Saturday afternoon in Oakleigh

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It’s been raining for two days and it’s cold.

Winter cold; in the heart of spring. For IHV Summer League div 3 hockey.

Wearing four layers and a beanie, you leave it to your travelling companion to play loud music as you navigate the remorseless bottleneck of Chadstone’s road system. Finally, you pull up in the asphalt car park and lug your giant bag and sticks through the door that is slightly too small, then try to jam them and yourself through the even thinner wedge of metal to avoid the public turnstiles. Hockey players don’t pay at the gate.

Pre-game general skaters.

Pre-game general skaters. (Pic: Nicko)

 

Helpful penguin.

Helpful penguin.  (Pic: Nicko)

 

Dormant goals in the stands.

Dormant goals, waiting for us in the stands. (Pic: Nicko)

Inside, everything is that Oakleigh blue, except the dangling nets, like some demented fisherman’s lair, and the glow of the lights on the scoreboard, reading zero-zero. It’s 50 minutes to the puck drop.

Today is an intra-club grading match, Cherokees v Apaches, so you go say hi to Tony, rugged up and cutting edges in the Next Level shop, then head back down to chat with the ‘opposition’ before heading to your respective rooms. Your team shows up in ones and twos, and suddenly dressing room 3 is packed, strangely warm these days now that an effective heating system has somehow been installed.

Welcome to the shop.

The retail hub of Oakleigh. (Pic: Nicko)

 

Everything you need.

Everything you need. (Pic: Nicko)

 

Branding.

Branding. (Pic: Nicko)

The coaches read the lines one more time and bark instructions as you lace your skates, apply whatever idiosyncratic sock tape pattern you have evolved, give your teammates a grin or a nod, hang shit on the goalie, and then finally stalk your way on thin steel blades through the door, past the ever-dodgy men’s toilets and up the incline towards the rink.

Big crowd in for the Cherokees.

Big crowd in for the Cherokees. (Pic: Nicko)

 

The wait for the gate.

The wait for the gate. (Pic: Nicko)

 

Game time.

Game time. (Pic: Kat Pullin’s dad)

All the figure skaters, families, kids and fake penguins have been removed, Oakleigh’s antique Zamboni has chugged around and at last you step onto the ice, being careful because the drop is always slightly more than you expect, as the refs flip the goals from upside down in the grandstand to upright on the rink.

Water bottles to the narrow shelf behind the bench, a couple of fast laps of the narrow, claustrophobic Olympic rink, so much smaller than Icy O’Briens and with almost non-existent lines. Just as you finish shooting pucks at Stoney the goalie and gently tap all 20 pucks back to the bench, the rain starts in earnest and suddenly you can’t hear the final instructions because of the noise on the tin roof. The captain, Big Cat, shouts: ‘Kees on three. One … two … three!‘

‘KEES!

The crowd is tiny, maybe the occasional partner, family member or two, plus a couple of curious general skaters who have stuck around to see genuine hockey in Melbourne’s last remaining 1970s rink, a long half world away from the true hockey nations of the world.

Oakleigh action. Rain outside.

Oakleigh action. Rain outside. (Pic: Kat Pullin’s dad)

The puck drops and we go at it.

The game is fast and played in good spirit, both teams getting chances but with strong defences mostly choking breakaways and keeping attacks wide. Tommi in net for the Apaches, and Stoney standing on his head for us, as the heavy rain continues to drive hard and loud into the tin above, and sometimes through the roof, dripping onto our bench, and you wonder if this is going to turn into a famous Oakleigh pea-souper.

The Apaches seem to have only two or three players on the bench, while we have three full lines as well as five D. They get the first goal but we get one back and then another, and start to edge further in front.

Kees v Apaches.

‘Kees v Apaches. (Pic: Kat Pullin’s dad)

 

Kat defending. (Pic: her dad)

Kat defending. (Pic: her dad)

 

Some hack heads up ice.

Some hack heads up ice. (Pic: Kat Pullin’s dad)

In the end, we win, and we’re NHL happy but actually it’s a grading game and the start of summer and the Apaches have beaten us too many times for us to get cocky about managing to snag a win.

