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.

 

Now is the winter of my content

This blog has had radio silence for a while because I’m taking winter off from hockey. It’s going mostly ok. I had a consultation with a personal trainer who remarked that I was in great shape ‘for my age’, and then had the awkward moment of hoping he didn’t notice the one-third empty bottle of single malt whisky in my sporting backpack. At 11 am on a Saturday.

I’m having a break because I felt flat after the mighty Cherokees fell out of the finals, and realised I’d been busting my arse, on this crazy adventure, for more than five years, without a meaningful break.

I’m a big believer that rest can be as important as training, so it won’t hurt me to step away from those late night Wednesday training sessions and the endless quest to improve, to be hopefully competitive, for a while. I miss the social aspect of Icehouse life, hooning with the coaches and Wednesday regulars, and I miss my teammates, but I haven’t stood on skates now for a couple of months and it’s been kind of nice. I guess I’ll see how much I miss the whole thing before deciding to prepare for another summer season campaign. If I happen to decide to hang up the skates, my last official action in an IHV game was an under-pressure backhand thread out of our defensive zone to Big Cat, launching an attack. Which would sum up my career, such as it is or was, nicely.

Uzes, France. A place where you need to watch your head if you try to run through the town.

Uzes, France. A place where you need to watch your head if you try to run through the town.

After five years, a change of gear has been welcome. I completed my first official fun run in a long time – even if world landspeed experts did not sit up straighter in their chairs as the timing stats came in, plus I spent some weeks in France, even going for a jog in the countryside outside the walled city of Uzes. I have had time to see a few films (Captain America: Civil War was fun, Chasing Asylum a lot less fun but vital to see) and have also launched into some time-intensive work projects, one of which has involved spending a lot of time in the Emergency Trauma departments of major hospitals, which is a really, really effective way to make you appreciate your general health.

And I’ve been enjoying trying to work on my fitness in non-hockey-related ways. I’ve joined a new gym and started boxing again; a love that fell by the wayside because of hockey training. I’ve been trying to get back into the Bang, my footy life, but have been called into the front office immediately by my left hamstring to discuss my attempts to sprint and kick a Sherrin, after six months out of that world. The hamstring hasn’t torn but it certainly hasn’t been thrilled by the footy revival.

That’s the problem with getting older or playing different sports or maybe both: you stop for a while and it’s so hard to regain your sport-specific fitness and mojo. I’m actually in decent shape at the moment, various hockey ailments like my strained medial being unusually rested, but to then build my hammies back up to running/kicking strength? Difficult.

Nicko, Bang footy version. Trying to get back to this, hammies permitting.

Nicko, Bang footy version. Trying to get back to this, hammies permitting.

I’ll just keep taking baby steps; do hamstring strengthening curls in the gym and try to ease back into full Bang training. Wear a name tag to remind everybody who I am after so long away from the kick.

As this has been going on, a couple of my hockey mates have suffered nasty injuries over the past week. Todd slid awkwardly into the boards during a stick and puck session, and smashed his humerus, which sucks on many levels, not least because he took a year or so to get over a serious knee injury not so long ago.

Meanwhile, another friend has a big knee, after a nasty collision in a game, and looks like he’s up for a full reconstruction.

I’m sure everybody who plays hockey fields questions about how dangerous it must be, from people outside our little world. I always explain that the sliding motion gives you a lot less jarring than running, and certainly footy-running-and-kicking, but yes, there is the ever-present danger of ‘collision’ injuries.

Unhappy humerus. Poor Todd.

Unhappy humerus. Poor Todd.

It’s so unlucky for those two guys and others who are off the ice because of similar incidents. Hopefully, recovery is smooth and quick – well, as fast as can be expected. To play well, you have to push the thought of major injury out of your mind, and I’ve been lucky – the Year of the Knee, notwithstanding, but that was bad diagnosis, more than a major injury. I hope all my other hockey friends currently contesting winter or AIHL seasons, or skating in preparation for summer, are safe out there.

