Victorian fans: It’s time to choose.

THIS IS A COMMUNITY SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT FROM NICKO PLACE TO ALL MELBOURNE HOCKEY FANS

Okay, Melbourne hockey fans. We need to make one thing clear as we head into this giddily exciting weekend of finals at the Icehouse with the ‘Stangs and Ice in contention for the Goodall Cup.

You need to pick a side.

I don’t want to hear any of this ‘I just hope one of the Melbourne teams can do it’ crap.

I don’t want to hear: ‘Oh, you know, I know a few guys in the Mustangs and I have a few of my coaches playing for the Ice so, you know …

I don’t even want to overhear: ‘It’s just great for the overall sport in Melbourne that we have both teams in the finals.

I don’t want to hear any of that.

Ice victory: more of this please. This weekend. On Sunday. Go Ice Go. Pic: Fairfax.

Ice victory: more of this please. This weekend. On Sunday. Go Ice Go. Pic: Fairfax.

Choose a side.

And barrack as hard as you humanly can. Until that side is eliminated or wins the whole enchilada.

And then celebrate or seethe.

I have been aware, over the past couple of years, of hockey folk who openly confess to liking both the Melbourne teams. I’m not going to name names but they’re out there. The shift from the Ice to the Mustangs of the Hughes boys, and Martin Kutek, muddied the issue of barracking for a lot of Next Level enthusiasts. I get that. But I’m saying it’s time to choose.

Red wire or blue wire?

You’ll have a lot more fun this weekend if you foam at the mouth, one way or the other.

One of the fundamental joys of sport, from where I sit, having watched A LOT of it, as a journo and an enthusiast, is the sheer joy that can only be found through complete emotional commitment.

In the AFL, you cannot barrack for Essendon and Collingwood on Anzac Day. (Screw them both. Go Tigers!)

In the NHL, you can’t watch the Red Wings versus the Blackhawks, while barracking for both sides.

It’s fine not to care which team wins, but that makes you an ‘unaligned hockey fan’, not a true Detroit or Chicago fan. (Let’s Go Red Wings!)

Or, if you watch Federer v Nadal and just enjoy the game, you’re a generic tennis fan, not a Federer or Nadal fan. (Go Fed!)

It’s Holden OR Ford at Bathurst.

It was Ali OR Frazier.

It’s Australia OR England in the Ashes.

I could go on …

Some guys from some other Melbourne club celebrate a goal. I'm against this. Pic: Nicko

Some guys from some other Melbourne club celebrate a goal. I’m against this. Pic: Nicko

Trust me, I know of what I type. This is coming from a long-suffering Richmond supporter in the AFL; a fan who still clings to those dusty memories of being 15 years old and at my first ever Grand Final when the Tigers won the flag in 1980, of yelling and chanting myself hoarse, of feeling the delirium of premiership success after going to almost every game that season. And never wavering in my support through all the dark, bleak, losing years since. I’m still a true believer and can’t wait to finally sing the song as they raise the cup, whether that’s in a year or 20. (And yes, I am extremely aware that it might not be in my lifetime.)

But I digress. I’m actually trying to do you, my hockey brothers and sisters, a favour by demanding you choose a side this weekend and ride that choice to glory or despair. It’s the only way to achieve the true bliss of Goodall Cup glory.

Me? I’m a Melbourne Ice fan. Through and through. I deeply want The Beard, Army, Tommy, Bacsy and all the other Ice players to raise that cup one more time. I’ve never actually seen an Ice championship in the flesh and I want Sunday to end that bizarre quirk.

In fact, let’s get shit started and rev into the weekend.

I DON’T want those frauds, the Mustangs, to win for several reasons:

The Mustangs' mascot: real horse or not?

The Mustangs’ mascot: Questions remain about whether he’s an actual horse.

  1. They’re a Johnny Come Lately team with no history or tradition and they play rockabilly and other bizarre musical acts before home games.
  2. Their mascot thinks he’s a horse but he’s not a real horse.
  3. Joey and Vinnie Hughes used to play for the Ice but are now the enemy so I’m trying to come up with taunting chants that rhyme with ‘Hughes’. (Blues? Clues? Fuse? News? … this is almost too easy)
  4. The Mustangs fans were so insufferable in their smugness and gloating after the team somehow beat the Ice in a derby earlier this season that I naturally want them to eat some crow.
  5. Did I mention the horse mascot who shakes hands with people? Not hooves. Hands.

Sure, I have friends who are diehard Clippyclop fans and I’ll be grudgingly happy for them if they win. Jess Kirwan, for example, I fully respect your one-eyed passion for the team. And a shout out to the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, who I have always admired and respected as a hilarious and interesting group.

I’ll be happy for you guys if the team wins. But I don’t want that to be this weekend, because my team is also playing.

