Playing the arenas …

Seeing how it feels to skate like a USA-Canada star, just, you know, without the talent.

Seeing how it feels to skate like a USA-Canada star, just, you know, without the talent.

There’s a great comedy routine by a guy called Bert Kreischer. It’s on YouTube as ‘The Machine’, and it tells the story of how he allegedly, as a college language student, hooked in with the Russian mafia while on a train bound for Moscow. Bloody funny routine (click below). Anyway, at one point, the mafia dudes he’s hanging out with announce they’re going to rob the train. And Kreischer says: ‘I would love to tell you that I stood up and said, ‘Not me”… but sometimes you’ve just got to fucking rob a train, man.’

And that was me today, in the middle of a Thursday.

I would love to tell you that I sat at my desk all day, a picture of diligence and hard work and commitment to the Media Giants cause. Or to finishing the novel draft that has consumed me for the last few months.

… But sometimes you’ve just got to fucking go skating on centre court of Rod Laver Arena, man.

I blame Melbourne Ice president Emma Poynton. She posted on Facebook at around 11 am that the ice had been laid on the drop-in rink for the international USA v Canada match, battling for the Doug Webber trophy, happening at the arena tomorrow night. Apparently, once a rink is frozen, it needs to be skated on a few times to really take hold. So she was looking for members of the local hockey community willing to turn up at about midday and general skate hard on the rink, to shred the ice.

Cut to my car seconds later, as I race to the Icehouse to grab my skates out of my locker. Cut to midday when I’m parked at the Rod Laver Arena, meeting a bunch of hockey friends. We all know each other well enough now that everybody has a nickname: Big Cat, Christmas Angel, Apollo, Alexandra McNab … We headed inside, having our names ticked off at security and walking through the bowels of the tennis centre to the rink.

This was a fun moment for me already. I have a lot of personal history at this place. I covered tennis for years, for newspapers and the Seven Network, and so have hung out at many Australian Opens. I had a stand-up polite argument with Steffi Graf in an underground corridor there. I hit balls ineffectually at some top Australian players at media days. I even once found myself playing tennis in front of maybe 3000 people, on Rod Laver Arena’s centre court. I can sort of hit a tennis ball but was way out of my depth in that kind of spotlight. Plus, it should be mentioned that I was partnering Bijou the French tennis clown, who had some weaknesses in his game like spinning 720 degrees on the spot under a lob before trying to hit a smash. Ex Australian tour star Paul McNamee and a former Australian top junior and then glamorous sports reporter, Dixie Marshall, wiped the court with us. But hey, it was for charity.

Big Cat and Apollo Patrick get a feel for international hockey ice.

Big Cat and Apollo Patrick get a feel for international hockey ice.

I’ve also covered world title fights at the centre court, even fortunate enough to hang out in the rooms with Jeff Fenech before he went out and smashed Georgie ‘Go Go’ Navarro in front of a packed stadium. I walked out of the tunnel and into the arena that night literally at Fenech’s back, and felt the wall of noise that greets a top fighter. It was incredible.

And now I was here again, years later, carrying my much-worn skates of all things and walking past the dressing room Fenech had used to step through the door onto the arena, to discover not a tennis court or a boxing ring but an ice rink.

This Doug Webber Cup thing seems to have gained momentum, which is good for the sport. I actually went on the record last year as saying it was lame first time around, and it was: Melbourne’s hockey community is far to expert to be excited by a bunch of players, whether NHL or the level below, phoning it in, and skating in a distinct gee-I-hope-I-don’t-get-hurt-and-jeopardize-my-large-pro-contract way, which is not unreasonable from their point of view. From what I hear, after several games of the current tour, the international players are putting a much more committed effort into this time and the games are real games now, not like the yawnfest we saw at Hisense Arena last year.

Plus friends of mine in other states who don’t know hockey have ventured along and loved every second, which is probably the point. And Nathan Walker, the first Australian drafted into the NHL, is playing, giving locals a chance to salute his achievement. And it’s at the larger Rod Laver Arena, which can build strong atmosphere.

So, sing it loud: let’s hope tomorrow night is awesome. It could only help the sport.

