Goodbye to the Joe

Oh man, what a day.

First, Sergio Garcia finally wins the Masters, at his 73rd attempt at winning a major. Then comes news that John Clarke, one of the greatest comedians ever produced by New Zealand/Australia and a local of my hood, passed away while hiking in the Grampians on the weekend. And all this while I was watching the last ever Detroit Red Wings game at the Joe Louis Arena.

This last one was going to be enough to unravel me on its own, even without Clarke’s unexpected passing, or feeling happy for the Spanish golfer who burst onto the scene years ago as a wunderkind who was going to dominate the sport but sadly emerged at the exact same moment Tiger Woods appeared through another door and actually did dominate the sport.

Unfortunately, this was as close as I got to the Red Wings season-ending last game at the Joe today. I cried anyway, from half a world away.

‘The Joe’ was the Red Wings’ home for the last 38 years. It was an old barn of a building; one of the least attractive in a shiny new millennium NHL world, but of course the fans adored it and, until recently, other teams dreaded the lair of the all-conquering Wings. The Joe made its debut just as the infamous Dead Wings period of the club’s history was coming to an end. Within three years of its opening, Detroit pizza magnate Mike Ilitch would buy the team, start spending money, the recruiters would get a lot right and suddenly the team went on a roll that included four Stanley Cups and a record 25 straight years in the playoffs. Until this year, when the team finally fell off a cliff and missed the post-season.

Which is why today happened: the final game at the Joe, in early April instead of a month or so later during playoffs. But you know what? It was kind of perfect. Knowing it was the final game meant the Wings could do it properly, without the uncertainty of playoff success, home and away. The date could be penciled in and man, did they do it right.

For starters, by sheer luck, it was captain Hank Zetterberg’s 1000th game and the pre-game ceremony for that had me misty eyed. He’s always been a favourite of mine since I first tuned into the team and he was an absolute star. Then Riley ‘Tinky Winky’ Sheahan, a guy who had inexplicably not scored a goal all season, at last found the net for the Red Wings’ opening goal. Of course, Zetterberg scored because he’s Zetterberg, and then Tatar goaled and finally Sheahan again (to score his own tiny piece of hockey immortality: last goal ever at the Joe). Meanwhile, the Devils played the straight-men to this Detroit lovefest, a crammed-to-the-rafters Joe in a sea of red. Meanwhile, the TV coverage was keeping an octopi count, to note how many poor deceased octopi were hurled onto the ice (it’s a Red Wing thing), and the last tally I noticed was 27.

Rally Al the octopus’s only appearance this season: as part of the final game’s octocount.

At the very end, at the finale of a long ceremony where Red Wing greats spoke about the old building and the fans and how much they love this hockey team, the organisers showed they knew exactly how to play the heart strings of the fans one more time. The unofficial Red Wings victory anthem, Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’, filled the Joe as the fade out. Born and raised in SOUTH DETROIT.

And to the exits for the final time.

Of course the franchise will move on and the fans will be more comfortable, the ice will probably be better, life will be generally more pleasant in the shiny new Ilitch family stadium, Little Caesar’s Arena, when it opens in September. When the Wings left the creaky but historic Olympia stadium for the brand new Joe in 1979, I’m sure there was just as much sadness and nostalgia.

But today, it was good bye Joe and tears in all directions.

I’ve written before about how being a sports fan is about the journey, not the silverware, because the vast majority of fans are disappointed every year in terms of premierships, cups, whatever the prize.

Flashback to 2011: The Podium Line of Place boys on the glass at the Joe. A life highlight.

In my entire hockey journey, the joy for me has been in being a Red Wing fan, among all the Red Wing fans, from Hockeytown to Australia and everywhere in between. I am so so so so so so so happy today that my boys and I visited the Joe in 2011 to watch some games there. It didn’t occur to me at the time that I would never be there again. The Wings managed to lose all four games we saw, and so we didn’t get to belt out Don’t Stop Believin’ in the flesh, but it didn’t matter. We sat there, in good seats, in a sea of red jerseys with white winged wheels. We saw our heroes – Lidstrom, Zetterberg, Datsyuk, even Helm and Jimmy Howard. We saw Gus Nyquist’s first game as a Wing and Mackquist bought his jersey – without doubt the first one of those to make its way to Australia. A Wings representative showed us around the back corridors of the stadium, showered us in free merchandise and let us watch warm-up from behind the goal. It was a total and complete lifetime-memory blast.

