Riding the brain loop

Runkeeper app (cycling mode), with its emotion-free American female voice, says, ‘Time 25 minutes, Distance 8 kilometres.’

Riding the Yarra on a perfect day.

Riding the Yarra on a perfect day.

Riding my gorgeous birthday mountain bike on Sunday afternoon, I had swooped off Johnston Street to the Collingwood children’s farm, suddenly among horses and sheep, then climbed the Boulevard and dropped onto the main Yarra cycling track behind Richmond. Fancy houses and Scotch College across the glittery river, rowing crews on the water, and idiots wheeling three prams side-by-side occasionally blocking the path in both directions. I mean, seriously?

Thirty degrees and perfect riding conditions. I breathe and move my legs, feet clipped into the pedals.

My brain? Still in armour and skates from the afternoon before. A nagging internal voice on a loop. My brain replaying The Cherokees giving up a goal in the opening minute to Ice Wolves’ Nick, a gun from dev league. Not the start we wanted. But then roaring back with three goals of our own, none of which I was on the ice for, to carry a handy 3-1 lead into the first period break.

Runkeeper: ‘Time 35 minutes. Distance 10 kilometres.’

Sunday ride ...

Sunday ride …

My head still somewhere else. Ice Wolves scoring two goals in the second period to level the game at 3-3.

But now I get fed a beautiful pass from defence and I cross the blue line, entering our zone, in complete control of the puck, thinking to myself: ‘You haven’t played for a month, don’t rush it. You have more time than you think.’ Seeing where the defender was, with enough room for me to be creative.

Hearing Kittens and Jimmy yelling, that they were also in the zone, ready for a centering pass. My specialty. Letting it fly but a fraction of a second too late, so that my pass hits an opposition skate, deflects straight out of our zone and onto the stick of the opposition’s best player, who sweeps down the ice and scores, all alone on poor Ajay, our keeper. 4-3 Wolves. Fuck.

My bike glides along the Burnley Boardwalk and the music has inexplicably cut out on my phone, so I try to turn off my hockey brain, sing ‘Under the Boardwalk’ softly to myself, as I pass the rangy, sinewed abseilers in the shadowy world under the freeway, the little water garage holding a restored ferry and all the other secret wonders of a bike track.

Now I’m at Birrarung Marr and I have to ride super slowly, and eventually walk so I’m not one of those dicks who tries to be a Tour de France rider in the middle of heavy foot traffic near Flinders Street station. This is going to kill my time-per-kilometre average on Runkeeper, but hey ho.

Now the brain loop fixates on a Kittens shot from the slot that rebounded straight towards me. I’m floating in, just as I should to the left of the goal, seeing the Wolves keeper sprawled and the puck heading my way. I wait for the puck to land exactly on my blade so I can roof it into the near high corner. I’ve practised that shot. I’m confident I can hit it. But let’s make sure by letting the puck come all the way onto my stick blade. By which time, of course, Wolves defenders have descended and hacked my stick and the puck so the shot I attempt barely registers. Sigh. Why didn’t I just whack at it immediately? Shit.

All the essentials: helmet, gloves and coffee.

All the essentials: helmet, gloves and coffee.

Runkeeper: ‘Time 50 minutes. Distance 16 kilometres.’

The Australian Open tennis is like a virus, spreading from the increasing buildings on what were once public ovals and athletics training fields, to now creep, with ‘festival sites’, along both sides of the river, all the way to South Wharf. I covered all the Grand Slams as a journo; don’t remember Paris, London or New York being so overtaken by the event. Maybe they are now? It’s a long time since I covered that sport.

Runkeeper solemnly intones: ‘Time: one hour, 10 minutes. Distance 20 kilometres’ as I creep over the strange intestine-like bridge linking South Wharf to Docklands. I drift up through the Docklands market, close to the water, rather than stick to the faster bike track on Footscray Road. I ride past Icy O’Briens, aka the Icehouse, aka O’Briens Group Arena, scene of yesterday’s game and my hockey spiritual home.

