Saturday afternoon in Oakleigh

img_1291

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.

Pre-game general skaters.

Pre-game general skaters. (Pic: Nicko)

 

Helpful penguin.

Helpful penguin.  (Pic: Nicko)

 

Dormant goals in the stands.

Dormant goals, waiting for us in the stands. (Pic: Nicko)

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.

Welcome to the shop.

The retail hub of Oakleigh. (Pic: Nicko)

 

Everything you need.

Everything you need. (Pic: Nicko)

 

Branding.

Branding. (Pic: Nicko)

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.

Big crowd in for the Cherokees.

Big crowd in for the Cherokees. (Pic: Nicko)

 

The wait for the gate.

The wait for the gate. (Pic: Nicko)

 

Game time.

Game time. (Pic: Kat Pullin’s dad)

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!‘

‘KEES!

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.

Oakleigh action. Rain outside.

Oakleigh action. Rain outside. (Pic: Kat Pullin’s dad)

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.

Kees v Apaches.

‘Kees v Apaches. (Pic: Kat Pullin’s dad)

 

Kat defending. (Pic: her dad)

Kat defending. (Pic: her dad)

 

Some hack heads up ice.

Some hack heads up ice. (Pic: Kat Pullin’s dad)

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 post-game glow.

The post-game glow. (Pic: Nicko)

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.

Pic: Bron Bird, Monday.

Pic: Bron Bird, Monday.

Cracked ice on Monday night.

Cracked ice on Monday night.

The flow of the ice …

Another summer season starts tonight. The plucky Cherokees, full of old and new faces, take on an apparently highly-rated Demons team in a grading game.

It got me to thinking about the summers past, and all the people I’ve played with, as I prepare to step out for my fifth summer of competitive hockey.

A new season begins ...

A new season begins …

Life flows, within and beyond hockey. Years and years now of development league, classes at Icy O’Briens and, briefly, Next Level, of playing for the Nite Owls, Friday night social games, and official IHV comp for the Interceptors and then the Cherokees. All those bench partners, and line partners, and changing room banter partners, and coaches.

I haven’t been writing much on this blog because really it’s been the same story as years past and I haven’t wanted to write for the sake of writing … I’ve been playing dev league, attending occasional team trainings, plus kicking a footy once or twice a week, as well as hitting the gym, boxing, and oh yeah, work and family. In the AFL, Richmond sucked again, while in the about-to-start NHL, the Red Wings are again skating under a question mark, with a bunch of new faces, but the fading Datsyuk gone.

On Monday, I returned to work after a week at Heron Island, doing the Queensland tropical sun-and-beach thing with Chloe and Cassius, as well as scuba diving with one of my French brother-in-laws, Brendan, and a lot of turtles and nudibranchs.

A nudibranch, somewhere underwater just off Heron Island, Qld. (about two centimetres long, for context). Pic: Nicko

A nudibranch, somewhere underwater just off Heron Island, Qld. (about two centimetres long, for context). Pic: Nicko

The first thing I did when I got back to work was grab a coffee with Pete Savvides, one of my Interceptor teammates five years ago. We talked about all sorts of stuff, only a fraction of which was hockey. Pete married now, with a baby, and a senior job and a new summer team as he tries to help enthusiastic rookies get into the sport.

Some of the other Interceptors aren’t even in hockey any more, as far as I know. Others have scattered to different teams or clubs. It’s the way of the hockey world; not many teams are able to stay together, season to season.

Last year’s Cherokees were different to the ‘Kees before that. This year’s team is different again. Players head to the winter draft, or push up to new grades. I still consider my watermark to be solidly Division 3, meaning Cherokee life suits me fine, but others are more ambitious or have actual skills that demand an upgrade in standard.

My first summer team, the Interceptors (missing: Alex McNab)

My first summer team, the Interceptors (missing: Alex McNab). Damn, I look younger.

