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.