Me? I’m going to keep hitting heavy bags that don’t punch back, get some more land-miles into my legs and try to convince my left hamstring that the beauty of drilling a perfect pass, lace-out, to a huffing and puffing old man on the lead further down the field is totally worth the pain and suffering of a sporting re-boot. What could possibly go wrong?

 

Losing with a capital L

To be a fan is to be a loser.

I staggered back into Melbourne from overseas late last week, just in time for my beloved Richmond Tigers to get smashed by West Coast. The next day, the Detroit Red Wings got beaten by Tampa Bay, to go 2-0 down in a playoff series that they somehow fell into despite an underwhelming season.

By the weekend, I needed to shake off jetlag so I attempted to go for a run. As I plodded through Edinburgh Gardens, I heard an unmistakable roar from the Brunswick Street Oval on the other side of the tennis courts. Feeling excited, I made my way to the top of the small rise overlooking the oval to see that the mighty Reds (what’s left of the Fitzroy club that used to be a VFL/AFL side) had goaled to edge to within a straight kick of their opponents with minutes to go. Of course, as I watched, the opposition booted two to put the game away. I ran sadly on.

A big crowd in for the 'Roys at home on a perfect autumn afternoon. Shame they lost. Pic: Nicko

A big crowd in for the ‘Roys at home on a perfect autumn afternoon. Shame they lost. Pic: Nicko

It all got me reflecting on how the life of a sports fan, or player for that matter, is almost completely one of ultimate loss, apart from the occasional miraculous occasion.

At the most elite level, I have seen exactly one championship win by a team I support in my half century on the planet. Granted, Richmond won flags in 1967 and 1969, as well as 1973/74, but I was really young and only just tuning in by those Seventies flags, so they didn’t really resonate. By the time I was a foaming at the mouth, dedicated Tiger, we won the premiership in 1980 – my first live grand final at the MCG; the most epic of days, with my lifetime friend and fellow Tiger, Shaun.

I had no idea that by the age of 51, that would remain my only flag.

The Red Wings? I saw them lift the Stanley Cup in 2007/2008, when I fell in love with the team. But I can’t claim it. I only tuned in, as a flu-ridden, bored total hockey novice, for the Stanley Cup finals, and became engrossed over the course of the Wings victory over the Penguins. So I don’t feel that I can claim that as a cup that I ‘earned’ as a fan. Now, eight years later? Yes, I sweat blood for the Wings and can absolutely claim to be among the Motown army, even from half a world away.

Thank God for the Melbourne Ice with a quiver of men’s and women’s titles, and the Lorne Dolphins’ several flags over the years, in coastal footy, because as far as Richmond and now the Red Wings go, every single year except for once when I was 15, the season has ultimately ended badly.

Detroit's 2008 Cup: I was lucky to see it.

Detroit’s 2008 Cup: I was lucky to see it.

Which is pretty standard, unless you happen to be a Hawthorn fan in the AFL, winning life’s lottery over the past three decades. For the vast majority of sports fans, barracking life is destined to end, year-in, year-out, at some stage in failure. Look at the Collingwood Football Club with its vast, ever-cocky army – and exactly one more premiership in my lifetime than the bedraggled Tigers. Meanwhile, my more recent love, the Wings, have made the play-offs now for an unbelievable 25 years straight – through salary cap introduction, through Hall of Famers’ retirements (God, I miss The Perfect Human, in defence), through everything, but it’s eight years since they actually won the Cup and could be a while yet.

The Tigers? God, don’t even start me.

And trust me, in footy I know that I’m doing better than fans of the Bulldogs, Saints and Demons, all without a flag in my half century on the planet, or, in the NHL, fans of the Blues, Canucks, Capitals, Sabres and Sharks: teams that have NEVER won the Stanley Cup.

The Tigers triumph in 1980. My one and only premiership. Back before the world was in colour.

The Tigers triumph in 1980. My one and only premiership. Back before the world was in colour.