We do the handshakes, thank the refs, circle around to thank the coaches. We leave the ice, thank the hockey Gods that you’re allowed to have a beer in the change-rooms at good old Oakleigh, take advantage of that miracle as we get changed, then finish the beers outside, four or five Cherokees huddled in the doorway as the rain continues to fall but less so than during the game. We nod or yell goodbyes to various Braves players from both teams as they scuttle through the puddles to their vehicles, the few of us who are left shooting the shit about nothing in particular before we finally drift to our cars.

The post-game glow.

The post-game glow. (Pic: Nicko)

The long drive back to town has good music, and play-by-play breakdowns of the action, as we dissect the game and our form.

Next weekend, we’re back in the glamour of Icy O’Briens, Australia’s shiny and well-appointed official Winter Olympic training facility at Docklands, skating out no doubt to the disappointment of the remaining crowd after an women’s Australian Ice Hockey League game featuring Melbourne Ice has finished.

That’s Sunday afternoon.

But this one was classic Oakleigh. Who would have it any other way?

 

UPDATE: It looks like the crazy weather finally took a toll on Oakleigh’s ice sheet. This was from Facebook, apparently taken tonight, as I was finishing this. No idea how you fix something like this but one thing I do know: the resourceful Victorian hockey community will find a way.

Pic: Bron Bird, Monday.

Pic: Bron Bird, Monday.

Cracked ice on Monday night.

Cracked ice on Monday night.

Maybe, just maybe …

I think maybe, just maybe, my genuine recovery has begun.

Of course, I’m talking about The Saga of the Knee and, trust me, I can’t wait for this blog to stop being about my knee either. But there’s potentially good news: especially when compared to three weeks ago, when I was hobbling as much as ever, barely able to climb all the steep stairs of my new house, and I was wondering if I would ever play hockey again? I think I went for three runs, as per a previous post, before things went horribly, horribly wrong again.

And so I spent weeks off the ice, not running, not doing anything. Hating it. Until my knee felt vaguely decent and I decided that was good enough.

But then I did play hockey, last Wednesday, and was mostly pain free. I went to Sydney, for work, and found myself confronted by endless staircases, everywhere I went. Each time, I would wince, bracing for the pain as my left leg pushed off a step, but the pain didn’t come. Even after Wednesday dev league, where I actually moved my legs, skated, for the first time in a few weeks and pushed my legs hard: no pain.

Still, this has happened before: a few days of reprieve and then wham. Back home, I climbed all the steps (50 from the front door to my bedroom) and the knee twinged. Uh oh, I thought, and then stood all night at a party at the Forum, until 3 am. The next morning? Agony? Nope. Felt ok.

And through all this, I had begun a secret training course; totally fed up with being inactive, of reading all the Facebook posts about how awesome hockey training was, how boxing was going over at Mischa’s, how Next Level Training Institute and Friday game day was fantastic and everybody was hurting and feeling fitter and feeling smashed but in a good way. I was only feeling old and fat.

As I’ve written before, I’d love to be part of the Next Level thing. Oakleigh, in terms of geography, is a bastard of a place for me to get to, and the key nights, Monday and Friday, don’t work for me. So I had to shrug and let Joey Hughes’ on-ice training and Martin Kutek’s off-ice training go. A bunch of my closest hockey friends are Next Level devotees and I have no reason to doubt their enthusiasm, plus I can see the improvement in muscle tone and skating.

I needed an alternative, especially while I couldn’t skate, and it turned up in the form of a big bearded bloke who wears #2 for the Melbourne Ice. Yes, one of my Wednesday coaches, Lliam Webster, mentioned that he was now qualified as a personal trainer but with a different training method, which is preached at Fluid, in Port Melbourne; one of the Melbourne Ice major sponsors.

Fluid is run by a bloke called James who apparently was a decent soccer goalkeeper in his day. It is based on a concept called Functional Movement Systems. In my first outing, James put me through a series of bizarre balance and flexibility tests. None of them hurt. Most just felt clumsy and stupid. I knelt on my bad knee, wincing, and tried to put my right arm in front of my head and my right leg out behind me, seeing how long I could balance for. Not long. James and Lliam squinting and taking notes.