But it wasn’t the Joe that actually stayed in my head as much as the humanity of Detroit. The people of Motorcity embraced us so warmly, unable to believe three Australians had travelled all that way just to sit in the Joe and watch the team.

I have no doubt if and when we make it to the new arena, with slightly roomier seats with better lighting, fancier corporate boxes and a bigger, sharper jumbotron TV screen, we’ll be embraced just as much.

Captain Hank today: The Perfect Human 2.0.

That’s what it all comes down to in the end. It doesn’t matter where the hockey is played, no matter how much you love the arena and the history seeping out of the walls of the joint – and believe me, I really did with the Joe. But ultimately  it’s the people. It’s the fans.

That’s why I wept when the Bulldogs won last year’s AFL flag. Not for the players, happy though I was for them, and sad though I was for Bob Murphy who was injured. My heart went straight out for the fans who have waited so long, who have stuck through thick and a lot of thin, who finally tasted the ultimate success. My unofficial footy coach at the Bang, Jimmy, flew back from Greece for the finals when he realised something was happening. The phone video of Jimmy and his family celebrating in the stands when they realised they had made the grand final was an all time highlight reel on its own. When they won the whole thing, he painted his house red, white and blue. The joy was so pure.

This year, my team, the Tigers, are 3-0 after three rounds, sitting in unfamiliar atmosphere at second on the ladder. Saturday’s game started in 27 degree sunshine and ended in a wild thunderstorm-battered, rain-drenched tempest. The fans stayed without blinking. We belted out the song in the wind and the rain. The players high-fived the fans on the boundary and we all started to wonder if we can dare to believe this side can do something significant this year.

The weird tradition of octopi on the ice (and Joe manager Al waving them crazily over his head) will no doubt start again in Game 1 at the new stadium.

We’re so lucky that we play at the MCG, the home of football, after a wrench away from the Punt Road Oval many years ago. Some older fans will have been have been there through that entire journey, through the flags of the sixties and the seventies and 1980, and then the dark wasteland years that have followed.

Whether Richmond plays at the G or in Oodnadatta, it doesn’t really matter. It’s those fans, my dedicated Tiger brothers and sisters, who count.

But having said all that, thank you, Joe Louis Arena, for the memories and for being the foundation for all the Wings adventures I have experienced so far. Thank you for honouring ‘The Brown Bomber’, one of the most legendary boxers ever, and for hosting my sons and I when we briefly, happily, took our place among the Wings faithful.

And one more time, rest in peace, John Clarke. Farnarkeling’s finest ever spokesman. You will be missed.

 

 

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)

 

 

When the coaches fly

A cat trying to use your crotch as a scratching post is not a great pre-hockey omen. And sure enough, in dev league last night, I felt like my skating was off, my knee inexplicably hurt, my shots at goal were powder puffs, and being an offensive threat when genuine IHV summer hockey starts in six weeks or so felt a million miles away. But you have nights like that; well, I do. I had a few good moments, but also got mown down on a clear breakaway, which sucked. I think I need to do some sprinting, off ice, to get more grunt in my legs. Even footy once or twice a week isn’t enough, it seems.

However, the real mistake I made with regard to my self-confidence was hanging around to watch Melbourne Ice train straight after our session. I hadn’t watched the Ice practicing for a long time. Usually the Mustangs follow our scrimmage but the Clippyclops are done for the season and so Melbourne Ice got the rink ahead of the weekend’s AIHL finals at Icy Obriens (probably sold out but check for tickets).

The Ice on Tuesday night, preparing to hopefully add a new addition to the banners on the far wall.

The Ice on Tuesday night, preparing to hopefully add a new addition to the banners on the far wall.

