “Oh, umpire!” and Army pointed out it’s ‘ref’ in hockey, so I pointed out he was wearing a Collingwood beanie (which he only does to annoy people at the Icehouse) and he said that still didn’t mean I could use ‘umpire’ instead of ‘ref’ and I told him to just go out there and do some umpiring (now using an affectation English accent) and he would have dropped the gloves, I’m sure, if he had been wearing any, or cared. I love hockey.

At the face-offs, Liam Patrick and I were having even more fun, trash-talking one another mercilessly. I got my stick to the puck and pushed it away, yelling back at Liam, “Did you see that, Patrick? Yet another face-off win to Place!” … Except that I had hit it straight to one of their players. At the next face-off, coach Lliam said: “You know, you didn’t win that last face-off.”

Liam Patrick v Nicko Place at a face-off. Words were occasionally said. Pic: Wayne McBride

“Do you mind. I’m trying to sledge here,” I replied happily. Which worked well until Patrick scored with a really slick first-time slapshot about 30 seconds later. Another rookie Wayne McBride was taking photos and there’s a great sequence, post Liam’s goal, where we’re both yapping insults and smiling.

And so another term ended. My third round of Intermediate and my second time around in Dev League. I am definitely getting better – we all are, you can really see it, all over the ice – even though I know what I still need to work on. In what is not exactly a shock twist, it’s mainly my skating. I was actually really happy with my passing on Wednesday – I was genuinely creative with the puck, hustled players away from it, controlled it, scored that goal, and got an assist in the better-standard Dev League game. I’m chasing the puck now, believing I belong on the ice and can be a factor (even if my attempts to rename myself “a scoring threat” since Wednesday has met with stony silence from Big Cat, with all his fancy goals). I actually think they were my best games of the term, and that one drop-in session a fortnight ago has made a difference to my passing.

… and more words, after Liam’s (very good) goal.

But in so many of the photos from Wednesday, my legs are still planted, far apart and flat-footed on the ice. Yes, there were many more photos this time where I was moving, genuinely power-skating, which is pleasing. But I really have to get my outside edges happening and I really need to move my feet while controlling the puck.

But it will come and it can happen. I’m not intimidated by the challenge – I just have some bad habits to drop. Best of all, it’s stuff I can work on in general skating, on inlines and in stick & pucks, starting tonight where there’s an unexpected 8.30 pm session.

What else would you do on a Saturday night but don rain-soaked armour and skate joyfully onto the Henke Rink ice yet again?

IN OTHER NEWS:

1. Anybody who thinks ice rinks are cold should have been with Sammy Tanner, Chloe and I on a boat, going through the Heads, last Saturday, to dive the Coogee wreck off Barwon Heads. It was 13 degrees in the water and, at 30 metres down, a lot colder than that. Fun though. Murky though the water was, my trusty GoPro captured things:

 2. RIP Daryl Joyce, a friend of mine who went upstairs to read, and listen to his beloved Cats play footy last Saturday, and passed away, just like that. Sad memorial service. Generally shitful. I’ve written before about how we all need to make the most of the life we have, right now, while we have it. Lesson learned, again.

 3. In happier news – well, sort of – a former Red Wing, Darren McCarty, and his wife have been in court, slapping restraining orders on a group of friends, or something. Strange case. Their argument is that they feel threatened by these people, which led to this beautiful piece of writing in the Detroit News:

  • “(Defence lawyer) Abood suggested the protection orders were simply an effort by the McCartys to “cut off” people they didn’t want to associate with anymore, rather than a product of genuine fear.
    At one point, when Abood asked McCarty how many fights he had been in, the judge interjected: “He’s a hockey player.”

That’s my kind of judge.

And finally, how much do I love this sequence from the Dev League scrimmage?

Bwahahahaha! (Actually, I was asking if he was okay. Lucky Lliam didn’t hear that.)

The 100th post. Blow the horn.

