Guest blog: Author Will Brodie’s two hockey lives

WORLD EXCLUSIVE: Nicko writes: I met Will Brodie through mutual writing/journalism friends quite a few years ago, and before my hockey adventure began, so the fact that he’d played as a kid didn’t resonate with me at the time, as it does now. However, as he’s rediscovered his love of the sport, and played a vital role in getting media oxygen for the AIHL at The Age Online, and now through his excellent book, ‘Reality Check‘, it’s been fun to see him reestablish himself in our crazy world. A while ago, I invited hockey players to write for the blog and had a series of guest writer ‘origin stories’ as a result. That offer has always remained open (and remains open, for anybody who wants to tell their story). Will found time, between marketing and selling ‘Reality Check’, to tell his yarn. Here it is:

A tale of two hockey lives

By Will Brodie When I chatted to Nick Place about his hockey journey, he remarked that the experience of those who first played in the 1970s was unknown to many of those who have taken to the sport since the advent of the Icehouse. He suggested I write about my origins in hockey and what it was like back then, and I was keen to share reminiscences of a formative, fondly remembered era.

Will Brodie, centre, as a young Blackhawk in 1977. With his best mates, Glenn and Tim.

Will Brodie, centre, as a young Blackhawk in 1977. With his best mates, Glenn and Tim.

I have had two hockey lives. My first began when I was a young child in the early 1970s, when I used a sawn-off stick as I mucked about with mates including Glenn and Tim Grandy at our Dads’ senior Blackhawks practices early on Sunday mornings. When senior scrimmage took over the entire ice surface, we repaired to the worn floorboards of St Moritz to improvise endless games with pucks made from balled-up discarded stick tape (suspiciously like electrical tape in those days). If we bribed our fathers at the right moment we would get cokes in small bottles, a style revived decades later as a ‘retro’ marketing/packaging ploy. Later we all played together in the Blackhawks juniors, starting as 10-year-olds playing under-16s. When I was 14, playing a game of footy and two games of hockey each Sunday, I hurt a knee, perhaps inevitably. The initial niggle came in a way unique to rough rinks in those days – condensation or leakage from the roof dripping down and forming nasty little yellow stalagmites which rose off the ice surface. I skated over one, felt a twinge and a later tackle from behind in a footy game finished my cartilage off well enough for me to spend weeks on crutches. Living on the suburban/urban fringe, I had started attending school in the city and, when I recovered, the prospect of training at midnight Friday – with a merged team which included members of our previous arch-rivals – was not enough to bring me back. I never made a decision to never again play, merely not to play that year, then the usual adolescent distractions intervened and by the time I was into young adulthood, the five-rink league of my youth had shrunk to just Oakleigh. As I write in Reality Check: “I meant to get back to hockey but never did”.

All hail the 1977 junior Blackhawks.

All hail the 1977 junior Blackhawks.

This first age of hockey of mine was blessed by a golden age of rinks in Melbourne. Like visiting VFL home grounds, playing at Footscray, Ringwood, St Moritz and Oakleigh was exciting and fascinating, each rink possessing a unique atmosphere. Dandenong was a good size, but felt like the converted factory it was; St Moritz was a magnificent faded relic, all art deco timber, and all too vulnerable to a cynical match; Footscray was always wet and less scary than you thought it would be; Ringwood was like the MCG of the sport, housing the slick Rangers and home to the brief incursion of the sport on to ABC TV; Oakleigh was the tiny, combative rink where they played stirring American marching band anthems ahead of senior finals games.

The old Ringwood rink. Man, couldn't we use that now!

The old Ringwood rink, ‘The MCG of the sport’. Man, couldn’t we use that now!

We played the Monarchs, Pirates, Hakoah, Rangers … Many of the clubs familiar to players these days are unfamiliar to me. Jets? Sharks? They are long-established but they were the product of mergers or changes which came long after my playing career. When we weren’t playing, we were often forming a very small, shrill cheer squad for the seniors, banging on the hoardings at the Dandenong Coliseum. When I walk through the Icehouse’s St Moritz bar these days, many of the names on the trophies are those of friends of my Dad that we cheered for, friendly hockey types who held court at the backyard barbecues where Glenn and I played hockey with fallen lemons. My Dad and his hockey friends consistently lunched long on Fridays, bottled wine to raise funds for the club and the Australian national team and went on holidays with their families together. They eventually all bought a property together, in the glorious bush of the Victorian Great Dividing Range. I still camp on that property with my family. Old hockey sticks were redeployed alongside our tents as prospective ‘bong-bong’ sticks in case errant snakes strayed too close to habitation. My brother still has a relic of one of those sticks, a shrunken red Titan. To me, Titan sticks were the fancy newcomer – I had grown up accustomed to KOHO and Sherwood, but such is the foreshadowing of memory; Titans were probably around for most of my childhood. The first impressions remain the strongest.

