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.




You’ve got to earn your pancakes

By Nicko

Bavarian apple pancakes with ice cream. Chocolate Swiss Mountain malt shake. Never can these things taste as brilliant as at midnight, in a 24-hour Pancake Parlour on Warrigal Road, Chadstone, metres from the South Eastern Arterial freeway whooshing by overhead.

Bavarian apple pancakes with ice cream. Oh yeah!

Even better, Jason Bajada, goalie to the stars (well, the Blackhawks), has shouted me these pancakes, in honour of me beating him for the first time ever in a scrimmage; the only question being whether it was my one-time slapshot from the slot that genuinely beat him, after a beautiful pass off the boards from Liam Patrick, or whether Jason was simply so stunned that I didn’t fresh-air the slapshot that he was swooning as it found the net?

Certainly, my coach for this late night Next Level Hockey Game Time scrimmage, Scott Corbett, reportedly reacted to the goal with, “Shit, he one-timed it,” and head coach Joey Hughes looked equally startled. But nobody more than me. My goal followed a couple of goal assists, in a pretty serious level of hockey for me, and so I tried to overlook the moment where I’d been knocked over, lost my stick and spent what felt like 15 minutes scrambling around on the ice, trying to get myself back together as my teammates peered with amused curiosity over the boards at my sprawled frame, listening to my feeble calls of “Change! Change!”

That was the one moment where my night got the better of me, and my legs decided not to work for a minute or so, but it was fair enough. I had been skating for close to three hours by that point. I’d known it was a potential epic from the moment I’d turned up for the NLHA Intro class at 7.30 pm and Joey had asked: “Do you have plans tonight?”

How much do you love Australian hockey that a leading member of the Melbourne Ice – even one who is currently unhappily on the outer for a minor recent incident where Joey took on the entire opposition bench after some extreme aggravation and what sounded like a pretty worrying lack of referee support – will still be actively wanting you to give him your Friday night so he can do everything he can think of to make you a better hockey player? Not just me, obviously: everybody walking through those awkward double-doors into the refrigerator that is the Olympic ice rink in Oakleigh.

Next Level Hockey Australia students wait to take the ice at Oakleigh. The camera didn’t catch the fog in the air.

But such urging doesn’t mean you’re in for an easy night. In fact, I endured a really difficult Intro session, full of transitions and pivots (including leaping into the air and turning in the air, forward-to-back, back-to-forward, landing on your skates – another genuinely-surprised “Good job!” from Corbie) as well as my first experience of the infamous “under-poosh” skating technique from Martin Kutek, where you crossover in a certain way to try and drive with the backward skate. It feels extremely unnatural. Lots of backward stepping, C-cuts, all the technical skating moves that push me to the limit and that I wrestle with. Joey wasn’t happy, saying my improvement hasn’t been as great as he would like – mostly because I can only get there every other week and can’t make it to general skates at the Icehouse often enough to drive home the improvements.

But even so, he, like my other Melbourne Ice mentors, Lliam and Army on a Wednesday night, patiently persists in trying to make me into a hockey player.

By the end of the Intro hour, I was warming up. “Can I stay on for Intermediate?” I asked Joey. “Sure,” he said and once we were on the ice pulled me aside for a 10 minute one-on-one session, working on my pesky stride; giving me training drills to eradicate that feet-splayed inside-edge habit I’ve written about before. Taking Army’s mantle of trying to teach me how to click my heels together at the end of each stride, under my hockey stance. The new stride felt awesome; a tinker but an important one. We both grinned as I was clearly going faster, and all the nutso drills of Intro had shaken down to make your standard crossover seem much more achievable. Life was good.

Watching the Zamboni chug across the Olympic Rink’s surface yet again, between classes.

“Can I stay on for Game Time?” I asked Joey. “Sure,” he said, “if there’s room.” A few minutes later, he threw me a yellow jersey and I joined a bunch of my Rookie mates in a furious scrimmage, most of which was four-on-four and was also my first experience of playing short-handed with penalties in play (Liam Patrick being benched twice for questionable on-ice atrocities). Finding myself on the wrong end of a five-on-three line-up was a hockey lesson all on its own and I was patchy throughout the game. But hey, two assists and a goal on debut? I’ll take it.