The body is divided into quadrants, with one limb in each, and Fluid scores your achievement on the various tests. At the end, James noted that my left leg wasn’t doing its job and that my left shoulder seemed out of whack. Both direct hits on my ailments. He and Lliam worked out a bunch of “corrective’ exercises to get my body working in ways it has forgotten, hunched over keyboards or taking shortcuts to cover for hamstrings that don’t want to stretch and other such bad habits.

This is one of the whackier parts of FMS training: an idea that when you think you have a tight hamstring, one that won’t stretch beyond a certain point, they can prove that wrong in one session (and did, with me). In fact, you have to get other parts of your body working as well, which releases the hamstring to stretch further. It’s wild when it works and you see instant results.

But the long game is what I’m interested in. After my second session, the pinched nerve in my shoulder stopped hurting and hasn’t really bothered me since.

I’m three sessions in now and the training has intensified. Yesterday, Lliam produced the most fun, most hockey-specific apparatus early. It’s a slippery piece of Perspex (as per the Youtube clip above) with wooden blocks at each end, either 8 feet, 9 feet or 10 feet apart. (Yes, it’s from America.) You put little slippery booties over your runners and it’s just like skating, but completely side-to-side. The trick is to trust your stride, pushing hard with the skating leg and then catching the stride on the wooden block, before pushing off hard for the other end. Bum low, knees bent, chest up … every bad habit on the ice instantly being addressed on this slippery board in Port Melbourne. A few sessions in, I’m up to wearing a weighted vest while skating as hard as I can and then doing cowbell dead lifts between sets. Every skating muscle is killing me today in a good way. My gluts are sore, my hamstrings complaining, my stomach tight.

Apparently Martin at Next Level has one as well, so get on it, peoples. It’s a lot of fun and really works you over. In fact, it’s fantastic. Dev league is tonight and I’m actually sore from an intense workout. Like I haven’t been for a few months.

And guess what? Despite such an intense session, my knee feels fine. All the muscles surrounding it did their job during the dead lifts, worked hard without screaming. Just like the physio wanted a few months ago before things derailed again.

I shouldn’t get too cocky. I might step onto the ice tonight and feel the same pain as two dev league sessions ago.

But then again, I might not.

Next Wednesday, I head overseas for three weeks. When I get back, all roads lead to summer comp, with my new team, the Braves. I want to be fit and able to push it as hard as I can, to prove that I can match it in what looks like a far-too-serious summer recreational league. Mostly, I just want to be active without this now eight-month-old pain.

I think I’m finally on the road to that happening. It feels great. Bring on the night.

This shit just got real

Proof that I don’t only go the knuckle these days. Me just getting the pass away in Dev League before James Oliver pounces. Pic: Jack Hammet

An actor/performer friend of mine, Bert Labonte won a Helpmann Award this week, for brilliant work on stage. He fully deserves it. Another friend, Chelsea Roffey, just got named to goal umpire the AFL Grand Final on Saturday. The first woman ever to achieve that honour. I couldn’t be more happy for her. Another friend just finished a film with Robert Duvall, another showed me his latest novel last week and my partner, Chloe, is well on her way to producing Hollywood blockbusters.

Me? I was getting led off the tiny, dilapidated Oakleigh ice rink on Sunday by a member of the Melbourne Ice hockey team, on this occasion moonlighting as a referee, to sit in the penalty box. My first-ever official penalty in a hockey game. So proud.

It was only a one minute penalty because in this Spitfires practice match between my team, the Interceptors, and the Fighters, the periods were short. Even so, the Fighters scored while I was sitting on the little blue bench, forcing my team into an unfamiliar penalty kill. Oops.

So tangling my stick in the legs of a Fighter as we battled for the puck wasn’t my finest moment but it was completely accidental, and the secret guilty truth was that I enjoyed feeling kind of bad-ass being escorted from the ice.

What was worrying was that on both benches, my friends were apparently shaking their head and thinking or even saying: “Oh no, it’s Nicko.”

Because it’s been a strange few weeks since I last blogged. Not just a greater intensity at work, and the small matter of a very tight deadline for the difficult third edit of the 80,000 words that will turn into my first adult crime novel when it’s finally published in March (hence the absence from blogging), but a heightened level of aggression and bizarre activity on and off the ice (thankfully, not always involving me).