Hockey as Will Brodie used to know it: The 1977 Australian team that played West Germany.

Hockey as Will Brodie used to know it: The 1977 Australian team that played West Germany.

My second hockey life began in 2010 when my brother Craig took me to a game at the recently opened Icehouse. I fell back in love with the game instantly, amazed at the venue – the seemingly grandiose, unrealistic dream of decades previous made real – and the remarkable crowds, but mostly just the game itself, better than it had ever been played in Australia, and presented so much more ‘professionally’, with music and announcers. My hockey renaissance via the Icehouse came at around the same time Nick and so many others were taking their newfound enthusiasm to the next level by buying skates, taking lessons and learning how to play. Nick is a wholehearted sort of hockey lover – he had to play, not just watch. For those of us who have played but been away for a long time – the itch to play again never goes away. There is nothing like playing hockey. If you don’t play for a long time, it seeps into your dreams. I had my first skate in 30 years in mid 2012 and did my (other) knee (on terra firma) a week later. I don’t drive, I am not wealthy and my lower limbs are faulty – returning to playing hockey is not an easy choice to make at 48, especially when I have such vivid memories of being a competent junior. But the more I watched, the closer I got to the players and the ice surfaces by writing my book about the AIHL in 2014, the more the hockey dreams returned. The smell of sweat in the cold. The smell of lacerated rubber matting, decades old. The clacking sound of sticks, skates, pucks, boards. It is little wonder that the subconscious is activated by hockey – while one is sleeping, the most affecting sensations have their run of the mind and soul. Asleep, there is no rational mind saying ‘you’re too old/hurt/poor to play again’. My hockey dreams bring back very specific moments and sensations. I remember the jelly-legged fear and excitement when pulling up at a foreign rink ahead of a game. I remember the intoxicating odour drift of exhaust in the pre-dawn fog at Sunday morning practices as a diesel-powered tractor with chains on its tyres trudged up and down to clean the ice. The same tractors I would see in the fields near our camping getaway; Massey Fergusons rolled through my childhood like pets. I remember the forbidding holes at the corners of some rinks where snow was shoved down by flat, wide person-powered shovels. The red digital scoreboards which glowed either warmly or tauntingly depending on the numbers they exhibited.

1980 Blackhawks, featuring Will Brodie. You can tell they're hockey players because nobody is looking at the right camera.

1980 Blackhawks, featuring Will Brodie. You can tell they’re hockey players because nobody is looking at the right camera.

I recall the completion of pulling a jersey over your gear before a game, and suddenly being transformed into a player; the perfect satisfaction of a pass setting up a goal-scoring mate; the oxygenated agony of stops and starts; the post-practice glow, with all of Sunday still stretching ahead; ignominious losses that taught me that teams beat talent; the sensation of gliding a circle after having hustled for speed; the sensation of beating a goalie, sometimes a mystery worthy of In Search Of investigation, sometimes as simple as just being there in the slot. The game gets brutal at about the point I left it as a teenager – the need for elite physical conditioning and mental and physical toughness kicks in and angsty veins pump anger around the rinks. I may not have been tough enough to go far in hockey, and I was certainly not a good enough skater to end up playing for Australia like Glenn did. But if I had learned how to handle myself, I would have enjoyed that rush and slide of hockey for a lot longer. Truth is, when the game shrank to just Oakleigh, it took rare dedication to keep rocking up, travelling long distances, putting up with yet another year of the cold. You had to be a complete hockey tragic, and thank god there were enough of those wonderful beasts to keep the sport going. And thank god for the Icehouse, which gave the softer hockey lovers like me somewhere to reignite our passion for the game. If I was to play again, I would want to start by marching from Huntingdale station to brave frigid old Oakleigh. For the first time with a stick in my hands at least, I would have to reconnect with the rough charms of my childhood hockey, where everything is reduced to your skates, your stick, the ice and your teammates. Then I would accept the luxury of the Icehouse without shame, and maybe pull some strings to get them to put on that John Phillip Sousa marching music so I could imagine I was about to play a senior final. * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * THE PLUG: Will Brodie’s new book, Reality Check, is a personal account of following the Melbourne Mustangs and the Melbourne Ice through the 2014 AIHL season. Will went on all the road trips with the teams and hung out behind the scenes at the Icehouse. It’s a beautifully crafted and fascinating account of an exciting year in the AIHL, and the players, coaches and volunteers who make hockey happen in this country. I fully recommend it, and not just because Will is a mate. It’s a cracking read! CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE REALITY CHECK.

