Maybe, just maybe …

I think maybe, just maybe, my genuine recovery has begun.

Of course, I’m talking about The Saga of the Knee and, trust me, I can’t wait for this blog to stop being about my knee either. But there’s potentially good news: especially when compared to three weeks ago, when I was hobbling as much as ever, barely able to climb all the steep stairs of my new house, and I was wondering if I would ever play hockey again? I think I went for three runs, as per a previous post, before things went horribly, horribly wrong again.

And so I spent weeks off the ice, not running, not doing anything. Hating it. Until my knee felt vaguely decent and I decided that was good enough.

But then I did play hockey, last Wednesday, and was mostly pain free. I went to Sydney, for work, and found myself confronted by endless staircases, everywhere I went. Each time, I would wince, bracing for the pain as my left leg pushed off a step, but the pain didn’t come. Even after Wednesday dev league, where I actually moved my legs, skated, for the first time in a few weeks and pushed my legs hard: no pain.

Still, this has happened before: a few days of reprieve and then wham. Back home, I climbed all the steps (50 from the front door to my bedroom) and the knee twinged. Uh oh, I thought, and then stood all night at a party at the Forum, until 3 am. The next morning? Agony? Nope. Felt ok.

And through all this, I had begun a secret training course; totally fed up with being inactive, of reading all the Facebook posts about how awesome hockey training was, how boxing was going over at Mischa’s, how Next Level Training Institute and Friday game day was fantastic and everybody was hurting and feeling fitter and feeling smashed but in a good way. I was only feeling old and fat.

As I’ve written before, I’d love to be part of the Next Level thing. Oakleigh, in terms of geography, is a bastard of a place for me to get to, and the key nights, Monday and Friday, don’t work for me. So I had to shrug and let Joey Hughes’ on-ice training and Martin Kutek’s off-ice training go. A bunch of my closest hockey friends are Next Level devotees and I have no reason to doubt their enthusiasm, plus I can see the improvement in muscle tone and skating.

I needed an alternative, especially while I couldn’t skate, and it turned up in the form of a big bearded bloke who wears #2 for the Melbourne Ice. Yes, one of my Wednesday coaches, Lliam Webster, mentioned that he was now qualified as a personal trainer but with a different training method, which is preached at Fluid, in Port Melbourne; one of the Melbourne Ice major sponsors.

Fluid is run by a bloke called James who apparently was a decent soccer goalkeeper in his day. It is based on a concept called Functional Movement Systems. In my first outing, James put me through a series of bizarre balance and flexibility tests. None of them hurt. Most just felt clumsy and stupid. I knelt on my bad knee, wincing, and tried to put my right arm in front of my head and my right leg out behind me, seeing how long I could balance for. Not long. James and Lliam squinting and taking notes.

The body is divided into quadrants, with one limb in each, and Fluid scores your achievement on the various tests. At the end, James noted that my left leg wasn’t doing its job and that my left shoulder seemed out of whack. Both direct hits on my ailments. He and Lliam worked out a bunch of “corrective’ exercises to get my body working in ways it has forgotten, hunched over keyboards or taking shortcuts to cover for hamstrings that don’t want to stretch and other such bad habits.

This is one of the whackier parts of FMS training: an idea that when you think you have a tight hamstring, one that won’t stretch beyond a certain point, they can prove that wrong in one session (and did, with me). In fact, you have to get other parts of your body working as well, which releases the hamstring to stretch further. It’s wild when it works and you see instant results.

But the long game is what I’m interested in. After my second session, the pinched nerve in my shoulder stopped hurting and hasn’t really bothered me since.

I’m three sessions in now and the training has intensified. Yesterday, Lliam produced the most fun, most hockey-specific apparatus early. It’s a slippery piece of Perspex (as per the Youtube clip above) with wooden blocks at each end, either 8 feet, 9 feet or 10 feet apart. (Yes, it’s from America.) You put little slippery booties over your runners and it’s just like skating, but completely side-to-side. The trick is to trust your stride, pushing hard with the skating leg and then catching the stride on the wooden block, before pushing off hard for the other end. Bum low, knees bent, chest up … every bad habit on the ice instantly being addressed on this slippery board in Port Melbourne. A few sessions in, I’m up to wearing a weighted vest while skating as hard as I can and then doing cowbell dead lifts between sets. Every skating muscle is killing me today in a good way. My gluts are sore, my hamstrings complaining, my stomach tight.

Apparently Martin at Next Level has one as well, so get on it, peoples. It’s a lot of fun and really works you over. In fact, it’s fantastic. Dev league is tonight and I’m actually sore from an intense workout. Like I haven’t been for a few months.

And guess what? Despite such an intense session, my knee feels fine. All the muscles surrounding it did their job during the dead lifts, worked hard without screaming. Just like the physio wanted a few months ago before things derailed again.

I shouldn’t get too cocky. I might step onto the ice tonight and feel the same pain as two dev league sessions ago.

But then again, I might not.

Next Wednesday, I head overseas for three weeks. When I get back, all roads lead to summer comp, with my new team, the Braves. I want to be fit and able to push it as hard as I can, to prove that I can match it in what looks like a far-too-serious summer recreational league. Mostly, I just want to be active without this now eight-month-old pain.

I think I’m finally on the road to that happening. It feels great. Bring on the night.

Guest writer: Liam Patrick on life and hockey

I know, right? You not unreasonably assumed this blog would be devoted (possibly at 7 pm Sunday, minutes after stepping off the ice) to long, glorious, over-written accounts of my first ever official hockey game, as a Spitfire Interceptor … an endless narrative of our 4-2 win over an Ice Wolves team, including my first official hockey ‘point’, for an assist on a Jimmy Smith goal, with Big Cat also picking up his first Ice Hockey Victoria point for a second-assist.

But no. I’m far too humble for such self-indulgences *

Instead, my longtime foe-friend Liam “Apollo Creed” Patrick bobbed up with a piece about where his head’s been at after making his debut on Sunday in the Spitfire Fighters’ 11-1 win over the Jets.

So over to guest writer, Liam (who scored a sweet goal, btw, in that win)  …

Hockey within the jigsaw

By Liam Patrick

So no need to admit I’m an “Ice” addict right?  I stunned myself the other week adding up my hockey costs; suffice to say I stopped and decided just to start cutting back (hence my emotional retirement from Dev league *waves to equally devastated fans*).  But lately I’ve been wondering – just what it is that I want out of playing hockey?

Liam Patrick (No. 28) in action for the Spitfire Fighters on Sunday. Pic: Nicko

I have played team sports all my life (some would argue I am no good at solo sports as there is nobody there to carry me). I love the camaraderie of a strong team, however, I am deeply entrenched with many close friends at my cricket club.  So that fills that need – hockey is the icing on the cake in terms of that (but cake NEEDS icing and I wouldn’t want to give up my newly found hockey family).  I hardly skate very fast, handle the puck like it has a mind of its own and shoot like I’m on my 5th hip replacement.  So it’s not a sense of being excellent at something.