We’ve already had a huge win from the show. It was fascinating skating on brand new, virgin ice under the watchful eye of thousands of empty green seats. The rink’s surface felt very brittle and was chipping shards instead of snow as we ploughed it up and enjoyed such empty ice. American and Canadian flags are everywhere of course and it was a strange sensation to stand at the centre face-off circle and look up to see one of those giant video cubes above, just like at an NHL venue. None of us were wearing armour but I boarded myself a few times, to see how the glass felt, and it made a pleasing thudding echo around the empty seats. Big Cat did even better, losing an edge and genuinely splattering himself on the ice and into the boards. He got up, laughing. A genuine hockey player.

Happy skaters: Big Cat, Christmas Angel and Apollo on the ice.

Happy skaters: Big Cat, Christmas Angel and Apollo on the ice.

Melbourne Ice import Sean Hamilton cruised around, testing out new blades, along with a few local players from various levels of winter and summer competition – all digging our blades into snow ploughs and hockey stops and carving manoeuvres to give this fresh ice a work out. Given hardly anybody was wearing a helmet, we had been told not to use sticks for health and safety reasons, and that lasted maybe half an hour before somebody produced a puck and it was on, with sticks being shared around. I had fun, using a right-handed stick for the first time in a long time. And hit the puck okay … is it possible I’ve been playing wrong-handed all this time? Sadly I don’t think so. I think I am just that crap at shooting on my preferred side. Hey ho.

It finally occurred that it was the middle of a work day and I’m not The Machine and don’t have the Russian mafia to watch my back. Reluctantly, I left this beautiful prime-time slab of fresh ice – the third rink that Melbourne so desperately needs – and headed back to my desk. The afternoon has been largely lost but man, have I been smiling.

Sometimes, you just have to hang the consequences, no?

 

Guest writer: Alex McNab

WORLD EXCLUSIVE

Today, Alex McNab takes us into the hot, sordid, sweaty and potentially smelly world of girls sharing hockey change-rooms with the boys. (And with regard to her last paragraph, she totally had it coming.)

(Next up, “Jess” with a very personal, brave and heart-wrenching story of how hockey changed her life.)

It’s (only mostly) a man’s world

By Alex McNab

“Hi.”

Alex McNab on the ice.

“Hi.”

“I’d like to try on some skates, please.”

“Sure, they’re just over here.”

“No, not the figure skates. Hockey skates.”

“Oh. Oh, okay. Ha.”

This exchange took place late last year, a couple of weeks into my first term of Intro to Hockey, and people’s reactions to “I’m learning to play ice hockey” still range from disbelief to hyena laughter.

Responses of “But why?” or “That’s different …” or “Are there many girls that play hockey?” are pretty standard. If it’s unusual in Australia for a bloke to play hockey, it’s even more so for a girl. A quick head count of those in the Rookies Facebook group (my only point of reference, but surely a good one) shows guys outnumbering girls approximately six to one. This held true in last term’s class, where there were just five girls in a class of thirty. I don’t know if it’s different overseas, but in Australia we’re the minority in a minority sport.

Which is mostly pretty damn awesome.

For starters, away from the ice, there are always people willing to talk about it, hear about it and ask questions about it. You are a curiosity, and if “I play netball” isn’t much of a conversation starter, “I play ice hockey” guarantees a response, especially if you’re wearing heels when you say it.

I’ve been asked some pretty funny questions: Are girls even allowed to play hockey? Do guys go easy on you because you’re a girl? Why don’t you just play a nice, gentle, non-contact sport? Do you have unresolved anger issues? (What the …?)

In contrast, on the ice and in the world that surrounds it, gender doesn’t really come into it. Classes are unisex, changerooms are unisex, leagues are unisex. Even the gear is (mostly) unisex, which results in all sorts of strange sizing and comfort issues when it comes to chest armour. My single favourite piece of hockey equipment isn’t my skates or my stick (no penis jokes here), but my lovely girly chest armour with curved plates on the front, designed to accommodate boobs. And as far as the rest of the gear goes, a lot of smaller girls shop in the kiddie section. (Don’t laugh, at least it’s cheaper.)

Most typically ‘female’ sports – netball, dance, tennis, swimming – are non-contact, and in many mainstream sports there’s enough female participation to warrant separate leagues for men and women. So it’s an awful lot of fun to play a mixed sport where you can go hard, shove if you need to, and not worry about breaking someone’s nail.