A recent highlight from 100 posts-worth of hockey life: Aimee Hough’s brilliant shortbread version of Rookie Nicko, number 17. (She made them of all the Rookies. It wasn’t creepy)

Well, holy crap. The century. Nickdoeshockey‘s 100th post.

I’m not sure it’s strictly good hockey form to wave your stick in the air like a cricket bat; to point it at your teammates in the dressing room.

But I’m going to do it anyway. Because I want to share this moment with you, and thank you for reading and celebrating this crazy ride.

It was on January 19, last year, that I logged my first post on this sketchy attempt at writing a personal diary of my looming hockey adventure.

“Let’s start with the pain,” I wrote.

With me landing badly in my first ever skating class, then being accidentally taken out by a Columbus fan and feeling proud that I’d taken one for the Red Wings.

Genuinely not sure if this blog would last more than two or three weeks if I copped a really bad injury.

And yet, here we are. Me still major-injury-free (touch a lot of wood), still chasing the puck and adventure, and my little project now recently clicked past 20,000 individual users, enjoying upwards of 150 individual readers every day, sometimes over 300, from Australia, the USA, Canada but also from Turkey, Brazil, Taiwan and three today so far from Albania.

I often wonder if these people have stumbled here, looking for “hockey player eaten by shark” or some other bizarre Google search? Or maybe hockey’s reach is as great as it should be, and somewhere in the United Arab Emirates (10 readers in the last seven days), a loyal Red Wings/Melbourne Ice fan is settling over coffee and a screen?

The biggest day so far was 1,126 readers – spookily on January 19, 2012 – even I didn’t realise that was the one-year anniversary until now, writing this – which was the day I had an article published in the Detroit News (no longer online) and the Motor City’ online community came calling. That entire episode remains the highlight of the 100 blogs, with a brilliant exchange of messages between my little Melbourne outpost and Hockeytown, as the Red Wings enjoyed a fools’ gold home-winning streak and we all celebrated everything great about Detroit, which is a spectacular city, no matter how faded and desperate outside of the creaky Joe Louis Arena.

The jury is very much out on whether I can get back to Detroit for the Winter Classic, scheduled for New Year’s Day, 2013, so the blog has mostly since been about everyday life and hockey. Intro classes have turned into Intermediate and then into Dev League and now the adventure creeps ever closer to joining an actual Summer League team and playing for real. I’m excited, really excited. Hopefully that comes through in these posts.

A guy called Patrick, taking umbrage at my “Violence of Vinnie Hughes” post a week ago, mentioned that this site was self-indulgent and well, yes, guilty as charged. Strangely, as the readership has increased, I’ve worked hard to hold onto that personal angle. It’s not only rampant ego as much as I don’t want nickdoeshockey to become just another online news or opinion site for the Melbourne Ice or the Red Wings. God knows, there are enough of those around and some spectacularly good ones (a big shout out to The Production Line, Winging It In Motown and Nightmare on Helm Street, for example).

I prefer to just keep doing what I started: a diary of my hockey adventure, with strands of life outside the rink creeping in. The whole thing came from two colliding moments: my friend, Richard laughing when I told him that I was planning to take up hockey, looking raised-eyebrow at my then-45-year-frame across a coffee table at Lorne and saying, with no room for argument: “You simply have to blog this.” Which hadn’t occurred to me, so thank you, Richard.

The second element was one of my favourite sayings: “Find the thing you like most in life and then let it kill you.” I kid you not, I silently repeat that line to myself often as I stalk towards the Henke Rink, in my armour and skates, wielding my stick. The Australian bushrangers had another way of saying it, in the 19th century: “Die with your boots on.” R.I.P. Ben Hall and Flash Johnny Gilbert, who lived, and died, under that banner.

Celebrating an Ice goal against the Mustangs last Thursday night. Pic: Alex McNab.

I am very aware that hockey has come to symbolise this as my wider approach to life. At my wake, whether it’s next week or in 40 years, I want everybody laughing, shaking their heads and toasting that Nicko Place had a genuine fucking crack at life. And yes, with columns for wins and losses.

Hockey does symbolise so much.