I believe it’s more of the challenge.

A peak to scale.

People to prove wrong.   People to prove right…

The ability to surprise myself.

Combine this with the camaraderie and mateship I have found, plus the joy I get when I finally nail something on the ice and that is why I am hooked into hockey.  Ok, so that’s why I love the sport.  It brings me a lot of enjoyment.  Whether I hit the ice Friday night at NLHA, in my number 28 Jets jersey or just hanging laps of the Bradbury with my mates (tweeting love song dedications or accidently punching Wunders in the mouth while proving I can figure skate with the worst of them) I love being there.  I love watching the Ice boys play their physical, fast and awesome brand of hockey.  I love tuning in to the radio or stream of a Pens game (no lockout commentary) or extolling the virtues of S Crosby, E Malkin & Co to anybody who will listen.  The game brings me a lot of happiness (as do the friendships I have formed from it).  That’s the base level of what I want from hockey.  To play (or watch) and enjoy myself with friends.

That’s all it ever will be.  The only time I will wear an Ice jersey is from behind the glass cheering.  My only NHL experiences will be as a fan.  I know that.  I know that Prem A is never going to happen for me.  At 22 I’m relatively young by Rookies standards, but I’ve only just gone 12 months in the game and I’m not naturally talented at any facet (other than annoying both teammates and opposition alike).

But I’m a person who needs goals, otherwise I fade off.  12 months ago that goal was to make a summer team.  6 months ago that was to make what was newly christened as the “Spitfires”.  Sunday afternoon I ticked that goal off.

What is the next thing I needed to work towards to stay motivated?  It needed to be something that provided mutual benefits for where I was at now.  It needed to force me to become a better player.  Logically it’s making a Prem C team sometime down the track.  Is that next season? Not sure.  Is it five years from now? Maybe.  There’s another reason for why I consider this an end goal.  My cricket season clashes horrifically with summer.  I’m giving both sports 80% of the attention they deserve.   It feels like in many ways I’m letting all my teammates and club mates down.  Quitting cricket was never an option to play hockey.  The only option is to get good enough to play during winter.

So, whilst I play for the love of the game, and I know I’m never going to go very far (maybe playing checking hockey, one day down the track) I need to commit to my development.  Who better to ask for help than NLHA Sensei – Joey Hughes.

I chewed the fat with Joey (pardon the pun) before bootcamp.  We covered off points such as my fitness, my skating and some stupid habits I’m developing, my thought process, where I was playing on my summer team and how to become better, my diet and even my sleeping patterns (10pm hockey and 7am work just do not work out well unfortunately!).  Anybody who knows me would know I’m not the smallest guy.  I eat a lot of crap.  I work in the alcohol industry and get lots of samples and allocations.  Coca Cola is my favourite drink however, followed by Solo.  Both can be consumed en masse whilst sitting on my couch.  Finely tuned athlete right here.  If it weren’t for the 6-plus days per week of sport or training I undertake I would most likely be on one of those TV shows unable to get out my house without the jaws of life.

Guess who just scored? Oh yeah! Pic: Nicko

I walked away from our chat feeling positive as I inevitably do after a chat with Joey (seriously if we went to war tomorrow can he give us the speech before we go over the trenches?).  But then questioned myself.  I’ve done the whole “lets get fit, eat right, lose weight” etc before.  Both my grandfathers died of heart attacks, one in his 50’s.  Yet I still haven’t been motivated enough to eat well.  The sleep thing is hard to fix even with a few ideas Joey gave me.  Cricket hasn’t motivated me.  What makes hockey different? As I said – I’m not on the road to be a super star.  I play for the love and enjoyment.

On the flipside I enjoy improving at hockey and think I have lots more in me and my fitness is holding me back from some of it.  I definitely need to lose some kg’s.  My family history in the health department needs considering.  Can hockey provide me more than just enjoyment?  Can it provide the basic components to improve my health – fitness, supportive people around me and the advice of people such as Joey or Martin Kutek?

I don’t know the answer.  It’s easy to focus on my sport as an outlet socially.  It’s where my friends are, I’m single with no kids and outside of work and my deferred bachelor’s degree I have no responsibilities.  Perhaps it will prove the motivation and means I need and in addition to giving me an enjoyable outlet it will improve my wider life (again, no pun intended).

Maybe it won’t.  Hockey is just a puzzle piece in a wider jigsaw that is yet to be completed.  Maybe I’m unique? Or maybe there are others wondering where this addiction fits into their lives?  Maybe some people know exactly what hockey means to them, where the lines and drawn and where it sits in the scheme of their lives?

But like all things in life – I’ll never know if I don’t try it myself.

* Nicko’s assist on Jimmy’s goal? Video available on Facebook.

Sunday on my mind

So, on Sunday, at 4.15 pm, I officially become a hockey player. I know I’ve argued for 20 months or so that I’m a player but I’ve been a student until now.

On Sunday, I pull on a purple Jets jersey, as Alternate Captain of the Interceptors team, against an Ice Wolves team of mostly strangers at Oakleigh, in Melbourne’s Summer Recreation League, Div 4; the lowest level of competitive hockey for championship points in town.

On Tuesday night, I hung laps at the Icehouse in a happily not-very-crowded general skate. As usual, my skating was so-so. I was gliding gentle outside edge to gentle outside edge, just feeling them. Occasionally I’d head into the centre circle and work on my backward crossovers, batting away other skaters who came to offer the inevitable and necessary advice. Not up for a barrage of well-meaning advice this night. Feeling the same frustrations that have been brewing to the surface over the past few weeks. Noticing the distinct lack of other 40-something rookies wobbling around this ice, instead of being at home with loved ones, nestled in front of a television, on a week night. Heroic or delusional, Place? Such a fine line.

The Power-Hough gals model the new Jets jersey.

Tuesday didn’t solve anything and on Wednesday, back on the Bradbury Rink but now in full hockey gear, warming up for 10 pm development league, I started to think about Sunday. My first official match as a player. A working scoreboard, a league ladder, official hockey rules, everybody needing matching socks, genuine referees who weren’t Melbourne Ice players laughing: Lliam in dev league later that night, after calling a big guy, Charles, for elbowing a little guy, Geoff, in the head: “(Laughter) I’m sorry. I know you didn’t mean it, but I have to call it. You’re just so big and he’s so small. That’s hilarious. I’m sorry … Penalty. Hahahaha.” This is the sort of ref call that’s unlikely on Sunday, where a player actually gets sent to the box instead of awarding a penalty shot for goalie practice in a game where the score is irrelevant.

Plus, we Spitfires face the unknown of whether we’re going to be competitive against other teams, like the Ice Wolves, Demons and Champs.

