Victorian fans: It’s time to choose.

THIS IS A COMMUNITY SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT FROM NICKO PLACE TO ALL MELBOURNE HOCKEY FANS

Okay, Melbourne hockey fans. We need to make one thing clear as we head into this giddily exciting weekend of finals at the Icehouse with the ‘Stangs and Ice in contention for the Goodall Cup.

You need to pick a side.

I don’t want to hear any of this ‘I just hope one of the Melbourne teams can do it’ crap.

I don’t want to hear: ‘Oh, you know, I know a few guys in the Mustangs and I have a few of my coaches playing for the Ice so, you know …

I don’t even want to overhear: ‘It’s just great for the overall sport in Melbourne that we have both teams in the finals.

I don’t want to hear any of that.

Ice victory: more of this please. This weekend. On Sunday. Go Ice Go. Pic: Fairfax.

Ice victory: more of this please. This weekend. On Sunday. Go Ice Go. Pic: Fairfax.

Choose a side.

And barrack as hard as you humanly can. Until that side is eliminated or wins the whole enchilada.

And then celebrate or seethe.

I have been aware, over the past couple of years, of hockey folk who openly confess to liking both the Melbourne teams. I’m not going to name names but they’re out there. The shift from the Ice to the Mustangs of the Hughes boys, and Martin Kutek, muddied the issue of barracking for a lot of Next Level enthusiasts. I get that. But I’m saying it’s time to choose.

Red wire or blue wire?

You’ll have a lot more fun this weekend if you foam at the mouth, one way or the other.

One of the fundamental joys of sport, from where I sit, having watched A LOT of it, as a journo and an enthusiast, is the sheer joy that can only be found through complete emotional commitment.

In the AFL, you cannot barrack for Essendon and Collingwood on Anzac Day. (Screw them both. Go Tigers!)

In the NHL, you can’t watch the Red Wings versus the Blackhawks, while barracking for both sides.

It’s fine not to care which team wins, but that makes you an ‘unaligned hockey fan’, not a true Detroit or Chicago fan. (Let’s Go Red Wings!)

Or, if you watch Federer v Nadal and just enjoy the game, you’re a generic tennis fan, not a Federer or Nadal fan. (Go Fed!)

It’s Holden OR Ford at Bathurst.

It was Ali OR Frazier.

It’s Australia OR England in the Ashes.

I could go on …

Some guys from some other Melbourne club celebrate a goal. I'm against this. Pic: Nicko

Some guys from some other Melbourne club celebrate a goal. I’m against this. Pic: Nicko

Trust me, I know of what I type. This is coming from a long-suffering Richmond supporter in the AFL; a fan who still clings to those dusty memories of being 15 years old and at my first ever Grand Final when the Tigers won the flag in 1980, of yelling and chanting myself hoarse, of feeling the delirium of premiership success after going to almost every game that season. And never wavering in my support through all the dark, bleak, losing years since. I’m still a true believer and can’t wait to finally sing the song as they raise the cup, whether that’s in a year or 20. (And yes, I am extremely aware that it might not be in my lifetime.)

But I digress. I’m actually trying to do you, my hockey brothers and sisters, a favour by demanding you choose a side this weekend and ride that choice to glory or despair. It’s the only way to achieve the true bliss of Goodall Cup glory.

Me? I’m a Melbourne Ice fan. Through and through. I deeply want The Beard, Army, Tommy, Bacsy and all the other Ice players to raise that cup one more time. I’ve never actually seen an Ice championship in the flesh and I want Sunday to end that bizarre quirk.

In fact, let’s get shit started and rev into the weekend.

I DON’T want those frauds, the Mustangs, to win for several reasons:

The Mustangs' mascot: real horse or not?

The Mustangs’ mascot: Questions remain about whether he’s an actual horse.

  1. They’re a Johnny Come Lately team with no history or tradition and they play rockabilly and other bizarre musical acts before home games.
  2. Their mascot thinks he’s a horse but he’s not a real horse.
  3. Joey and Vinnie Hughes used to play for the Ice but are now the enemy so I’m trying to come up with taunting chants that rhyme with ‘Hughes’. (Blues? Clues? Fuse? News? … this is almost too easy)
  4. The Mustangs fans were so insufferable in their smugness and gloating after the team somehow beat the Ice in a derby earlier this season that I naturally want them to eat some crow.
  5. Did I mention the horse mascot who shakes hands with people? Not hooves. Hands.

Sure, I have friends who are diehard Clippyclop fans and I’ll be grudgingly happy for them if they win. Jess Kirwan, for example, I fully respect your one-eyed passion for the team. And a shout out to the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, who I have always admired and respected as a hilarious and interesting group.

I’ll be happy for you guys if the team wins. But I don’t want that to be this weekend, because my team is also playing.

As for the reborn Canberra, well, I guess victory would be one of the biggest achievements ever for crowdfunding as a concept but I still struggle to get excited about anything to do with Canberra, especially while politicians are as crap and vision-free as they are on all sides of the House at the moment.

And the Ice-Dogs? Meh, they won it last year so that’s enough success for them and anyway, there’s that whole bullshit Sydney versus Melbourne rivalry that I don’t usually buy into but this weekend, why not? Plus, I fundamentally don’t believe dogs can skate. I’ve seen my labradoodle skitter helplessly while trying to run on the wooden floor boards at home, and I’m pretty sure she’d be even more crap on a white frozen sheet.

My team. Which is yours? Pic: Nicko

My team. Which is yours? Pic: Nicko

So there.That wraps it up for the quasi contenders.

Go Ice go!

Local fence-sitters: pick up ONE scarf, right now.

Paint your face blue, red and white OR black, white and gold.

