Guest writer: Michael Coulter at The Crossroads


Although, as the article below suggests, Michael Coulter is somewhat bewildered by the turn of events, he is a regular face among the Melbourne hockey community, doing Icehouse classes and playing Summer League. He also works for The Age, which explains why this piece is so well written.

The line I’m most jealous of is: “At times playing hockey feels like repeatedly drinking glasses of kerosene in the hope that one of them will turn out to be champagne.”

Damn, wish I’d written that. Well played, Coulter.

And who are you kidding? See you on the ice. Nicko

Where to from here?

By Michael Coulter

Hockey and I have a complicated relationship.

I grew up in Queensland, where real men played rugby league and winter was a word in the dictionary, but one of my first memories is of watching hockey on a black and white TV in a Winnipeg apartment. My father spent many patient hours with me in the nets, but the stories of his own youth were all about outdoor rinks and wrist shots, of 90-second shifts and the perfect hip-check. Over the years hockey became an impossible ideal, a perfect blend of speed, skill, toughness and agility, playable only by iron-hard Canucks who’d been raised with skates on their baby bootees and pucks as teething rings.

Oh Hells, yeah! Hockey, 1980 Winnipeg Jets style. How could Coulter not fall in love?

Oh Hells, yeah! Hockey, 1980 Winnipeg Jets style. How could Coulter not fall in love?

My first NHL game did nothing to dispel that impression. It was on a visit to the Peg in the early 80s, when the original incarnation of the Jets were sucking just as hard as they do today. The details are fuzzy, but I think they were getting beaten up by some long-gone franchise – perhaps the Hartford Whalers or the Quebec Nordiques. But I remember as if yesterday the feral crowd, the whack of stick on puck, the hissing crackle of skates slicing the ice, and the unbelievable speed. If it wasn’t sorcery, it was the next best thing.

Back in Australia, of course, there was no way to repeat the experience. Besides which, my one experience of actual skating was somewhat traumatic, ending with a bemused local having to rescue me from an impatient Zamboni driver. But if my conscious mind had developed an abiding suspicion of any body of frozen water that couldn’t fit into a glass, the subconscious was still intrigued. Every four years, come the winter Olympics, I’d feel a restless urge to skate. (Lillehammer got me into a pair of in-lines; maybe if they hadn’t been a size too small, and therefore agonisingly painful, I wouldn’t still be trying to perfect a hockey stop 19 years later.) But it wasn’t until 2010 that a combination of the Olympics, a knee that could no longer stand indoor soccer, and the opening of the Icehouse tipped me over the edge.

From there it’s a familiar tale, except that at no stage did I ever admit to myself what I was up to. At first all I wanted was to skate backwards, which led to a basic class. When I bought my own skates, it was simply to avoid the hassle of renting (or so I told myself), but the fact they were hockey skates dictated the next move: Intro. When I bought a helmet and gloves it was simply to avoid the stinky hire gear (yeah right), but it then made sense to do Intermediate to get some use out of them. When I bought the rest of the gear, it was just to avoid the search for matching elbow pads, but once I had the armour, Dev League seemed only logical …

And so, by a process of incremental self-deception, I’ve now finished a season of Summer League. But there’s been a price. As my 42nd birthday recedes in the rearview mirror, I have a shoulder that hasn’t felt right since last November, kids who see the game as a form of mental illness, and a spare room that smells, in the words of a fellow Shark, of hockey arse.

Michael Coulter tearing it up for the Sharks.

Michael Coulter tearing it up for the Sharks.

Logically, I should give it away. The mortgage means I don’t properly have the money to play, job and family mean I don’t have the time (even with the somewhat amused support of the spouse). There’s no mystery about what I need to do to get better, but in a packed schedule ice-time is always the first thing to go. I love to skate – honestly love it – but improvement is agonisingly slow, and each game brings its fresh crop of humiliating blunders (and for someone more used to individual sports, it’s truly painful to let teammates down). At times playing hockey feels like repeatedly drinking glasses of kerosene in the hope that one of them will turn out to be champagne.

But every so often there’s a fleeting taste of the good stuff. Like the day when it all clicks and a previously impossible technique is suddenly easy, or the golden shift where you’re always first to the puck.  Those are the moments when I think that maybe this game that seems to hate me might one day repay some of the love I’ve shown it. It shouldn’t be enough to keep me coming back, but so far it has been. One day I’ll come to my senses, but until then there’s hockey.

Like I said, it’s complicated.

Amen. Class warfare starts again.

Me (in red) winning a breakaway in my Dev League debut. A very rare photo. Pic: Ben Weisser

OK, I need you to imagine drinking three straight litres of water without a break. Then sitting in a locked room for nine hours. A room with no, um, facilities. Now you’re allowed out of the room but only to jog up and down on the spot for one hour, all while continuing to sip water at regular intervals.

You are then placed in a car and sit in the back seat for four hours as the car travels over bumpy roads, all while listening to a CD: “The magnificent sounds of a trickling stream”.