A lot to think about but then on Wednesday, pre-Dev League, in my gear, on the Bradbury ice, everything suddenly became clear to me; all anxiety dissolved. Just like that.

I thought: You know what, Nicko? Your skating is what it is. It’s actually not terrible (despite all the angst on this blog); you just can’t pull off moves that would make you better. But you’re not going to master transitions or Kutek-level outside edge C-cuts before Sunday. It’s done. And you are a 47-year-old rookie with only limited time to master this sport, among (in no particular order) running a business, falling in love, raising kids, writing novels, scuba diving, having a social life, enjoying street art, books, films, footy, art, waves, sky, whisky. You can only be so good, giving hockey the windows you do, which is as much as you can. And you are giving away 20 or more years to most of these teammates and opponents, but screw that, who cares? You have other strengths.

As I cruised, outside edge to outside edge, my mind travelled back to Lliam Webster’s sage advice when I was in that performance funk, months ago. “When you’re in a funk, concentrate on what you do well. Don’t worry about all the things you can’t do, or think you suck at. Just do the things you do well and the rest will follow.”

Not even realizing at the time, not until I saw the Ice 3-Peat doco, which talked about Lliam’s early season scoring drought, just how much he was also living that reality when he spoke to me.

And finally, as 10 pm ticked closer, as Big Cat Place and the rest of the preceding Intermediate class cleared the Henke Rink and the goalies shoved the goals to the side so the Zamboni could chug its way onto the surface, I felt strangely calm. Shit, I’m going to play recreational  league. We’re all going to go as hard as we can; try our guts out; hurt if we lose; go nuts if we win, but it’s Division 4, it’s the lowest rung of being a competitive player. Just do what you do well, love being in a team, equally share the ice time between the guns and the strugglers, and let the rest happen.

TigerShark and 11.15 pm dev league mate Brendan Parsons seems less stressed about the looming Summer League comp than some.

10 pm arrived and I stepped onto the ice with a clear mind and had my best game in a long time. Didn’t try to skate at warp 10 speeds, instead slowed slightly and moved better, all while controlling and using the puck, doing the slice-through-traffic passes that seem to be my specialty. Was unlucky not to score a few times. Had so much fun that Big Cat and I thought ‘To Hell with Thursday and real world commitments” and stayed around for the 11.15 game, finally getting off the ice at 12.15 am, in bed an hour later, wide awake. I played defence, alongside Wunders, which was a learning experience but just as enjoyable. Even if I did give away a penalty by tangling my stick in Aimee Hough’s legs and headbutting her into the boards. Turns out that’s a penalty …

My teammates good-naturedly gave it to me as I skated sheepishly back to the bench to watch her penalty shot (she missed). I shrugged. Sorry, all … just clumsy.

An NHL player wouldn’t have given away that penalty.

I did.

… Expectations versus Realities.

All leading into Sunday …

This player, this ever-improving, ever-striving rookie will continue to make mistakes. But will also occasionally position himself well, use hand-eye and innate hockey sense to steal pucks and even stone-cold his more talented son, playing for the other team in the 11.15 game, every now and then on a forward rush; will no doubt be part of an Interceptors team that comes up against a more seasoned, experienced unit this season and gets belted, or has that moment when everything clicks as a team and we win large and feel like world beaters.

Play-offs? Maybe. Or not.

It’s all to come and I’m in for the ride; warts and all, age and all, faults and all, strengths and learnings and wisdoms and laughter and friends and all.

Can’t wait. Roll on, Sunday. I’m good to go.

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.

This shit just got real

Proof that I don’t only go the knuckle these days. Me just getting the pass away in Dev League before James Oliver pounces. Pic: Jack Hammet

An actor/performer friend of mine, Bert Labonte won a Helpmann Award this week, for brilliant work on stage. He fully deserves it. Another friend, Chelsea Roffey, just got named to goal umpire the AFL Grand Final on Saturday. The first woman ever to achieve that honour. I couldn’t be more happy for her. Another friend just finished a film with Robert Duvall, another showed me his latest novel last week and my partner, Chloe, is well on her way to producing Hollywood blockbusters.

Me? I was getting led off the tiny, dilapidated Oakleigh ice rink on Sunday by a member of the Melbourne Ice hockey team, on this occasion moonlighting as a referee, to sit in the penalty box. My first-ever official penalty in a hockey game. So proud.

It was only a one minute penalty because in this Spitfires practice match between my team, the Interceptors, and the Fighters, the periods were short. Even so, the Fighters scored while I was sitting on the little blue bench, forcing my team into an unfamiliar penalty kill. Oops.

So tangling my stick in the legs of a Fighter as we battled for the puck wasn’t my finest moment but it was completely accidental, and the secret guilty truth was that I enjoyed feeling kind of bad-ass being escorted from the ice.

What was worrying was that on both benches, my friends were apparently shaking their head and thinking or even saying: “Oh no, it’s Nicko.”

Because it’s been a strange few weeks since I last blogged. Not just a greater intensity at work, and the small matter of a very tight deadline for the difficult third edit of the 80,000 words that will turn into my first adult crime novel when it’s finally published in March (hence the absence from blogging), but a heightened level of aggression and bizarre activity on and off the ice (thankfully, not always involving me).

In Intermediate Class, words have been exchanged as people got sick of ‘attitude’ among classmates, or of blatant disrespect. In Dev League, a few hits have been harder than is reasonable and there has been some downright nasty play, such as a smallish female player being boarded, and another player repeatedly having shorts tugged from behind. Lots of Facebook discussion asking people to cool it and play nice.

Last Wednesday, we had our final week of term, which means ‘scrimmage’ for Intermediate, and Lliam Webster, serene and peaceful after playing like a demon to help secure Melbourne Ice’s three-peat not long before, sat on the bench in his beanie and Icehouse tracksuit top, shook his head and observed, “That’s hilarious.”

Vinnie Hughes’ infamous fight earlier this year. It really shouldn’t happen in hockey school. Pic: me.

“What is?” I panted, fresh from a shift. Watching two players puffing their chests out on the far boards.

“When you guys try to act tough,” he said.

I agreed with him. I have always thought this. My eyebrow has raised many times towards the dick-swingers among my fellow hockey students who talk a big game when it comes to the prospect of on-ice violence, about dropping the gloves or about Kronwalling. Because the absolute truth is that 99 per cent of us are NEVER going to have to back up such talk. Maybe one or two of the several hundred hockey students in Melbourne will be a natural, be a gun, and somehow get to the Melbourne Ice kind of level where full contact hockey can occur. Even then, it’s actually not supposed to. At AIHL level you can be boarded, can fully collide (Lliam coaching: “In this situation for us, we have to choose, are we going to go for the puck or take the body? For you, it’s only the puck”) but you’re not supposed to fight. Of course, fights occur and players are thrown out for weeks (Vinnie Hughes and then Joey Hughes this season) because it’s intense and hard and for real at that level.

