When the coaches fly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Go?’ I said.

‘Go,’ he confirmed.

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

The Ice working on shots, Tuesday before finals weekend.

The Ice working on shots, Tuesday before finals weekend.

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

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

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

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

Big weekend coming up for the Ice.

Big weekend coming up for the Ice.

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

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

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

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

Ice, Ice, baby. Go get ’em.

 

The door in the jungle

The adventurer’s eyes widened as he spied what looked like a door. Could this really be it? Had he found it against all the odds, after all this time? His heart began to beat in his chest. His breathing quickened. He struggled to contain his excitement, to remain calm.

The adventurer hacked away at the jungle between him and the door, fighting to get closer.

The wilds of Fitzroy North

The wilds of Fitzroy North

Until finally, there it was, right in front of him. Ageing, paint peeling, almost buried in dust and cobwebs, the door’s handle stiff and resistant after how long without human touch?

He used the machete to sweep aside the cobwebs, used some leaves to clear dust. Then took a deep breath, used all his might to creak the handle to vertical, and then yanked. The door opened.

And there it was.

His hockey gear. Resting against the only bag used less over the last 15 weeks, his scuba diving gear.

The adventurer dragged the bag out of the back shed, and wincing, expecting the worst, opened the zip.

And was relieved to find that the hockey smell wasn’t bad at all. That last big airing, after the Cherokees’ lost final, had done the job.

The dormant bags of adventure.

The dormant bags of adventure.

The adventurer flexed his dodgy calf, which had twanged out while running to receive a handball the previous Friday. The adventurer coming off several weeks in a row of gym, boxing, football twice a week and now ready to step back onto the ice. Having been to a few Melbourne Ice games lately, against the Sydney Bears and Newcastle on Saturday. Feeling the anticipation as the nation’s best players swirled and smashed their way around the Henke Rink at Icy O’Briens. Exchanging looks with Big Cat, knowing it was only three more sleeps until they finally stepped back onto that same ice.

Tuesday 6.45 pm scrimmage, a star-studded cast of players from all levels of competitive hockey. Big hellos to the coaches, who he hadn’t seen in months. Big hellos to the players. Big enjoyment of the locker room banter, and the long, complicated donning of the armour, skates and sock tape. That memory jog to take off the skate-guards before stepping onto the ice surface.

The moment of nervous fear as he jumped the boards for warm-up, and didn’t land flat on his face. More moments of uncertainty, gingerly testing hockey stops and turns, his calf holding, his unpractised skating technique mostly holding.

The Ice and Bears get acquainted on Henke Rink. Pic: Nicko

The Ice and Bears get acquainted on Henke Rink. Pic: Nicko

And then playing his first hour of hockey for months and months. Not setting the world on fire, only landing a few good passes, only having a few not-particularly-threatening shots on goal. Falling a few times, taking what sometimes felt like minutes to complete a fast turn , feeling two steps too slow.

But back. Skating. Managing a breakaway or two. Remembering. And smiling.

Laughing and light, on the drive home with Big Cat, who had been just as rusty but looked better and better as the hour progressed.

Hockey players once more.

And it felt good.

 

Losing with a capital L

To be a fan is to be a loser.

I staggered back into Melbourne from overseas late last week, just in time for my beloved Richmond Tigers to get smashed by West Coast. The next day, the Detroit Red Wings got beaten by Tampa Bay, to go 2-0 down in a playoff series that they somehow fell into despite an underwhelming season.

By the weekend, I needed to shake off jetlag so I attempted to go for a run. As I plodded through Edinburgh Gardens, I heard an unmistakable roar from the Brunswick Street Oval on the other side of the tennis courts. Feeling excited, I made my way to the top of the small rise overlooking the oval to see that the mighty Reds (what’s left of the Fitzroy club that used to be a VFL/AFL side) had goaled to edge to within a straight kick of their opponents with minutes to go. Of course, as I watched, the opposition booted two to put the game away. I ran sadly on.

A big crowd in for the 'Roys at home on a perfect autumn afternoon. Shame they lost. Pic: Nicko

A big crowd in for the ‘Roys at home on a perfect autumn afternoon. Shame they lost. Pic: Nicko

It all got me reflecting on how the life of a sports fan, or player for that matter, is almost completely one of ultimate loss, apart from the occasional miraculous occasion.

At the most elite level, I have seen exactly one championship win by a team I support in my half century on the planet. Granted, Richmond won flags in 1967 and 1969, as well as 1973/74, but I was really young and only just tuning in by those Seventies flags, so they didn’t really resonate. By the time I was a foaming at the mouth, dedicated Tiger, we won the premiership in 1980 – my first live grand final at the MCG; the most epic of days, with my lifetime friend and fellow Tiger, Shaun.

I had no idea that by the age of 51, that would remain my only flag.

