A finals weekend for the ages.

So, in the end, my team lost and I was sad, but if you move past that, the AIHL weekend of finals was pretty remarkable. Two nail-biting semi-finals and then a final, between the Newcastle North Stars and Melbourne Ice, that transcended both of them.

If you wanted to convince people that hockey is a sport worth watching in this footy-obsessed land, then the weekend would have been a great place to start.

Newcastle's moment of victory. Pic: Nicko

Newcastle’s moment of victory. Pic: Nicko

The final was brilliant. I used to be a boxing writer and standing on the glass, at my usual spot just next to the deliberately-punned Bell End, I was mostly struck by the similarities of this match to a great boxing bout.

Melbourne Ice was the complete team: a strong mix of locals and imports, who trust one another, play strong systems and have been at the top of the league for what, in sports terms, is forever. What was always going to be a vacuum after the astonishing Goodall Cup three-peat of 2010-11-12, has been followed by a narrow semi-final loss in 13, and then back to back losing finals in 2014-15. So close and yet not quite.

A former Ice player wrote to me on Friday night, saying he didn’t believe that Ice coach Brent Laver got enough press as one of the best coaches in the land. The former player said Laver was an astonishingly great coach, and should be feted.

I don’t really know Laver, beyond watching his teams, but he has certainly done a great job of nursing the team through the post-Jaffa years; negotiating some changeroom-shaking personality clashes, politics, the inevitable decline of some stars, and the need to blood new players.

Ice captain Lliam Webster shows the joy and relief of beating Perth in Saturday's semi. Pic: Nicko

Ice captain Lliam Webster shows the joy and relief of beating Perth in Saturday’s semi. Pic: Nicko

Last year, the team was smashed in the final by the uppity Melbourne Mustangs, and looked a long way off the pace when it mattered in the season’s finale. But this year, the Ice saddled up again, solidly made the finals, held off a desperate Perth team, 1-0, in a tense semi-final and then shaped up to the undisputed heavyweight champion of the season, Newcastle.

Which, to continue my boxing analogy, is the big puncher, with an anvil in both gloves. Newcastle is a fighter that knocks opponents out. Witness the team’s semi-final when it started slowly and was suddenly down 3-0, on the wrong end of some silky, skilful Brave play. But the slugger wasn’t out and bam bam bam, from late in the second period, Canberra suddenly found itself on the canvas, probably still wondering how. Geordie Wudrick, the NHL-rated Canadian import, who had scored a ridiculous 91 points in 28 games this season, had a third period hat-trick to get Newcastle to Sunday. This was the opponent that the Ice faced in the final: a one-punch knockout machine.

And so it proved. Wudrick inevitably scored the first goal and seemed to be on the ice for 45 of the 60 minutes, as far as I could tell. Alongside him most of the time was another import, defenceman Jan Safar (56 points in 28 games).

The best hair of the final. In fact, nothing short of a skating shampoo commercial. Well played, sir. Well played.

The best hair of the final. In fact, nothing short of a skating shampoo commercial. Well played, sir. Well played. Pic: Nicko

Meanwhile, the Ice also rolled its top two lines, but was the fighter without an obvious knockout punch, relying instead on a strong peekaboo defence and the ability to land regular punches, even if not knockout shots. It seems to me – and I haven’t watched as many games this year as I usually would – that the Ice has maybe lost a percentage of scoring power since the glory days. There was no Wudrick-type in an Ice jersey to have your heart in your mouth every time he was on the ice.

In the end, Newcastle won in overtime, on a penalty shot that I still don’t quite understand, although people who know the game better than me all shrugged was a fair and brave call by the referee. It looked to me like Ice defender Todd Graham just tied up Newcastle’s Brian Bales on a breakaway, stopping Bales from even managing a shot, but the call was apparently tripping.

The beaten Ice team watch Newcastle receive the medals. Pic: Nicko

The beaten Ice team watch Newcastle receive the medals. Pic: Nicko

Any way you cut it, the best team all season won the final, and it was Newcastle’s first for a while so good luck to them.

My take-outs from drinking it all in from among the Ice army? In no particular order:

TOMMY POWELL

I think, as far as the Ice went, Tommy Powell might have been my MVP. I thought his desperation was fantastic and oh, wow, what a goal he scored to level the final after Wudrick had struck. Tommy plucked a high puck from the air, just before it sailed past the blue line, everybody else surging the other way, and suddenly Tommy was one-out against the goalie. It was like watching somebody load a shotgun, rack it and then shoot. Tommy was so calm and sent an absolute exocet past the poor netminder before he could move.

LLIAM WEBSTER

Sure, I’m biased because these guys are my coaches and friends, but I thought Lliam’s opening shift, as captain of the side, was outstanding. He launched off the bench as the second shift, playing wing, and was everywhere, filling the rink and shrinking space for the Newcastle stars. He never stopped all day, even to the point of taking a professional penalty to stop Newcastle scoring deep in the third, only to see them score on the power play. And, as per last year, Webster showed his character by staying on the ice, applauding the victors, beyond requirements. Classy.

