Goodbye to the Joe

Oh man, what a day.

First, Sergio Garcia finally wins the Masters, at his 73rd attempt at winning a major. Then comes news that John Clarke, one of the greatest comedians ever produced by New Zealand/Australia and a local of my hood, passed away while hiking in the Grampians on the weekend. And all this while I was watching the last ever Detroit Red Wings game at the Joe Louis Arena.

This last one was going to be enough to unravel me on its own, even without Clarke’s unexpected passing, or feeling happy for the Spanish golfer who burst onto the scene years ago as a wunderkind who was going to dominate the sport but sadly emerged at the exact same moment Tiger Woods appeared through another door and actually did dominate the sport.

Unfortunately, this was as close as I got to the Red Wings season-ending last game at the Joe today. I cried anyway, from half a world away.

‘The Joe’ was the Red Wings’ home for the last 38 years. It was an old barn of a building; one of the least attractive in a shiny new millennium NHL world, but of course the fans adored it and, until recently, other teams dreaded the lair of the all-conquering Wings. The Joe made its debut just as the infamous Dead Wings period of the club’s history was coming to an end. Within three years of its opening, Detroit pizza magnate Mike Ilitch would buy the team, start spending money, the recruiters would get a lot right and suddenly the team went on a roll that included four Stanley Cups and a record 25 straight years in the playoffs. Until this year, when the team finally fell off a cliff and missed the post-season.

Which is why today happened: the final game at the Joe, in early April instead of a month or so later during playoffs. But you know what? It was kind of perfect. Knowing it was the final game meant the Wings could do it properly, without the uncertainty of playoff success, home and away. The date could be penciled in and man, did they do it right.

For starters, by sheer luck, it was captain Hank Zetterberg’s 1000th game and the pre-game ceremony for that had me misty eyed. He’s always been a favourite of mine since I first tuned into the team and he was an absolute star. Then Riley ‘Tinky Winky’ Sheahan, a guy who had inexplicably not scored a goal all season, at last found the net for the Red Wings’ opening goal. Of course, Zetterberg scored because he’s Zetterberg, and then Tatar goaled and finally Sheahan again (to score his own tiny piece of hockey immortality: last goal ever at the Joe). Meanwhile, the Devils played the straight-men to this Detroit lovefest, a crammed-to-the-rafters Joe in a sea of red. Meanwhile, the TV coverage was keeping an octopi count, to note how many poor deceased octopi were hurled onto the ice (it’s a Red Wing thing), and the last tally I noticed was 27.

Rally Al the octopus’s only appearance this season: as part of the final game’s octocount.

At the very end, at the finale of a long ceremony where Red Wing greats spoke about the old building and the fans and how much they love this hockey team, the organisers showed they knew exactly how to play the heart strings of the fans one more time. The unofficial Red Wings victory anthem, Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’, filled the Joe as the fade out. Born and raised in SOUTH DETROIT.

And to the exits for the final time.

Of course the franchise will move on and the fans will be more comfortable, the ice will probably be better, life will be generally more pleasant in the shiny new Ilitch family stadium, Little Caesar’s Arena, when it opens in September. When the Wings left the creaky but historic Olympia stadium for the brand new Joe in 1979, I’m sure there was just as much sadness and nostalgia.

But today, it was good bye Joe and tears in all directions.

I’ve written before about how being a sports fan is about the journey, not the silverware, because the vast majority of fans are disappointed every year in terms of premierships, cups, whatever the prize.

Flashback to 2011: The Podium Line of Place boys on the glass at the Joe. A life highlight.

In my entire hockey journey, the joy for me has been in being a Red Wing fan, among all the Red Wing fans, from Hockeytown to Australia and everywhere in between. I am so so so so so so so happy today that my boys and I visited the Joe in 2011 to watch some games there. It didn’t occur to me at the time that I would never be there again. The Wings managed to lose all four games we saw, and so we didn’t get to belt out Don’t Stop Believin’ in the flesh, but it didn’t matter. We sat there, in good seats, in a sea of red jerseys with white winged wheels. We saw our heroes – Lidstrom, Zetterberg, Datsyuk, even Helm and Jimmy Howard. We saw Gus Nyquist’s first game as a Wing and Mackquist bought his jersey – without doubt the first one of those to make its way to Australia. A Wings representative showed us around the back corridors of the stadium, showered us in free merchandise and let us watch warm-up from behind the goal. It was a total and complete lifetime-memory blast.