The Red Wings? I saw them lift the Stanley Cup in 2007/2008, when I fell in love with the team. But I can’t claim it. I only tuned in, as a flu-ridden, bored total hockey novice, for the Stanley Cup finals, and became engrossed over the course of the Wings victory over the Penguins. So I don’t feel that I can claim that as a cup that I ‘earned’ as a fan. Now, eight years later? Yes, I sweat blood for the Wings and can absolutely claim to be among the Motown army, even from half a world away.

Thank God for the Melbourne Ice with a quiver of men’s and women’s titles, and the Lorne Dolphins’ several flags over the years, in coastal footy, because as far as Richmond and now the Red Wings go, every single year except for once when I was 15, the season has ultimately ended badly.

Detroit's 2008 Cup: I was lucky to see it.

Detroit’s 2008 Cup: I was lucky to see it.

Which is pretty standard, unless you happen to be a Hawthorn fan in the AFL, winning life’s lottery over the past three decades. For the vast majority of sports fans, barracking life is destined to end, year-in, year-out, at some stage in failure. Look at the Collingwood Football Club with its vast, ever-cocky army – and exactly one more premiership in my lifetime than the bedraggled Tigers. Meanwhile, my more recent love, the Wings, have made the play-offs now for an unbelievable 25 years straight – through salary cap introduction, through Hall of Famers’ retirements (God, I miss The Perfect Human, in defence), through everything, but it’s eight years since they actually won the Cup and could be a while yet.

The Tigers? God, don’t even start me.

And trust me, in footy I know that I’m doing better than fans of the Bulldogs, Saints and Demons, all without a flag in my half century on the planet, or, in the NHL, fans of the Blues, Canucks, Capitals, Sabres and Sharks: teams that have NEVER won the Stanley Cup.

The Tigers triumph in 1980. My one and only premiership. Back before the world was in colour.

The Tigers triumph in 1980. My one and only premiership. Back before the world was in colour.

Imagine being a player. Matty Richardson for the Tigers, maybe Bob Murphy for the Dogs; playing your guts out for almost two decades and never raising that cup … watching other players who maybe manage 50 AFL games for their career luck out to be on the ground when the stars align and it matters. I feel vaguely disappointed that I’ve played four seasons of summer hockey now without any medals to show for it, so how must they feel? But again, in 2016, for 17 AFL teams and 29 NHL teams, and all but one Summer Division Three team, this will be the way it goes.

For some reason, we never look at this big picture, at how we almost always see a season end in despair. Instead, the fans, and players, get lost in the individual games, even in the individual moments within those sirens or buzzers. Players are touted as genius or idiot, rising star or useless, game to game, or minute to minute. Us fans watch it all, riding every bump, pouring with emotions, sweating on the next puck or goal or wicket or farnarkle or whatever happens to be your poison. I read Winging It in Motown, a very enthusiastic and well-populated Wings blog, and the screen seethes with rage and frustration and elation and sorrow and anger and happiness and wistfulness and … well, you get the picture. Sometimes all during a single game feed.

My cluster of Richmond diehard mates are already wincing at another season wobbling alarmingly at the start, with the team down 1-3 and not inspiring much hope of a premiership run. Again. All the parts that looked so bright and formidable in the pre-season, a month ago, now looking blunt and harmless compared to the razor-sharp skills, game plans and promising rookies of other teams. But then again, if the Tiges suddenly win five in a row …

And so the road goes, as ever. Up and down, peaks, troughs, but hardly ever reaching the desired destination.

Alex Rance: life is about more than silverware.

Alex Rance: life is about more than silverware.

Which is actually okay. In an excellent interview with The Age’s Emma Quayle during the week, the Tigers’ charismatic full back Alex Rance spoke about caring too much and about how his unstoppable competitiveness and passion for the game can get in his way. Raised a Jehovah’s Witness, Rance thought about leaving the game, leaning back into his beliefs to consider whether he even wanted to play football any more; worried that in the end it was pointless and took him away from his family and true priorities.

Rance said, ‘I’d play a crap game and think, “life sucks”. Then I’d play a good game and everything was awesome. It was like, how can you survive like this? There were peaks and troughs all over the place. It made me think about what faith is, and what I should really be basing my happiness on.”

You don’t have to be of a religious persuasion to see a general wisdom in Rance’s words. Sure, play hard, barrack hard, live or die on a swirling Sherrin in a breeze, or a deflected puck bobbling near a flailing goalie, or a putt curling towards the lip of a golf hole. But see it for what it is, win or lose; an entertaining aside to the real world that is ever travelling alongside, with much higher stakes and greater highs and lows.

In a day or so? Red Wings v Lightning, Game 4.
On the weekend? Richmond v Melbourne at the MCG.
Down at Lorne? Hopefully the Dolphins will be in action, so I can drink a beer on the muddy step grandstand and cheer the locals.
At the Icehouse? The Melbourne Ice men’s team begins another campaign, searching for a Goodall Cup, something has been tantalisingly out of reach for a few years now, but here we all go again.

