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.




You’ve got to earn your pancakes

By Nicko

Bavarian apple pancakes with ice cream. Chocolate Swiss Mountain malt shake. Never can these things taste as brilliant as at midnight, in a 24-hour Pancake Parlour on Warrigal Road, Chadstone, metres from the South Eastern Arterial freeway whooshing by overhead.

Bavarian apple pancakes with ice cream. Oh yeah!

Even better, Jason Bajada, goalie to the stars (well, the Blackhawks), has shouted me these pancakes, in honour of me beating him for the first time ever in a scrimmage; the only question being whether it was my one-time slapshot from the slot that genuinely beat him, after a beautiful pass off the boards from Liam Patrick, or whether Jason was simply so stunned that I didn’t fresh-air the slapshot that he was swooning as it found the net?

Certainly, my coach for this late night Next Level Hockey Game Time scrimmage, Scott Corbett, reportedly reacted to the goal with, “Shit, he one-timed it,” and head coach Joey Hughes looked equally startled. But nobody more than me. My goal followed a couple of goal assists, in a pretty serious level of hockey for me, and so I tried to overlook the moment where I’d been knocked over, lost my stick and spent what felt like 15 minutes scrambling around on the ice, trying to get myself back together as my teammates peered with amused curiosity over the boards at my sprawled frame, listening to my feeble calls of “Change! Change!”

That was the one moment where my night got the better of me, and my legs decided not to work for a minute or so, but it was fair enough. I had been skating for close to three hours by that point. I’d known it was a potential epic from the moment I’d turned up for the NLHA Intro class at 7.30 pm and Joey had asked: “Do you have plans tonight?”

How much do you love Australian hockey that a leading member of the Melbourne Ice – even one who is currently unhappily on the outer for a minor recent incident where Joey took on the entire opposition bench after some extreme aggravation and what sounded like a pretty worrying lack of referee support – will still be actively wanting you to give him your Friday night so he can do everything he can think of to make you a better hockey player? Not just me, obviously: everybody walking through those awkward double-doors into the refrigerator that is the Olympic ice rink in Oakleigh.

Next Level Hockey Australia students wait to take the ice at Oakleigh. The camera didn’t catch the fog in the air.

But such urging doesn’t mean you’re in for an easy night. In fact, I endured a really difficult Intro session, full of transitions and pivots (including leaping into the air and turning in the air, forward-to-back, back-to-forward, landing on your skates – another genuinely-surprised “Good job!” from Corbie) as well as my first experience of the infamous “under-poosh” skating technique from Martin Kutek, where you crossover in a certain way to try and drive with the backward skate. It feels extremely unnatural. Lots of backward stepping, C-cuts, all the technical skating moves that push me to the limit and that I wrestle with. Joey wasn’t happy, saying my improvement hasn’t been as great as he would like – mostly because I can only get there every other week and can’t make it to general skates at the Icehouse often enough to drive home the improvements.

But even so, he, like my other Melbourne Ice mentors, Lliam and Army on a Wednesday night, patiently persists in trying to make me into a hockey player.

By the end of the Intro hour, I was warming up. “Can I stay on for Intermediate?” I asked Joey. “Sure,” he said and once we were on the ice pulled me aside for a 10 minute one-on-one session, working on my pesky stride; giving me training drills to eradicate that feet-splayed inside-edge habit I’ve written about before. Taking Army’s mantle of trying to teach me how to click my heels together at the end of each stride, under my hockey stance. The new stride felt awesome; a tinker but an important one. We both grinned as I was clearly going faster, and all the nutso drills of Intro had shaken down to make your standard crossover seem much more achievable. Life was good.

Watching the Zamboni chug across the Olympic Rink’s surface yet again, between classes.

“Can I stay on for Game Time?” I asked Joey. “Sure,” he said, “if there’s room.” A few minutes later, he threw me a yellow jersey and I joined a bunch of my Rookie mates in a furious scrimmage, most of which was four-on-four and was also my first experience of playing short-handed with penalties in play (Liam Patrick being benched twice for questionable on-ice atrocities). Finding myself on the wrong end of a five-on-three line-up was a hockey lesson all on its own and I was patchy throughout the game. But hey, two assists and a goal on debut? I’ll take it.

By the time we’d eaten the pancakes (me saying way too late to Bajada: “Just to check, this doesn’t mean I have to buy you pancakes every time you stop a shot, right? Because that’s a bad deal for me if I do.”), everybody shaking their heads that the “old man” had survived three straight hours and still scored, and I’d made the long trek home from Oakleigh, it was 2 am, just like a Wednesday, and so on Saturday morning, as I joined my gal, Chloe, and her family, who are out from France, at a farmer’s market, I was walking in slow motion – not actually sore as much as pure bone-tired.

