The saucy burlesque edition

Burlesque diva Radha Leigh and a fellow burlesquee pretending to be a lion. To the best of my knowledge, neither of these women are hockey players.

“So, Will”, I said to Will Ong, usually of my Wednesday night development league crew but notably absent on Wednesday this week, for the final night of scrimmaging. “Are you hurt?”

Being a highly trained investigative journalist, I miss nothing, and on this occasion the give-away clue was leaning next to Will in the LuWow tiki bar on Johnston Street in the form of a pair of crutches. Turns out he did his medial ligament in last week’s late shift scrimmage and is off the ice for three months, a disaster I’d caught hints of in snatches of conversation this week, between games on Wednesday, without ever quite hearing the full story.

Will said he had a reasonably innocuous fall while playing, limped off at the end of his shift and thought he was fine right up until he jumped the boards, from the bench, to start his next shift and his right knee said: “Um, no.”

Then the knee cooled down and really screamed. Ouch. This is on top of a broken leg for Dan, another local player, stitches for a skate-slashed arm for goalie Mark Stone and other assorted ailments eating into our Rookie crew. Anybody would think hockey is a potentially dangerous sport, I thought as Will discussed his physio regime and knee brace.

As is standard for hockey players, Will and I had this conversation at a tiki bar between sets of burlesque dancers stripping down to undies and pasties over their nipples to such songs as The Lion Sleeps Tonight*, and Jungle Boogie.

The kind of company your average Icehouse Rookie keeps on a non-hockey evening ...

Fellow Icehouse Rookie Brendan Parsons, Melbourne’s recognized pimp of burlesque – I’m sorry, I meant to say costume co-ordinator and producer to burlesque – had invited us along for opening night of Amazon Cabaret, knowing that any Melbourne International Comedy Festival show is going to struggle unless it can claim to have at least three leading Melbourne ice hockey players in attendance.

A burlesque show was more or less the perfect end to a packed week for me, not least because I’m a big fan of hot women dressed as lions or Tahiti Princesses stripping down until they’re swinging their tits in pasties, but because I was destroyed from a threatening lurgy as well as a huge hockey week and just needed to rest, drink tiki cocktails, listen to music and well, watch hot women dressed as lions or Tahiti Princesses stripping down until they’re swinging their tits in pasties.

On Monday, Big Cat (the artist formerly known as Kittens), Mack and I had come back from a beautiful easter break at Lorne in time for Big Cat and I to hit a Come & Try session at the Icehouse. This was amusing because a joyless easter staff at the Icehouse decided it was wrong and horrific and disastrous that a bunch of Icehouse Rookies should dare to show up and pay honest money to attend the session. “This is supposed to be for learners, for first timers,” we were lectured. “You shouldn’t be skating or wearing your armour.”

I pointed out that I was only wearing armour because I really wanted to work on a front-foot outside-edge turn that my coach, Army, had workshopped with me last week, and I knew I would be hitting the ice repeatedly, if practising this move was to happen. Anyway, there were about three people for the actual L-Plate part of the session, so … what? It was worse to have 10 or so ice hockey students practicing moves at one end of the Henke Rink than to only have $75 worth of newbies (3) stinking up the ice?

The bottom line was that shock, horror, nobody died, we Rookies all had enough sense not to barrel through a seven-year-old kid holding a hockey stick for the first time, or to hit head high slapshots into the intro crowd (3).

Instead, it was a lot of fun. There were a bunch of Rookies there, including Big Cat, the Hough gals, Wayne, Happy Feet and Alex (sicker than eight dogs but heroically present – even if snot did fly through her face grill after a hard landing on her butt). We all practiced tricky moves, passed pucks around, and played a spirited game of half-rink hockey (the terrified, intimidated newbies having cleared the ice for the last 10 minutes of the session). I scored the game winner, when Big Cat somehow hit a shot over everybody’s heads, including the goal, so that it bounced off the glass and landed at my feet, as I happened to be standing next to the goal. Fun.

Intro Rookies dive into scrimmage action on Wednesday night.