By the time we’d eaten the pancakes (me saying way too late to Bajada: “Just to check, this doesn’t mean I have to buy you pancakes every time you stop a shot, right? Because that’s a bad deal for me if I do.”), everybody shaking their heads that the “old man” had survived three straight hours and still scored, and I’d made the long trek home from Oakleigh, it was 2 am, just like a Wednesday, and so on Saturday morning, as I joined my gal, Chloe, and her family, who are out from France, at a farmer’s market, I was walking in slow motion – not actually sore as much as pure bone-tired.

Three coffees down, I left there to catch up with some Rookies, before the Melbourne Ice-Newcastle game at the Icehouse.

“To be clear,” said Chloe, “You played hockey all Wednesday night, went to a Melbourne Ice game on Thursday night, played three hours of hockey last night, and are now going to drink with hockey friends, and then go to another Melbourne Ice game…”

“Um,” I said, wondering if this was a good time to mention that I planned to be at The Bang the next morning, playing footy on a wet track.

The waterlogged Wattie Oval turf, mid-Bang. My legs are still feeling it.

In fact, playing footy on a track that was a mudder’s dream; down by Elwood beach but very heavy underfoot in one forward line and across a wing. Running through ankle deep mud, chasing a heavy Sherrin, my legs were screaming and today I’m genuinely hobbling. I still find it interesting that when people say: “Doesn’t hockey knock you around/do you get injured?” the honest reply is that I pull up much better from three tough hours on the ice than I do from 90 minutes of hard running and kicking with my Banger mates.

So, fun weekend, finished off by a Richmond 70 point win while a Tiger friend and I sat and chatted about life, family and European trips, all the while clapping an expected Richmond victory (when did the world tilt, that this became possible?) and another trip to the Icehouse VIP Balcony, to watch a disappointing Melbourne Ice loss. (They won the game I didn’t go to, on Sunday, in a shoot out; Big Cat Place representing the family on that occasion.)

What’s the saying? That too much sport can never be enough? My body isn’t sure about that. Usually, French relatives not in town, I choose to spend more time with my amour. Given how I feel today, I’m starting to think that non-hockey/footy time might be saving my life.

Then again, I also plan to hit general skating at least twice this week, aside from Wednesday night icehouse training/dev league, and I’ve already booked scuba diving for this weekend …

Which leads to another saying: “Sleep when you’re dead.”

Meanwhile, whatever happened to that Nicko guy?

By Nicko

The coldest place on Earth, certainly under an Australian flag, is reputed to be Ridge A, 14,000 metres high on the Antarctic Plateau. The average winter temperature on Ridge A is said to be minus 70 degrees, Celsius, although nobody has ever set foot there.

But I’d challenge the Australian and American scientists, who declared this finding in 2009, after exhaustive satellite probing and climate imaging. I’d say to them: Oh yeah? Try hanging out at the dilapidated Olympic ice rink, in Oakleigh South, deep in the Melburnian suburban tundra, during mid-winter.

That, my whitecoated friends, is fucking cold.

The magnificent if chilly Oakleigh rink.

Wearing four layers, a beanie and gloves, I pushed through the front door a few Fridays ago, ducking the straps of plastic presumably designed to stop some bizarre breed of Ice Age-ready mosquito, with my trusty Reebok stick in one hand, and my bag of gear over my shoulder. I was nervous. It was the second time that week I had strapped on my armour and skates and tested the Oakleigh ice. On the Wednesday night, some Rookie friends and I had hired the ice for a scrimmage, which was a blast, especially for those of us debuting on this particular rink, which is tiny – much smaller than the Henke Rink we’re used to – and has no glass, meaning to be boarded involves being jammed against a fence about waist high. Even better, down the end where an ageing Zamboni creaks out between sessions, the ice dips away and there are holes in the bottom of the boards, so that a puck might disappear in there, mid-battle.

Believe it or not, until the 2009 season, this was home to the Melbourne Ice and it is still the scene for many games of winter and summer season hockey every year. As the only surviving rink in Melbourne, outside of Docklands, there isn’t much choice. It’s actually magnificent in its decay and history and authenticity as the last of the suburban hockey rinks.

On this Friday, I was in Oakleigh to finally come face-to-face with the Cult of Joey.

A while ago, I wrote a blog about how I’d found myself in a hockey funk; feeling like I wasn’t improving, wasn’t pushing myself … basically it was a written rant to kick myself up the arse and work harder, which is what I did almost immediately after writing it.

