Playing like a girl

On Saturday, I rolled into the Icehouse and went straight to the penalty box.

My view from the home team penalty box. Pic: Nicko

My view from the home team penalty box. Pic: Nicko

Those who like to push the idea that I’m a goon wouldn’t have been surprised, but in fact I was dressed in street clothes and there to help.

Ice hockey in Victoria still largely runs on volunteer efforts, from club presidents to scoreboard attendants, from coaches to Rookie admins* trying to fund-raise to help AIHL players pay their way. I feel guilty that I don’t do more, so volunteered to assist at a Melbourne Ice women’s game and was offered the challenging and powerful role of penalty box attendant. This included the thrilling moment where I carried a tiny Esky full of the game pucks (chilled on ice – what’s that about? I forgot to ask) to the scoreboard attendants, and then drank coffee in the home team box, watching the game from a pane of glass away. It was awesome.

Melbourne was up against the Brisbane Goannas, who were challenged for playing numbers, had one member wearing full rental gear, which hinted at some sort of pre-game drama, and should, imho, have had a team penalty for their jersey, which was largely green, blue and orange and featured what appeared to be a Seventies drawing of a lizard on the front in what could only have been some kind of crazy, ill-thought-out tribute to the Goanna Band and Solid Rock?

Shona Green in action. Pic MIW Facebook page

Shona Green in action. Her outside edges are ever so slightly more impressive than mine. Pic MIW Facebook page

My main take-out from watching Melbourne Ice and Goanna women at work was that it was a blast to finally see skaters like captain Shona Green and my Cherokees coach Georgia Carson playing flat out. Shona is one of the coaches at the Icehouse and so is usually sledging me from behind the opposition bench on a Wednesday night. I’ve had classes with her over the years and always loved her coaching style and been seriously challenged by her drills, but of course the flipside of seeing somebody like Shona only as a coach is that she never gets to more than first-gear, thinking about changing into second gear, on the ice. The same with Georgia, who occasionally joins in a scrimmage at our team training, but is hardly pushing into her red levels at any point.

On Saturday, leading her team to another win (they’re unbeaten in this season), Shona wasn’t in social mode or teacher mode or polite mode. She was in hockey player mode, and I loved seeing it up close. Given she has captained Australia, it shouldn’t surprise that she played at a different level to a lot of the women out there, on either side. Both teams, being in the national competition, had many players who were sublime skaters and had great shots. The defences were solid; as in hard and tenacious and disciplined. The Ice has a few new players this year and I noticed how the veteran defenders (and I’m cautiously calling Georgia one of those, although I think she’s yet to hit 22 years old (wince)), would direct traffic and provide cover and just be there to help at every turn.

Shona was everywhere, scoring at least one goal, but also getting a penalty, which meant she had the joy of being escorted to the gate to be met by none other than Nicko Place, closing the door and wondering what the etiquette is as Attendant. Do you chat? Do you sigh and shake your head? Do you land any of the lines that some friends and I had thrown around as ‘the most inappropriate thing to say to a Melbourne Ice player sitting a minor penalty’? (Random selection: ‘I guess if you were better at hockey that wouldn’t have happened…?’ or: ‘I’ve written some notes that might help once you’re back on the ice’) … btw, for the removal of doubt, the answer to that last question: do you land them? is NO.

My coach, Georgia, on the move v the Goannas. Pic: facebook

My coach, Georgia, on the move v the Goannas. Pic: facebook

In fact, Shona was bemused as she arrived, which made conversation easy because I’ve had the same feeling as I’ve arrived in the box. Genuinely trying to work out what the penalty was for, and whether you did it. This is not to bag the referees, by the way, or to breach the hardcore IHV social media rules … I’m just saying that I know I’ve been called for things in the hurly burly of summer league that I’m genuinely unaware I’ve done. It’s always ineptitude with me, not vicious intent. And so I’ve headed to the box, wondering out loud, why I’m being called. Not complaining; just curious. (As I’ve written before, I secretly kind of like being sent to the box. It feels bad-ass to have a referee or linesman have to personally escort you all the way to the gate, as though you’ve got the potential to explode on the way.) The refs are cool too; they can tell if you’re just confused, as against having a go.

So anyway, Shona and I discussed the many reasons a player might be sent to the box, until the scoreboard attendant yelled from further down what the penalty was actually for. (Slashing, from memory.) Being the captain, Shona also used her two minutes to note that the usual towel and water bottle weren’t in the box, and then she was gone, skating like a fury from the moment I opened the door.

In the third period, as Sarah Teed arrived, gently fuming as everybody always is, I asked if she would like a drink of water from the newly-arrived bottle (Val Webster being omnipresent, having heard Shona’s query and answering every need in every direction, as usual)? ‘Oh, no thank you,’ Sarah said, sweetly, as though I’d offered her a cucumber sandwich. Then got back out there, to throw her weight around as Goannas dared to attack the net.

Quite a few Ice women were called by the refs, and it shouldn’t surprise that they were just like any other team I’ve been part of or witnessed, cursing and swearing slightly under their breath but keeping a lid on it, hoping hard that the other team doesn’t score while on the power play, and engaging in a wildly complicated series of hand gestures with coach Tommy Powell (yes, at the rink again, as he and Army and Shona and Bacsy are pretty much every single day as far as I can tell) to decide whether to rejoin play or just get to the bench as fast as they can skate.

Ice president Emma Poynton turned up and had a chat, including thanking me profusely for volunteering to help at the game. I had to fight the urge to yell: ‘Stop being president! You’re mid-game! Go score a goal or hit somebody!’