But it wasn’t the Joe that actually stayed in my head as much as the humanity of Detroit. The people of Motorcity embraced us so warmly, unable to believe three Australians had travelled all that way just to sit in the Joe and watch the team.

I have no doubt if and when we make it to the new arena, with slightly roomier seats with better lighting, fancier corporate boxes and a bigger, sharper jumbotron TV screen, we’ll be embraced just as much.

Captain Hank today: The Perfect Human 2.0.

That’s what it all comes down to in the end. It doesn’t matter where the hockey is played, no matter how much you love the arena and the history seeping out of the walls of the joint – and believe me, I really did with the Joe. But ultimately  it’s the people. It’s the fans.

That’s why I wept when the Bulldogs won last year’s AFL flag. Not for the players, happy though I was for them, and sad though I was for Bob Murphy who was injured. My heart went straight out for the fans who have waited so long, who have stuck through thick and a lot of thin, who finally tasted the ultimate success. My unofficial footy coach at the Bang, Jimmy, flew back from Greece for the finals when he realised something was happening. The phone video of Jimmy and his family celebrating in the stands when they realised they had made the grand final was an all time highlight reel on its own. When they won the whole thing, he painted his house red, white and blue. The joy was so pure.

This year, my team, the Tigers, are 3-0 after three rounds, sitting in unfamiliar atmosphere at second on the ladder. Saturday’s game started in 27 degree sunshine and ended in a wild thunderstorm-battered, rain-drenched tempest. The fans stayed without blinking. We belted out the song in the wind and the rain. The players high-fived the fans on the boundary and we all started to wonder if we can dare to believe this side can do something significant this year.

The weird tradition of octopi on the ice (and Joe manager Al waving them crazily over his head) will no doubt start again in Game 1 at the new stadium.

We’re so lucky that we play at the MCG, the home of football, after a wrench away from the Punt Road Oval many years ago. Some older fans will have been have been there through that entire journey, through the flags of the sixties and the seventies and 1980, and then the dark wasteland years that have followed.

Whether Richmond plays at the G or in Oodnadatta, it doesn’t really matter. It’s those fans, my dedicated Tiger brothers and sisters, who count.

But having said all that, thank you, Joe Louis Arena, for the memories and for being the foundation for all the Wings adventures I have experienced so far. Thank you for honouring ‘The Brown Bomber’, one of the most legendary boxers ever, and for hosting my sons and I when we briefly, happily, took our place among the Wings faithful.

And one more time, rest in peace, John Clarke. Farnarkeling’s finest ever spokesman. You will be missed.

 

 

The lucky mo

The lucky mo. Deep in Movember.

The lucky mo. Deep in Movember.

It was halfway through November that it occurred to me. Ever since I had shaved off my beard and started growing an unsightly trucker moustache, for Movember, I had scored a point or even points in every hockey game I’d played. A couple of goals and a few assists for the Cherokees, goals or assists in every development league outing on a Tuesday night… I suddenly thought: is this a thing? And the moment I thought that, then, yes, this was now a thing.

A magical moustache.

Hockey, like most sports, lends itself to superstitions. As the feeling took hold that my moustache was a hideous yet potentially lucky charm, I found myself going onto the ice thinking about The Movember Streak and marvelling when I left the ice with yet more points in my pocket.

Pre-training, sitting in the Henke Rink stands, watching a session before ours, I got chatting to Christine Cockerell, of Melbourne Ice and Australian team fame. Do you have any superstitions, I asked? What’s your version of the Lucky Mo? Chris said, while dressing for a game, she must always touch her left shin guard first. ‘If I can’t see what leg it is in my bag, I move my bag around, or I move it with another item till I can see the left shin pad,’ she said. Chris also always wears two pairs of socks over her shin guards, which is a whacky superstition.

Christine Cockerill in action for the Ice. Pic: Tania Chalmers Photography.

Christine Cockerell in action for the Ice. Pic: Tania Chalmers Photography.