I’m excited. As usual.

Giddyup.

Just remember it’s all in the journey.

 

 

 

Bidding for history

I went a bit nuts a year and a half ago and won an auction on a Canadian hockey collectables site. On Wednesdays, at Icy O’Briens training, you see all kinds of jerseys including a lot of novelty jerseys and I’m as guilty as anybody of liking the chance to wear bizarre and obscure colours on the night. With that in mind, I bid for and won a bunch of NHL Old Timer jerseys, as worn by creaky Hall of Famers and other probably long-forgotten NHL stars in exhibition games. My jerseys were mostly from the fifties, with a few Toronto-based ones from the seventies. I still wear one to training on Wednesday nights at Icy O’Briens and gave some as Christmas presents to the coaches that year, because every year I forgot to get them a present and then felt bad.

Lliam Webster rocks out one of the NHL Old Timer jerseys.

Lliam Webster rocks out one of the NHL Old Timer jerseys.

But the best thing about winning this auction was definitely not realising that the exchange rate was steep just then, or that the shipping costs were enormous, or that the other taxes and charges almost doubled the price of what I thought I had agreed to pay. No, none of those joyful discoveries were the awesome bit.

The awesome part was that the auction house people clearly thought, ‘Huzzah, we’ve got a live one in Melbourne, Australia, peoples!’ and have continued to mail me the catalogue for hockey auctions ever since. They arrive three or four times a year.

It’s spectacular bedtime reading. And it totally speaks to the dweeby history-lover in me as I’ve discovered how amazing and varied the names, nicknames and jerseys of hockey teams through the ages have been and continue to be.

The Fishermen. Damn, I wish I had the funds to have bought this jersey, just to wear around.

The 1920’s Fishermen jersey. Damn, I wish I had the funds to have bought this jersey, just to wear around.

Like a lot of people reasonably new to hockey, I only became aware of mysterious, now-gone NHL teams like the Whalers and the Nordiques as I delved deeper into the sport, and I find myself now actively seeking out strange towns, teams, mascots and leagues. Mysterious foreign outposts of the sport I’ve come to love.

This is where the auction catalogues are great. Brilliant team names and jersey designs of decades ago come back to life; some obscure, some just unknown to me. In my most recent catalogue, among endless signed sticks and jerseys by NHL stars, you suddenly turn a page to discover a gorgeous game-worn Selkirk Fishermen jersey from the 1920s (it sold for $C 533 – man, I’d love to wear that around town in winter). Wincingly-designed but funny are the jerseys of the Quebec Aces, an AHL team from the Sixties, or the magnificently terrible Calgary Cowboys jersey from 1975-76.

I even sort of like the world’s worst ever attempt at a shark logo on the WHA Los Angeles Shark jersey from that team’s inaugural season in 1972-73, which sold for more than $C 8,000, incidentally.

French Aces, and Canadian Cowboys and dubious Sharks.

French Aces, and Canadian Cowboys and dubious Sharks.

I’d love my jersey collection to include a Moscow Dynamo design from the mid Seventies but can probably live without rocking the colours of the Port Huron Flags. If you’re a Wayne Gretsky fan, you might have been keeping an eye on a lot last year, which featured the actually strangely hipster-cool jersey of a junior team he played for, the Sault Ste Marie Soo Greyhounds.

The mighty (and extinct) Seibu Prince Rabbits.

The mighty (and extinct) Seibu Prince Rabbits.

But beyond the catalogues, the list of intriguing, beautiful and often hilarious team names is long. It was through hockey that I discovered the Canadian town of Medicine Hat (go Tigers!) and through hockey that I found the now-disbanded Seibu Prince Rabbits in Japan. Or another team in the same league: the Nippon Paper Cranes. The Asia League also had a team from China with the unlikely name of ‘The Nordic Vikings’. It lasted one season; not able to match up with the more expected red and yellow power of the China Dragon team.

Australia’s national league doesn’t really light it up in this sphere. We have Mustangs and Thunder and Brave and North Stars and Ice Dogs (kind of funny), and Bears and Adrenalin. Plus, of course, the somewhat strangely-named Melbourne Ice (if it was a footy team, would it be Melbourne Grass?) But nothing to match the Fishermen, above. I’ve never missed Queensland’s Blue Tongues so much.

An unhappy turtle and Macon's sexy name.

An unhappy turtle and Macon’s sexy name.

Sports Illustrated once noted the existence of an American team (above) called Macon Whoopee, even featuring a bird and a bee on its jersey, while I am also a fan of the Mississippi RiverKings, starring a very grumpy turtle as their mascot. (I’d back the Red Wings’ resident octopus, Rally Al, to kick the turtle around if they dropped the gloves.)