OH, THAT LAST ICE GOAL!

A stadium of Ice fans in despair, barely any time left, goalie pulled, a goal down, all hope lost, and then somehow Mitch Humphries was deflecting a shot past the goalie with 31 second left, to tie the game. I don’t think I’ve ever gone so nuts after seeing a puck hit the back of the net – even after one of the very few I’ve scored. Behind the glass was bedlam, and so much fun. Sure, not long after, we were also closest to the goal where Bales put away the penalty shot to win it, but that Humphries goal was an all-time happy memory.

THE OCCASION

Newcastle gear abandoned on the ice, after victory. Pic: Nicko

Newcastle gear abandoned on the ice, after victory. Pic: Nicko

I think the AIHL has to be a little careful with the final weekend. It’s always a great festival, but there is a danger to trying to become too slick, too professional, at the expense of the fans. I’ve seen so many sports go through these growing pains and it’s tricky. A crowd-funding campaign meant the finals were livestreamed, which was good, but I looked at Jaffa the ex-Ice coach dressed in a suit and tie, microphone in hand, and I looked at orange tape along the glass, with ‘media’ scrawled in Texta, where everyday fans have stood all year, and I looked at people with cameras being told that they shouldn’t be shooting because there were official league snappers, and I looked at the fact there were official or unofficial after-parties apparently happening at at least three different venues, instead of everybody coming together, and I just wondered if the organisers aren’t drifting away from the spirit of the event?

Obviously, the final shouldn’t be at some Seventies throwback rink with only 200 fans able to fit along the boards, and no technology, and no media coverage. We’re all blessed to have the size and facilities of The Icehouse, but there is a certain charm in the homespun, unpretentious amateur flavour of Australian hockey. I covered AFL for a long time, with its strict media rules and heavy-handed management. Please oh please don’t get suckered into becoming that, AIHL. If nothing else, consider this: why are the commentators on the live stream in snappy suits and ties? Just because ‘that’s what you do’? Why can’t hockey be different? And, more importantly, has the sport moved far enough that enthusiasts should be stopped from taking happy snaps in the stands and posting them on social media? Isn’t any coverage like that still golden for a growing sport looking for oxygen in the Australian sportscape? Food for thought.

IMPORTS

I don’t want to sound like a sore loser, but there is  a danger that winning the Goodall Cup could just become a inter-club arms race regarding who has the most lethal imports. Maybe that horse has already bolted? Seven of the league’s top scorers this season were imports (only Melbourne Ice’s Tommy Powell made the list as an Australian-born player, at #7) with Wudrick dominating everything, and five of the top eight goalies were imports. How do we truly develop local players if they are sitting on the pine, watching ‘amateur’ imports on accommodation/travel/job/I don’t know what else packages log huge minutes? I worry for Australian-born players trying to get elite exposure. And please believe me, none of this is to detract from Newcastle’s win: they just had an amazing roster of imports (three in the league’s top eight), as per the rules, so well done them.

THE CURSE OF THE MOBILES

Mobile phones should be turned off as you walk into the rink. Look, I’m as big a phone fiend as anybody but for some reason, on Sunday, my mobile decided to have one of those days where it overheats and drains its battery for no real reason. Which meant I turned it off for the final, and therefore actually walked around with my head up, looking at the world. But sometimes I felt like I was the only one. Wandering along the back of the stand between periods, all I could see was a sea of bowed heads, and huddled shoulders, intent on mini screens. I felt suddenly sad for days of banter and discussion between the action, especially during such a draining and pulsating game as the final. I don’t know if I can stick to this but I’m going to try to turn my phone off whenever watching major sport from now on.

NOISY VISITORS

A fully committed Newcastle fan. Pic: Nicko

A fully committed Newcastle fan. Pic: Nicko

Man, during play, the Newcastle fans were loud, and enthusiastic. I was standing behind the glass for a lot of the final, at the Zamboni end, but it sounded to me like the local fans were consistently drowned out by the visitors. To try and rectify this, I went up into the stands in the second period, hollered: ‘Come on, Ice, let’s finish these bums!’ and earned a long, hard, sad, shake of the head from a Newcastle man. It was a textbook ‘I’m very disappointed in you’ headshake that my dad would have been proud of in his time. This was a headshake that said I’d let the sport down. I’d let the team down. I’d let my fellow fans down but, most importantly, Nicko, I’d myself down. I was so shaken that at the next face-off, I yelled: ‘Good luck, everybody from both teams’ but he didn’t even look at me.

I was already dead to him. Cold, man. Cold.

I’m in counselling for that but was able to keep track of the  bottom line which is this: amazing finals weekend, everybody. Bad luck, Melbourne, Canberra, and Perth. You all played mightily when it mattered. Newcastle, well done and well deserved.

