When the coaches fly

A cat trying to use your crotch as a scratching post is not a great pre-hockey omen. And sure enough, in dev league last night, I felt like my skating was off, my knee inexplicably hurt, my shots at goal were powder puffs, and being an offensive threat when genuine IHV summer hockey starts in six weeks or so felt a million miles away. But you have nights like that; well, I do. I had a few good moments, but also got mown down on a clear breakaway, which sucked. I think I need to do some sprinting, off ice, to get more grunt in my legs. Even footy once or twice a week isn’t enough, it seems.

However, the real mistake I made with regard to my self-confidence was hanging around to watch Melbourne Ice train straight after our session. I hadn’t watched the Ice practicing for a long time. Usually the Mustangs follow our scrimmage but the Clippyclops are done for the season and so Melbourne Ice got the rink ahead of the weekend’s AIHL finals at Icy Obriens (probably sold out but check for tickets).

The Ice on Tuesday night, preparing to hopefully add a new addition to the banners on the far wall.

The Ice on Tuesday night, preparing to hopefully add a new addition to the banners on the far wall.

I’ve probably written this before but I love watching our coaches go flat out. For almost six years, I’ve had a front row seat of Matt Armstrong, Lliam Webster, Tommy Powell, occasionally Jason Baclig, Rob Clark and women’s Ice captain Shona Powell, and Ice star Georgia Carson, as they coach us wannabes week in, week out.

But, of course, they are only ever in second gear, at best. Even when they jump into a scrimmage, I’m always super aware that they’re coasting, that they have so much power and skill they’re holding back. (Sure, we students still can’t help but get an insane burst of euphoria on the rare occasion when we manage to actually strip one of the coaches of the puck, but it is usually followed seconds later by being unceremoniously separated from said puck by the same coach, moving briefly to second-and-a-half gear.)

I think my favourite moment in scrimmage ever was waiting, huddled over my stick, in my usual Left Wing position for a face-off in our defensive zone when Tommy Powell, proud Alternate Captain of Melbourne Ice and, oh yeah, Australia, skated casually over and said, ‘When they drop the puck, just go.’ He tilted his head minimally towards our goal, almost 200 feet away down at the other end of the ice.

‘Go?’ I said.

‘Go,’ he confirmed.

Tommy wasn’t even taking the face-off as he was playing defence, but I knew better than to argue. The puck was dropped, I didn’t even look. I just skated flat out down the ice away from everybody. And sure enough, like a magic trick, the puck came tumbling out of the air above me, landing neatly about two metres in front of me, and bouncing gently a couple of times before it was on my stick and I was on a breakaway 20 metres or more clear of any defenders. I still have no idea how he did it, but I have been forever in awe of his confidence, that he knew he could step in, get that puck from the face-off turmoil, find space and then lob it perfectly half a rink to exactly the right spot. Holy shit.

The Ice working on shots, Tuesday before finals weekend.

The Ice working on shots, Tuesday before finals weekend.

So last night, back in street clothes after our dev league hit out, Big Cat, Will Ong and I stopped to watch, before leaving Icy Obriens. And I was struck again by the sheer skill and skating of AIHL level players. It really is something to see and if you’re a hockey player of any level, I would advocate going to watch the Ice train. It’s one thing to watch games, where they duke it out with other teams, but there’s a lot they can’t control there, and all sorts of pressures that they’re dealing with. The Ice love to tic-tac-toe cute passes in attack to end up with a clear scoring chance once a defence is bamboozled, but it’s natural that a lot of those ambitious attempts derail midway.

In training, the skills of the players can shine, uninterrupted. From the moment they took their positions in four groups on the opposing blue lines, everybody knew every drill intimately. A swirl of players looked terrifying, as two skaters would skate fast, fully-committed half circles around the red circle, with pucks crisscrossing the zone, but never in danger of colliding. The skaters would give and receive several hard fast passes, from opposing corners, before suddenly sweeping towards goal.

And that’s when you notice the little things. Lliam Webster received a hard pass half a metre too far behind him. Somehow he kicked it, absolutely smoothly, onto his stick without breaking stride or losing any pace, went in and slotted the shot straight past the goalie.