As for the reborn Canberra, well, I guess victory would be one of the biggest achievements ever for crowdfunding as a concept but I still struggle to get excited about anything to do with Canberra, especially while politicians are as crap and vision-free as they are on all sides of the House at the moment.

And the Ice-Dogs? Meh, they won it last year so that’s enough success for them and anyway, there’s that whole bullshit Sydney versus Melbourne rivalry that I don’t usually buy into but this weekend, why not? Plus, I fundamentally don’t believe dogs can skate. I’ve seen my labradoodle skitter helplessly while trying to run on the wooden floor boards at home, and I’m pretty sure she’d be even more crap on a white frozen sheet.

My team. Which is yours? Pic: Nicko

My team. Which is yours? Pic: Nicko

So there.That wraps it up for the quasi contenders.

Go Ice go!

Local fence-sitters: pick up ONE scarf, right now.

Paint your face blue, red and white OR black, white and gold.

Be prepared to cry with your chosen team or celebrate wildly.

If it does happen to be a Clippyclop-Ice grand final, and it’s a lopsided scoreboard, there’ll be NO sneaking off to the Icehouse toilets at the end of the second period on Sunday to change colours and clothing. You hear me? There’ll be none of that! I might even check. And I’ll do a sweep of the toilets near the Bradbury Rink as well, in case you’re thinking of getting sneaky. I will. I’ll do it. Don’t think I won’t. You’ve been warned.

Jockeys don’t change horses mid-race in the Melbourne Cup. And neither should we. Which is why sport is torturous and fun.

Got it?

Good. Then see you there.

 

 

 

Finals fever takes over Melbourne

So, this weekend is shaping up.

The Melbourne Mustangs and Melbourne Ice finished the AIHL regular season in first and second place on the ladder and so the finals, at the Icehouse on Saturday and Sunday, hold the tantalizing promise of an epic local derby as the grand final.

The Icehouse will host the AIHL finals this weekend, with two semis and then a final of no-tomorrow hockey. Picture: Nicko

The Icehouse will host the AIHL finals this weekend, with two semis and then a final of no-tomorrow hockey. Picture: Nicko

Which is not to get ahead of myself. The reborn Canberra Brave and the reigning champions, the Sydney Ice-Dogs, also have genuine claims, so it’s going to be a hectic and tough weekend of hockey.

It’s hard to gauge where hockey in Australia is at, I reckon, as we head into the weekend’s finale. On the surface, it looks super healthy, especially if you’re sitting in Melbourne as a fan of the Ice or the Clippyclops. Both Melbourne teams draw close to sell-out crowds and, as always, the only real problem in Melbourne seems to be the lack of much-needed extra rinks.

Perth, which didn’t make the play-offs, turned up last weekend and beat the Ice twice. Most of the teams in the AIHL were competitive this season. Media interest (the vast majority of which can be placed under the name of Will Brodie, from The Age, who has carried the sport into the mainstream media on his back) and Fox Sports coverage continues to grow. Life’s rosy.

I hope.

But there are issues, from where I sit, as a fan. For starters, the sheer battle of Canberra to exist this season was a wake-up call and several other teams appear to struggle financially to get to the line each season. It’s never about the passion or skill of the players. It’s purely about the cost of running a team, and the ability of state bodies or owners to make it happen.

Meanwhile, the finals format isn’t great. To battle for the entire season, finish first or second, and then find yourself in a cut-throat semi-final doesn’t seem particularly fair. The top team in each semi gets ‘last change’ rights, and ‘home bench’ but so what, really, after months of intense competition? If the grand final does happen to be a Mustangs-Ice clash, those two teams have their own benches anyway so, in practice, the Mustangs would only have ‘last change’ as the competitive advantage for all that work and success.

Of course, it would rock if the finals series could happen across two weekends. One weekend of best-of-three semi-final match-ups. It would be brutal, but compelling and would have a greater chance of revealing the best team in each series.

Then the grand final could be held the following weekend. Again, a best-of-three finals series would be so much better than one hour of no-tomorrow to judge the whole season.

The arguments against that, or other potential formats, are mostly financial, and reasonably so. I get it. As it stands, with one weekend, locked in for Melbourne or Newcastle or another venue months before the actual date, everybody can book tickets as soon as they confirm their place in the top four, achieving cheaper flights etc. Teams are generally not financially flush enough to be flying around for extra weekends, and the league doesn’t seem to have the cash to make that happen, but it’s a shame. It feels like the intensity of the AIHL season comes down to one very fast, very ruthless weekend where the best side all year can have an off five minutes or a dubious penalty or two and that’s it, they’re done.