Like life, hockey is action, fear, philosophy, learning, “you know, science”, teamwork, camaraderie, set-backs, heart-break, pure joy, community and so much more.

I can’t believe that 16 months ago, the concept of me as a hockey player had such wet paint on it. How much I didn’t know. Reading that first post feels so long ago and yet, it really isn’t.

What does astonish me is how much has been packed into my life over that 16 months, on and off the ice. As well as my development as a player – from being literally unable to skate, to now playing dev league and feeling like a genuine, if still very green, potential Right Wing – life off the rink has been a rollercoaster.

In the time of the blog, I have travelled to the US (with my boys for the first time) to see Datsyuk. Lidstrom, Zetterberg, Helm and the rest of the Red Wings play live, even if they lost; been to Hogwarts in Florida; had my heart broken, bounce, stumble and soar; achieved a life dream by diving (twice) with the magnificent manta rays off Lady Elliot Island; kept my company afloat after dastardly treacherous bastardy by a major client; had a novel I’d been working on for many years accepted, and to be the first of a series, and moving me out of one genre with four published into a whole new crime-writing field; had friendships rise and fade; watched my beloved Tigers gradually but distinctly get better as a football team; seen Macklin, my youngest son, join Will (aka Kittens, aka Big Cat) and I on the ice as a player; met a French girl I’m trying to impress who laughs instead of sighs when I let hockey take over my life and return, creaking and sore. And God, so much more. That’s not even close to covering the dramas and emotion. Is every 16-month period like this in my life? I’d never tried to chart it before.

And then there’s life within the walls of the Icehouse. The world I’ve stumbled into and the people within that sphere.

Where do I even start? I’m not going to get all mushy. You can do that for me by indulging me in a simple test. Take a deep breath and think of all the fucking amazing people you have met through your involvement in hockey.

You might be in Minnesota or Melbourne. It doesn’t matter.

I’m not just talking about the Rookies, our self-titled band of ragged, diverse, wildly enthusiastic students who started at the Icehouse, under Lliam and Army’s tutelage last year and have soldiered on, through triumph, disaster, injuries, frustration and elation. I’m talking about Melbourne Ice fans, Red Wings fans, fans of every other team, my work-street-hockey puck-lunch partner, Alex, the amateur Chicago player who saved Will and I in a dodgy section of that town, the wise-cracking crew at the South Pole end of the Henke Rink on Ice match days, the friendly staff of the Harbourside Hotel, the ever-patient partners of the Rookies, and the Rookies crew who turned out in dodgy weather at Albert Park on Saturday to hit pucks together, off-ice. The list goes on and on. Even an inspired fan who riffs at an NHL game on my random thought: “Hockey Player eaten by shark.” (Click on the clip below. Trust me. You really want to.)

What a brilliant community and what an amazing sport.

Will this blog last another 100 posts? Who knows and who cares. Skate to where the puck will be, not to where the puck is, as Wayne Gretsky once said.

The 16-month journey just gone stands alone as one of the greatest times of my life. Thanks for sharing it with me; especially you, Big Cat.

And now let’s hit the ice for wherever this thing goes next.

Giddyup.

(Update: All of this made me think of the final Calvin & Hobbes cartoon when Bill Watterson retired. Dunno why but any time you get a chance to salute Calvin & Hobbes is a good moment. The boy and the tiger’s final stand, their philosophy, feels right for this moment …)

Calvin & Hobbes: the final cartoon. By Bill Watterson.

Backwards is the new forwards

Intermediate was fun this week. Lots of stick-handling and puck-moving drills.

The only nasty moment was when we had to practice backward-skating defending. This is a tough drill, because a forward takes a puck and skates as fast as they can along the boards. The struggling defender (let’s call him, say … “Nicko”) has to attempt to backward skate at the same pace from well inside the defensive blueline to the red line at the centre of the rink before he can pivot and try to back-check/stop the attacker from having a shot at goal.