But an unexpected result of that piece was that I was publicly “called out” on Facebook by Joey Hughes, a star of the Melbourne Ice, to let him train the funk out of me.

It was an unforeseen twist, not least because a) I hadn’t realized this blog was being read by a wider hockey community, including my coaches Lliam and Army, let alone Joey Hughes and his Ice-import coaching partner, Martin Kutek, and b) I had recently raised questions about the violence of Joey’s brother, Ice captain Vinnie’s in an Ice game.

Joey Hughes, in action for the Ice. Pic: Canberra Times

So Joey Facebooking that he challenged me to come to Oakleigh and lose my funk was a shock, yet I had to politely say thanks but no thanks, because I was on a novel deadline, travelling a lot and couldn’t find the time to commit. Joey was having none of that and so, finally, here I was, pushing through the door and watching the fog hang over the ice of this tiny rink.

A couple of hours later, after my first Intro session of Next Level hockey, I sat on the boards with Joey, for a genuine chat. It wasn’t quite so cold that your words froze in front of you so that you had to read what each other was saying, but it wasn’t far off. Put it this way, I had sat, in my armour, for an hour, during the Intermediate class that followed mine, fully intending to play Game Time scrimmage, but was so bone-core frozen, I eventually abandoned the idea. Plus everybody looked too skilled for me, so I decided to watch a scrimmage or two before poking my skate out there.

Joey could pass for Latin, or maybe native American, or Italian. He has dark eyes and hair and carries himself like a dancer, but with an intense, harder edge, which comes out on the ice where he is something of a warrior. According to the NLHA website, he has been skating at Oakleigh since he was 11 years old, just before he took off to North America to chase his hockey dream. He’s been a hockey player all that time, and now he’s back at the Olympic rink, training a new generation of players.

The local hockey community is small and very welcoming, but I feel there has been a shade of Us & Them over the past year or so, where you’re either an Icehouse skater or a member of what I laughingly call The Cult of Joey. Many of the Next Level Hockey devotees have an evangelistic loyalty to their coaches, Joey and Martin, along with Tony Theobold, Vinnie Hughes and no doubt others I don’t know about yet.

Any chance they get, Next Level students will tell you about the personal attention, how their skills have improved dramatically, how Oakleigh is where you become a really good hockey player …

I had no reason to doubt them, I just always felt a loyalty to Lliam and Army, and the other Icehouse coaches, who have patiently watched me stumbling around for a long time now. (I spoke to Lliam about it once, and he shrugged that it was great Joey was doing his thing, just turning out more and better hockey players, which was the whole point.)

Even so, I couldn’t afford to drive out to Oakleigh at least one night a week on top of my Icehouse commitments. Real life didn’t have a window that large, regardless of my worry that I would be left behind in terms of development.

And so I’d hear the Cult of Joey rave about Oakleigh, and wonder. Until now. On this Friday, I joined Intro and quickly had all my usual technical faults identified. Told to bend my knee to 90 degrees, while my non-skating foot was horizontally in front of me, I managed maybe 30 degrees, which had Joey skating along beside me, saying, “You gotta be kidding me?” and me giving him a colourful explanation of my age compared to his and where he could shove his deep knee bend. To which he laughed and explained why I simply have to bend my knees more, even though – like everybody – I totally thought I was already.

And so it went.

Part of the Next Level way is to drive its students to be better, to buy in, to forge together and commit. It’s definitely a more driven, different atmosphere to the Icehouse classes where Lliam and Army push us hard, but in a slightly more casual, shambolic way. Lliam’s description of how to fire a wrist-shot (which in his case, is a bullet) was along the lines of: “Look, I learned this at age four and I can’t really explain it, but it works, so do it like this.”

As you know by now, I love these classes and have improved more than I ever could have imagined over 18 months of training and lessons.

Talking to Joey, on the boards after my class, he explained that he had read my “funk” blog and felt a genuine desire to help. He said he read about a passionate rookie who’d hit a wall, and rode in to help if he could. Fresh eyes, is all he thought. Even as an elite international player, Joey said he benefits hugely from new ideas, new voices, different slants on the same technical or fitness issues. So he wanted me to come along and hear something new.

And he’s been totally right. Martin has already given me some amazing tips about outside edge work, everything Joey has said has been useful. It’s great.

And on Wednesdays, Lliam and Army have begun the long road of Intermediate classes again, with encouragement and enthusiasm for our improvement.