Well, look at this view from the Melbourne Eye wheel: a giant rink-sized building two sheds to the left from the Icehouse. Does Victoria really even have a film industry needing such a huge sound stage? I say: freeze it, now. Picture: Nicko

Well, look at this view from the Melbourne Eye wheel: a giant rink-sized building two sheds to the left from the Icehouse. Does Victoria really even have a film industry needing such a huge sound stage? I say: freeze it, now. Picture: Nicko

Of course, you can equally argue that this is exactly what makes the weekend exciting; that everything needs to go right. The Melbourne Ice famously achieved the three-peat not so long ago, so teams can get it done.

But wouldn’t a more considered, more-matches, longer finale be cool?

The other huge issue, especially in Melbourne, is the lack of rinks. It’s been talked about endlessly – the Icehouse is amazing, Oakleigh heroically provides ageing, quirky back-up. There is no third rink. Beginner classes and intermediate classes continue to churn out super-enthusiastic wannabe players, just like I was three or four years ago and, Hell, continue to be. But the summer competition is groaning at capacity, in terms of the maximum number of teams and the number of players per team. Our 2011 influx, the Rookies, was followed by a group of hockey class students who called themselves the Ferals, and now there are ‘Black Ice’ jerseys all over the rink at classes. What worries me is that, with only two rinks, there’s going to be nowhere for these players to actually play, and I fear people will lose interest and drift away. Or get thrown into a higher grade of competition than they should attempt and be smashed and limp away.

The view from the cheap seats at Braves try-outs on Saturday at Oakleigh. So many players just wanting to play. Picture: Nicko

The view from the cheap seats at Braves try-outs on Saturday at Oakleigh. So many players just wanting to play. Picture: Nicko

The Icehouse was recently rumoured to be on its way to becoming apartments but has since been sold and looks like it will remain a rink, which saves the sport’s arse in Victoria right there. But any new rink must be a couple of years or more away from being built, even if it’s commissioned, so the time lag is a serious concern.

And yes, time marches on. Has this year flown or what? Spring is definitely in the air – 18 degrees and sunny as I type this – and Ice Hockey Victoria’s winter competition is coming to an end, with finals underway. That means summer competition is looming closer for us lucky enough to have a spot on a team, and everybody I know is suffering ‘ice fever’ as Alex McGoon called it today. We Cherokees can’t wait to reform as a team and play. Facebook banter is hitting unprecedented heights.

Off social media, Big Cat and I have loaded up with new sticks – a stick and puck on Monday was very ugly, for me at least, as I tried to come to terms with a slightly different length and different curve on my stick, compared to my beloved but definitely now dead Reebok 9k. Off-ice and on-ice training remains intense as we get ready.

Spring also means the business end of the AFL, with my beloved Tigers heading to Sydney to try and knock off the Swans and somehow complete their unlikely mission to make the Eight, from the ridiculously terrible mid-season position of 3 and 10. They probably won’t do it, but I’m all about whether the turnaround will carry into 2015. Or am I? As far as this year’s campaign goes, I’m doing my bit for the team by heading overseas, so I’ll be in Europe for the grand final and the most unlikely Richmond flag ever.

In my other spiritual home of Detroit, the media and the fans are counting the days until Red Wings training camp, which is now less than a month away. Will Dan Cleary train the house down and make the line-up? Will Tomas Jurco be sent down to Grand Rapids? Will a right-handed d-man appear out of nowhere, but without costing us Tatar or another treasured rising star? Will Stephen Weiss be healthy and ready to stop being the invisible man? So many questions and ever closer to the puck-drop to start the 2014-15 season. Personally, I think the Wings are going to be better than people think and will give the whole thing a shake. So there.

So much to look forward to, but only after this weekend. As somebody who somehow managed to never be there at the moment the Melbourne Ice won any of the three straight Goodall Cups, I can only say I’m leaving Sunday free and clear for a trip to Docklands. I plan to be in my seat and cheering, no matter which of the four teams lift the Cup. But I know who I’m barracking for.

Go, Ice, go.

 

 

 

 

 

Playing like a girl

On Saturday, I rolled into the Icehouse and went straight to the penalty box.

My view from the home team penalty box. Pic: Nicko

My view from the home team penalty box. Pic: Nicko

Those who like to push the idea that I’m a goon wouldn’t have been surprised, but in fact I was dressed in street clothes and there to help.

Ice hockey in Victoria still largely runs on volunteer efforts, from club presidents to scoreboard attendants, from coaches to Rookie admins* trying to fund-raise to help AIHL players pay their way. I feel guilty that I don’t do more, so volunteered to assist at a Melbourne Ice women’s game and was offered the challenging and powerful role of penalty box attendant. This included the thrilling moment where I carried a tiny Esky full of the game pucks (chilled on ice – what’s that about? I forgot to ask) to the scoreboard attendants, and then drank coffee in the home team box, watching the game from a pane of glass away. It was awesome.