We level the game at 4-4 through a great lone effort by our captain, Patto.

Soon after, my line is on the ice and we charge into attack. Again I’m crashing the net when a rebound bounces off the goalie. I control the puck. The Wolves goalie does the right thing, covering the post and making himself big. I shoot anyway on a tight angle, hoping for a gap, but it hits his body and falls. I try desperately to drag the puck out from below his knee-roll, where it’s half-pinned, but the ref blows the whistle and the moment is lost.

Riding Railway Canal ... the glamour mile of Melbourne's bike paths.

Riding Railway Canal … the glamour mile of Melbourne’s bike paths.

I’m riding away from the giant wheel and Docklands now in shadow, the Bolte Bridge freeway high above my head. The sparkling Yarra and the docks have given way to the smelly water of the Railway Canal, scene of a body dump in the last detective novel I wrote; a book that still hasn’t made it through the maze of agents and publishers. Maybe never will. I should be fretting about that if I’m going to fret.

Why didn’t I hold onto the puck and try a wrap-around? Could I have fed a pass to one of the other forwards? Did I choose the right option, in shooting straight into the keeper’s body?

I ride through low underpasses and then climb carefully up the ramp to Flemington Bridge, a railway station I suspect only cyclists know even exists.

‘One hour, 25 minutes,’ says Runkeeper. ‘Twenty-five kilometres.’

Now I’m heading east. In Jakarta and in the obscure African country of Burkina FasoI, terrorists have been killing people in the last few days. There are real problems in the world, and even among my friends and family, yet I ride on, sighing at my hockey mediocrity. I pass the zoo and that means I’m heading back into the part of Melbourne I call home. There are trams, and people sunbaking in Princes Park, and street art in the tunnel under Sydney Road.

I finally run out of rusty mistakes I made in Saturday’s game. My brain eases up on itself. I tell myself that a friend who was watching the game, and is honest, said he thought I played pretty well. At least I was in the right position for those rebounds, even if they didn’t go in, right?

With my fancy bike; brain loop purged.

With my fancy bike; brain loop purged.

I pass St Ali’s near Nicholson Street and think about coffee, because, well, this is Melbourne.

And I’m me.

And, well … coffee.

But I keep riding.

The team played really well. We didn’t lose. Four-four was a good result, given we were behind for a lot of the third period.

I pull off the bike track as Runkeeper tells me that it’s been 30 kilometres in one hour, 38 minutes. I coast down a side street to Dench’s Bakery and park my bike against the glass. Order a flat white. And a jam bombolone to undo all the good work.

You did trap a puck with your skate on your defensive blue line, kick it onto your stick and pass neatly to Kittens, already flying down the centre, leading to a decent shot attempt by him. That was good.

The coffee tastes fantastic. My legs are warm, tired, sated.

It was the first game of the year. You did lots of good things; why are you focusing on the screw-ups. It’s human nature, right? Or you’re just a dick. Stop doing it. The sun’s out.

The hockey brain is a strange beast. Or maybe it’s just me?

I finish my coffee. I drink some water out of my trusty ‘Itchy and Scratchy’ water bottle that I’ve had since about 1990.

Stop beating yourself up, I think. Hockey’s fun. The team played well. You’ll be right.

When’s the next game?

I get back on my bike to pedal gently home.

Next Saturday, 3.45 pm.

I find myself grinning under my bike helmet.

Bring it.

 

 

 

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!

 

Trouble in the making of NickDoesHockey, the movie …

Dateline: November, 2017:
Scene: The office of Timefiller Productions, the production company putting together the “NickDoesHockey” telemovie.

INT: WRITERS ROOM (MEETING IN PROGRESS)              DAY

Producer: ‘Come on, peoples, it’s looking good but we’re lacking an element of fizz.’

Writer 1: ‘Fizz?’

Not even they could save this film ...

Not even they could save this film …

Producer: ‘Yeah, fizz. Steaminess, scandal … it’s all a bit too ‘straight’. This “Nick Place” character seems too straight. I mean, really? Work, hockey, family, the occasional coffee or whisky. Yawn. We need dirt! We need something to burn up the screen.’

