I heart hockey because …

By Nicko

From the past few weeks, in no particular order:

1. Tonight (Thursday night) at the Icehouse. Mustangs v Ice (Mustangs home game). A few rookies somehow get hold of the “Spotlight Room”, AKA the VIP Balcony. Hilarity ensues.

The Four Horsemen of the Mustang Apocalypse. Full respect.

Mostly, we’re in awe when we look down and see four Mustangs fans wearing their jersey with the names: “War”, “Death”, “Pestilence” and “Famine”.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Rookies unite in a gasp of Whoaaaaaaaa!

A little later, I wander into the bar and chat with a Mustangs fan who is also a Red Wing. He’s impressed by my prized signed Lidstrom jersey. It’s only when I go down for a coffee later in the second period that I see him again, glass-side,and realise I had been chatting with Death.

So I chat with Death some more. He explains that they’d wanted to get “Ice Suck” as their names on the back of the jerseys but the Mustangs president had frowned and shifted in his seat and said no, we don’t want to offend the Ice. Death and I agree, in hockey parlance, that’s kind of soft.

Anyway, there were four of them wanting jerseys, somebody had the brilliant idea … the Mustangs president frowned, shifted in his seat … “I’m not sure we can put ‘Death’ as the name on a Mustangs jersey …”

Thankfully, he lost the argument and the horsemen ride. Respect.

Just then, a Mustang rush happens right in front of us, the puck beating Denman and finding the top corner.

The orange fans go wild and I learn another valuable life lesson: Never chat to Death mid-game. It can only go badly for your team.

I go back to the balcony and the Ice dominate from that moment. Lliam scores a couple of scorching goals. Army drives home a bullet. Jason Baclig is back from injury and firing. 6-1 to my team.

Death and I shake hands after the buzzer. War stops by to say hello. We head our separate ways into the night. I love Thursday evening AIHL games.


2.    Oakleigh rink. A Friday night. Freezing, foggy, dilapidated, wonderful. Intermediate class in full swing, apart from me, still on the Ice from intro. Alongside me, Martin Kutek, Melbourne Ice defender, is sliding across the Oakleigh ice with both arms outstretched, pretending he’s an aeroplane … the idea being to lean your body and find an outside edge. This is my homework … I’m four years old again. I love it.

 3. A Wednesday at the Icehouse. I’m skating along, in the Intermediate warm-up, tapping a puck along.

Rookies invade the balcony for the Mustangs game.

Suddenly, my puck is gone. Ice star Lliam Webster has magically appeared to my right, controlling a puck.

The following exchange takes place:
Lliam: “What happened to your puck, huh? What happened to your puck?”
Me: “What happened to your face?”

Do AFL stars coach midweek and have exchanges like that? I doubt it. I’m five years old again. I love it.

4. Dev League and I’m gliding through the defensive blue line, concentrating hard, past the opposition bench. My legs are splayed apart, camped on my inside edges: my bloody annoying bad habit when gliding.

On the opposition bench, a player who shall remain nameless goes to yell: “Hey Place, my girlfriend can’t spread her legs that wide!”

But then decides such a sledge would be uncouth, and not befitting the noble, fine game of hockey where nobody ever cusses or cracks an inappropriate joke.

Plus his girlfriend, Tamara Bird, would kill him if she found out.

We’re teenagers again. I love it.

5. Watching the film, “Goon”. Crazy violent but funny.

Goon: crude but funny.

One scene:

Film’s hero gets called into the manager’s office.
The manager: “My brother has a team up in Halifax …”

(Jump cut to:)
A hockey locker-room, post game, with a bunch of bedraggled looking hockey players sitting around. In the middle of the floor stands a manager, hands on hips. Angry.
Halifax manager: “You know why you’re losing? BECAUSE YOU’RE SHIT!”

(Jump cut back to the manager’s office.)
The manager (still talking): “…Anyway, he has this player …”

“You now why you’re losing …?” becomes an instant catchcry in the Place household, right alongside “I’m so sorry I broke your rule, giant bat.

6. Dev League. A backhand shot of mine finds its way through a forest of sticks and legs and skates, pings off the inside of the goalpost, Nate the keeper unsighted and beaten. Stays out. So close.

Later, the puck is at my feet and the goal is half a metre away but there’s no way through the sticks and Nate’s padding. So close.

Later, Big Cat pings a hard shot at a gap, it rebounds, I’m there but my shot catches a deflection and ends in the side netting of the goal. So close.

We lose by a goal.

7. The Red Wings yet again prove themselves a team to love by officially signing draft pick Tomas Jurco to an entry level three-year contract, which means he will play in the feeder team, Grand Rapids, this season, and is a strong chance to make his debut for Detroit.

Big Cat and I have been following Jurco since he was a kid and his mad skills showed up on youTube way before he was drafted by Detroit. Big Cat was slightly deflated when he discovered there is only one day in age difference between them. Jurco, having been playing for a little longer than my boy, can do things like this:

8. A puck spills loose down the boards. Miraculously I am closest to it, defenders all going the wrong way. I turn, I skate hard, I almost get the shot at goal in before I’m mown down by faster skaters, back-checking.

How not to skate: Flatfoot Place strikes again – this is an extreme example of the bad habit I am working desperately to break. (Slowly getting there. Slowly)

I curse. It sits with me. In the rooms, a teammate says breezily: “You need to learn to skate faster.”

I take deep breaths. This is something I am aware of.

I get home by midnight and, as usual, can’t sleep before about 2 am. Something is gnawing at me but won’t quite come to front of lobe.

In the morning, I wake and it is there: In starting that breakaway, chasing the loose puck, I didn’t crossover or attempt a tight turn. No, I  turned, slowly, creakily, on both feet. I didn’t put a foot forward for a fast outside edge turn, or crossover to grab speed as I turned and chased the puck. I lost metres in that lack of manoeuvring, right at the start of my attack.