Melbourne was up against the Brisbane Goannas, who were challenged for playing numbers, had one member wearing full rental gear, which hinted at some sort of pre-game drama, and should, imho, have had a team penalty for their jersey, which was largely green, blue and orange and featured what appeared to be a Seventies drawing of a lizard on the front in what could only have been some kind of crazy, ill-thought-out tribute to the Goanna Band and Solid Rock?

Shona Green in action. Pic MIW Facebook page

Shona Green in action. Her outside edges are ever so slightly more impressive than mine. Pic MIW Facebook page

My main take-out from watching Melbourne Ice and Goanna women at work was that it was a blast to finally see skaters like captain Shona Green and my Cherokees coach Georgia Carson playing flat out. Shona is one of the coaches at the Icehouse and so is usually sledging me from behind the opposition bench on a Wednesday night. I’ve had classes with her over the years and always loved her coaching style and been seriously challenged by her drills, but of course the flipside of seeing somebody like Shona only as a coach is that she never gets to more than first-gear, thinking about changing into second gear, on the ice. The same with Georgia, who occasionally joins in a scrimmage at our team training, but is hardly pushing into her red levels at any point.

On Saturday, leading her team to another win (they’re unbeaten in this season), Shona wasn’t in social mode or teacher mode or polite mode. She was in hockey player mode, and I loved seeing it up close. Given she has captained Australia, it shouldn’t surprise that she played at a different level to a lot of the women out there, on either side. Both teams, being in the national competition, had many players who were sublime skaters and had great shots. The defences were solid; as in hard and tenacious and disciplined. The Ice has a few new players this year and I noticed how the veteran defenders (and I’m cautiously calling Georgia one of those, although I think she’s yet to hit 22 years old (wince)), would direct traffic and provide cover and just be there to help at every turn.

Shona was everywhere, scoring at least one goal, but also getting a penalty, which meant she had the joy of being escorted to the gate to be met by none other than Nicko Place, closing the door and wondering what the etiquette is as Attendant. Do you chat? Do you sigh and shake your head? Do you land any of the lines that some friends and I had thrown around as ‘the most inappropriate thing to say to a Melbourne Ice player sitting a minor penalty’? (Random selection: ‘I guess if you were better at hockey that wouldn’t have happened…?’ or: ‘I’ve written some notes that might help once you’re back on the ice’) … btw, for the removal of doubt, the answer to that last question: do you land them? is NO.

My coach, Georgia, on the move v the Goannas. Pic: facebook

My coach, Georgia, on the move v the Goannas. Pic: facebook

In fact, Shona was bemused as she arrived, which made conversation easy because I’ve had the same feeling as I’ve arrived in the box. Genuinely trying to work out what the penalty was for, and whether you did it. This is not to bag the referees, by the way, or to breach the hardcore IHV social media rules … I’m just saying that I know I’ve been called for things in the hurly burly of summer league that I’m genuinely unaware I’ve done. It’s always ineptitude with me, not vicious intent. And so I’ve headed to the box, wondering out loud, why I’m being called. Not complaining; just curious. (As I’ve written before, I secretly kind of like being sent to the box. It feels bad-ass to have a referee or linesman have to personally escort you all the way to the gate, as though you’ve got the potential to explode on the way.) The refs are cool too; they can tell if you’re just confused, as against having a go.

So anyway, Shona and I discussed the many reasons a player might be sent to the box, until the scoreboard attendant yelled from further down what the penalty was actually for. (Slashing, from memory.) Being the captain, Shona also used her two minutes to note that the usual towel and water bottle weren’t in the box, and then she was gone, skating like a fury from the moment I opened the door.

In the third period, as Sarah Teed arrived, gently fuming as everybody always is, I asked if she would like a drink of water from the newly-arrived bottle (Val Webster being omnipresent, having heard Shona’s query and answering every need in every direction, as usual)? ‘Oh, no thank you,’ Sarah said, sweetly, as though I’d offered her a cucumber sandwich. Then got back out there, to throw her weight around as Goannas dared to attack the net.

Quite a few Ice women were called by the refs, and it shouldn’t surprise that they were just like any other team I’ve been part of or witnessed, cursing and swearing slightly under their breath but keeping a lid on it, hoping hard that the other team doesn’t score while on the power play, and engaging in a wildly complicated series of hand gestures with coach Tommy Powell (yes, at the rink again, as he and Army and Shona and Bacsy are pretty much every single day as far as I can tell) to decide whether to rejoin play or just get to the bench as fast as they can skate.

Ice president Emma Poynton turned up and had a chat, including thanking me profusely for volunteering to help at the game. I had to fight the urge to yell: ‘Stop being president! You’re mid-game! Go score a goal or hit somebody!’

