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 (Origin story): “Jess”

WORLD EXCLUSIVE

Today’s guest writer is a skating beginner, “Jess”, who preferred not to give her full name because her story is very personal and very emotional.

It’s a long piece but blew me away. I fully respect her for writing so honestly about what brought her to hockey and what it has come to mean to her.

All I can do is quote Gretsky, Jess: Skate to where the puck will be, not where the puck is. And see you on the ice.

The truth of it

By Jess

An Open Invitation …

So, as I sit here with the feeling I’m possibly about to throw myself off a cliff (metaphorically of course) both with the insane notion that I could (would? should?) learn hockey and that anyone would want to know about it if I did. Firstly I’m not a writer, my spelling is horrific and my grammar worse. I get carried away and fly off on tangents so apologies in advance. (nicko note: I cleaned it up. Hope that’s ok, Jess )

If there is such a thing as pre beginner I’m that. I’m currently (as in right now, I’m typing at red lights) heading out to Oakleigh to get fitted for my first ever set of skates and I literally feel ill. I know I can’t skate, nothing I do in the 20 minutes it will take me to get to oakleigh will change that so why the fear?

I’ll get hurt: that’s a given. Ice is hard, boards are hard, being crashed / crashing into someone at full tilt because you’re such an uncoordinated newbie moron you can’t stop also hard (I imagine, anyway, having never gone full tilt. Also, sorry to the kid I did take out in my first attempt at skating). Nothing in hockey is soft; damage is certain.

But I’ve done my fair share of damage already. I’ve done martial arts for a few years, so have had the crap kicked out of me on more than one occasion (hello, the only transferable skill I have!); have fallen off plenty of horses; hell, even busted my ribs pole dancing, sober, in a class. So as far as getting hurt goes, it’s pretty ‘meh, whatever’. I think my real issue is making a tool of myself, not just a little but a lot. As I said I’m new to this whole thing it is my intention to start beginner skate school at the end of the season:

1) because it’s currently scheduled for Saturday or Sunday mornings and getting up with a hangover after a Saturday night game to attempt to balance on blades about the same thickness as a twenty cent piece is well, stupid, and

2) I like going to the away games so would miss classes often, but mainly I’m terrified someone I know will be teaching the class. I’ve met some great people at hockey: players, fans, support crew, officials and (so I’ve been told) some people pretty far up there in the VIHL, and I don’t want to look like an idiot in front of these people who have become truly important to me.

CAUTION! Overly emotional explanation ahead – men (and women who are usually me) not into emotions, feel free to skip the next few paragraphs.

Hockey has been my saving grace this past six months; my one thing where any outside pain or problem is forgotten. I have never mentioned to any of my hockey friends why they are so important to me or why I’m so protective or defensive of them, so hopefully after this they will get it.

Two weeks before Christmas, I lost my youngest sister to cancer. She had only just turned 18 and only been diagnosed in January. And as you do when things turn to shit, you go out and do “fun” things with your friends in the hope they will believe you’re ok and leave you the fuck alone.

One weekend this was hockey. After a particularly long week of hospital visits and a lot of extra hours at work, I thought hockey would be great … loud, so not much chance of proper conversation, and fast paced, so you had to pay attention, also reducing the chance for conversation and the potential for violence because, let’s face it, anyone who has had to watch someone they love waste away REALLY wants to belt the shit out of someone, anyone, and if we can’t do that, well, we may as well watch someone who can. So yeah, hockey was going to tick all the right boxes, funny thing was it did. Just not the way I expected.

I suppose this is where I should declare my allegiance, I’m a ‘Stang. An unwavering one. My first game was actually the last game of the 2011 season against the Knights and it was love at first fight. Neither team was in the finals so I guess they were both just out to have some fun and entertain (Ha! Yeah, because winning’s not important, said no-one ever) and entertain they did! Both sides were hard in, fought for every inch, ridiculously fast and quick to throw down, which I will admit I enjoy maybe a little too much. The highlight for me was an altercation between two players who had words, calmly skated to their respective benches, left their sticks gloves and helmets, then skated out to centre ice to throw down. I also have a photo of the Canberra goalie sitting in his net, making a point after getting in trouble for leaving his crease to get involved in an earlier tussle.