Be prepared to cry with your chosen team or celebrate wildly.

If it does happen to be a Clippyclop-Ice grand final, and it’s a lopsided scoreboard, there’ll be NO sneaking off to the Icehouse toilets at the end of the second period on Sunday to change colours and clothing. You hear me? There’ll be none of that! I might even check. And I’ll do a sweep of the toilets near the Bradbury Rink as well, in case you’re thinking of getting sneaky. I will. I’ll do it. Don’t think I won’t. You’ve been warned.

Jockeys don’t change horses mid-race in the Melbourne Cup. And neither should we. Which is why sport is torturous and fun.

Got it?

Good. Then see you there.

 

 

 

Finals fever takes over Melbourne

So, this weekend is shaping up.

The Melbourne Mustangs and Melbourne Ice finished the AIHL regular season in first and second place on the ladder and so the finals, at the Icehouse on Saturday and Sunday, hold the tantalizing promise of an epic local derby as the grand final.

The Icehouse will host the AIHL finals this weekend, with two semis and then a final of no-tomorrow hockey. Picture: Nicko

The Icehouse will host the AIHL finals this weekend, with two semis and then a final of no-tomorrow hockey. Picture: Nicko

Which is not to get ahead of myself. The reborn Canberra Brave and the reigning champions, the Sydney Ice-Dogs, also have genuine claims, so it’s going to be a hectic and tough weekend of hockey.

It’s hard to gauge where hockey in Australia is at, I reckon, as we head into the weekend’s finale. On the surface, it looks super healthy, especially if you’re sitting in Melbourne as a fan of the Ice or the Clippyclops. Both Melbourne teams draw close to sell-out crowds and, as always, the only real problem in Melbourne seems to be the lack of much-needed extra rinks.

Perth, which didn’t make the play-offs, turned up last weekend and beat the Ice twice. Most of the teams in the AIHL were competitive this season. Media interest (the vast majority of which can be placed under the name of Will Brodie, from The Age, who has carried the sport into the mainstream media on his back) and Fox Sports coverage continues to grow. Life’s rosy.

I hope.

But there are issues, from where I sit, as a fan. For starters, the sheer battle of Canberra to exist this season was a wake-up call and several other teams appear to struggle financially to get to the line each season. It’s never about the passion or skill of the players. It’s purely about the cost of running a team, and the ability of state bodies or owners to make it happen.

Meanwhile, the finals format isn’t great. To battle for the entire season, finish first or second, and then find yourself in a cut-throat semi-final doesn’t seem particularly fair. The top team in each semi gets ‘last change’ rights, and ‘home bench’ but so what, really, after months of intense competition? If the grand final does happen to be a Mustangs-Ice clash, those two teams have their own benches anyway so, in practice, the Mustangs would only have ‘last change’ as the competitive advantage for all that work and success.

Of course, it would rock if the finals series could happen across two weekends. One weekend of best-of-three semi-final match-ups. It would be brutal, but compelling and would have a greater chance of revealing the best team in each series.

Then the grand final could be held the following weekend. Again, a best-of-three finals series would be so much better than one hour of no-tomorrow to judge the whole season.

The arguments against that, or other potential formats, are mostly financial, and reasonably so. I get it. As it stands, with one weekend, locked in for Melbourne or Newcastle or another venue months before the actual date, everybody can book tickets as soon as they confirm their place in the top four, achieving cheaper flights etc. Teams are generally not financially flush enough to be flying around for extra weekends, and the league doesn’t seem to have the cash to make that happen, but it’s a shame. It feels like the intensity of the AIHL season comes down to one very fast, very ruthless weekend where the best side all year can have an off five minutes or a dubious penalty or two and that’s it, they’re done.

Well, look at this view from the Melbourne Eye wheel: a giant rink-sized building two sheds to the left from the Icehouse. Does Victoria really even have a film industry needing such a huge sound stage? I say: freeze it, now. Picture: Nicko

Well, look at this view from the Melbourne Eye wheel: a giant rink-sized building two sheds to the left from the Icehouse. Does Victoria really even have a film industry needing such a huge sound stage? I say: freeze it, now. Picture: Nicko

Of course, you can equally argue that this is exactly what makes the weekend exciting; that everything needs to go right. The Melbourne Ice famously achieved the three-peat not so long ago, so teams can get it done.

But wouldn’t a more considered, more-matches, longer finale be cool?

The other huge issue, especially in Melbourne, is the lack of rinks. It’s been talked about endlessly – the Icehouse is amazing, Oakleigh heroically provides ageing, quirky back-up. There is no third rink. Beginner classes and intermediate classes continue to churn out super-enthusiastic wannabe players, just like I was three or four years ago and, Hell, continue to be. But the summer competition is groaning at capacity, in terms of the maximum number of teams and the number of players per team. Our 2011 influx, the Rookies, was followed by a group of hockey class students who called themselves the Ferals, and now there are ‘Black Ice’ jerseys all over the rink at classes. What worries me is that, with only two rinks, there’s going to be nowhere for these players to actually play, and I fear people will lose interest and drift away. Or get thrown into a higher grade of competition than they should attempt and be smashed and limp away.

The view from the cheap seats at Braves try-outs on Saturday at Oakleigh. So many players just wanting to play. Picture: Nicko

The view from the cheap seats at Braves try-outs on Saturday at Oakleigh. So many players just wanting to play. Picture: Nicko

The Icehouse was recently rumoured to be on its way to becoming apartments but has since been sold and looks like it will remain a rink, which saves the sport’s arse in Victoria right there. But any new rink must be a couple of years or more away from being built, even if it’s commissioned, so the time lag is a serious concern.