I’ve probably written this before but I love watching our coaches go flat out. For almost six years, I’ve had a front row seat of Matt Armstrong, Lliam Webster, Tommy Powell, occasionally Jason Baclig, Rob Clark and women’s Ice captain Shona Powell, and Ice star Georgia Carson, as they coach us wannabes week in, week out.

But, of course, they are only ever in second gear, at best. Even when they jump into a scrimmage, I’m always super aware that they’re coasting, that they have so much power and skill they’re holding back. (Sure, we students still can’t help but get an insane burst of euphoria on the rare occasion when we manage to actually strip one of the coaches of the puck, but it is usually followed seconds later by being unceremoniously separated from said puck by the same coach, moving briefly to second-and-a-half gear.)

I think my favourite moment in scrimmage ever was waiting, huddled over my stick, in my usual Left Wing position for a face-off in our defensive zone when Tommy Powell, proud Alternate Captain of Melbourne Ice and, oh yeah, Australia, skated casually over and said, ‘When they drop the puck, just go.’ He tilted his head minimally towards our goal, almost 200 feet away down at the other end of the ice.

‘Go?’ I said.

‘Go,’ he confirmed.

Tommy wasn’t even taking the face-off as he was playing defence, but I knew better than to argue. The puck was dropped, I didn’t even look. I just skated flat out down the ice away from everybody. And sure enough, like a magic trick, the puck came tumbling out of the air above me, landing neatly about two metres in front of me, and bouncing gently a couple of times before it was on my stick and I was on a breakaway 20 metres or more clear of any defenders. I still have no idea how he did it, but I have been forever in awe of his confidence, that he knew he could step in, get that puck from the face-off turmoil, find space and then lob it perfectly half a rink to exactly the right spot. Holy shit.

The Ice working on shots, Tuesday before finals weekend.

The Ice working on shots, Tuesday before finals weekend.

So last night, back in street clothes after our dev league hit out, Big Cat, Will Ong and I stopped to watch, before leaving Icy Obriens. And I was struck again by the sheer skill and skating of AIHL level players. It really is something to see and if you’re a hockey player of any level, I would advocate going to watch the Ice train. It’s one thing to watch games, where they duke it out with other teams, but there’s a lot they can’t control there, and all sorts of pressures that they’re dealing with. The Ice love to tic-tac-toe cute passes in attack to end up with a clear scoring chance once a defence is bamboozled, but it’s natural that a lot of those ambitious attempts derail midway.

In training, the skills of the players can shine, uninterrupted. From the moment they took their positions in four groups on the opposing blue lines, everybody knew every drill intimately. A swirl of players looked terrifying, as two skaters would skate fast, fully-committed half circles around the red circle, with pucks crisscrossing the zone, but never in danger of colliding. The skaters would give and receive several hard fast passes, from opposing corners, before suddenly sweeping towards goal.

And that’s when you notice the little things. Lliam Webster received a hard pass half a metre too far behind him. Somehow he kicked it, absolutely smoothly, onto his stick without breaking stride or losing any pace, went in and slotted the shot straight past the goalie.

Tommy Powell took a shot and then hockey stopped from full pace to a complete halt in one fraction of a second, snow flying, like an old animation of the Road Runner going from a blur to dead-stopped, so that he was camped for a potential rebound.

Big weekend coming up for the Ice.

Big weekend coming up for the Ice.

And so it went. Two fast laps, a standard of any training session I’ve ever been part of with any team, was frighteningly quick, with Danish import Lasse Lassen particularly noticeable for his low-gravity style and smooth skating. We also noticed that Joey Hughes has got his trademark long hair back and there are some strong play-off beards in evidence.

Eventually we left them to it and headed off into the night. On the weekend, we’ll be back, hoping the Ice can make it through the semis to Sunday’s Grand Final and then hopefully salute for the first time in a few years, since the glorious days of the threepeat.