Admittedly, I know fuck all about hockey, I couldn’t really tell you if that was even a good game. I know pretty much none of the rules and I don’t care it. It doesn’t matter to me. I just love the game. I spent the entire game utterly enthralled, my friend equally in awe. We chatted animatedly the entire game, about the skaters’ skill, the passing, the shots, the fighting, that tall number 44 guy who was pretty hot (epically embarrassed writing that, as we are now good friends. I can only pray he won’t read this; sorry, Lev). Our excitement got us through the game and the drive home and was conversation fodder for at least the next two or three weeks for anyone who was unfortunate enough to ask what we’d been up to.

In what had been the shittest year of my life, I had genuinely managed to have had fun, and for that alone I will always be grateful.

When my sister passed away, I drifted away from people, finding it easier to just work, go home sleep, get up work. I was already one of those annoying friends who would say they would come to stuff then cancel at the last minute, or just not show up, but now I didn’t even bother to reply to most messages or I’d send a vague “I’ll see what’s on with work”.

It was the off season and my only hockey updates were the occasional posts about tryouts and training on the Mustangs Facebook page and odd comments from their “unofficial” cheer squad, The Stable, that I assumed would have made more sense if I’d been around for the whole season (now that I know them it still wouldn’t have mattered).

I was unsure if I was even going to go to another game. In my excitement after the last one, I had told my sister all about it and promised to take her, so it had kind of tainted my outlook: something I should have been doing with my youngest sister I would now be doing alone.

The Mustangs celebrate Jess joining the cheer squad.

But Christmas came and bought with it a season pass from mum and dad and a Mustangs scarf from my cousins. Apparently I must have been more excited than even I realized for mum to have not only remembered the right team but also suggest it as a safe bet for others to get me. So looks like I’d be going to the hockey after all. Once that had been decided I started to get a little excited, which was stupid, it wasn’t even January. I started to get involved in some of the conversations on Facebook, nothing technical just general abuse of the guy who does the fixture and why the bloody hell couldn’t it be done yet? (ok, yes I did start that thread and maybe also one on why the NHL isn’t syndicated on Australian tv which STILL pisses me off!) I also started to get to know some of the regular names that kept popping up. And so excruciatingly long months later, I found myself wandering to the ice house for the first (unofficial) game, a practice match between the Mustangs and the Ice, intending to just kick back and enjoy the game as just another nameless face in the crowd … yeah, if only. I had greatly overestimated the time it was going to take me to walk to the Icehouse so ended up being one of the first few people in. A blonde chick in a mustangs scarf pointed me toward the Mustang end of the stand and I chose a seat a few rows back from the glass behind the bench. As people started to file in, a group of guys wandered in, taking the seats a few rows in front of me right behind the Mustangs’ bench. Inadvertently I had sat behind The Stable. A few more people joined the group and conversations were struck up about who was playing, who was gone and what the new imports were like. Then attention turned to who else was scattered around the stands.

One of the guys looks at me: “You’re new.”

“Yeah, second game. Caught the last game of last season.”

“Sorry we’re all rude. I’m Sam, also known as STP.”

“You’re the guy who never shows up, yeah?”

“FUCK!” (hysterical laughter from the rest of the group)

Facebook conversations had, on more than one occasion, been based on how many games STP was going to miss. More introductions were made and, just like that, I was adopted. No question of what I knew or didn’t know, no issue that I didn’t (still don’t) know any of the rules.

I was there. I yelled abuse. I screamed at goals. I was a smart-arse to STP. That was good enough for them.

As the season has progressed, that welcome extended out to the players as well. So to The Stable, the players and all the other fantastic people I’ve met at hockey, thank you.

For the fresh start, the fun and friendship, but mostly for giving me back the ability to answer: “I’m good” when asked how I am, and truly mean it.

You guys have put my life back together and I doubt any of you even knew it.

So there it is, my introduction to hockey and my secret hockey confession.

I love these guys, so I don’t want to feel like I disappoint them. That, I think, is where my fear comes from. But (ready for stereotypical hockey comment?) hockey players have no fear! So I will suck it up, walk into Oakleigh, get fitted for my skates and learn how to play FUCKING HOCKEY!!