Nic Cliff in action on saturday. Pic: Matt Wragg Photography

Nic Cliff in action on Saturday. Pic: Matt Wragg Photography

The Ice won pretty easily and it was fascinating to see the mix of skill levels, and the intensity, as compared to when the Melbourne Ice men play. The women wear full face cages (by international hockey law, I believe) and don’t ‘board’ opponents the way the men do. The hockey was fast, furious and committed, as you’d expect, and I felt a little ashamed I hadn’t made it down to a MIW match before now. One of my hockey friends, Nicole Cliff, was making her home debut for the Ice (the second ‘Rookie’ after Georgia Giblin to make it all the way to the national league) and it was cool to be there to see her play. She looked like she belonged too.

I’ve always loved that – at my admittedly low level – hockey is mixed gender, and that I have been able to play with and against quite a few of the women competing for Melbourne Ice on the weekend; even occasionally winning a face-off or a puck battle along the way. It’s exciting to think that you can actually take the ice against a potential national league or Australian team player, to keep pushing yourself and working on your skills. Watching Saturday’s game, when the Melbourne Ice women took off the handbrake and skated to capacity, left no illusions as to how high the standard is at that level. They rocked.

* (shout out to Matt Wragg, Theresa Neate, Brendan Parsons and Chris Janson.)

A weekend of impossible choices

And so I’m back. Head fuzzy from jetlag and no sleep. Getting my head around being back in the real world instead of in the dream land of a small island off Brittany, or way up in the French Alps, pushing my somewhat startled legs up huge mountains in the name of my own personal summer league altitude training (also known as trying to keep up with my partner Chloe’s French family, who it turns out are half French, half mountain goat) and drinking delicious hot chocolates at the refuge huts to be found at 2500 m or higher.

Braves altitude training in the French Alps. 600 m higher than Mount Kosciuszko, with a knee brace. Oh yeah.

Braves altitude training in the French Alps. 600 m higher than Mount Kosciuszko, with a knee brace. Oh yeah.

Now returned to Melbourne, and facing impossible choices, especially for my not-quite-working brain.

I faced my first impossible choice on Wednesday when I had not even been back in the country for 24 hours and 10 pm dev league was on.

Who am I kidding? That was no choice at all. Of course I played, loved it, was surprised that I skated ok and my knee held up, even had a couple of decent shots on goal. Even if I couldn’t then sleep until 5 am.

So, actually, that choice was easy.

But this weekend isn’t.

For starters, there’s the election from Hell: a Labor Government which has achieved a lot, including surviving the global financial crisis, yet has managed to be so unlikeable and apparently dysfunctional along the way that even rusted-on left-wingers like me are blinking at the idea of endorsing it with our vote. But up against a simply unelectable dickhead with a sour-faced, aggressive front bench. It’s not really an impossible choice – I still stand by the words of Margaret Whitlam, wife of Gough, when asked why she had devoted her life to the Labor Party. She replied: ‘Because ours is the party of compassion.”

Faced with the choice of Abbott and his heartless cronies, it’s a no brainer for me. Labour or Green. (And I don’t usually get political but I’m still pissed off with the death of objective journalism in the Murdoch press, so screw it. Something has to stand up against that campaign.)

Vote done, Saturday’s challenge over, will only bring me to the important stuff, and a potentially harder choice.

This weekend will see the Australian Ice Hockey League finals held at the Icehouse. As usual, the top four teams gather at one rink (Newcastle last year, Icehouse this year) for two semi-finals on the Saturday and then the grand final on the Sunday – a financially easier finale for the national competition.

Of course, my team, the Melbourne Ice, is shooting for a fourth straight title – which is an unlikely but actually achievable goal, the team having managed to finish the season in fourth place despite the turbulence of a new president and coach, and the controversial mid-season retirement of Joey and Vinnie Hughes, and other destabilizing factors, not to mention just the sheer fact of having a massive threepeat target on their back, when every other team shapes up for a face-off.

The semis are tomorrow – vote early hockey fans – and my headaches really begin if the Ice makes it past the top-of-the-table Sydney Ice Dogs into Sunday’s grand final.

Because that game is scheduled for exactly the same time as Richmond v Carlton, my footy team’s first appearance in the finals for more than a dozen years. A cut-throat elimination final at the MCG, with a crowd of 90,000 people, many of whom will be Tiger tragics like me, barely able to watch after all these years of patience and waiting and suffering and wanting and hoping and dying and agonizing and fuming and daring to believe and finally starting to actually believe.

So ice hockey or AFL on a September Sunday afternoon?