And yes, time marches on. Has this year flown or what? Spring is definitely in the air – 18 degrees and sunny as I type this – and Ice Hockey Victoria’s winter competition is coming to an end, with finals underway. That means summer competition is looming closer for us lucky enough to have a spot on a team, and everybody I know is suffering ‘ice fever’ as Alex McGoon called it today. We Cherokees can’t wait to reform as a team and play. Facebook banter is hitting unprecedented heights.

Off social media, Big Cat and I have loaded up with new sticks – a stick and puck on Monday was very ugly, for me at least, as I tried to come to terms with a slightly different length and different curve on my stick, compared to my beloved but definitely now dead Reebok 9k. Off-ice and on-ice training remains intense as we get ready.

Spring also means the business end of the AFL, with my beloved Tigers heading to Sydney to try and knock off the Swans and somehow complete their unlikely mission to make the Eight, from the ridiculously terrible mid-season position of 3 and 10. They probably won’t do it, but I’m all about whether the turnaround will carry into 2015. Or am I? As far as this year’s campaign goes, I’m doing my bit for the team by heading overseas, so I’ll be in Europe for the grand final and the most unlikely Richmond flag ever.

In my other spiritual home of Detroit, the media and the fans are counting the days until Red Wings training camp, which is now less than a month away. Will Dan Cleary train the house down and make the line-up? Will Tomas Jurco be sent down to Grand Rapids? Will a right-handed d-man appear out of nowhere, but without costing us Tatar or another treasured rising star? Will Stephen Weiss be healthy and ready to stop being the invisible man? So many questions and ever closer to the puck-drop to start the 2014-15 season. Personally, I think the Wings are going to be better than people think and will give the whole thing a shake. So there.

So much to look forward to, but only after this weekend. As somebody who somehow managed to never be there at the moment the Melbourne Ice won any of the three straight Goodall Cups, I can only say I’m leaving Sunday free and clear for a trip to Docklands. I plan to be in my seat and cheering, no matter which of the four teams lift the Cup. But I know who I’m barracking for.

Go, Ice, go.

 

 

 

 

 

Power Skating: where pain meets purpose

So, Wednesday night has a new routine. Big Cat, Alex McGoon, Big Dan Mellios, Willie Ong and my other usual on-ice partners, all dress in the red and white Icehouse jerseys for 10 pm development league. I walk out of the change rooms wearing something else, like my black Red Wings training jersey, or maybe my blue Grand Rapid Griffins jersey.

And I go seek out Icehouse coaches Army or Tommy who, six weeks in, I’m pretty sure see me coming.

‘How are you for numbers tonight?’ I ask every week.

‘I think we’re okay.’

‘Someone in the change rooms was saying that it looks like the teams might be short,’ I say. ‘I’m supposed to be doing power skating, but I don’t mind switching if you need more players.’

By now, they’ve totally clocked me. ‘Listen Place, if you want to skip out of power skating and play dev league, we don’t care. Just play.’

‘No, no, I’m totally up for power skating,’ I completely lie. ‘I’m only offering to help.’

‘It’s your call, Nicko … totally up to you.’

Knowing eyes and grins. Damn them to Hell.

I trudge off to the Bradbury rink to Power Skating, and an hour of pain.

I tried Power Skating once before, in February last year, but had to stop after about four classes because it was The Year Of The Knee and my injured, then-undiagnosed left knee simply couldn’t handle the work. That, matched with my ineptness on skates when trying some of Zac’s more ambitious manoeuvres, beat me at the time, as I tried to just remain fit enough to play for my summer league team on weekends.

The end of another hour of Power Skating with Zac. Dig deep, peoples. Dig deep. Photo: Macklin Place

The end of another hour of Power Skating with Zac. Dig deep, peoples. Dig deep. Photo: Macklin Place

Since my knee recovered, I’ve done all my usual tricks of playing endless dev league and off-ice work, but I hadn’t had the stomach to return to Power Skating. One move that killed my knee (skating backward on one foot, landing sideways, on the outside edge, of the other foot, spinning 360 degrees on that edge and landing back on the original foot, ready to go again) still haunted me. And yet … in games, I know deep down that it’s my skating ability that holds me back and that others are skating better and better every week, while my improvement has been slower.

It was time to take action, to shake things up. And so this term I resolved to miss the fun and competitiveness of dev league, and go work on my moves.

But man, it’s hard. After almost four years of this hockey adventure, Power Skating is still able to just poke every single element of my game that I haven’t mastered. That’s the entire point, I suppose, but it doesn’t make it an enjoyable hour. Put it this way, I’ve found myself reading articles on negative thinking and how to ward off ‘I can’t do that’ negativity that gets in your way in life. And skating.

Crossover, crossover, crossover. Perfect it, Place. Photo: Macklin

Crossover, crossover, crossover. Perfect it, Place. Photo: Macklin

Every class starts with intense forward C-cuts, and then crossovers. Then the same thing, going backwards. Backward C-cuts. Backward crossovers. Occasionally raising a leg in the air, to glide on one outside edge for a while until Zac tells us to resume skating.

This is the opening ten minutes … a stark reminder of how dubious I remain at backward skating, at crossovers on my lesser side, at performing a genuine C-cut. On the plus side, there are elements of these that most skaters cheat on, and I’m trying really hard not to cheat on technique in this class. Pulling off a genuine toe-to-heel, never-let-your-skate-leave-the-ice C-cut back to heel-meeting-heel is bloody difficult, forward or backward. I know lots of really fast, really nimble skaters who I bet couldn’t do it, if Zac forensically made them show the technique. Of course, it doesn’t matter in a game. See the puck, get the puck. How you scramble down the ice on a breakaway doesn’t actually matter as long as you’re fast enough or nimble enough to outskate and outwit the opposition players. The Shots On Goal stat is ultimately more important than the Flawless Skating Technique stat, even if everybody knows the latter will always help the former.

