DOC – OAK (aka The Double)

I’d never had to do The Double. I’d seen plenty do it, including my Cherokees teammate, Burty, earlier this season when he went to the wrong rink and had to race to Oakleigh. Even better, I once sat laughing as a goalie arrived triumphantly mid-warm-up, in full kit, to the undying relief of his teammates, as he desperately Doubled (see video at bottom).

Through the Goalposts: Driving across the Bolte Bridge, en route from Docklands to Oakleigh

Through the Goalposts: Driving across the Bolte Bridge, en route from Docklands to Oakleigh. Pic: Big Cat Place

But I’d never before found myself with a hockey schedule that demanded attendance at both of Melbourne’s rinks, Icy O’Briens and Oakleigh, on the same night.

Until Tuesday.

Dev league was at 6.45 pm at Docklands, and ‘Kees team training was at Oakleigh at 10.15 pm. Yes, mid-week life as a Victorian hockey player yet again meant crazy ice times and diminished sleep, but shit, it’s what we do, right? … Big Cat and I decided to embrace the adventure and go for it.

At least we had a gap between sessions. I’ve seen players almost run from Icy O’Briens change rooms because they have to be on the Oakleigh ice within an hour, or so, which, given the standard gridlock of the South-Eastern Freeway and especially Warrigal Road through Oakleigh, is hoping for some kind of Road God miracle. On Tuesday, we almost had too much time between sessions and at least could mosey across Bolte Bridge, through the tunnel and out to the southeast. Of course, we had the greatest run ever because we weren’t in a hurry.

Skating destination two: the magnificent ice skating stadium in Oakleigh

Skating destination two: the magnificent ice skating stadium in Oakleigh

But even then, The Double leaves all kinds of questions for the modern hockey player: do you stay dressed in your hockey gear, probably sans actual skates, for the drive between the rinks? Do you strip off wet post-dev league gear and then re-dress once the gear is two hours’ colder and already festering?

What do you eat between sessions? How much should you eat? And, even more pointedly, where can you eat? Exactly which top restaurants in Melbourne embrace unshowered between-sessions ice hockey players? Or might accept Big Cat in hockey shorts and leg armour, complete with Doc Martens? These are questions The Age Good Food Guide seems to ignore, edition after edition.

On Tuesday, I chose to step out of all my gear, except compression tights, which are always an attractive social look, under running shorts. Big Cat stayed pretty much completely armoured up, with Doc Martens, as stated.

Of course, we ended up at the McDonald’s Drive-Thru; the secret shame – or complete non-shame – of Doubling hockey players for years. We ate in the aesthetically stunning surrounds of the Oakleigh Maccas car park, before trucking the last 500 metres or so to the rink.

Big Cat Place, sporting the latest in Double fashion: Doc Martens and leg armour.

Big Cat Place, sporting the latest in Double fashion: Doc Martens and leg armour.

And then, at about 10 pm, stomach still regretting what in Pulp Fiction parlance is a Royale with cheese, I stepped back into now horrendous pre-worn gear, reminiscent of putting on a wet wetsuit for a winter surf in my youth, and stepped onto the ice once more.

And this is where the biggest learning of my first Double kicked in. I’d always known the ice at Icy O’Briens and Oakleigh were different, but when you try to skate on both on the same night, the difference is profound. Not saying one is better than the other; they’re just wildly diverse underfoot. I’d just had my edges cut, picking up my skates before dev league, and felt fine on the ice during that scrimmage. Yet at Oakleigh, I could barely skate for the first couple of laps, and throughout our training session I never felt solid on my skates. The ice at Oakleigh is softer, often slightly wet, especially on a hot night like Tuesday, but somehow the ice felt ‘hard’, like I wasn’t getting the same grip as I had at Docklands.

The fact is that no two rinks are the same. Recently, after a Red Wings home game in Detroit, a visiting team complained about the ice at the Joe Louis Arena, with players saying it was so bad that it made it hard to display NHL-standard skills. Skating two rinks on one night shows how dramatically different the feel of ice can be under your skates. It’s wild.

The Oakleigh ice surface. I've never been able to skate as well there as I do at Docklands.

The Oakleigh ice surface. I’ve never been able to skate as well there as I do at Docklands.

But we had fun. Only a handful of ‘Kees had managed to make yet another workday-unfriendly training time but we had a good session, with strong spirit. The fog that had suspended games on the weekend at Oakleigh hung in the air but never badly enough to make the hockey difficult. As we left the building, just before midnight, the fog was thickening over the ice.

We got back in the car, drove through the empty night streets across the city, legs tired, brains tired, hockey sated. Wednesday morning was rough, as it always is after late night hockey, but that’s ok. I’d ticked off another item on my hockey bucket list: The Double.

Now I just need to find a frozen pond on which to play genuine pond hockey. I suspect, in the current high-30s heat wave gripping Australia, that’s not going to happen any time soon.