It’s okay. There are members of the about-to-launch 2016/17 Cherokees team that I barely know yet, but I know we’ll be friends by March, when we hopefully play finals, or wet our disappointment at not making the four. I’ve met all kind of people through hockey and it’s one of the parts of the crazy adventure that I love. Doctors and political analysts, fellow journalists, and plumbers, dog groomers, IT consultants, building workers and yoga instructors … every team is a wild mix of personalities, skills and interests. Coming together for the grand adventure of a 10.30 pm IHV-scheduled game, or a more casual Oakleigh training session.

One of the Cherokee incarnations. I just noticed that I seem to always kneel in the same spot for team photos. Weird.

One of the Cherokee incarnations. I just noticed that I seem to always kneel in the same spot for team photos. Weird.

Tonight, we suit up for real; Big Cat Place and I slated for second-line duties, skating together as the only constant in five years of competition; still the reason I do it. The new look Cherokees beginning our summer journey against a mysterious opponent, but with several of my long-time friends now added to the team as an unexpected bonus.

People rise in your life, people fall out of your life. Friends, lovers, workmates, clients, family. People you wish you’d spent more time with, others you’re pretty happy to see the back of. Hockey is a microcosm of the wider universe, and I embrace the new, while remembering the old.

So, here’s a pre-game toast to teammates past and present.

See you somewhere along the icy way. For the Cherokees, that means 8 pm tonight. Bring it.

An important announcement

Melbourne, Tuesday, June 21 (AP): The Braves Hockey Club and management for Nick Place were pleased to announce today that they have agreed to terms for the upcoming 2016-17 Ice Hockey Victoria summer season.

‘We think it’s a great deal for everybody,’ said Braves President Liam Patrick. ‘If Place pays his fees in full and on time, buys a new jersey, drives himself to trainings and games, doesn’t open his mouth in the changerooms, and doesn’t get in anybody’s way, we might let him play very limited fifth line minutes for the Cherokees in Division 3.’

Place managing to stay vertical in a previous summer. Pic: Luke Milkman

Place managing to stay vertical in a previous summer. Pic: Luke Milkman

Place’s manager, Nick Place, said: ‘I, I mean my client is thrilled that the Braves have agreed to let me, I mean him, don the famous black and yellow for the forthcoming season. I think there’s definitely a role for older, wise veterans in today’s hockey world. When I think of Jaromir Jág-‘

He was then cut off by President Patrick, who whispered: ‘Stick to the agreed script or it’s over.’

President Patrick told reporters, ‘There had been some hope-I mean thought that Nick might consider retirement at the age of 67 but, trooper that he is, and photos of me that he has, he’ll be allowed to go around this summer. What I need the hockey world, especially the Braves family, to understand is that legally we can’t stop him. If he pays his fees, there’s nothing I can do. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.’

The news of Place’s resigning was greeted with universal joy across the league with opposition teams admitting to being rapt with the development. ‘Place’s son, Will – AKA Kittens – AKA Big Cat – would be a huge offensive threat under most circumstances,’ said one coach. ‘So the fact he’ll be totally hamstrung by having to put up with his dad’s ineffectual skating and passing on the left wing should cut his point production in half at least, and is a boon for all of us.’

Cherokees coach Georgia Carson was not available for comment. Friends say she was enjoying a quiet night yesterday evening when she received a txt that appeared to horrify her. ‘They promised! They promised he was gone! They told me it was over!’ she screamed before storming out of the house to a nearby speakeasy bar. She has not been seen since.

Place left immediately after the press conference, telling reporters he was heading to a secret training camp to prepare for September’s action. However, Braves officials confirmed he actually just went to work.

 

The end of another summer?

Tonight, I potentially play my last game of the IHV Div 3 2014/15 summer season. My team, the Cherokees, has a game next weekend to finish the regular season but I have a wedding I can’t miss and so tonight, at 10.30 pm at the Icehouse against the Champs, is it for me. Except that we’re going to win tonight and therefore play finals in a couple of weeks, but that’s for another blog.