Power Skating has no scoreboard, gets rid of the excuses and shortcuts of game play, and that’s why I struggle so much. It makes you concentrate intensely on exactly what your feet are doing, and how your weight is balanced, and whether your knees are bent (they never are: never enough) and everything else that, as Melbourne Ice import Sean Hamilton put it to me recently, falls under the essential skater learning category of: ‘Ass to ankles.’

On the adjacent Henke Rink last night I heard the horn blow as one side or another scored a goal (turns out two of them were Big Cat Place, showing some pre-summer form) but I was lost in puck control while high-stepping backward down the ice, or performing double fast-start crossovers in gut-busting races across the ice, or those bastard backward crossovers, or – mercifully – learning saucer passes and flip-passes where, finally, my slightly more presentable puck-handling skills got some airtime.

Despite what my teammates might say, this is not how I would normally skate. Power Skating with Zac takes you to strange places. Photo: Macklin

Despite what my teammates might say, this is not how I would normally skate. Power Skating with Zac takes you to strange places. Photo: Macklin

Zac as a teacher is endlessly patient and supportive. He skates like nobody you’ve ever seen, teaching this stuff since he was a teenager back in Canada. It’s always fun to watch the entire class sag as he shows how a move should be done and casually pulls out some one-foot, crazy-angle snow-flying hockey stop at the end without thinking about it.

Everybody has been telling me that this Power Skating class will be good for my skating. That I will emerge a little faster or with better outside edges or just more complete as a skater. God, I hope so. It’s a truly difficult and challenging class. But I want to hit summer in the best shape I possibly can and I want to make breakaways count and not falter mid-turn when it matters in a game.

As they used to say in one of my favourite ever TV shows, The Wire: ‘All the pieces matter.’

(In fact, the full quote suits my purposes even better: ‘We’re building something here, detective. We’re building it from scratch. Alllll the pieces matter.’)

A few more Wednesday nights of pain won’t kill me and might even do a lot of good. Hell, if I have gained even one kph of extra speed, I might sign up again for next term. Don’t quote me on that.

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.)

The Bears: out-numbered, beaten up and beaten

I managed to get along to an AIHL game yesterday: Melbourne Ice versus the Sydney Bears at the Icehouse, on a Sunday afternoon. Having not been training at all (see previous 4000 whinge-posts about my left knee), or seeing the hockey gang on Wednesdays at Dev League, I feel like I’ve been very removed from my usual icy world, so it was nice to sit in the stands at the Henke and say howdy to everybody, while cheering Lliam, Army, Baxy, Tommy and the rest of the Ice team.

Framnk and Schlamp go at it at the Icehouse. Pic courtesy of: MosquitoByte - thanks, Andrew Mercieca!

Frank and Schlamp go at it at the Icehouse. Pic courtesy of: MosquitoByte – thanks, Andrew Mercieca!

It was a long afternoon for the poor Bears, who were coming off six straight losses and had to face the three-time champions. There’s a match report here (yes, the Melbourne Ice have official match reports now!) but I was struck by two things, watching the game.

The first is just the sheer continuing strangeness, in modern day sport, that hockey remains a contest where genuine fistfights can and do occur. I know I’ve written about this before but when you’re watching a fight in real time, it can still strike you that it is sort of bizarre. Yesterday it happened early in the third period, as Ice import Chris Frank and Bear Michael Schlamp dropped the gloves and were both thrown out of the game, but not before Frank had won the fight and waved cheerily to the crowd in celebration while being led to the bench and the locker-room.

For hockey fans, this was no big thing. Neither player appeared particularly hurt and in the understood arena of contact hockey, such a fight is not a particularly rare thing or considered outrageous at any level. This wasn’t like Vinnie Hughes’ ugly hunt down of an opposition player last year. This was just a ‘you-want-to-go?…ok!’ scuffle.

But if you zoom back to take a wider sporting view, how many sports allow a player to genuinely beat somebody up without serious consequence or alarm?

It happened a few weeks ago in a rugby league State of Origin match, leading to mixed reactions (old skool: ‘he was flying the flag, being awesome, being a tough guy’ and new world: WTF?) as eloquently captured and discussed by a friend of mine from the Bang, Ned Manning.

But it hardly ever happens in AFL any more and would be seen as dinosaur behavior if it did. Soccer, basketball, netball, tennis, golf, triathlon, Trugo? Nope. Officially, fights aren’t encouraged or particularly condoned in Australian hockey – in fact, as somebody pointed out in the stands yesterday, it’s really only the NHL that still casually allows fights – but if one does take off, the refs still stand back until somebody hits the ice. In summer league, where I play, a fight like yesterday’s would mean you are probably out for the season, which is good for encouraging kids to take up the sport. But I don’t think many people at the game yesterday had an issue with Frank and Schlamp testing one another out. in fact, most of the crowd loved it.

I know people who won’t go to hockey or take an interest because of the violence of it, or the perceived violence of it. Yet stamping out that violence, even a stoush like Frank-Schlamp – would remove a key component of the sport. Toughness is an essential part of this level of the game. It’s not just fisticuffs either. Hulking Ice defender Todd Graham twice put the same Bears player, the much smaller Silvan Maeder, into the boards yesterday and it would be fair to say Maeder did not appear to enjoy it. He stayed down, face first on the ice, for quite a while after the first hit (which was actually just Graham guiding him gradually into the glass with his arse) and shook his head, either in pain or frustration, after the much harder second hit.