I’ve relaxed and can feel improvement happening, even in Dev League where I’ve been in the thick of things. We’re in good hands at both venues, and talking to Joey, just like Lliam, that’s the whole point. There’s an excitement about how many rookies are swelling the ranks of the playing numbers in Victoria; a genuine problem at Ice Hockey Victoria level of how the Hell to accommodate so many people who want ice time.

The Cult of Joey might exist in the enthusiasm of NLHA skaters, but not among the coaches. Joey and Lliam, as Victorian born and bred stars, are mutually enjoying the ride as hockey surges in Australia.

As am I, now savouring personal, friendly, expert teaching from so many Melbourne Ice stars, and with my rookie mates both encouraging me and hanging shit at me at every turn.

Life’s good and the funk is gone.

Guest writer: Rachael Hands


Our latest guest writer is Rachael Hands, just coming off a nasty knee injury, queen of the pre-skate snacks and happily a new classmate of mine on Friday nights. This story makes me wince in all sorts of bad ways … and I fully intend to privately find out the identity of the “Melbourne Ice player” in question. Rachael, you’ve been warned.

Hi, I’m Rachael and I’m a basiphobic*.

By Rachael Hands

Hi, I’m Rachael and I’m a basiphobic*.

Like any good Rookie, I’m self-diagnosed of course… Oh, and according to http://www.webmd.com, I’m also traumatophobic, which feeds into my basiphobia. This makes me more anxious and then ultimately leads to me falling on my butt during hockey lessons anyway!

Simply put, I’m attempting to be an ice hockey player with a pretty serious fear of falling over and hurting myself badly. Again.

Back in August 2011, on Tuesday the 16th to be precise, I was skating up and down the Henke rink at the Icehouse during a regular hockey lesson when CRUNCH! I hit the ice. Me being me when I fell, didn’t do things by halves either. I hit the ice very hard and very awkwardly with my knees taking all of the impact first. It was less than a split second after the initial crack of the protective gear meeting the ice that I heard the popping and crackling in my left knee, then felt this weird sucking sensation as I skidded with surprising grace (as if I meant to look like a falling tonne of bricks with arms and legs) on plastic shin guards (sans socks!) through centre ice. Having been rushed at full-tilt by a professional Melbourne Ice player I panicked, not trusting his ability to stop before he got to me; then I hesitated about getting out of his way so as not to hurt him and our chances of winning a back-to-back Goodall Trophy. The rather serious result of those normally inconsequential actions was little newbie me crashing onto the ice like a sack of potatoes. The bizarre noises and feeling in my knee joint was my Medial Collateral Ligament being torn clean in half.

That was in the first 12 minutes of the 60-minute lesson. I still had 48 minutes of ice time and I was damn well going to use them! I got up, adrenaline coursing through my veins, and with some kind of misguided steely resolve I laughed the fall off and the subsequent pain I was in to skate out the rest of the session. Admittedly when I look back on it, I didn’t just have a ‘lazy leg’ as I skated around that night, I actually couldn’t lift it. I couldn’t bend it and I didn’t do terribly much weight-bearing on it either. I glided through the rest of the session in a mass of throbbing agony. The following day (when the inside of my knee was almost the size of a grapefruit and purple) I took myself to see Nick M, my regular physio who has treated almost every injury I’ve ever obtained through the playing of sport. He had yet to see me for a hockey injury, even though I’d been in classes for a term and a bit and evidently doing well by my coordination standards! I don’t remember much of the session other than he lifted my bad leg up from the table and I cried like a baby because it hurt that much. He hadn’t even put any stress on the joint! Nick immediately ordered an MRI and it confirmed the worst-case scenario. My MCL was totally ruptured and would require the most intense rehabilitation and physiotherapy I had ever experienced in order to heal.

What followed, without giving you another blow-by-blow account, was five and a half months in a hinged leg brace, firstly locked dead straight for three months then little by little I was given a few degrees of flex in the knee joint until a second MRI revealed the knitting of the MCL was complete. After that, it was intense physical therapy (progressing from daily appointments to now once a week) to learn to reengage the MCL and the surrounding muscles correctly to prevent re-injury. I literally had to learn to walk before I could run, let alone skate! Which brings me back to my fears of falling over and hurting myself again.