How good is AIHL hockey?

Now, let’s bring on Spring. Let’s bring on Division 3 summer hockey. And let’s bring on the AFL finals with Richmond in the mix, and let’s bring on the NHL training camps.

Melbourne Ice, take a deep breath. You’ll be back and winning the whole enchilada and soon. You know it, and I know it.

Well played, North Stars. Pic: Nicko

Well played, North Stars. Pic: Nicko

 

A Reality Check, in more ways than one.

This has been a little slow coming because I got distracted by manta rays and sharks, and then by coughing my lungs up for a few weeks. But in the middle of all that, on a remote island way off the coast of Queensland with no WIFI, I had the time and space to finally finish reading Will Brodie’s excellent book, Reality Check.

Will recently wrote for this blog about his two-phase hockey life, and, as you’d probably expect from a long-time mainstream newspaper and online journalist, the guy can really write. His regular AIHL reporting over the past few years was a huge, possibly under-recognised boon for the sport and is sadly missed since he quit Fairfax.

Reality Check, by Will Brodie

Reality Check, by Will Brodie

But his best work was yet to come. Last season, he followed the two Melbourne teams as they navigated their way through the trials, highs and lows of an AIHL season. He lucked out in the sense that the Mustangs came of age, eventually winning the Goodall Cup  over, guess who, the Melbourne Ice (and yes, I realise that is potentially a massive spoiler but then again, if you’re an Australian hockey fan and didn’t know that, then you’ve been off the map in ways I can’t help you with).

So Will got a good yarn, as Melbourne’s fierce-but-sort-of friendly rival teams duked it out all the way to the grand final at the Icehouse, but it’s the wider story and the wider characters of Reality Check that stayed with me. Will’s long history in the sport means he was able to really tap into the people who have kept hockey going in this country for years. Yet he also brought fresh eyes, making him an unlikely and invaluable chronicler. He was able to have detailed, knowledgeable conversations with everybody from new fans to the game, happily getting pissed pre or post-game, through to club presidents and imports, in every hockey-playing city and town in the country. Will sat in team mini-vans, sat up late with coaches and traveled to every AIHL rink and explored the nooks, crannies and idiosyncrasies of those diverse locations. All while throwing in lines like the one about a venue being so cold it offered warnings of future arthritis in his bones.

It all made for a cracking read, and I found myself emerging with three major takeouts:

  1. We need more rinks. A lot of people have been saying this for a long time but Reality Check emphasises the point over and over again. Hockey has enjoyed a huge surge in popularity over the past five years or so, in terms of AIHL fan numbers but maybe even more so in terms of newbies taking up the sport (like the guy typing these words, for example). Already, there is a crush of new players on waiting lists to play the looming IHV summer season that starts in September or so. Winter lists in Melbourne are pretty much full. Throw in training times, for clubs from the lowest social hockey levels to AIHL sessions, Next Level classes at Oakleigh, and Hockey Academy classes at the Icehouse (both at or near capacity), drop-in, and stick-n-pucks or skating sessions, and Melbourne’s two hockey rinks are loaded beyond capacity. I haven’t even mentioned speed skaters, figure skaters or other groups who also want the ice.
    Everybody knows the lack of rinks is an issue – and across Australia, not just Melbourne. There are endless plans, endless rumours of new rinks being developed, waiting for council approval, waiting for finance … but I remain worried that by the time new ice actually happens, if it does, all those wildly enthusiastic new players currently flooding the sport will have drifted away, frustrated by their inability to join a team and play. (Or by the secondary, related problem: that because two rinks can only host so many teams and therefore so many levels of competition, wildly varied levels of skill end up in the same divisions, leading to less-accomplished players feeling overwhelmed by playing hockey against skaters who should really be a division or two higher, if only there was room.)
  2. God, there’s a lot of love behind the momentum of an amateur sport like ice hockey. Time and again, through Will’s book, I was struck by the sheer commitment and dedication and hours of work being poured into the sport by people who have kids, real jobs, need sleep, have other things they could be doing. Again, just by kicking around Victorian hockey at the low level I do, I’m aware of how much work is required and is done by friends who are on committees, or within club management teams, or chasing sponsors, or scoring games, or doing the million other jobs. It’s really humbling and those of us who are not devoting themselves to helping hockey grow in such a grassroots, practical, time-consuming way, should at the very least take a moment to respect those who are. I know I do, and even more so after reading Will’s book, with his eye for those toiling glory-free behind the scenes. In fact, next time there’s a petty squabble about whatever the tempest of the moment is, wouldn’t it be cool if everybody could step back and consider how many unpaid hours the person they’re attacking, or who is attacking them, has put in? Breathe, respect one another, sort out whatever the issue of the moment is. And move on, brothers and sisters in hockey
    … (I know, I know: us idealists have no clue.)
  3. Us Newbies should remember we are Newbies. I’ve been around local hockey since 2010, having ‘discovered’ hockey, through somehow tuning into the Detroit Red Wings, in 2008. It feels like a long time, but it really isn’t. I feel like I know a lot of people in the community now and feel blessed that I happened to start this blog, on January 19, 2011, by chance at the exact moment a whole bunch of others were also discovering AIHL competition and the then fairly new Icehouse facility. Just as the early classes run by Army, Lliam, Tommy and co were taking off. And just as the Ice went on its three-peat run, the grandstands swelling, and the Mustangs arrived. And just as Next Level Hockey was gaining momentum at about the same time. Watching some of the rookies I started with kick on, even now making it to the AIHL rosters.