1980 Tiger celebrations, so long ago they wore lace-up guernseys: This was supposed to happen every year ...

1980 Tiger celebrations: This was supposed to happen every year …

I was 15 years old in 1980 when Richmond won its last premiership; my first attendance at a Grand Final. Best friend Shonko and I standing among so many hulking men, so much black and white, deep in the old Southern Stand of the MCG, as Richmond monstered Collingwood to win by 81 points. Walking out of there, floating out of the ground, and stunned by the groups of Magpie fans slumped on the grass in the carparks, crying, desolate, shattered. My teenage emotions overwhelmed by the euphoria mixed with opposition heartbreak. I’ve always been too empathetic, would be hopeless in a war, where the whole point is to dehumanize the opposition.

I bled for the poor Magpies, against every rule in the footy book, but also sang that mighty Tiger song all the way back to Burwood on the 75 tram. Have never forgotten the thrill of wispy-haired Kevin Bartlett running riot, Michael Roach in flight, Geoff Raines’ long bombs from the centre, Jimmy ‘The Ghost’ Jess dominating centre half back.

Barracking for Richmond was the best thing in the world. This footy power would never fade! Would it? Umm … actually, that was it. Mostly a wasteland since.

The point of all this is that I’m invested in Richmond. Yes, I’ve been a Red Wing fan for a while now, and am clearly passionate about Australian hockey – at summer league level, dev league level and AIHL level. But I’ve been bleeding yellow and black since I was knee high, so Sunday’s choice is a tough one.

Not least because I’ve paid for AIHL tickets and bizarrely I have never managed to be there when the Ice has won its three titles. Through a series of events best not recounted – especially the team’s second title at the Icehouse, when I saw the first half of the Grand Final – I have yet to be there as Big Cat and my hockey mates have, to greet the final scoreline, step onto the ice and congratulate Army, Lliam, Baxy, Tommy and co in the moment of glory.

I guess this weekend will play out as it plays out. I’ll certainly be at the Icehouse tomorrow, barracking hard for the Ice to make it to Sunday’s game, and then see where life lines up from there.

Assuming I can stay awake, that is. Jetlag is a killer. But it’s totally worth it.

The Bears: out-numbered, beaten up and beaten

I managed to get along to an AIHL game yesterday: Melbourne Ice versus the Sydney Bears at the Icehouse, on a Sunday afternoon. Having not been training at all (see previous 4000 whinge-posts about my left knee), or seeing the hockey gang on Wednesdays at Dev League, I feel like I’ve been very removed from my usual icy world, so it was nice to sit in the stands at the Henke and say howdy to everybody, while cheering Lliam, Army, Baxy, Tommy and the rest of the Ice team.

Framnk and Schlamp go at it at the Icehouse. Pic courtesy of: MosquitoByte - thanks, Andrew Mercieca!

Frank and Schlamp go at it at the Icehouse. Pic courtesy of: MosquitoByte – thanks, Andrew Mercieca!

It was a long afternoon for the poor Bears, who were coming off six straight losses and had to face the three-time champions. There’s a match report here (yes, the Melbourne Ice have official match reports now!) but I was struck by two things, watching the game.

The first is just the sheer continuing strangeness, in modern day sport, that hockey remains a contest where genuine fistfights can and do occur. I know I’ve written about this before but when you’re watching a fight in real time, it can still strike you that it is sort of bizarre. Yesterday it happened early in the third period, as Ice import Chris Frank and Bear Michael Schlamp dropped the gloves and were both thrown out of the game, but not before Frank had won the fight and waved cheerily to the crowd in celebration while being led to the bench and the locker-room.

For hockey fans, this was no big thing. Neither player appeared particularly hurt and in the understood arena of contact hockey, such a fight is not a particularly rare thing or considered outrageous at any level. This wasn’t like Vinnie Hughes’ ugly hunt down of an opposition player last year. This was just a ‘you-want-to-go?…ok!’ scuffle.

But if you zoom back to take a wider sporting view, how many sports allow a player to genuinely beat somebody up without serious consequence or alarm?

It happened a few weeks ago in a rugby league State of Origin match, leading to mixed reactions (old skool: ‘he was flying the flag, being awesome, being a tough guy’ and new world: WTF?) as eloquently captured and discussed by a friend of mine from the Bang, Ned Manning.

But it hardly ever happens in AFL any more and would be seen as dinosaur behavior if it did. Soccer, basketball, netball, tennis, golf, triathlon, Trugo? Nope. Officially, fights aren’t encouraged or particularly condoned in Australian hockey – in fact, as somebody pointed out in the stands yesterday, it’s really only the NHL that still casually allows fights – but if one does take off, the refs still stand back until somebody hits the ice. In summer league, where I play, a fight like yesterday’s would mean you are probably out for the season, which is good for encouraging kids to take up the sport. But I don’t think many people at the game yesterday had an issue with Frank and Schlamp testing one another out. in fact, most of the crowd loved it.