But he copped them both and was still slugging it out at the end, for which I admired him.

The second element where hockey is weird is in participation numbers. How many other sports don’t care if one team starts a game with dramatically more players than the opposition?

The many Ice players still standing at the end of the game salute the crowd.

Some of the many Ice players still standing at the end of the game salute the crowd.

In yesterday’s game, as far as I could count (which isn’t well because, let’s face it, I’m a hockey player), the Bears started with only 12 players, including one goalie. The Ice had at least 18 players, including Dahlen Phillips between the pipes, and probably a second goalie dressed on the bench, who I didn’t happen to notice.

So the Ice had several lines of forwards to run, while the Bears were almost shift-on, shift-off. And it got worse when Schlamp was ejected, as noted, and so was another Bear, Spencer Austin, for the almost farcically undisciplined acts of tripping an Ice player with his stick while being sent to the box, and then swatting the puck down the ice for a further misdemeanor.

Austin tried to regain some tough-guy credits by breaking a stick on the bench boards on his way out but nobody was buying it; especially, I’d imagine, the other Bears. In fact, Holy crap, I wouldn’t have wanted to be Austin when his exhausted teammates finally staggered back into the rooms at the end of the period/game. When he got thrown out for being a dick, the Ice was narrowly holding off the gutsy Bears, 4-3, but now, two men down (compared to the Ice only losing Frank and having plenty of cover), the Bears tired dramatically in the last 10 minutes to lose 7-3.

In my Sunday Nite Owls comp and in summer league, this can happen, where one team barely has enough skaters to legally compete while the other team has up to four full lines of forwards and three lines of D.

It’s very strange and yet another test of your confidence and skill and fitness, if you happen to be on the team with less bodies. I secretly love it when that happens; digging deep, deep and deeper, to keep my shaking legs moving and a cool head, against a larger army.

It’s just another way that hockey is challenging and bizarre and entertaining and uncertain. Long may it stay that way, as long as I don’t find myself bare-knuckle shaping up to Chris Frank. He’s quite a big guy.

The Stavro Mueller edition

Mostly Harmless. Book five of the trilogy.

Mostly Harmless. Book five of the trilogy.

* Warning: there are blatant Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy spoilers in this post. But really, if you haven’t read it by now, then you only have yourself to blame. I mean, seriously? That includes you, Geoff Carstairs.

In that most brilliant collection of books, Douglas Adams’ ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – well, specifically, in book five of the trilogy, ‘Mostly Harmless’, Arthur Dent finds himself on a random moon or whatever and comes across a shrine to himself. This is a strange development among the books’ many, many strange developments, and is made even stranger because this is not a nice shrine. The enormous idol at the centre of the shrine is a particularly hideous rendering of Arthur. It turns out that the shrine has been created by a creature called Agrajag, who, over the course of many, many reincarnations, had come to the enlightenment that every single time it was killed, Arthur Dent was somehow involved, either directly or indirectly.

We first met Agrajag as a bowl of petunia flowers who, when killed, have a last thought: ‘Oh no, not again,’ which doesn’t resonate at the time but only now, in the shrine, makes sense.

Other ways Arthur manages to kill Agrajag over the course of Agrajag’s many lives include swatting flies (including Agrajag); a newt Arthur stepped on; ants Arthur stepped on (included Agrajag); fleas Arthur picked out of his hair (including Agrajag); a fish Arthur caught but then decided he wasn’t really hungry for so left on the side of his plate; (possibly my personal favourite) as Arthur Philip Deodat, a man who had a heart attack at a cricket match when Arthur and Ford Prefect materialised on the pitch with a sofa; an oyster that Arthur ate live … and so on.

Oh, and as Stavro Mueller, the owner of the Beta nightclub who, as a brooding lurking now-aware version of Agrajag, tries to kill Arthur but gets accidentally fatally shot by somebody else also shooting at Arthur and missing.

Have I become Arthur Dent to Charlie Jiang's Agrajag?

Have I become Arthur Dent to Charlie Jiang’s Agrajag?

The point of all this is because I’m worried.

Charlie Jiang might, even now, be fashioning a horrible Nick Place shrine in his garage, only waiting for me to turn up so he can attempt to revenge many lifetimes of wrongs.

Well, two weeks’ worth.

You might remember that last Sunday night, in Nite Owls play, I had an Everyday Ninja moment, but only after giving away a blatantly obvious penalty by taking out an opponent’s legs with my sticks. He went down like a sack of spuds, hit the ice hard, face first, and I apologized and served my two minutes.

Turns out he was Charlie Jiang, the brother of one of my teammates, DeCheng (Johnny) Jiang. We all had a laugh. Charlie was good about it. These things happen.

So last night, in the crowd-pleasing 11.15 pm time slot at the Icehouse (running, inevitably 15 minutes late so that we hit the ice around 11.30 pm), the same Nite Owls teams went at it again.

Given the hour, numbers were down, and so the other side had loaded up with some C-grade players from the game before and so we got duly smashed, 9-1 or 10-1, I lost count. But with three minutes to go, just like last week … on the wrong side of 12.25 am Monday morning, having skated hard, shift-on, shift-off,  for an hour, I stuck a weary stick out, hoping to steal a puck and instead completely hooked the legs of an opponent charging out of defence.

Down he went, like two sacks of spuds. Yes, you guessed it. Charlie Jiang.

Sensible advice for galactic hitchhikers.

Sensible advice for galactic hitchhikers.

And so, for all I know, Charlie starts to join the dots. Over lifetimes. When he was a bee. Or a huntsman spider. Or that guy that time, in that incident we don’t talk about. The shrine begins to take shape.