I put a call out on the Book of Faces. Hockey players came back with some beauties, like Justin Young who claims kissing his stick on the way to the bench isn’t a superstition, uh uh, no way; or there was the goalie who doesn’t let his skates touch the blue or centre lines, and who kisses the crossbar (Gary Agular). Dan ‘Yoda’ Byrne doesn’t drink liquid during a game, which is pretty strange, but chews gum, while Daniel Tofters insists on smoking a cigarette before donning his gear. ‘100 per cent success rate this season,’ he wrote.

Emma Rogers also made me laugh with: ‘During my first playoffs I would have half a caramel slice about 5 minutes before the game Every game. We made finals and won . I also have a habit of putting a mint in my mouth at the start of every period. And drink next to no water during a game.’ What is it with these superstitious freaks who actively dehydrate during games?

Will Ong said he carries a potato around in his pocket while coaching the Jets but I’m not sure if that’s a superstition or just a desperate cry for help (I love you, Will!) and Trent Stokes’ answer was hilarious: ‘Not very superstitious but there’s a couple things I do to get into the mindset for a game. Always eat the same meal 2 hours out from a game. Always pack my gear in the same order and put my gear on in the same order. Listen to the same music on the way to the game. Always re-tape and wax my stick on game day whether it needs it or not. Try and sit in the same spot in the locker room. Always get to the game 1 hour early. Always start getting dressed 45mins before the game. Always lace my skates, walk and then re-lace. Always touch the goal once during warm ups. Finally, always look at the scoreboard during warm ups and take a second to envision winning and scoring.’

Other than all that, he’s not superstitious at all.

It’s important to note that a true superstition demands that some illogical part of your brain actually believes this will have an effect on whether you’ll be successful or not. Habits, rituals or systems don’t really count. For example, Will Ong and I both apparently share the exact same socks/skates routine: Socks on first, left skate, right skate, left shin pad, right shin pad, left sock tape, right sock tape. I do that every game, including a complicated over-taping routine that Lee Ampfea taught me years ago and I’ve stuck with. But I don’t think it would ruin my game if I didn’t follow the routine, so that’s not a superstition.

Instead, think of the classics: carrying a rabbit’s foot, throwing salt over your shoulder, seeing a black cat … all pretty whacky. The French have a fantastic one where if you give somebody a knife as a gift (and an Opinel always makes for an awesome gift, btw, if you’re still hunting for Christmas), the recipient MUST give the knife-giver some money in return. It can be five cents, that’s fine. But the friendship will be cut unless money changes hands as a gesture of good will, as the knife passes ownership the other way. I’ve been involved in several knife gifts, because of my French extended family, and trust me, that superstition is taken very seriously. I like it.

Many superstitions have a basis in fact, or at least a good story behind them, if you bother to dig, such as walking under a ladder. Back in the day, before fancy gallows were invented, it was common to execute somebody by tying a noose to the top of a ladder, putting the rope around their neck, having the condemned person climb the ladder and then swing the ladder the other way so they were now underneath instead of on top of the ladder. They’d be hanged in that space now between the wall and the ladder; hence that space developing a reputation as a place of bad energy.

Army's Movember style.

Melbourne Ice player and dev league coach Matt Armstrong’s strong Movember style.

The Geelong footy club is known as the Cats (instead of its previous nickname The Pivotonians) because, decades ago, a cat ran onto the ground midway through a home game where Geelong was being badly beaten by Collingwood. After the delay, while somebody caught the cat, Geelong roared back and won. The next week, a kid walked into the local hardware shop where the Geelong captain worked, and handed him a pile of homemade badges in the shape of a cat, one for each player. The Geelong team wore the badges that week and won again … the nickname stuck.

Hockey is full of characters, at every level, from Melbourne summer hackers to the NHL, so it shouldn’t surprise that superstitious thinking is ever-present. In fact, goaltender Ben Scrivens wrote a fantastic piece for the Players Tribune on the topic (thanks to Stephen Maroney for pointing me to it). It’s a fun read. As in, Patrick Roy really chatted to his goalposts? Then again, I shouldn’t be surprised: I once wrote a novel where a character had conversations with his own mouth, so all bets are off, really.

My superstitious Mo Streak made it through the entire month. Every time I stepped onto the ice with that bad boy on my top lip, I got points. It was miraculous, really. Plus I raised a thousand bucks for men’s health, which was amazing. (Thanks to everybody who donated.)