Us? We’re in Development League. L-Plates or P-Plates metaphorically around our neck, and the best we can hope for is a likely hockey career in summer recreational league, or maybe even winter, where hitting, punching, intense take-the-body boarding is still not allowed.

So any tough talk is only that. Or should be. Which is a relief for us middle-aged rookies.

Mid-year, I wandered up to Army, and asked how many fights he had been in during his career? Roughly? Hoping he could narrow it down to the nearest hundred maybe. Matt Armstrong, Canadian, now 15 years or so into a professional/semi-professional hockey career, squinting as he considered the question. Finally, saying: ‘Um, geez, I dunno … probably … ten.”

“Ten?” I said. “Ten fights your entire career?”

“Yeah, about that. Joey would have had more.”

I turned to Lliam. He was already mentally calculating … finally said: “I think five.”

The big bad “Respect the beard” hard man of the Melbourne Ice. Five career fights. Seriously?

“Well, yeah, drop the gloves, actually ‘we’re gonna go’ fights? Five tops, probably.”

But what about all those times you’ve jumped the boards, charged out there, ready to defend a teammate?

Mostly, our hockey is getting more intense in lots of good ways. Pic: Jack Hammet

“Well, nothing much happens, usually. You push and shove, make a presence. You don’t actually fight,” he said. “Joey would have had more.”

So I had to ask Joey, just for journalistic credibility if nothing else. At Oakleigh on a Friday, I posed the question and Joey hated me asking, I could tell. Could see it heading straight to the blog as a headline.

But I really like Joey. He shirks nothing and respects everybody’s hockey journey as he hopes they respect his. He looked me right in the eye, with those dark eyes of his, and said: “Look, I’m not proud of this, ok? The number is probably 60, but you have to understand I’ve had a different career to those guys.”

Siting on the Oakleigh boards, he explained it and he was right. His career is different. Army played almost all his hockey in Canada and then Europe, before coming to Australia for the lifestyle. Worked out Melbourne Ice was a way to scratch the hockey itch while enjoying Australia as a place to settle. In Canada and Europe, fighting is not common – especially in European leagues. Yes, you protect yourself from hits, yes, you occasionally “man up” as Army put it one day, but you don’t go onto the ice expecting UFC action.

Lliam, likewise, in his international stints, hasn’t played much in North American leagues where fighting is common. Or hadn’t felt a need to prove his toughness when he did. Joey had, from a young age. Told me about turning up at teams where there was fighting in camp, just to see who was the real deal, to see if this cocky Australian freak had backbone. Joey fought his way to credibility and, as a younger man, testosterone flying, no doubt felt like a warrior as he walked down the street of pure hockey towns, looking people in the eye because 1. He had proven he could play and 2. he wasn’t scared to fight. A long, long way from the Olympic rink in Oakleigh.

But that was a different time and that’s why Joey doesn’t like to be asked about it, to appear to glorify it, even though he was decent enough to answer my query. He doesn’t go looking for fights these days, even if he was rubbed out for six weeks or something in the season just gone for taking on the entire Sydney Ice Dogs bench. The way I heard it, and not from Joey, he was being held by a referee and an Ice Dog hit him with a huge uppercut to the face, while Joey could not protect himself. A very cheap shot, at which point Joey took issue with the situation, shall we say.

Like father, like son? My younger son, Macklin (aka Mackqvist, in Red Wings jersey, of course), takes out an opponent on the boards then passes from his knees. Yes, he’s a Place, alright … Pic: me.

So that is where things stand regarding hockey fighting. Way over-rated, much rarer than anybody outside of hockey believes. Even more rare if you exclude the NHL where it definitely remains part of The Show in certain situations.

And then there’s last Wednesday when I had enough of getting pushed, held, niggled by my Interceptors teammate, Michael Donohue, playing for the opposition in dev league this night, and decided to give one back the other way. Possibly a little crude in the execution because I’m not experienced in such matters, but making my point. Donohue, always a mad man, usually in a happy way, dropped the gloves and came after me and I found myself testing my new skating speed, thanks to Army, Lliam and Joey’s stride lessons, as fast as I could to stay away from him until he tired chasing me. He said later, as we laughed in the rooms, that he only ever intended to push me over in response (“What else was I going to do? You were wearing a face cage?”) and I finished my shift as he was thrown out of the game.

Back on the bench, Lliam Webster was smiling quietly, as I returned; a full hour after his “That’s hilarious’ observation.

“I know that appeared cowardly,” I said. “But I did the right thing, yeah? You’re not supposed to fight in dev league.”

“You looked incredibly cowardly,” Lliam clarified. “But yes, you did the right thing.”

I’m convinced that dev league refs should call penalties – even if only sending people off the ice if they transgress – to stop everybody taking liberties because nothing short of a chainsaw attack seems to get called. Not being pulled up for hooking, tripping, checking etc, is teaching everybody, especially defenders, bad habits.

Big Cat shows how it should be done: flying feet and puck control. Pic: Jack Hammet

But the tension and aggression of the past few weeks has felt like more than that. There have been insensitive comments in change-rooms, and on the ice, as well as increasingly physical play. Is it just something in the air? Something in our veins? Is it the fact that summer league is around the corner and people are insecure, or nervous? Real competition at last after two years of thinking about it?

Dunno. All I know is that I know the penalty I gave away on Sunday was not even vaguely malicious on my part; just an agricultural and slightly inept puck-attack. Luckily my “victim”, James Oliver, knew that too, wasn’t hurt and held no grudge.

Shit happens on the ice, but we all need to retain the right spirit. The great news, alongside all this turbulence, is that my group of Rookies has taken our hockey to new levels in the past couple of months. You can literally see the improvement, as we train as a team under Martin Kutek and the Next Level coaches, or push Dev League harder and harder. I feel like a hockey player now, not just a wobbly wannabe (any comments on this topic will be deleted).

Hockey is currently taking out Sundays and Monday nights, keeping me away from my beloved Bang footy, and boxing classes, which bites, as well as eating into non-hockey windows, but as summer league approaches, I’m prepared to devote myself. I need to and I want to. I’m loving my team, loving meshing as a group, and supporting each other. Loving playing alongside Kittens aka Big Cat, for what, for all I know, may be our only summer campaign together before he gets good enough to go to Winter comp. I want no part of politics, awkward conversations, or needing to physically stand up to people with tough guy delusions on the ice.

Hopefully everybody else is feeling the same way.

We all need to chill out, smile and enjoy. Thrive on getting better, not get tense because actual competition awaits. We’re about to join Summer League and play for real. It’s supposed to be fun, and it is.