But not as much fun as Wednesday. It was end-of-term night, which means scrimmages. We arrived early, to watch the 7.30 Intro class actually play a scrimmage for the first time. Then revealed to Army and Martin, a new import for the Melbourne Ice who coaches at Oakleigh, that the Rookies were sponsoring them this year. Then suited up and played two furious hours of hockey – Intermediate class scrimmage and then the usual 10 pm dev league.

Hockey heaven. In fact, put it this way: at the start of my last shift of the night, I jumped the boards, found myself next to Army, who was refereeing, grinned and spontaneously said: “Army, how much fun is hockey?” to which he smiled, laughed and replied: “Oh, it’s outstanding!”

And it simply is. I’ve finally hit a level where I feel I can mostly compete, and so I enjoy hitting the ice, trying to carry the puck to the goal, actually having shots, battling for it against the boards, standing my ground in defence, competing. Sure, I can be beaten badly by better players, and the puck can bounce the wrong way to leave me stranded, but I don’t care. Every week gets more fun as I get better. Increments of improvement, sure, but improvement and I have definitely crossed a line from newbie wobbling around to dev league journeyman.

On Wednesday night, I had a break-away where I hit my shot cleanly and in the air, even if the goalie gloved it to deny a goal. I had another moment where I controlled the puck from the defence blue line to a shot on goal, holding all opponents at bay for the duration. I had a genuine assist where I won the puck in defence, in a “stone cold steal”, and passed it along the boards to a teammate who scored.

OK,  sure … I also got beaten pointless by Morgan, one-on-one and watched him goal as he left me in his wake. I fell over repeatedly. I got out of position as a defender more than once. And, most memorably, I tried to change direction at pace near my own goal, lost it, cannoned into the goal with my stomach, landed hard on my back, taking out the goalie, and took seemingly minutes to flail and roll and climb back to my skates. Everybody got a laugh out of that one. Including me. As stated: even when you fuck up, hockey is outstanding.

Tragically, Wednesday night’s action was the end of term.

Miraculously, a whole new term of 8.45 pm Intermediate class and 10 pm Dev League starts next Wednesday.

Amen. I can’t wait.

* Pro Karaoke Tip: Never attempt this song at karaoke. Slightly drunk, in the mood for a sing, flicking through the song catalogue, it’s easy to only think of the easy “a-whim-a-way, a-whim-a-way” part of it, and completely forget all the super-high almost-yodelling bits. A friend of mine, Katey, once fell into this trap and has never recovered. In fact, she left the country not long after to try and establish a new non-karaoke-haunted life in France. Stay safe out there, kids.

Amen. Class warfare starts again.

Me (in red) winning a breakaway in my Dev League debut. A very rare photo. Pic: Ben Weisser

OK, I need you to imagine drinking three straight litres of water without a break. Then sitting in a locked room for nine hours. A room with no, um, facilities. Now you’re allowed out of the room but only to jog up and down on the spot for one hour, all while continuing to sip water at regular intervals.

You are then placed in a car and sit in the back seat for four hours as the car travels over bumpy roads, all while listening to a CD: “The magnificent sounds of a trickling stream”.

Finally the car stops at the world’s largest waterfall and you watch the water cascading, streaming down the rocks. You are made to drink another three large glasses of soda water.

Your fingers and toes are placed in warm water.

Get the idea …

Well, now replace the need for a toilet at this time with the need to play ice hockey, and that was me last night. Intermediate, Week One, could not come around quickly enough and there was nothing I could do to fast forward the day leading to 8.45 pm. Sure, Will (aka Kittens) and I got a little excited and turned up at the Icehouse at 6 pm, but it turned out that didn’t make 8.45 pm come any faster. We played pool at the Harbourside (modesty prevents me offering the scoreline [I kicked his arse]) and I ate pizza and drank dry ginger ale because the ice was beckoning, beating out even the desire for alcohol.

Kittens, in classic pose. Of course, he scored a goal. Uppity kid. Pic: Ben Weisser

And finally it was time. Greeting the other rookies, meeting a few I only knew by facebook profile; strapping into full armour and looking like a sumo on skates as my Grand Rapids Griffins jersey, on Australian debut, ballooned over my gear. And, ready!