(https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2FNIckDoesHockey%2Fvideos%2F802253009903271%2F&show_text=0&width=560)

 

 

Saturday afternoon in Oakleigh

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It’s been raining for two days and it’s cold.

Winter cold; in the heart of spring. For IHV Summer League div 3 hockey.

Wearing four layers and a beanie, you leave it to your travelling companion to play loud music as you navigate the remorseless bottleneck of Chadstone’s road system. Finally, you pull up in the asphalt car park and lug your giant bag and sticks through the door that is slightly too small, then try to jam them and yourself through the even thinner wedge of metal to avoid the public turnstiles. Hockey players don’t pay at the gate.

Pre-game general skaters.

Pre-game general skaters. (Pic: Nicko)

 

Helpful penguin.

Helpful penguin.  (Pic: Nicko)

 

Dormant goals in the stands.

Dormant goals, waiting for us in the stands. (Pic: Nicko)

Inside, everything is that Oakleigh blue, except the dangling nets, like some demented fisherman’s lair, and the glow of the lights on the scoreboard, reading zero-zero. It’s 50 minutes to the puck drop.

Today is an intra-club grading match, Cherokees v Apaches, so you go say hi to Tony, rugged up and cutting edges in the Next Level shop, then head back down to chat with the ‘opposition’ before heading to your respective rooms. Your team shows up in ones and twos, and suddenly dressing room 3 is packed, strangely warm these days now that an effective heating system has somehow been installed.

Welcome to the shop.

The retail hub of Oakleigh. (Pic: Nicko)

 

Everything you need.

Everything you need. (Pic: Nicko)

 

Branding.

Branding. (Pic: Nicko)

The coaches read the lines one more time and bark instructions as you lace your skates, apply whatever idiosyncratic sock tape pattern you have evolved, give your teammates a grin or a nod, hang shit on the goalie, and then finally stalk your way on thin steel blades through the door, past the ever-dodgy men’s toilets and up the incline towards the rink.

Big crowd in for the Cherokees.

Big crowd in for the Cherokees. (Pic: Nicko)

 

The wait for the gate.

The wait for the gate. (Pic: Nicko)

 

Game time.

Game time. (Pic: Kat Pullin’s dad)

All the figure skaters, families, kids and fake penguins have been removed, Oakleigh’s antique Zamboni has chugged around and at last you step onto the ice, being careful because the drop is always slightly more than you expect, as the refs flip the goals from upside down in the grandstand to upright on the rink.

Water bottles to the narrow shelf behind the bench, a couple of fast laps of the narrow, claustrophobic Olympic rink, so much smaller than Icy O’Briens and with almost non-existent lines. Just as you finish shooting pucks at Stoney the goalie and gently tap all 20 pucks back to the bench, the rain starts in earnest and suddenly you can’t hear the final instructions because of the noise on the tin roof. The captain, Big Cat, shouts: ‘Kees on three. One … two … three!‘

‘KEES!

The crowd is tiny, maybe the occasional partner, family member or two, plus a couple of curious general skaters who have stuck around to see genuine hockey in Melbourne’s last remaining 1970s rink, a long half world away from the true hockey nations of the world.

Oakleigh action. Rain outside.

Oakleigh action. Rain outside. (Pic: Kat Pullin’s dad)

The puck drops and we go at it.

The game is fast and played in good spirit, both teams getting chances but with strong defences mostly choking breakaways and keeping attacks wide. Tommi in net for the Apaches, and Stoney standing on his head for us, as the heavy rain continues to drive hard and loud into the tin above, and sometimes through the roof, dripping onto our bench, and you wonder if this is going to turn into a famous Oakleigh pea-souper.

The Apaches seem to have only two or three players on the bench, while we have three full lines as well as five D. They get the first goal but we get one back and then another, and start to edge further in front.

Kees v Apaches.

‘Kees v Apaches. (Pic: Kat Pullin’s dad)

 

Kat defending. (Pic: her dad)

Kat defending. (Pic: her dad)

 

Some hack heads up ice.

Some hack heads up ice. (Pic: Kat Pullin’s dad)

In the end, we win, and we’re NHL happy but actually it’s a grading game and the start of summer and the Apaches have beaten us too many times for us to get cocky about managing to snag a win.

We do the handshakes, thank the refs, circle around to thank the coaches. We leave the ice, thank the hockey Gods that you’re allowed to have a beer in the change-rooms at good old Oakleigh, take advantage of that miracle as we get changed, then finish the beers outside, four or five Cherokees huddled in the doorway as the rain continues to fall but less so than during the game. We nod or yell goodbyes to various Braves players from both teams as they scuttle through the puddles to their vehicles, the few of us who are left shooting the shit about nothing in particular before we finally drift to our cars.

The post-game glow.