Yeah, skating as hard or fast as a guy can be tricky when you’re a foot shorter or thirty kilos lighter, but given my current skill level, that’s the least of my problems, and at least I have a girl’s arse for cushioning when I fall.

Plus, there are some perks to being a girl-in-a-guy’s-world. Lliam, for one, is far more concerned and conciliatory when you fall over in class than he would be otherwise, and he has been known to stage whisper, during scrimmages: “Just hit them. You can do whatever you like to them because you’re a girl. Hook, trip … whatever.” As you say, coach.

And there’s some fine man candy around the Icehouse, for those who care to look. I may still be mourning the departure of the gorgeous Jacques Perreault from the Melbourne Ice team at the end of last season (and Cute Dave ceased to be Cute Dave, and merely became Dave, once he modelled club gear for the wrong team), but sometimes unisex changerooms can seem like a gift.

Alex armoured up.

For the sake of discretion, I duck into the toilets to change – topless girls would probably result more in shock, and less in celebration – but guys have no such qualms about whipping off the gear. So yes, boys, we might just take the opportunity to sneakily check you out while you’re shirtless, and we’re not going to apologise for it – think of it as compensation for the way you smell post match. Certainly, growing up with three sisters and going to an all-girls school did nothing to prepare me for the odour of 25-odd sweaty, post-hockey men in a confined space, but I’m not arguing for it to be changed.

The question of whether girls and guys wanted separate changerooms came up recently. Answer: hell no. Logistically, the changerooms are already stupidly crowded, so an additional changeroom that just four or five people would use at a time would be plain silly. I was also quietly chuffed at the responses of some of the boys: that they like the camaraderie and team spirit of changing together, and that having women around keeps them in check (pun intended, I’m sure). That it’s good to be equal, and that they’d hate us to be removed from the pre and post-match banter – even if this concern was based more on the possibility we might discuss them behind their backs …

And then the discussion descended into a debate about the merits of Bonds knickers.

Hockey isn’t exactly a glamour sport, and we sure don’t do it to look sexy, but despite this the girls I play hockey with are some of the, well, “girliest” I know: Jess, who combines her hockey with pole dancing (hello!), Aimee, who looks like a blonde Christmas angel off the ice, my sister, Scarlett, with her Jane Austen-era sensibilities, Rachael, the Rookies’ answer to MasterChef, and Theresa, the ultimate social secretary. There’s also another woman I see around a bit who sports a “Mother Puckers” jersey. Brilliant. Me? I quit moaning about the cost of skates when it was pointed out to me (by several people) that I had unflinchingly spent that and more on far more impractical footwear in the past.

We like that it’s guys and girls, all learning together. We like the social side of it. We like that we’re not treated differently, that you boys don’t go soft on us, and that we can walk into the changeroom in heels and out of it in skates.

Recently, at a Stick and Puck session, Nicko hooked me and I fell. I wasn’t wearing armour and I played the girly card. He called me out on it: “Quit whinging. I’m a feminist. If you’re on the ice, we’re equals, and you shoved me first.”

Which pretty much sums it all up.

The Rookies versus IBM, night fevers and other stories

A member of Friday's IBM team.

On Friday, a somewhat bizarre ice hockey match took place at the Icehouse. One of the Rookies, Chris Janson, had asked if anybody wanted to make up the numbers in an IBM social event: a game of scrimmage on the Henke Rink on Friday, after work.

“So, to be clear,” I said to Chris, in the change room on Wednesday night, dripping in sweat, post-dev league, “you’re inviting us to step onto the ice against a bunch of IBM employees in an actual scrimmage, as a social bonding exercise for IBM?”

I had visions of a bunch of weedy computer geeks in Hanson Brother glasses, being boarded by Big Cat Place (the artist formerly known as “Kittens”) and other monsters of the local ice scene.

“That’s right,” said Chris. He reeled off a bunch of hockey player names, some from the higher divisions of local competition, such as the Melbourne Ice Wolves’ Pete Savvides (who has since told me he’s Division 4, not Division 2, and not the old TV show) – very accomplished players. “They’re all IBM guys.”