Guest writer: Liam Patrick on the Newcastle adventure

WORLD EXCLUSIVE

Vinnie Hughes brings the Cup to the Rookies. Newcastle, 2012. Pic: Jessica Hough

A roadtrip chasing the Goodall Cup.

By Liam Patrick

What a weekend!

It was the weekend the Ice put the fairy tale finish on their documentary by sealing the 3peat in dramatic fashion in the industrial city of Newcastle.

It was weekend that a motley band of Melbourne Rookies travelled up to support our boys in their quest for a third round of glory.

I offered to blog the experience of following the boys into enemy territory and the finals for Nicko.  He asked for not merely a diary of the weekend but ‘an adventure that ultimately ends in glory’.  So here goes…

The now fabled weekend began early.  Very early.  So early in fact, that a certain Rookie managed to throw away his boarding pass before getting through security.  Whoops!  The players had flown up on the Friday but the first flight out of Melbourne to Newcastle Saturday morning was jam packed with Ice fans, the South Pole crew, the Women’s team and the MI players’ partners and families.  There was a genuine excitement in the air before quite a few people took advantage of the 90 minute flight to recharge their batteries.

Newcastle is, somewhat amazingly, a hockey hotbed.  This weekend was to be the North Stars’ ninth Grand Final in 10 years.  In this time they also have secured four Goodall cups, dominated junior hockey in the region and have a successful involvement in a women’s team.  They’ve accomplished all this in a town with only 190,000 residents.  I had never been to Newcastle before.  While driving the 40 minutes from the airport to Warners Bay where the rink is located, I was struck by how just much the houses we saw resembled those in places such as Broadmeadows and other tough, working class suburbs.  From where I sat, I saw a town that was built on the blood, sweat and tears of “hard” men and women.  A tough, fibro city.  Perhaps this is an indication of why hockey is successful.  The people are bred with hard work and physical strength in their blood.  Combine this with a hockey friendly rink, an intelligent and talented management team and perhaps a lack of competition from other sports or pastimes and I began to form my own opinions as to why the team was so successful for so long.  I chatted about it to a few of my fellow Rookies and while we agreed the North Stars are no doubt a power club of the AIHL, maybe my reasoning wasn’t the full answer.

The Rookies underpoooosh their way onto the Novastrian ice, pre-finals. Pic: Jess Hough

The Hunter Ice Skating Stadium was somewhat disappointing for me.  If this is the second best rink in the country then we are further behind that I thought.  Now to be clear, this isn’t a knock on the rink.  It had a beautiful ice surface for general skating and Joey Hughes later remarked it was “perfect” come game time.  It was clean.  It was safe.  It was easy to access.  We could tailgate (translation for non-hockey readers: impromptu drinking and socialising, centralised around the boot of a car) in the car park!   My view, however, is that the finals are the marquee product each season and need to be built to attract lucrative sponsorship dollars, global interest and mainstream coverage.  Furthermore, it should be accessible to fans, in a location that’s attractive for travelling fans and capable of providing modern day comforts such as video replays and quality live streaming.  I felt that this wasn’t achieved at the HISS, but conversely, could have been achieved at the Icehouse.  Yes, I know. I am somewhat biased being an Ice fan.  But at the same time, I LOVED being able to go away with my friends and cheer for our boys (next year we may go global and head to NZ for TTCL!).  I just wish the HISS could have the same facilities and benefits to help build the growing momentum of our sport.

Like many questions facing Ice Hockey’s Aussie family – what is the solution?  Is it good practice or sustainable to always use the Icehouse?  Will the Gold Coast get their rumored stadium that could do the job just as well?  Will a couple of other rinks be up for a facelift soon?  Is this where the dollars need to be directed as the league grows or are there other factors to consider (such as beginning to pay the best players)?  I’m not sure.  What I can say with complete certainty is that HISS had made the most of everything they had and helped put on a fantastic show, all while providing great hospitality.

All this being said, I’ll give you an account of our experience on the weekend and leave you to form your own opinions on the big questions above.

Having arrived in Newcastle before most people were even awake on a Saturday morning in Melbourne, our general skate at the HISS was fun.  The rink wasn’t as packed as the Bradbury – but the weather was a sunny 20 degree so why would you freeze yourself unless you were a true hockey tragic like those of us who pulled on our skates.  Martin Kutek (Lord of the Underpoosh and Rookies sponsee) was unable to play under the “four imports rule” and had been unable to make it up with us. It was Dan D’s lucky weekend when he got to wear Martin’s actual playing jersey for the weekend instead. Proudly displaying the number 13, Dan (playing the part of ‘Kutek’ magnificently) did quite well in an on-ice limbo competition narrowly missing out on a pseudo-Czech victory to an unnaturally bendy six-year-old before stacking it, superman-style, on his final crack at the limbo pole.  The marauding, erm I mean travelling, band of Rookies also took the chance to have a little bit of fun at our coach’s expense, staging a few interesting shots in a series known as “Kutek does….”.  For legal reasons and the fact that Martin can make us bag skate several times per week, these probably need to be locked away in a concrete bunker deep underground, or alternatively, posted to Facebook.

For those of us who made the trek, what was most interesting to observe was the mixture of emotions which played themselves out like silent movies across our faces over the course of the weekend.  Personally, I had been very busy moving houses and starting a new job so I hadn’t given much thought or considerations to the weekend other than “thank fuck I have a holiday coming up.”  Even while general skating, I was more worried about my “hockey hangover” (11:30pm finish to NLHA the previous night-30 min drive home-washing to be done so my housemate didn’t kick me out over the stench had meant I was running on three hours of sleep and very dead legs), rather than shift my focus to Finals and the main event. Others, such as MasterChef Rach, a 10-year supporter of Melbourne Ice, were beginning to show outward signs of nerves on behalf of our boys who were about to put it ALL on the line.  This was sudden death playoff hockey – nothing was assured and the best team on the day would take the spoils.  Unlike the NHL and AHL, there was to be no coming back from an off night this weekend.

The general consensus was that the Ice boys should progress to the final.  We had the Sydney Ice Dogs to get past and they would be a Scoobie Snack for us (see what I did there?!). The dogs are a team we had embarrassed 9-1 at the ‘house and then won another 4-3 in a spiteful away game which saw Joey Hughes (one of the Rookies favourites, coach and arguably the best player in the country), having a “brief” 5 game holiday after finding himself on the wrong side of the opposing bench.  Needless to say, the Rookies did not care for the puppies.  The other semi was definitely going to be more interesting.  The local North Stars who had finished one point clear of the ice for the minor premiership, were taking on the Adelaide Adrenaline.  As a Victorian, I found myself torn.  The North Stars were probably the best team all year (marginally ahead of the Ice who slowed a little in the final month as fatigue, injuries, suspension, pressure and other factors seemingly took their toll.)  We wanted to play the Croweaters whom we had beaten 3 times during the year and had smashed in last year’s semi.  But could I really cheer for a South Australian team in the semis?  Don’t they have “Kick a Vic” on their license plates?  We at least knew our $70 tournament pass was going to give us three great games of hockey seated fairly close to the glass.