As always, as the end of the official season approaches, I feel melancholy. There are aspects of being in a team, of sharing adventures with the same group of people, that are impossible to capture elsewhere. It’s something I cherish because I only watched it from the outside for so many years as a sports journalist while, as a kid, I was more of a surfer than a footy player and only played indoor cricket with some mates for fun. The Bang, my winter footy world with a bunch of similarly creaky Sherrin-chasers, goes close but we don’t have actual matches, we don’t skate onto the Henke Rink needing to win to make the finals. That sort of adrenalin is hard to bottle.

I haven’t written the blog since returning from Christmas because there hasn’t been much to write about, in a hockey sense. I’ve been training on Wednesdays, very much as per the final blog of last year, where Tommy, Lliam, Army and Shona own our arses in dev league after we complete drills in Inter class. We’ve played some Cherokee games and continue to get more cohesive and dangerous as a team, just as we’re going to have to stop.

In my happy place (pun intended): playing the goon for the Cherokees.

In my happy place (pun intended): playing the goon for the Cherokees.

Away from the rink, I’ve been on an intense fitness campaign – including a non-negotiable minimum of 50 push-ups and 100 sit-ups per day, over and above hockey training, gym workouts and other fitness – and feel great for it. It’s kind of annoying that I feel like I’m hitting peak fitness at the exact moment I’m about to stop playing competitive hockey.

On Monday, I even walked to work, and therefore found myself wandering past the Punt Road Oval just as my beloved Richmond footy team was warming up for training. Somebody had left a gate open and that’s all a former journo needs to sneak in and take a seat … I eventually made myself useful by collecting the balls that were kicked too high for the epic netting behind the goals (about one in five shots), so that I felt like a little kid again, scurrying around behind the goals at the school end of Lorne’s Stribling Reserve to get the footy as the Lorne Dolphins took on their Otway opponents, surf booming from down the hill.

But I digress. It was fascinating watching the Tigers go through their routines. It’s a long time since I’ve been to an AFL training session. As a journo, I hung out at training all the time and mostly took it for granted but now I saw it all through fresh eyes. The Tigers warm up using many of the time-honoured techniques all footy teams do, such as two players sharing one ball, playing kick-to-kick from 20 metres apart. Even us Bangers do that before starting to run around, but Richmond puts a little spin on it: instead of standing, flat footed, to mark the ball, then kick it back, the Tigers mark it, turn, take four or five steps backwards, then pivot and deliver the pass back to their mate. It’s recreating the movement of taking a grab, and then retreating from somebody standing on the mark, to turn and bullet a pass to a teammate. Kicking with one foot and then the other. Even before their hammies are vaguely warmed up, they’re recreating match conditions.

They weren’t finished. After a while, the players took to marking the ball, then dropping it and letting it bounce on the ground a couple of times before they bent, picked it up and kicked before straightening. Again, in a match, you don’t have time to scoop up the ball, stand straight, balance, look around and then kick. So at training, they’re kicking from a half-crouch, having snared the ball on a half volley.

Jack Riewoldt shows his style at training.

Jack Riewoldt shows his style at training.

Everything had a meaning; everything had purpose. When a coach called ‘drink break’, the Tigers ran back to their drink bottles as fast as they possibly could. I mean: sprinted! It was like there was a thousand bucks cash on the boundary near their bottles. In a game, you don’t jog back to the bench, you get the fuck off the playing surface so your replacement can get on. One player yelled: ‘This is not a drill, peoples. This is not a footy drill!’ just to be a goose, but that’s where I started to see the correlations between what they were doing and hockey training. Sprinting to the boundary, for example, has direct application for hockey. If you’ve ever played in a team with somebody who dawdles back to the bench, stick in the air, because that’s how they’ve seen the NHL players do it … while you’re watching your team now a man down on an opposition breakaway, you’ll know what I mean. If you’re going to end your shift, skate hard to the boards, peoples.