For people who are really good at backward skating, the drill is an exercise in closing down the angles, and forcing the forward into the boards, or at least contesting the puck head-to-head. For someone like me, it’s an exercise in just trying to skate backwards as fast as you can, while watching somebody coming at – and usually past you.

Luckily, this is okay because I’ve had a revelation over the past few weeks. I’ve realized that while I may still be crap at certain skills, I’m a lot less daunted by them.

In my first time around at Intermediate, late last year, I can remember feeling something approaching dread when certain drills were announced.

“Oh God, not pivots/transitions/backward skating,” the little voice in my head would sigh. I would always have an honest crack, but I knew I was going to fail, and badly, before I began, because I simply wasn’t good enough on my skates to even attempt some of the moves. It’s why I spent the summer trying to just get better at skating.

Thomas Tatar versus all of America, at the world championships.

And you know what? I’m no genius, but that plan might have worked.

Backward crossovers remain a mystery to me, and transitions are still very hard, but I’m much more willing now to actually try them. I feel like I have a better sense of where my feet are supposed to be and what my legs should be doing, where my weight should be, even if I can’t always make it happen in reality.

So, this week’s backward skating drill was in this category.

OK, yes, I suck at backwards skating. It’s a difficult thing to work on in the hurly burly of a General Skating session – I watched a fellow rookie (no need to name names) smash a poor little girl while practicing backward crossovers on Tuesday night … nice work, Alex McNab, you thug – or a stick & puck, where you wobble into the path of good skaters. I really need to get on my inline skates more, for backward work). On Wednesday, I almost battled a puck away from a decent forward skater at one point. Mostly I just tried to build actual speed while pushing backward. Shrug. The journey continues, and for the most part, over the past fortnight, I’ve caught myself grinning between drills from the sheer fun of being on the ice. A journo mate of mine, Fairfax sports writer Will Brodie, wrote a great piece this week about his childhood playing hockey, and the rise of the sport in Australia (look at the old pics of Blackhawks junior teams – gold), and I think Will nailed it with these paragraphs:

Most people who play hockey will tell you that it’s the most invigorating game they have ever played, and don’t ever doubt them. Most sports fans who see a game say they will be back.
For sheer sensation, its hard to beat – with only ten players (plus the two goalies) it has the intimate involvement you get from basketball, but there is contact, so eluding an opponent is everything (the Canadian word for baulk is to ‘deke’), and in the confines of a rink, if you can deke a defender ‘out of his jockstraps’, you can set up a goal-scoring opportunity. The puck feels just the right weight, an ideal object, and your stick is totemic – part pet, part tool. A play where two or three passes combine to set up a shot is an enacted purity of satisfaction.
As a spectator sport, it is hard to beat. Fast-paced, aggressive, but played in a compact arena, you can sense the options available to a player at the same time as he is executing his choice. In hockey there is less of a gap between the thought and action, and between rushes of potential drama, than in almost any game.

Amen.

Dev league was also fun this week, although Kittens, Morgan and I had to share our line with other skaters, meaning we all had to miss occasional shifts. This sucked, because it meant we never felt like we had a settled line (it’s amazing how quickly you come to want that) and, worse, it meant sitting out shifts, when we already had to wait three shifts for our line to come around again.

Alex McNab laughs after killing another defenceless child.

I want to be out there every shift, or at least every second, so it was difficult to sit patiently, watching the game, cooling skated heels.

But that whinge aside, it was a fun session. I did a few good things, including a couple of shots at goal, had some battles for the puck, and enjoyed a couple of times where I controlled a puck in dangerous climes inside our defensive blue line, turned and delivered measured passes to the sticks of teammates.

We’re all getting a lot better at holding our correct positions, especially with Lliam’s coaching from the bench, which remains entertaining, given his penchant for hurling waterbottles at the ref. He also takes the time to preach position to us; where you should be at all times. This can be a mystery in the swirl of a hockey game. Check out the picture above, from the current world championships, where Red Wings prospect Thomas Tatar appears to be taking on the entire USA team on his own. But there are actually systems at play, zones a wing should cover, as opposed to the centre or a D. Lliam is working hard to make us understand our jobs, and I’m drinking the knowledge.