As hockey moved into new American frontiers after the NHL expansion (almost 50 years ago exactly), lower level feeder clubs were created as well, meaning you got bizarre name attempts like the Orlando SolarBears or names mashing local history and hockey, like the Greenville Swamp Rabbits, apparently named after a train but featuring a bunny attempting to frighten grown hockey players. And while we’re there, a special shout out to the Toledo Walleye, a team that deserves a mention just because there’s something endlessly hilarious about the concept of a fish attempting to play ice hockey.

CRAZY TEAMS: Sun-loving hockey-playing polar bears and lump but cranky fish.

CRAZY TEAMS: Sun-loving hockey-playing polar bears and lump but cranky fish.

A finals weekend for the ages.

So, in the end, my team lost and I was sad, but if you move past that, the AIHL weekend of finals was pretty remarkable. Two nail-biting semi-finals and then a final, between the Newcastle North Stars and Melbourne Ice, that transcended both of them.

If you wanted to convince people that hockey is a sport worth watching in this footy-obsessed land, then the weekend would have been a great place to start.

Newcastle's moment of victory. Pic: Nicko

Newcastle’s moment of victory. Pic: Nicko

The final was brilliant. I used to be a boxing writer and standing on the glass, at my usual spot just next to the deliberately-punned Bell End, I was mostly struck by the similarities of this match to a great boxing bout.

Melbourne Ice was the complete team: a strong mix of locals and imports, who trust one another, play strong systems and have been at the top of the league for what, in sports terms, is forever. What was always going to be a vacuum after the astonishing Goodall Cup three-peat of 2010-11-12, has been followed by a narrow semi-final loss in 13, and then back to back losing finals in 2014-15. So close and yet not quite.

A former Ice player wrote to me on Friday night, saying he didn’t believe that Ice coach Brent Laver got enough press as one of the best coaches in the land. The former player said Laver was an astonishingly great coach, and should be feted.

I don’t really know Laver, beyond watching his teams, but he has certainly done a great job of nursing the team through the post-Jaffa years; negotiating some changeroom-shaking personality clashes, politics, the inevitable decline of some stars, and the need to blood new players.

Ice captain Lliam Webster shows the joy and relief of beating Perth in Saturday's semi. Pic: Nicko

Ice captain Lliam Webster shows the joy and relief of beating Perth in Saturday’s semi. Pic: Nicko

Last year, the team was smashed in the final by the uppity Melbourne Mustangs, and looked a long way off the pace when it mattered in the season’s finale. But this year, the Ice saddled up again, solidly made the finals, held off a desperate Perth team, 1-0, in a tense semi-final and then shaped up to the undisputed heavyweight champion of the season, Newcastle.

Which, to continue my boxing analogy, is the big puncher, with an anvil in both gloves. Newcastle is a fighter that knocks opponents out. Witness the team’s semi-final when it started slowly and was suddenly down 3-0, on the wrong end of some silky, skilful Brave play. But the slugger wasn’t out and bam bam bam, from late in the second period, Canberra suddenly found itself on the canvas, probably still wondering how. Geordie Wudrick, the NHL-rated Canadian import, who had scored a ridiculous 91 points in 28 games this season, had a third period hat-trick to get Newcastle to Sunday. This was the opponent that the Ice faced in the final: a one-punch knockout machine.

And so it proved. Wudrick inevitably scored the first goal and seemed to be on the ice for 45 of the 60 minutes, as far as I could tell. Alongside him most of the time was another import, defenceman Jan Safar (56 points in 28 games).

The best hair of the final. In fact, nothing short of a skating shampoo commercial. Well played, sir. Well played.

The best hair of the final. In fact, nothing short of a skating shampoo commercial. Well played, sir. Well played. Pic: Nicko

Meanwhile, the Ice also rolled its top two lines, but was the fighter without an obvious knockout punch, relying instead on a strong peekaboo defence and the ability to land regular punches, even if not knockout shots. It seems to me – and I haven’t watched as many games this year as I usually would – that the Ice has maybe lost a percentage of scoring power since the glory days. There was no Wudrick-type in an Ice jersey to have your heart in your mouth every time he was on the ice.

In the end, Newcastle won in overtime, on a penalty shot that I still don’t quite understand, although people who know the game better than me all shrugged was a fair and brave call by the referee. It looked to me like Ice defender Todd Graham just tied up Newcastle’s Brian Bales on a breakaway, stopping Bales from even managing a shot, but the call was apparently tripping.

The beaten Ice team watch Newcastle receive the medals. Pic: Nicko

The beaten Ice team watch Newcastle receive the medals. Pic: Nicko

Any way you cut it, the best team all season won the final, and it was Newcastle’s first for a while so good luck to them.

My take-outs from drinking it all in from among the Ice army? In no particular order:

TOMMY POWELL

I think, as far as the Ice went, Tommy Powell might have been my MVP. I thought his desperation was fantastic and oh, wow, what a goal he scored to level the final after Wudrick had struck. Tommy plucked a high puck from the air, just before it sailed past the blue line, everybody else surging the other way, and suddenly Tommy was one-out against the goalie. It was like watching somebody load a shotgun, rack it and then shoot. Tommy was so calm and sent an absolute exocet past the poor netminder before he could move.