Tommy Powell took a shot and then hockey stopped from full pace to a complete halt in one fraction of a second, snow flying, like an old animation of the Road Runner going from a blur to dead-stopped, so that he was camped for a potential rebound.

Big weekend coming up for the Ice.

Big weekend coming up for the Ice.

And so it went. Two fast laps, a standard of any training session I’ve ever been part of with any team, was frighteningly quick, with Danish import Lasse Lassen particularly noticeable for his low-gravity style and smooth skating. We also noticed that Joey Hughes has got his trademark long hair back and there are some strong play-off beards in evidence.

Eventually we left them to it and headed off into the night. On the weekend, we’ll be back, hoping the Ice can make it through the semis to Sunday’s Grand Final and then hopefully salute for the first time in a few years, since the glorious days of the threepeat.

I’m not going to mozz them by saying anything more about how sharp and ready they looked. I’m sure the other three teams in finals contention look great in training too. It’s all about bringing it on the day, two days in a row. My feeling is that for the Ice this year, it’s only a question of whether they can mentally turn on when required. The 2016 squad, for mine, is as good as any they’ve had. But they need to blinker-out the inevitable provocation and needle that’s going to come in the semi, secure that win, and then peak for when it matters on Sunday afternoon.

I’ll be there, mouth-agape at the level of play they can achieve, from my viewpoint as a summer trier. And loving every minute. Especially if they trounce Canberra.

Ice, Ice, baby. Go get ’em.

 

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.

 

 

 

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.

The zeitgeist … now on a small screen near you

Last Wednesday, I walked into the St Moritz bar, looking down on the Henke Rink, at the Icehouse, and Jason Baclig was working behind the bar, which is probably not somewhere you would find Pavel Datsyuk if you were to hang out in Detroit during the Red Wings’ off-season.

As I waited for my glass of water (hey, dev league was an hour away; never let it be said I’m not committed), I complimented Bacsy on the fact he looked frighteningly fit – for a smallish guy, he’s got a lot of muscle at the best of times – and he said that yeah, the Melbourne Ice team was back in training in a big way.

But it turns out the No. 57 was onto some information I wasn’t: he’s set to become an Australian TV star this coming season. No wonder he’s pumping iron.

FoxSports has just announced that it will be screening one AIHL game each week, which is brilliant news for the local hockey competition, and has me already watching closely to see if Lliam Webster’s beard is just that little more coiffured, or whether Army’s head is bald and polished near game-time, from April.

Jason Baclig in action for the Ice. Pic: Hewitt Sports Network.

Jason Baclig in action for the Ice. Pic: Hewitt Sports Network.

In terms of landing sponsors and growing the sport even more, this is a brilliant development. Reading the press release from the Australian Ice Hockey League, it said:

“Ice hockey membership in Australia has grown more than 40% nationally since 2008, making it one of the fastest growing team sports in the country. Attendance at AIHL games has grown more than 25% each year since 2008. Many matches exceed 2,000 attendees, with many more watching online.”

Those figures are astonishing on lots of levels but especially for me, because they mirror exactly when I became interested in the sport. Have you ever had that zeitgeist experience? Where you start doing something – whether it’s wear a red hat around, or put chopper-style handlebars on your bike, or start studying an obscure language, and then notice other people wearing red hats, on bikes with the same bizarre handlebars, speaking in tongues? OK, maybe not to that extent, but this is the zeitgeist. (A book, The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell, does a great job of examining the moments and machinations that seemingly randomly explode something obscure into something not at all obscure.)

Anyway, it’s surprising to me that at the exact moment I got the flu, lay in bed, turned on the Stanley Cup finals for the first time ever, fell in love with the Red Wings, found out Melbourne had a team called the Ice, found out the Icehouse had just opened, found out you could take lessons, started lessons, started playing, corresponds almost exactly with a much wider explosion of interest in the sport. In Melbourne, a bunch of us who started lessons at more or less the same time two or so years ago called ourselves “The Rookies” and it seems we were riding a wave of deeper, broadening interest in hockey. I know there has been surprise among the original few at how many members the Rookies’ Facebook page now has; how many people keep flowing into the learner ranks. Hockey is booming. Maybe it is because of the tireless work of ex-player and Olympic committee veteran Geoffrey Henke, who now has the rink named after him? Maybe it was the Icehouse bringing a new level of facility (no offence, Oakleigh rink – you know I love you)? … I have no idea. But it’s happening and continues to grow and now it’s about to be a weekly feature on cable sports TV.