The post-game glow. (Pic: Nicko)

The long drive back to town has good music, and play-by-play breakdowns of the action, as we dissect the game and our form.

Next weekend, we’re back in the glamour of Icy O’Briens, Australia’s shiny and well-appointed official Winter Olympic training facility at Docklands, skating out no doubt to the disappointment of the remaining crowd after an women’s Australian Ice Hockey League game featuring Melbourne Ice has finished.

That’s Sunday afternoon.

But this one was classic Oakleigh. Who would have it any other way?

 

UPDATE: It looks like the crazy weather finally took a toll on Oakleigh’s ice sheet. This was from Facebook, apparently taken tonight, as I was finishing this. No idea how you fix something like this but one thing I do know: the resourceful Victorian hockey community will find a way.

Pic: Bron Bird, Monday.

Pic: Bron Bird, Monday.

Cracked ice on Monday night.

Cracked ice on Monday night.

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.

 

 

 

A heatwave, the Winter Classic and question marks

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive. The world needs more people who have come alive.”

–       Jonathan Harris

It’s been an unusual summer. Of course, in Melbourne, there’s the weather, which did its perverse trick of being cold, grey and mostly un-beachy through the two weeks or so that almost everybody is on holidays and sitting in traffic jams along the coast, dreaming of sitting on a beach, so they can fret about how they look semi-naked in swimwear, and, all going well, just bask. Now most people are back at work, it’s hitting 40 degrees Celsius. Every. Day. And they say God, that complex woman in the sky, doesn’t have a sense of humour …

I had all kinds of plans for my Christmas-New Year break. Six days clear? Let’s hit LA!!!! Hmmm, timezone issues, and we’d lose an entire day (literally – that fun/crazy phenom where you leave LA near midnight on, say, a Friday, and arrive back in Melbourne on Sunday, Saturday having somehow evaporated in space or science or something). So, not LA. Then, hey, Tokyo!!! No? Lombok!! Umm, Byron! Err, shit, another few days at my parents’ place at Lorne?

In the end, Chloe and I mostly hung around Melbourne., enjoying how awesome the city is when there aren’t any actual people living in its canyons, the crowd absent from its streets. Riding bikes along mostly empty roads and bike trails, and watching films in sparcely populated cinemas.

More and more, as is my brain’s way, I fell into introspection and wondering where I’m heading next? Off the ice for almost a month, I found myself with no real desire to attempt a general skate at the Icehouse. Part of this was practical: Facebook told me that the Henke Rink was being relaid, so I knew general skates and any other on-ice activities would be crammed onto the Bradbury Rink, and general skates on half or two thirds of a rink are remorselessly crap. You need some room to move.

But I also started to worry that I had so little desire to skate, to be on the ice.

A panorama of the Big House: the largest hockey crowd ever, and in snow and 12 degrees F.

A panorama of the Big House: the largest hockey crowd ever, and in snow and 12 degrees F.

I watched a lot of hockey. On my Apple TV and iPad, the NHL continued, and my Red Wings were lurching along, as they have this season; suffering injury after injury, patchy results building as a play-off spot becomes less certain. The Wings suffering from star goalie Jimmy Howard losing form, confidence and health, plus an ongoing inability to score goals, and a bunch of Grand Rapid Griffins kids filling holes (although one of my absolute favourite prospects, Tomas Jurco, debuted, scored, looked great in a Wings jersey!)

Nevertheless, we believe. Big Cat Place turned up at my house for a 5 am alarm so we could watch Detroit play Toronto in the outdoor Winter Classic. Man. Two Melburnians in Winter Classic merchandise huddled in the dark in an Australian summer, watching 105,000 people brave sub-zero temperatures at the Big House, in Ann Arbor (and receiving gloating snapchats from Ice stars Tommy Powell and Shona Green, in head-to-toe Toronto gear, a few suburbs away). Snow on the seats, snow on fans’ heads. The weather so cold as the polar vortex approached the mid-west of America that the goalie waterbottles had to be constantly replaced because the water was freezing inside.

Cold, cold seats at the Winter Classic, half a world away from a Melbourne summer.

Cold, cold seats at the Winter Classic, half a world away from a Melbourne summer. Pic: Detroit Free Press.

It looked awesome, and fun, and freezing. The Wings, of course, lost in a shoot-out, looking ineffectual when it mattered most.

But then, in their next start, smashed the Dallas Stars, 5-1, with Tomas Tatar, ever-growing in confidence, scoring a fantastic lone-drive goal. Then had a few days off and got belted by the Sharks. And so it goes.