Imagine being a player. Matty Richardson for the Tigers, maybe Bob Murphy for the Dogs; playing your guts out for almost two decades and never raising that cup … watching other players who maybe manage 50 AFL games for their career luck out to be on the ground when the stars align and it matters. I feel vaguely disappointed that I’ve played four seasons of summer hockey now without any medals to show for it, so how must they feel? But again, in 2016, for 17 AFL teams and 29 NHL teams, and all but one Summer Division Three team, this will be the way it goes.

For some reason, we never look at this big picture, at how we almost always see a season end in despair. Instead, the fans, and players, get lost in the individual games, even in the individual moments within those sirens or buzzers. Players are touted as genius or idiot, rising star or useless, game to game, or minute to minute. Us fans watch it all, riding every bump, pouring with emotions, sweating on the next puck or goal or wicket or farnarkle or whatever happens to be your poison. I read Winging It in Motown, a very enthusiastic and well-populated Wings blog, and the screen seethes with rage and frustration and elation and sorrow and anger and happiness and wistfulness and … well, you get the picture. Sometimes all during a single game feed.

My cluster of Richmond diehard mates are already wincing at another season wobbling alarmingly at the start, with the team down 1-3 and not inspiring much hope of a premiership run. Again. All the parts that looked so bright and formidable in the pre-season, a month ago, now looking blunt and harmless compared to the razor-sharp skills, game plans and promising rookies of other teams. But then again, if the Tiges suddenly win five in a row …

And so the road goes, as ever. Up and down, peaks, troughs, but hardly ever reaching the desired destination.

Alex Rance: life is about more than silverware.

Alex Rance: life is about more than silverware.

Which is actually okay. In an excellent interview with The Age’s Emma Quayle during the week, the Tigers’ charismatic full back Alex Rance spoke about caring too much and about how his unstoppable competitiveness and passion for the game can get in his way. Raised a Jehovah’s Witness, Rance thought about leaving the game, leaning back into his beliefs to consider whether he even wanted to play football any more; worried that in the end it was pointless and took him away from his family and true priorities.

Rance said, ‘I’d play a crap game and think, “life sucks”. Then I’d play a good game and everything was awesome. It was like, how can you survive like this? There were peaks and troughs all over the place. It made me think about what faith is, and what I should really be basing my happiness on.”

You don’t have to be of a religious persuasion to see a general wisdom in Rance’s words. Sure, play hard, barrack hard, live or die on a swirling Sherrin in a breeze, or a deflected puck bobbling near a flailing goalie, or a putt curling towards the lip of a golf hole. But see it for what it is, win or lose; an entertaining aside to the real world that is ever travelling alongside, with much higher stakes and greater highs and lows.

In a day or so? Red Wings v Lightning, Game 4.
On the weekend? Richmond v Melbourne at the MCG.
Down at Lorne? Hopefully the Dolphins will be in action, so I can drink a beer on the muddy step grandstand and cheer the locals.
At the Icehouse? The Melbourne Ice men’s team begins another campaign, searching for a Goodall Cup, something has been tantalisingly out of reach for a few years now, but here we all go again.

I’m excited. As usual.

Giddyup.

Just remember it’s all in the journey.

 

 

 

Back to work …

So, I have a hockey game on Saturday.

This is something of a shock, as it always is after the Christmas break.

It was December 19 when I last strapped on the skates, to play the ice Wolves at Icy O’Briens Arena. Of course, my unprecedented two-game scoring streak came to an end that day, but we Cherokees actually had a great game against the top team, pushing them all the way, and headed into Christmas feeling good.

Showing amazing stick-holding technique v the Icebreakers in December. Pic: Eyal Bernard

Showing amazing stick-holding technique v the Ice Wolves in December. Pic: Eyal Bernard

Now, almost a month later, who knows?

I remember coach Lliam Webster saying, in one of my earliest skating lessons five years ago this week (no, really), that ice-skating is a completely unnatural action. That we humans are designed to walk or run, but not skate – where there is a need to push our feet counter-intuitively to the side – so it has to be totally learned.