I know people who won’t go to hockey or take an interest because of the violence of it, or the perceived violence of it. Yet stamping out that violence, even a stoush like Frank-Schlamp – would remove a key component of the sport. Toughness is an essential part of this level of the game. It’s not just fisticuffs either. Hulking Ice defender Todd Graham twice put the same Bears player, the much smaller Silvan Maeder, into the boards yesterday and it would be fair to say Maeder did not appear to enjoy it. He stayed down, face first on the ice, for quite a while after the first hit (which was actually just Graham guiding him gradually into the glass with his arse) and shook his head, either in pain or frustration, after the much harder second hit.

But he copped them both and was still slugging it out at the end, for which I admired him.

The second element where hockey is weird is in participation numbers. How many other sports don’t care if one team starts a game with dramatically more players than the opposition?

The many Ice players still standing at the end of the game salute the crowd.

Some of the many Ice players still standing at the end of the game salute the crowd.

In yesterday’s game, as far as I could count (which isn’t well because, let’s face it, I’m a hockey player), the Bears started with only 12 players, including one goalie. The Ice had at least 18 players, including Dahlen Phillips between the pipes, and probably a second goalie dressed on the bench, who I didn’t happen to notice.

So the Ice had several lines of forwards to run, while the Bears were almost shift-on, shift-off. And it got worse when Schlamp was ejected, as noted, and so was another Bear, Spencer Austin, for the almost farcically undisciplined acts of tripping an Ice player with his stick while being sent to the box, and then swatting the puck down the ice for a further misdemeanor.

Austin tried to regain some tough-guy credits by breaking a stick on the bench boards on his way out but nobody was buying it; especially, I’d imagine, the other Bears. In fact, Holy crap, I wouldn’t have wanted to be Austin when his exhausted teammates finally staggered back into the rooms at the end of the period/game. When he got thrown out for being a dick, the Ice was narrowly holding off the gutsy Bears, 4-3, but now, two men down (compared to the Ice only losing Frank and having plenty of cover), the Bears tired dramatically in the last 10 minutes to lose 7-3.

In my Sunday Nite Owls comp and in summer league, this can happen, where one team barely has enough skaters to legally compete while the other team has up to four full lines of forwards and three lines of D.

It’s very strange and yet another test of your confidence and skill and fitness, if you happen to be on the team with less bodies. I secretly love it when that happens; digging deep, deep and deeper, to keep my shaking legs moving and a cool head, against a larger army.

It’s just another way that hockey is challenging and bizarre and entertaining and uncertain. Long may it stay that way, as long as I don’t find myself bare-knuckle shaping up to Chris Frank. He’s quite a big guy.

A sleepy Sunday makes for happy Owls

Dusk settles over Melbourne and the streets start to empty, as families head home to bunker in, resting up with the TV glowing, to get ready for the work week ahead. At Piedemontes, my local supermarket, I’m lucky to be in the ‘handbasket only’ queue, so that I avoid the bumper trolleys. Gillian Welch’s ‘I build a highway back to you’ is my soundtrack as the sky settles into pink, deepening, and I open the door of Fern Cottage, my little pre-Federation workers cottage in North Fitzroy, and close out the world, escaping the chill just starting to bite now the sun has gone.

I pour a white wine and put on some Melody Gardot. ‘Your heart is as black as night’ fills the kitchen as I make an omelette for dinner – pushing my culinary capacity to the limit but timing the turn in the pan just right. My new microwave is trusted with handling the cooking of the broccoli and proves up to the task. Of course, one of my boys has stolen into the house at some stage while I wasn’t looking and eaten all the potato chips, which was to be my secret, guilty last dinner ingredient, so that saves my belly some unneeded calories.

It’s only 6.15 pm as I sit down to eat – absurdly early for the night-time meal. The last game of the AFL round hasn’t even finished and I’m eating according to some retirement home timetable.

Calvados - the final shot that did all the damage.

Calvados – the final shot that did all the damage.

It’s not just the hangover. Having that final shot of Calvados, technically a brandy, in reality a lethal poison, wasn’t a great idea the night before. The music had finished at La Niche café, and I’d already had an on-the-house final shot of La Nichette – drinking chocolate with some kind of pear liqueur. And that was after a final shot of Chouchen, a French liqueur so dangerous that punters reportedly have to be hooked onto their stools at some bars in Brittany, for danger of toppling backwards after imbibing. Chloe, my partner and the expert on all this, tells me that she tends to avoid Chouchen because she loses all feeling in her lower face after a few shots. Her theory is that’s because of the bee venom, mixed among the honey, which shows how old-skool Bretonne she is. Reading up on it, venom hasn’t been an official ingredient for a while.