It should be noted that hockey and television haven’t always had an easy relationship. Legend has it that when the NHL tried to play hardball with an American TV network a few years ago, the network didn’t blink, as expected. The television execs instead politely excused themselves from discussions, and discussed what could replace the very-much fourth American sport as a TV option? Poker was on the rise at the time, and in TV terms, suddenly made a lot of sense. As against the expense of trying to have cameras all over a hockey stadium, where a puck is hard to see at the best of times, poker happens in one room, with a few geeks around a table, easy to light, easy to commentate. They dress like freaks, from Texan cowboy hats to upside down sunglasses, there’s high drama on the river and it’s possible to have women with low-cut cleavage in every second shot. (TV execs know their audience.)

Not hockey players.

Not hockey players.

Bam, before you could say ‘face-off’, the World Series of Poker was screening on sports cable instead of the NHL and boom, poker took off as a phenom, making global stars of the top players. In 2006, the situation reached its nadir with more American TV viewers watching a poker game than a Stanley Cup play-off between Carolina and New Jersey on a Saturday afternoon. A broadcast of surfing that led into that NHL game also out-rated the game itself. There are other examples too. On February 18, 2007, the Penguins versus the Caps (aka Crosby v Ovechkin) was out-rated by figure skating. And on April 1 that same year, two NHL play-off games, Detroit-Columbus and LA v San Jose, managed only a 0.71 rating, which was the lowest ratings anybody could remember, according to the definitive source that is Wikipedia.

Of course, they were the bad old days – all of six years ago. The landmark doco, ‘24/7’ leading into the annual Winter Classic, has been hugely successful, and NHL Gamecenter has made hockey a much more compelling and successful tv product. The AIHL is hitting the small screen at the right time, especially as the TV rights for AFL and NRL and other sports are going to become murkier in the years ahead.

I have no idea how well thought out a plan this has been, but one of the smartest things the AIHL has done, in my opinion (and, here, I feel an unusual need, on this blog, to offer credentials: see below, if you care*), is that local hockey has never sought to challenge the AFL or NRL for supremacy. Or A-League, for that matter.

I know it sounds ridiculous given the relative profiles of the sports, but trust me, it’s a mistake that has been made before by American sport. I was a sports journalist in the trenches when baseball and basketball tried to pitch their tents in a big way in the local sports scene, a couple of decades ago, more or less. (I even covered an underwhelming Aussie Bowl gridiron game between two NFL squads). Baseball in particular arrived with trumpets and fanfare and there was a lot of talk about how it would take over the nation, because, hell, it’s huge in America, right, so all those hokey local curiosities like Aussie Rules and, what’s that quaint little English sport again? Cricket? Yeah, they’ll make way. Baseball is here.

Guess what … it didn’t happen. I have nothing against baseball, and strangely quite a few of the local hockey crowd seem to have a background in baseball, but it turns out more than 100 years of Test cricket and AFL passion was a little harder to budge than expected.

I’ve been impressed that Australian hockey seems to know its level, if that doesn’t sound patronizing. The facilities, the crowds, the media coverage – it’s boutique. Several times last season, I wandered straight from a Richmond game at the MCG with 50,000 or so fans, to a Melbourne Ice game at the Icehouse. The two sports can and should co-exist. Many of the sensibilities of hockey naturally appeal to a footy fan: big hits, courage, speed, teamwork. I don’t know a single sports fan who has watched hockey for the first time live and been unmoved or unenthusiastic. But the very fact that the Henke Rink struggles to house 2000 fans says that hockey cannot currently hope to grow much beyond its current level until it has those extra rinks in Melbourne or other cities, with more capacity in the grandstands. But should the Mustangs start trying to book the Tennis Centre and put ice over centre court, ready for 20,000 fans? Probably not.

Hockey sits behind NFL, MLB and NBA in America. It’s always going to be a niche sport here, and as long as it remembers that, can thrive. In my humble what-do-I-know opinion, FoxSports is a brilliant start, finally moving hockey away from novelty slots on breakfast TV and weather-crosses, so that Australian sports fans can watch the real thing and fall in love. The challenge is to find where ratings and enthusiasm naturally sits.

