Taking it to the roof …

Big Cat takes it to the car park roof under the wheel that never spins.

Chaos at the Icehouse last night as one of the machines that keeps the ice cold, and goes bing, and is called a compressor, and has tubes in it or some shit (What am I? An engineer?) broke and the ice melted. Oops. All Victorian comments raising eyebrows at the Gold Coast rink which is periodically shut for dodgy ice are hereby revoked.

A bunch of us hit the roof of the Harbourside car park for some street hockey instead and Jess Hough got some amazing photos with her fancy phone. Under the superstructure of the big wheel that never turns and in light rain, we smacked street pucks around and made the best of a missed night of on-ice action.

Why yes, I do play hockey. How did you know?

Toes are finally going to be dipped in the water of Joey Hughes’ Oakleigh-based school this week, so Big Cat, Alex and I loaded up all the gear that usually sits in our lockers until the Icehouse is back in action. It was kind of spooky walking through the Icehouse in darkness with nobody on the softening ice; Melbourne Ice players wandering around looking a little lost as their practice was also cancelled. We lugged our stuff out of there and into the back seat of my car, which ended up looking as though the entire Red Wings’ team’s gear had been dumped on a small Holden in Australia.

In other news, Guest Writer offerings have started to appear in my gmail inbox, which is exciting. I’ll start feeding them onto the site. Thanks for the enthusiasm, fellow skaters.

A Jess Hough panorama of street hockey on the harbourtown car park roof.

Old Dog. New tricks.

Tonight, as the rain and the wind rattled an old warehouse in Kensington, I stood in a boxing ring, the canvas floor mercifully clear of the puddles elsewhere in the gym, under a leaky roof.

My hands were taped up and gloved, and I was in a singlet and shorts, sweat flowing freely. I still haven’t forked out for proper boxing shoes, so my trusty but expensive Asics running shoes were being slaughtered in the side-to-side, front-and-back shuffle of sparring.

Sam Visciglio, grey-haired, lean as a whippet, ever-encouraging, with a face that shows a lot of life lived and with flat, concentrating eyes that miss nothing, stepped back, pads relaxed, and said: “See, that hand (the left) is the cocky kid from – where are you from again, Nicko?”

“North Fitzroy,” I panted.

“- from North Fitzroy. It’s loose, it’s the right side of the brain controlling that left. Loose, creative. But this hand (pointing to my right) needs to be at your chin, in front of your jaw. That’s left side of the brain. Defend. It’s controlling the elbow tucked into your side, protecting your ribs.

Sam works on the battered face of one of his fighters. No doubt with calm, soothing words when they’re needed.

“And now, when you land that left, I want you to turn the fist so you punch with these knuckles here (index finger, middle finger). Turn on impact. Back to the chin. Turn on impact. Back to the chin.

“And put that cassette into your head, and hit ‘play’. It’s the cassette marked ‘agile’. I want you thinking that word: ‘agile’, ‘agile’, agile’. Footwork. Keep moving. Do you hear what I’m saying? I want you to reprogram your feet.”

“Sam,” I said. “I’m not sure anybody my age can be termed ‘the cocky kid from Fitzroy North’.”

Sam laughed, patted me lightly on the face as he does to say: “Good job”,  and called another fighter into the ring, while I went back to belting the heavybag. A cassette in my head saying the word, “agile” over and again, with my feet moving accordingly. Right fist planted in front of my jaw as the left jab snaked out. Another lesson absorbed.

I love Sam. He trains fighters alongside my mate, Mischa Merz, Australia’s very own queen of the square ring, and an old journo mate of mine when she’s not being hit, hitting people or training people to hit and not be hit.

I learn so much from these two. All that stuff about how old dogs can’t be taught new tricks? It’s not true. For starters, since Fly Dog the Magnificent did her Achilles tendon on Christmas Day (hello $3000 worth of surgery and vet bills), she’s mostly learned to obey my: “Slow! Fly, slow!” command, and she only wants to chase balls like she used to every hour or so, instead of every minute.

Likewise, the old dog that is her owner is learning new things all the time. On Mondays, Mischa and Sam teach me fundamentals that I really should know after so many years of dabbling in hitting heavy bags, floor-to-ceiling bags and training pads with endless jabs, hooks and bodyshots.

Fly Dog The Magnificent, as she spends more of her time these days, post injury: being driven around.

But no, there’s always so  much more to learn, so many bad habits to lose. Tonight, with the crazy Melbourne weather, only the hardcore trainers were there. And me. A new guy, Lee, from England is an ex-amateur fighter and knows his stuff. Was trying to punch holes in the heavy bag as he falls back in love with the sport. When we had to spar, trading body shots, practicing our defence, he was great in teaching me how to be ready to attack but able to close the gates of my elbows as required, to ward off shots to my stomach, elbows ready to defend kidney attacks.

