Playing like a girl

On Saturday, I rolled into the Icehouse and went straight to the penalty box.

My view from the home team penalty box. Pic: Nicko

My view from the home team penalty box. Pic: Nicko

Those who like to push the idea that I’m a goon wouldn’t have been surprised, but in fact I was dressed in street clothes and there to help.

Ice hockey in Victoria still largely runs on volunteer efforts, from club presidents to scoreboard attendants, from coaches to Rookie admins* trying to fund-raise to help AIHL players pay their way. I feel guilty that I don’t do more, so volunteered to assist at a Melbourne Ice women’s game and was offered the challenging and powerful role of penalty box attendant. This included the thrilling moment where I carried a tiny Esky full of the game pucks (chilled on ice – what’s that about? I forgot to ask) to the scoreboard attendants, and then drank coffee in the home team box, watching the game from a pane of glass away. It was awesome.

Melbourne was up against the Brisbane Goannas, who were challenged for playing numbers, had one member wearing full rental gear, which hinted at some sort of pre-game drama, and should, imho, have had a team penalty for their jersey, which was largely green, blue and orange and featured what appeared to be a Seventies drawing of a lizard on the front in what could only have been some kind of crazy, ill-thought-out tribute to the Goanna Band and Solid Rock?

Shona Green in action. Pic MIW Facebook page

Shona Green in action. Her outside edges are ever so slightly more impressive than mine. Pic MIW Facebook page

My main take-out from watching Melbourne Ice and Goanna women at work was that it was a blast to finally see skaters like captain Shona Green and my Cherokees coach Georgia Carson playing flat out. Shona is one of the coaches at the Icehouse and so is usually sledging me from behind the opposition bench on a Wednesday night. I’ve had classes with her over the years and always loved her coaching style and been seriously challenged by her drills, but of course the flipside of seeing somebody like Shona only as a coach is that she never gets to more than first-gear, thinking about changing into second gear, on the ice. The same with Georgia, who occasionally joins in a scrimmage at our team training, but is hardly pushing into her red levels at any point.

On Saturday, leading her team to another win (they’re unbeaten in this season), Shona wasn’t in social mode or teacher mode or polite mode. She was in hockey player mode, and I loved seeing it up close. Given she has captained Australia, it shouldn’t surprise that she played at a different level to a lot of the women out there, on either side. Both teams, being in the national competition, had many players who were sublime skaters and had great shots. The defences were solid; as in hard and tenacious and disciplined. The Ice has a few new players this year and I noticed how the veteran defenders (and I’m cautiously calling Georgia one of those, although I think she’s yet to hit 22 years old (wince)), would direct traffic and provide cover and just be there to help at every turn.

Shona was everywhere, scoring at least one goal, but also getting a penalty, which meant she had the joy of being escorted to the gate to be met by none other than Nicko Place, closing the door and wondering what the etiquette is as Attendant. Do you chat? Do you sigh and shake your head? Do you land any of the lines that some friends and I had thrown around as ‘the most inappropriate thing to say to a Melbourne Ice player sitting a minor penalty’? (Random selection: ‘I guess if you were better at hockey that wouldn’t have happened…?’ or: ‘I’ve written some notes that might help once you’re back on the ice’) … btw, for the removal of doubt, the answer to that last question: do you land them? is NO.

My coach, Georgia, on the move v the Goannas. Pic: facebook

My coach, Georgia, on the move v the Goannas. Pic: facebook

In fact, Shona was bemused as she arrived, which made conversation easy because I’ve had the same feeling as I’ve arrived in the box. Genuinely trying to work out what the penalty was for, and whether you did it. This is not to bag the referees, by the way, or to breach the hardcore IHV social media rules … I’m just saying that I know I’ve been called for things in the hurly burly of summer league that I’m genuinely unaware I’ve done. It’s always ineptitude with me, not vicious intent. And so I’ve headed to the box, wondering out loud, why I’m being called. Not complaining; just curious. (As I’ve written before, I secretly kind of like being sent to the box. It feels bad-ass to have a referee or linesman have to personally escort you all the way to the gate, as though you’ve got the potential to explode on the way.) The refs are cool too; they can tell if you’re just confused, as against having a go.