And then December arrived, and I shaved. And the mo was gone.

And I had dev league on December 6.

And – rookie error – I told Tommy Powell and Matt Armstrong about the streak, and about this being my first time out there without the mo.

And the entire game, the three of us, and Big Cat, became consumed on whether I’d go pointless and the superstition would be confirmed.

In the first period I had looks but couldn’t score. In the second period, I screwed up a strong chance, losing the handle on the puck while skating with space through the blue line. Tommy was going nuts. ‘No points, Place! Still no points!’

Then late in the second, I flicked a pass off the boards to Malks, who is a Div 2 forward who attacks like a maniac and has a good shot. He’s a good guy to carry you to points, deserved or not, when you’re trying to shake clear of a superstition.

He flew off down the ice, taking on the defence. I shuffled along behind, on my ageing legs, trying to keep up so I could be there for a potential rebound if his shot was blocked. But it wasn’t. He sank it, inside the post, top left corner. Nothing but net.

Primary assist: N. Place.

So long, mo. It was fun while it lasted.

So long, mo. It was fun while it lasted.

On the opposition bench, Army went nuts. On our bench, Tommy exploded with excitement and laughter. I dove to the ice in a joyous Superman, sliding all the way to the red line.
Malks tentatively approached and tapped me on the helmet, saying, ‘Um, nice pass.’
(Later I asked him if he had any idea why this meaningless dev league goal had a response worthy of a Stanley Cup overtime goal? He said no, he had no clue. So that must have been surreal for him.)

And just like that, my superstition bit the dust. It turns out I can still play hockey without the Mo from Hell.

Although, sure enough, with my beard growing back, I was held pointless against a strong Demons team on Sunday, so normality has truly returned, dammnit.

I had better try not to walk under any ladders between now and Sunday’s last game of the year.

Happy Christmas, everybody.

 

 

 

The Great Escape

Lids and bottles ready: Big Cat and Nicko side-by-side.

Lids and bottles ready: Big Cat and Nicko side-by-side.

I started hockey more than six years ago largely as an act of escapism. There was a woman involved, of course. Or, more specifically, the fading ghost of a woman I’d loved, and taking up hockey, without having ever skated, seemed like a great idea at that moment. Smashing repeatedly and painfully into hard ice is a good, immediate way to take your mind off a bruised heart. For the duration of a hockey class, at least.

Miraculously, it worked and I healed and I got to play hockey with both my boys, if too briefly with Mackqvist. Big Cat and I have been on the adventure together, all the way, and now he’s taken over an official letter in the Cherokees team as a leader, and that makes me smile, watching him grow and walk taller.

When you're on the ice, the rest of the world fades away. Pic: Luke Milkman

When you’re on the ice, the rest of the world fades away. Pic: Luke Milkman

Off the ice, my career fortunes, in fiction and real work, have waxed and waned, dipped, risen and plunged and then risen again. Life’s a rodeo, but I chose that path, away from the 9 to 5, a long time ago. Meanwhile, I met other women and then they became ghosts and I skated hard all over again, and then I met a French beauty who fundamentally rocked my world and so life got better, and through it all I somehow stuck with hockey and the hockey world was generous enough to stick with me.

And here I am.

And here is my crazy little self-indulgent blog, nickdoeshockey, which has recently passed 100,000 views (a lot more than all five of my published novels combined, just quietly) through almost 33,000 individual users, according to the WordPress statistical robots. Viewers officially from every continent, including Antarctica (even if I suspect that turned out to be a hoax from Adelaide. Nevertheless.) Who would have thought?

The proof. Amazeballs, as the kids like to say. Well, used to like to say.

The proof. Amazeballs, as the kids like to say. Well, used to like to say.

I still find those figures hard to believe. But there they are. Thank you to everybody who has spent time in this icy, random corner of the interweb.

My happy place: the spacious, luxuriously appointed expanses of an Oakleigh change room, with the 16/17 incarnation of the Cherokees.

My happy place: the spacious, luxuriously appointed expanses of an Oakleigh change room, with the 16/17 incarnation of the Cherokees.

