Signs the NHL lock-out is starting to bite

The 2009 Winter Classic: New Year’s Day’s planned Classic, hosted by Detroit, ain’t gonna happen.

So, as sure as the weather is shitty in New York right now, on Friday (American time)/Saturday (Australian time), the NHL will announce that the Winter Classic is cancelled for New Year’s Day, 2013. This is a crappy development, on many levels, except for the fact that it gives me another year to save up and try to get there in 2014, assuming Detroit still gets to host the Classic, if and when the NHL lock-out finally ends.

But the Winter Classic was always a signature event in terms of the lock-out, as it provides so much in terms of TV ratings, revenue and interest. Letting it slide away without doing a deal means the NHL owners and the players can now drift for the rest of the fast evaporating northern winter without doing a deal and playing some hockey. Yes, I’m calling it: season gone.

So at a time where Red Wings fans like me should be debating how our team is looking deep into the season, post-Lidstrom (The Perfect Human), whether Patrick Eaves will ever come back from concussion, what a genius Datsyuk is, and so on, the Joe Louis Arena is hosting public skating days and gathering cobwebs.

It sucks, and there are signs that the world is starting to unravel without the best hockey league in the world. Such as:

1. Vancouver shooting fans have embraced an offer to have NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman as a target at a shooting range.

2. is reduced to reviewing hockey films from two decades ago.

3. Starved of hockey, Manhattan folk have lost their minds as Hurricane Sandy blows out of town.

4. Some idiot decided to close the Elwood RSL Club, one of the better memories I have of hanging out in that suburb.

5. The Grand Rapids Griffins continue to attract a surprising amount of interest, as they head to Texas for a road trip. The Wings have just swapped out starting goalie Jordan Pearce for wunderkind Petr Mrazek, which is interesting in terms of Detroit’s future development.

6. Detroit Tigers fans, still hurting from being swept in the World Series, at least got to snigger when the parade for their conquerers, the San Francisco Giants, went horribly, horribly wrong. Like the manager’s car in the parade running out of petrol. No, really. It didn’t occur to the parade organisers to make sure cars had enough petrol to make it down a street?

7. People are doing weird things with pumpkins, in the name of Halloween.

I could go on … we really need to start watching some hockey. Damn you, NHL and, for the sake of fairness, NHLPA.

Me? I missed my Wednesday night dev league hit last night, to go and watch the Black Keys at the Myer Music Bowl. I loved it; partly because I’m just really into their music and have been from their first album, and secondly because I was pumped that they stripped back their sound, instead of adding 10 band members for a bigger sound. Big Cat being Big Cat, he spent the last few songs looking at his watch, calculating whether he could get home to grab his gear and still make the 11.15 pm dev league.

The Black Keys: a fine way to fill in those lock-out hours. Pic: Brisbane Times.

We didn’t and it was strange to wake on a Thursday morning without that post-dev league hockey hangover. I’m used to creaking around and lacking sleep on a Thursday. I’m not sure I like this don’t-actually-need-coffee-to-survive feeling.

To compensate for no dev league, I went for a skate yesterday afternoon, sneaking onto the smooth ice of the Henke Rink because the Bradbury Rink is being relaid. It was just me and eight or 10 skaters who looked to be total newbies, so I was able to really let myself go, skating as hard and fast as I could for 40 minutes. I felt fantastic; really concentrating on correct form, bending my knees, lower centre of gravity, pushing all the way with my stride. That pleasing crunch that digging a skate in provides. After feeling, post last weekend’s game, that I hadn’t moved well enough, hadn’t been mobile, I was intent on just trying to fly, and to skate sprints up and down the ice. I even found a few minutes at the end for backward crossover toiling, seeing as to how I wasn’t in the usual crowded general skate environment.

My slates are being sharpened today and I plan to get out there at least once more before Sunday’s game against a Jets team, to keep working my legs and feel comfortable on my blades when it matters. I think I need to hit Sunday’s game in a puck-hungry mood. Ready to hustle.

If only Bettman and his cronies had the same sense of urgency.

Oh well … crank the Black Keys on iTunes, and fill the non-Red Wings time with crappy internet reads like this. Nothing personal, Cindy, but I’d rather be reading about Zetterberg and Dats destroying defences.

Guest writer (origin story): Chris Hodson


Today’s guest writer is Chris Hodson, combining his own personal origin story with a strong description of how damn awesome it is to be on the ice. For some reason, Chris and I rarely end up on the same team in Dev League or in other potential situations, which bites because a) I really like being teammates with him, and b) he can really play, so is a good guy to have onside.

A Song of Ice and Fire

Chris Hodson in flight. Pic: Jason Bajada

By Chris Hodson

Silence. Tension. The moment stretches out for almost an eternity. Everything else melts away. The puck drops – it’s on.