    The Melbourne Ice players salute the fans after a recent win at the Icehouse. Pic: Nicko

    The Melbourne Ice players salute the fans after a recent win at the Icehouse. Pic: Nicko

I feel like I’ve seen it all but reading Reality Check, I was struck by how people like me are still newcomers to the ranks. There are many people in Australian hockey who have invested decades into the sport they love. In Nite Owls competition, I once had the joy of skating with a bloke who captained Australia’s hockey team 50 years ago, and is still out there, on a Sunday night, effortlessly gliding past a flailing hack like me. But there are also so many others, such as, in my immediate orbit, the Webster family, driving the Ice team and club, on the ice and off, and the Hughes brothers, with their Oakleigh dream and Joey’s intensity and passion that inspires so many rising players, from L-platers to accomplished skaters. Next Level has evolved to the point of having its ‘Next Generation’ program, with a lot of thought and structure behind it. Meanwhile, at the Icehouse, the classes have become more and more sophisticated so that academy students can work specifically on high level skating skills or puck-handling, or game play, or pure shooting. It’s really exciting and it’s impressive, and it all happens because of the long-term and tireless commitment of actually only a few people. Will’s book did a brilliant job of shaking so many of these decades-of-service servants of the game into the spotlight for a brief moment, while never also losing sight of the fact that the sport needs to embrace the new arrivals, the fresh-thinkers, the left-field recent converts who might just take the sport to places it hasn’t been.
This has been a rambling piece. The only point of this particular blog is to add my voice to Will Brodie’s and salute the people who have made our sport rise in Australia and are now working equally hard to accommodate the growing numbers and logistical nightmares of its popularity.
And to say to Will, congrats: he has written one of the best hockey books you or I will ever read, and tied up in a bow everything that is great and worrying and awesome and frustrating about chasing a puck across a block of ice half a world away from the hockey heartlands.
If you haven’t bought Reality Check and read it, I really recommend that you do.

 

 

 

The ruthless bastard.

One thing you have to understand if you’re going to play or even follow sport: it’s a prick.  It’s a heartless bastard. It’s ruthless and it’s probably going to break you, without conscience or regret.

For all the glorious moments, for all the wins, for all the friendships made and other highlights, you are going to be smashed. More than once.

Of course, this is also true of life – illnesses like cancer are random, and this morning I saw a cyclist get hit by a car outside my new house. That guy’s life just changed dramatically in a fraction of a second. But things like that are not to be dwelt on. You’d never leave your bedroom. All we can do is live life assuming we’ve got lots of life to live.

Shattered: Ice stars like Jason Baclig couldn't stop a semi turning to shit.

Shattered: Ice stars like Jason Baclig couldn’t stop a semi turning to shit.

Sport shines a light on this brutality of life, but thankfully in a way that isn’t often truly life and death. Yet the brutality remains: Melbourne Ice watching the fourpeat disappear in the puff of smoke that was a needless five minute major penalty, blowing an otherwise tight semi-final; Richmond being run over by Carlton the next day at the MCG, freezing as the nightmare unfolded in front of 94,000 people; all the AFL list players who will be called into a footy manager’s office over the next few days and told their dream is over, full stop. Or the failure can be a slow, frustrating, helpless fall. As a player gets a 50-50 chance ahead of you, and never looks back. Or you suffer a hamstring twinge in a crucial final. A puck or ball bounces this way, not that, changing everything. Or a thousand other things.

The Red Wings’ Dan Cleary rejected a pay rise offer from Detroit several weeks ago, and the Wings made a call that they couldn’t afford to pay him more. So they instead chased and won the services of a couple of other A-list players, Stephen Weiss and Daniel Alfredsson, eating up the cash set aside for Cleary. His agent got to work and Cleary pretty much had a handshake deal for $8 million over three seasons with the Flyers, much better than the Wings had offered, assuming he brained them at the Flyers’ training camp. But he never got there. Cleary loved being a Wing so much, he couldn’t go. He headed instead to where the Wings were gathering, at Traverse City, and begged the Wings management for a deal, any deal. He’s signed on less than $2 million, a hefty pay cut, just to be a Wing. He’s even going to have to wear No. 71 instead of his old No. 11, just to be a Wing.