Between Wings angst, I read an amazing book, by Bill Bryson. It’s called ‘One Summer’ and is about America in the summer of 1927. Charles Lindbergh became the first aviator to fly the Atlantic, and became a national hero, before turning into a Nazi enthusiast. The crazy art project of Mount Rushmore began. Sacco and Vanzetti were tried and executed, rightly or wrongly. The Jazz Singer was released, making talking pictures a mainstream reality. Baseballer Babe Ruth was hitting home runs at unprecedented levels, and living an impressively sordid lifestyle to go with it. The entire mid-west was flooded to unbelievable levels. Pre-Nazi America First ‘pure race’ theories were so extreme the Klu Klux Klan looked tame (tens of thousands of Americans regarded as being of ‘lower race’ or ‘lower intelligence’ or ‘lower morals’ were sterilized against their will. No, seriously.) Even as I read of these horrors, in this much more enlightened world, almost 100 years later, Liberal Senator dipshit Cory Bernardi was declaring to Australia that ‘non-traditional’ families with a single parent are more likely to have higher criminality among boys and promiscuity among girls.

Tomas Jurco celebrates knowing he's pretty much NHL ready. Pic: Ducks website.

Tomas Jurco celebrates knowing he’s pretty much NHL ready. Pic: Ducks website.

Where Australia is headed worries me more and more.

And then the holiday was over, work was back and my usual world started to return to its normal rhythms. I belted out 4000 words of my new novel in one day, showing that, as I’d suspected, my brain had really needed some time off by the end of 2013. But then found myself staring at the screen once more. Hey ho. Do the work.

And I wondered what 2014 will hold, should hold? An American philosopher/artist Jonathan Harris wrote a heartfelt essay on being ‘stuck’ and assessing why he’d been stuck at various points in his life and how he’d moved past those moments. (Thanks Kayt Edwards, for finding it and posting it.)

I’d fully recommend reading it, but ultimately Harris argues that you have a very limited time on Earth and you need to spend it doing things that move you, inspire you, fully engage your creativity and energy.  It’s a nice theory for the wealthy: he’s the kind of guy who apparently can afford to go and sit in a cabin in Oregon for months at a time without having to worry about paying for groceries. People with mortgage headaches and medical bills and whatnot might not have his free-thinking luxury. Nevertheless, there is merit in what he says.

Squinting at 2014 from the top of the ride, I find myself wondering whether I’m stuck? What most moves me, what most excites me? Is it still working in media? Is it still hockey? Is it still writing novels? Is it Little Big Shots, the kids film festival I work on? Is it still living in Melbourne?

Is it still being, well, Me?

These are questions I ask myself a lot and I think it’s mostly healthy, if it doesn’t paralyze you. According to Harris, being ‘stuck’ precedes a fundamental shift of some sort, but I don’t think I’m at that point. Am I? I can see friends who definitely are, whether in their relationships, or work, or other aspects of their life. It’s always easier to see clearly looking in, as against looking out. But where am I at?

A highlight of summer: Big Cat Place back on two legs and back in skates, at the Charlie Srour game.

A highlight of summer: Big Cat Place back on two legs and back in skates, at the Charlie Srour game. Pic: Nicko.

One definite way to avoid paralysis and to keep the brain process moving is to retain context. On Sunday evening, I picked up Big Cat and made the long trek to the (freshly-painted and spruiced up!) Oakleigh Ghetto. Tried to remember the order my armour goes on, and strapped on skates for the first time since mid-December. Nobody in the rooms but close friends from the hockey world, all united for a game in  honour of Charlie Srour, a treasured member of our little gang who died a year ago on New Year’s Day, to eternal regret. We toasted Charlie with Russian vodka, Big Cat spent the warm-up managing to stand in skates and move around on the ice for the first time since breaking his leg, and then we had a very informal scrimmage for the sheer joy of being back on the ice.

It was one of those games where nobody cared about the score. In fact, I honestly can’t recall what it was, three days later. We played four-on-four and laughed a lot. Melbourne Ice women players attempted figure skating moves between face-offs, the standard good-natured sledging hit astronomical levels, and I felt fantastic for about three shifts before my rusty legs started to run out of steam. Man, that happened fast. In the photos that Big Cat took, I can see myself return to my bad-old legs-wide flat-foot skating, as I get tired. God, another year of trying to move my legs, to become more mobile on the ice. That’s where one of my 2014 challenges lies – not to listen to the voice inside that says I don’t seem to be getting any better, that I’m only ever going to be mediocre; that after three years, I remain so so-so.

I have to banish those thoughts. The fact was, it was fun to be back out there. I did love playing again. I still have chapters of this hockey journey left, I think. I just have to keep doing the work.

Wayne McBride does his best Frank the Tank post-brawl celebration, after 'fighting' Apollo Patrick in the Charlie game. Pic: Big Cat.

Wayne McBride does his best Frank the Tank post-brawl celebration, after ‘fighting’ Apollo Patrick in the Charlie game. Pic: Big Cat.

And so yesterday, in 43 degree heat, I made my way to Port Melbourne and survived a training session with Lliam Webster at Fluid; remorselessly working my stomach and core and every skating muscle in my legs and butt. I’d only wished I was wearing a Stetson so I could have tugged it meaningfully over my eyes, showing I mean business as I face down a new year.