At our training, the coaches endless ask us to skate fast over to the whiteboard so they can explain the next drill, but people saunter back, grab a drink, gradually tune in. The Tigers, professional athletes, are there, drinking, in a flash, and then on their way to the next activity with intent. Impressive intent.

The other drill that caught my eye was when they started doing run-throughs. Six or seven Tigers would leave one end of the ground at a time, running at maybe 60-70 per cent. As they approached the cones 150 metres away, a coach would be standing with a Sherrin in his hands. He would fire a handball to one of the running players, but they didn’t know which until he suddenly rocketed the ball to them. Lightning fast hands snared the ball in one grab every time. In hockey, a lot of our drills are choreographed, as in ‘Man A leaves this corner, skates around this cone, looks for a pass from Man B who then skates to here to receive the pass back before the blue line’. The Tigers add a little matchday randomness to everything, because in a game, you don’t have the choreographed puck arrive just as you’re ready for it after rounding a cone. In fact, hockey games and AFL games are very much about making snap decisions and of having the puck or ball arrive sometimes unexpectedly.

This is not to say footy training is better/smarter than what we do at the Icehouse. I fully get that hockey skill drills are a different beast to the Tigers’ match day recreation stuff and that we hockey rookies need to have drilled into us over and over again how to break-out, how to form a three man rush, how to pass in front of a skater, not to their feet … these are basics that we need to keep working on but the Tigers don’t exactly have to worry about. And anyway, at the Bang, one of our elders, a well-known singer songwriter, is forever trying to get us to do a three-man handball weave as we run warm-up laps, but it’s laughable how incompetent we all are at such a basic move. It drives him insane. Sometimes, hockey players and footy players are better when acting by instinct, instead of trying to handball to here, move from point A to point B, receive the ball there, move from Point B to Point C.

And then, anyway, the Tigers surprised me and made me laugh, by doing a drill that was so robotic and synchronized that it looked like a line-dance.

The whole thing was fun to watch, and scamper around, collecting footys. I walked the rest of the way to work and back to my real life, looking forward to the AFL season starting, so that the Tigers can prove they’re finally the real thing. The calendar clicking ever closer to footy mode also means the Melbourne Ice women will have secured the title by then, which means the Melbourne Ice men will be ready to show the Giddyup Clippy Clop Orange crowd that last year’s final was just a bad day on the wrong day.

Me? I’ll be spending Wednesday nights on the ice with Big Cat, and Sundays at the Bang with my footy brothers, occasionally, hopefully, scuba diving with Mackquist, and all the time wondering if my creaky old body has another summer of competitive hockey left in it? As I do every year. Before I inevitably sign up and pull the Cherokees No. 17 jersey over my shoulder pads, chasing that locker-room brother-and-sisterhood that I adore and the sheer thrill of the battle. I love it all. There’s life in the old dog yet.

Finals fever takes over Melbourne

So, this weekend is shaping up.

The Melbourne Mustangs and Melbourne Ice finished the AIHL regular season in first and second place on the ladder and so the finals, at the Icehouse on Saturday and Sunday, hold the tantalizing promise of an epic local derby as the grand final.

The Icehouse will host the AIHL finals this weekend, with two semis and then a final of no-tomorrow hockey. Picture: Nicko

The Icehouse will host the AIHL finals this weekend, with two semis and then a final of no-tomorrow hockey. Picture: Nicko

Which is not to get ahead of myself. The reborn Canberra Brave and the reigning champions, the Sydney Ice-Dogs, also have genuine claims, so it’s going to be a hectic and tough weekend of hockey.

It’s hard to gauge where hockey in Australia is at, I reckon, as we head into the weekend’s finale. On the surface, it looks super healthy, especially if you’re sitting in Melbourne as a fan of the Ice or the Clippyclops. Both Melbourne teams draw close to sell-out crowds and, as always, the only real problem in Melbourne seems to be the lack of much-needed extra rinks.