That aside, I think the most pressing, truly urgent issue coming out of Wednesday nights is how I survive Thursdays, when I’m exhausted after so little sleep.

I can’t sleep before 1.30-2 am, post hockey, and the get-a-kid-to-school hack can start at 6.30 am. I was a fucking zombie yesterday. Perhaps I just need to be a hockey player and harden up?

Down with the Hockey Temperance League!

Look, I don’t see it as my job to be socially responsible. I never asked to be a role model, as other maligned celebrities such as footballers, Natalie Portman and Jessica Rabbit have long maintained.

So here’s the thing: I want all you Melbourne hockey players to drink more on a Saturday night.

I want you guys who can really play to spend more time getting maggoted of a Saturday evening, truly donning those beer goggles, so that you’re in absolutely no fit state to, say, as a completely random example, attend an 8.30 am Stick & Puck session on a Sunday morning.

Is that too much to ask? I’ll even buy the first beer … before slipping away like smoke into a flame, as Paul Kelly sang (“Jundamarra“), to ensure I get a good night’s sleep, ready for, say, as a random idea, a Sunday morning Stick & Puck session.

How the rink was supposed to look when we arrived on Sunday morning.

As you may have guessed by now, my Sunday didn’t go according to plan. Showing admirable dedication to the sport, my puck buddy (yes, that was a ‘p’) Alex McNab vowed she was attending the 8.30 am Stick & Puck, pre-starting Intermediate tomorrow night. Her sister, Scarlett, declared that she was also in and, damn it, so was I. (Big Cat Place’s reply: “You’ve got to be kidding?”)

What the McNabs and I hadn’t counted on was turning up to find the Henke Rink logjam full of players, many of whom were clearly advanced players using the session for intense one-on-one defending/attacking drills, end-to-end skating and other high-standard drills; stuff that left us Rookies with very little clear ice on which to practice passes or, in my case, fall over. (Right-foot front-foot outside-edge turn getting ever closer.)

I’d gotten home at about 1.30 am the night before, after making the ill-advised decision that riding my pushbike to a party in Reservoir wouldn’t be much of a ride from my place. Ten mostly uphill kilometres later, I was ready for a drink and several whiskies later, I made the excellent decision to escape before the karaoke machine in the front room claimed my soul, or at least my dignity.

The ride home contained a whole bevy of adventures not related to a hockey blog, but the bottom line is that the alarm sounding at 7.30 am was a shock. Undaunted, I vaulted out of bed. The dream of clear ice, of an empty training session where I could skate free, the breeze in my helmeted hair, was too inviting.

How hockey players should spend Saturday nights ...

Right up until we walked in and saw the ice was packed.

So, I mean, really, hockey players. Get it together. Do I need to spell this out to you?

Hockey is a working class, blue-collar, hard-drinking, fighting, cussing, rough-and-ready sport. There is no place in the game for disciplined trainers who are clear-eyed and ready to skate just after dawn on a Sunday. OK?

Glad we’re clear on that. Enjoy your Sunday sleep-in. Or else.

The saucy burlesque edition

Burlesque diva Radha Leigh and a fellow burlesquee pretending to be a lion. To the best of my knowledge, neither of these women are hockey players.

“So, Will”, I said to Will Ong, usually of my Wednesday night development league crew but notably absent on Wednesday this week, for the final night of scrimmaging. “Are you hurt?”

Being a highly trained investigative journalist, I miss nothing, and on this occasion the give-away clue was leaning next to Will in the LuWow tiki bar on Johnston Street in the form of a pair of crutches. Turns out he did his medial ligament in last week’s late shift scrimmage and is off the ice for three months, a disaster I’d caught hints of in snatches of conversation this week, between games on Wednesday, without ever quite hearing the full story.

Will said he had a reasonably innocuous fall while playing, limped off at the end of his shift and thought he was fine right up until he jumped the boards, from the bench, to start his next shift and his right knee said: “Um, no.”