Are we having fun yet?

It’s kind of a strange time at the moment. The fact is that hockey is not front and centre in my life right now; hence the long break between blogs. An unexpected twist is that, as I write, the Detroit Red Wings are waking up on the other side of the world, preparing for a huge play-off game, just like last time I wrote more than a week ago.

The Red Wings' underdog run continues ...

The Red Wings’ underdog run continues …

This time it’s against the Chicago Blackhawks, at the Joe – Detroit having not only seen off the Ducks, as per the moment of truth looming in my last post, but then proceeding to play astonishingly great hockey to snatch an unexpected and spectacular 3-1 lead over the President’s Cup winning Hawks. ‘Detroit is like a rash that just won’t go away, boys,’ said one commentator. ‘The Chicago Blackhawks just can’t get rid of it.’

This Red Wings team of kids in rebuild mode is within a win of pushing out the No. 1 seeds and going to the Western Conference Final. And, shit, if you make it that far, having beaten the No. 1 and 2 ranked teams, why not go all the way?

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

In Game 5, the Hawks came back hard, as you knew they would, in front of a hometown crowd, so now the series is 3-2, and this second chance to put it away at the Joe is fraught. Some of the highly-rated Hawks started to wake up after a shocking series so far. There is still a real chance that Chicago could become the 21st team in something like 220 series to come back with three straight wins to steal it.

But I’m going to be honest: I reckon my Wings will win. Played such brilliant, tough, play-off hockey to take those three wins – especially the last one at the Joe when Chicago threw everything at them. It’s definitely possible to triumph. LGRW, LG! Wish I was in Detroit to be there.  The old Joe will be rocking.

(Tuesday update: Well, the Wings got edged, 4-3 at the Joe, after some rookie errors, which leads to a sudden-death Game 7 on Wednesday, Motown time. See below for Mike Babcock’s take on that.)

And all of this points to my conundrum. The Red Wings are on a prolonged and unlikely and thrilling play-off run. I’m playing hockey for two hours very Wednesday (although the last two have been kind of tense, grumpy sessions, unlike our usual laughfests) and supposedly every Sunday – although I’ve had trouble getting to a few of those nights. The Melbourne Ice men’s season is well underway, but I’ve only seen their first game.

There is hockey everywhere but I’m on the fringes and this is made more noticeable by the foaming-at-the-mouth enthusiasm a lot of my fellow rookies have been displaying, mostly all over Facebook.

‘OMG training tonight!’ is a pretty standard post. Or arranging seats, hours early at the Ice game.  Or heading down for Sunday night general skating at the Icehouse. Or doing boot camp to train hockey muscles. Some seem to be training or playing at least five nights a week. And these aren’t Melbourne Ice players that I’m talking about.

It’s intense and impressive.

And then there’s me. Driving down to Bairnsdale for a weekend, listening to music, watching the amazing light as storm clouds hit the lower alps to the north, staring at the Yallourn power stations, en route to take part in a panel discussion with a bunch of other authors, discussing writing fact and fiction. Then heading to Sydney, wearing my Giants hat (as against a Giant hat, to be clear), to drink too much coffee with clients and friends, and to walk the streets and stare at the view from the 66th floor of a hotel. Then coming back, now carrying the lurgy everybody seems to have had – I blame Chloe, or Mackquist – and sleeping all day Wednesday instead of working. Then playing dev legue that night to ‘sweat it out’ and feeling awesome about that, despite a mediocre night on the ice. Then throwing up maybe 15 times in the six hours after I got off the ice. Maybe ‘sweating it out’ not such a great idea after all. Bed ridden for two days, then staggering back into the world over the weekend, but with no energy and feeling crap. Meanwhile work and family bushfires, or at least spotfires, spark in different directions, and there’s that next novel sitting there, just waiting for some love – or at least some headspace. So much for catching up with friends, or quality time with anybody in particular. I spread thinner and thinner … Nite Owls play suspended because of illness, bad knee stopping running …

In author mode, in deep dark Gippsland. Look how excited fellow writers Anne Crawford and Kate Forster are by my pearls of wisdom.