I’m not going to mozz them by saying anything more about how sharp and ready they looked. I’m sure the other three teams in finals contention look great in training too. It’s all about bringing it on the day, two days in a row. My feeling is that for the Ice this year, it’s only a question of whether they can mentally turn on when required. The 2016 squad, for mine, is as good as any they’ve had. But they need to blinker-out the inevitable provocation and needle that’s going to come in the semi, secure that win, and then peak for when it matters on Sunday afternoon.

I’ll be there, mouth-agape at the level of play they can achieve, from my viewpoint as a summer trier. And loving every minute. Especially if they trounce Canberra.

Ice, Ice, baby. Go get ’em.

 

Losing with a capital L

To be a fan is to be a loser.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tigers? God, don’t even start me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex Rance: life is about more than silverware.

Alex Rance: life is about more than silverware.

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

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

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

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

I’m excited. As usual.

Giddyup.

Just remember it’s all in the journey.

 

 

 

Back to work …

So, I have a hockey game on Saturday.

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

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

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

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

Now, almost a month later, who knows?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Off-season distraction: French duo Brigette.

Off-season distraction: French duo Brigette.

See you there?

 

 

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

 

Bruises and bacon

Cassius was trying to be diplomatic.

I’d been showing him one of my more impressive recent bruises. It happened a week or so ago during a Cherokees game at Icy O’Briens ( as I like to call the artist formerly known as the Icehouse; now officially renamed the O’Brien’s Group Arena). I’d gone into a corner to battle for a puck against the glass, in our offensive end. Fishing for the puck with my stick, with an opponent trying to protect it, I went in fast. Normally when your stick hits the wall, in that situation, it will deflect right or left, depending on the angle, but somehow my stick went dead straight and then got caught against the defender’s skate or something. I’m still not sure. All I know is my stick ‘stuck’ and therefore didn’t ‘give’ when my stomach hit it, perfectly, of course, in the gap between the chest armour and the padded shorts.** It was painful but ok: I wasn’t exactly impaled, and damn, but did all those endless ab workouts finally pay off or what? (shifts eyes)

So now I had a perfect imprint of the rectangular end of my stick and a surrounding deep bruise on my stomach. And Cassius, with all the wisdom of a seven-year-old, who has seen a bit of life, said to me: ‘Nicko, you know, you keep playing ice hockey and you keep getting hurt and I’m just thinking maybe you should try not to get hurt and maybe you should stop?’

Even better, he started to list my historic wounds. ‘There was that time you hit the wall really hard, and there was your knee, and there was your wrist…’

I laughed, no idea he’d been quietly cataloging my hockey carnage, but then thinking it must be pretty interesting at his age, to see a supposedly responsible adult regularly return home limping or wincing or bruised from what’s supposed to be ‘fun’.

But stop hockey because of the bruises? I picked at my food and drank some wine and tried to work out how to reply.

Because I’m pretty sure when I stop playing it will be because I get sick of not being very good, or having no real prospect of improving (deep down, I’m a competitive bastard and don’t like being mediocre), not because of bruises, unless I’m unlucky enough to finally snap a leg or a collarbone or something, as I’ve witnessed more times than I’d prefer during training or games. (It’s still striking, to me, that in the very first ever nickdoeshockey blog, I declared that I would aim to play until I inevitably really hurt myself, whether that was in a week, or two months, or maybe more. Five years later …)

Danger, danger. Me on my latest bike: hurt myself the first time I rode it.

Danger, danger. Me on my latest bike: hurt myself the first time I rode it.

Anyway, what to say to Cassius? He’s has been trying to get the hang of bike riding lately and it’s been tough to convince him on the risk versus reward ratio. When you’re struggling to learn how to balance a bike, and to conceive that going faster makes that easier, there are mental hurdles to jump.

I’ve fallen off bikes in all sorts of ways and in all sorts of situations. Without even pausing for thought, I can reel off: learning on my sister’s Malvern Star that was too big for me and had fixed pedals so you couldn’t glide, couldn’t stop pedaling; a bus almost taking me out riding home from Camberwell, and me choosing to veer, at high speed, into a parked car rather than get wiped by the bigger bus (that one hurt); trying to ride my old Repco down some bark steps in a park in Mount Waverley and making it all the way to the third bottom step before I got out of sync and bounced hard; getting a wire across the stomach from a fence I hadn’t noticed, in front of the entire family of a primary school girl I had a crush on; mountain biking in the bush gone wrong (repeat: by more than a few times). And so on.