Then the knee cooled down and really screamed. Ouch. This is on top of a broken leg for Dan, another local player, stitches for a skate-slashed arm for goalie Mark Stone and other assorted ailments eating into our Rookie crew. Anybody would think hockey is a potentially dangerous sport, I thought as Will discussed his physio regime and knee brace.

As is standard for hockey players, Will and I had this conversation at a tiki bar between sets of burlesque dancers stripping down to undies and pasties over their nipples to such songs as The Lion Sleeps Tonight*, and Jungle Boogie.

The kind of company your average Icehouse Rookie keeps on a non-hockey evening ...

Fellow Icehouse Rookie Brendan Parsons, Melbourne’s recognized pimp of burlesque – I’m sorry, I meant to say costume co-ordinator and producer to burlesque – had invited us along for opening night of Amazon Cabaret, knowing that any Melbourne International Comedy Festival show is going to struggle unless it can claim to have at least three leading Melbourne ice hockey players in attendance.

A burlesque show was more or less the perfect end to a packed week for me, not least because I’m a big fan of hot women dressed as lions or Tahiti Princesses stripping down until they’re swinging their tits in pasties, but because I was destroyed from a threatening lurgy as well as a huge hockey week and just needed to rest, drink tiki cocktails, listen to music and well, watch hot women dressed as lions or Tahiti Princesses stripping down until they’re swinging their tits in pasties.

On Monday, Big Cat (the artist formerly known as Kittens), Mack and I had come back from a beautiful easter break at Lorne in time for Big Cat and I to hit a Come & Try session at the Icehouse. This was amusing because a joyless easter staff at the Icehouse decided it was wrong and horrific and disastrous that a bunch of Icehouse Rookies should dare to show up and pay honest money to attend the session. “This is supposed to be for learners, for first timers,” we were lectured. “You shouldn’t be skating or wearing your armour.”

I pointed out that I was only wearing armour because I really wanted to work on a front-foot outside-edge turn that my coach, Army, had workshopped with me last week, and I knew I would be hitting the ice repeatedly, if practising this move was to happen. Anyway, there were about three people for the actual L-Plate part of the session, so … what? It was worse to have 10 or so ice hockey students practicing moves at one end of the Henke Rink than to only have $75 worth of newbies (3) stinking up the ice?

The bottom line was that shock, horror, nobody died, we Rookies all had enough sense not to barrel through a seven-year-old kid holding a hockey stick for the first time, or to hit head high slapshots into the intro crowd (3).

Instead, it was a lot of fun. There were a bunch of Rookies there, including Big Cat, the Hough gals, Wayne, Happy Feet and Alex (sicker than eight dogs but heroically present – even if snot did fly through her face grill after a hard landing on her butt). We all practiced tricky moves, passed pucks around, and played a spirited game of half-rink hockey (the terrified, intimidated newbies having cleared the ice for the last 10 minutes of the session). I scored the game winner, when Big Cat somehow hit a shot over everybody’s heads, including the goal, so that it bounced off the glass and landed at my feet, as I happened to be standing next to the goal. Fun.

Intro Rookies dive into scrimmage action on Wednesday night.

But not as much fun as Wednesday. It was end-of-term night, which means scrimmages. We arrived early, to watch the 7.30 Intro class actually play a scrimmage for the first time. Then revealed to Army and Martin, a new import for the Melbourne Ice who coaches at Oakleigh, that the Rookies were sponsoring them this year. Then suited up and played two furious hours of hockey – Intermediate class scrimmage and then the usual 10 pm dev league.

Hockey heaven. In fact, put it this way: at the start of my last shift of the night, I jumped the boards, found myself next to Army, who was refereeing, grinned and spontaneously said: “Army, how much fun is hockey?” to which he smiled, laughed and replied: “Oh, it’s outstanding!”

And it simply is. I’ve finally hit a level where I feel I can mostly compete, and so I enjoy hitting the ice, trying to carry the puck to the goal, actually having shots, battling for it against the boards, standing my ground in defence, competing. Sure, I can be beaten badly by better players, and the puck can bounce the wrong way to leave me stranded, but I don’t care. Every week gets more fun as I get better. Increments of improvement, sure, but improvement and I have definitely crossed a line from newbie wobbling around to dev league journeyman.