A month off takes you inevitably not back to square one, but certainly back quite a few levels of skating comfort. Another of my respected coaches along the way, Joey Hughes, once told me that before the official training starts for an AIHL season, he always books private ice time at his home rink in Oakleigh and

The view from my parents' house on Christmas Day. Lorne was lucky. Poor Wye River and Separation Creek weren't. Pic: Amanda Place

The view from my parents’ house on Christmas Day. Lorne was lucky. Poor Wye River and Separation Creek weren’t. Pic: Amanda Place

then puts himself through several hours of back-to-basics skating drills; the same ones he sets for Next Level newbies or intermediate classes, just refining and recalling the muscle memory for everything from basic crossovers to pivots and fancier hockey moves. It’s only once he’s done several sessions of that and feels like he has his edges back that he picks up his stick and begins genuine hockey training.

Which doesn’t bode well for me on Saturday. I am not now and never will be a Joey Hughes.

The flipside of all this is that having a break from any sport can be a wonderful thing. I fully utilised the break, from helping my elderly parents get the Hell out of Dodge when a bushfire threatened Lorne on Christmas day, to hanging out with friends

French Billy Eliott done well: Is that Lliam Webster playing the dad?

French Billy Elliot done well. But wait, is that Lliam Webster playing the dad?

and amazing fauna at North Stradbroke Island, to watching the aforementioned Lliam Webster unexpectedly play the deaf father in a French film, La Famille Bélier, to missing the Cherokees’ first training skate of the year on Sunday because I was getting sunburnt at a French music festival, digging the sexy and talented duo, Brigitte, or jumping up and down to a bizarre but fun Baltic-French hip-hop crew, Soviet Suprem.

But now party time is over, even if it slated to be 41 degrees Celsius tomorrow.

Just another quiet gig for Soviet Suprem, at So Frenchy So Chic.

Just another quiet gig for Soviet Suprem, at So Frenchy So Chic.

Saturday looms, and the need to be able to stand upright on skates while chasing a small, hard rubber puck, and hopefully not giving away penalties by careering uncontrollably into opponents. Looks like I’ll be the one wobbling around at as many stick ‘n’ puck sessions as I can get to between now and the weekend. Starting at 4.30 pm today.

Off-season distraction: French duo Brigette.

Off-season distraction: French duo Brigette.

See you there?

 

 

One more Soviet Suprem clip, for fun. Trust me, live, they are amazing!

 

The pelican

Yes, we segwayed Washington. Not even sorry.

Yes, we segwayed Washington. Not even sorry.

Four years ago, on this day, I was sitting up on an all-night train from South Carolina to Washington DC. I adore long train rides, always have, but on this ride, I was sad, having waved goodbye, for who knows how long, to one of my best friends in the world. Trent is a Horsham boy and an old journo brother-in-arms who married an American woman and now has to live over there, meaning I hardly ever get to spend time with him. On a big US trip, my boys and I had dropped into his world. We’d attended soccer training with his daughters. We’d gone past a freeway sign to a town called Batcave. I’d driven a left-hand-drive car for the first time. We’d drunk local beer in a folky bar in Asheville. We’d talked deep philosophy until late in the night. We’d talked shit until late into the night. We’d gone white water rafting, accepting a dare from the guide to go overboard, gasping and laughing in freezing river water, and I’d spotted a bald eagle lazily flapping ahead of us. We’d gone camping in bear country where Trent had told me that you didn’t really need to worry about bears unless you were stupid enough to have food in your tent. One guy got mauled because he had a chocolate bar in his pack, for example. I tried to sleep, knowing my two boys were in a tent just on the other side of the dying fire; sleeping soundly but at the mercy of bears that almost certainly would never come. At about 4 am, I became convinced I had a chocolate bar in my bag. I gave myself a lecture about paranoia and finally slept. In the early morning, the sun just rising, Trent and I creaked to our feet, straight-shot local authentic moonshine to jolt ourselves awake, and grinned at one another. I checked my bag and found a chocolate bar.