Dan Cleary: battling fate, to be a Wing.

Dan Cleary: battling to be a Wing.

Which is great news for him* but bad news for the other forwards also trying to make the team. The Wings now have 17 players jostling for 14 forward spots, including sublime young talents like Gustav Nyquist and role-players like Jordin Tootoo and three won’t make it. They all deserve to, for different reasons. But three won’t be there.

Because, see, sport doesn’t believe in the word ‘deserve’.

I was talking to a guy at the Icehouse who has been on the border of making AIHL teams for several seasons. He’s so close, so so close, but hasn’t yet made it. He totally deserves a chance, but he might not get one. Because, if you remember, sport doesn’t believe in the world ‘deserve’. Unexpectedly, given my lowly standing in my chosen sport, I found myself turning into Old Father Time and pulled on my old sports journo hat while we were chatting. Because I’d seen it before in lots of team sports (AFL, cricket, field hockey, for starters). Some make it. Others don’t. It’s up to you, I said. Nobody cares if you make a team, apart from you. It’s harsh but it’s true: you’re the only one who truly, desperately cares.

So do the work to make a team. Or don’t.

This is something I know a bit about: it’s something that is also true in my novelist life. The one piece of advice I have repeatedly given aspiring novelists is this: the world doesn’t give a shit if they write a novel. Including me.

I don’t care.

I know … inspiring, huh?

But it’s true, and I am not immune from it. The world does not care if I write another novel.

Or if JK Rowling never writes again.

Or (insert the name of any author, or wannabe author, anywhere).

Plenty of people are writing manuscripts. Books will emerge. Will one of them be a Nick Place novel? Shit, I hope so but really, who cares apart from me? If I wasn’t writing novels, I’d have more social time, more time for my partner and kids, more time to concentrate on the job that actually pays me, more time for hockey training … I’ve had five novels published in 10 years. That’s pretty good going. The world owes me nothing.

But if I hadn’t had any books published in the last decade, so what? The world doesn’t care about that either. I have good friends who have written fantastic manuscripts that never found a publisher. I’ve read them and they absolutely deserved to get published. But didn’t.

That’s the way it is, and I’m ok with that.

Here’s the fact: I’m the only person in the world who truly cares if I write a sequel to ‘Roll With It’ – currently available in all good bookshops and online 😉

My publishers no doubt have many writers throwing crime manuscripts at them and I’m sure many are decent. They’ll be fine. People who read my book and liked it are not exactly lying awake at night, sweating on whether book two of ‘Rocket’ Laver’s adventures will ever show up. If it doesn’t, the world keeps turning.

Gustav Nyquist: deserves to be a Red Wing. Absolutely. But will he be?

Gustav Nyquist: deserves to be a Red Wing. Absolutely. But will he be?

As I said, my kids and partner know how much I love being published, but it’s only me who truly cares, bone-deep, to my soul, whether I can keep writing novels. And even when I finish the latest manuscript, it might not get published. No guarantees.

All I can do is write. Write the best manuscript I possibly can and then present it to the publishers or to the world. Do very single thing I can to make it a book worthy of seeing a bookshelf.

And so it is for the guy on the brink of an AIHL team. It’s entirely in his hands what happens from here, until he can’t control it, if that makes sense.

He can sit and wonder if a club will take a chance on him in 2014, even though they didn’t in 2013. Or he can work his arse off, and make it bloody hard for them not to pick him, just because he has gotten that much better.

It’s very pure, when you look at success or failure like this. Your job is extremely straightforward: do whatever you can to rock the world.

Way way way down the hockey food chain, a bunch of us are sweating and straining and trying to get better as summer season looms. Are you going to be competitive? Do you want to play? Do you want to earn a spot on the first line?

(To repeat: nobody actually cares whether you’re on the team, or on the first line. Except you.)

Personally, I’m loving being back in a team environment, this time as a Brave.

I had, before heading to France, been strangely flat about the looming season. I put it down to being depressed about the way things went down at the Jets, but I think that was only part of it. I finished last summer believing absolutely that I would skate like a maniac all winter, do power skating classes, get better, much better. Really learn to skate. And hit the 13-14  summer as a more lethal, genuinely competitive player.

Instead, my stupid knee flatlined me, as endlessly documented on this blog (which should be called nickdoeskneepain.com), so that I only now feel like I’m even vaguely getting back to being able to skate at full pace. I lost my window, while I nursed and nursed this left knee joint, which nobody can diagnose, let alone fix.

But does sport care? No, no, it doesn’t.

Did I deserve a better winter? By now, you know the answer.

I’m getting on with it. I’m skating. I even played footy for the first time in nine months on Sunday, welcomed back by my Bang brothers, and surviving my first kicks.

I’m going to be ready for summer and I’m going to enjoy my hockey again, with a fun team and the right attitude for a social competition.

And I’m going to finish a manuscript that simply cannot not be published.