Because I am going to train like a mothertrucker now my knee is troubling me less.

I am going to get generally super-fit, using the functional movement training ideas, to hit the end of 2014 in better, different shape to now.

I am going to return to the Bang, able to run once more, and kick a footy with that bunch of guys.

I am going to improve my skating on the ice, so that I can play one more summer at least, and really smoke it.

I am going to watch the Red Wings somehow pull themselves together, get healthy when it matters, and storm the 2014 play-offs.

I am going to have non-hockey adventures to add diversity, adventure and different angles to my existence.

I am going to adore every member of my complicated, non-traditional family, and I’m going to fully believe in my two boys and my step-son, even if a misguided Liberal whacko Senator doesn’t.

And I am going to let my brain free, to write fiction and explore new paths for my company and to fully engage in my working life.

Mostly, I’m going to laugh, and have fun. Because in hockey and life, it’s amazing how easy it is to forget that we’re supposed to be enjoying the journey. When I shake off expectations and fretting, and just enjoy, everything is simpler.

These are not New Years resolutions. These are just the wanderings of life, now closing alarmingly on a half century within two years.

‘The world needs more people who have come alive,’ writes Jonathan Harris.

In 2014, on the ice and off, I plan for that to continue to be me.

My first ice-time of 2014: facing Brendan Parssons in a face-off with his girlfriend, Lex, dropping the puck. Life's a loaded deck, folks, but that doesn't mean it can't be fun. Pic: Big Cat.

My first ice-time of 2014: facing Brendan Parsons (right) in a face-off with his girlfriend, Lex, dropping the puck. Life’s a loaded deck, folks, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. Pic: Big Cat.

Guest writer: Brendan Parsons on scorekeeping

The scorer's box, looking down on the Ghetto's ice. @ Oakleigh.

The scorer’s box, looking down on the Ghetto’s ice. @ Oakleigh.

A change of gear today. Ever wondered who is operating the scoreboard and compiling the teamsheet at any given game? Even in Rec D, summer league, in Melbourne, a bunch of tireless almost-volunteers work to make it happen – and we are damn grateful. (I’ve only been in there long enough to feel sheepish that I don’t help more.)

A big thanks to Brendan Parsons for taking us behind the glass, ice-side, to explain the magic.

Hockey scoring: not for the faint-hearted

By Brendan Parsons

“Shit!”

“What was that?”

“I didn’t see! Get ready whatever it is.”

“What number?”

“Use double zero, just make sure you get the two in right, we can fix it after.”

“I’m on it.”

“Hey can I –“

“Shut up!  Hold on a second – watch the ice – anything coming in on the radio?”

“No…  OK, we’re good.”

“Time?”

“Fourteen twenty seven.”

Radio hisses

“Hey, you there?”

“Yep, what was it?”

“Fourteen, tripping, two minutes.”

“Ok, got it.”

“Sorted – shot on – two shots, home.”

The score box at Oakleigh ice rink is nothing short of parody of a TV newsroom– but without the Sorkinesque hallway walking.  Scraps of paper litter the eagles-nest perched high above the stands.  Aged, yellow control boxes operating the scoreboard and clock flash their analogue red LEDs alarmingly and intrusively.  Only the edges of the vintage, leather stools are used by the scorer and timekeeper; the scorebox is no place to sit in comfort despite its relative warmth.  Snacks and coffee sit safely away from the equipment, but close at hand for the occasional 20 second break.  The computer hums and grinds to process the demands of the byzantine excel spreadsheet.

This isn’t scoring a cricket match – an ice hockey game moves at the speed of the ref’s whistle (which is the speed of sound, so it’s pretty fast.)

With the growth of beer-league hockey in Melbourne, the league should not have been surprised by the massive response to their call for timekeepers and scorekeepers in the summer league.

I answered the call to give back to the league which I have been only taking from so far.  After volunteering, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was a (modestly) paid gig. The pay nearly covers the cost of the non-kosher snacks (for wannabe hockey athletes at least) consumed within the box.

Working in the box has given me a new appreciation for the support structure required to play hockey, and the importance of doing things right; like wearing clear and consistent numbers on your uniform, handing in proper team sheets, and only playing registered players.  In a recent game, the numbers on one player’s back, arms and helmet didn’t match – and they wonder (and complain) how the ref may wrongly attribute a goal.

Rookies Rachael Hands and Lliam "Apollo" Patrick man the scorer's box during a Rookies v IBM social game.

Rookies Rachael Hands and Liam “Apollo” Patrick man the scorer’s box during a Rookies v IBM social game.