You chase the puck down, the world rapidly contracts to contain only you and your opponent, the scrape of his/her skates behind you a reminder that they’re but a single stride away, their stick biting at your heels. The pure exhilaration of the contest, the desperate battle to come out on top, the intensity, the fire of the moment – these are some of the things that hockey means to me.

Like many hockey players here in Australia, my interest in hockey had its beginnings in the 90s, when the Mighty Ducks movies hit our shores. At this time, being maybe nine years old, I somehow convinced my mother to drive me out to Oakleigh, where we sat half-frozen, and watched several games in a row. I remember two things from that night – hockey was fast, and ice rinks were cold.

After that evening, nothing happened on the hockey front for many years, until I somehow obtained a copy of NHL ’98 on the PC. I booted it up and played as the Mighty Ducks (of course!), but I recall that the season schedule always involved an early game against the Calgary Flames, where the AI-controlled Theoren Fleury would consistently put pucks past my hapless goalie. When I first explored the NHL years later, I discovered that the Mighty Ducks were now just the Ducks, and wore drab black jerseys. Bah! Boyhood dreams shattered! Calgary was the only other team I remembered, and so they were the natural choice for a team to support. And I’m pretty Flames-crazy now… But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

I used to be quite the sportsman when I was younger – tennis year round, with cricket and footy filling out the other free day on the weekend – but this was unsustainable for me through the final years of high school. I focused on my studies, and I did miss my sport, though at the time I didn’t realise how much.

When I finally decided that I needed to get back into something, anything, I was faced with a bit of a dilemma. The guys my age now had several years of experience on me, not even considering the deterioration of my own skills over that time. This led me to consider pursuing something new. Enter the Icehouse – the final coat of paint barely dry, ice freshly frozen.

I decided what the hell, let’s go totally left field and sign up for some skating lessons. Could be fun.  Could be disastrous… As it turns out, I was hooked after a mere 60 minutes on the ice.

I’m proud to say that I’ve done an Icehouse program every single term since it opened over two years ago (except one, where the popularity really spiked and all the classes were full – I just general skated instead and ruefully watched my class happening without me from the other rink), beginning with Aussie Skates 1, 2 and 3; two Intro Hockey classes; one Intermediate and one 5-day intensive over Christmas; and four Development League terms. And it’s been a blast!

Now I’m not the most nimble or co-ordinated of folk (far from it, in fact), and, as some of you may know, skating is not very forgiving when it comes to the lack of these sorts of traits. So what I did was buy myself a pair of $15 rollerblades from Cash Converters, and skated for about two hours a day at the local netball courts.

The day that I bought the skates, it was raining, but I could not wait another instant to try them out. So I went and skated in the rain. I strode very gingerly away from the fence, managed to roll to the centre of the court, stop, fall down in a comical fashion, and fail to get back up. To the great mirth of any onlookers.

But after much perseverance, this became the scene of success – forward and backward crossovers were learnt here (although with a complete lack of “hockey stance,” or knee-bend :P), and many sessions extended past sundown. These were some of my favourite sessions, skating alone through the dying embers of evening into the cool of the night.

My love for hockey is rooted in my love for skating. There’s nothing like it. Going far faster under your own power than nature ever intended you to go, coupled with the carving of skates and the spray of ice – bliss.

Hodson: natural born goalscorer.

When the Icehouse initiated “Skate all Day!”, I went and did just that, chalking up 8 continuous hours on the ice.  Even during my Masters exams, I was there for my hockey class – literally the only time I left my study-cave, barring actually going to my exams. Once I passed through those doors and strapped on my skates, nothing else mattered, there was no world outside of the rink, no troubles other than how to deke that defenseman into next week. As soon as you hit the ice, you slam those engines into afterburner and never look back.

One particular semester, early on in my hockey development, I had an irritatingly large gap in my uni classes on Tuesdays. As luck would have it, it synchronised with a session at the icehouse – naturally, I headed down, and almost broke into hysterics – there was no one else there when I arrived. My jaw hit the floor – all that ice was for me? I have never lost this feeling of giddiness when it comes to ice, my heart rate still increases measurably on the short walk from the carpark to the front door of the rink.

And then there’s hockey on top of all this. For me it’s like going to war. You strap on your armour. You unsheathe your sword. You and your fellow warriors stand as one to face the opposing legions. Especially at the development level, I’m certain it’s just as hectic/disorganised as a real battle would be anyway!

But after the battles have been waged and wars have been won and lost, there’s the flagon of beer/chocolate milk shared amongst friends at yonder tavern/7-11. These people share my fiery passion for the ice. I’m privileged to be a part of a rapidly growing hockey community here in Melbourne that’s forcing the existing status quo to undergo radical change. The most exciting part is being part of the change, and seeing our own hand present and prominent in the forging of hockey’s identity and place in Melbourne and Australia.