Perth, which didn’t make the play-offs, turned up last weekend and beat the Ice twice. Most of the teams in the AIHL were competitive this season. Media interest (the vast majority of which can be placed under the name of Will Brodie, from The Age, who has carried the sport into the mainstream media on his back) and Fox Sports coverage continues to grow. Life’s rosy.

I hope.

But there are issues, from where I sit, as a fan. For starters, the sheer battle of Canberra to exist this season was a wake-up call and several other teams appear to struggle financially to get to the line each season. It’s never about the passion or skill of the players. It’s purely about the cost of running a team, and the ability of state bodies or owners to make it happen.

Meanwhile, the finals format isn’t great. To battle for the entire season, finish first or second, and then find yourself in a cut-throat semi-final doesn’t seem particularly fair. The top team in each semi gets ‘last change’ rights, and ‘home bench’ but so what, really, after months of intense competition? If the grand final does happen to be a Mustangs-Ice clash, those two teams have their own benches anyway so, in practice, the Mustangs would only have ‘last change’ as the competitive advantage for all that work and success.

Of course, it would rock if the finals series could happen across two weekends. One weekend of best-of-three semi-final match-ups. It would be brutal, but compelling and would have a greater chance of revealing the best team in each series.

Then the grand final could be held the following weekend. Again, a best-of-three finals series would be so much better than one hour of no-tomorrow to judge the whole season.

The arguments against that, or other potential formats, are mostly financial, and reasonably so. I get it. As it stands, with one weekend, locked in for Melbourne or Newcastle or another venue months before the actual date, everybody can book tickets as soon as they confirm their place in the top four, achieving cheaper flights etc. Teams are generally not financially flush enough to be flying around for extra weekends, and the league doesn’t seem to have the cash to make that happen, but it’s a shame. It feels like the intensity of the AIHL season comes down to one very fast, very ruthless weekend where the best side all year can have an off five minutes or a dubious penalty or two and that’s it, they’re done.

Well, look at this view from the Melbourne Eye wheel: a giant rink-sized building two sheds to the left from the Icehouse. Does Victoria really even have a film industry needing such a huge sound stage? I say: freeze it, now. Picture: Nicko

Well, look at this view from the Melbourne Eye wheel: a giant rink-sized building two sheds to the left from the Icehouse. Does Victoria really even have a film industry needing such a huge sound stage? I say: freeze it, now. Picture: Nicko

Of course, you can equally argue that this is exactly what makes the weekend exciting; that everything needs to go right. The Melbourne Ice famously achieved the three-peat not so long ago, so teams can get it done.

But wouldn’t a more considered, more-matches, longer finale be cool?

The other huge issue, especially in Melbourne, is the lack of rinks. It’s been talked about endlessly – the Icehouse is amazing, Oakleigh heroically provides ageing, quirky back-up. There is no third rink. Beginner classes and intermediate classes continue to churn out super-enthusiastic wannabe players, just like I was three or four years ago and, Hell, continue to be. But the summer competition is groaning at capacity, in terms of the maximum number of teams and the number of players per team. Our 2011 influx, the Rookies, was followed by a group of hockey class students who called themselves the Ferals, and now there are ‘Black Ice’ jerseys all over the rink at classes. What worries me is that, with only two rinks, there’s going to be nowhere for these players to actually play, and I fear people will lose interest and drift away. Or get thrown into a higher grade of competition than they should attempt and be smashed and limp away.

The view from the cheap seats at Braves try-outs on Saturday at Oakleigh. So many players just wanting to play. Picture: Nicko

The view from the cheap seats at Braves try-outs on Saturday at Oakleigh. So many players just wanting to play. Picture: Nicko

The Icehouse was recently rumoured to be on its way to becoming apartments but has since been sold and looks like it will remain a rink, which saves the sport’s arse in Victoria right there. But any new rink must be a couple of years or more away from being built, even if it’s commissioned, so the time lag is a serious concern.