The box requires two people.  The time keeper is predominantly in charge of keeping the clock running, keeping the scoreboard up to date, displaying penalties and, at Oakleigh, controlling the walkie-talkie which serves as our only link to the ref.  The score keeper operates the flawlessly macro-ed score sheet.  Both need to watch and record all shots on goal – a call requiring consensus, as not every goalie’s ‘save’ is a shot on goal.*

You begin to appreciate the teams that play cleanly – minimizing penalties, playing around the opposition and not through them.  You notice the teams that continually lob pucks to the net, like a prisoner in solitary confinement with only a tennis ball.  You start to feel how each team constructs, and reconstructs, their lines through the game.  You see how goals and assists are not the golden metric against which to measure a player’s skill.

With all the sound and fury of a hockey game below you, from your cloistered, anonymous, impartial isolation, you can see the beauty of the game in its rarer moments. It’s a haven from the regular week; removed from quotidian mediocrity.  A Zen Koan, not requiring anything from you but the application of the rules. No hype, not fans; just the game itself.

But mostly, it’s a pleasing way to spend a Thursday night, or a lazy Sunday afternoon; watching hockey from a heated room.

*A shot is counted only if, with the goalie removed, it would have been a goal.  Brilliantly catching a puck that was not going straight into the net unfortunately does not count.

A final game sheet, as produced by the scorers from every official IHV game. Oh, wait, did I happen to pick one out where No. 4 (Nicko Place) got an assist and an unassisted goal? Wow, what are the odds?

A final game sheet, as produced by the scorers from every official IHV game. Oh, wait, did I happen to pick one out where No. 4 (Nicko Place) got an assist and an unassisted goal for the Interceptors? Wow, what are the odds?

Brought to you by …

Not Nicko Place hockey-themed shoes ...

Not Nicko Place hockey-themed shoes …

I’ve had a lot of strange emails lately. It seems there are companies that now target blogs, offering to provide ‘quality editorial’, free of charge. As far as I can tell, this ‘quality editorial’ happens to mention a company name here or there, or maybe links off to a website. I’m often not sure if they even realise this is a hockey blog. I’m pretty certain they don’t care.

These are strange times in commercialism, online and off. Whether you’re the Australian Ice Hockey League, wondering how to parlay the new FoxSports deal into dollars, or a blogger wondering if you can justify several hours a week writing about your passion, but at the expense of real work, or a super-hero, wondering how to feed yourself while patrolling the mean streets of the American north-west, sponsorship and making money from what you do continues to be an issue.

Yes, me and the rising number of real-life superheroes apparently have this ethical dilemma in common. I’ve followed Phoenix Jones, self-proclaimed Guardian of Seattle and a founder of the Rain City Super Hero Movement, since he first started patrolling the streets a couple of years ago. Back then, he was an anonymous, masked vigilante do-gooder. It turned out he had a wife, Purple Reign, who started a campaign against domestic violence, also wearing a mask until she suddenly had a revelation that victims of domestic violence should not ‘hide’ and publicly showed her real face. Which was brave and clever. They seem like quite the couple.

I worry a lot for Phoenix – it turns out he’s an ex-MMA fighter and by day is/was a school teacher. Both he and Purple’s identities have been revealed – I think he was in a court case, from memory, where the court record dispassionately gave his full name and address, which shows how long Bruce Wayne, Peter Parker and co would have lasted as secret identities outside of the world of comic books.

But Phoenix is still out there, breaking up fights in the hours when only trouble can happen on the streets of Seattle; occasionally a little too enthusiastically, leading to complaints. He writes IN CAPITALS on his Facebook page and gets grumpy when people question his motives or methods. And then over the past week, he suddenly became a walking super-billboard for Nike.

Like this subtle post (that accompanied the pic at the start of this blog): ‘PURPLE AND I JUST FINISHED HANGING OUT WITH NIKE IN OREGON. WE DISCUSSED CRIME FIGHTING AND THE PJ 22’S. HOPEFULLY THEY WILL MAKE THESE AVAILABLE FOR PURCHASE. THEY ALSO HOOKED US UP WITH NEW SHOES AND CLOTHES. PICTURES SOON! NOW OFF TO MEET SABER AND MERCURY ABOUT JOINING THE ALLIANCE.’

I’m not making this up.

Phoneix Jones in full facebook flight ...

Phoneix Jones in full facebook flight …

And in case you were wondering, the PJ 22’s are presumably the very sweet Nike concept runners I’ve pictured, lifted from a photo on his Facebook page. Along with the Nike swoosh on his utility belt. And, in case you hadn’t picked up the theme, a photo of him in a Nike cap.

I can only assume he hasn’t seen Mystery Men, where Captain Amazing, the greatest super-hero going around, is sponsored from cape to toe. Which turns out to be an issue.

