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.

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.

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.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Channeling the Geebung

One of my favourite Australian writers ever is Andrew ‘Banjo’ Paterson, and probably my favourite of his poems is ‘The Geebung Polo Club. I used to be able to recite it by heart and even now I can get chunks of it. The first stanza goes a little something like this:

It was somewhere up the country in a land of rock and scrub,
That they formed an institution called the Geebung Polo Club.
They were long and wiry natives of the rugged mountainside,
And the horse was never saddled that the Geebungs couldn’t ride;
But their style of playing polo was irregular and rash
– They had mighty little science, but a mighty lot of dash:
And they played on mountain ponies that were muscular and strong,
Though their coats were quite unpolished, and their manes and tails were long.
And they used to train those ponies wheeling cattle in the scrub:
They were demons, were the members of the Geebung Polo Club.

It’s sounding familiar already, if you’ve watched Wednesday night dev league this term, especially the lawless 10 pm session.

The poem goes on to recount what happens when the wild Geebung bush boys and the gentile Cuff and Collar team from the city finally go at it in a landmark polo match:

Now my readers can imagine how the contest ebbed and flowed,
When the Geebung boys got going it was time to clear the road;
And the game was so terrific that ere half the time was gone
A spectator’s leg was broken – just from merely looking on.
For they waddied one another till the plain was strewn with dead,
While the score was kept so even that they neither got ahead.
And the Cuff and Collar captain, when he tumbled off to die,
Was the last surviving player – so the game was called a tie.

Artist FJ (John) Beeman's depiction of the Geebung v Cuff & Collar showdown.

Artist FJ (John) Beeman’s depiction of the Geebung v Cuff & Collar showdown.

Yep, there can be no doubt. The Banjo, way back in 1893, was channeling the Icehouse on a Wednesday night. You only have to look at me, hobbling a little as I go about my desk job today, the shameful opposite of Clancy of the Overflow. Last night, I got a nasty whack to my good knee (yes, I now think of my right knee as my ‘good’ knee, which is a worry in itself), and my right arm and lower back and neck are all sore.

I’m not complaining; not at all. But man, dev league has stepped up this term, with regard to intensity and danger.

The knee got bruised in Game 1, when an opponent lost an edge and crashed into me, just as I was pulling up after a whistle and therefore was relaxed, unprotected. Thank the Gods of hockey for armour. I was suddenly taken out and hit the boards, a metre or so away, in an uncontrolled fall, which is how I have seen fellow students break collarbones. So I accepted a sore knee, gladly, and kept skating. The guy who had accidentally taken me out was genuinely apologetic, too, which was nice.

But as I said, it’s second dev league (the 10 pm class) that has become really willing. Pretty much everybody out there has done quite a few rounds of dev, and played summer or winter hockey, so we all know what we’re doing enough that the coaches don’t really bother to coach us much. I’ve suggested to Matt Armstrong that he should stop calling it development league and instead call it: ‘Army’s Happy Scrimmage Club’.

Lliam Webster and Tommy Powell turned up last night, as bench coaches, back from the world championships in Croatia, and yelled constructive abuse as we battled up and down the rink, but there were still far too many hits than there should be in a learning game, not to mention blatant tripping and other atrocities. Nobody was playing dirty hockey; just intense – and I was as guilty as anybody, accidentally tripping someone, and also forcing a huge front-on collision while skating fast to defend, when my opponent didn’t veer as I’d expected. A game of chicken on ice gone wrong. We both went down hard and my chin is still sore where my helmet dug in on impact. Thank the Gods of hockey for armour.

Welcome to your home ice, Mustangs ... (see below)

Welcome to your home ice, Mustangs … (see below)

So I’m creaking around today but feeling alive. Had a shot somehow hit both posts and not go in. Screwed up a penalty shot, to Lliam’s well-vocalised dismay. Inexplicably skated like somebody who hadn’t been on skates for three months, although I’d played for the Nite Owls on Sunday in a 5-0 win that had one of my veteran teammates shake hands with me afterwards, saying: ‘Well done, lad.’ Lad! Another Owl giving me skating advice that, while completely well intentioned, might have resulted in last night’s proppiness, as I found myself doubting my stride, how I move. Or maybe I just shouldn’t eat a large burrito before playing? Something wasn’t right. I wish I had time for a general skate between now and Sunday night’s game to regain my legs. Ah well. The learning curve continues. Endlessly continues.

And, as a final note, I did have a win last night which means I’m travelling better than my beloved Wings who suffered a probably inevitable emotional letdown, after such a brilliant run to sneak into the play-offs, and lost Game 1 to Anaheim yesterday. Gotta bounce back in Game 2 tomorrow, or it could be over as fast as it began.

And I’m also going better than the poor Melbourne Mustangs, who have training tonight at the Henke Rink and will be greeted by giant, larger-than-life posters of every Melbourne Ice player, lining the rink. Having the three massive scrolls celebrating the Ice’s three-peat AIHL triumphs wasn’t enough, apparently. The Ice player posters look seriously impressive, but I’d hate to be a Mustang skating onto the rink tonight. All the Icehouse needs is a tiny sign, to the right of the last poster, saying in small letters: ‘The Mustangs play here too.”

It’s lucky the gee-gees have such a cool horsey mascot. They’ll be fine.

Life-size Lliam Webster with a larger than life Lliam Webster, and friends.

Life-size Lliam Webster with a larger than life Lliam Webster, and friends.