The nerves finally kicked in while downing the first beverage of the weekend as we tailgated prior to the Stars game.  A brick suddenly dropped in my stomach.  I knew the boys weren’t in great form.  Two losses to Perth before a hard fought win, followed by a tough game against Gold Coast.  There had been so many hurdles for the club this season.  From Vinny having a controversial holiday, Tommy Powell injuring his knee and seemingly not quite having his killer edge (even if his Chemistry with the Bearded one is always exciting to watch), Baxxxy nearly losing his finger/hand/arm (he later admitted it wasn’t back to 100% but even now, still can handle a puck like its glued to his stick, bastard), Joey’s aforementioned battle, Szalinski getting poleaxed during a shattering 4-0 shutout, a taxing Trans-Tasman triumph, Todd Graham having to return to college, 10 year celebrations, the pressure of the 3Peat, a documentary being shot (which I am hanging out for) and I’m sure all the other pitfalls of a team environment.  From my perspective, our last month had been well below what our boys were capable of…

I comforted myself by looking for the positives.  After a slow start, the Bearded one (i.e. Lliam Webster) had been a beast of late.  Averaging over 2 points per game, using his size to keep opponents off the puck while slick and dangerous in his own puck-handling.  Marcus Wong had the pace and skill to be thorn in anybody’s side – and he hits anything that moves. Hard. Coach Jaffa looked like a hardened warrior who wouldn’t let his boys be anything other than perfectly prepared and enabled to use their skills and flair.  Army was up and about.  Sturrock was a rock in defense on the veteran pairing with Vinnie.  And Godammit!  The Rookies would yell ourselves hoarse for our boys no matter what was to happen!

Despite the mounting anxiety I was feeling, it was easy to get swept up in the atmosphere.  An excited bunch of mainly twenty-somethings, sun, alcohol, hockey.  Not a bad way to spend a weekend.  The first game began.  What idiot chose our seats?  We were surrounded by Novacastrians, (thanks to Brenda Parsons for ensuring I used the correct term there), our own little island refuge of navy blue, wedged between the bright superman-esque colours of the Northstars fans.  We were about two metres from the glass and sitting below the ice.  The players looked like giants.  Warriors speeding along smoothly then smashing each other without warning since we couldn’t see the puck while sitting that close to the boards.  The game was a fast, tight affair.  Every time the heavily supported locals drew away, the boys from Adelaide pegged one back.  They weren’t lying down.  It was not just a warm-up game.  It got to the last period.  5-4 Newcastle.  Ray Sheffield (Newcastle captain and one of my favorite non-Ice players) laid a check.  From our vantage point we couldn’t see it but Kittens Place described it as “Not great” and pretty deserving of the five minute penalty and an early shower.  This was it.  At least one goal should be scored.  Maybe two.  Even as a neutral supporter I was edge of my seat.  The logic kicked in: “Let’s hope they go to OT, tire each other out”.  The next five minutes were all about a tight, desperate defense from the offensive juggernaut of Newcastle.  They held on. Just. And that meant they were off to the big show.  Two teams worth of tired hockey gods hit the showers.  One could look forward to the biggest day of the year.  The other, the biggest night of the year and the worst morning after.

It was sometime shortly after that when my nerves ramped up.  Reality hit home.  This is finals.  Anything can happen.  Our boys are good, no doubting it.  But talent counts for nothing when you look at the scoreboard.  Goals marked up there are what entitles you to claim the win over anyone else.

The boys were out kicking the soccer ball around for a warm up.  Joey gave the group an almost shy smile and wave.  Most of us were somewhat well lubricated by now and gave him a big cheer along with any other man clad in a navy blue t-shirt. The Rookies are very ‘equal opportunity’ when it comes to our boys.

We took our seats.  We had survived being accosted by (the aptly or ironically named) Bruiser, the Ice Dogs mascot, on the way in to the HISS, and now the bay next to us was full of Dogs fans in full voice.  My gut twisted tight.  I couldn’t imagine how the boys must be feeling right now.  Maybe they are old hands at this? Many of the Ice guns have played high level hockey around the world, many already having two championships under their belts.  It may be finals, but at the end of the day it’s still hockey.  Skate hard, put that rubber disk past the guy in the leg mattresses.  Should I have been worried?

Fuck no!  Exactly 14 seconds after the first drop of the puck, a Rookies favorite and another sponsee Matt Armstrong, being criminally left unmarked by the puppies defensemen in the slot, put a sexy snipe past the Goalie after some nice passing from Joey and Baxxxy.  BOOM!  The Ice were up and about.  Then another.  And another.  The knot was gone.  Thank fuck!  The overgrown puppies mascot was nowhere to be seen (humping a fire hydrant maybe?).  As expected, the Ice Dogs turned physical, having decided that since they couldn’t beat them, they would beat them for it but, despite a few penalties, our boys heroically held it together.  No doubt they targeted Joey who did well to only take a few penalties.  At one point I remarked: “I just want to go over to the box, tap him on the arse and tell him to get back into it. Don’t worry about those bastards and put a few more in the net”.

The final score for the game read 6-2.  It was almost flattering to the Dogs and our boys never really looked troubled after the magnificent start.  The third line (which was really 5 different forwards who had all had their own moments in the sun during the year) played some minutes giving our powerful top 2 lines some respite.  Marcus Wong looked a metre taller than he really was, smashing anybody silly enough to go near him.  Todd Graham (freshly back from the US for the weekend) was solid as a rock, Dylan Moore looked like he had the decision making to match his skills and was making life really hard in our zone for anybody without the ice logo on the front of their jersey. The old firm of Vinnie and Sturrock looked formidable.  Our D was set.  Our forwards were rockin’; ‘Bring on the locals!’ we cried.

It had been a long day.  But still, despite the early start, it was Saturday so the group met a few other Ice fans in the hotel bar and settled in for a few cold beverages.  We were all obviously very happy with how the day had gone.  No injuries or suspensions to our boys.  The North Stars had played a tough game.  And the bar had something other than Toohey’s on tap!

The next day dawned.  We hoped our boys’ heads weren’t as sore as our own. Over the next three or four hours, all of the Rookies filtered through a local café who apologized for the slow service (45 minutes for that Hot Chocolate, Da Costa?) as they had never been this busy.  Their three tables were clearly a rush.