Researcher 1: ‘Umm, he got a speeding ticket once …’

Producer: ‘Oh, come on, peoples! Tell you what, let’s focus on that week where Nick’s wife was in France and he was all alone, living the sweet bachelor life, in Melbourne through Cup Week. Researchers, give us the really juicy stuff from that sordid lost week…

Researcher 2: ‘Um, well, there was Cup Day …’

Not Nicko Place: damn.

Not Nicko Place: damn.

Producer: ‘Yeah, excellent. I can see it. Sweeping shot of the Flemington grandstands, zooming in to the crowd, all the women in their amazing frocks, with waaaaaay plunging necklines and showing lots of leg. Now we see Nicko, dressed up in a snappy suit, cruising the drunken race-goers and plying them with alcohol, deciding which three or four to take home? Yeah!’

Writer 2: ‘Um, well, actually, he and his son, Big Cat, went to a stick-and-puck hockey practice session at O’Brien Arena, then he had lunch with a friend. He had a nasty head cold so he watched the Cup, supine on his couch.’

Producer: ‘Oh really? Damn. Still plenty of the week left. What about Wednesday? Shaken the cold, ready to rock out Hump Day in Melbourne’s famous night clubs. Nicko heads out, ready to par-tay…’

Researcher 1: ‘Firstly, nobody says “par-tay” any more, boss. And actually, Nicko spent a quiet day working, then had his usual two hours of hockey that night. Inter class and dev league.’

Producer: ‘Oh man. Well, Thursday equals Sin day! AmIright?

Researcher 3: ‘Met with his accountant, had a couple of other business meetings, saw a quiet movie, home early to bed. Still sneezing.’

Producer: ‘What movie did he see? Porn? Snuff film? Something shocking?’

Researcher 1: “The Lobster” with Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz. By Greek arthouse director Yorgos Lanthimos. Awesome film …’

The Lobster: amazing film.

The Lobster: amazing film.

Producer: ‘For fuck sake, come on, people! Give me something we can use? This movie is going to be rated G if we don’t find something salacious. Let’s refocus: Friday night … of all nights. Unless I’m mistaken, Friday is still the big night of the week? Yeah? What did our boy do? I want drunkenness, I want an orgy, I want Jake Carlisle coming around to Nick’s place for a Snapchat session … I want something!’

Researcher 2: ‘Friday evening? Played hockey again.’

Silence.

Producer: ‘Seriously?’

Writer 2: ‘For the IBM corporate team, filling in, against Australia Post.’

Nicko and Fly in the Icy Obrien rooms: this guy needs a life.

Nicko and Fly in the Icy Obrien rooms: this guy needs a life.

Producer: ‘Did he at least bring his dog to the rink, like the Friday before?’

Researcher 3: ‘Um, nope.’

Writer 2: ‘Scored a goal in the opening five seconds, though, which was a funny moment … I’m thinking we come in tight on the face-off, and then pan-‘

Producer: ‘NOBODY CARES IF HE SCORED A HAT-TRICK, YOU DICKHEAD. I WANT SCANDAL. I WANT CONTROVERSY. Where did he go after the game?’

Researcher 1: ‘A Collingwood cafe, La Niche. Listened to some French music, and ate a big bowl of tartiflette.’

La Niche tartiflette. The ultimate post-hockey meal.

La Niche tartiflette. The ultimate post-hockey meal.

Producer: ‘What the hell is tartiflette?’

Researcher 1: ‘Um, mostly potato covered in several baked cheeses. The ultimate post-hockey meal.’

Producer: ‘Holy shit. The weekend better deliver. His wife’s back on Monday evening. Tell me he went berserk, got arrested, was found in a pool of his own vomit, at a bondage party, over the weekend.’

Researcher 1: ‘Hung out with his seven-year-old step-son, went to the museum, played hockey with the Cherokees on Sunday afternoon, had a quiet dinner with his family, then home to bed.’