And yes, time marches on. Has this year flown or what? Spring is definitely in the air – 18 degrees and sunny as I type this – and Ice Hockey Victoria’s winter competition is coming to an end, with finals underway. That means summer competition is looming closer for us lucky enough to have a spot on a team, and everybody I know is suffering ‘ice fever’ as Alex McGoon called it today. We Cherokees can’t wait to reform as a team and play. Facebook banter is hitting unprecedented heights.

Off social media, Big Cat and I have loaded up with new sticks – a stick and puck on Monday was very ugly, for me at least, as I tried to come to terms with a slightly different length and different curve on my stick, compared to my beloved but definitely now dead Reebok 9k. Off-ice and on-ice training remains intense as we get ready.

Spring also means the business end of the AFL, with my beloved Tigers heading to Sydney to try and knock off the Swans and somehow complete their unlikely mission to make the Eight, from the ridiculously terrible mid-season position of 3 and 10. They probably won’t do it, but I’m all about whether the turnaround will carry into 2015. Or am I? As far as this year’s campaign goes, I’m doing my bit for the team by heading overseas, so I’ll be in Europe for the grand final and the most unlikely Richmond flag ever.

In my other spiritual home of Detroit, the media and the fans are counting the days until Red Wings training camp, which is now less than a month away. Will Dan Cleary train the house down and make the line-up? Will Tomas Jurco be sent down to Grand Rapids? Will a right-handed d-man appear out of nowhere, but without costing us Tatar or another treasured rising star? Will Stephen Weiss be healthy and ready to stop being the invisible man? So many questions and ever closer to the puck-drop to start the 2014-15 season. Personally, I think the Wings are going to be better than people think and will give the whole thing a shake. So there.

So much to look forward to, but only after this weekend. As somebody who somehow managed to never be there at the moment the Melbourne Ice won any of the three straight Goodall Cups, I can only say I’m leaving Sunday free and clear for a trip to Docklands. I plan to be in my seat and cheering, no matter which of the four teams lift the Cup. But I know who I’m barracking for.

Go, Ice, go.

 

 

 

 

 

Kettlebells, rubber bands, Icelandic horse sex and me.

I’ve been going to a lot of Melbourne International Film Festival screenings over the past week. French films about relationships, relationships or, maybe, relationships. A strange Icelandic film about horse sex and people who are slightly mad. A beautiful but strangely emotionless Japanese animation. Robert Connolly’s fantastic new live-action kids film, Paper Planes. Between sessions, we walk from the Forum to the Capitol or maybe Hoyts at Melbourne Central, rugged up in puffy jackets and beanies, huddled against the biting breeze.

The Podium Line does the red carpet, at the world premiere of 'Paper Planes'.

The Podium Line does the red carpet, at the world premiere of ‘Paper Planes’.

But then, on Facebook yesterday, somebody posted: ‘Only six weeks until daylight savings.’ I blinked. Really?

Meanwhile, in the AFL, it’s coming down to the wire with less than a month to the finals, which means two things: Richmond will finish ninth and the sun will start to shine and the grounds will become less muddy.

At the Bang, my footy brothers and I will stop and sniff the Spring in the air and start to lairize even more than we do now, with one handed marks, drop-kick attempts and other shenanigans we’re too old and only occasionally skilled enough to attempt.

And, most importantly of all, Ice Hockey Victoria’s summer season will loom and my team, the Cherokees, will again continue our quest to be competitive in Division 3.

Just like all the other summer players, we’re busy getting ready, doing the training, hoping we’re better than last season.

I can hardly wait for the competition to start. Last summer was pretty much blown out for me by the much-chronicled Year of the Knee, as I could hardly skate or, when the knee finally repaired, didn’t have enough legs to feel like I was at my best.