Others sometimes gawk and gasp at the revelation that we play ice hockey here, or perhaps cringe at the description of our latest hockey injury. Sometimes they say “But hockey is crazy! You’re crazy!” or “What? Hockey againtonight?” – I just reply with a cheeky grin, and tell them yep, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Chris, face to face with goalie Jay Hellis. Pic: Jason Bajada.

Quack. Quack. Quack.

The mighty mighty Mighty Ducks

I like to think of my hockey classmates as a band of brothers and sisters. We skate together, we bite ice together, we battle stinky hockey gear together.

It’s a bond.

Sadly, this week there was a dangerous edge to the locker room.

Even more sadly, there is no dispute that I was the cause of it.

Anybody who believes Facebook is not dangerous, heed this story. Like CW Stoneking’s “Love Me Or Die”, Facebook should be used carefully, else a powerful voodoo may bring undone the person or the thing you love.

Trust me. I know.

So what did I do?

Well, I admitted to our catchily-titled “2011 Icehouse Intermediate Hockey Group” that I considered “Mighty Ducks” to be a crap film.

I ventured my opinion on the merits, or lack thereof, of this 1992 classic, alternatively-named “Champions” (talk about give away the ending, btw).

I know, I know. I’m sorry, alright?

There’s no need to go into specific details of the 30 comments that followed (starting with: “oooh fighting words Place!” … “This should get interesting.” … and then straight into “Blasphemy!” and beyond.)

It would be fair to say our Facebook group went nuts. It’s a closed group, thankfully, so the public wasn’t exposed to the vitriol. We’re hockey players, so the language can get fruity. The only win was that nobody dobbed me in to Lliam Webster, our coach and the hard man of Melbourne Ice. I know for a fact he loves the film, and he attacked me with a stick tonight, anyway, but playfully, so I dodged a bullet there.

Suffice to say, I am now aware that many of my classmates feel strongly about the film, which stars Emilio Estevez and a very young Joshua Jackson for any Dawson Creek fans out there (and if you are out there, why the Hell are you reading a hockey blog?)

Me (left), shaping up to take on a defender, tonight. Pic by Will.

Mighty Ducks is set in Minnesota in the days of puffy hair and is a film about a team of misfit kids; hard kids off the street, who all manage to be cutesy with hearts of gold. All of them. One kid learns to skate by roller-blading through a shopping centre in one easy sequence. Can’t skate: now can skate. A lot of eggs are sacrificed. (We have actually had Lliam use that scene to teach us stick-handling: “Treat the puck softly like an egg … glide it, don’t whack it.”)

The complicated plot, summarised by imdb, goes a little something like this: “Gordon Bombay, a hotshot lawyer, is haunted by memories of his childhood, when, as the star player in his champion hockey team, he lost the winning goal in a shootout, thereby losing the game, and the approval of his coach. After being charged for drunk driving, the court orders him to coach a peewee hockey team, the worst in the league, Gordon is at first very reluctant. However, he eventually gains the respect of the kids and teaches them how to win, gaining a sponsor on the way and giving the team the name of The Ducks. In the finals, they face Gordon’s old team, coached by Gordon’s old coach, giving Gordon a chance to face old ghosts.

There’s no way you could possibly guess what happens.

So anyway, it turns out 75 per cent of our Facebook group only got into hockey because of this film. Goldberg, the fat kid goalie, is regarded as an icon. Nobody has any issues with Gordon heading off to try out as a player at the end of the film.

I’m not criticising. It’s the greatest film ever made. And there were sequels, which I am yet to enjoy. Oh boy.

By the time I headed to the Icehouse tonight – accompanied by an enthusiastic spectator in Will (sidelined by toe surgery), eagerly along for the juicy prospect of extreme violence and the likely death of his father – online threats of “boarding” me and worse had been made, including a pledge for the whole class to stand over my fallen body, doing the Ducks’ famous “Quack” chant.

Me, beating a defender, tonight. He shoots. He scores!

Happily, my teammates decided to let me live and I actually had an awesome class, learning forward-to-backward transitions, doing lots of passing, backward skating, shooting for goal and one-on-one forward versus D.

It was one of those rare classes where my feet felt right in the skates, I had my balance and the world actually worked for me, in that the move we had to learn was snow-plough-based, as against the hockey-stop lean-back. As the only person on the ice who is still crap at hockey stops, the urgent snow plough remains my only stopping option, all weight on the front leg, which is what tonight’s main move required.

Who knows? Maybe falling over every-other-pivot will turn out to be a strength too in the weeks ahead?