In class, or general skates, I can now mostly do crossovers, and tight turns, especially anti-clockwise.

But they’re still not instinctive, and that’s a problem.

Eyes only for an escaped puck and a free run to the goalie, these moves do not happen, are not my muscle-memory way to grab the speed I need. Or short steps, or whatever else would have helped.

A good realisation. Something I can work on. Interesting. Notes to self …

9. It’s now late on a Thursday night and the hockey week isn’t even close to over. Tomorrow night is NLHA training at Oakleigh; direct, meaningful drills and maybe a little philosophy with Joey Hughes. Then an Ice game on Saturday. (And one on Sunday, but I have footy.)

And so my hockey world continues to spin in its orbit. What’s not to like?

Backwards is the new forwards

Intermediate was fun this week. Lots of stick-handling and puck-moving drills.

The only nasty moment was when we had to practice backward-skating defending. This is a tough drill, because a forward takes a puck and skates as fast as they can along the boards. The struggling defender (let’s call him, say … “Nicko”) has to attempt to backward skate at the same pace from well inside the defensive blueline to the red line at the centre of the rink before he can pivot and try to back-check/stop the attacker from having a shot at goal.

For people who are really good at backward skating, the drill is an exercise in closing down the angles, and forcing the forward into the boards, or at least contesting the puck head-to-head. For someone like me, it’s an exercise in just trying to skate backwards as fast as you can, while watching somebody coming at – and usually past you.

Luckily, this is okay because I’ve had a revelation over the past few weeks. I’ve realized that while I may still be crap at certain skills, I’m a lot less daunted by them.

In my first time around at Intermediate, late last year, I can remember feeling something approaching dread when certain drills were announced.

“Oh God, not pivots/transitions/backward skating,” the little voice in my head would sigh. I would always have an honest crack, but I knew I was going to fail, and badly, before I began, because I simply wasn’t good enough on my skates to even attempt some of the moves. It’s why I spent the summer trying to just get better at skating.

Thomas Tatar versus all of America, at the world championships.

And you know what? I’m no genius, but that plan might have worked.

Backward crossovers remain a mystery to me, and transitions are still very hard, but I’m much more willing now to actually try them. I feel like I have a better sense of where my feet are supposed to be and what my legs should be doing, where my weight should be, even if I can’t always make it happen in reality.

So, this week’s backward skating drill was in this category.

OK, yes, I suck at backwards skating. It’s a difficult thing to work on in the hurly burly of a General Skating session – I watched a fellow rookie (no need to name names) smash a poor little girl while practicing backward crossovers on Tuesday night … nice work, Alex McNab, you thug – or a stick & puck, where you wobble into the path of good skaters. I really need to get on my inline skates more, for backward work). On Wednesday, I almost battled a puck away from a decent forward skater at one point. Mostly I just tried to build actual speed while pushing backward. Shrug. The journey continues, and for the most part, over the past fortnight, I’ve caught myself grinning between drills from the sheer fun of being on the ice. A journo mate of mine, Fairfax sports writer Will Brodie, wrote a great piece this week about his childhood playing hockey, and the rise of the sport in Australia (look at the old pics of Blackhawks junior teams – gold), and I think Will nailed it with these paragraphs:

Most people who play hockey will tell you that it’s the most invigorating game they have ever played, and don’t ever doubt them. Most sports fans who see a game say they will be back.
For sheer sensation, its hard to beat – with only ten players (plus the two goalies) it has the intimate involvement you get from basketball, but there is contact, so eluding an opponent is everything (the Canadian word for baulk is to ‘deke’), and in the confines of a rink, if you can deke a defender ‘out of his jockstraps’, you can set up a goal-scoring opportunity. The puck feels just the right weight, an ideal object, and your stick is totemic – part pet, part tool. A play where two or three passes combine to set up a shot is an enacted purity of satisfaction.
As a spectator sport, it is hard to beat. Fast-paced, aggressive, but played in a compact arena, you can sense the options available to a player at the same time as he is executing his choice. In hockey there is less of a gap between the thought and action, and between rushes of potential drama, than in almost any game.


Dev league was also fun this week, although Kittens, Morgan and I had to share our line with other skaters, meaning we all had to miss occasional shifts. This sucked, because it meant we never felt like we had a settled line (it’s amazing how quickly you come to want that) and, worse, it meant sitting out shifts, when we already had to wait three shifts for our line to come around again.

Alex McNab laughs after killing another defenceless child.

I want to be out there every shift, or at least every second, so it was difficult to sit patiently, watching the game, cooling skated heels.

But that whinge aside, it was a fun session. I did a few good things, including a couple of shots at goal, had some battles for the puck, and enjoyed a couple of times where I controlled a puck in dangerous climes inside our defensive blue line, turned and delivered measured passes to the sticks of teammates.

We’re all getting a lot better at holding our correct positions, especially with Lliam’s coaching from the bench, which remains entertaining, given his penchant for hurling waterbottles at the ref. He also takes the time to preach position to us; where you should be at all times. This can be a mystery in the swirl of a hockey game. Check out the picture above, from the current world championships, where Red Wings prospect Thomas Tatar appears to be taking on the entire USA team on his own. But there are actually systems at play, zones a wing should cover, as opposed to the centre or a D. Lliam is working hard to make us understand our jobs, and I’m drinking the knowledge.

That aside, I think the most pressing, truly urgent issue coming out of Wednesday nights is how I survive Thursdays, when I’m exhausted after so little sleep.

I can’t sleep before 1.30-2 am, post hockey, and the get-a-kid-to-school hack can start at 6.30 am. I was a fucking zombie yesterday. Perhaps I just need to be a hockey player and harden up?