Even, so, I unfortunately did better than Big Cat Place who broke his ankle before the season had found full stride and barely played from that point until the last few games months later.

Big Cat and I committed there and then to play at least one more summer together, both fit, both able to be true teammates, before the inevitable happens and he gets too good to play on the same team as me, and so the summer of 2014/15 is shaping as a critical time of my hockey life.

I haven’t written much here lately because, as always, I don’t want the blog to just repeat the same old stuff and I would get as bored writing it as you would reading about every development league game or Red Wings playoff blowout.

Plus I had a manuscript to finish, which I just have, and so all my writing hours were taken up with that 135,000 word-mountain.

But between my real job and the novel draft, I have been training hard, getting ready for summer. I’m currently heavier on the scales than I have been for a while but feel fitter than I have been for a long time, which either means I’m delusional or I’ve gained extra (heavier than fat) muscle where I need it. Maybe those two things aren’t mutually exclusive.

Fluid Health: just a few of the tools of happy torture.

Fluid Health: just a few of the tools of happy torture.

All I can do is the work. Twice a week I trek to Port Melbourne to meet with the bearded one, Melbourne Ice and Australian captain Lliam Webster, to toil on improving my functional body movement, core strength and explosive power. This training remains the best and most entertaining I have done after years in gyms, lugging weights. It involves everything from Spiderman crawling along the floor to carrying barbells as far and as fast as I can while a giant rubber band threatens to twang me through the opposite wall. Some days I’m pushing a sled loaded with weights across the room, or deadlifting a barbell, other days I’m sliding on the slide board while Lliam has fun frisbeeing plastic cones at me to swat away as I glide.

The muscles being worked are all core hockey muscles and I can feel the extra balance and strength through my deep stomach muscles, glutes and hamstrings. As a happy aside, my dodgy lower back is better than it’s ever been, I have shaken off a shoulder that was hurting me for months and The Knee is now strong enough that I’m hopping onto platforms or over distances and landing on the same left leg.

In other words, for the first time in at least 18 months, I am pain free. Amen.

This has all been a long process involving Fluid Health, acupuncture needles, Enzo the magic osteo and a lot of damage to my credit card, but it feels fine to sit here and be able to write that I am pain free and feeling fit, with a couple of months to go before I skate out in the Braves jersey for a new season.

On days I’m not at Fluid, I hit the gym near my work in Richmond, lifting weights and building upper body strength.

The weights room at my local gym. Every now and then, I actually turn up there.

The weights room at my local gym. Every now and then, I actually turn up there.

On Wednesday nights, I have signed up for power skating, which is an hour of pure Hell – well, actually, that’s not strictly true: the bag skating and explosive speed stuff I quite like. The outside edge work, not so much, because I remain so shit at it.

But I made a conscious decision – with much support from hockey friends: ‘Do power skating. You need to. You NEED to.’ – to spend at least one term of Wednesday nights working specifically on my still dubious skating, instead of playing dev league.

Getting better on skates is such a slow, gradual thing that it is difficult to chart progression. Some games, friends/opponents vow that they were astonished at how much faster I have become. Other times I know that I sucked dogs balls, as an old girlfriend used to say. Wobbling around like an Intro Class rookie.

One thing, though: I’ve actually reached a significant point in my skating, where I don’t mostly think about it during games. I see the puck and go to get the puck, or make position. I don’t have to think abut my legs or where my feet are moving.

It’s like learning a language where they say you have truly made progress when you think in that language. At some point, skating stopped being something I had to concentrate on and became something happening while I was playing hockey, so that’s an improvement.

But then come those moments where I get run down from behind on a breakaway because I’m not fast enough, or I have to turn fast, clockwise (my “bad side”) and I curse that I’m less nimble. Or I just watch others who I started with, several years ago, who now skate like a dream. Or I realize that there are entire moves, like backward crossovers, that I simply don’t ever attempt under pressure in a game.