Camping by the South Toe River, North Carolina. Bear country. 2011.

Camping by the South Toe River, North Carolina. Bear country. 2011.

Now I was aware that Trent was fading with every mile as American countryside rolled by. This train’s seats were annoyingly about 10 centimetres too close together, just short enough in leg room so there was no way to get comfortable. My youngest son, Macklin, trying to sleep, stirred and shifted and then lay in my lap. I put my arm across his shoulders and it occurred to me that this moment may never come again. When kids are young, you get used to them flailing all over you, sleeping in your bed, or slumping asleep on top of you when they hit that moment kids get when they just can’t stay awake. But Mack was 15 now and at an age where he was starting to want his own space. He had outgrown holding hands as you walk along the street, or overt displays of affection. Was midway through that awkward teenage stage of growing and separating. So it was a rare thing to have him curl up in my lap.

And so we rolled into Washington, a city I had never particularly cared to visit but this time had a reason. As our endless train ride came to an end at Union Station (Paul Kelly: ‘He came in on a Sunday, every muscle aching, walking in slow motion, like he’d just been hit’) a private plane, the Red Wing 1, the Detroit hockey team’s plane, was getting ready to fly from Motor City.

And we had tickets to our first ever NHL game, Detroit @ Washington at the Verizon Centre.

We had a day and a half to fill and hit Washington hard. Peered through the fence at the White House, toured the Smithsonian museums – highly recommend the space museum and the pop culture one – ate at the spy museum café, bought the t-shirt, took a Segway tour of the monuments. Visited Abe Lincoln in his big chair. Stood where Martin Luther-King stood, looking not at a million people by the reflection pond but instead at a work site; an uprooted, drained pond-full of pipes and mud. The boys headed to the Washington zoo while I grabbed a public rent-a-bike and pedalled my way around town, seeing the monuments, the Newseum and other treasures.

And then, finally, it was game time.

Something I had waited years to see. Pic: Nicko

Something I had waited years to see. Pic: Nicko

I can still remember walking into the building; worrying that my first-ever Stubhub ticket purchase would be declared invalid at the door. Relieved as they bleeped us through. So many hockey jerseys, including enough Detroit red and white that I relaxed about us being targeted as the enemy in the building. Americans so friendly, Caps fans or Wings; mostly so happy to meet three crazy Australians who had travelled half a world to be there. I remember watching warm-ups; marvelling at seeing Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Nick Lidstrom in the flesh. Other favourite players like Helm, Bertuzzi and Howard. Taking photos of everything from a pyramid of pucks on the bench to the crowd filling the venue.See the video below: this is my film of my heroes emerging onto the bench and then to the ice (plus a baby-faced assistant coach, Jeff Blashill, making his way onto the bench alongside Babs).

After decades as a journalist, including covering world title fights, grand slam tennis and many other major events, I was like a kid; a fan again. It wasn’t just seeing the Wings either. Our seats were close to the Washington bench and we were only metres from Alexander Ovechkin, the huge Russian with the Bond-villain face, and the hardest shot I have ever seen. He flicked his wrist like every other player but somehow the puck that came off his stick looked like it would blast clean through a brick wall. No wonder he scores so many goals.

It was Nick Lidstrom’s 1500th NHL game. During a break in play, the achievement was written on the four way big screen above the ice and the entire building gave him an ovation. Lidstrom glancing up to the screen, realising the applause was for him and graciously raising his stick, in his under-stated Perfect Human kind of way.

Good seats at my first ever NHL game. Shame about the scoreline. Pic: Nicko

Good seats at my first ever NHL game. Shame about the scoreline. Pic: Nicko

The Wings lost 7-1. Got jumped 3-0 early and never got it back, Ty Conklin having a less than stellar game in net. No matter, we thought. We have three looming games in Detroit, at the Joe, to console us. We’ll watch the Wings win at home and sing ‘Don’t stop believing’ with our people. We flew off to Chicago, then to Motor City, and Detroit lost every game. We flew back to Australia and Detroit proceeded to set a NHL record for winning the most consecutive games at home.