I arrived at my (clearly very accurate) phobiæ diagnosis one ridiculously hot January afternoon in Nick M’s sweltering treatment room. I was being run through a series of stress tests on my knee to determine whether I was going to be able to return to skating in the foreseeable future. It dawned on me that as much as I had been bugging the indeterminably patient Nick to let me back out onto the ice since my ‘limbed bag of flour’ impression; I was actually (and very secretly) incredibly terrified of falling over and making the existing injury worse. So, like any good gen-y’er, I went straight home to google what the fear of falling was, coupled with a fear of injury and arrived at a mild case of basiphobia (a fear of walking and or falling down) and traumatophobia which is other wise known as the fear of significant injury.

I am happy to report to you, the readers of Nicko Place’s blog, that while my knee has healed to the point where my physio has begrudgingly given me his blessing to continue my hockey lessons and join a summer league team, my fear of falling and hurting myself gets more intense every week.

As the drills get harder, the edgework more extreme and the general pace of lessons increases, my fears escalate in an uncanny correlation. Since finally getting back onto the ice regularly in February of this year, I can see how far I’ve come. In a lesson at NLHA last week, I felt some complete control over my skating again. My legs were really solid underneath me and I loved every minute of it! I felt good on the ice and not like I was struggling as usual, but that pervasive nagging thought about falling and hurting myself so badly all over again kept eating away at me. For many hockey Rookies, the fear of falling and or hurting themselves disappears with confidence in their own abilities. For me though, it’s a struggle to talk myself into the fact that my knee can handle it. I still baulk at the superman/sliding drills or anything requiring me to put all of my weight on my ‘bad leg’ while it’s bent at any angle greater than straight. My coaches have been patient and very understanding but I sometimes wonder whether or not I can teach myself to ignore those feelings. So far though, such attempts have proven to be fruitless. Practising falling over on ice so I get used to it again requires discipline I just don’t (want to) have. I’d rather spend the precious little time for hockey I have available to me trying to gain some more of that elusive control on my outside edges, crossovers and joining the infamous Martin Kutek-led  ‘underpoosh’ revolution. Surely, if I practise those skills enough then I don’t need to think about forcing myself to fall over? I’ll be good enough not to, right? Or at least that’s what I keep telling myself.

But, I’ve resolved (very publicly today) that for the coming term (intermediate classes at the Icehouse in addition to another round at NLHA) I will not let my fears get the best of me. I will skate and if I fall, so be it. I won’t try to fight it and stay upright; I will just go with momentum, following the quickest route straight on to the ice (a mantra coach Joey Hughes likes to drill into me every week). The only thing for me to do in order to get over the irrationality and anxiety about falling and potential re-injury, is to bite the bullet and just trust myself and of course the work that Nick the Physio has done with my knee to get me back to a point where I CAN skate. I simply have to jump in, skates first and the fear of falling be damned. That, and remember to enjoy learning to map the shortest distance down on to the ice from wherever I may be on the rink!

An intense fear of jumping is called ‘catapedophobia’ by the way… I’m just saying! 😉

*well, sort of…

Guest writer: Liam Patrick


Welcome to the first nickdoeshockey entry not by me, Nicko. Instead, Liam takes us through his intro to the non_icehouse world of Joey Hughes. (Liam gets the nod as the first guest because he shamelessly mentioned my goal a week or so ago. Next up: Chris Tran, who doesn’t mention my goal, in a rookie error, but will be published anyway.)

A rookie’s journey to NLHA

By Liam Patrick

Oakleigh.  It’s the little rink that is (in many ways) the heartbeat of Victorian hockey.  It’s the ugly older brother to the shiny, sexy new Icehouse.  Over 30 years old it can be best described as in need of some TLC and at times you cant really see what is going on due to the fog, or being freezing cold when not skating or the delightful “war bunkers” that are the changerooms.  However it is where many hockey players can access ice-time – be it for training, games or the NLHA classes.

Next Level Hockey Australia (NLHA or “Next Level” – the constant catch-cry) is lead by Joey Hughes (Melbourne Ice-star, Hockey sensei, all round good guy) with more coaching from Martin Kutek (Melbourne Ice-star, master of the “underpoosh” and another all round good guy).  They also do really good pricing on gear – plus the fancy new flat bottomed V skate sharpening.  Ok, end plug.  NLHA have run boot camps and coaching clinics in the past but this Winter they kicked off a program for adults not dissimilar to the Icehouse’s hockey school.