Three coffees down, I left there to catch up with some Rookies, before the Melbourne Ice-Newcastle game at the Icehouse.

“To be clear,” said Chloe, “You played hockey all Wednesday night, went to a Melbourne Ice game on Thursday night, played three hours of hockey last night, and are now going to drink with hockey friends, and then go to another Melbourne Ice game…”

“Um,” I said, wondering if this was a good time to mention that I planned to be at The Bang the next morning, playing footy on a wet track.

The waterlogged Wattie Oval turf, mid-Bang. My legs are still feeling it.

In fact, playing footy on a track that was a mudder’s dream; down by Elwood beach but very heavy underfoot in one forward line and across a wing. Running through ankle deep mud, chasing a heavy Sherrin, my legs were screaming and today I’m genuinely hobbling. I still find it interesting that when people say: “Doesn’t hockey knock you around/do you get injured?” the honest reply is that I pull up much better from three tough hours on the ice than I do from 90 minutes of hard running and kicking with my Banger mates.

So, fun weekend, finished off by a Richmond 70 point win while a Tiger friend and I sat and chatted about life, family and European trips, all the while clapping an expected Richmond victory (when did the world tilt, that this became possible?) and another trip to the Icehouse VIP Balcony, to watch a disappointing Melbourne Ice loss. (They won the game I didn’t go to, on Sunday, in a shoot out; Big Cat Place representing the family on that occasion.)

What’s the saying? That too much sport can never be enough? My body isn’t sure about that. Usually, French relatives not in town, I choose to spend more time with my amour. Given how I feel today, I’m starting to think that non-hockey/footy time might be saving my life.

Then again, I also plan to hit general skating at least twice this week, aside from Wednesday night icehouse training/dev league, and I’ve already booked scuba diving for this weekend …

Which leads to another saying: “Sleep when you’re dead.”

Meanwhile, whatever happened to that Nicko guy?

By Nicko

The coldest place on Earth, certainly under an Australian flag, is reputed to be Ridge A, 14,000 metres high on the Antarctic Plateau. The average winter temperature on Ridge A is said to be minus 70 degrees, Celsius, although nobody has ever set foot there.

But I’d challenge the Australian and American scientists, who declared this finding in 2009, after exhaustive satellite probing and climate imaging. I’d say to them: Oh yeah? Try hanging out at the dilapidated Olympic ice rink, in Oakleigh South, deep in the Melburnian suburban tundra, during mid-winter.

That, my whitecoated friends, is fucking cold.

The magnificent if chilly Oakleigh rink.

Wearing four layers, a beanie and gloves, I pushed through the front door a few Fridays ago, ducking the straps of plastic presumably designed to stop some bizarre breed of Ice Age-ready mosquito, with my trusty Reebok stick in one hand, and my bag of gear over my shoulder. I was nervous. It was the second time that week I had strapped on my armour and skates and tested the Oakleigh ice. On the Wednesday night, some Rookie friends and I had hired the ice for a scrimmage, which was a blast, especially for those of us debuting on this particular rink, which is tiny – much smaller than the Henke Rink we’re used to – and has no glass, meaning to be boarded involves being jammed against a fence about waist high. Even better, down the end where an ageing Zamboni creaks out between sessions, the ice dips away and there are holes in the bottom of the boards, so that a puck might disappear in there, mid-battle.

Believe it or not, until the 2009 season, this was home to the Melbourne Ice and it is still the scene for many games of winter and summer season hockey every year. As the only surviving rink in Melbourne, outside of Docklands, there isn’t much choice. It’s actually magnificent in its decay and history and authenticity as the last of the suburban hockey rinks.

On this Friday, I was in Oakleigh to finally come face-to-face with the Cult of Joey.

A while ago, I wrote a blog about how I’d found myself in a hockey funk; feeling like I wasn’t improving, wasn’t pushing myself … basically it was a written rant to kick myself up the arse and work harder, which is what I did almost immediately after writing it.

But an unexpected result of that piece was that I was publicly “called out” on Facebook by Joey Hughes, a star of the Melbourne Ice, to let him train the funk out of me.

It was an unforeseen twist, not least because a) I hadn’t realized this blog was being read by a wider hockey community, including my coaches Lliam and Army, let alone Joey Hughes and his Ice-import coaching partner, Martin Kutek, and b) I had recently raised questions about the violence of Joey’s brother, Ice captain Vinnie’s in an Ice game.