But do I care? Not at all. At the time, I thought I’d be back in a year or two to watch more NHL games. In fact, when the Wings were announced as a Winter Classic team, Big Cat and I started trying to measure up a trip.

But four years is a lot of sand through the hourglass. Life has changed. My boys have grown, become more independent, as they should. Are planning overseas trips that don’t include me – and on their own coin. Meanwhile, I returned to Australia, felt my heart lurch one or two more times and then met a French woman who turned out to be the unlikely piece of the puzzle I needed for my life to make sense. All my overseas travel since has been aimed at Bretagne instead of Detroit, but believe me, I am okay with that. If you’d seen Chloe’s home town of Rennes, you’d understand.

But exactly four years since I saw the Wings first hand, I find myself wondering when or even if I’ll ever see them again in the flesh? Lidstrom’s No. 5 is now in the rafters of the Joe, which itself is on borrowed time as a new stadium starts to take shape in Detroit’s midtown. Zetterberg and Datsyuk are in deep, deep hockey middle age – although I have them covered on that front, even if I am only two games into my fourth competitive summer.

I was among a group of backpackers in Greece a long time ago, who gathered for a communal meal in Delphi. I got talking to a bloke from Yorkshire who had cycled to Delphi in the hope of seeing a pelican. He was a twitcher and pelican was high on his never-seen bucket list. An unimaginably exotic bird if you were from Yorkshire; something he couldn’t quite believe he might actually see, if he was lucky in the next day or so at a nearby lake. I thought of all the pelicans I’d seen in Australia. Even on the wastelands of the Geelong Road, you see flocks of them flapping overhead. Once, between waves while I was surfing alone around the coast from Lorne, a pelican flew up and landed right next to me, in the water. It hung out for 20 minutes or so and, high on nature and surfing and the beauty of life, I talked and sang to this enormous bird. Not unreasonably, it left soon after. Yet for this Yorkshire cyclist, he’d worked so hard to try even to glimpse one. Such a rare jewel.

Maybe live NHL hockey will be that for me? Both my boys are studying careers that could easily see them end up living overseas, including Toronto and LA so perhaps that’s how I will cross paths with the Winged Wheel once more; on a visit to my sons as they take on the world?

Or maybe I never will. Maybe money will tighten or health will change or circumstances will dictate that my days of jetsetting are done? I t took me until I was 24 years of age to manage to leave Australia and I’ve always felt it is a privilege to fly, to see other countries. I’ve never taken it for granted. And one day it will be over.

Maybe Washington and Detroit in 2011 was my one shot. Maybe I’m destined to be huddled in front of NHL Gamecenter for however many years I have left on the planet, riding a televised puck and Detroit’s fortunes, but with the blessing that in my memory bank is the additional colour and flavour of what it was like to Be There. Of having walked into the Verizon Centre and the Joe Louis Arena; of having seen the numbers and the pennants in the rafters; of having lived NHL hockey live and in the flesh.

How blessed am I to have done that? For that experience, and the wider trip with my sons, four years ago. I saw my pelican. And it was amazing.

The responsibility of the sports fan

I can tell you, without prompting, what was my worst moment of the 2014 AIHL season.

It was during the grand final, and it wasn’t the fact that my team, the Melbourne Ice, was looking unnaturally lethargic against the uppity Mustangs, to the extent that the Ice eventually fell 6-1 without firing a shot.

It wasn’t even the increasingly rapt and raucous cheering of the Mustangs fans as they realised their Goodall Cup dream was coming true. (Actually, it was hard to begrudge them their joy and, let’s face it, I would have been yelling louder if the Ice was on top, so good for you, Clippyclops.)