The beauty and balance of an Icehouse power-skating class. (Ten bucks says one of us, probably me, was on his arse within 30 seconds of this being taken.) Pic: Macklin Place

The beauty and balance of an Icehouse power-skating class. (Ten bucks says one of us, probably me, was on his arse within 30 seconds of this being taken.) Pic: Macklin Place

And so I trudge off to the Bradbury Rink for skating lessons with Zac, not the Henke Rink for the fun of playing actual games.

Today, I’m hitting the gym at lunchtime for some weights. Tonight I have power skating. Tomorrow, Fluid with Lliam. Friday? Maybe the gym again, if I don’t have a social game of hockey with or against the IBM team. Sunday: the Bang.

This is not to brag. I need to do this to even attempt to keep up with those young’uns I’ll be skating with and against this summer.

I need to do this anyway. I long ago realised how important regular exercise is to maintaining my potentially fragile mental health. I also long ago realised how draining on my emotional and mental health writing fiction can be. So it’s no coincidence that I’m on a big fitness campaign while driving a draft to the line.

Anyway you look at it, I believe that’s known as win-win. My body is coping. I have miles in my legs. Spring is in the air. My book first draft is done. The Cherokees are starting to get excited.

Bring on the summer.

The bottom of the bag

My hockey bag got wet late last week when unexpected rain swept in as I was drying my stuff, post Dev League. (Hard to imagine as it’s going to be 36 degrees today but … well … gotta love Melbourne.)

I took the opportunity to empty the whole thing out for the first time in a while. I bought a new hockey bag when we went to America in 2011 but I actually later reverted back to my original bag – one of those big non-wheel sack bags that you can just throw endless stuff into. Which I have continued to do, until now.

This then is the horror to be found if you dig all the way to the bottom of a hockey bag.

What rattles around, below the gear ...

What rattles around, below the gear …

The coins are very manky, and I’m not sure I’ll eat what’s left of the chocolate bar. I haven’t dared to look in the plastic bag yet. There are a lot of unused pain-killer drugs, which is a plus.

And yes, kids, carry deodorant. At all times.

Meanwhile, this is post number 200 of Nick Does Hockey. Close to 200,000 words of hockey ramblings over several years. Who would have thought, given I started Post One by genuinely wondering if I would last more than a week in this adventure.

I did. And I now play for actual teams. And have so so so many hockey friends that I had not met way back then in January 2011.

As I head towards 2014 and my third anniversary as a hockey player, I’m finally charging off the injuries that have dogged me all year and feeling fit. Hopefully Big Cat Place is also getting over a broken ankle and will resume when the Braves skate back onto the ice in February.I’m not sure Mackquist is coming back, post Year 12, but maybe we’ll just go for the occasional skate, and scuba dive together?

Warming up, for the Braves.  Pic: Luke Milkovic

Warming up, for the Braves.
Pic: Luke Milkovic

I’d like to take this bicentenary post to thank everybody who has been part of this adventure so far, laughing and sweating and skating and battling on the boards and occasionally fighting, off the ice and on (yes, Donogoon, that means you). For the probably hundreds of players who I’ve shared change-rooms with, swapping shit and telling stories, I say thanks to you all.

I probably won’t blog as often in the new year, just because, well, I kind of play hockey now, more or less, even if my outside edges, backward crossovers and wrong-side crossovers still suck. It’s not exactly Mission Accomplished but I have definitely shifted from the first time blogger who was wondering if it was possible in your mid-40s to even learn how to ice skate, let alone hold a stick and chase a puck.

There’s only so much anybody wants to read about endless dev league sessions or summer league trainings or games. I started this blog as a personal diary of my hockey journey and it’s mostly stayed that way, and I don’t want to chart every training session, either. So we’ll see how we go in 2014, on the ice and in the blogosphere.

Skate well, hockey fans. Happy Christmas if I don’t post again between now and then.

Happy bicentenary.

Nicko