Joey Hughes, in action for the Ice. Pic: Canberra Times

So Joey Facebooking that he challenged me to come to Oakleigh and lose my funk was a shock, yet I had to politely say thanks but no thanks, because I was on a novel deadline, travelling a lot and couldn’t find the time to commit. Joey was having none of that and so, finally, here I was, pushing through the door and watching the fog hang over the ice of this tiny rink.

A couple of hours later, after my first Intro session of Next Level hockey, I sat on the boards with Joey, for a genuine chat. It wasn’t quite so cold that your words froze in front of you so that you had to read what each other was saying, but it wasn’t far off. Put it this way, I had sat, in my armour, for an hour, during the Intermediate class that followed mine, fully intending to play Game Time scrimmage, but was so bone-core frozen, I eventually abandoned the idea. Plus everybody looked too skilled for me, so I decided to watch a scrimmage or two before poking my skate out there.

Joey could pass for Latin, or maybe native American, or Italian. He has dark eyes and hair and carries himself like a dancer, but with an intense, harder edge, which comes out on the ice where he is something of a warrior. According to the NLHA website, he has been skating at Oakleigh since he was 11 years old, just before he took off to North America to chase his hockey dream. He’s been a hockey player all that time, and now he’s back at the Olympic rink, training a new generation of players.

The local hockey community is small and very welcoming, but I feel there has been a shade of Us & Them over the past year or so, where you’re either an Icehouse skater or a member of what I laughingly call The Cult of Joey. Many of the Next Level Hockey devotees have an evangelistic loyalty to their coaches, Joey and Martin, along with Tony Theobold, Vinnie Hughes and no doubt others I don’t know about yet.

Any chance they get, Next Level students will tell you about the personal attention, how their skills have improved dramatically, how Oakleigh is where you become a really good hockey player …

I had no reason to doubt them, I just always felt a loyalty to Lliam and Army, and the other Icehouse coaches, who have patiently watched me stumbling around for a long time now. (I spoke to Lliam about it once, and he shrugged that it was great Joey was doing his thing, just turning out more and better hockey players, which was the whole point.)

Even so, I couldn’t afford to drive out to Oakleigh at least one night a week on top of my Icehouse commitments. Real life didn’t have a window that large, regardless of my worry that I would be left behind in terms of development.

And so I’d hear the Cult of Joey rave about Oakleigh, and wonder. Until now. On this Friday, I joined Intro and quickly had all my usual technical faults identified. Told to bend my knee to 90 degrees, while my non-skating foot was horizontally in front of me, I managed maybe 30 degrees, which had Joey skating along beside me, saying, “You gotta be kidding me?” and me giving him a colourful explanation of my age compared to his and where he could shove his deep knee bend. To which he laughed and explained why I simply have to bend my knees more, even though – like everybody – I totally thought I was already.

And so it went.

Part of the Next Level way is to drive its students to be better, to buy in, to forge together and commit. It’s definitely a more driven, different atmosphere to the Icehouse classes where Lliam and Army push us hard, but in a slightly more casual, shambolic way. Lliam’s description of how to fire a wrist-shot (which in his case, is a bullet) was along the lines of: “Look, I learned this at age four and I can’t really explain it, but it works, so do it like this.”

As you know by now, I love these classes and have improved more than I ever could have imagined over 18 months of training and lessons.

Talking to Joey, on the boards after my class, he explained that he had read my “funk” blog and felt a genuine desire to help. He said he read about a passionate rookie who’d hit a wall, and rode in to help if he could. Fresh eyes, is all he thought. Even as an elite international player, Joey said he benefits hugely from new ideas, new voices, different slants on the same technical or fitness issues. So he wanted me to come along and hear something new.

And he’s been totally right. Martin has already given me some amazing tips about outside edge work, everything Joey has said has been useful. It’s great.

And on Wednesdays, Lliam and Army have begun the long road of Intermediate classes again, with encouragement and enthusiasm for our improvement.

I’ve relaxed and can feel improvement happening, even in Dev League where I’ve been in the thick of things. We’re in good hands at both venues, and talking to Joey, just like Lliam, that’s the whole point. There’s an excitement about how many rookies are swelling the ranks of the playing numbers in Victoria; a genuine problem at Ice Hockey Victoria level of how the Hell to accommodate so many people who want ice time.

The Cult of Joey might exist in the enthusiasm of NLHA skaters, but not among the coaches. Joey and Lliam, as Victorian born and bred stars, are mutually enjoying the ride as hockey surges in Australia.

As am I, now savouring personal, friendly, expert teaching from so many Melbourne Ice stars, and with my rookie mates both encouraging me and hanging shit at me at every turn.

Life’s good and the funk is gone.