Learn, learn, learn.

And that’s before I get to Wednesday hockey and another Intermediate Class then Dev League session with Lliam and Army at the Icehouse.

This blog has been going for more than 100 posts and I still can’t quite convey how much I learn in every session, how the improvement keeps coming. Jason Baclig, from the Melbourne Ice, said last week – when I mentioned my funk, and feeling like my improvement had flat-lined – that there comes a time where improvement is incremental, so you don’t get the big, obvious breakthroughs on a weekly basis. The solution is, of course, to keep working, and I threw myself into last week’s class and Dev League like a crazy person,  with the support and urging of Lliam, Army and my classmates/teammates. Funk, be gone.

Tonight, Sam gave me another tool for the same job. “Agility,” he said. “The perfect footwork for different punches. Imagine yourself doing it, Nicko. Imagine that you can do it. Of course, you can’t. You have to learn, but pretend you can, think you can. Agility. Believe you know how to, and work from there.”

It’s become a running joke among some of my Dev League peers that I remain a Dev League Virgin, as in: I haven’t scored a goal yet. Last week, I was agonizingly close at least once. But no goals yet.

Maybe I’ll carry Sam’s voice onto the ice this week. Believe you score goals, Nicko. Tell yourself that you’re a guy who can put it in the net. Work from there.

If nothing else, I’ll keep my L-Plates proudly on display. Talking to a long-time friend last week, we warily eyed the future; what it would be like to truly become old men. Our solution? Don’t stop learning. Don’t stop setting challenges. God knows, hockey, and boxing, do that in spades.

Nicklas Lidstrom: will be oh so missed! Pic: Detroit News

ONE MORE THING: ACTUALLY, TWO:

1. It was in August last year that that I wrote what turned out to be a contentious blog about the state of the Blue Tongues’ rink at the Gold Coast, after attending a game there to watch the Melbourne Ice. Blue Tongues fans went briefly nuts (which resulted in great readership numbers for the blog – the biggest I had until, umm, the entire city of Detroit decided to visit one day.) Anyway, the Ice just went north again and Sunday’s game had to be called off because of problems with the same rink’s ice or boards or both. I will say again what I tried to say in last year’s blog: I am in awe of the Blue Tongues’ players, that they are so good and have such a great team, while training and playing in Australian hockey’s equivalent of third-world facilities, when put up against the Olympic training-standard glory of the Icehouse. Nothing against the people who run that facility, either: how fucking tough a job is that? Maintaining and running an ice rink on the Gold Coast. Like running an outdoor café in the Antarctic. I hope, for the Blue Tongues’ sake, they can stay in the competition and with a decent rink.

2. So long, Nicklas Lidstrom and thank you for the memories. The Wings’ captain and spiritual leader has called it a day, and celebrated by being given a standing ovation at a Detroit Tigers baseball game, being hailed at a Red Hot Chilli Peppers concert and taking a full page advert out in the local papers to thank fans for all their love over the two decades of his career. Yes, he’s that classy. I only came in on the last few years of the magnificent Swedish defender’s career with Detroit but I fully understand why his teammates’ nickname for him was/is: “The Perfect Human”. Four Stanley Cups, seven-times best defender in the NHL (and in the top three almost every other year), a brilliant captain, cool, calculating, composed and a natural leader like few I’ve seen before on the ice, and possessing a slapshot from the blue line that would put a hole in an armoured tank. I am SO glad that Will, Mack and I got to see Lidstrom play in the flesh last year during our epic trip. (And that I bought a signed No. 5 jersey that is now a collector’s item, and yes, I wear it. To hell with re-sale value.)

The fact that Lidstrom has creakily called a halt to his amazing career at 42 years of age must surely sound some kind of warning bells for a 47-year-old second-year rookie, I’m sure, but I’m choosing not to put too much thought into that. Enjoy retirement, TPH. Man, the Wings are going to look different in 2012-13. As coach Mike Babcock said at the Lidstrom presser: “Embrace change.”

Infiltrating Blue Tongue country

It’s winter on the Gold Coast in Queensland, which means it’s sunny and 26 degrees. I’m freezing (which could be a virus I’m battling), wearing a Red Wings baseball cap, a jumper and a scarf, watching my breath fog in front of my face. In front of me, a diesel-powered Zamboni is chugging along an ice rink in what can only be described as an old shed.

I’m at Iceland, in the suburb of Bundall. Bundall is not close to “The Worlds” to the north or

The Iceland rink, in all its glory.

Coolangatta airport to the south, which basically means it’s part of the endless industrial park hinterland that makes up any part of the Gold Coast that hasn’t been subdivided into tiny housing blocks.