Anyway, the bike ride home from all that was an adventure and Sunday has been understandably quiet. Darkness now gives me every excuse in the world to curl up on the couch, pour a restorative whisky and watch ‘Top of the Lake’, succumbing to my body’s tiredness and my sluggish brain.

Which is why, of course, I am about to instead drag my hockey bag and sticks to the car, and set a course towards Docklands.

Because I am now a member of the Nite Owls, a hockey underworld which unfolds like a ghost story at the Icehouse every Sunday night; the spirits of hockey past drifting into Melbourne’s state-of-the-art hockey rink from all parts of the city. Plus a few of us self-styled rookies from the past few years, who happen to have taken up the sport a little late. ‘Over 35’ is the qualification but many of the Nite Owls players passed that marker many, many years ago.

On Sunday nights, in the most organized unofficial social comp you could ever find, these men and women take over the Henke Rink and play a brand of hockey marked less by furious pace and body-work than astonishing stick-handling and the canny hockey-sense of years on the ice.

And then there’s me; 13 years past the entrance age, with my P-plate skills and skating, feeling like the new kid at school as I walk into the locker-room and find a bunch of strangers, featuring a wild variety of ages and physiques as well as the occasional friendly face from my hockey classes and summer league. Tonight’s my first actual game for a Nite Owls team, after taking part in an unofficial scrimmage last week, involving one old-timer who I was told is a former captain of Australia, now in his Seventies. Still owning the ice as I, badly propping up defence as the new kid, grinned from the blue line.

The queue to get into the Icehouse yesterday. Hockey's popularity is getting scary. (And hi, Richard, in the NY cap!)

The queue to get into the Icehouse yesterday. Hockey’s popularity is getting scary. (And hi, Richard, in the NY cap!)

I can take some inspiration into tonight from a slightly higher standard and more intense game of hockey that took place on the Henke Rink yesterday afternoon. I was in a VIP Box, kindly hosted by the boys from the Ice-Threepeat doco, which meant I was right on the glass as Melbourne Ice and the Melbourne Mustangs opened their AIHL seasons. I sipped my beer as the Mustangs president, I assume, made the longest pre-game speech in hockey history, totally negating the warm-up the players had completed before lining up for a national anthem that was finally sung 15 or 20 minutes later.

Anyway, at last, the puck was dropped and it was so good to be back, watching my coaches Matt Armstrong, Jason Baclig, and Joey Hughes show what they can do when playing for real. (Lliam Webster and Tommy Powell are representing Australia overseas this week).

As Icehouse or Next Level students, we can get complacent about being on the ice with players of this ability. Army maybe hits second gear every now and then, trying to show Icehouse students how to do a move, like a transition or a drill. At the start of class, as students hang laps to get their feet moving and settle onto the ice, Lliam especially loves to hoon around, trying trick shots against the goalies, but even then, we all know he’s not raising a sweat.

Playing for the Ice, only a pane of strong glass away, they reminded me of just how good they are. And nobody here made NHL standard. Holy crap. The stratosphere of hockey ability is high.

I was sharing the box with Jaffa, who coached the Ice to the three straight Goodall Cups, including last year’s, and retired after the 2012 season. He was remarkably calm, given this was his first game not in charge. Yet every comment about a player was so insightful, so totally accurate; spotting the slightest weakness or strength. It must be a strange sensation to have so much knowledge and such great hockey eyes and not really now be able to use them.

The view from the VIP Box. Could be worse. (Thanks, Jason and Shannon!)

The view from the VIP Box. Could be worse. (Thanks, Jason and Shannon!)

Andy Lamrock, also retired as president of the Ice, was there too, pressure off, able to chat instead of sweat every little detail. As were the doco makers, Jason and Shannon, who at this game last year would have been racing around the Icehouse, getting migraines, trying to shoot everything at once and follow multiple storylines. Joey gingerly feeling an arm after a hit – is that major or not? Austin McKenzie scoring fast for the Ice, after failing to find the net for all of last season. Did we get that on tape?

Nope, because this time they were sipping beers and watching, along with the packed stands of the Icehouse. Arriving at the game, the queue to get in had stretched way down Pearl River Road, with a strong blend of the Mustang orange and the Ice white and blue. It was a Mustangs home game so that club gets the receipts, which is a nice start to the year financially. But the Ice won 7-2 and looked very sharp. Ice fans are going to pack the joint every single week.

But not on a Sunday night. That’s when the Nite Owls shuffle into the change rooms and then creak onto the ice. To create hockey magic over and over again for the empty stands, and for the sheer bloody fun of it, years peeling away, or just getting started, depending on where you’re at in your crazy hockey journey.

It’s now 7.30 pm. Dark and quiet outside, with Melbourne settled in front of the television. But ‘The Voice’ and ‘My Kitchen Rules’ will have to soldier on without me. I’m heading to my car.

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!