On Wednesday night, I had a break-away where I hit my shot cleanly and in the air, even if the goalie gloved it to deny a goal. I had another moment where I controlled the puck from the defence blue line to a shot on goal, holding all opponents at bay for the duration. I had a genuine assist where I won the puck in defence, in a “stone cold steal”, and passed it along the boards to a teammate who scored.

OK,  sure … I also got beaten pointless by Morgan, one-on-one and watched him goal as he left me in his wake. I fell over repeatedly. I got out of position as a defender more than once. And, most memorably, I tried to change direction at pace near my own goal, lost it, cannoned into the goal with my stomach, landed hard on my back, taking out the goalie, and took seemingly minutes to flail and roll and climb back to my skates. Everybody got a laugh out of that one. Including me. As stated: even when you fuck up, hockey is outstanding.

Tragically, Wednesday night’s action was the end of term.

Miraculously, a whole new term of 8.45 pm Intermediate class and 10 pm Dev League starts next Wednesday.

Amen. I can’t wait.

* Pro Karaoke Tip: Never attempt this song at karaoke. Slightly drunk, in the mood for a sing, flicking through the song catalogue, it’s easy to only think of the easy “a-whim-a-way, a-whim-a-way” part of it, and completely forget all the super-high almost-yodelling bits. A friend of mine, Katey, once fell into this trap and has never recovered. In fact, she left the country not long after to try and establish a new non-karaoke-haunted life in France. Stay safe out there, kids.

Chasing the night

Like wildfire on Facebook …

Harbourside car park hockey. In the rain. Pic: Ben Weisser

Have you heard?

Class is cancelled …

What???

The rink’s apparently not ready, post skating titles …

WHAT?

The Ice Cat broke down …

The Zamboni …

Oh my God …

Calm everybody. We just need to stay calm.

OH MY GOD!!!

The Icehouse staff doing the right thing,
going over and above to phone everybody in last night’s classes and Dev League,
letting us know,
saying sorry,
inviting us down for a free general skate,
extending the term by a week.

By now, emails flying,
Facebook in meltdown,
decisions to be made about whether emergency counsellors need to be called in,
to help the shocked, grieving hockey rookies cope.

Bottom lips quivering.

No classes?

Tonight?

OH MY GOD!

Facebook humming.
Plans emerge.
Well, we’re free tonight anyway, right?

The Harbourside Hotel does a roaring trade as rookies can have a sly drink, pre-General Skate
– something we’d (well, I’d … ok, maybe one) never do before a real class.

And then General Skate is a Wednesday night social outing;

Chris’s Janson and Hodson,
The Hough gals,
Will Ong, Wayne, waves and grins.
Beyonce dancing on the screen,
All the single ladies … All the single ladies …
hockey rookies everywhere, hanging laps and chatting,
catching up in ways we can’t when the heat of class is on.

But then, a need to hit a puck. General just not cutting it.

Into the night we go,
Alex clasping a brand new stick,
Kittens and I with a quiver for anybody who wants them,
Jack turning up in time to play, stretching truths to escape class,
Kittens’ wider, non-hockey crew, well-charged after a social afternoon
with us as we hit the top floor of the Harbourside car park
and smack some street-pucks.

Two McNabs down. Note to self: Wear shoes when you play street hockey.

Getting carried away.
Women playing in bare feet, having assumed skates when leaving home this morning, pre-cancellation disaster.
Bare feet not a good idea.
A McNab down. Broken toe? Only bruised?
Another McNab down. Make that two.

This one nastier. Ouch.

Blood on the concrete.
Rain falling.
A few fluorescent lights.
Puck-catching tricks with sticks.
Banter. Laughter.

Driving home in the dark rain.
A Wednesday night without class – the third in a row – but the rookies taking control of the night, making it ours.

Fun.