Producer (popping Aspirin): ‘So just to be clear: this guy’s wife is out of town for a week and a bit, and he plays hockey four times, goes out drinking or partying exactly zero times?

Research 1: ‘Actually, when you put it like that, it IS pathetic.’

Producer: ‘That’s it. I’m out. This movie’s got nothing. NOTHING.’

Nicko Place, yesterday.

Nicko Place, yesterday.

Writer 2: ‘The Cherokees had a win, on the Sunday. Nicko was patchy … did some good things, screwed up others … managed to stay out of the “Naughty Box” as Cassius calls it.’

Producer: ‘Phone somebody who cares. I’m gone. Where are the keys to my Mercedes?’

PA (entering from outer office): ‘Boss? Pierce Brosnan’s on the phone. He says he’s been learning to skate for three months, with the help of ex-NHL star Nick Lidstrom. Says he thinks he’s ready for the title role.’

Producer: ‘Tell him it’s off. The whole thing’s off. We’re done. You’re all fired.’

Researcher 2: ‘What do we tell Nick Place?’

Producer: ‘Tell him to get a life.’

 

Preparing for a vintage summer

Summer hockey is serious business these days. With so many players flowing into the local sport and so few rinks (see several hundred previous posts on that topic) getting your first taste of competitive hockey is tricky.

My club, the Braves, had grading skates over the past two weekends. They weren’t so much try-out skates as working out in which division new Braves should play, with the idea that the teams should be evenly spread with talent and, most importantly, new skaters shouldn’t be blown away by experienced, more accomplished hockey players. As any reader of this blog will know, that remains one of my biggest issues in Ice Hockey Victoria competition – that too often there has been one or two players on a team in say Div 4 or Div 3 who simply shouldn’t be there, who should be playing several grades higher. Watching an opponent skate effortlessly around your entire team and then score top shelf, backhand, over their shoulder, while waving to the crowd, gets old after a while.

But it’s pretty much an honour system. These players are always there because they reportedly ‘want to play with their mates’, and I suppose I get that. I want to skate with my son, Big Cat Place, and then work things out from there. Happily I think we both fit the Div 3 profile without terrorising the opposition. In fact, I wish.

Being the dedicated professional hockey player that I am, I missed both the grading skates. I felt like Kevin Costner’s greatest ever character, ‘Crash’ Davis, in the Hall of Fame baseball film, Bull Durham, explaining that he doesn’t ‘try out’. (One of my favourite movie monologues ever.)

Actually, I had non-hockey alibis. In week one, I was at the world premiere of a friend’s film (Sucker, by one of my magic crowd mates, Lawrence Leung – I heartily recommend it: coming to cinemas soon) and then this weekend I was in Sydney, watching a legendary French dancer, Sylvie Guillem, take her final bows in Australia at the end of a glorious career.

Sylvie Guillem in flight. Amazing. I feel honoured that I got to witness her dancing, live, before she bows out.

Sylvie Guillem in flight. Amazing. I feel honoured that I got to witness her dancing, live, before she bows out.

Guillem is about six weeks older than me and has decided to call her career while she’s still on top of her game and, oh man, she is. Her dancing was unbelievable, especially her final solo piece, ‘Bye’. Astonishing.

Even better, her goodbye tour is titled: ‘A life in progress’. No ‘best of’ dancing for her; instead she’s still pushing herself, exploring, until the moment she steps off the stage. Even then, Guillem’s mantra is that she will no longer be starring in international productions, as she has been since Rudolf Nureyev strode onto the stage after her debut in Swan Lake, and announced she was now the French company’s étiole (top dancer) when she was at the absurdly young age of 19. But she’s not disappearing either. Her take is that it’s time for the next thing, whatever that is, and her life in arts will continue somehow.

Plus she’s a massive supporter of the Sea Shepherd and had Shepherd supporters selling merchandise at the Opera House, which was an unlikely scene. I bought a beanie I didn’t need, just because. She rocks.

Sylvie Guillem. This, peoples, is elite fitness. Pic: Balletoman.

Sylvie Guillem. This, peoples, is elite fitness. Pic: Balletoman.