Six years after my first hockey class, my first suspected broken arm and my first blog post, my life is in a very different place but the world remains a strange, sometimes cruel and frightening place. I generally have a rosy, optimistic view, by nature, but sometimes keeping that up can be difficult. Like when a truly hideous individual somehow gets voted in as US President, or when I sit in front of my laptop and the prospects of ever making a living as an Australian author of fiction seem more remote than ever (not just for me, for the vast majority of us, hacking away), or when I gaze towards Nauru and Manus Island and see my Government continuing to commit crimes against humanity, or when my everyday sources of paying the rent appear worryingly fragile. To make things worse, the Red Wings are going to finally break The Streak this season (I’m calling it now), Richmond seems to be a non-contender, as ever, and I’m currently sporting a truly horrible moustache – although at least that’s for a good cause.

And so hockey still needs to occasionally play the original role I asked of it – as a pure all-senses-engaged escapism from life outside the glass wall.

And it does. Mysteriously, I am currently in what’s probably the best form of my life, feeling confident, fit and even occasionally quite fast on the ice. I’ve been scoring points and goals and causing trouble, and man, oh man, but is hockey a more fun place when you don’t feel like you’re just making up the numbers or not really contributing to your team.

It’s so nice to feel fit, and not be nursing any injuries. To be with teammates you really like and share an instinctive understanding, including trusty Big Cat on the right wing, slotting a dirty, doorstop rooftop goal to give me a not-much-deserved assist on the weekend.

Have bad mo, will travel.

Have bad mo, will travel.

And so we set sail to who knows where, in life, in hockey and in this blog. Whether the blog makes it to 200,000 views or not doesn’t matter to me at all. It’s charted my crazy hockey adventure to here, and that’s fine. It’s introduced me to so many great people, opened unexpected doors into the small but passionate Melbourne hockey world, is currently hopefully raising a bit of money for Movember (oh, I don’t look good at all) and who knows how long it has to run? The last two summers, I’ve finished the season thinking that was it; I’d almost certainly retire. But then a few months later, I think: why would I?

Right now, I’m loving playing and loving the Real Life Shutout that only hockey can provide. Long may it last.

 

 

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.

When the coaches fly

A cat trying to use your crotch as a scratching post is not a great pre-hockey omen. And sure enough, in dev league last night, I felt like my skating was off, my knee inexplicably hurt, my shots at goal were powder puffs, and being an offensive threat when genuine IHV summer hockey starts in six weeks or so felt a million miles away. But you have nights like that; well, I do. I had a few good moments, but also got mown down on a clear breakaway, which sucked. I think I need to do some sprinting, off ice, to get more grunt in my legs. Even footy once or twice a week isn’t enough, it seems.

However, the real mistake I made with regard to my self-confidence was hanging around to watch Melbourne Ice train straight after our session. I hadn’t watched the Ice practicing for a long time. Usually the Mustangs follow our scrimmage but the Clippyclops are done for the season and so Melbourne Ice got the rink ahead of the weekend’s AIHL finals at Icy Obriens (probably sold out but check for tickets).

The Ice on Tuesday night, preparing to hopefully add a new addition to the banners on the far wall.

The Ice on Tuesday night, preparing to hopefully add a new addition to the banners on the far wall.

I’ve probably written this before but I love watching our coaches go flat out. For almost six years, I’ve had a front row seat of Matt Armstrong, Lliam Webster, Tommy Powell, occasionally Jason Baclig, Rob Clark and women’s Ice captain Shona Powell, and Ice star Georgia Carson, as they coach us wannabes week in, week out.

But, of course, they are only ever in second gear, at best. Even when they jump into a scrimmage, I’m always super aware that they’re coasting, that they have so much power and skill they’re holding back. (Sure, we students still can’t help but get an insane burst of euphoria on the rare occasion when we manage to actually strip one of the coaches of the puck, but it is usually followed seconds later by being unceremoniously separated from said puck by the same coach, moving briefly to second-and-a-half gear.)

I think my favourite moment in scrimmage ever was waiting, huddled over my stick, in my usual Left Wing position for a face-off in our defensive zone when Tommy Powell, proud Alternate Captain of Melbourne Ice and, oh yeah, Australia, skated casually over and said, ‘When they drop the puck, just go.’ He tilted his head minimally towards our goal, almost 200 feet away down at the other end of the ice.

