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?

 

Miracle-free on ice, at Hisense Arena

USA v Canada from the cheap seats, at Hisense Arena. ... Meh.

USA v Canada from the cheap seats, at Hisense Arena. … Meh. Pic: Nicko

So, Melbourne just hosted its long-awaited two-night extravaganza of USA v Canada playing hockey for something called the Douglas Webber Cup, at Hisense Arena.

Big Cat got along to both games – Friday night’s 11-9 win to Canada, and tonight’s 10-9 (OT) victory to America.

Mackquist and I joined him and a bunch of our hockey friends for the Saturday night game and I think it’s fair to say we were as underwhelmed by a shoot-out victory, after a 9-9 full-time score, no less, as it’s possible for hockey fans to be.

Don’t get me wrong. This blog is not about to kick the shit out of the USA v Canada concept, or the organisers. We got pretty much what I’d expected for the $88 per ticket or whatever it was. The temporary rink was dubious but held together. It was a game featuring a handful of NHL players (including Canadian captain Kyle Quincey, a genuine Red Wing) and there was some pretty skating, and beautiful passes, and lots of goals with little puffs of artificial fire behind the goals after each score.

But as a stage to show Melbourne just how awesome my sport is, I think it fell short, although for a reason that it couldn’t really help: the game was an exhibition, played like an exhibition. And usually, in any sport, that means it’s going to suck for people who actually know and love the real thing.

I’d spent the afternoon at the MCG, watching my beloved Tigers put in a solid four quarters to see off the dangerous Adelaide Crows by more than six goals. Chloe heroically came along, and it cost me $31 for her ticket, less than half a ticket for USA v Canada. We watched more than 100 minutes of hard, tough, relentless football. Fully committed teams throwing themselves at the ball, and into one another, in pursuit of four premiership points that really mattered for each side. In the last term, with the game pretty much safe, several Tigers were clearly hobbling, carrying ankles or calf injuries, but they refused to come off, chasing and harassing and tackling and pushing, pushing, pushing until the siren mercifully blew and Richmond was in the Eight.

We sang the song long and loud.

Richmond's captain Trent Cotchin leads his team down the race. Pic: Nicko

Richmond’s captain Trent Cotchin leads his team down the race. Pic: Nicko

A quick change of Tiger scarf for signed Lidstrom Red Wings jersey later, I was on my pushbike, riding to the London Tavern where a truly surreal scene greeted me. Awash with happy Richmond fans, in their traditional post-match haunt, the Tavern also found itself home to a large number of hockey jerseys. Winnipeg Jets, Red Wings, Calgary Flames, Boston Bruins, Penguins, Melbourne Jets, Rookies, and so many more. A rainbow splash of hockey colour among the more traditional Saturday evening yellow and black.

We walked in an ever-growing tide of different jerseys past Richmond station, across Punt Road and on to Hisense Arena, with every NHL team and many teams not at that level represented in the largest hockey crowd I’ve seen in Australia.

So things looked promising, right up until the players took the ice.

I’ve long held a theory that you know how good a sporting event is going to be by how desperate the organisers are, and whether anybody talks over the actual event. Tonight’s event failed both my tests. The on-site commentators were annoying and shrill and increasingly, obviously concerned by the lack of crowd atmosphere. It reminded me a lot of some boxing and mixed martial arts event I covered as a journo, with ramped-up hoopla trying to artificially raise the roof because nobody watching a mediocre event from the bleachers was about to. Interviewing some TV actor mid-game, only mercifully ended by the crowd – gasp – cheering a goal, was a major mis-step and told me that the people behind tonight’s event didn’t trust their own product. If the hockey was excellent, just let the paying customers enjoy it … right?

There is nothing better than the intense silence of a major sporting event being contested: the opening minutes of an AFL grand final when everybody is watching, desperately, for a sign of strength or weakness between the combatants. The opening salvos of a Test match in cricket. The moment in a tennis match when you know a few crucial points are going to decide a Grand Slam title and history. It can be strangely quiet but it’s because it is so gripping, so focused.

The USA-Canada game instead had huge explosive fireworks as a kind of defribulator to try and get hearts pumping. If in doubt, more flames behind the goals, and talking over the action, including increasingly desperate pleas to ‘Let’s hear some noise!’

Flames behind the goalie can only mean one thing. Canada scores at Hisense. Pic: Nicko

Flames behind the goalie can only mean one thing. Canada scores at Hisense. Pic: Nicko

The reason there wasn’t any noise was because the game was mildly interesting, and nothing more. Yes there were a lot of goals. Wowee. Yes, there were some fights – tellingly between the same two fighters as at the Friday night game. Melbourne fans know their sport. Even more so, Melbourne hockey fans – or Canadian Melburnians coming along out of a sense of homesickness – know their hockey.

Nineteen goals each game tells you something about the standard, at least of the defence. Plus, the refs appeared to be under orders not to call off-side or icing, which helped the attacking players no end. Sitting where we were, up in the nosebleeds, I was really struck by how claustrophobically small a NHL-sized rink is. With a genuine NHL-standard defence guarding the goal, plus an elite goalie, the miracle is that anybody can score at all.