Do the literary gods care if that happens? Nope.

Do the sporting gods care if that happens? Nope.

Do I care? Oh Hells, yeah.

So watch me go.

( * btw, I’m happy Dan Cleary is still at Detroit, in case it read differently. He was a really solid player last season, especially in the playoffs, and how can you not love a player who wants to play for the jersey like that?)

Channeling the Geebung

One of my favourite Australian writers ever is Andrew ‘Banjo’ Paterson, and probably my favourite of his poems is ‘The Geebung Polo Club. I used to be able to recite it by heart and even now I can get chunks of it. The first stanza goes a little something like this:

It was somewhere up the country in a land of rock and scrub,
That they formed an institution called the Geebung Polo Club.
They were long and wiry natives of the rugged mountainside,
And the horse was never saddled that the Geebungs couldn’t ride;
But their style of playing polo was irregular and rash
– They had mighty little science, but a mighty lot of dash:
And they played on mountain ponies that were muscular and strong,
Though their coats were quite unpolished, and their manes and tails were long.
And they used to train those ponies wheeling cattle in the scrub:
They were demons, were the members of the Geebung Polo Club.

It’s sounding familiar already, if you’ve watched Wednesday night dev league this term, especially the lawless 10 pm session.

The poem goes on to recount what happens when the wild Geebung bush boys and the gentile Cuff and Collar team from the city finally go at it in a landmark polo match:

Now my readers can imagine how the contest ebbed and flowed,
When the Geebung boys got going it was time to clear the road;
And the game was so terrific that ere half the time was gone
A spectator’s leg was broken – just from merely looking on.
For they waddied one another till the plain was strewn with dead,
While the score was kept so even that they neither got ahead.
And the Cuff and Collar captain, when he tumbled off to die,
Was the last surviving player – so the game was called a tie.

Artist FJ (John) Beeman's depiction of the Geebung v Cuff & Collar showdown.

Artist FJ (John) Beeman’s depiction of the Geebung v Cuff & Collar showdown.

Yep, there can be no doubt. The Banjo, way back in 1893, was channeling the Icehouse on a Wednesday night. You only have to look at me, hobbling a little as I go about my desk job today, the shameful opposite of Clancy of the Overflow. Last night, I got a nasty whack to my good knee (yes, I now think of my right knee as my ‘good’ knee, which is a worry in itself), and my right arm and lower back and neck are all sore.

I’m not complaining; not at all. But man, dev league has stepped up this term, with regard to intensity and danger.

The knee got bruised in Game 1, when an opponent lost an edge and crashed into me, just as I was pulling up after a whistle and therefore was relaxed, unprotected. Thank the Gods of hockey for armour. I was suddenly taken out and hit the boards, a metre or so away, in an uncontrolled fall, which is how I have seen fellow students break collarbones. So I accepted a sore knee, gladly, and kept skating. The guy who had accidentally taken me out was genuinely apologetic, too, which was nice.

But as I said, it’s second dev league (the 10 pm class) that has become really willing. Pretty much everybody out there has done quite a few rounds of dev, and played summer or winter hockey, so we all know what we’re doing enough that the coaches don’t really bother to coach us much. I’ve suggested to Matt Armstrong that he should stop calling it development league and instead call it: ‘Army’s Happy Scrimmage Club’.

Lliam Webster and Tommy Powell turned up last night, as bench coaches, back from the world championships in Croatia, and yelled constructive abuse as we battled up and down the rink, but there were still far too many hits than there should be in a learning game, not to mention blatant tripping and other atrocities. Nobody was playing dirty hockey; just intense – and I was as guilty as anybody, accidentally tripping someone, and also forcing a huge front-on collision while skating fast to defend, when my opponent didn’t veer as I’d expected. A game of chicken on ice gone wrong. We both went down hard and my chin is still sore where my helmet dug in on impact. Thank the Gods of hockey for armour.

Welcome to your home ice, Mustangs ... (see below)

Welcome to your home ice, Mustangs … (see below)

So I’m creaking around today but feeling alive. Had a shot somehow hit both posts and not go in. Screwed up a penalty shot, to Lliam’s well-vocalised dismay. Inexplicably skated like somebody who hadn’t been on skates for three months, although I’d played for the Nite Owls on Sunday in a 5-0 win that had one of my veteran teammates shake hands with me afterwards, saying: ‘Well done, lad.’ Lad! Another Owl giving me skating advice that, while completely well intentioned, might have resulted in last night’s proppiness, as I found myself doubting my stride, how I move. Or maybe I just shouldn’t eat a large burrito before playing? Something wasn’t right. I wish I had time for a general skate between now and Sunday night’s game to regain my legs. Ah well. The learning curve continues. Endlessly continues.