In author mode, in deep dark Gippsland. Look how excited fellow writers Anne Crawford and Kate Forster are by my pearls of wisdom.

The tension builds.

But you know what? There’s another important life lesson from the Red Wings that I didn’t mention in the last post and it’s one of my favourites.

When under pressure, when facing elimination or a similarly huge game, coach Mike Babcock, captain Henrik Zetterberg and other leading Wings have a habit of saying one thing: “This is fun.”

Such a simple statement, but so powerful.

Take these quotes from Babs last week before the crucial third game against the Blackhawks: “It’s fun, it’s the most fun I’ve had coaching in a couple of years, by far.”

“At the start of the year, we weren’t a good team, but we understand that. We buckled down and we got better. The coaching staff is fun, the players are fun, it’s been a fun year for us.”

It’s something you hear a lot from the Wings. Intimidated? Nope. Season on the brink? Well, that’s what you play for – the fun of those moments.

Sure, it’s sport. Sure, these guys get paid millions, win tomorrow or not. Sure, they’ve already pretty much over-achieved this season so the pressure is off.

But I really like this take on the world. (Tuesday update) In fact, watch his presser after today’s loss. The “fun stuff” kicks in about midway through.

Same as before. The reporters are all gloomy that Detroit didn’t close it out. Babs is already anticipating how awesome Game 7 will be.

Life gets difficult, stakes get high, shit gets real … it’s okay. That’s fun. That’s the fun of living. To perform under pressure. Or at least have a crack. We’re not here for all the boring moments where nothing much is happening, are we?

Mambo's magnificent 'Not With That Clown (great songs of sexual jealousy)'

Mambo’s magnificent ‘Not With That Clown (great songs of sexual jealousy)’

And so hockey can float for me, for a while, while I have fun dealing with the things that need dealing with right now. Yes, I’ll probably embarrass myself in my office tomorrow, screeching if the Wings get a big goal, as I sneakily watch Gamecenter on my iPad. Then I’ll be off to see the physio yet again tomorrow afternoon, about my knee and maybe my shoulder. I’ll wade through mud professionally. I’ll battle sinus pain.

But I’ll smile because life is about the challenges, and those changes of gear.

I just rediscovered one of my favourite CDs: Mambo Surfwear’s “Not with that clown. (Great songs of sexual jealousy)” (circa 1997, when Mambo was cool) and so ‘I was checkin’ out, she was checkin’ in’ by Don Covay can once again become my soundtrack as I travel around Melbourne, doing what needs to be done. Maybe occasionally even managing to tune back into my hockey world.

I’ll just try not to think about the future games where I’m going to find myself hunkering over my stick to face all the rookies who are currently training five nights a week to get better, better, better, while I’m not.

That’s going to be a tough game when that happens. It will be fun.

A full house of hockey life

Getting ready for the Aussie Ben Laden Cup.

Getting ready for the Aussie Ben Laden Cup.

So here’s something that I love about hockey; this allegedly crazy little cult of a sport in Australia, half a world from the heartland of chasing pucks.

On Saturday night, I went to a poker game being run by a friend from work. His name is Ben Laden, which I, being the sparkling world-renowned wit that I am, couldn’t help but notice was a similar name to a certain terrorist, recently dispatched. Turns out that Ben has a lot of trouble at passport control whenever he enters the USA – or did, pre-Abbottabad. Sometimes the entire passport team would ask to pose for a photo.

He’s embraced his fate and on Saturday night, we played for the Aussie Ben Laden Cup, and a stack of cash from the buy-in stakes. Ben’s a pretty keen player and has regaled me with a lot of stories about long, intense poker nights between him and his mates. Some have played professionally or semi professionally. Intimidating just to hear about. So I went in, knowing I was up against it.