Now, the famous Rookies group (often mentioned here by Nicko) had began to get involved with NLHA and many, many rookies immediately signed up to these classes and championed them!  Unfortunately, I didn’t.   Yes – lazy, stupid, slow.  I was most jealous when Facebook would become abuzz on a Friday night with excited Rookies extolling the virtues of this great new hockey frontier.  I had actually been fortunate enough to get to tag along to summer league team training (they needed numbers and I knew a guy who knew a guy…) taken by Joey way back in January.  I knew they would be getting some really good coaching.  I looked at my bank account, sighed, and checked what supermarket had baked beans on special…..

Liam Patrick (black and green) celebrates a goal at the Icehouse, Intermediate end of term game. Pic: Wayne McBride

I entered the program 3 weeks in.  At the Icehouse I was doing intermediate and dev league.  Joey said he needed to see if I could skate and asked me to do a beginners class first then he would see where I could fit in.  I was a bit miffed “Hang on, I’m doing intermediate, I have some weaknesses, but I can skate” I thought/posted to the Rookies.  Anyway I headed down that first Friday night.

After battling a wet Monash Carpark (I refuse to call it a freeway), I wobbled my way through the beginners class feeling like the new kid at school sitting exams on day 1.  5 minutes in Joey called for us to get into “hockey stance” and promptly came and knocked me over onto my arse before pointing out where I was going wrong (feet too wide, knees not bent, head down….)  This sums up the whole NLHA experience for me – Joey and Martin can always find something you need to fix up to make yourself a better hockey player and go to the next level no matter how basic it is.  I got through the class and Joey agreed I could play game time and that he would happily take me into classes.  I was to stay with the beginners and work hard on my basics – particularly my non-existent outside edge!

The weeks went on.  I got the chance to try an intermediate class – wow!  There was a step up.  Filled with IHV players looking for an edge plus a lot of the more skilled Rookies meant the standard was pretty good.  My skills got shown up fast.  The drive home that night was very sombre as I recounted the number of times I fell on my arse, lost the puck, went the wrong way, got beaten for pace and generally just made myself look like Bambi.  In hindsight it was a great reality check and probably stopped me getting too big for my boots!  I had been recommended to repeat intro at the end of term 4 at the Icehouse, instead I skated 3-4 hours a week over Christmas and went up to intermediate.  Likewise I then went up to Dev the next term after a semi-successful crack at “intermediate dev league”.  I think I needed the wake-up call to remind me I was a long way away from being a semi-competent hockey player, take my eye off summer league and worry about getting the basics right, which were starting to get exposed.

The “term” rolled on.  I had 4 hours a week of hockey.  My non-hockey friends thought I was mad (“But its Friday night!”), my housemate questioned me when I was lying on the couch moaning and sooking the following days (rank hockey gear stinking up the laundry).  I was in heaven!  I began to see some tiny improvements – I could almost occasionally stay on my outside edge, sometimes.  I was focusing a bit more on my basics and almost executing them in Dev and game-time – the downside being I forgot about my positioning, the puck and other things that “occasionally” count in a hockey game.  I found a bit of extra time to general skate during the week to work on the latest tips from Martin and Joey.  I found having four different coaches (with Lliam and Army contributing from the Icehouse – as helpful as ever) meant I was picking up extra observations and tweaking different things (I even nailed a slapshot in a stick n puck which was exciting, if not entirely useful!).  But I still wasn’t nailing my outside edges, my cross-overs were still clunky and generally I lacked any sort of agility – something that was continually being found out in dev and gametime.

Icehouse hockey school finished.  I engaged in a great “battle” with Nicko on the ice.  It was bloody brilliant to see him score his goal.   As a reader of his blog for 6 months it was great to see him finally get a chance and he finished the job (would have loved to have seen that rodeo celebration though….), we all know how much he loves hitting the ice and how hard he works – even if we were on the opposing teams.  I managed to snag a goal myself which improved my hockey spirits somewhat.  At least I wasn’t totally useless on the ice.  I found myself skating a tiny better with the upbeat frame of mind.