LLIAM WEBSTER

Sure, I’m biased because these guys are my coaches and friends, but I thought Lliam’s opening shift, as captain of the side, was outstanding. He launched off the bench as the second shift, playing wing, and was everywhere, filling the rink and shrinking space for the Newcastle stars. He never stopped all day, even to the point of taking a professional penalty to stop Newcastle scoring deep in the third, only to see them score on the power play. And, as per last year, Webster showed his character by staying on the ice, applauding the victors, beyond requirements. Classy.

OH, THAT LAST ICE GOAL!

A stadium of Ice fans in despair, barely any time left, goalie pulled, a goal down, all hope lost, and then somehow Mitch Humphries was deflecting a shot past the goalie with 31 second left, to tie the game. I don’t think I’ve ever gone so nuts after seeing a puck hit the back of the net – even after one of the very few I’ve scored. Behind the glass was bedlam, and so much fun. Sure, not long after, we were also closest to the goal where Bales put away the penalty shot to win it, but that Humphries goal was an all-time happy memory.

THE OCCASION

Newcastle gear abandoned on the ice, after victory. Pic: Nicko

Newcastle gear abandoned on the ice, after victory. Pic: Nicko

I think the AIHL has to be a little careful with the final weekend. It’s always a great festival, but there is a danger to trying to become too slick, too professional, at the expense of the fans. I’ve seen so many sports go through these growing pains and it’s tricky. A crowd-funding campaign meant the finals were livestreamed, which was good, but I looked at Jaffa the ex-Ice coach dressed in a suit and tie, microphone in hand, and I looked at orange tape along the glass, with ‘media’ scrawled in Texta, where everyday fans have stood all year, and I looked at people with cameras being told that they shouldn’t be shooting because there were official league snappers, and I looked at the fact there were official or unofficial after-parties apparently happening at at least three different venues, instead of everybody coming together, and I just wondered if the organisers aren’t drifting away from the spirit of the event?

Obviously, the final shouldn’t be at some Seventies throwback rink with only 200 fans able to fit along the boards, and no technology, and no media coverage. We’re all blessed to have the size and facilities of The Icehouse, but there is a certain charm in the homespun, unpretentious amateur flavour of Australian hockey. I covered AFL for a long time, with its strict media rules and heavy-handed management. Please oh please don’t get suckered into becoming that, AIHL. If nothing else, consider this: why are the commentators on the live stream in snappy suits and ties? Just because ‘that’s what you do’? Why can’t hockey be different? And, more importantly, has the sport moved far enough that enthusiasts should be stopped from taking happy snaps in the stands and posting them on social media? Isn’t any coverage like that still golden for a growing sport looking for oxygen in the Australian sportscape? Food for thought.

IMPORTS

I don’t want to sound like a sore loser, but there is  a danger that winning the Goodall Cup could just become a inter-club arms race regarding who has the most lethal imports. Maybe that horse has already bolted? Seven of the league’s top scorers this season were imports (only Melbourne Ice’s Tommy Powell made the list as an Australian-born player, at #7) with Wudrick dominating everything, and five of the top eight goalies were imports. How do we truly develop local players if they are sitting on the pine, watching ‘amateur’ imports on accommodation/travel/job/I don’t know what else packages log huge minutes? I worry for Australian-born players trying to get elite exposure. And please believe me, none of this is to detract from Newcastle’s win: they just had an amazing roster of imports (three in the league’s top eight), as per the rules, so well done them.

THE CURSE OF THE MOBILES

Mobile phones should be turned off as you walk into the rink. Look, I’m as big a phone fiend as anybody but for some reason, on Sunday, my mobile decided to have one of those days where it overheats and drains its battery for no real reason. Which meant I turned it off for the final, and therefore actually walked around with my head up, looking at the world. But sometimes I felt like I was the only one. Wandering along the back of the stand between periods, all I could see was a sea of bowed heads, and huddled shoulders, intent on mini screens. I felt suddenly sad for days of banter and discussion between the action, especially during such a draining and pulsating game as the final. I don’t know if I can stick to this but I’m going to try to turn my phone off whenever watching major sport from now on.

NOISY VISITORS

A fully committed Newcastle fan. Pic: Nicko

A fully committed Newcastle fan. Pic: Nicko

Man, during play, the Newcastle fans were loud, and enthusiastic. I was standing behind the glass for a lot of the final, at the Zamboni end, but it sounded to me like the local fans were consistently drowned out by the visitors. To try and rectify this, I went up into the stands in the second period, hollered: ‘Come on, Ice, let’s finish these bums!’ and earned a long, hard, sad, shake of the head from a Newcastle man. It was a textbook ‘I’m very disappointed in you’ headshake that my dad would have been proud of in his time. This was a headshake that said I’d let the sport down. I’d let the team down. I’d let my fellow fans down but, most importantly, Nicko, I’d myself down. I was so shaken that at the next face-off, I yelled: ‘Good luck, everybody from both teams’ but he didn’t even look at me.