One last thing on hockey’s sparkly new TV deal: I try hard not to get political on this blog because the endless politics that seem to rumble in the background of the sport can be profoundly boring and, anyway, the point of this blog was always to chart my own journey from guy flip-flopping around helplessly on rental skates to bad-ass hockey player (dodgy knee notwithstanding, it’s been a fun few weeks of Interceptor and dev league play, against teams full of mates, played with passion and commitment and smiles, as well as power-skating lessons with Zac, which I will write about more extensively once and if the trauma lifts).

But it needs to be said: I really hope the executives in the AIHL finally have the decency to buy Jason McFadyen and Shannon Swan of Resolution Media a drink, if not go all the way and throw them the street parade they deserve. Jason and Shannon are the guys who created, filmed, edited, entirely produced the 24/7-like documentary following the Melbourne Ice last season: The Ice: Road to 3Peat. (Still for sale – a brilliant series). Yes, I wrote some scripts at the last minute to help the voiceover, so I’m potentially biased, but my understanding (and I didnt hear this from Jason and Shannon) is that after the series screened, hockey officials gave the doco makers a hard time, largely because one league referee threatened legal action – feeling he had been slighted in a highly entertaining coach’s address (note to this faceless ref: I worked on the doco and I still don’t know who you are, and have no idea who that coach was referring to. Or to quote Oscar Wilde: “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”)

When FoxSports discovered the glory of Australian hockey - a scene from The Ice: Road to 3peat.

When FoxSports discovered the glory of Australian hockey – a scene from The Ice: Road to 3peat.

Hockey officials also reportedly frowned and harrumphed that the doco didn’t always show hockey in a glittering PR light. The Gold Coast “facilities” were shown honestly, with no league-happy spin. I was close to charging AIHL headquarters, to shriek: “Can you not see what these guys have done for your sport, off their own bat, through sheer passion and storytelling?”

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the success of The Ice: Road to 3peat on FoxSports probably has a lot to do with the TV deal just announced.

Oh wait, my bad. Reading the AIHL press release again: “Commissioners from the AIHL approached FOX SPORTS with a proposal to increase viewership of NHL games and grow the grassroots ice hockey community. Airing AIHL games was the cornerstone of the strategy. The unique content will ultimately drive FOX SPORTS viewership as well as introduce audiences to the Australian ice hockey fraternity.”

Actually, that already happened. Audiences met the Australian ice hockey fraternity in all that fraternity’s glorious, slightly dysfunctional, passionate, committed, hilarious, brutal glory. Last year. In a self-made, self-funded labour of love that was the best national advertisement the sport could have hoped for. But apparently wasn’t recognised when the gift horse smiled from less than a metre away, waving and whistling and holding a sign reading: “YO! Gift horse!”

Alas, there is no mention of The Ice: Road to 3peat in today’s announcement. It would be decent if Jason and Shannon were finally recognized for their service to a sport they were barely part of when they started.

It’s not hard to find them, either. These days, I cross paths with them every Wednesday, as they have a beer in the St Moritz bar, fresh from Intro hockey class. Yes, they’re strapping on the skates, caught up in this crazy world we all love. Part of the zeitgeist, part of hockey’s community. Well played, boys.

* I was a professional sports writer for more than 20 years, off and on, across The Herald, The Sunday Herald, The Age and Sunday Age newspapers, working internationally as a tennis writer, as well as covering a lot of AFL, boxing and other sports, plus I wrote features and profile pieces for several magazines. I also worked as a sports writer and producer for the Seven Network for a decade, off and on. (My whole career has been off and on; some call it “impressive diversity”; I call it “short attention span”. ) Even now, in my day job, at Media Giants, we control and publish content for a bunch of major internet news sites, including Big Pond Sport and SBS and, for a while, created and published pretty much all the content for afl.com.au.

Friday on my mind

Ceptors' captain Jake Adamsons fights for the puck on Friday.

Ceptors’ captain Jake Adamsons fights for the puck on Friday.