Of course, our coaches Army, Lliam and Michael welcomed us back with hardcore skating tests and obligingly sent my group of skaters to outside edge drills as the opening gambit. One of my worst skills. And of course the other three guys I was bracketed with are in the running for Outside Edge Rookies of the Year while I managed not to fall.

Until the second drill when Michael had us attempting to transition at speed from forwards to backwards skating, around a cone. And I found out fast that my new helmet, bought in Chicago, has excellent impact-absorption in the back of the lid when your head smacks hard against the ice during a backward plank.

Then we were doing crossovers and I didn’t suffer any mortal injuries – Army even raised an eyebrow at my improvement – before Lliam gave me some tips at inside edge skating that worked all the way until the fourth cone at which point I tested the ice impact capabilities of my new gloves and my ageing elbow pads, falling heavily while fully committed to one foot inside edge around a cone. At least I was fully committed, right?

All that was left to start the term was a game of two-on-two where my partner and I played the Washington Generals to the other pair’s Harlem Globetrotters, and a bizarre tapdancing crossover drill where the miracle was I didn’t fall.

It was actually an awesome class, finished with four rounds of straight-up tearaway fast sprints up and down the ice. That’s when I’m at my happiest, even if I’m not the fastest rookie out there. I just love seeing how fast I can go, getting that cardio-hit, and then morbidly wondering if I can stop in time as the boards approach. The answer was universally yes last night, which shows my summer of toil wasn’t totally wasted.

This was always going to happen in my Dev League debut. Pic: Ben Weisser

But the best was yet to come, because a quick Zamboni run later, I was back on the ice, now in my Zetterberg Wings jersey, as part of the red team in my Development League debut.

I’m not sure I can hope to convey how awesome Dev League was. I could try poetry but after rhyming “ice” with “nice” I start to struggle. “Dice”? “Mice”? “Concise”? “Condoleezza Rice”?

One thing I know: I’m glad I didn’t do Dev League last term, as Will did. I wouldn’t have been ready. But with a summer of skating practice under my belt, and so many supportive, friendly rookie classmates urging me on, it was brilliant, truly brilliant.

For the first time, I felt like a real hockey player, playing an hour of scrimmage, deciding when to end my shifts, powering up and down the ice (mown down on two attempted breakaways, first to the puck on one – shot went wide, dammnit) and just generally deciding that ok, I won’t suck embarrassingly among these players, even if there are clearly superior skaters out there.

Condoleezza Rice: not relevant here.

The game had one casualty – Ken went down with a nasty split lip and was lucky not to lose teeth – and I had a couple of spills but nothing fatal. On my first shift, I failed to trap a puck along the boards which ended up in a goal at the other end, which had me doing some old fashioned cussing, but I got progressively more comfortable with every following shift and didn’t panic, didn’t just flail, kept an eye on staying onside, didn’t lose my position most of the time and generally felt like the beginnings of an idea of a genuine hockey player in a team.

It felt very good.

The other rookies were awesome in welcoming me to the game and this level. Benched between shifts, Jay and I marvelled at how far some of the skaters who started with us a year ago in Intro have come. Morgan Squires was dominating but then (and don’t take this the wrong way, Morgan) it was just as heartening for me to see him and others occasionally screw up. They’re not all bulletproof and error-free as I blunder along. We’re all still in class, training, getting better, striving. And I can see how this term is going to make me blossom, trying to keep up.

A very very very good night, back on the ice, even if I was home at midnight, accidentally drinking off-milk and unable to consider sleep until much later.

Today, my groin, hips and legs were hurting in the second best way they can and I loved every second of feeling the aches. Next Wednesday, please oh please come around without delay.

I wouldn’t have thought it was possible but hockey just became a whole lot more fun.

Jack, a committed Penguins fan, in a Washington jersey, so he could play Dev League in the red team. These are the lengths people will go to. Pic: Ben Weisser

So wrong it was totally right.

So my half-arsed theory was totally right, which always rocks.

Nicko (in white), Will (in dark), ever ready to go head-to-head, mid-game. Photo: Mack Place

All logic told me not to even attempt to contest our final lesson scrimmage on Wednesday night.