Over cocktails at Palmer & Co, post-performance, Chloé and I chatted about Life After. I wondered how Guillem will eventually cope with not being so outrageously fit, flexible and just physically incredible, once she retires and drops at least a level or two in training and physical commitment. I think anybody who has worked hard enough to be elite fit, as in really fit, understands what it’s like to drop back to ‘pretty fit’ or even ‘very fit’. Let alone, ‘yeah, kind of fit’.

Guillem has been training remorselessly since she was 11. Thirty-nine years of being at the top of her game. It will take an adjustment, when she realises she can’t just do a vertical split without thinking about it.

The Large No. 12s, at the Labour In Vain, with Tiger Mick on guitar (in the back, far right) and a lead singer with a working back.

The Large No. 12s, at the Labour In Vain, with Tiger Mick on guitar (in the back, far right) and a lead singer with a working back.

But all manner of levels of fitness after 50 can be done and there are many inspirations around me. Tiger Mick is one of my Bang footy brothers. He’s well over 60 (I’m too polite to ask exactly how far) and recently lost a year of Bang action to an infected toe. There are infected toes and infected toes and my understanding is Mick almost lost his, the big toe on his right foot (kicking foot). He’s finally back, running and racing around like a maniac, as always, even tackling much bigger guys, against the Bang rules, and mostly kicking left foot. I watch him and think: if I was 60+ and lost a year of muscle in my legs (i.e. most of the muscle mass) I can’t see myself just jumping straight back in and running running running once given a half-all clear by a doctor. On weekends, Tiger Mick and a bunch of his mates play music in pubs across the town. We went and saw them recently at the Standard in Fitzroy and the lead singer was playing guitar and singing, while sitting down, with his back against the back-wall of the stage. ‘Is that some kind of rockstar affectation?’ I asked Tiger Mick. “Nah, he’s done his back but if he didn’t turn up, we don’t get paid,’ Mick shrugged. These guys are unstoppable.

Magnificently vintage Shonko battles the red dust of central Australia last week.

Magnificently vintage Shonko battles the red dust of central Australia last week.

Likewise, my friend Shonko has just got back from racing mountain bikes at Alice Springs. He finished about 30th overall and second in his division, which was, hilariously, titled: ‘Vintage’. Shonko a few years ago was riding in the age group 24-hour off-road mountain bike titles in Banff, Canada, where you ride and ride and ride for 24-hours around a 13 kilometre course, and he was so fit it was just ridiculous. We actually stopped going bush together because I felt bad that all super-rider Shonko did was wait for huffing puffing me to catch up. He always said that didn’t bother him. These days, he’s stepped it back to shorter races and to more fun challenges and doesn’t seem the worse for it. In fact, he has a better life balance while still being fitter than most 50-year-olds could dream of.

Giddyup. Pic: Luke Milkovic

Giddyup. Pic: Luke Milkovic

Me? I’m a few steps behind him, feeling my way back towards the level of fitness I want, which enables me to compete at hockey and to live my life. My problem/joy has always been that I have too many irons in my far too many fires. It’s impossible to be super-crazy-fit while also running a company, raising kids, writing novels, being social, embracing art and culture, writing for TV, and all the other stuff I do. But after a much-needed break after last summer’s season, I’m starting to build my lungs, legs and momentum towards this season, and it feels good. I’m nowhere near my version of peak fitness yet but I can feel it getting closer. Footy on Sundays, Inter and maybe Dev League on a Wednesday night (even though I was straight-out appalling last Wednesday: one of those nights. Yeesh) as well as occasional gym, running sessions, 50 push-ups and 100 sit-ups (minimum) per day, and riding my new mountain bike. This morning, spring in the air, I rode this incredible machine through the streets of inner Melbourne, past the MCG and Punt Road Oval (Go Tigers!) and then wound through the back streets of Cremorne to the Giants HQ. My hands were freezing in the morning wind but my legs felt good, pumping the pedals towards another summer and another Cherokee adventure. It’s going to be a different season: several of the old Cherokees have moved up to Division 2, pushing onward, higher, but enough of the old ‘Kees still around to make our changeroom the fun, slander-filled space that I love. Can’t wait to pull No. 17 over my head, clip my battered red helmet to my head and go chase the puck.