The endorsement feels wrong to me, and I’m trying to work out why, beyond the bizarre image of him and a bunch of sports executives “discussing crime fighting” in a swanky Oregon board room. I wrote to Phoenix’s wall, saying I was stepping away, wishing him luck but saying that I didn’t think being a walking billboard was what he was about and I was disliking his page. It’s not often you can go toe-to-toe, ethically, with a genuine super-hero. Confusingly, he has since ‘liked‘ that post. So I am not sure if he agrees with my stance, or maybe just thinks it’s hilarious that an Australian hockey wannabe has dared to pipe up, or possibly he just ‘likes’ everything posted on his page. Who can question his super-motives?

The more I’ve thought about it, he hasn’t actually done anything wrong. I mean, why shouldn’t he get Nike to pay him a fortune for the right to become the first sportswear company to actively brand a real-life superhero? Why the hell pay millions to Roger Federer or Tiger Woods when there are goddam super-heroes walking around? If you were a Nike company executive in Oregon, the idea of putting your brand on Phoenix would be pretty damn attractive. But if I was a marketing exec there, I’d be worrying about stomach ulcers. Because this one could go wrong. Sitting here, half a world away, in mostly gun-free Melbourne, I constantly worry for Phoenix Jones. He ain’t from Krypton and he ain’t safe from harm by the fact that his entire universe exists on a page, being written by someone like me who loves heroes and understands that no matter what obstacles a comic throws up, the hero will overcome. (And I have written two super hero novels, so I feel qualified to know the difference.) In actual Seattle, it feels like any day some gangbanger could ‘do a Nike’ but decide to make his mark by being the first corner-boy to pop a genuine super-hero. I totally hope I’m wrong. I think Phoenix and maybe even more so Purple Reign have done a lot of good and I admire them for their bravery and initiative.

But somehow, Phoenix Jones, brought to you by Nike, doesn’t have the same doing-this-for-justice ring that Phoenix has previously argued. It used to be that Phoenix was truly heroic because he was out there all night, at risk, helping the police, trying to be a force for good, very much at his own personal cost. Now it’s potentially for personal gain. That’s the worrying difference.

Maybe this is all swirling in my head because I have to give a talk at Swinburne tomorrow night (unpaid, for the record – speaking to graduate journalism students and even missing dev league to do it). I’ll be trying to impress on them the difficulty between writing what you love or what you know, and how to make a living from journalism or writing content (not necessarily the same thing) in this crazy new online media world. How do you not sell out and yet pay the rent? Especially when you can’t do what I did as a teenage Jimmy Olsen and somehow luck your way into a major metropolitan newspaper as a copyboy. That shit just hardly happens any more.

I’m not sure what the answers are, for Phoenix or me. God knows, filling his utility belt and having all that sweet armour made up must cost a bomb. Likewise, hockey has been an expensive sport for me to take up, what, with the equipment and the endless lessons and the practice sessions and the Summer League registration fees and the jerseys and the T-shirts that we just had to get to mark the final game … but I’m still in it for the love. On Saturday, the Spitfire Fighters played a final against the Wolverines at Oakleigh (sample video from my phone, below) and a bunch of us turned up, despite torrential rain, to watch and cheer, or do a live podcast or be volunteer officials or just to be involved in our sport, the lowest level of competitive hockey you can play for points. That’s how I like it.

Donning my blogging cape, I’ve decided to hold firm against commercialism for now, for the same reason. I might whack Google ads onto this site, to see what happens, if it brings in any easy sending money, because, shit, I’m writing the blog anyway, and don’t have to endorse products. But I don’t think I’m going to embrace the semi-regular offers of ‘quality content’. I wrote to a couple of these new blog-targeting companies, asking what they were planning to pay me for access to the editorial segment of my site; in other words, would they reward me for totally selling out my editorial credibility in the name of krill oil supplements or a gambling site? Oh, came the somewhat startled replies. We thought giving you free content would be payment in itself. Um, I guess we could pay you $50 … one offered $US150 a year to place articles or, better, to have me write articles for the blog, mentioning their brands.

Which wouldn’t stand out at all, would it? Not like the fantastic cars being offered by Larry Love, the greatest car salesman ever!*

I wrote back to one of the companies, explaining why I was opposed to krill oil as a supplement, because whales and other marine creatures need it to survive much more than ageing hockey hacks like me do to ease creaky joints. They didn’t reply. I don’t think they had foreseen a marine conservation stand from a hockey blogger, or maybe I’m just not cut out for commercialism. Oh well.

* (I can’t believe that Larry Love ad is real, but if it is and Larry, in the unlikely event you’re still in business, you can have that one for free.)

A full house of hockey life

Getting ready for the Aussie Ben Laden Cup.

Getting ready for the Aussie Ben Laden Cup.

So here’s something that I love about hockey; this allegedly crazy little cult of a sport in Australia, half a world from the heartland of chasing pucks.

On Saturday night, I went to a poker game being run by a friend from work. His name is Ben Laden, which I, being the sparkling world-renowned wit that I am, couldn’t help but notice was a similar name to a certain terrorist, recently dispatched. Turns out that Ben has a lot of trouble at passport control whenever he enters the USA – or did, pre-Abbottabad. Sometimes the entire passport team would ask to pose for a photo.