So anyway, Shona and I discussed the many reasons a player might be sent to the box, until the scoreboard attendant yelled from further down what the penalty was actually for. (Slashing, from memory.) Being the captain, Shona also used her two minutes to note that the usual towel and water bottle weren’t in the box, and then she was gone, skating like a fury from the moment I opened the door.

In the third period, as Sarah Teed arrived, gently fuming as everybody always is, I asked if she would like a drink of water from the newly-arrived bottle (Val Webster being omnipresent, having heard Shona’s query and answering every need in every direction, as usual)? ‘Oh, no thank you,’ Sarah said, sweetly, as though I’d offered her a cucumber sandwich. Then got back out there, to throw her weight around as Goannas dared to attack the net.

Quite a few Ice women were called by the refs, and it shouldn’t surprise that they were just like any other team I’ve been part of or witnessed, cursing and swearing slightly under their breath but keeping a lid on it, hoping hard that the other team doesn’t score while on the power play, and engaging in a wildly complicated series of hand gestures with coach Tommy Powell (yes, at the rink again, as he and Army and Shona and Bacsy are pretty much every single day as far as I can tell) to decide whether to rejoin play or just get to the bench as fast as they can skate.

Ice president Emma Poynton turned up and had a chat, including thanking me profusely for volunteering to help at the game. I had to fight the urge to yell: ‘Stop being president! You’re mid-game! Go score a goal or hit somebody!’

Nic Cliff in action on saturday. Pic: Matt Wragg Photography

Nic Cliff in action on Saturday. Pic: Matt Wragg Photography

The Ice won pretty easily and it was fascinating to see the mix of skill levels, and the intensity, as compared to when the Melbourne Ice men play. The women wear full face cages (by international hockey law, I believe) and don’t ‘board’ opponents the way the men do. The hockey was fast, furious and committed, as you’d expect, and I felt a little ashamed I hadn’t made it down to a MIW match before now. One of my hockey friends, Nicole Cliff, was making her home debut for the Ice (the second ‘Rookie’ after Georgia Giblin to make it all the way to the national league) and it was cool to be there to see her play. She looked like she belonged too.

I’ve always loved that – at my admittedly low level – hockey is mixed gender, and that I have been able to play with and against quite a few of the women competing for Melbourne Ice on the weekend; even occasionally winning a face-off or a puck battle along the way. It’s exciting to think that you can actually take the ice against a potential national league or Australian team player, to keep pushing yourself and working on your skills. Watching Saturday’s game, when the Melbourne Ice women took off the handbrake and skated to capacity, left no illusions as to how high the standard is at that level. They rocked.

* (shout out to Matt Wragg, Theresa Neate, Brendan Parsons and Chris Janson.)

Sub-standard skating in context

Spitfires v Tigersharks. Waiting for a whistle to start things off. Pic: Zac Arato.

Quite the weekend. In Melbourne, a classic AFL grand final took everybody’s mind off the unspeakably horrific murder of Jill Meagher, although in her local hood, Brunswick, they did what Brunswick people do and discussed “yarn-bombing a tree” as a tribute to her. Well played, Swans, and thank you for the distraction.

In Sydney, fuckwit shock jock Alan Jones said Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s father had “died of shame” when he passed away a few weeks ago, because his daughter was such a liar. A paid-up dinner of Young Liberals chortled and applauded. Sponsors are now pulling out of his radio show but what’s the bet he isn’t even sacked?

Big Cat Place prepares for a face-off against the Tigersharks.