The noble hockey art of ‘tailgating’. Pic: Jess Hough

Another general skate was forgone in favour of more beers before some good ole’ fashioned tailgating.  Something I had never done before and loved.  The banter with the other fans – friends and enemy.  More “Kutek does…” photography which may or may not have received many likes on facebook.  It’s certainly a culture I think many Aussies would enjoy.  I have always been kept aghast by the soccer community (thankfully to a lesser extent here in Australia) who need to be physically separated before the start of a game.  Having Glaswegian blood I have heard many stories about the vicious rivalries and wondered how the hell that happens when I manage to sit next to an Essendon fan on ANZAC Day or an Ice Dogs fan in a semi?  It was the same type of vibe in the carpark at the HISS.  Both sets of fans knew they were in for an epic battle between the two best teams and some of the best players across the entire league.  Taylor, Bales, Sheffield and co for the North Stars put up the points while superstar goalie Oliver Martin stood in the pipes to shut-down the mighty Ice warriors.

After a few more slightly warmed beverages (including pre-mixed shots which included a tad too much cream for my nervously churning tummy).  The rink was quickly filling.  The tiny skaters of the North Stars ice crew cleared the warmup pucks from the rink like ball boys and girls at the tennis, much to the moans of the travelling Rookies “aww man, that kid shits all over my skating… Sigh…”.  The team assembled for the national anthem.  The Ice standing like zen masters in their white traveling uniform towered above the plebs in the crowd.  The teams crowded their nets, final words before battle. By this point I was in real trouble.  Stomach churning, sweat pouring off me, edge of my seat. Drop that damn puck!

The two power lines faced off. I later saw a photo of Baxxxy taking this face off. He was grinning ear to ear. It’s very endearing to see an athlete having the time of their life.  Then that black rubber disc hit the ice.

It was on.

Like the day before, the puck was quickly into the Ice zone and Baxxxy’s shot went… just wide.  It was quickly followed by a penalty awarded to Joey.

Oh god.

Fuck.

No. Crap, Fuck.

This isn’t the plan right?  A tough PK later and we were back… until the North Stars slotted one.  The Newcastle fans surrounding us went off like frogs in socks.  The eight or so Rookies in the bleachers (Kittens & co were on the glass, apparently regularly spied drinking via the livestream… in the dry venue) were dead silent with our mouths open, stock still. Our little island refuge of navy blue had been invaded and annexed by crazed North Stars fans. You could even hear our collective gasp over the commotion of the mental crowd.  Then we saw the documentary camera panning onto us.  Oh great, I hope they credit us as “disappointed Ice fans” at least.

Next thing we know we are 2-0 down.  No!

No-no-no.

More glum silence.  My stomach had dropped.  Maybe it was just the nerves but I was feeling really pessimistic.  Our boys were working hard but these bastards were so damn good.  Crack damnit! Rookies around me muttered to themselves quietly. Our collective spirits were a little dampened, not only by the scoreboard but literally by the North Stars fans behind us who had a particular penchant for screaming (or rather spitting) ‘FORECHECK!’ over our heads for the duration of the period. But, in true Ice fashion, by the end of the first we had pegged one back.  Thank god there would be no embarrassing shutout!  The boys had looked good in the last five minutes of the period.  The Rookies were suddenly less worried.  I secretly still felt like we were gone.  Usually we seem to bully teams early then coast home downhill, unassailably. Not today.  We had to want it more.

That’s exactly what happened.

Many internet sites will provide a blow by blow and we all know the Ice won 4-3.  But I merely want to comment on three more moments.

Firstly, the Lumberjack (aka the Bearded One, aka Little Sexy, aka Coach aka Le-Liam or aka Liliam in the official finals program) put away my favorite goal of the year in a spinning one time snapshot from near the blue line into the top corner, and beating one of the country’s best goalies dead cold.  That was when I KNEW we had enough to do it. This was going to be our day. My stomach slowly began unknotting itself.

Confidence didn’t last long though. It never does in a swings-and-roundabouts game like this had been.  When Lliam went to the box with about 6 to go in the third, and the North Stars scored, despair came flooding back.  Oh god. A huge  momentum shift.  Crap.  Here they come.  How much DO the Ice want this?  Are they hungrier than the team they beat last year,  the very successful club without a Goodall cup in the last two years? What influence will the contrasting semis have in these final desperate minutes…

The final 30 seconds of the game was spent ferverishly chewing nails, sweating bullets, squeezing knees and wringing hands by the Rookies.  Six on five with an empty Newcastle net.  My voice was gone.  Muscle and stomach aching with fear and adrenaline.  Tommy Powell lies on the goal line Doug Glatt style, the puck is lost among smashing sticks and bodies.  ‘Stud’ Denman freezes it or the boys dump it.  The mad scramble starts again and again. I look up and see the clock roll down past 00.01.

Pure.  Joy.

Pure Joy. (Liam Patrick second from left) Pic: Kittens Place

The ice is littered with discarded weapons.  The glass is hammered by over-excited fans.  It was one of those moments where none of the other troubles in the world matter right then to anybody who was on the winning side.  The brick had become a wave of excitement washed over with a tiny bit of relief.  The boys had the fairytale finish to the documentary.  We were the best team in the land.  No matter what the world threw at the Ice family, we would spit it back in their faces and put another puck in the net.

The presentations were made.  Todd Graham was finals MVP, playing a crazy 33 minutes in his second game in as many days.  Amazingly the “third line” didn’t touch the ice Sunday.  Questions were asked by the Rookies, is it a possible depth issue?  Probably not, we decided, as they were all very capable when the big guns were out.

The boys skated the cup around and apparently we made it onto the livestream screaming and hollering against the glass for our boys.  Then Vinnie came running through the crowd holding the cup.  This is probably the best moment of the weekend.  This is how much our boys love the fans and include us.  This is why we come to support them.  Jaffa also went to lengths to include us cheering and waving during celebrations, towards us, saying hello to travelling fans the day prior and all through the celebrations.  On behalf of all the Ice fans, I say this to any of the Ice players or officials: ‘Thank-you, you really are the most welcoming sporting organization I have ever had the pleasure and honour of watching’.

Christmas Angel, Aimee Hough, drinks from the Cup. Pic: Jess Hough

My pride also extended to my jersey. Sitting in my Melbourne colours watching a group of men give everything they had, playing with grit, confidence and determination, made me immensely proud to be part of the family.  I have seen my equally beloved Magpies win a flag, my cricket club with two premierships but this is my favorite victory.  It was won by simply wanting it more than the opposition.

The Rookies snuck onto the ice (perhaps ‘Kutek’ even made some of the official Ice team photos, but we can’t confirm or deny this and will plead the 5th until we die) and grabbed some great photos with our coaches.  The mighty Beard declaring “I’m not putting my arms down.  Get around me people”.  Gladly, and without hesitation, we huddled under his arms then quickly regretted our decision. We stayed long enough for a happy snap then we backed off quickly. The smell radiating from every pore of Lliam like a thermo-nuclear reaction would have choked a donkey! There’s even an awesome photo of me mid-high five with Joey.  We then left the boys to their locker room and families.  After some celebratory beers, a real “crash” feeling occurred as the adrenaline wore off.  Tired but satisfied, we, the travelling Rookies, piled into the van and headed to a buffet dinner.