No, my worst moment of the season, my least favourite memory of that afternoon, was the moment when former Ice star Joey Hughes, now a Mustang, was on the wrong end of a heavy collision in front of the Mustangs’ bench, and didn’t immediately get up. He stayed down, and we couldn’t see from the stand how badly hurt he was. And he remained down. And a small chunk of the Melbourne Ice fans found their voice; booing him, and goading him, and basically cheering his pain.

Joey Hughes, vertical and pain-free, for the Mustangs. Pic: Hewitt Sports.

Joey Hughes, vertical and pain-free, for the Mustangs. Pic: Hewitt Sports.

How shithouse is that?

Love him or hate him, and Joey is a guy who inspires both emotions in fans, especially having retired from the Ice and then reemerged as a Mustang, but he is all heart. He gives and gives, on the ice and off, and in this collision he had gone down hard. (Happily, he did eventually get back up.)

Dancing on the pain of any hockey player who is down and not necessarily getting up is pretty low, I reckon. As is mindlessly, or maybe not mindlessly booing a man to the point that he contemplates leaving the sport that he loves.

I’m not even going to go into the potential racism or deeper rivers that run under the current furore relating to opposition fans constantly booing Sydney Swans star Adam Goodes in the AFL.

All I have to say is this: I believe that our job as fans, whether watching hockey, footy, cricket, boxing, tennis, bocce, trugo, whatever, is to love our sport. That’s why we’re there, right? I felt all kinds of emotions during that AIHL grand final last year, and mostly sadness that the Ice couldn’t find their usual mojo when it mattered. But I loved being there, I loved being one of more than a thousand hockey fanatics, lifting the roof of the Icehouse and urging on our heroes, whether it was the Mustangs’ O’Kane, Hughes, or that bloody Swedish guy, Viktor, who did all the damage, or Lliam, Tommy, Army, Bacsy, Brown, McKenzie, the Wongs, Graham and the other Ice players.

Adam Goodes: it's time for empathy, not taunting.

Adam Goodes: it’s time for empathy, not taunting.

I believe, generally, that you should work, where you can, to be a force for good in the world. I’m not religious; this is not some sermon from a pulpit. But if you’ve ever travelled, you would know that the reality is that we live blessed lives, here in Australia. Sport is a place for us to have fun in our comparatively awesome lives, to ride the emotional roller coaster, to desperately care about things that actually don’t really matter.

To try and boo a player out of the sport because you consider he’s a ‘sook’ (which is to make the big and, frankly, extremely generous assumption that the fact he’s an outspoken, proud Indigenous man has nothing to do with your booing) is against the contract of being a fan, as I see it.

I can remember once having a word with a Richmond supporter at a Tiger game. Well, he was wearing head-to-toe Richmond gear but did nothing but bag out the Tiger players, screaming that they were useless, that they were hopeless, that they were gutless, etc etc. I finally said to him, mate, you’re giving them a far bigger whack than any of the Brisbane Lions fans also in attendance. Go buy a Lions scarf, go to the Lions’ cheer squad and lead them in the Tiger-hate. He slunk off. The Tigers somehow crawled off the mat and won with the last kick of the day. He was nowhere to be seen as we belted out the song.

I was left thinking: why was he even there? Just to release his wider life frustration into the air? Just to scream abuse at his team, depressing the shit out of all the other Richmond fans around him?

Please understand I am not trying to sound lofty, or like I know how the world works any better than anybody else. Actually, as I get older, I come to realise more and more how little I know. I have no bigger voice than anybody else and recognise that there are a thousand different views on this topic.

But my view is this: when you’re at a sporting event, cheer, don’t boo. Encourage your heroes, don’t kick the shit out of their opponents. Because there’s a difference.

In fact, think about the energy you put into the world, on a daily basis, in the real world as well as the sporting arena.

Are you a positive person? Are you working to make the world better? Or are you just chopping down the Adam Goodes of the world, or a writhing-in-pain Joey Hughes, because you can smell blood and you’re anonymous in a crowd or on social media, and because, well, you can?

This has been an extremely depressing week. Hopefully, it leads somewhere better than where we are now.

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.