Overseas, things were even stranger. American being America, there was a report of a man in a black ski mask being spotted near a window and so a neighbor strode out, invoking his goddamn Constitutional Right to bear arms and to defend property, and shot the intruder dead. Then took off the balaclava and found out it was his 15-year-old son.  This was on the same day that Fox News America was busy following a police car chase in Arizona after some guy had carjacked a vehicle and taken off. The coverage was being enjoyed by the Fox audience right up until the bad guy stopped his car, got out and shot himself in the head, live on national TV. “We really messed up,” a Fox spokesman said.  Meanwhile in Manchester, Britain, two female police – unarmed because that’s how the Brits roll – were shot down by a psycho who had phoned in his own burglary to attract them, and then turned himself into the local police station. In one report on that story, it was pointed out that five British police have been killed by gunfire in the past decade. In the same period, 544 American police have been slain. Over the weekend, of course, in Tennessee, in the USA, there was also a conference of those opposed to gun control. “In a perfect world, without carry permits, anybody ought to be able to own a gun and anybody ought to be able to carry a gun,” said enthusiast Mike Crow.

The point of all this is to provide context to my hockey battles of the weekend. I played twice and was mildly frustrated both times at how my skating is going, or not going, depending on how you look at it. In both games, I was serviceable, didn’t suck – and in the first game, on Friday night, my passing, especially to Big Cat in the forward line, was really happening.

Several of my hockey mates on the move in Spitfires v Tigersharks action. Pic: Zac Arato.

But I still need to work on moving my feet. I still need to get those first few quick steps to put distance between me and back-checkers on a breakaway.

Even so, driving home on Sunday night, I was very aware that my world and the wider world had bigger issues than whether I can train myself to have faster wheels by the time summer league starts in a fortnight. Context can be a good thing sometimes.

On Sunday, a bunch of our new summer team, The Spitfires, took on another actual team, the TigerSharks. This was my first time playing against players I didn’t really know, against genuine opposition.

Sure, I skated onto the ice to take a face-off and said, “Oh, hi, Brendan,” to Brendan Parsons, facing me across the red dot (he duly kicked my arse in getting the puck away) and then said, “Oh hi, Georgia,” to Georgia Giblin, the TigerSharks’ other centre I faced. And said hi to Dan and Mark and others I knew on that team … but honestly, really, there were people playing who I didn’t know, and therefore it was a good test of where our team was at, and where I was at.

Short answer: still not a good enough skater to play centre now we’re playing for real. On a wing, I’m okay, and I’m getting better, but I have to get to more general sessions, just to keep my legs getting faster.

The Spitfires team listen to our coach for the day, Melbourne Ice player Austin McKenzie. It’s quite possible he was saying: “Kittens? Really? Kittens? Was that to get the chicks?” Pic: Zac Arato

Hockey remains a lot of fun though. It was a very clean game on Sunday; hard-fought but with great spirit. Just the way it should be. I got to share a line with Liam Patrick,  my friendly rival, Apollo Creed to my Rocky,  who excelled by yelling the opposition team’s name instead of our own as we did a group gloves-together-inspirational-yell thing at the start of the third period. “I honestly didn’t mean that,” he said as we prepared for the face-off. I told Georgia, newly named among the Melbourne Ice women’s team and now an intimidating presence staring at me across the face-off dot. “For real?” she asked, wondering what she was up against. My distraction didn’t work; I think she won that one.

Even so, the Spitfires won the day. We somehow jumped to a three goal lead in the opening few minutes (it turned out the TigerSharks hadn’t really been together, as a team, on the ice at all since last summer season and had a lot of ring rust, as boxers call it). Once they woke up, it was a nil-all draw, but we had lots of chances and played well.

Can’t wait for the actual season to start now, in two weeks.

But in the meantime, I’ll distract myself by watching the wider world and scratching my head about bigger issues. Like how Melbourne is mourning Jill Meagher’s murder, or how Alan Jones can be such a dickhead after so many years on Earth, or even what the business plan is behind opening a Victoria’s Secret store at the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium? Life is never boring.