Hadn’t skated for two weeks (apart from one very brief wobble around the Bradbury Rink on Tuesday to see if I could remain vertical after my manta ray lay-off).

A shocking head cold, moving towards flu, moving towards pneumonia or whooping cough. Or straight to death, the way I felt/feel.

Stressed and a heavy heart.

And this was the final hockey date before getting on a plane for a five week USA adventure, which would not be a good time to fall and hurt myself. (A big shout out to my San Jose doppelganger and her partner, who are both nursing broken legs from their Over 40 hockey start-up … hope you’re skating again soon, guys.)

So everything said: take the night off and go to bed. And so, of course, I did what any good hockey player should do and declared: “I’m a hockey player. I need to go play hockey now.”

And I did and it rocked. With low expectations of myself, I had a ball. In fact, if I wasn’t just a dumb hockey player, I could be forgiven for thinking there was a clear lesson there somewhere, like: stop judging myself so harshly on the ice as a rule, and just skate.

It worked on Wednesday. I loved every second of it, and could even breathe one my heart-rate was up, and didn’t need windscreen wipers on my visor for the expected snot. All good.

I think everybody had a ball (except maybe Will who was gutted that he didn’t score, as he usually does). We had white and blue jerseys, and an actual scoreboard and a clock. Our White team won, for the grand prize of a bag of lolly snakes, but nobody was too fussed about the scoreline beyond mindless competing for fun.

I was struck by how different the Intermediate Final Class game was, compared to the last game I’d played (where I’d massively sucked) at the end of my second Intro stint.

In this Intermediate game, everybody was thinking; including me. Gone were the days of seeing the puck in front of you and panicking, swishing indiscriminately.

Instead players were trapping the puck, looking for options. Others were skating to position. Defenders were guarding lanes. There were some really good goals; clean hitting from angles, or from genuine passes.

(Having said that, one of the other team’s goals was clearly offside. At the face-off, I said to coach Lliam, who was ref: “How about off-side?”

He replied sweetly: “How about shut up?”

I love hockey.)

The bottom line was that, for the first time, it felt like I was in an actual hockey game and most surprising of all was that I felt like I was keeping up. I had several moments where I controlled the puck, even in traffic. Won a couple of face-offs, won a puck in defence, trapped it and safely got it outside the blue line to stifle the attack.

Sure, these are all minor moments, but big for me, and sure, I fell over more than most people in the game (this is me we’re talking about), and I totally botched two or three potential goal-scoring opportunities, but even those I feel good about: suddenly finding myself in front of the goal, with the puck, I didn’t swipe it or just blindly shoot. I worked really hard to control it, to guide it home.

Yes, I fell over on one attempt, blowing it. Yes, a defender cleared it just as I thought I was going to score. But I was thinking; I was working the puck, not flapping stupidly. So that’s a big improvement.

It actually gives me a lot of hope for the next phase of all this: dev league or drop-in hockey, when Melbourne Ice players among other much more accomplished players can turn up. As I get more used to being out there in game conditions, and I can see others are playing Thinking Hockey, I reckon I’ll find life easier than Intro, where we were all still mostly flailing.

Oh, and I tried to give Josh, in the blue team, a shove, just because we were playing hockey and so I should try to shove him, right? I only half got him and duly fell over. Jay, a good friend of Josh’s, got into him as well and said, as we headed back to the bench at the end of our shift: “I’ve got your back, Nicko.”

“Thanks,” I replied, “but I should point out that I started it.”

(Hearing us discussing this later, coach Lliam said: “That doesn’t matter. You’re on the same team…”

Lliam had also warned me during the game for trying to Board an opponent, which I took as a win. Happy days.)

And so now, to America, hopefully sans this lurgy. In less than one month my boys and I will be at an NHL stadium in Washington, five rows from the glass, watching the Red Wings live.

God knows how this self-indulgent blog will mutate while I’m away. The NHL teams are playing pre-season games now, so we’re hitting the States at exactly the right time. Maybe this will become a blog about NHL official merchandise retailing?

When I get back, I start following my plan to get private skating lessons and become a much better skater, before tackling Intermediate again with more sure footing on blades.

It’s a good plan. But only after some major adventuring.

Bring it.