Playing the arenas …

Seeing how it feels to skate like a USA-Canada star, just, you know, without the talent.

Seeing how it feels to skate like a USA-Canada star, just, you know, without the talent.

There’s a great comedy routine by a guy called Bert Kreischer. It’s on YouTube as ‘The Machine’, and it tells the story of how he allegedly, as a college language student, hooked in with the Russian mafia while on a train bound for Moscow. Bloody funny routine (click below). Anyway, at one point, the mafia dudes he’s hanging out with announce they’re going to rob the train. And Kreischer says: ‘I would love to tell you that I stood up and said, ‘Not me”… but sometimes you’ve just got to fucking rob a train, man.’

And that was me today, in the middle of a Thursday.

I would love to tell you that I sat at my desk all day, a picture of diligence and hard work and commitment to the Media Giants cause. Or to finishing the novel draft that has consumed me for the last few months.

… But sometimes you’ve just got to fucking go skating on centre court of Rod Laver Arena, man.

I blame Melbourne Ice president Emma Poynton. She posted on Facebook at around 11 am that the ice had been laid on the drop-in rink for the international USA v Canada match, battling for the Doug Webber trophy, happening at the arena tomorrow night. Apparently, once a rink is frozen, it needs to be skated on a few times to really take hold. So she was looking for members of the local hockey community willing to turn up at about midday and general skate hard on the rink, to shred the ice.

Cut to my car seconds later, as I race to the Icehouse to grab my skates out of my locker. Cut to midday when I’m parked at the Rod Laver Arena, meeting a bunch of hockey friends. We all know each other well enough now that everybody has a nickname: Big Cat, Christmas Angel, Apollo, Alexandra McNab … We headed inside, having our names ticked off at security and walking through the bowels of the tennis centre to the rink.

This was a fun moment for me already. I have a lot of personal history at this place. I covered tennis for years, for newspapers and the Seven Network, and so have hung out at many Australian Opens. I had a stand-up polite argument with Steffi Graf in an underground corridor there. I hit balls ineffectually at some top Australian players at media days. I even once found myself playing tennis in front of maybe 3000 people, on Rod Laver Arena’s centre court. I can sort of hit a tennis ball but was way out of my depth in that kind of spotlight. Plus, it should be mentioned that I was partnering Bijou the French tennis clown, who had some weaknesses in his game like spinning 720 degrees on the spot under a lob before trying to hit a smash. Ex Australian tour star Paul McNamee and a former Australian top junior and then glamorous sports reporter, Dixie Marshall, wiped the court with us. But hey, it was for charity.

Big Cat and Apollo Patrick get a feel for international hockey ice.

Big Cat and Apollo Patrick get a feel for international hockey ice.

I’ve also covered world title fights at the centre court, even fortunate enough to hang out in the rooms with Jeff Fenech before he went out and smashed Georgie ‘Go Go’ Navarro in front of a packed stadium. I walked out of the tunnel and into the arena that night literally at Fenech’s back, and felt the wall of noise that greets a top fighter. It was incredible.

And now I was here again, years later, carrying my much-worn skates of all things and walking past the dressing room Fenech had used to step through the door onto the arena, to discover not a tennis court or a boxing ring but an ice rink.

This Doug Webber Cup thing seems to have gained momentum, which is good for the sport. I actually went on the record last year as saying it was lame first time around, and it was: Melbourne’s hockey community is far to expert to be excited by a bunch of players, whether NHL or the level below, phoning it in, and skating in a distinct gee-I-hope-I-don’t-get-hurt-and-jeopardize-my-large-pro-contract way, which is not unreasonable from their point of view. From what I hear, after several games of the current tour, the international players are putting a much more committed effort into this time and the games are real games now, not like the yawnfest we saw at Hisense Arena last year.

Plus friends of mine in other states who don’t know hockey have ventured along and loved every second, which is probably the point. And Nathan Walker, the first Australian drafted into the NHL, is playing, giving locals a chance to salute his achievement. And it’s at the larger Rod Laver Arena, which can build strong atmosphere.

So, sing it loud: let’s hope tomorrow night is awesome. It could only help the sport.

We’ve already had a huge win from the show. It was fascinating skating on brand new, virgin ice under the watchful eye of thousands of empty green seats. The rink’s surface felt very brittle and was chipping shards instead of snow as we ploughed it up and enjoyed such empty ice. American and Canadian flags are everywhere of course and it was a strange sensation to stand at the centre face-off circle and look up to see one of those giant video cubes above, just like at an NHL venue. None of us were wearing armour but I boarded myself a few times, to see how the glass felt, and it made a pleasing thudding echo around the empty seats. Big Cat did even better, losing an edge and genuinely splattering himself on the ice and into the boards. He got up, laughing. A genuine hockey player.

Happy skaters: Big Cat, Christmas Angel and Apollo on the ice.

Happy skaters: Big Cat, Christmas Angel and Apollo on the ice.

Melbourne Ice import Sean Hamilton cruised around, testing out new blades, along with a few local players from various levels of winter and summer competition – all digging our blades into snow ploughs and hockey stops and carving manoeuvres to give this fresh ice a work out. Given hardly anybody was wearing a helmet, we had been told not to use sticks for health and safety reasons, and that lasted maybe half an hour before somebody produced a puck and it was on, with sticks being shared around. I had fun, using a right-handed stick for the first time in a long time. And hit the puck okay … is it possible I’ve been playing wrong-handed all this time? Sadly I don’t think so. I think I am just that crap at shooting on my preferred side. Hey ho.

It finally occurred that it was the middle of a work day and I’m not The Machine and don’t have the Russian mafia to watch my back. Reluctantly, I left this beautiful prime-time slab of fresh ice – the third rink that Melbourne so desperately needs – and headed back to my desk. The afternoon has been largely lost but man, have I been smiling.

Sometimes, you just have to hang the consequences, no?

 

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.