I was already dead to him. Cold, man. Cold.

I’m in counselling for that but was able to keep track of the  bottom line which is this: amazing finals weekend, everybody. Bad luck, Melbourne, Canberra, and Perth. You all played mightily when it mattered. Newcastle, well done and well deserved.

How good is AIHL hockey?

Now, let’s bring on Spring. Let’s bring on Division 3 summer hockey. And let’s bring on the AFL finals with Richmond in the mix, and let’s bring on the NHL training camps.

Melbourne Ice, take a deep breath. You’ll be back and winning the whole enchilada and soon. You know it, and I know it.

Well played, North Stars. Pic: Nicko

Well played, North Stars. Pic: Nicko

 

A Reality Check, in more ways than one.

This has been a little slow coming because I got distracted by manta rays and sharks, and then by coughing my lungs up for a few weeks. But in the middle of all that, on a remote island way off the coast of Queensland with no WIFI, I had the time and space to finally finish reading Will Brodie’s excellent book, Reality Check.

Will recently wrote for this blog about his two-phase hockey life, and, as you’d probably expect from a long-time mainstream newspaper and online journalist, the guy can really write. His regular AIHL reporting over the past few years was a huge, possibly under-recognised boon for the sport and is sadly missed since he quit Fairfax.

Reality Check, by Will Brodie

Reality Check, by Will Brodie

But his best work was yet to come. Last season, he followed the two Melbourne teams as they navigated their way through the trials, highs and lows of an AIHL season. He lucked out in the sense that the Mustangs came of age, eventually winning the Goodall Cup  over, guess who, the Melbourne Ice (and yes, I realise that is potentially a massive spoiler but then again, if you’re an Australian hockey fan and didn’t know that, then you’ve been off the map in ways I can’t help you with).

So Will got a good yarn, as Melbourne’s fierce-but-sort-of friendly rival teams duked it out all the way to the grand final at the Icehouse, but it’s the wider story and the wider characters of Reality Check that stayed with me. Will’s long history in the sport means he was able to really tap into the people who have kept hockey going in this country for years. Yet he also brought fresh eyes, making him an unlikely and invaluable chronicler. He was able to have detailed, knowledgeable conversations with everybody from new fans to the game, happily getting pissed pre or post-game, through to club presidents and imports, in every hockey-playing city and town in the country. Will sat in team mini-vans, sat up late with coaches and traveled to every AIHL rink and explored the nooks, crannies and idiosyncrasies of those diverse locations. All while throwing in lines like the one about a venue being so cold it offered warnings of future arthritis in his bones.

It all made for a cracking read, and I found myself emerging with three major takeouts:

  1. We need more rinks. A lot of people have been saying this for a long time but Reality Check emphasises the point over and over again. Hockey has enjoyed a huge surge in popularity over the past five years or so, in terms of AIHL fan numbers but maybe even more so in terms of newbies taking up the sport (like the guy typing these words, for example). Already, there is a crush of new players on waiting lists to play the looming IHV summer season that starts in September or so. Winter lists in Melbourne are pretty much full. Throw in training times, for clubs from the lowest social hockey levels to AIHL sessions, Next Level classes at Oakleigh, and Hockey Academy classes at the Icehouse (both at or near capacity), drop-in, and stick-n-pucks or skating sessions, and Melbourne’s two hockey rinks are loaded beyond capacity. I haven’t even mentioned speed skaters, figure skaters or other groups who also want the ice.
    Everybody knows the lack of rinks is an issue – and across Australia, not just Melbourne. There are endless plans, endless rumours of new rinks being developed, waiting for council approval, waiting for finance … but I remain worried that by the time new ice actually happens, if it does, all those wildly enthusiastic new players currently flooding the sport will have drifted away, frustrated by their inability to join a team and play. (Or by the secondary, related problem: that because two rinks can only host so many teams and therefore so many levels of competition, wildly varied levels of skill end up in the same divisions, leading to less-accomplished players feeling overwhelmed by playing hockey against skaters who should really be a division or two higher, if only there was room.)
  2. God, there’s a lot of love behind the momentum of an amateur sport like ice hockey. Time and again, through Will’s book, I was struck by the sheer commitment and dedication and hours of work being poured into the sport by people who have kids, real jobs, need sleep, have other things they could be doing. Again, just by kicking around Victorian hockey at the low level I do, I’m aware of how much work is required and is done by friends who are on committees, or within club management teams, or chasing sponsors, or scoring games, or doing the million other jobs. It’s really humbling and those of us who are not devoting themselves to helping hockey grow in such a grassroots, practical, time-consuming way, should at the very least take a moment to respect those who are. I know I do, and even more so after reading Will’s book, with his eye for those toiling glory-free behind the scenes. In fact, next time there’s a petty squabble about whatever the tempest of the moment is, wouldn’t it be cool if everybody could step back and consider how many unpaid hours the person they’re attacking, or who is attacking them, has put in? Breathe, respect one another, sort out whatever the issue of the moment is. And move on, brothers and sisters in hockey
    … (I know, I know: us idealists have no clue.)
  3. Us Newbies should remember we are Newbies. I’ve been around local hockey since 2010, having ‘discovered’ hockey, through somehow tuning into the Detroit Red Wings, in 2008. It feels like a long time, but it really isn’t. I feel like I know a lot of people in the community now and feel blessed that I happened to start this blog, on January 19, 2011, by chance at the exact moment a whole bunch of others were also discovering AIHL competition and the then fairly new Icehouse facility. Just as the early classes run by Army, Lliam, Tommy and co were taking off. And just as the Ice went on its three-peat run, the grandstands swelling, and the Mustangs arrived. And just as Next Level Hockey was gaining momentum at about the same time. Watching some of the rookies I started with kick on, even now making it to the AIHL rosters.