Oh …

It turned out to be a lot of fun. Several players, like the McNab girls, playing their first-ever real game of scrimmage, several of us, like Jess Hough, Big Cat and I simply enjoying ice time, while others, such as Wayne and Savvides showed us up but no doubt with just enough of a handbrake on their talent and superior skating to not make us look like total muppets.

The best thing, for me, was that one way or another, this game was played at a more gentle pace than Tuesday or Wednesday Dev League, and I was able to actually skate at a pace that kept up. I hadn’t realized how much time I spend on the weeknights, leaning forward too far and almost toppling, because I’m hustling too fast, trying to push myself too fast, just to keep up. I’m not sure how to use this new knowledge yet, but it’s something to ponder.

The miracle was that I was even in the IBM bloodbath, I mean, social event, given how I’d felt less than 48 hours earlier. Arriving home from Wednesday night’s hockey, I shivered uncontrollably in my bed, with what felt like a raging fever. Huddled under my doona, wide awake at 3 am but shaking wildly, in total physical meltdown, it occurred to me: “Oh, this isn’t good.”

A few hours earlier, in full armour, mid-Intermediate class, as my head pounded and my stomach churned, on the brink of something nameless and undefined but potentially nasty, I pondered that I had never before been on the ice, feeling crook. I’ve played hurt, in terms of a few bangs here or there and especially, the very sore neck/shoulder that killed me for a couple of months last year. But I hadn’t felt sick.

Another member of the IBM social hockey team.

This whole experience was a surprise because I’m feeling as fit as I’ve felt for a long time at the moment. This potentially weekly regime of Sunday footy, Monday (boxing), Tuesday (intro dev league), Wed (intermediate class, then harder dev league), Thursday (collapse) has definitely been pushing me physically and I feel great for it.

Well, most of the time. On Wednesday, it, or life, or a combination of both caught up with me big-time and unexpectedly mid-way through Intermediate. Maybe it was lugging office junk downstairs to a skip for four or five hours on the Tuesday that strained my stomach? Who knows? The fact was I felt terrible and it was a different struggle to the week before, where my legs had simply been fried, full of lactic acid build-up or whatever the, you know, science is from backing-up dev league as well as flying to Brisbane and back. This week, I was feeling off-colour, although it’s possible the highly intricate skating skills of this particular Intermediate class could have made me feel sick all on their own.

Transitions, stepping over sticks, inside and outside edge work, more transitions (every bit as big a bastard as the pivot, in my humble opinion); it was Hell. Somehow I survived Dev League, which was even more intense than the week before.

I’d really enjoyed Tuesday’s scrimmage; feeling for the first time that I was genuinely performing to the standard required with some decent puck work, including stealing it off other players, accurate passing and other miracles. I appear to be more willing than most to throw my body on the line, which often means I end up on my knees or arse, still fighting for the puck. Sure, it could be argued that this is also a lack of ability to keep my skates when it matters – which is why other players don’t end up in collisions or life-and-death situations, flying towards the boards. … because they can skate out of such danger zones. I like to think of it as plucky ahead of incompetent.

Wednesday dev league includes several players who, frankly, probably have no right to be there; as in, they’re playing for teams and are clearly several levels above P-Plate skaters like me. But it’s cool to pit yourself against them: to hopefully not get pwned every time you battle for a puck or try to backcheck. Headachy or not, I threw myself into it, and sat on the bench between shifts, smiling at people I now regard as friends, who have been playing against one another, or on the same team on other weeks, went toe-to-toe. Brendan versus Chris, battling hard to the blue line, Lee versus Kevin, Todd versus Kittens, Morgan versus Theresa … these are battles that shift and rotate every week, every session, as we all push ourselves and try to improve.

And then backing up again on the Friday, fever and lack of energy or not. Even playing the gentler IBM scrimmage finished me for the weekend, I decided, despite a very tempting offer to join Joey Hughes’ outfit for a shooting tutorial all weekend at the magnificent Oakleigh rink.

Rest, I decided, Wednesday night shaking session still fresh in my mind and internal batteries on low. A novel needs to be plotted and written, and there are so many more intermediate classes and dev league hours to be skated. With a dive course cancelled, I had a totally free weekend and used it to drink far too much coffee and alcohol with friends.