Friday night at gametime was a different story.  I nearly always played D because my lack of agility wasn’t exposed as much, if anything it made attacking forwards skate out to the boards as I clogged up the “guts”.  But I still  l didn’t handle the puck cleanly, regularly turned it over in our zone, fell over (including bruising my shoulder and tailbone in one night which really concerned me as to what damage I may have done once I cooled down and was shovelling Nurofen whilst sitting on my couch) and generally didn’t contribute much more than another body on the ice.  Yet for some bizarre reason I still enjoyed every second and was busting to get back over the boards.  Hockey is a strange drug.

Finally it was graduation night.  I’d had a long day of personal disputes, girl problems, Icehouse registrations going into meltdown and then

Boarding, with Liam Patrick …

work being well, work.  I found myself wearily driving down “the carpark” to the rink not even considering, let alone focused on what I needed to do.  Joey agreed to change the sharpen on my skates as I tried a new tactic to find this mysterious outside edge and I hit the ice for beginners.  Whoops.  So now stopping was hard, I was slower, my legs hurt, my pivots were worse than my stopping and I barely felt any improvement in tracking my outside edge.  Oh and we are being assessed tonight? Good call Liam, good time to experiment – idiot.  Even by my standards I skated badly.  Maybe the distraction of cursing my own stupidity didn’t help.

After a class photo I had an hour before game-time (while the intermediate superstars strutted their stuff, I  usually spent this time consuming Masterchef Hands’ latest culinary delight).  I grabbed Joey and asked for the feedback.  “So do you want honesty or me to blow smoke up your arse” to which I replied “Bullshit, give me honesty, I’m a big boy….”Again I thought the conversation defined Joey as a coach.  I had my strong points (apparently) – I could participate in game-time ok, I could pass, I could read the play and position myself accordingly – but my skating was letting me down.  I couldn’t get to where I needed to be, I was running into people, I had no agility.  But, if I wanted to I could join intermediate, he was going to push me and expected me to work harder on that outside edge.

Challenge accepted!

I walked away feeling positive – for mine, the sign of a good coach.  I knew skating was always my weakness.  I secretly knew at times I was biting off more than I could chew and pretending I could get by. But it also felt good to know that I didn’t totally suck at everything, that somebody I hold with a lot of respect thought that I was capable of hitting “the next level”.  Game-time that night was fun, I even ventured up to a wing and put a shot on goal against people who play Prem C and A reserve hockey.  Good players, who cares if they weren’t going 100%.  I think the positive frame of mind helped.

So where does that leave me?  That was Friday night just gone.  The new term starts this Friday night.  Good, no lay off.  I am putting my finances, time and energy towards skating now.  Hockey specific skills (i.e. stick n puck and drop in) can wait.  I’m going to own this outside edge.  I’m going to become a more competent skater.  I’m going to keep up with the better players.  Ok. that’s enough self-indulgence of telling my story (Nicko, you did ask for it!).

So NLHA.  Get to it.  Please trust me, the above reads like a 15 year old emo kids diary, I know.  But at the end of the day Joey and Martin have started improving my skating and have made me really focus on it and be aware of it rather than my previous “go get puck” type of attitude (merely hoping my skating would improve over time).  I can’t speak highly enough of them (even if Joey seems to make it his mission to make me hit the ice once per class while fixing my hockey stance, knee bend or whatever other lazy habit I have that night).  Even if I stop improving now (which I hope I don’t!) the time, money and effort have been worth it thus far and I can only hope I can turn this into real improvement.

Please don’t think this means I don’t like or respect the Icehouse and in particular Army and Lliam.  Most certainly NOT the case.  Every time I’m there I learn something from them as well, they taught me the foundations I am building on and they are always great fun to be around.  They are also both generous with their time and advice to improve people’s game.  I intend to participate in both as long as I have the time and money to do so!

Like all the rookies, my gratitude to all four of our coaches is limitless and we cannot thank them enough for their effort and energy!

My perfect week of hockey – some time at the Icehouse, some time with NLHA, nail my outside edges and maybe even find the back of the net.  Oh and another big win to the mighty Melbourne Ice…..

And so, here we all sit (again) …

Bring back the Glaciarium, at Southbank, Melbourne. And 12 more rinks, while we’re at it.

And so here we all sit, trembling and sweating over our computer keyboards … which is not what you’re thinking.

It’s ticking towards 10.40 am on Enrolment Day and all over Melbourne, hockey rookies are terrified they won’t get into the Icehouse classes.