Nic Cliff in action on saturday. Pic: Matt Wragg Photography

Nic Cliff in action on Saturday. Pic: Matt Wragg Photography

The Ice won pretty easily and it was fascinating to see the mix of skill levels, and the intensity, as compared to when the Melbourne Ice men play. The women wear full face cages (by international hockey law, I believe) and don’t ‘board’ opponents the way the men do. The hockey was fast, furious and committed, as you’d expect, and I felt a little ashamed I hadn’t made it down to a MIW match before now. One of my hockey friends, Nicole Cliff, was making her home debut for the Ice (the second ‘Rookie’ after Georgia Giblin to make it all the way to the national league) and it was cool to be there to see her play. She looked like she belonged too.

I’ve always loved that – at my admittedly low level – hockey is mixed gender, and that I have been able to play with and against quite a few of the women competing for Melbourne Ice on the weekend; even occasionally winning a face-off or a puck battle along the way. It’s exciting to think that you can actually take the ice against a potential national league or Australian team player, to keep pushing yourself and working on your skills. Watching Saturday’s game, when the Melbourne Ice women took off the handbrake and skated to capacity, left no illusions as to how high the standard is at that level. They rocked.

* (shout out to Matt Wragg, Theresa Neate, Brendan Parsons and Chris Janson.)

A day is a long time in skating

By Nicko

On Wednesday night, on the Henke rink, in Dev League, I had one of those tiny moments that can give you hope on a crazy quest – like trying to become a hockey player in your forties.

Wayne McBride is a very decent player, despite the remorseless shit we throw at one another, and he took off on a breakaway, with another good skater, Nicole Cliff, alongside him.

Wayne was hammering up the boards but here came the unlikely figure of Nicko Place, new stride flying, to somehow get past Nicole and close Wayne down against the boards as he flew through the blue line.

For every night like this …

Wow, I thought, as I staggered to the bench moments later. Who knew I could backcheck, and against quality players?

The only reason I’m bragging about this is because it was a rare moment of skating proficiency, and even more so given how I remorselessly sucked at Oakleigh 23 hours later. We had our first team training for the Spitfires; both the Fighters and Interceptor teams on the ice – well, about half of our Interceptor team thanks to the lurgy sweeping around Melbourne, and a few players being away at the snow or on other adventures.

I was terrible; to the point that I felt embarrassed in front of the coaches of the night, Next Level’s Martin Kutek and Tony Theobald. My crossovers were rudimentary, my transitions clumsy, my positioning and thinking sluggish. What was wrong with me?

Those guys have put time and energy into me on several Friday nights and now I show up, as acting captain of the Interceptors, no less, barely able to remain vertical on my skates.

I’m exaggerating, but not much. I’ve felt bad that Friday nights have proven, as I feared, to be a close to impossible night for me, so I haven’t been able to take advantage of the generous efforts of Joey Hughes, Martin, Tony and Scott Corbett to push my skating to, yes, the next level. Now, I finally turn up with my team, and have a shocker.

… there can still be a night like this.

“Skate, Nicko, skate!” Martin kept saying and I was trying hard not to be flat-footed, but it was one of those nights where I had to will myself to move. Was a step slow for passes. Was accused of being lazy – and oh, I hate that. For my many often-confessed faults as a skater, or hockey player, I hate being thought of as lazy.

Maybe, just maybe, my ageing legs weren’t up for skating hard a night after Wednesday’s two hours of Intermediate/dev league and a 2 am sleep time? Is that what went wrong? I’m not conceding that. I pride myself on generally skating as hard as everybody 20 years younger and unless this proves a trend, I’m not factoring that excuse.

Although … if it wasn’t that, well then, shit, it was just plain embarrassing. I had hit the ice hard a couple of times the night before, including once where I rattled my helmet, crashing the goalie in a slot-battle late in the match, which left me bruised up my back and with a headache. But it wasn’t anything that should have left me unable to move my feet or balance on a blade the next evening.

A bunch of Melbourne’s hockey community are headed to Newcastle on the weekend for the AIHL finals (Go Ice!), which may mean slightly less crowded ice for those of us who stay behind. Maybe I can get a stick & puck session in on Sunday, to try and rediscover my mojo?

Or maybe I should just put on my old pork pie journo’s hat, and raise a glass or 12 to all the departing hacks from News Ltd and Fairfax, which is finally happening for real. A major piss-up is happening tonight, which will be the Melbourne media equivalent of a dead cop wake in Baltimore, as portrayed in “The Wire“. Toasts, speeches, laughs and memories as journos with 20 or 30 years on the clock walk out the door.

There’s a lot of fear in my industry at the moment. A lot of uncertainty. Dozens of people who have been incredibly skilled, intelligent, professional, loyal writers, editors, sub-editors, layout subs, photographers, graphic artists or other crucial cogs in the newspaper machine for decades are suddenly staring at an unexpected future. Hopefully it turns out to be a future of new opportunities and adventures.

Change is something some people embrace better than others. I’ve always been lucky in that my natural curiosity and sense of adventure has pushed me into trying new things and not becoming set in my ways and I was talking to a media colleague earlier this week about how highly I would recommend taking on a wildly challenging new activity (such as, say, hockey, or skiing, or scuba, or a martial art, or anything else that gets the blood pumping) for anybody in their late 30s/early 40s. It’s a great gear change to keep the rest of your life invigorated.

But that was a choice for me. It’s much harder when change is forced on you and you’re kicked out of the safety of what you know.

The Melbourne media tonight might not break into “I’m a freeborn man of the USA“, crowded around a body on a pool table, but there will be a sense of change and of the reality that things will never be the same.

But, fellow hacks, that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Life can be better, and every day is a new day. Which is lucky, given a man’s skating can switch from encouraging to embarrassing in the space of a day. Skate to where the puck will be, not where it is. We have team training again on Monday. Watch me go.