    The Melbourne Ice players salute the fans after a recent win at the Icehouse. Pic: Nicko

    The Melbourne Ice players salute the fans after a recent win at the Icehouse. Pic: Nicko

I feel like I’ve seen it all but reading Reality Check, I was struck by how people like me are still newcomers to the ranks. There are many people in Australian hockey who have invested decades into the sport they love. In Nite Owls competition, I once had the joy of skating with a bloke who captained Australia’s hockey team 50 years ago, and is still out there, on a Sunday night, effortlessly gliding past a flailing hack like me. But there are also so many others, such as, in my immediate orbit, the Webster family, driving the Ice team and club, on the ice and off, and the Hughes brothers, with their Oakleigh dream and Joey’s intensity and passion that inspires so many rising players, from L-platers to accomplished skaters. Next Level has evolved to the point of having its ‘Next Generation’ program, with a lot of thought and structure behind it. Meanwhile, at the Icehouse, the classes have become more and more sophisticated so that academy students can work specifically on high level skating skills or puck-handling, or game play, or pure shooting. It’s really exciting and it’s impressive, and it all happens because of the long-term and tireless commitment of actually only a few people. Will’s book did a brilliant job of shaking so many of these decades-of-service servants of the game into the spotlight for a brief moment, while never also losing sight of the fact that the sport needs to embrace the new arrivals, the fresh-thinkers, the left-field recent converts who might just take the sport to places it hasn’t been.
This has been a rambling piece. The only point of this particular blog is to add my voice to Will Brodie’s and salute the people who have made our sport rise in Australia and are now working equally hard to accommodate the growing numbers and logistical nightmares of its popularity.
And to say to Will, congrats: he has written one of the best hockey books you or I will ever read, and tied up in a bow everything that is great and worrying and awesome and frustrating about chasing a puck across a block of ice half a world away from the hockey heartlands.
If you haven’t bought Reality Check and read it, I really recommend that you do.

 

 

 

Each to their own

I went to the soccer last Friday. A much-hyped A-League semi-final and a Melbourne derby for flourish, between the Victory and City.

Soccer fans getting passionate.

Soccer fans getting passionate.

Soccer makes such a minimal impact on me as a sport that I literally can’t remember if it was my first A-League game or not. I have a dull feeling that I might have gone to one once before, but if I did, I couldn’t tell you who played, let alone who won.

Yep, it may be The World Game but not in my world.

But that’s okay, because it was a fun event. On a classic Melbourne night, the sort of night where there were 50,000 at the MCG to watch Collingwood-Geelong and who knows how many thousands watching a rugby union game at AAMI Park, and who knows how many more thousands watching the Backstreet Boys at the tennis centre, I was among the 50,000 people gathered at Etihad Stadium on a freezing but clear night. Victory started favourite, got a goal after 18 minutes (I know this because by some random chance I had selected the correct player as opening goal scorer in the sweep, but got the scoring minute wrong by 6; thereby totally bluffing the people around me that I had some kind of clue about the game, and almost winning a decent cash prize) and Victory controlled things from there.

Victory fans having fun. Pic: Getty.

Victory fans having fun. Pic: Getty.

I sat, not really caring, but happy to let the occasion flow over me; even chatting to an ex-Socceroo who happened to sit next to me. (My bluff of knowledge came to a crashing end when I had to confess I had no idea his son currently played in the EPL or for the Socceroos.)

Mostly, I watched the fans. Because they were seriously into it. My biggest immediate take-out was that it was a larger male crowd. I’m used to AFL crowds and AIHL crowds, and they are both heavily mixed gender. I feel like I can’t confidently say whether a Melbourne Ice or Mustangs crowd would be skewed more male than female. Likewise, AFL is probably not 50-50 but there are many women there, and passionate about the game.