Four days later and I’m still smiling about Friday’s night’s game. It was the Interceptors versus a scratch Rookie team, containing lots of my hockey mates, and also my younger son, Mackquist, who continues to improve so that he’s able to join in a match like this, and leaves me excited that we’ll probably be able to play in a team together next summer.

Friday was just one of those games that is played in a fantastic spirit, with everybody going as hard as they can but with smiles on the ice. It was only a practice match; all of us trying to get our legs back, our game sense back, our hockey sense back before summer league starts again (10.30 pm, this Thursday, for my team).

I’d put in a big training effort since returning from the summer holiday to Lorne and Tassie, and since I decided my dodgy knee would survive being on the ice. The week before last, I was on the ice, or in off-ice hockey-dedicated training, for at least two hours each night, every night but Tuesday.

I joined a new initiative, the Icehouse Hockey Academy’s summer program where Melbourne Ice star Jason Baclig, and one of my usual coaches, also a Melbourne Ice star, Matt Armstrong, put us through our paces. It was challenging, doing skating drills, having every weakness in our stride and leg muscles pinpointed by Jason, who skates like you can’t believe.

Jason hadn’t coached us before and it was great to get a new take on how to improve. Just little things like getting us to skate blue-line to blue-line on one skate, crouching. Then having us do it again on both skates, which was easier, and felt so much easier after the one-skate. Confidence builds, just like that. Then he and Army took us up to the Icehouse gym for a hockey-specific strength circuit. In the middle of all this, I continued my own return to upper body training at my usual gym in Fitzroy, and had a practice game against an IBM team, and took part in some Jets training sessions – learning new moves from the wider club’s coaches. All in all, the hockey cobwebs were blown away in a big way, to the point that in the final sprint lap of that Jets training session, skating along next to coach Scotte Giroux, my body hit “empty” and I simply lost my ability to skate hard. In the course of half a lap, I went from next to Scotte to barely moving. Petrol… gone.

It led to a quiet week last week, knee hobbling again – Magic Enzo, the osteo, finally doing some magic – until Friday’s game, by which time I was bursting to hit the ice.

Jack Hammet, on the move for the Rookies, as I attempt, probably unsuccessfully, to close him down and Big Cat waits, ready to pounce. Pic: Dave Walker

Jack Hammet, on the move for the Rookies, as I attempt, probably unsuccessfully, to close him down and Big Cat waits, ready to pounce. Pic: Dave Walker

And it was a blast. A total blast. A reminder of everything I love about playing hockey. Early in the first period, Big Cat, at speed, won the puck on the right wing, looked across the width of the ice, saw me charging and dinked a perfect pass through the air and over two opposition sticks so that I skated onto the puck without breaking stride. Through the blue line and clear, although the defenders were closing. Me travelling fast (for me) and winding up the wrist-shot.

That glorious feeling of seeing the puck disappear through the five-hole, as the goalie dropped but a fraction too late (sorry, Stoney). Interceptors whooping and hollering. A glove-pumping celebration glide-by past our bench.

Then marveling, in the second period, as our captain, Jake, got the puck on the defensive side of the red line, out of the corner of his eye saw an Interceptor player coming over the boards, half a rink away, and duly delivered an almost-blind pass right onto the stick of Big Cat, motoring away from the bench. That left Big Cat all alone with the goalie and his finish was clinical (sorry again, Stoney).

The Rookies had many decent players and scored three goals going the other way, but the Interceptors eventually prevailed 4-3, on the back of a second goal from Big Cat and one from our coach, Will Ong.

I don’t mean to give a match report as much as to convey that it was just a fun, end-to-end game, where we Interceptors felt ourselves click as a team, even if we were missing a bunch of players through travel and injury, and had coach Ong and Mark “Happy Feet” Da Costa Caroselli as one-off free agent players. Our defence was calm and measured, working together and playing smart hockey. The forwards, me included, were charging at every opportunity.

Yesterday, at Lorne, Big Cat and I were still grinning about it.

And so I thought I should share that joy on the blog. As a counter to all those posts where I doubt myself and the journey.

It’s good to stop occasionally and just celebrate the joy of playing.

So this is a salute to the sheer joy of playing with mates and against friends.

The fun of good-naturedly bantering with an opponent who has just scored a great goal; both of you hunkering down for the next face-off.