‘Go?’ I said.

‘Go,’ he confirmed.

Tommy wasn’t even taking the face-off as he was playing defence, but I knew better than to argue. The puck was dropped, I didn’t even look. I just skated flat out down the ice away from everybody. And sure enough, like a magic trick, the puck came tumbling out of the air above me, landing neatly about two metres in front of me, and bouncing gently a couple of times before it was on my stick and I was on a breakaway 20 metres or more clear of any defenders. I still have no idea how he did it, but I have been forever in awe of his confidence, that he knew he could step in, get that puck from the face-off turmoil, find space and then lob it perfectly half a rink to exactly the right spot. Holy shit.

The Ice working on shots, Tuesday before finals weekend.

The Ice working on shots, Tuesday before finals weekend.

So last night, back in street clothes after our dev league hit out, Big Cat, Will Ong and I stopped to watch, before leaving Icy Obriens. And I was struck again by the sheer skill and skating of AIHL level players. It really is something to see and if you’re a hockey player of any level, I would advocate going to watch the Ice train. It’s one thing to watch games, where they duke it out with other teams, but there’s a lot they can’t control there, and all sorts of pressures that they’re dealing with. The Ice love to tic-tac-toe cute passes in attack to end up with a clear scoring chance once a defence is bamboozled, but it’s natural that a lot of those ambitious attempts derail midway.

In training, the skills of the players can shine, uninterrupted. From the moment they took their positions in four groups on the opposing blue lines, everybody knew every drill intimately. A swirl of players looked terrifying, as two skaters would skate fast, fully-committed half circles around the red circle, with pucks crisscrossing the zone, but never in danger of colliding. The skaters would give and receive several hard fast passes, from opposing corners, before suddenly sweeping towards goal.

And that’s when you notice the little things. Lliam Webster received a hard pass half a metre too far behind him. Somehow he kicked it, absolutely smoothly, onto his stick without breaking stride or losing any pace, went in and slotted the shot straight past the goalie.

Tommy Powell took a shot and then hockey stopped from full pace to a complete halt in one fraction of a second, snow flying, like an old animation of the Road Runner going from a blur to dead-stopped, so that he was camped for a potential rebound.

Big weekend coming up for the Ice.

Big weekend coming up for the Ice.

And so it went. Two fast laps, a standard of any training session I’ve ever been part of with any team, was frighteningly quick, with Danish import Lasse Lassen particularly noticeable for his low-gravity style and smooth skating. We also noticed that Joey Hughes has got his trademark long hair back and there are some strong play-off beards in evidence.

Eventually we left them to it and headed off into the night. On the weekend, we’ll be back, hoping the Ice can make it through the semis to Sunday’s Grand Final and then hopefully salute for the first time in a few years, since the glorious days of the threepeat.

I’m not going to mozz them by saying anything more about how sharp and ready they looked. I’m sure the other three teams in finals contention look great in training too. It’s all about bringing it on the day, two days in a row. My feeling is that for the Ice this year, it’s only a question of whether they can mentally turn on when required. The 2016 squad, for mine, is as good as any they’ve had. But they need to blinker-out the inevitable provocation and needle that’s going to come in the semi, secure that win, and then peak for when it matters on Sunday afternoon.

I’ll be there, mouth-agape at the level of play they can achieve, from my viewpoint as a summer trier. And loving every minute. Especially if they trounce Canberra.

Ice, Ice, baby. Go get ’em.

 

The door in the jungle

The adventurer’s eyes widened as he spied what looked like a door. Could this really be it? Had he found it against all the odds, after all this time? His heart began to beat in his chest. His breathing quickened. He struggled to contain his excitement, to remain calm.

The adventurer hacked away at the jungle between him and the door, fighting to get closer.

The wilds of Fitzroy North

The wilds of Fitzroy North

Until finally, there it was, right in front of him. Ageing, paint peeling, almost buried in dust and cobwebs, the door’s handle stiff and resistant after how long without human touch?

He used the machete to sweep aside the cobwebs, used some leaves to clear dust. Then took a deep breath, used all his might to creak the handle to vertical, and then yanked. The door opened.

And there it was.

