The responsibility of the sports fan

I can tell you, without prompting, what was my worst moment of the 2014 AIHL season.

It was during the grand final, and it wasn’t the fact that my team, the Melbourne Ice, was looking unnaturally lethargic against the uppity Mustangs, to the extent that the Ice eventually fell 6-1 without firing a shot.

It wasn’t even the increasingly rapt and raucous cheering of the Mustangs fans as they realised their Goodall Cup dream was coming true. (Actually, it was hard to begrudge them their joy and, let’s face it, I would have been yelling louder if the Ice was on top, so good for you, Clippyclops.)

No, my worst moment of the season, my least favourite memory of that afternoon, was the moment when former Ice star Joey Hughes, now a Mustang, was on the wrong end of a heavy collision in front of the Mustangs’ bench, and didn’t immediately get up. He stayed down, and we couldn’t see from the stand how badly hurt he was. And he remained down. And a small chunk of the Melbourne Ice fans found their voice; booing him, and goading him, and basically cheering his pain.

Joey Hughes, vertical and pain-free, for the Mustangs. Pic: Hewitt Sports.

Joey Hughes, vertical and pain-free, for the Mustangs. Pic: Hewitt Sports.

How shithouse is that?

Love him or hate him, and Joey is a guy who inspires both emotions in fans, especially having retired from the Ice and then reemerged as a Mustang, but he is all heart. He gives and gives, on the ice and off, and in this collision he had gone down hard. (Happily, he did eventually get back up.)

Dancing on the pain of any hockey player who is down and not necessarily getting up is pretty low, I reckon. As is mindlessly, or maybe not mindlessly booing a man to the point that he contemplates leaving the sport that he loves.

I’m not even going to go into the potential racism or deeper rivers that run under the current furore relating to opposition fans constantly booing Sydney Swans star Adam Goodes in the AFL.

All I have to say is this: I believe that our job as fans, whether watching hockey, footy, cricket, boxing, tennis, bocce, trugo, whatever, is to love our sport. That’s why we’re there, right? I felt all kinds of emotions during that AIHL grand final last year, and mostly sadness that the Ice couldn’t find their usual mojo when it mattered. But I loved being there, I loved being one of more than a thousand hockey fanatics, lifting the roof of the Icehouse and urging on our heroes, whether it was the Mustangs’ O’Kane, Hughes, or that bloody Swedish guy, Viktor, who did all the damage, or Lliam, Tommy, Army, Bacsy, Brown, McKenzie, the Wongs, Graham and the other Ice players.

Adam Goodes: it's time for empathy, not taunting.

Adam Goodes: it’s time for empathy, not taunting.

I believe, generally, that you should work, where you can, to be a force for good in the world. I’m not religious; this is not some sermon from a pulpit. But if you’ve ever travelled, you would know that the reality is that we live blessed lives, here in Australia. Sport is a place for us to have fun in our comparatively awesome lives, to ride the emotional roller coaster, to desperately care about things that actually don’t really matter.

To try and boo a player out of the sport because you consider he’s a ‘sook’ (which is to make the big and, frankly, extremely generous assumption that the fact he’s an outspoken, proud Indigenous man has nothing to do with your booing) is against the contract of being a fan, as I see it.

I can remember once having a word with a Richmond supporter at a Tiger game. Well, he was wearing head-to-toe Richmond gear but did nothing but bag out the Tiger players, screaming that they were useless, that they were hopeless, that they were gutless, etc etc. I finally said to him, mate, you’re giving them a far bigger whack than any of the Brisbane Lions fans also in attendance. Go buy a Lions scarf, go to the Lions’ cheer squad and lead them in the Tiger-hate. He slunk off. The Tigers somehow crawled off the mat and won with the last kick of the day. He was nowhere to be seen as we belted out the song.

I was left thinking: why was he even there? Just to release his wider life frustration into the air? Just to scream abuse at his team, depressing the shit out of all the other Richmond fans around him?

Please understand I am not trying to sound lofty, or like I know how the world works any better than anybody else. Actually, as I get older, I come to realise more and more how little I know. I have no bigger voice than anybody else and recognise that there are a thousand different views on this topic.

But my view is this: when you’re at a sporting event, cheer, don’t boo. Encourage your heroes, don’t kick the shit out of their opponents. Because there’s a difference.

In fact, think about the energy you put into the world, on a daily basis, in the real world as well as the sporting arena.

Are you a positive person? Are you working to make the world better? Or are you just chopping down the Adam Goodes of the world, or a writhing-in-pain Joey Hughes, because you can smell blood and you’re anonymous in a crowd or on social media, and because, well, you can?

This has been an extremely depressing week. Hopefully, it leads somewhere better than where we are now.

The calm before the lull before the storm

So, what is it about hockey?

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

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

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

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

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

In fact, anticipation is definitely growing.

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

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

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

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

Jake Adamsons in flight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From there, all roads lead to summer.

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