On a casual observation, the soccer crowd felt male – between 20 and 50 years old. And it was an occasion for these men to go nuts. There were the usual flares and horns and chants. As Victory took the ascendancy, an entire stand to my left was heaving with people dancing and chanting and waving. The atmosphere was fantastic, yet I felt totally removed, like I was at the zoo, watching from behind glass.

Soccer fans having fun.

Soccer fans doing their thing. I’m not judgmental: Red Wings fans like to throw octopi on the ice.

It got me thinking it’s so strange how some sports can grab your soul and others leave you totally cold. Like, cricket is polarizing in a love it or hate it manner, and so is American football.

I have watched and reported on and experienced and studied many sports over my 30 year journalistic career, aside from being an enthusiast, and I can say with certainty that I am resolutely unmoved by basketball, soccer and baseball. I never had much time for NRL and still don’t really, except that a couple of people who understand the game have explained subtleties to me that made it more interesting as I watched. I can stomach it now but I still wouldn’t pay for a ticket.

Rugby union, when it’s flowing and it’s an important game, like Australia in a World Cup, can be exciting. The characters and sheer danger of boxing, as well as the strategy and fitness, has always gripped me. Tennis lost me, largely, after I had to spend too much time around certain Australian prima donna tennis players, and after I had to watch too much of it as a reporter, and in places where the matches simply didn’t matter: a second round loss for a player just meant an earlier plane to the next city. When the stakes were Grand Slam high and somebody as good as Sampras, Graf or Federer was at their peak: then it got good.

But that’s just me. Whatever you’re into is fine. In fact, English Premier League soccer (and yes, I use the word soccer as an abbreviation of ‘Association Football’, especially because the Melbourne Football Club was formed before any of the English clubs, so screw you ‘world football’; okay, that’s another story) but EPL soccer is kind of like seafood for me. I don’t enjoy eating fish. Some of it I really dislike, while certain flavours of seafood I can tolerate. But when everybody around you is having a mouth orgasm because the food is so amazing, and you’re just ‘tolerating’ it, you feel guilty and wonder what is wrong with you? What are you missing, and why? I’m like that with the EPL competition. So many of my friends have EPL teams, follow it in the middle of the night, start work conversations with a quick discussion of last night’s results or pending big money transfers … and I have nothing to add.

It doesn’t mean I’m against it; not at all. A really great game of soccer can be fun to watch, especially if it’s attacking and end-to-end and the crowd is at fever pitch, but you know, shrug. The World Cup can be fun.

One of my mobs. Go Tigers!!! (you hopeless, underachieving bastards)

One of my mobs. Go Tigers!!! (you hopeless, underachieving bastards)

By contrast, Australian Rules has held me from before I can remember to now, when Richmond continues to be remorselessly shit, no matter what, and when I still run around, feeling the leather with a bunch of men old enough to know better who gather once or twice a week for the pure joy of landing a pass in the outstretched hands of a fellow player on the lead.

Hockey? Well, hockey grabbed me from the moment I turned on my television years ago now and saw my first Stanley Cup final game between Detroit and Pittsburgh and something in me stirred. Immediately. Grabbed me! Made my heart beat. Has seen me holding my head in my hands, screaming at Gamecenter as the Wings performed miracles or screwed up, soaring as the Ice achieved the three-peat of cups, slumping as the Ice lost last year’s grand final; even physically taking on such a crazy sport as an activity, having never skated.

All of that. All. Of. That.

Blood pumping. Passion burning. Feeling alive.

One of my other mobs: The Cup-winning Red Wings that captured my heart.

One of my other mobs: The Cup-winning Red Wings that captured my heart.

Which is why I found it so strange, so abstract, that I could watch those Victory fans last Friday night, screaming and yelling and jumping up and down and foaming at the mouth, and realised that I was just staring at them, completely unable to bridge the gap between us. The bridge of caring.

And I found myself wondering how many pieces of silverware are fought for across the globe, in how many individual sports and individual competitions within those sports, and by how many teams and cheered for by how many millions, whether from NFL to Brunswick trugo? Somebody everywhere willing to bulge at the jugular, to ride that scoreboard or that goal or that umpire’s decision; that bounce of a ball or a puck or a footy or a punch or a shot; the fans’ sporting existence living or dying on the fortunes of that moment in their chosen passion.

Ice v Mustangs at the Icehouse. Now we're talking ...

Ice v Mustangs at the Icehouse. Now we’re talking …

There’s no deep meaning to any of these observations. It’s totally okay. Those Melbourne Victory and City fans would probably stand on the glass, politely observing, when the Ice and Mustangs were going at one another’s throats, and be wistful that nobody is throwing flares.

Each to their own, I say, and go the winner in this weekend’s A-League grand final.

I wish those chanting, excitable hordes well.

I’ll just be watching the hockey and the Tigers. It’s what I do.