The fun of skating as hard as you can to try and go with somebody who is better on their legs than you are.

The satisfaction of scoring a goal, or of nailing a good pass to a teammate’s stick.

All those little one-percenters, all that sweat, all that effort. The satisfaction of an intense, hectic, brilliant hour.

Icehouse classes (dev league and power-skating) start again on Wednesday night. Thursday, we play the Champs, who smashed us last time.

I play hockey. For a team. Like I dreamed of, crazy dream that it was, two and a bit years ago.

I’m definitely getting better as a player and a skater, bit by bit, skate by skate, game by game.

And I love being a part of it, win or lose.

How fucking awesome is that?

Friday's winning Interceptors line-up. I was so happy with the win and the game that I didn't even care my post-helmet hair looked like Milton the Monster. So there. Pic: Dave Walker.

Friday’s winning Interceptors line-up. I was so happy with the win and the game that I didn’t even care my post-helmet hair looked like Milton the Monster. So there. Pic: Dave Walker.

The Old Man and The Knee

(* See what I did there?)

My third year of hockey life is underway and it feels unexpectedly good.

I say unexpectedly because I blew a knee, for the first time ever, right at the close of 2012. I have had many sporting accidents, fallen off a large cliff, played footy, come hard off mountain bikes, but somehow had never hurt a knee before. It’s not fun.

After the final night of dev league, my left knee was troublesome; just sort of achy. At the Next Level Christmas party three days later, I didn’t skate, to look after it. Being oh, so sensible.

Then, the next day, turned out in 38 degree heat for the final Bang! footy session of the year. Galloped around Wattie Oval for 40 minutes or so, then joined the bangers in diving into the cool waters of Elwood beach. Refreshed, galloped around Wattie Oval for another hour, including kicking only drop kicks for the last 15 minutes or so, in celebration of the Christmas break to come, Horse winning player of the year and all the joys that another year of Banging had brought.

Then wondered why my knee was hurting when I turned over in bed sometime in the long dark teatime of that night, and then went to get out of bed the next morning and found I couldn’t use my left leg.

The whole debacle meant on Christmas Day I was hobbling like somebody who had broken his leg in six places, and for most of Christmas week. I eventually went and saw a doctor at Lorne, who was hilarious. His name was Evan, he’s a total cat in Austin Powers glasses and he spent the entire consultation reminiscing about various Place family members he’d known in his time as a trainee doctor at Camperdown. “You had to be nice to them because if you were pulled up by a cop, it was going to be a Place, or if you bought something at a shop down there, it would be a Place serving you,” he said, staring out at the blue waters of Louttit Bay through the gum trees.

“If we could just get back to my knee …” I said.

“Sure. I’ll just call up ‘knee’ on Wikipedia,” he said, typing.

(I’m not making this up.)

Wikipedia's version of a knee; research assistant to good doctors everywhere. Well, Lorne. And Fitzroy North.

Wikipedia’s version of a knee; research assistant to good doctors everywhere. Well, Lorne. And Fitzroy North.

As it loaded, he lent back in his chair. “Yeah, those Places, man, in Camperdown. They were everywhere.”

For the record, I am not related to any of those Place people, or have any connection beyond bumping into a couple at Lorne over the years. I even tracked it down once with one of them, who lent me a thick book, which was their family tree going back to about 1727 or something in England. Couldn’t find a single connection (which is kind of strange, in a small place like Australia).

Anyway, I mentioned this complete disconnect and we got back to Wikipedia, looking at diagrams of knees.

“Here’s what I think,” he finally told me, looking doctorly. “You’ve got an injured knee.”

Genius, I thought.

“If this was 100 years ago, we’d strap it up and have you lie on a bed for three or four months.”

Umm, I thought.

“But it’s not 100 years ago. It’s 2012, almost 2013,” he said confidently.

“Yes’, I said, feeling a need to get involved in this conversation. “Yes, it is.”

“So we’re not going to put you in bed for four months,” he smiled.

“Good,” I said, cautiously.

“Instead we could book you in for an MRI, which will take a picture of your knee and then you’ll probably need an arthroscopy. Now when will you need that? It might be a week, it may be five years.