In Intermediate Class, words have been exchanged as people got sick of ‘attitude’ among classmates, or of blatant disrespect. In Dev League, a few hits have been harder than is reasonable and there has been some downright nasty play, such as a smallish female player being boarded, and another player repeatedly having shorts tugged from behind. Lots of Facebook discussion asking people to cool it and play nice.

Last Wednesday, we had our final week of term, which means ‘scrimmage’ for Intermediate, and Lliam Webster, serene and peaceful after playing like a demon to help secure Melbourne Ice’s three-peat not long before, sat on the bench in his beanie and Icehouse tracksuit top, shook his head and observed, “That’s hilarious.”

Vinnie Hughes’ infamous fight earlier this year. It really shouldn’t happen in hockey school. Pic: me.

“What is?” I panted, fresh from a shift. Watching two players puffing their chests out on the far boards.

“When you guys try to act tough,” he said.

I agreed with him. I have always thought this. My eyebrow has raised many times towards the dick-swingers among my fellow hockey students who talk a big game when it comes to the prospect of on-ice violence, about dropping the gloves or about Kronwalling. Because the absolute truth is that 99 per cent of us are NEVER going to have to back up such talk. Maybe one or two of the several hundred hockey students in Melbourne will be a natural, be a gun, and somehow get to the Melbourne Ice kind of level where full contact hockey can occur. Even then, it’s actually not supposed to. At AIHL level you can be boarded, can fully collide (Lliam coaching: “In this situation for us, we have to choose, are we going to go for the puck or take the body? For you, it’s only the puck”) but you’re not supposed to fight. Of course, fights occur and players are thrown out for weeks (Vinnie Hughes and then Joey Hughes this season) because it’s intense and hard and for real at that level.

Us? We’re in Development League. L-Plates or P-Plates metaphorically around our neck, and the best we can hope for is a likely hockey career in summer recreational league, or maybe even winter, where hitting, punching, intense take-the-body boarding is still not allowed.

So any tough talk is only that. Or should be. Which is a relief for us middle-aged rookies.

Mid-year, I wandered up to Army, and asked how many fights he had been in during his career? Roughly? Hoping he could narrow it down to the nearest hundred maybe. Matt Armstrong, Canadian, now 15 years or so into a professional/semi-professional hockey career, squinting as he considered the question. Finally, saying: ‘Um, geez, I dunno … probably … ten.”

“Ten?” I said. “Ten fights your entire career?”

“Yeah, about that. Joey would have had more.”

I turned to Lliam. He was already mentally calculating … finally said: “I think five.”

The big bad “Respect the beard” hard man of the Melbourne Ice. Five career fights. Seriously?

“Well, yeah, drop the gloves, actually ‘we’re gonna go’ fights? Five tops, probably.”

But what about all those times you’ve jumped the boards, charged out there, ready to defend a teammate?

Mostly, our hockey is getting more intense in lots of good ways. Pic: Jack Hammet

“Well, nothing much happens, usually. You push and shove, make a presence. You don’t actually fight,” he said. “Joey would have had more.”

So I had to ask Joey, just for journalistic credibility if nothing else. At Oakleigh on a Friday, I posed the question and Joey hated me asking, I could tell. Could see it heading straight to the blog as a headline.

But I really like Joey. He shirks nothing and respects everybody’s hockey journey as he hopes they respect his. He looked me right in the eye, with those dark eyes of his, and said: “Look, I’m not proud of this, ok? The number is probably 60, but you have to understand I’ve had a different career to those guys.”

Siting on the Oakleigh boards, he explained it and he was right. His career is different. Army played almost all his hockey in Canada and then Europe, before coming to Australia for the lifestyle. Worked out Melbourne Ice was a way to scratch the hockey itch while enjoying Australia as a place to settle. In Canada and Europe, fighting is not common – especially in European leagues. Yes, you protect yourself from hits, yes, you occasionally “man up” as Army put it one day, but you don’t go onto the ice expecting UFC action.