I’m leaving the state for next week’s third meeting between the teams. No, really. You don’t mess with Douglas Adams’ universe.

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’.

A sleepy Sunday makes for happy Owls

Dusk settles over Melbourne and the streets start to empty, as families head home to bunker in, resting up with the TV glowing, to get ready for the work week ahead. At Piedemontes, my local supermarket, I’m lucky to be in the ‘handbasket only’ queue, so that I avoid the bumper trolleys. Gillian Welch’s ‘I build a highway back to you’ is my soundtrack as the sky settles into pink, deepening, and I open the door of Fern Cottage, my little pre-Federation workers cottage in North Fitzroy, and close out the world, escaping the chill just starting to bite now the sun has gone.

I pour a white wine and put on some Melody Gardot. ‘Your heart is as black as night’ fills the kitchen as I make an omelette for dinner – pushing my culinary capacity to the limit but timing the turn in the pan just right. My new microwave is trusted with handling the cooking of the broccoli and proves up to the task. Of course, one of my boys has stolen into the house at some stage while I wasn’t looking and eaten all the potato chips, which was to be my secret, guilty last dinner ingredient, so that saves my belly some unneeded calories.

It’s only 6.15 pm as I sit down to eat – absurdly early for the night-time meal. The last game of the AFL round hasn’t even finished and I’m eating according to some retirement home timetable.

Calvados - the final shot that did all the damage.

Calvados – the final shot that did all the damage.

It’s not just the hangover. Having that final shot of Calvados, technically a brandy, in reality a lethal poison, wasn’t a great idea the night before. The music had finished at La Niche café, and I’d already had an on-the-house final shot of La Nichette – drinking chocolate with some kind of pear liqueur. And that was after a final shot of Chouchen, a French liqueur so dangerous that punters reportedly have to be hooked onto their stools at some bars in Brittany, for danger of toppling backwards after imbibing. Chloe, my partner and the expert on all this, tells me that she tends to avoid Chouchen because she loses all feeling in her lower face after a few shots. Her theory is that’s because of the bee venom, mixed among the honey, which shows how old-skool Bretonne she is. Reading up on it, venom hasn’t been an official ingredient for a while.

Anyway, the bike ride home from all that was an adventure and Sunday has been understandably quiet. Darkness now gives me every excuse in the world to curl up on the couch, pour a restorative whisky and watch ‘Top of the Lake’, succumbing to my body’s tiredness and my sluggish brain.

Which is why, of course, I am about to instead drag my hockey bag and sticks to the car, and set a course towards Docklands.

Because I am now a member of the Nite Owls, a hockey underworld which unfolds like a ghost story at the Icehouse every Sunday night; the spirits of hockey past drifting into Melbourne’s state-of-the-art hockey rink from all parts of the city. Plus a few of us self-styled rookies from the past few years, who happen to have taken up the sport a little late. ‘Over 35’ is the qualification but many of the Nite Owls players passed that marker many, many years ago.

On Sunday nights, in the most organized unofficial social comp you could ever find, these men and women take over the Henke Rink and play a brand of hockey marked less by furious pace and body-work than astonishing stick-handling and the canny hockey-sense of years on the ice.

And then there’s me; 13 years past the entrance age, with my P-plate skills and skating, feeling like the new kid at school as I walk into the locker-room and find a bunch of strangers, featuring a wild variety of ages and physiques as well as the occasional friendly face from my hockey classes and summer league. Tonight’s my first actual game for a Nite Owls team, after taking part in an unofficial scrimmage last week, involving one old-timer who I was told is a former captain of Australia, now in his Seventies. Still owning the ice as I, badly propping up defence as the new kid, grinned from the blue line.

The queue to get into the Icehouse yesterday. Hockey's popularity is getting scary. (And hi, Richard, in the NY cap!)

The queue to get into the Icehouse yesterday. Hockey’s popularity is getting scary. (And hi, Richard, in the NY cap!)

I can take some inspiration into tonight from a slightly higher standard and more intense game of hockey that took place on the Henke Rink yesterday afternoon. I was in a VIP Box, kindly hosted by the boys from the Ice-Threepeat doco, which meant I was right on the glass as Melbourne Ice and the Melbourne Mustangs opened their AIHL seasons. I sipped my beer as the Mustangs president, I assume, made the longest pre-game speech in hockey history, totally negating the warm-up the players had completed before lining up for a national anthem that was finally sung 15 or 20 minutes later.

Anyway, at last, the puck was dropped and it was so good to be back, watching my coaches Matt Armstrong, Jason Baclig, and Joey Hughes show what they can do when playing for real. (Lliam Webster and Tommy Powell are representing Australia overseas this week).

As Icehouse or Next Level students, we can get complacent about being on the ice with players of this ability. Army maybe hits second gear every now and then, trying to show Icehouse students how to do a move, like a transition or a drill. At the start of class, as students hang laps to get their feet moving and settle onto the ice, Lliam especially loves to hoon around, trying trick shots against the goalies, but even then, we all know he’s not raising a sweat.

Playing for the Ice, only a pane of strong glass away, they reminded me of just how good they are. And nobody here made NHL standard. Holy crap. The stratosphere of hockey ability is high.

I was sharing the box with Jaffa, who coached the Ice to the three straight Goodall Cups, including last year’s, and retired after the 2012 season. He was remarkably calm, given this was his first game not in charge. Yet every comment about a player was so insightful, so totally accurate; spotting the slightest weakness or strength. It must be a strange sensation to have so much knowledge and such great hockey eyes and not really now be able to use them.

The view from the VIP Box. Could be worse. (Thanks, Jason and Shannon!)