Finally the car stops at the world’s largest waterfall and you watch the water cascading, streaming down the rocks. You are made to drink another three large glasses of soda water.

Your fingers and toes are placed in warm water.

Get the idea …

Well, now replace the need for a toilet at this time with the need to play ice hockey, and that was me last night. Intermediate, Week One, could not come around quickly enough and there was nothing I could do to fast forward the day leading to 8.45 pm. Sure, Will (aka Kittens) and I got a little excited and turned up at the Icehouse at 6 pm, but it turned out that didn’t make 8.45 pm come any faster. We played pool at the Harbourside (modesty prevents me offering the scoreline [I kicked his arse]) and I ate pizza and drank dry ginger ale because the ice was beckoning, beating out even the desire for alcohol.

Kittens, in classic pose. Of course, he scored a goal. Uppity kid. Pic: Ben Weisser

And finally it was time. Greeting the other rookies, meeting a few I only knew by facebook profile; strapping into full armour and looking like a sumo on skates as my Grand Rapids Griffins jersey, on Australian debut, ballooned over my gear. And, ready!

Of course, our coaches Army, Lliam and Michael welcomed us back with hardcore skating tests and obligingly sent my group of skaters to outside edge drills as the opening gambit. One of my worst skills. And of course the other three guys I was bracketed with are in the running for Outside Edge Rookies of the Year while I managed not to fall.

Until the second drill when Michael had us attempting to transition at speed from forwards to backwards skating, around a cone. And I found out fast that my new helmet, bought in Chicago, has excellent impact-absorption in the back of the lid when your head smacks hard against the ice during a backward plank.

Then we were doing crossovers and I didn’t suffer any mortal injuries – Army even raised an eyebrow at my improvement – before Lliam gave me some tips at inside edge skating that worked all the way until the fourth cone at which point I tested the ice impact capabilities of my new gloves and my ageing elbow pads, falling heavily while fully committed to one foot inside edge around a cone. At least I was fully committed, right?

All that was left to start the term was a game of two-on-two where my partner and I played the Washington Generals to the other pair’s Harlem Globetrotters, and a bizarre tapdancing crossover drill where the miracle was I didn’t fall.

It was actually an awesome class, finished with four rounds of straight-up tearaway fast sprints up and down the ice. That’s when I’m at my happiest, even if I’m not the fastest rookie out there. I just love seeing how fast I can go, getting that cardio-hit, and then morbidly wondering if I can stop in time as the boards approach. The answer was universally yes last night, which shows my summer of toil wasn’t totally wasted.

This was always going to happen in my Dev League debut. Pic: Ben Weisser

But the best was yet to come, because a quick Zamboni run later, I was back on the ice, now in my Zetterberg Wings jersey, as part of the red team in my Development League debut.

I’m not sure I can hope to convey how awesome Dev League was. I could try poetry but after rhyming “ice” with “nice” I start to struggle. “Dice”? “Mice”? “Concise”? “Condoleezza Rice”?

One thing I know: I’m glad I didn’t do Dev League last term, as Will did. I wouldn’t have been ready. But with a summer of skating practice under my belt, and so many supportive, friendly rookie classmates urging me on, it was brilliant, truly brilliant.

For the first time, I felt like a real hockey player, playing an hour of scrimmage, deciding when to end my shifts, powering up and down the ice (mown down on two attempted breakaways, first to the puck on one – shot went wide, dammnit) and just generally deciding that ok, I won’t suck embarrassingly among these players, even if there are clearly superior skaters out there.

Condoleezza Rice: not relevant here.

The game had one casualty – Ken went down with a nasty split lip and was lucky not to lose teeth – and I had a couple of spills but nothing fatal. On my first shift, I failed to trap a puck along the boards which ended up in a goal at the other end, which had me doing some old fashioned cussing, but I got progressively more comfortable with every following shift and didn’t panic, didn’t just flail, kept an eye on staying onside, didn’t lose my position most of the time and generally felt like the beginnings of an idea of a genuine hockey player in a team.

It felt very good.

The other rookies were awesome in welcoming me to the game and this level. Benched between shifts, Jay and I marvelled at how far some of the skaters who started with us a year ago in Intro have come. Morgan Squires was dominating but then (and don’t take this the wrong way, Morgan) it was just as heartening for me to see him and others occasionally screw up. They’re not all bulletproof and error-free as I blunder along. We’re all still in class, training, getting better, striving. And I can see how this term is going to make me blossom, trying to keep up.

A very very very good night, back on the ice, even if I was home at midnight, accidentally drinking off-milk and unable to consider sleep until much later.

Today, my groin, hips and legs were hurting in the second best way they can and I loved every second of feeling the aches. Next Wednesday, please oh please come around without delay.

I wouldn’t have thought it was possible but hockey just became a whole lot more fun.

Jack, a committed Penguins fan, in a Washington jersey, so he could play Dev League in the red team. These are the lengths people will go to. Pic: Ben Weisser