In fact, you know what? Earlier this week, the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins went at it in Game One of the Stanley Cup finals. This was a match that mattered, big time. This was when hockey players cared.

After the teams were 3-3 at the final buzzer, they went for the best part of three overtime periods without managing to score a goal. Almost an entire game, on top of the game already played; exhausted, out on their feet, and out of fresh attacking ideas. Yet never conceding, not giving anything up. The winner, when it came, was a cruel deflection of several legs, to beat the keeper.

It would be fair to say that at Hisense Arena, we saw nothing like that.

Which is fine. It’s an exhibition. Guys like Quincey would be under stern orders from head office not to risk their multi-million contracts with a genuine injury playing such a novelty event in Melbourne, Australia. I get that.

Watching a golf-cart or something dragging a wet net impersonating a Zamboni, I would have been nervous about my players too, if I was a NHL or AHL manager. As it was, former Melbourne Ice coach ‘Jaffa’ Wilson was among the American coaches, urging on players who were probably more interested in how the overpriced merchandise was selling than whether the Canadians had gotten one back. Plus, you know, one player handed a female friend of mine a puck with his name, jersey number and mobile number on it. Which impressed her a lot until she realised he had a box of the pucks and was using them for some kind of shotgun pellet pick-up-chicks approach. While applauding such brazen chutzpah, it would suggest to me that the Australian trip is a lot closer to an end-of-season trip for such players than a driven quest for Douglas Webber glory.

In the end, feeling extremely unmoved by the whole spectacle, I came to a realization that actually pleased me. I realized that what makes great sport is not just the rules of a game, or the location, or the shape of the ball or puck or bat or stick or mallet or whatever. Whether tennis or boxing or footy or cricket or rugby or European handball or hockey, there is one truth: what makes great sport is passion. It’s the participants’ commitment and courage and complete dedication to the task at hand. That is what can elevate sport to something magical and worthy. This is what I love.

Moreso, when that is missing, it cannot be faked. In a game like tonight’s – ostensibly, on paper, a rematch of the last Olympic gold medal match (LOL) – when it is an exhibition, and nothing more, it cannot rise to great heights. Defenders will hold off, sometimes very deliberately and at some effort, on finishing their checks. Players who in a NHL game would find depths of effort to skate when exhausted, to reach a puck that they really shouldn’t be able to fight for, won’t.

And so the level drops, and becomes pedestrian.

It’s okay. It is what it is.

But nothing more.

No amount of shrieking commentators demanding we yell and scream and stand up or get wildly fakely excited about a shoot-out (that they didn’t actually know how to run, and then couldn’t count to realize that America had won) … none of this will make an exhibition game find heights.

And so our money was spent on exactly that, and we wandered into the night, having enjoyed seeing some actual NHL stars, even if they were just doodling around. And enjoying seeing so many hockey fans and Canadians and Americans and Australian hockey fans in the one place, even if we were tepidly excited for the evening. And so we decided against spending $30 for a souvenir puck. And so we headed off, wishing Melbourne Ice was in town so we could drift to the Icehouse tomorrow and watch some real hockey. Watch players who cared.

Luckily I’m on the ice at 10 pm tomorrow, in Night Owl action. And that’s a good thing.

It’s just like porn versus sex: why watch people faking it, when you can do it for real? Amen.

Miracle on ice … at drop-in

Detroit d-man Kyle Quincey

Detroit d-man Kyle Quincey

So on Wednesday, there was no Development League at the Icehouse. The scale of this catastrophe can really only be understood by those who base their entire week around the fact that they’ll be playing one or two hours of hard, competitive, non-official scrimmage on hump day, being yelled at and taunted by Melbourne Ice stars Tommy, Army and The Beard (Lliam Webster last week as I skated for the puck: ‘Watch out for the angry pensioner!’) to kick them towards the weekend.

Because Dev League wasn’t on, other plans had to be made. There was a stick-and-puck practice session at 1.30 pm that quite a few of my fellow Rookies planned to skate, and then there was a drop-in (unofficial scrimmage – whoever shows up can play) after that.

I was stuck at work, in meetings, and then had to truck across to Fitzroy to meet a friend, so I regretfully bowed to my reality and cursed, conceding that I couldn’t do either of those sessions and would be off the ice for the entire Wednesday. The friend I was meeting was one of those guys who doesn’t like it when you don’t show up or plans go awry. Really doesn’t like it. Needs order in his life, including plans happening as they should.

Geoff's pic of the whiteboard. Note the 5 pm slot.

Geoff’s pic of the whiteboard. Note the 5 pm slot.

All of which is fine, except that a hockey mate, Geoff Carstairs, turning up for the stick-n-puck, took a snapshot of the whiteboard that tells groups which change-rooms to use at the Henke Rink, at the Icehouse that day. It all looked normal except for the 5 pm slot, which read ‘USA/Canada practise’. Say, what?