The fact is that the system is horrible, even if the Icehouse staff are endlessly friendly and try their best. Every term, we all spend this day not getting any work done, wondering what the ominous words: “Waiting lists are now full for this class” mean, and terrified that we’ll miss the magical moment when the Icehouse website clicks over to “click here to enrol“.

Ice hockey in Victoria has a fantastic problem, when it comes down to it. It is becoming far too popular for its own good. Big Cat and I seem to have hooked into the sport, right in line with the zeitgeist, when a whole bunch of other people also tuned into the brand new Icehouse, and the success of a crack Melbourne Ice unit, and whatever other factors have pushed the sport to this tipping point where too many people want to learn, compared to the amount of class time available.

The big question: who will win the lotto and click their way into Dev League for the next term?

Joey Hughes has set up Next Level Hockey at the old Oakleigh rink, in an attempt to offer other opportunities, but how the sport’s officials must wish rinks in Footscray, Ringwood, and even Bendigo, hadn’t closed down over the past couple of decades. I say we knock down the ABC Studios at Southbank and go back to the days when the magnificently ornate Glaciarium stood there. But this time with glass boards around the rink, so we can karoom each other off them in Dev League.

I once bought a magazine for a joke in one of those Smith Street flea market stores that all seem to have disappeared lately. It was a “Man” magazine from the 1950s; an Australian forerunner to Playboy, as far as I could tell. I gave it to Jay, one of Big Cat’s mates, for his eighteenth birthday, because he’d become a man now, and was ready to look at racy photos of women in pre-Sixties bikinis and one-pieces that left a great deal to the imagination, covering most of the torso.

Of course, I bought it for the articles and was stunned when one turned out to be fascinating. It was a story about the growth of ice hockey in Australia – yes, way back then. Even more amazingly, the writer concluded the piece by declaring that ice hockey could be a successful minor sport in Australia if it could build stadiums seating about 3000 people in each city. You know what? Sixty or so years later, he remains completely correct. On Sunday, Melbourne Ice will play the Sydney Ice Dogs in front of a sold out crowd of 1500 or so at the Icehouse; with all 1000 seats packed in the one grandstand facing the Henke Rink. In those stands, hockey students will ask one another: Did you get in? Which class? Did you have to sign up for the death shift of 11.15 pm-12.15 am Dev League, just to get a spot?

To be fair, it looks as though the ice was pretty crowded at the Glaciarium, back in the day.

So much wild enthusiasm, so many rookies wanting to learn, to skate, to join summer league teams, to become hockey players … and all of three blocks of ice in all of Melbourne. And a great chunk of that rink time devoted to speed skating and figure skating and curling and general skating.

Open for registration already (as I endlessly hit refresh on the Icehouse store) are 15 categories of speed skating classes. Intermediate 1, to choose one at random, has nine separate classes within it.

I love watching the speed skaters and am on friendly nodding turns with the ones who are always present at general skate, looping lazily around the ice like the giant bull rays that circle endlessly under the Lorne pier, or along the Queenscliff dock when I go diving.

But really, how many speed skaters are there in Victoria?

We are loaded to the gills with 30 or more participants in every hockey class (except the 11.15 pm Dev League which is a career-killer for anybody with a job).

Figure skating too, although I concede there are an awful lot of girls doing that instead of ballet.

I guess the stronger Olympic disciplines get some kind of priority at the Icehouse, which is technically Australia’s winter Olympic training venue.

But it’s a shame, for us hockey rinkrats, us rookies who want to play for fun and laughter and competition and fitness and the social circles and all the other reasons that those not aspiring to unlikely Olympic success play for. We remain on the borders of the Icehouse thinking, no matter how many stick& puck sessions and drop-in scrimmages they schedule, usually at 6 am or during office hours.

Damn, I wish I’d discovered this sport when I was a uni student – except that I never was; I started full time as a copyboy at The Herald newspaper at the age of 17 and worked full time ever since.

Damn, I wish I’d discovered this sport during my childhood in Canada, where frozen lakes and rinks in every suburb would have fed my young craving. Except that I was born in Melbourne’s suburbs and Burwood wasn’t known for its quality ice in Gardiners Creek.

Sigh, I guess, like the other rookies, I just have to fight for whatever ice-time I can get.

10.54 am …

Refresh. Refresh. Refresh.

UPDATE: The site finally opened for registrations at about 11.44 am. We all pounced. It crashed. No idea if I’m sitting out next term or not. This is truly pathetic, Icehouse. For the record.