Either way, I’m not scared any more. All I have to do is invoke the spirit, pluck and sheer goddamn decency of Charlie Conway, captain of the Ducks.

Quack! Quack! Quack!

(Secret blog easter egg, thanks to classmate Shaun Madden: Where are the Ducks now? Gold.)

Hockey everywhere

Sydney's temporary ice rink

So I’m in Sydney for my kids film festival, and it’s a Wednesday so I’m a little bummed because I’m missing hockey class (despite my last blog’s exploration of fear in Intermediate hockey).  I screw up on the local train system and end up blundering back into the night at St James station, near Hyde Park, not very far at all from where I’d boarded a train at Circular Quay, and decide to walk back to my hotel. Which means I cross a road and find myself staring at a temporary outdoor ice rink. It was like a movie set: people skating in strange fluoro orange rental skates, marquees everywhere selling German sausage or beer or Dutch pancakes. Chicks in that slightly kinky Swiss/German outfit with the white blouse and the skirt and the long socks. And a bunch of hockey players aimlessly skating around between the punters, or sucking on cigarettes and drinking beer; probably not coincidentally perched right near the gorgeous Heidi chicks.

I went over and said hi and found out they were a local team, the Sydney Bears, presumably hired by the Winter Festival organisers to add some colour to the event. It turns out there are five or so regular rinks in Sydney (as against Melbourne’s two, that I know of). The Bears carefully hid their fags while posing for my photo. I wished them well, as fellow ice warriors.

It should have surprised me to find ice skating in the heart of Sydney. But it didn’t. For some reason, here in Australia, deep in the southern Hemisphere, about as far from Canada as you can get, ice hockey turns up much more than it rightfully should.

Getting a haircut at Dr Follicles, it turns out the dude cutting my locks as I sip my beer ($28 the lot:

The Bears: fags hidden.

great deal) is from Canada and plays a level or so below Melbourne Ice in the local leagues. (I’ve since seen him in action at Stick & Puck sessions: he’s amazing.) When my boys and I had a Thai exchange student stay with us earlier in the year and suggested hockey as a bizarre treat, she sniffed that her dad used to play. Say what? In Thailand? He studied in America and got a taste for it. She admitted she had played back home, and the subtle hint she was too polite to spell out was that she would kick Will and my arses all around the ice if it came down to it. A mate from journalism turns out to have played for years.

And so it goes. If you raise this crazy sport in conversation, almost everybody has a story, or a friend who plays, or some connection. I wonder if I still had my now-defunct Yarraville connection and had therefore become obsessed by, say, Trugo, if I would be having the same experience of constant connection with strangers? Is hockey on the rise as a Melbourne pastime and phenomenon, or am I just more aware of it when it crosses my path?

The good news is that I got back to Melbourne in time for Saturday’s class, led by Steve “Scuba” Edwards (No. 17 for the Ice) and Shona. This week, to my undying relief, the class was almost entirely skating and passing and shooting. I still sucked compared to some, but my stick handling is actually okay so I was able to keep up and it was a lot more fun than the pivots and transitions and other fancy skating that had unraveled me last time.

The skating Ninja, who chooses to partake in the classes without armour, was unexpectedly sent on his way, presumably for health and safety reasons, and Will was laid up after an operation on his toe, which left me and almost the entire team from the Ice Dogs, a Development League team who all seem to be using this class as practice and hunt in packs. They’re welcoming though, if tough on the ice.

We did a heap of drills and the sweat was pouring as we came off, in a good way. A genuine workout.

And for the first time, I had a genuine goalie in net, a woman who effortlessly stopped every one of my shots. Added to my list of skills to be worked on is a more powerful shot. I once broke a stick, cracking hard at the goal. I seem to have lost that power when it matters, which means I need to hit some Stick & Puck sessions to keep swinging until I can trouble a goalie.

But this week it all feels achievable again. Difficult, yes. Daunting, yes. A long road to be travelled, sure. But doable. What a difference a week makes – even if I did finally get around to watching “The Mighty Ducks”, a compulsory rite of passage for any hockey player, only to discover it was predictable early Nineties pap. (“What?” Will sneered at me. “You were expecting M. Night Shyamalan twists?”)

Even that couldn’t throw me off my stride this week. I have whisky, chocolate and True Blood following “send” on this post. I still have a functioning shoulder, after lots of hockey and a spirited footy hitout in today’s brilliant sunshine. Plus Melbourne Ice won in a shoot out last night against the Gold Coast Blue Tongues (who had an excellent goalie), with Jason Baclig and Army sealing the goals to win it. And I have my official Census forms, with the only question being what joke religion I’m going to go with on August 9? I’m thinking “Red Wing”, ahead of Jedi or Pastafarian.

Life is good.