Actually, a bunch of big-time professional players from the USA and Canada are in town, to play exhibition matches at the Hisense Arena tonight and tomorrow. (I’m going along on Saturday, straight after Richmond v Adelaide at the MCG, which promises to be one of the more epic days.)

Most of the internationals competing are AHL players, as far as I can tell – the level below NHL – but there is genuine NHL experience in there. In fact, one name has leapt out at Big Cat, Macquist and I from the moment we heard about this event: Canadian captain Kyle Quincey.

A current Detroit Red Wing D-man, fresh from the play-offs where Detroit lost that agonising Game 7 Over-Time heartbreaker to the Blackhawks (who are now one game up in the Stanley Cup finals, having prevailed in an astonishing triple-overtime slugfest against the Bruins yesterday).

So, Kyle Quincey was going to be training at the Icehouse? And I wasn’t there?

It gets worse, hockey fans. So much worse.

Because the next photo to hit Facebook was from the drop-in session. There are a hard-core bunch of drop-in players who turn up often. There are occasional players. Sometimes Melbourne Ice players show up, taking it easy against dev leaguers pushing themselves.

On Wednesday, a bunch of USA and Canada international stars saw that drop-in was on and signed up.

And yes, the bottom line of all of this is that I could have actually shared a bench, played alongside or against Quincey. An actual Red Wing. In the flesh.

Kyle Quincey on the bench at an Icehouse drop-in. Pic: Wayne McBride

Kyle Quincey on the bench at an Icehouse drop-in. (Pic: posted by Wayne McBride but I’m not sure who took it.)

When instead I was hacking through traffic, walking in the rain to the Newry Hotel, and then realising that my friend wasn’t showing up because somehow we had gotten our plans screwed after all. Meaning my loyalty, avoiding drop-in, was completely unrewarded. So I went to the gym, gave my dodgy knee and my neglected upper-body a decent thrashing. Had a sauna. Got home. Logged into Facebook and saw the picture of Quincey grinning on the drop-in bench.

Cut to overhead camera POV as I look to the Heavens and scream: Noooooooooooo.

How cool is that, though? How cool is my sport that NHL players and dev leaguers can share the ice like that. What an awesome experience for those who were there. It’s like Kelly Slater paddling out to the Lorne Point to surf with the locals. Or a Test cricketer joining a pub cricket game. Occasionally an active AFL player will show up at the Bang and have a kick with the geriatric bunch that we are, which is fun, but Quincey is so out of context that having him at an Icehouse drop-in really feels like a one-in-a-lifetime event.

That I missed. To be clear. That I could have been at but wasn’t. Just so there’s no mistaking the reality, here.

Oh well.

The sauna was nice.

Kyle Quincey in a Melbourne nightclub this week? Actually it's from a mag called 'The Fourth Period', a 'hockey lifestyle magazine'.

Kyle Quincey in a Melbourne nightclub this week? Actually it’s from a mag called ‘The Fourth Period’, a ‘hockey lifestyle magazine’.

Over to you …

OK, so I’ve come up with a cunning plan.

I WANT YOU! Nobody wants this to be “The face” of Australian hockey. Do your bit …

I have a lot of fun writing this blog, and I remain humbled and stunned by how many people have tuned into it. But, here’s the thing, I’m not the only guy learning hockey in Melbourne.

This may come as a shock, given the self-indulgent nature of many of the nickdoeshockey posts, but I am one of maybe hundreds of rookies feeling their way into the sport.

So I’m throwing open this space to you.

I still plan to write for the blog, as usual, but I’m inviting anybody within the hockey world – from Melbourne Ice players to an intro newbie – to contribute. Because of some boring but real logistical issues, I have yet to be able to dive into Joey Hughes’ Oakleigh crew, although he has kindly invited me along, so maybe some of the NLHA rookies could bring us a taste of that world? I’d love to include footage or thoughts on a road trip with a professional team. Playing amateur hockey in Canada, compared to Australia? Being a woman in a mostly male world, especially in the locker-room? Playing or watching hockey in other Australian states? Somebody who’s broken a collarbone, talk us through that journey … the list of possibilities is endless.

My only demand is that you buy into the wider-life feel that I mostly try to include. Be creative and use this platform to express yourself. God knows, I’m usually too open about emotions, fears etc, so don’t be shy. Ideally, I’d also prefer you don’t rant about elements of the sport you hate, or people you dislike…unless it’s funny. This is a forum to celebrate hockey, after all.

But I’d love to include a wider array of voices than my own.

A while ago, one of the rookies, Daniel Mellios, created a video around one night of Dev League, and it was fantastic. See it here.

Keep it coming … you can provide words, video, poetry, photography: whatever medium best works for you to express your take on our sport and our collective pursuit of the puck.

If nobody responds, then I’ll just keep doing what I do, but I reckon there’s room in this crazy world of ours for more voices than Nicko Place. Let’s hear them.

Email any contributions to nickolaki@gmail.com.

(The fine print: There’s not much and it’s obvious: no racism, sexism or other nasty -isms. I reserve the right to publish or not publish material.)