The view from the VIP Box. Could be worse. (Thanks, Jason and Shannon!)

Andy Lamrock, also retired as president of the Ice, was there too, pressure off, able to chat instead of sweat every little detail. As were the doco makers, Jason and Shannon, who at this game last year would have been racing around the Icehouse, getting migraines, trying to shoot everything at once and follow multiple storylines. Joey gingerly feeling an arm after a hit – is that major or not? Austin McKenzie scoring fast for the Ice, after failing to find the net for all of last season. Did we get that on tape?

Nope, because this time they were sipping beers and watching, along with the packed stands of the Icehouse. Arriving at the game, the queue to get in had stretched way down Pearl River Road, with a strong blend of the Mustang orange and the Ice white and blue. It was a Mustangs home game so that club gets the receipts, which is a nice start to the year financially. But the Ice won 7-2 and looked very sharp. Ice fans are going to pack the joint every single week.

But not on a Sunday night. That’s when the Nite Owls shuffle into the change rooms and then creak onto the ice. To create hockey magic over and over again for the empty stands, and for the sheer bloody fun of it, years peeling away, or just getting started, depending on where you’re at in your crazy hockey journey.

It’s now 7.30 pm. Dark and quiet outside, with Melbourne settled in front of the television. But ‘The Voice’ and ‘My Kitchen Rules’ will have to soldier on without me. I’m heading to my car.

Guest writer: Brendan Parsons on scorekeeping

The scorer's box, looking down on the Ghetto's ice. @ Oakleigh.

The scorer’s box, looking down on the Ghetto’s ice. @ Oakleigh.

A change of gear today. Ever wondered who is operating the scoreboard and compiling the teamsheet at any given game? Even in Rec D, summer league, in Melbourne, a bunch of tireless almost-volunteers work to make it happen – and we are damn grateful. (I’ve only been in there long enough to feel sheepish that I don’t help more.)

A big thanks to Brendan Parsons for taking us behind the glass, ice-side, to explain the magic.

Hockey scoring: not for the faint-hearted

By Brendan Parsons

“Shit!”

“What was that?”

“I didn’t see! Get ready whatever it is.”

“What number?”

“Use double zero, just make sure you get the two in right, we can fix it after.”

“I’m on it.”

“Hey can I –“

“Shut up!  Hold on a second – watch the ice – anything coming in on the radio?”

“No…  OK, we’re good.”

“Time?”

“Fourteen twenty seven.”

Radio hisses

“Hey, you there?”

“Yep, what was it?”

“Fourteen, tripping, two minutes.”

“Ok, got it.”

“Sorted – shot on – two shots, home.”

The score box at Oakleigh ice rink is nothing short of parody of a TV newsroom– but without the Sorkinesque hallway walking.  Scraps of paper litter the eagles-nest perched high above the stands.  Aged, yellow control boxes operating the scoreboard and clock flash their analogue red LEDs alarmingly and intrusively.  Only the edges of the vintage, leather stools are used by the scorer and timekeeper; the scorebox is no place to sit in comfort despite its relative warmth.  Snacks and coffee sit safely away from the equipment, but close at hand for the occasional 20 second break.  The computer hums and grinds to process the demands of the byzantine excel spreadsheet.

This isn’t scoring a cricket match – an ice hockey game moves at the speed of the ref’s whistle (which is the speed of sound, so it’s pretty fast.)

With the growth of beer-league hockey in Melbourne, the league should not have been surprised by the massive response to their call for timekeepers and scorekeepers in the summer league.

I answered the call to give back to the league which I have been only taking from so far.  After volunteering, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was a (modestly) paid gig. The pay nearly covers the cost of the non-kosher snacks (for wannabe hockey athletes at least) consumed within the box.

Working in the box has given me a new appreciation for the support structure required to play hockey, and the importance of doing things right; like wearing clear and consistent numbers on your uniform, handing in proper team sheets, and only playing registered players.  In a recent game, the numbers on one player’s back, arms and helmet didn’t match – and they wonder (and complain) how the ref may wrongly attribute a goal.

Rookies Rachael Hands and Lliam "Apollo" Patrick man the scorer's box during a Rookies v IBM social game.

Rookies Rachael Hands and Liam “Apollo” Patrick man the scorer’s box during a Rookies v IBM social game.

The box requires two people.  The time keeper is predominantly in charge of keeping the clock running, keeping the scoreboard up to date, displaying penalties and, at Oakleigh, controlling the walkie-talkie which serves as our only link to the ref.  The score keeper operates the flawlessly macro-ed score sheet.  Both need to watch and record all shots on goal – a call requiring consensus, as not every goalie’s ‘save’ is a shot on goal.*

You begin to appreciate the teams that play cleanly – minimizing penalties, playing around the opposition and not through them.  You notice the teams that continually lob pucks to the net, like a prisoner in solitary confinement with only a tennis ball.  You start to feel how each team constructs, and reconstructs, their lines through the game.  You see how goals and assists are not the golden metric against which to measure a player’s skill.

With all the sound and fury of a hockey game below you, from your cloistered, anonymous, impartial isolation, you can see the beauty of the game in its rarer moments. It’s a haven from the regular week; removed from quotidian mediocrity.  A Zen Koan, not requiring anything from you but the application of the rules. No hype, not fans; just the game itself.

But mostly, it’s a pleasing way to spend a Thursday night, or a lazy Sunday afternoon; watching hockey from a heated room.

*A shot is counted only if, with the goalie removed, it would have been a goal.  Brilliantly catching a puck that was not going straight into the net unfortunately does not count.