Soon the boys joined the Melburnian fans and began the celebrations,.  The 103-year-old cup was being filled and ALL in attendance were called upon from Korthuis and Wilson to drink from it.  It may have been Tooheys but damn that was the best beer I’ve ever had!  Was truly a thrill to have the chance to feel so close to the team and, although clichéd, drink from the cup.  Soon the night was moving on and it was time to allow the players their own time to celebrate together.   This upset a couple of people but having played team sports all my life I knew that after such a great success the team had earned the right to lock themselves away and enjoy the moment together as these opportunities in life, not just sport, are rare.

Not to be deterred, the Rookies headed home and spent a very late night talking and drinking.  Despite the best efforts of one Rookie to get some shut eye, the son of a certain older Rookie who happens to be a grizzled ex-journo writing a blog about learning to play hockey *cough* was determined to keep going much to the chagrin of the sleeping Rookie. Incidentally, that same sleeping Rookie was also confronted by two roommates in various state of undress who felt he in his unconscious state really needed a cuddle and were then keen to play upon his somewhat discomfort while flying.

The next morning a few sore heads awoke and made it home in one piece.  The weekend left a very drained but happy group of hockey fans and hockey payers at the airport.

A trip away with your mates is always great fun.  It’s a real adventure of sorts.  Hopefully, you’re exploring somewhere new, chatting too much (always about crap) and forming inside jokes (I’m looking at you Brenda, Kutek does Newcastle and that de-fogger-mister). Throw in a Goodall Cup and what else could you ask for in really for a cracking weekend?!

True Story! The amazing highs, the stressful despair and nerves and a very Disney finish to the documentary.  Thank-you again to the Ice for being a fantastic team, fantastic people, a fantastic family (who love MINGLING), the AIHL for putting on a grade A event, the HISS for providing the best environment they could muster, including a perfect ice surface for our boys to break the Newcastle Hoodoo on, and to my fellow Rookies for putting up with me and not giving me too much grief on the plane!

Bring on an Awesome Foursome!

A day is a long time in skating

By Nicko

On Wednesday night, on the Henke rink, in Dev League, I had one of those tiny moments that can give you hope on a crazy quest – like trying to become a hockey player in your forties.

Wayne McBride is a very decent player, despite the remorseless shit we throw at one another, and he took off on a breakaway, with another good skater, Nicole Cliff, alongside him.

Wayne was hammering up the boards but here came the unlikely figure of Nicko Place, new stride flying, to somehow get past Nicole and close Wayne down against the boards as he flew through the blue line.

For every night like this …

Wow, I thought, as I staggered to the bench moments later. Who knew I could backcheck, and against quality players?

The only reason I’m bragging about this is because it was a rare moment of skating proficiency, and even more so given how I remorselessly sucked at Oakleigh 23 hours later. We had our first team training for the Spitfires; both the Fighters and Interceptor teams on the ice – well, about half of our Interceptor team thanks to the lurgy sweeping around Melbourne, and a few players being away at the snow or on other adventures.

I was terrible; to the point that I felt embarrassed in front of the coaches of the night, Next Level’s Martin Kutek and Tony Theobald. My crossovers were rudimentary, my transitions clumsy, my positioning and thinking sluggish. What was wrong with me?

Those guys have put time and energy into me on several Friday nights and now I show up, as acting captain of the Interceptors, no less, barely able to remain vertical on my skates.

I’m exaggerating, but not much. I’ve felt bad that Friday nights have proven, as I feared, to be a close to impossible night for me, so I haven’t been able to take advantage of the generous efforts of Joey Hughes, Martin, Tony and Scott Corbett to push my skating to, yes, the next level. Now, I finally turn up with my team, and have a shocker.

… there can still be a night like this.

“Skate, Nicko, skate!” Martin kept saying and I was trying hard not to be flat-footed, but it was one of those nights where I had to will myself to move. Was a step slow for passes. Was accused of being lazy – and oh, I hate that. For my many often-confessed faults as a skater, or hockey player, I hate being thought of as lazy.

Maybe, just maybe, my ageing legs weren’t up for skating hard a night after Wednesday’s two hours of Intermediate/dev league and a 2 am sleep time? Is that what went wrong? I’m not conceding that. I pride myself on generally skating as hard as everybody 20 years younger and unless this proves a trend, I’m not factoring that excuse.

Although … if it wasn’t that, well then, shit, it was just plain embarrassing. I had hit the ice hard a couple of times the night before, including once where I rattled my helmet, crashing the goalie in a slot-battle late in the match, which left me bruised up my back and with a headache. But it wasn’t anything that should have left me unable to move my feet or balance on a blade the next evening.

A bunch of Melbourne’s hockey community are headed to Newcastle on the weekend for the AIHL finals (Go Ice!), which may mean slightly less crowded ice for those of us who stay behind. Maybe I can get a stick & puck session in on Sunday, to try and rediscover my mojo?

Or maybe I should just put on my old pork pie journo’s hat, and raise a glass or 12 to all the departing hacks from News Ltd and Fairfax, which is finally happening for real. A major piss-up is happening tonight, which will be the Melbourne media equivalent of a dead cop wake in Baltimore, as portrayed in “The Wire“. Toasts, speeches, laughs and memories as journos with 20 or 30 years on the clock walk out the door.

There’s a lot of fear in my industry at the moment. A lot of uncertainty. Dozens of people who have been incredibly skilled, intelligent, professional, loyal writers, editors, sub-editors, layout subs, photographers, graphic artists or other crucial cogs in the newspaper machine for decades are suddenly staring at an unexpected future. Hopefully it turns out to be a future of new opportunities and adventures.

Change is something some people embrace better than others. I’ve always been lucky in that my natural curiosity and sense of adventure has pushed me into trying new things and not becoming set in my ways and I was talking to a media colleague earlier this week about how highly I would recommend taking on a wildly challenging new activity (such as, say, hockey, or skiing, or scuba, or a martial art, or anything else that gets the blood pumping) for anybody in their late 30s/early 40s. It’s a great gear change to keep the rest of your life invigorated.

But that was a choice for me. It’s much harder when change is forced on you and you’re kicked out of the safety of what you know.

The Melbourne media tonight might not break into “I’m a freeborn man of the USA“, crowded around a body on a pool table, but there will be a sense of change and of the reality that things will never be the same.

But, fellow hacks, that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Life can be better, and every day is a new day. Which is lucky, given a man’s skating can switch from encouraging to embarrassing in the space of a day. Skate to where the puck will be, not where it is. We have team training again on Monday. Watch me go.