His hockey gear. Resting against the only bag used less over the last 15 weeks, his scuba diving gear.

The adventurer dragged the bag out of the back shed, and wincing, expecting the worst, opened the zip.

And was relieved to find that the hockey smell wasn’t bad at all. That last big airing, after the Cherokees’ lost final, had done the job.

The dormant bags of adventure.

The dormant bags of adventure.

The adventurer flexed his dodgy calf, which had twanged out while running to receive a handball the previous Friday. The adventurer coming off several weeks in a row of gym, boxing, football twice a week and now ready to step back onto the ice. Having been to a few Melbourne Ice games lately, against the Sydney Bears and Newcastle on Saturday. Feeling the anticipation as the nation’s best players swirled and smashed their way around the Henke Rink at Icy O’Briens. Exchanging looks with Big Cat, knowing it was only three more sleeps until they finally stepped back onto that same ice.

Tuesday 6.45 pm scrimmage, a star-studded cast of players from all levels of competitive hockey. Big hellos to the coaches, who he hadn’t seen in months. Big hellos to the players. Big enjoyment of the locker room banter, and the long, complicated donning of the armour, skates and sock tape. That memory jog to take off the skate-guards before stepping onto the ice surface.

The moment of nervous fear as he jumped the boards for warm-up, and didn’t land flat on his face. More moments of uncertainty, gingerly testing hockey stops and turns, his calf holding, his unpractised skating technique mostly holding.

The Ice and Bears get acquainted on Henke Rink. Pic: Nicko

The Ice and Bears get acquainted on Henke Rink. Pic: Nicko

And then playing his first hour of hockey for months and months. Not setting the world on fire, only landing a few good passes, only having a few not-particularly-threatening shots on goal. Falling a few times, taking what sometimes felt like minutes to complete a fast turn , feeling two steps too slow.

But back. Skating. Managing a breakaway or two. Remembering. And smiling.

Laughing and light, on the drive home with Big Cat, who had been just as rusty but looked better and better as the hour progressed.

Hockey players once more.

And it felt good.

 

An important announcement

Melbourne, Tuesday, June 21 (AP): The Braves Hockey Club and management for Nick Place were pleased to announce today that they have agreed to terms for the upcoming 2016-17 Ice Hockey Victoria summer season.

‘We think it’s a great deal for everybody,’ said Braves President Liam Patrick. ‘If Place pays his fees in full and on time, buys a new jersey, drives himself to trainings and games, doesn’t open his mouth in the changerooms, and doesn’t get in anybody’s way, we might let him play very limited fifth line minutes for the Cherokees in Division 3.’

Place managing to stay vertical in a previous summer. Pic: Luke Milkman

Place managing to stay vertical in a previous summer. Pic: Luke Milkman

Place’s manager, Nick Place, said: ‘I, I mean my client is thrilled that the Braves have agreed to let me, I mean him, don the famous black and yellow for the forthcoming season. I think there’s definitely a role for older, wise veterans in today’s hockey world. When I think of Jaromir Jág-‘

He was then cut off by President Patrick, who whispered: ‘Stick to the agreed script or it’s over.’

President Patrick told reporters, ‘There had been some hope-I mean thought that Nick might consider retirement at the age of 67 but, trooper that he is, and photos of me that he has, he’ll be allowed to go around this summer. What I need the hockey world, especially the Braves family, to understand is that legally we can’t stop him. If he pays his fees, there’s nothing I can do. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.’

The news of Place’s resigning was greeted with universal joy across the league with opposition teams admitting to being rapt with the development. ‘Place’s son, Will – AKA Kittens – AKA Big Cat – would be a huge offensive threat under most circumstances,’ said one coach. ‘So the fact he’ll be totally hamstrung by having to put up with his dad’s ineffectual skating and passing on the left wing should cut his point production in half at least, and is a boon for all of us.’

Cherokees coach Georgia Carson was not available for comment. Friends say she was enjoying a quiet night yesterday evening when she received a txt that appeared to horrify her. ‘They promised! They promised he was gone! They told me it was over!’ she screamed before storming out of the house to a nearby speakeasy bar. She has not been seen since.

Place left immediately after the press conference, telling reporters he was heading to a secret training camp to prepare for September’s action. However, Braves officials confirmed he actually just went to work.