Except that it’s now lunchtime on Sunday … and I have a free afternoon … and General Skating might not be crowded, given the Grand Prix is on and all.

…. Hmmm. Tempting.

I’ve made a huge mistake.

So, I arrived back in Melbourne mid-morning on Monday on the red-eye from LA. Feeling strangely not too bad.

Went for a run at about 5 pm, to keep creeping tiredness at bay until a decent sleep hour. Also drank some wines at dinner, which was a rookie error or a veteran sleep-well move, depending on your take. I slept.
Ran again in the heat on Tuesday, to start warding off those American carbohydrate extra pounds.

Testing my new Reeboks at a General Skate in Chicago, October, 2011.

And then it was Wednesday.
And pretty quickly, I realised I’d made a huge mistake.
A Biblical storm was closing in on Melbourne and I could have so easily scrambled for home, a couch, some whisky, the ever-loving smooches from my faithful hound, and some TV and early sleep.
Instead I turned my car west and headed for the Icehouse, marvelling at the cloudscape as I descended on Docklands from the Goalpost Bridge freeway (no traffic and a rockstar park at the Icehouse front door, because of said storm: awesome).
And that’s when I realised my mistake. You see, for most of this year, Wednesday has meant hockey class: Intro for two terms, and then Intermediate last term. As previously discussed, this term I decided not to enrol in Intermediate again because of my frank assessment that my skating isn’t good enough to progress to Dev League. So I’ve decided to spend the summer having private skating lessons, and/or just hanging endless laps and trying hockey moves on the Bradbury Rink.
Which is all fine and remains an excellent plan. Except that I have to walk past the Heinke Rink and see classes in full flight. The intermediate classes I should be part of, with my usual classmates out there, chasing pucks.
Everybody was super friendly and glad to see me back. It’s very cool what a strong ice family we have built in less than a year, from our ever-expanding Facebook Icehouse Rookies group to just random banter at the venue. The McNab girls, friends of mine, are in Intro and were wearing armour for the first time last night, enjoying the wonders of Supermans and the other rookie moves that made me nostalgic for, what? April?
But then I felt like a loner as I turned my back on all my classmates and headed to the public rink; to toil on my pivots and backward skating and other moves in gloves, helmet and basic padding, but not in the usual class environment.
This term has about five weeks to go and it’s going to be difficult.
There is plenty of upside though. Wednesday night turns out to be a good one for general skating, with very few people there, whether it’s because they thought Melbourne was going to be levelled by the storm and had loved ones to spend their final moments with, or 7 pm Wednesday just isn’t a time people usually skate.
I was on my beautiful new Reebox 11s – as worn by Pavel Datsyuk among others – and they are definitely superior to my old Bauer Vapors. Much more comfortable and fit better (a whole size smaller). I feel more in control even now, when they’re new and the cut is fresh. I read a book recently that discussed hockey skates and said: “A hockey stick is like a date. They come and go. Your skates are your wife.” You do get attached to them, and need to trust them as you perform ridiculous moves that are going to hurt if they go wrong. I feel better in these ones.
Plus even Lliam was impressed by my new wheels, so they have the Cool factor. Pumped up kicks.


Out on the ice, I realised I hadn’t skated at all for something like nine weeks, apart from a cameo appearance in the final scrimmage class of Intermediate (between mantas and American adventures) and one test-the-skates session in Chicago, where Will and I joined locals on an indoor rink, surrounded by Blackhawks of all shapes and sizes, for five bucks a skate.
But even that was more than two weeks ago.
At the Icehouse I took a while to find my legs, then skated fast, zipping around the track, and tried some slow pivots, hockey stops … all my usual foes. I even did 360 spins – as in, pivot and keep pivoting – just to see how long I could balance while turning like an idiot. I figure to get better,I need to conquer balance. Once or twice, at high speed (for me), I almost lost it and had to recover through sheer arse and hammie work. I stayed up. Felt good. Skated for almost three hours.
It was so nice to be back on the ice. Even if I was deliberately ignoring Will and the others, enjoying intermediate followed by dev league. I hope I can catch up when I return from this self-imposed exile.

* A tip of the hat, yet again, to Arrested Development.