Sylvie Guillem might feel it’s the right time to go, but I sure don’t. I’m sticking with Tiger Mick and Shonko, in the Old Enough To Know Better division, also known as Vintage.

Bring it.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Splattered

Driving to hockey training on Wednesday, it crossed my mind: is this a good idea?

On Tuesday, I head to one of my favourite places in the world, Lady Elliot Island, a tiny speck off the coast of Queensland at the southern base of the Barrier Reef. Mackquist and I are going to dive for a week with the manta rays, and hopefully a whale or two if one passes while we’re underwater (which can happen at this time of year).

Lady Elliot Island - so small that the strip across the middle is the runway.

Lady Elliot Island – so small that the strip across the middle is the runway.

It’s peak manta season and I can’t wait to get on the plane, to see if you can really leave Victorian winter and be in the warm Queensland waters with up to 30 or more mantas at a time.

So, driving to training, the thought strayed into my brain that this would not be a good night to hurt myself. But just as quickly, I dismissed it, thinking: you can’t live like that. I’ve skated constantly now for more than four years and have mostly been okay. Why should a standard Wednesday Intermediate class be any different?

And so yes, you know what happened. About ten minutes in, Tommy Powell calls for two quick laps and off I go, skating as fast as I can. I actually love those fast laps: they kill your legs and lungs, but in a good way. It’s the best cardio workout I get all week. And so I throw myself at them. If I’m not the fastest skater out there, and invariably I’m not, at least I’m working hard.

Right up until a goalie was stretching near where I had to turn left, to pass behind the goals, and that made my turn a little sharper than I had planned, especially at speed, and before I could process it, I’d lost an edge on my skate and I was down, bouncing off the ice and careering, completely out of control towards the boards, less than two metres away and closing fast.

This is NOT how you want to hit the boards. Somehow, Ranger Brad Richards came out of this okay.  Pic: Getty.

This is NOT how you want to hit the boards. Somehow, New York Ranger Brad Richards came out of this okay. Pic: Getty.

Without trying I can think of five cases where I’ve witnessed a hockey player in this situation end up with a broken leg or collar bone. I can think of other lesser injuries, but still significant ones from uncontrolled slides into the wall.

I’ve had it happen a couple of times and had a badly hurt shoulder/upper neck from one of them.

All of this somehow had time to pass through my mind in the micro-seconds before I hit the boards.

I’m sure I’ve written in this blog before about once doing laps with Bathurst-winning racing car driver Jim Richards. I asked him: what’s it like when you go sideways and you know you’re going to hit the wall? What passes through your mind?

He stopped, squinted, thought about it and said, surprisingly, that he’d never been in that situation.

I said: you’ve never hit a wall?

And, to paraphrase, he said: no, I’ve hit plenty of walls, but here’s the thing … a racing car is an incredible piece of machinery. It can do things that a normal car simply can’t do. And I am a highly trained, expert driver, so I can drive that car in a way people normally can’t. So, if things have gone pear-shaped, I am doing everything I possibly can not to hit the wall … right up until the actual moment that I hit the wall. If I think about it, it’s always a bit of a surprise to hit the wall, because I was concentrating, working so hard not to, and then oh wow, I hit the wall.

Another nasty board collision. You do not want to lose an edge while heading towards the wall.

Another nasty board collision. You do not want to lose an edge while heading towards the wall.

Richards’ answer has become one of my central pieces of life philosophy: until you hit a wall, do everything you possibly can not to hit that wall. (Even if you end up crashing into whatever the wall is – and believe me, in life, I have hit my share of walls – you can comfort yourself with the knowledge that you did everything humanely possible not to, despite the fact you failed.)

But on Wednesday night, this all went out the window. Skates off the ice, 85 kilos of full body momentum sliding across the surface, at velocity, with two metres or less to stop, and no way to brake, I had no hope.