A final game sheet, as produced by the scorers from every official IHV game. Oh, wait, did I happen to pick one out where No. 4 (Nicko Place) got an assist and an unassisted goal? Wow, what are the odds?

A final game sheet, as produced by the scorers from every official IHV game. Oh, wait, did I happen to pick one out where No. 4 (Nicko Place) got an assist and an unassisted goal for the Interceptors? Wow, what are the odds?

A full house of hockey life

Getting ready for the Aussie Ben Laden Cup.

Getting ready for the Aussie Ben Laden Cup.

So here’s something that I love about hockey; this allegedly crazy little cult of a sport in Australia, half a world from the heartland of chasing pucks.

On Saturday night, I went to a poker game being run by a friend from work. His name is Ben Laden, which I, being the sparkling world-renowned wit that I am, couldn’t help but notice was a similar name to a certain terrorist, recently dispatched. Turns out that Ben has a lot of trouble at passport control whenever he enters the USA – or did, pre-Abbottabad. Sometimes the entire passport team would ask to pose for a photo.

He’s embraced his fate and on Saturday night, we played for the Aussie Ben Laden Cup, and a stack of cash from the buy-in stakes. Ben’s a pretty keen player and has regaled me with a lot of stories about long, intense poker nights between him and his mates. Some have played professionally or semi professionally. Intimidating just to hear about. So I went in, knowing I was up against it.

But actually, the jeopardy wasn’t that great because I had all of 50 bucks on the line, the cost of buying in. Two tables of 8 players each. Two rounds of play. Best combined finishes went to the final table.

I fancy myself at cards so into the pot went my Edith Cowan.

Naturally, I was dressed as a cowboy. “Aussie” had convinced me that dodgy poker skills could be minimized by startling dress sense in this company. He was wearing a truly appalling and genuine Hawaiian shirt, so lived his preach. That afternoon, getting ready for the evening ahead, I donned my trusty cowboy shirt from a ramshackle second hand shop in Williamsburg, New York, and cowboy boots from the same store, and headed to the Icehouse to coach one of our rival Summer League teams, the TigerSharks.

Say what? You thought this was about poker. Well, eventually it is but first there was a game to get through, as they were down a bench coach. Kittens and I shared the duties – Kittens bravely donning his favourite poncho so I wouldn’t feel out of place as a cowboy. We were definitely setting new trends in bench coach fashion.

We were coming off a disappointing loss on Thursday night, never quite able to get the Interceptors rolling in the fog that envelopes the Oakleigh rink when 30-degree humidity outside meets a melting iceblock inside. The Blackhawks played really well on a night where the goalies could barely see beyond the red line, so pucks could come out of nowhere. I got an assist and played a decent game without ever feeling like I lit it up, so I wasn’t sure how I’d go trying to tell a Summer League rival team how to play.

Oakleigh brings the summer fog.

Oakleigh brings the summer fog.

It was my first taste of hockey coaching and it turned out that I loved it. As I think I’ve written before, I have a lot of friends in the TigerSharks and have enjoyed games against them, because they have a similar intensity-meets-have-fun attitude to the Interceptors.

Suddenly, here I was, two years into this whacky hockey journey, with a change room full of armoured players listening to my pre-game advice. How did that happen? And what I do know?

Only just enough, apparently, and yet not enough, because the game against the Devils was a 1-1 draw. The TigerSharks had most of the attacking but the Devils’ defence was resolute, with their goalie, Mark Stone, standing on his head to deny them time and again. I tried to observe and advise stuff other than the obvious and battled with not knowing all the players, yet found myself totally caught up in the moment, desperately wanting my team to win; a TigerSharks team that I was thrilled to beat a couple of weeks ago, while wearing my Interceptor #17 jersey. Now I was a cowboy, willing them to find that final goal. Suddenly I could see how much fun coaching would be, if you had a team for a whole season. Maybe, if my knee collapses completely, or I get too old to skate (never!), this could be a hockey path I could explore?

Although I would run out of cowboy shirts pretty quickly.

And so finally through the heat to the top of Sydney Road (I still can’t help but think of that area as Jill Meagher country) and on to the poker game. Battling 15 other players, 14 of whom I had never met and had no connection with. And as I said at the start, this I where I found yet another thing I love about hockey. Sitting outside on the deck playing for hours on a hot night, a couple of strange smelling cigarettes and light beers down, I finally took off my cowboy shirt to reveal a Zetterberg #40 Red Wings T-shirt underneath.

Immediately, one guy on my table, with a Canadian drawl, said: “You’re a Wings fan?”

Turns out he grew up in Quebec and played as a kid.

Inevitably, my stack dwindled, I had not much left to lose, went all in on a couple of picture cards that turned out not to be enough and was out of Round One, appropriately losing to Wild Bill Hickok’s “dead man’s hand”.

The most stylish coaches in Summer League Rec D. Pic: Rachael Hands

The most stylish coaches in Summer League Rec D. Pic: Rachael Hands

At which point, a tall guy from the other table, also out, wandered over and said: “Did I hear that you play hockey? I used to play for Queensland in goals, inline and on ice, in juniors. I’ve been in England for the last eight years but I’m looking to get back into it.”

And so we spent Round Two yarning about Datsyuk’s genius, and Thomas Jurco coming up behind, and inline hockey in London, and the standard of the local scene, and how he can join the Icehouse rookie family.

Do the maths. Sixteen players in a card game: three, including me, with a hockey connection. At the northern Brunswick end of Sydney Road, on a Saturday night. There are allegedly a thousand or so registered players in Australia, plus a few thousand keen fans, and yet here were three of us, out of 16. What are the odds?

If I could work out ratios like that in my head, I might have made the final table.

So long, 50 bucks.