But actually, the jeopardy wasn’t that great because I had all of 50 bucks on the line, the cost of buying in. Two tables of 8 players each. Two rounds of play. Best combined finishes went to the final table.

I fancy myself at cards so into the pot went my Edith Cowan.

Naturally, I was dressed as a cowboy. “Aussie” had convinced me that dodgy poker skills could be minimized by startling dress sense in this company. He was wearing a truly appalling and genuine Hawaiian shirt, so lived his preach. That afternoon, getting ready for the evening ahead, I donned my trusty cowboy shirt from a ramshackle second hand shop in Williamsburg, New York, and cowboy boots from the same store, and headed to the Icehouse to coach one of our rival Summer League teams, the TigerSharks.

Say what? You thought this was about poker. Well, eventually it is but first there was a game to get through, as they were down a bench coach. Kittens and I shared the duties – Kittens bravely donning his favourite poncho so I wouldn’t feel out of place as a cowboy. We were definitely setting new trends in bench coach fashion.

We were coming off a disappointing loss on Thursday night, never quite able to get the Interceptors rolling in the fog that envelopes the Oakleigh rink when 30-degree humidity outside meets a melting iceblock inside. The Blackhawks played really well on a night where the goalies could barely see beyond the red line, so pucks could come out of nowhere. I got an assist and played a decent game without ever feeling like I lit it up, so I wasn’t sure how I’d go trying to tell a Summer League rival team how to play.

Oakleigh brings the summer fog.

Oakleigh brings the summer fog.

It was my first taste of hockey coaching and it turned out that I loved it. As I think I’ve written before, I have a lot of friends in the TigerSharks and have enjoyed games against them, because they have a similar intensity-meets-have-fun attitude to the Interceptors.

Suddenly, here I was, two years into this whacky hockey journey, with a change room full of armoured players listening to my pre-game advice. How did that happen? And what I do know?

Only just enough, apparently, and yet not enough, because the game against the Devils was a 1-1 draw. The TigerSharks had most of the attacking but the Devils’ defence was resolute, with their goalie, Mark Stone, standing on his head to deny them time and again. I tried to observe and advise stuff other than the obvious and battled with not knowing all the players, yet found myself totally caught up in the moment, desperately wanting my team to win; a TigerSharks team that I was thrilled to beat a couple of weeks ago, while wearing my Interceptor #17 jersey. Now I was a cowboy, willing them to find that final goal. Suddenly I could see how much fun coaching would be, if you had a team for a whole season. Maybe, if my knee collapses completely, or I get too old to skate (never!), this could be a hockey path I could explore?

Although I would run out of cowboy shirts pretty quickly.

And so finally through the heat to the top of Sydney Road (I still can’t help but think of that area as Jill Meagher country) and on to the poker game. Battling 15 other players, 14 of whom I had never met and had no connection with. And as I said at the start, this I where I found yet another thing I love about hockey. Sitting outside on the deck playing for hours on a hot night, a couple of strange smelling cigarettes and light beers down, I finally took off my cowboy shirt to reveal a Zetterberg #40 Red Wings T-shirt underneath.

Immediately, one guy on my table, with a Canadian drawl, said: “You’re a Wings fan?”

Turns out he grew up in Quebec and played as a kid.

Inevitably, my stack dwindled, I had not much left to lose, went all in on a couple of picture cards that turned out not to be enough and was out of Round One, appropriately losing to Wild Bill Hickok’s “dead man’s hand”.

The most stylish coaches in Summer League Rec D. Pic: Rachael Hands

The most stylish coaches in Summer League Rec D. Pic: Rachael Hands

At which point, a tall guy from the other table, also out, wandered over and said: “Did I hear that you play hockey? I used to play for Queensland in goals, inline and on ice, in juniors. I’ve been in England for the last eight years but I’m looking to get back into it.”

And so we spent Round Two yarning about Datsyuk’s genius, and Thomas Jurco coming up behind, and inline hockey in London, and the standard of the local scene, and how he can join the Icehouse rookie family.

Do the maths. Sixteen players in a card game: three, including me, with a hockey connection. At the northern Brunswick end of Sydney Road, on a Saturday night. There are allegedly a thousand or so registered players in Australia, plus a few thousand keen fans, and yet here were three of us, out of 16. What are the odds?

If I could work out ratios like that in my head, I might have made the final table.

So long, 50 bucks.