And, as a final note, I did have a win last night which means I’m travelling better than my beloved Wings who suffered a probably inevitable emotional letdown, after such a brilliant run to sneak into the play-offs, and lost Game 1 to Anaheim yesterday. Gotta bounce back in Game 2 tomorrow, or it could be over as fast as it began.

And I’m also going better than the poor Melbourne Mustangs, who have training tonight at the Henke Rink and will be greeted by giant, larger-than-life posters of every Melbourne Ice player, lining the rink. Having the three massive scrolls celebrating the Ice’s three-peat AIHL triumphs wasn’t enough, apparently. The Ice player posters look seriously impressive, but I’d hate to be a Mustang skating onto the rink tonight. All the Icehouse needs is a tiny sign, to the right of the last poster, saying in small letters: ‘The Mustangs play here too.”

It’s lucky the gee-gees have such a cool horsey mascot. They’ll be fine.

Life-size Lliam Webster with a larger than life Lliam Webster, and friends.

Life-size Lliam Webster with a larger than life Lliam Webster, and friends.

Triumph & travel

The biggest congratulations to Lliam, Army, and all the Melbourne Ice players for going back-to-back and winning the Goodall Cup for 2011, dominating the semi-final against Adelaide and then edging Newcastle in the grand final, all at the Icehouse on the weekend. Army, Lliam and Joey Hughes scored in the big one, so it was a brilliant result on every front. Congrats, too, to Jason Baclig, for winning the AIHL MVP. Well earned. Jason is amazing.

I can’t make it to class tonight because of work commitments, which is a bummer because I was genuinely interested to see what shape our coaches would turn up in, three days later.
The Facebook photos were getting more and more impressive as Sunday night unfolded.

But shit, if you’re not going to party over that, when are you going to party?

Me? I’m leaving town. Sea, sand, sky, and the sanctuary of my other underwater world, on this occasion at the Barrier Reef. Project Manta: An entire week of diving with manta rays for Earthwatch.

Life list: tick.

Here’s a taste:

(Well found, Katey Slater)

See you all on the other side of the ice.

Punches & Plans

The fun started on Saturday, right off the top.

“To warm up,” said coach Shona, “I want you to dump your sticks and pair up. OK, one person has to protect the puck and one has to get it.”

Will and I had faced off and he had the puck, so we went to it; a fun drill actually, as you lean hard on one another while trying to push your weight off a skate without losing the edge so that your foot slides out. We pushed and shoved and he was smart enough to kick the puck away from me. I got it once or twice, mainly by falling and landing on it.

Then Shona ordered us to swap, and now I had the puck. My 18-year-old son glided in, ready for more body-weight tests … and you should have seen the look of shock behind the visor when my first punch, a fast right hook, caught him perfectly in the midriff, just in the gap between hockey padded shorts and chest armour.

Before he registered what was happening, I hit him with a left-right combination to the shoulder armour and then snuck another sneaky right to the stomach – nothing so hard that it was going to see me dragged before the Worst Fathers in History Commission and, anyway, we’re wearing armour, right? And we’re hockey players, right?

Will finally got what was happening, and then it was on. We were both crying with laughter while beating into each other. Of course, it was me who lost my balance and fell on my back, still aiming rights to his stomach and trying to hold his jersey with my left glove. On Facebook, later, Will was bragging about how he’d beaten me up … I’m happy to sit quietly in the knowledge of what really happened.

(Big ups to Icehouse Rookie Daniel Epstein, who found that video.)

So Saturday’s session was a good one with lots of end-to-end skating drills, which is when I’m happiest.

I’ve also been aware that this intermediate term is fast coming to an end, even though it has two or three weeks to go. I’ve got lots of travels and adventures looming, which will keep me away from the ice for an extended period and, anyway, I’m thinking of stepping away from lessons for a while.

After last Wednesday’s session, I was talking to classmate Jay who made the very kind and hopefully accurate observation that my stick-handling (as in, controlling the puck, passing and general hand-eye-coordination) is up there with most in the class, but agreed that it’s my skating that is still letting me down. I’d been telling him about my crazy plan to become the skater I want to be.

My theory is: I go diving with manta rays for eight days on an Earthwatch project (leaving next Friday; oh yeah!), then I go to America for almost six weeks, with Will and Mack, taking in some Detroit Red Wings games (leaving late September, Oh yeah!!!) and then I get back to work on hockey, but not in another round of intermediate.

Instead, I sign up for private skating lessons.

The fact is that I’m slow but solid when skating forward, calling for a puck, passing, etc. But as soon as any of the trickier hockey skating moves like pivots, tight turns (front leg forward), transitions and even fast backward skating are required, I’m not up to it. The next steps for me are drop-in hockey games (where Melbourne Ice players might show up) or Development League, and I need to be a lot better on my legs if I’m going to tackle either.

A couple of friends, Dave and Mel (who used to do hockey class, and with whom I had my celebrated first on-ice fight) came along to watch last night and Mel couldn’t believe how much better we had all got, since she quit to travel. “You looked like you knew what you were doing,” Dave observed, which showed I had him fooled.