“If you want to fan the flames, go running every day this week. If you want it to be in a few years, rest it for a week or so and see if it settles down. That’s pretty much it. Here’s my mobile. If you need a referral to get an MRI, just text me and I’ll fax one through. You don’t need to make another appointment or any shit like that. You know, I’m pretty sure, now I think of it, that one of the Place clan in Camperdown had a problem with a knee once …”

Turns out Evan has just started full-time at a new clinic in Fitzroy North, not far from my house. He is SO my doctor, as of now.

The good news of the whole appointment is that among all this eccentricity, he did push and pull my knee in various directions and we both felt satisfied I hadn’t done a cruciate or medial ligament, which would have been Bad. Something had flared, but it was nothing really sinister.

A day or so later, I hobbled across the deck of a friend of mine’s caravan, in Jan Juc. This friend is a highly qualified medical professional so when he asked to look at the knee, I sat and stretched it toward him. He grabbed a tub of some sort of gel and started massaging and probing the sore spots.

Chloe, watching all this, picked up the tub and read the label then silently handed it to me, raising an eyebrow in a way she does very well. For somebody for whom English is a second language, she misses nothing …

“For animal treatment only” was written in clear white letters on blue. The fine print explained: “- for use on horses and dogs”.

“Relax,” said my friend. “Athletes everywhere know about this stuff. It’s brilliant as an anti-inflam. And costs 20 bucks instead of about 120.”

For use on animals only. Well, me.

For use on animals only. Well, me.

And he was right. The next day, my knee felt fantastic. Was streaky here and there for another couple of weeks, especially if I’d been sitting, but basically started to mend.

So the holiday wound on. We travelled to Tasmania, dodged bushfires, visited the southern ocean in 38 degree heat, went to MONA where I got to see all sorts of wonders including watching myself take a dump through binoculars (true story – middle cubicle on the right as you walk into the toilets on the lowest basement level, near the bar) and watching a machine do a human shit. See video, below.

There’s a lot of shit and death at MONA, but it’s awesome.

Back in Melbourne, I hooked up with the hockey family again. Thursday night was a general Jets training session, where I tried to remember how to stand and move on skates after three or so weeks away. My knee didn’t collapse on me, which was a plus but my skating was as wobbly as you might expect. A Mustangs player and senior Jets took us through drills and I acclimatized to the feel of catching a puck with my stick again. So rusty.

The next day was Charlie Srour’s funeral, which was desperately sad, as it was always going to be. And then that night, there was a social game; Rookies v IBM. After the funeral, several rookies didn’t feel like they had it in them to play, which I totally understood, but I was the other way. I couldn’t wait to blow everything away on the ice, and it felt fantastic to be in a game situation, helplessly chasing some Swedish guy who used to play sub-NHL level in his homeland, and just feeling the burn in my legs as I tried to skate hard.

The knee held. In fact, the knee felt better and better with the work.

With every day of training, this is proving to be the case. After sitting for three hours watching The Hobbit, I’d been hobbling again, all creaky. After an hour on the ice last night doing skating drills and then an hour in the Icehouse gym, with Army and Jason Baclig pushing us hard, my knee felt great. My whole body feels great.

I’m training pretty much every night this week, planning to spend several hours each day on skates and in armour, or in the gym, and I can feel my fitness and legs responding to the challenge.

Likely new Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg hits the gym this week. Pic: Detroit Free Press.

Likely new Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg hits the gym this week. Pic: Detroit Free Press.

The Interceptors’ first official game isn’t until the end of the month, it’s still hovering in the high 20s, early 30s with the occasional day over 40 in a blazing hot summer, but I’m an ice hockey player again and life is fine.

The NHL lock-out is even over, thank God (and fire Bettman), and the Detroit papers are full of images of the Red Wings sweating it out in the gym, and doing skating drills on the ice, getting ready for a shortened, intense season.

I read every line, looking to see who is training the house down.

And then, half a world away, I aim to do the same.

Let the new year roll on. I’m good to go.

The fabulous MONA poo machine …

The calm before the lull before the storm

So, what is it about hockey?

I mean beyond the miracle that this time two years ago, I would have stared at a large block of ice with something between bemusement and terror, whereas now I see it as a playground to glide on, sometimes even without falling over.