Time did helpfully slow down enough for me to think: Oh shit, Lady Elliot! Oh crap, mantas! Oh fuck, Macklin will kill me …

And I also somehow had time to think: do NOT stick out an arm or a leg to take the hit. I was a relaxed ironing board in armour when I collided – and it was a beauty. I hit the boards hard. Helmet took it. Right shoulder took it. Knee took it.

But a miracle. No joint got bent the wrong way; my helmet did its job. Two days later, I’m completely fine; a vague dull ache in my shoulder but nothing to stop me boarding a plane and diving.

Such a relief.

Later in the session, I went for a puck from one direction as a classmate came fast the other way. Again, the collision was a big one. Again, I skated away, intact.

Double sigh of relief.

Today I got an email from one of my brothers at the Bang, our social footy group. He wanted to know if anybody wanted to play in a real game of Aussie Rules, to help a team he knows make up numbers, this Saturday only.

No, I wrote back, as quickly as I could type. No, I will not be putting my body in line to twang a hammie or do a big knee. Not with Tuesday’s flight looming.

For once, just this once, I am letting myself be grateful I survived Wednesday’s big hits and I’m voluntarily putting myself in cotton wool between now and Tuesday. It’s all about Mackquist, the mantas and me.

My final dive, with a manta on the surface, at Lady Elliot, a few years ago:

 

Each to their own

I went to the soccer last Friday. A much-hyped A-League semi-final and a Melbourne derby for flourish, between the Victory and City.

Soccer fans getting passionate.

Soccer fans getting passionate.

Soccer makes such a minimal impact on me as a sport that I literally can’t remember if it was my first A-League game or not. I have a dull feeling that I might have gone to one once before, but if I did, I couldn’t tell you who played, let alone who won.

Yep, it may be The World Game but not in my world.

But that’s okay, because it was a fun event. On a classic Melbourne night, the sort of night where there were 50,000 at the MCG to watch Collingwood-Geelong and who knows how many thousands watching a rugby union game at AAMI Park, and who knows how many more thousands watching the Backstreet Boys at the tennis centre, I was among the 50,000 people gathered at Etihad Stadium on a freezing but clear night. Victory started favourite, got a goal after 18 minutes (I know this because by some random chance I had selected the correct player as opening goal scorer in the sweep, but got the scoring minute wrong by 6; thereby totally bluffing the people around me that I had some kind of clue about the game, and almost winning a decent cash prize) and Victory controlled things from there.

Victory fans having fun. Pic: Getty.

Victory fans having fun. Pic: Getty.

I sat, not really caring, but happy to let the occasion flow over me; even chatting to an ex-Socceroo who happened to sit next to me. (My bluff of knowledge came to a crashing end when I had to confess I had no idea his son currently played in the EPL or for the Socceroos.)

Mostly, I watched the fans. Because they were seriously into it. My biggest immediate take-out was that it was a larger male crowd. I’m used to AFL crowds and AIHL crowds, and they are both heavily mixed gender. I feel like I can’t confidently say whether a Melbourne Ice or Mustangs crowd would be skewed more male than female. Likewise, AFL is probably not 50-50 but there are many women there, and passionate about the game.

On a casual observation, the soccer crowd felt male – between 20 and 50 years old. And it was an occasion for these men to go nuts. There were the usual flares and horns and chants. As Victory took the ascendancy, an entire stand to my left was heaving with people dancing and chanting and waving. The atmosphere was fantastic, yet I felt totally removed, like I was at the zoo, watching from behind glass.

Soccer fans having fun.

Soccer fans doing their thing. I’m not judgmental: Red Wings fans like to throw octopi on the ice.

It got me thinking it’s so strange how some sports can grab your soul and others leave you totally cold. Like, cricket is polarizing in a love it or hate it manner, and so is American football.

I have watched and reported on and experienced and studied many sports over my 30 year journalistic career, aside from being an enthusiast, and I can say with certainty that I am resolutely unmoved by basketball, soccer and baseball. I never had much time for NRL and still don’t really, except that a couple of people who understand the game have explained subtleties to me that made it more interesting as I watched. I can stomach it now but I still wouldn’t pay for a ticket.