But they’re right: the improvement since January’s first skate has been fast and steady. I’m heading in the right direction. But I also know where my weaknesses lie and it’s time to step out of class and fix them. Private lessons at the Icehouse are my go for the first few months after getting back from overseas.

Having said all that, last night’s Wednesday session was a beauty, with Lliam and Army getting ever scruffier around the face as this weekend’s play-offs loom. Melbourne Ice is in a semi-final on Saturday and then hopefully the final on Sunday night. I was expecting some pre-finals edge to the coaches but they both seemed pretty calm.

We finished the session with an awesome drill. Two Wings take off down the ice, tackling a Defender, two-on-one, then the Defender passes the puck, if he or she wins it, to another couple of Wings ready to charge the other way. It’s a continuous drill and actually needs judgement on when to take off, when to step in and try to help. I loved it, and on my final run of the night even managed to slide home a goal. It was my last touch of the session in maybe my last class of the year.

Nice way to go out.

Bobblehead shenanigans

True sports fans understand that the worst moment of the year is not necessarily when you realise your team won’t make the finals, or that gun recruit might not be all he was cracked up to be, or even losing a grand final (although clearly that is up there).

The worst moment is the day after the grand final, when you realize you have just entered the wasteland known as the off-season.

For AFL fans, this runs October through to February, although there is enough cattle trading of players and draft news through the first month or so to feed the cravings. English Premier League fans I know are only just joyously losing sleep to watch the first games of a new season. Golf and tennis pretty much never stop, between official events and meaningless exhibitions, for those 12 people who still care about those sports.

The NHL has been on summer vacation for quite a while now and the absence of meaningful hockey is starting to bite. Even from half a world away, you can feel the stir-crazy. The biggest hockey story running on the Detroit Free Press website, as I type this, is that Red Wings coach Mike Babcock is planning to speak at a luncheon in a few weeks. Also that the Wings have renewed their affiliation with Double A team, Toledo. Wow.

Red Wing bobbleheads: competition is fierce.

This was after the great bobblehead face-off where the Free Press breathlessly reported on the Red Wings’ official site running a poll for which player fans would most like to have made into a bobblehead figurine. Clearly as bored by the off-season wasteland as the rest of us, several Wings players started campaigning, with Dan Cleary creating a video where he said: ““Hi, this is Dan Cleary. Vote for me for my bobblehead. I really want one. Please. Don’t vote for Bertuzzi — his head is way too big, it won’t even fit on a bobblehead anyway.”

Cleary’s victory led to my favourite headline of the off-season: “Wings’ Cleary gets a bobblehead; Bertuzzi calls shenanigans”.

Given shenanigans remains close to my favourite word in the English language, I was thrilled on many levels, not least that a hockey player for my team could use it and in the right context.

Of course, half a world away, it’s not summer, we’re not running countdown clicks until the first NHL game, the leading local hockey players are not reclining in their summer mansions in Canada or Sweden or Russia. The hockey season is in full swing, with the mighty Melbourne Ice confirmed as minor premiers and all roads leading to the semi-finals and final, on the weekend of September 3-4 at the Icehouse.

At training last Wednesday, somebody pointed out that Lliam’s beard is getting bushy and he confirmed it was a play-off growth, making the point that players have to start early because it’s kind of hard to grow the traditional play-off beard over the single weekend of Australian Ice Hockey League finals. Army is also getting scruffy so the Melbourne Ice players are clearly getting in the zone.

In the locker-room, we’re starting to wonder how to fill the summer, with players considering private lessons or the training programs that run through December and January. This time last year, it hadn’t occurred to me to play hockey so it’s all new to me. How is it possible that I was completely uninvolved in playing this sport nine months ago?

As the great Harry Hoo, off Get Smart, would say: “Amazing.” …

On Saturday, we had our usual intense session, fuelled by all the teammates from dev league, who aren’t shy to tell you if they think you’re not pushing it. I got talking to one guy in a cool jersey who confirmed it was the official jersey of a Kuala Lumpur ex-pats team, with his actual name on the back. So there’s another guy who has played for real. The terms “intermediate” and “learning” are pretty loose at the Icehouse.

But even post-intro hacks like me can have fun. We played a game ‘Scuba’ Edwards introduced, called “boggle”, where it was five-on-five inside the blue line, kind of the hockey equivalent of half-court basketball. If your team got the puck, and you made a pass to a teammate, you could go for goal. The other side switched to defence until they got the puck back. It was fun, even if I did have one embarrassing moment of watching a loose puck too closely while at speed and forgetting to stop until it was too late.

“You boarded yourself,” said the celebrated northern skater, Hotcakes Gillespie, who had been watching from the stands, just above where I slammed into the glass. “Impressive.”

I’m just glad she wasn’t watching the other time it happened.

Yes, managed it twice.

I rock.