Is it the sheer act of pushing myself at my advanced age? Is it learning entirely new skills? Is it the many new friendships? Is it the fact that Mack and Will, my boys, can play alongside me (briefly, before they leave my crappy skills behind)? Is it the chance to wear beanies around all year at the rink? Is it a mixture of everything?

This is the kind of deep philosophy we all have time for as we experience a brief gap between Icehouse classes, or official summer league play, which is a fortnight away. Lots of Rookies are doing fitness boot camp on a Monday night, or Next Level classes at Oakleigh. Me? I spent last night eating a big steak and drinking red wine with Chloe, then downed a choc top while watching a simply awesome film at the Nova, “Beasts of the Southern Wild”.

Who I spent my Monday night with: “Beasts of the Southern Wild”.

Summer League, I’m, like, so totally ready.

In fact, anticipation is definitely growing.

I was chatting with the captain of my summer league team, the Interceptors (part of the Spitfires subdivision of the Jets organization – yes, that really is how popular hockey is becoming in Victoria) and we were chatting about how excited we are about the looming first round of actual competition.

Then Jake wrote: ‘Can’t actually believe it’s here. Never thought I would be playing hockey!’

Which kind of floored me because I’d forgotten that Jake, like all of us in the Spitfires camp, is pretty much a newbie. He skates so well, naturally leads, scores goals in such a way that I’d sort of lost the fact that he probably didn’t start much before I did, 19 months ago and counting.

Jake had put in a few years of martial arts and other individual sports before hooking into hockey and said he is loving the team aspect. I know how he feels, having embraced the crazy, supportive, shit-hanging world of The Bang footy over the last few years. Hockey has the same thing, but with happily intense actual competition thrown in.

Jake Adamsons in flight.

The official line-up of potential teams has shaken down pre-summer league; a couple merging or falling over because of, I guess, a lack of numbers and with the remaining 24 or so being split into two divisions because some are seriously good while others, like ours, are full of first-time summer leaguers. I’m really happy to be in the Interceptors because we all have a sense of being new, of understanding if a teammate has a bad shift or a bad day, loses his or her feet at a crucial moment. Not to say we’re not all going to be trying our guts out and working hard not to fail, but the reality is that it’s a recreational league, not the NHL, and we’re all feeling our way.

The stage is set. Round One against the Ice Wolves. Wow. What Jake said: I can’t believe I’m actually going to be playing competitive hockey.

Strangely, for all this anticipation, I had a hockey-free weekend, which was a shock, not least because I finally made it to the Bang and am consequently walking like a creaky robot. I had managed a skate last Wednesday (one of my hockey class mates, TC, who I had noted on the night was skating well, told me that he has knocked himself out cold three times in General Skate, working on his moves) but somehow the days since have built up yet again without me making it onto the general skate rink. I need those hours, those endless hours of incremental improvement, but I’ve also told myself to relax and just let summer league happen, without beating myself up all the time because I can’t skate like Jason Baclig and Martin Kutek rolled into one.

I think there’s a fundamental reality, if I’m honest, that I don’t enjoy skating, per se. Endless laps and technically tricky skating moves at General Skate, wearing dorky protective gear when nobody else is, are only a means to an end, not my idea of a truly fun time. But hopefully I’ll get there tonight, putting in my hours.

Given the NHL lock-out has just seen regular season games cancelled, with more cancellations to come*, the world is suddenly low on hockey for a brief moment.

Sure, last Thursday night, Big Cat and I got to join the Melbourne Ice team and management in a theatrette in Richmond, downing beers and watching the 3-peat documentary on a big screen (the Ice players went nuts, loving it) and sure, I heard all about Mackqvist, my 16-year-old son, joining some of my Rookie mates for a game on Friday when I couldn’t play, but otherwise, hockey is off the radar.

But a new term of Dev League looms and, this Friday, there is a chance that Mack will play again in a social match I’m planning on suiting up for. It could be the first time that the Places make up an entire line of forwards. History. I hope the Icehouse has organized security for the inevitable crowd.

From there, all roads lead to summer.

* How fricking lucky that the boys and I hit the Red Wings games last year and not this season? I would have been in Manhattan this day last year, cursing loudly or possibly charging NHL headquarters with a borrowed hockey stick and two gloves to drop.