Rugby union, when it’s flowing and it’s an important game, like Australia in a World Cup, can be exciting. The characters and sheer danger of boxing, as well as the strategy and fitness, has always gripped me. Tennis lost me, largely, after I had to spend too much time around certain Australian prima donna tennis players, and after I had to watch too much of it as a reporter, and in places where the matches simply didn’t matter: a second round loss for a player just meant an earlier plane to the next city. When the stakes were Grand Slam high and somebody as good as Sampras, Graf or Federer was at their peak: then it got good.

But that’s just me. Whatever you’re into is fine. In fact, English Premier League soccer (and yes, I use the word soccer as an abbreviation of ‘Association Football’, especially because the Melbourne Football Club was formed before any of the English clubs, so screw you ‘world football’; okay, that’s another story) but EPL soccer is kind of like seafood for me. I don’t enjoy eating fish. Some of it I really dislike, while certain flavours of seafood I can tolerate. But when everybody around you is having a mouth orgasm because the food is so amazing, and you’re just ‘tolerating’ it, you feel guilty and wonder what is wrong with you? What are you missing, and why? I’m like that with the EPL competition. So many of my friends have EPL teams, follow it in the middle of the night, start work conversations with a quick discussion of last night’s results or pending big money transfers … and I have nothing to add.

It doesn’t mean I’m against it; not at all. A really great game of soccer can be fun to watch, especially if it’s attacking and end-to-end and the crowd is at fever pitch, but you know, shrug. The World Cup can be fun.

One of my mobs. Go Tigers!!! (you hopeless, underachieving bastards)

One of my mobs. Go Tigers!!! (you hopeless, underachieving bastards)

By contrast, Australian Rules has held me from before I can remember to now, when Richmond continues to be remorselessly shit, no matter what, and when I still run around, feeling the leather with a bunch of men old enough to know better who gather once or twice a week for the pure joy of landing a pass in the outstretched hands of a fellow player on the lead.

Hockey? Well, hockey grabbed me from the moment I turned on my television years ago now and saw my first Stanley Cup final game between Detroit and Pittsburgh and something in me stirred. Immediately. Grabbed me! Made my heart beat. Has seen me holding my head in my hands, screaming at Gamecenter as the Wings performed miracles or screwed up, soaring as the Ice achieved the three-peat of cups, slumping as the Ice lost last year’s grand final; even physically taking on such a crazy sport as an activity, having never skated.

All of that. All. Of. That.

Blood pumping. Passion burning. Feeling alive.

One of my other mobs: The Cup-winning Red Wings that captured my heart.

One of my other mobs: The Cup-winning Red Wings that captured my heart.

Which is why I found it so strange, so abstract, that I could watch those Victory fans last Friday night, screaming and yelling and jumping up and down and foaming at the mouth, and realised that I was just staring at them, completely unable to bridge the gap between us. The bridge of caring.

And I found myself wondering how many pieces of silverware are fought for across the globe, in how many individual sports and individual competitions within those sports, and by how many teams and cheered for by how many millions, whether from NFL to Brunswick trugo? Somebody everywhere willing to bulge at the jugular, to ride that scoreboard or that goal or that umpire’s decision; that bounce of a ball or a puck or a footy or a punch or a shot; the fans’ sporting existence living or dying on the fortunes of that moment in their chosen passion.

Ice v Mustangs at the Icehouse. Now we're talking ...

Ice v Mustangs at the Icehouse. Now we’re talking …

There’s no deep meaning to any of these observations. It’s totally okay. Those Melbourne Victory and City fans would probably stand on the glass, politely observing, when the Ice and Mustangs were going at one another’s throats, and be wistful that nobody is throwing flares.

Each to their own, I say, and go the winner in this weekend’s A-League grand final.

I wish those chanting, excitable hordes well.

I’ll just be watching the hockey and the Tigers. It’s what I do.