Having skated at Iceland, Hotcakes Gillespie, the celebrated northern skater, tells me to watch for the arch across the road on approach. It turns out the piping, like some plumbing experiment gone wrong, is celebrating the Gold Coast Turf Club, which is nearby, but, hey, it’s a landmark among the factories and we sail under the arch, turn left and find ourselves at the home rink of the Gold Coast Blue Tongues ice hockey team.

I don’t want to get all elitist about this place. I had always kind of known that the Melbourne

The view from my seat: Ice players stand in front of the crowd between shifts.

Icehouse, where I train, is Australia’s official winter Olympic training facility and as such is pretty schmick. I guess what I hadn’t taken into account is life away from the Icehouse.

In fact, far from being all sniffy about the Gold Coast Iceland, I’m in awe of the Blue Tongues players. To train and play at such a dilapidated, sub-standard rink and then duke it out with the better resourced teams, like Melbourne Ice, is nothing short of heroic.

A photo on the Melbourne Ice facebook page from Sunday showed the showers at Iceland … several plastic water drums on top of a shed, with hoses to let the water fall. When we arrived, Jason Baclig and other members of the Ice were warming up in the carpark. The actual rink looked wet, not frozen, and instead of that pleasing, sharp scrapped-ice sound of a good hockey stop, when players changed direction there was a kind of slushy sound. I have never seen so many players in an AIHL game lose their footing, sliding around on watery ice. And the rink looked smaller than the Heinke Rink where we train, and where Melbourne Ice plays its home games. I’m not sure if it was an optical illusion or not. I suspect this rink was NHL sized, not Olympic sized.

Watching all this was about 150-200 fans, who had paid ten bucks each at the door. Five or six people were wearing Gold Coast jerseys, which are based on the Canucks’ colour scheme. Otherwise the major fundraising initiative was a sausage sizzle out the front, cooked by parents of Blue Tongue players.

Two or three rows of seats lined one wall, meaning even such a small crowd was capacity. Amazingly, there was no glass around the rink, meaning netting was all that protected spectators from the flying puck, and also meant any player getting “boarded” was pushed into a waist-high wall, not safer glass.

The scoreboard was for “Visitors” v “Grizzlies” (much better name than the Blue Tongues, btw, Coasters). There were no benches for the teams, or penalty boxes. That swarthy sex symbol of the Ice, Jacques Perreault, got a penalty and had to stand with the rest of the team for two minutes, seething quietly.

Ice goalie Stu Denman didn't bother trying to go outside to the change room during intervals.

Between shifts, Melbourne Ice players stood in front of us, local fans wandering past them with sausages in bread, as the Ice players discussed tactics and were baited by the crowd. After one dodgy penalty, an old dude standing next to us muttered in a super-satisfied growl under his breath: “Welcome to the Gold Coast.” By the game’s end, when the Blue Tongues sunk an empty netter to take a 5-3 lead, Ice captain Vinnie Hughes was leaning on the wall, having verbal stoushes with the crowd, sitting a whole metre away.

“Man, tomorrow’s game is going to have an edge,” Hotcakes Gillespie observed, as Joey Hughes was led out of a fight with three seconds to go on the clock. And she was right … according to Twitter, the refs tried to give Army a five minute penalty for fighting the next day, when Melbourne claimed he wasn’t even on the ice at the time, Lliam got thrown out of the game, and Ice eventually won 5-3 after Jason Baclig (who else?) chipped into the empty net to split the weekend’s scorelines.

So this is AIHL life away from the palatial Icehouse? I felt genuinely concerned for the Melbourne Ice and Blue Tongue players, trying to play at the professional level they do on such a dodgy rink (a game was cancelled recently because the Iceland ice was deemed dangerous) EDIT: a broken thermostat made the ice too cold, according to a local, replying to this post (see below).

But I also felt amazed that the Gold Coast team could be at such a decent standard, given their home. And I felt admiration for the bloke who clearly runs everything to keep Iceland going, driving the Zamboni, putting up the netting, checking the bar is ticking over, renting skates on weekdays and ensuring the shipping container that doubles as team changing rooms is clean and tidy for visiting sides. All while 99 per cent of the local population are at the beach down the road.

Aduba, Tommy Powell and Lliam Webster watch the game; a long way from the AHL.

At one stage, I was watching Melbourne’s star import Obi Aduba clamber over the sponsor-free wall to stand on wet carpet with only a net separating him from the fans, dodgy under-wattage lighting making the whole scene gloomy. When the AIHL finals finish, Aduba is heading back to America to play for the Quad City Mallards, in Illinois, (This is him dropping the gloves for Quad City before he joined the Ice) and will try out with Springfield, in the AHL – one level below NHL. What must he have made of this Gold Coast scene? It would be like an ATP tennis player competing at antbed tennis courts in central Queensland, local farmers manning the lines.

I guess, like so much else in hockey, he’s in it for the adventure. Iceland provided that.