Lliam, likewise, in his international stints, hasn’t played much in North American leagues where fighting is common. Or hadn’t felt a need to prove his toughness when he did. Joey had, from a young age. Told me about turning up at teams where there was fighting in camp, just to see who was the real deal, to see if this cocky Australian freak had backbone. Joey fought his way to credibility and, as a younger man, testosterone flying, no doubt felt like a warrior as he walked down the street of pure hockey towns, looking people in the eye because 1. He had proven he could play and 2. he wasn’t scared to fight. A long, long way from the Olympic rink in Oakleigh.

But that was a different time and that’s why Joey doesn’t like to be asked about it, to appear to glorify it, even though he was decent enough to answer my query. He doesn’t go looking for fights these days, even if he was rubbed out for six weeks or something in the season just gone for taking on the entire Sydney Ice Dogs bench. The way I heard it, and not from Joey, he was being held by a referee and an Ice Dog hit him with a huge uppercut to the face, while Joey could not protect himself. A very cheap shot, at which point Joey took issue with the situation, shall we say.

Like father, like son? My younger son, Macklin (aka Mackqvist, in Red Wings jersey, of course), takes out an opponent on the boards then passes from his knees. Yes, he’s a Place, alright … Pic: me.

So that is where things stand regarding hockey fighting. Way over-rated, much rarer than anybody outside of hockey believes. Even more rare if you exclude the NHL where it definitely remains part of The Show in certain situations.

And then there’s last Wednesday when I had enough of getting pushed, held, niggled by my Interceptors teammate, Michael Donohue, playing for the opposition in dev league this night, and decided to give one back the other way. Possibly a little crude in the execution because I’m not experienced in such matters, but making my point. Donohue, always a mad man, usually in a happy way, dropped the gloves and came after me and I found myself testing my new skating speed, thanks to Army, Lliam and Joey’s stride lessons, as fast as I could to stay away from him until he tired chasing me. He said later, as we laughed in the rooms, that he only ever intended to push me over in response (“What else was I going to do? You were wearing a face cage?”) and I finished my shift as he was thrown out of the game.

Back on the bench, Lliam Webster was smiling quietly, as I returned; a full hour after his “That’s hilarious’ observation.

“I know that appeared cowardly,” I said. “But I did the right thing, yeah? You’re not supposed to fight in dev league.”

“You looked incredibly cowardly,” Lliam clarified. “But yes, you did the right thing.”

I’m convinced that dev league refs should call penalties – even if only sending people off the ice if they transgress – to stop everybody taking liberties because nothing short of a chainsaw attack seems to get called. Not being pulled up for hooking, tripping, checking etc, is teaching everybody, especially defenders, bad habits.

Big Cat shows how it should be done: flying feet and puck control. Pic: Jack Hammet

But the tension and aggression of the past few weeks has felt like more than that. There have been insensitive comments in change-rooms, and on the ice, as well as increasingly physical play. Is it just something in the air? Something in our veins? Is it the fact that summer league is around the corner and people are insecure, or nervous? Real competition at last after two years of thinking about it?

Dunno. All I know is that I know the penalty I gave away on Sunday was not even vaguely malicious on my part; just an agricultural and slightly inept puck-attack. Luckily my “victim”, James Oliver, knew that too, wasn’t hurt and held no grudge.

Shit happens on the ice, but we all need to retain the right spirit. The great news, alongside all this turbulence, is that my group of Rookies has taken our hockey to new levels in the past couple of months. You can literally see the improvement, as we train as a team under Martin Kutek and the Next Level coaches, or push Dev League harder and harder. I feel like a hockey player now, not just a wobbly wannabe (any comments on this topic will be deleted).

Hockey is currently taking out Sundays and Monday nights, keeping me away from my beloved Bang footy, and boxing classes, which bites, as well as eating into non-hockey windows, but as summer league approaches, I’m prepared to devote myself. I need to and I want to. I’m loving my team, loving meshing as a group, and supporting each other. Loving playing alongside Kittens aka Big Cat, for what, for all I know, may be our only summer campaign together before he gets good enough to go to Winter comp. I want no part of politics, awkward conversations, or needing to physically stand up to people with tough guy delusions on the ice.

Hopefully everybody else is feeling the same way.

We all need to chill out, smile and enjoy. Thrive on getting better, not get tense because actual competition awaits. We’re about to join Summer League and play for real. It’s supposed to be fun, and it is.