He’s embraced his fate and on Saturday night, we played for the Aussie Ben Laden Cup, and a stack of cash from the buy-in stakes. Ben’s a pretty keen player and has regaled me with a lot of stories about long, intense poker nights between him and his mates. Some have played professionally or semi professionally. Intimidating just to hear about. So I went in, knowing I was up against it.

But actually, the jeopardy wasn’t that great because I had all of 50 bucks on the line, the cost of buying in. Two tables of 8 players each. Two rounds of play. Best combined finishes went to the final table.

I fancy myself at cards so into the pot went my Edith Cowan.

Naturally, I was dressed as a cowboy. “Aussie” had convinced me that dodgy poker skills could be minimized by startling dress sense in this company. He was wearing a truly appalling and genuine Hawaiian shirt, so lived his preach. That afternoon, getting ready for the evening ahead, I donned my trusty cowboy shirt from a ramshackle second hand shop in Williamsburg, New York, and cowboy boots from the same store, and headed to the Icehouse to coach one of our rival Summer League teams, the TigerSharks.

Say what? You thought this was about poker. Well, eventually it is but first there was a game to get through, as they were down a bench coach. Kittens and I shared the duties – Kittens bravely donning his favourite poncho so I wouldn’t feel out of place as a cowboy. We were definitely setting new trends in bench coach fashion.

We were coming off a disappointing loss on Thursday night, never quite able to get the Interceptors rolling in the fog that envelopes the Oakleigh rink when 30-degree humidity outside meets a melting iceblock inside. The Blackhawks played really well on a night where the goalies could barely see beyond the red line, so pucks could come out of nowhere. I got an assist and played a decent game without ever feeling like I lit it up, so I wasn’t sure how I’d go trying to tell a Summer League rival team how to play.

Oakleigh brings the summer fog.

Oakleigh brings the summer fog.

It was my first taste of hockey coaching and it turned out that I loved it. As I think I’ve written before, I have a lot of friends in the TigerSharks and have enjoyed games against them, because they have a similar intensity-meets-have-fun attitude to the Interceptors.

Suddenly, here I was, two years into this whacky hockey journey, with a change room full of armoured players listening to my pre-game advice. How did that happen? And what I do know?

Only just enough, apparently, and yet not enough, because the game against the Devils was a 1-1 draw. The TigerSharks had most of the attacking but the Devils’ defence was resolute, with their goalie, Mark Stone, standing on his head to deny them time and again. I tried to observe and advise stuff other than the obvious and battled with not knowing all the players, yet found myself totally caught up in the moment, desperately wanting my team to win; a TigerSharks team that I was thrilled to beat a couple of weeks ago, while wearing my Interceptor #17 jersey. Now I was a cowboy, willing them to find that final goal. Suddenly I could see how much fun coaching would be, if you had a team for a whole season. Maybe, if my knee collapses completely, or I get too old to skate (never!), this could be a hockey path I could explore?

Although I would run out of cowboy shirts pretty quickly.

And so finally through the heat to the top of Sydney Road (I still can’t help but think of that area as Jill Meagher country) and on to the poker game. Battling 15 other players, 14 of whom I had never met and had no connection with. And as I said at the start, this I where I found yet another thing I love about hockey. Sitting outside on the deck playing for hours on a hot night, a couple of strange smelling cigarettes and light beers down, I finally took off my cowboy shirt to reveal a Zetterberg #40 Red Wings T-shirt underneath.

Immediately, one guy on my table, with a Canadian drawl, said: “You’re a Wings fan?”

Turns out he grew up in Quebec and played as a kid.

Inevitably, my stack dwindled, I had not much left to lose, went all in on a couple of picture cards that turned out not to be enough and was out of Round One, appropriately losing to Wild Bill Hickok’s “dead man’s hand”.

The most stylish coaches in Summer League Rec D. Pic: Rachael Hands

The most stylish coaches in Summer League Rec D. Pic: Rachael Hands

At which point, a tall guy from the other table, also out, wandered over and said: “Did I hear that you play hockey? I used to play for Queensland in goals, inline and on ice, in juniors. I’ve been in England for the last eight years but I’m looking to get back into it.”

And so we spent Round Two yarning about Datsyuk’s genius, and Thomas Jurco coming up behind, and inline hockey in London, and the standard of the local scene, and how he can join the Icehouse rookie family.

Do the maths. Sixteen players in a card game: three, including me, with a hockey connection. At the northern Brunswick end of Sydney Road, on a Saturday night. There are allegedly a thousand or so registered players in Australia, plus a few thousand keen fans, and yet here were three of us, out of 16. What are the odds?

If I could work out ratios like that in my head, I might have made the final table.

So long, 50 bucks.