But damn, I still love riding bikes.

Bacon: the death of you?

Bacon: the death of you?

Just as I love a glass of wine, or whisky, even though I know they’re bad for me. And just as people love bacon and processed meat, even though the World Health Organisation has now forcefully stated that they can lead to cancer. Not to mention the peril of smoking or heavier drugs.

Every day, in all sorts of ways, we all run risks, we take chances, we make choices, that pit personal health or safety against a wish for pleasure, need, money or other goals. The risks of breathing through apparatus underwater for the reward of hanging out with amazing creatures like manta rays … the risk of financial uncertainty through chasing the reward of a creative life … the risk of death in a plane crash versus the reward of flying to Europe … the risk of your heart, for the reward of love … pouring money into a poker machine to risk losing the rent versus a long shot to win big. This weekend and on Tuesday, Australians will pour ignorant millions into backing racehorses most of us have no idea about, dreaming of a collect and bragging rights.

me diving with a manta ray. Worth any risk ...

Me diving with a manta ray. Worth any risk … Pic: Chris Garraway.

… The risk of hurting yourself in physical exercise for the reward of overall health. This morning, I had to cross one of Melbourne’s most bizarre and intense road intersections, by foot. It’s the one near the Yarra River where Docklands turns into South Melbourne. You know: that little Lorimer Street-Montague Street-Johnson-Street-Wurundjeri Way-Princes Freeway onramp/offramp-West Gate Freeway onramp-offramp crossroad, with massive freeway overpasses overhead. Near South Wharf. I had to walk from the Port Melbourne side to South Wharf, which involves a lot of endless waiting for red men to turn into briefly flashing green men for disjointed crossings. Or you can wait until the little man turns green and just run for it, and see how far you can get before the mountain of traffic closes down all routes, and you’re marooned on a traffic island somewhere in the middle.

It is a lot like that scene in the excellent film, Bowfinger, where Eddie Murphy’s character has to cross an LA freeway for a movie shot.

So, there I was, and the green man turned green. I broke into a loping run, not exactly sprinting but moving fast enough to cover the whole intersection, a dozen or so lanes in eight separate chunks, south to north. Then feeling bold, to cross the six or eight lanes east to west.

Not your average crossroad: LA comes to Port Melbourne/Docklands.

Not your average crossroad: LA comes to Port Melbourne/Docklands.

And I stopped and reflected that I’m so glad I’m fit enough to run an obstacle course like that, without thinking about it; without having to worry about getting puffed or my legs not being ready to work on demand. Sure, I could be fitter, a lot fitter, but hockey and my wider life allows me the luxury of having confidence in my body for everyday/nothing moments like that.

This is not something anybody should take for granted. I watched a kid in a wheelchair struggle around a ‘walkathon’ at his primary school yesterday. Closer to home, my dad is in a bad way at the moment and struggles to leave his chair, let alone leave the house. Everything’s a battle. Watching him wrestle with the absolute basics, I feel thankful for my mostly working body.

And so to my fading stomach bruise and who knows what new bruises or strains are to come when I play a social game of hockey tomorrow night, or next turn out in my black and yellow colours for the Cherokees.

And I finally knew what to say to Cassius. I said: ‘Cass, the thing is, I just have so much fun playing hockey, that it’s worth a few bruises. Let me ask you something, would you rather, in your life, have awesome fun which means a few bruises, or be totally safe, never in danger, and therefore never have a bruise … but also, therefore, not have any fun?

‘For me, it’s easy. I choose the fun.’

He thought about it, shrugged, noticed his Star Wars Lego and that was that. He tossed up another of life’s big questions: who was the cooler bad guy: Darth Vader or Darth Maul? This took less deep thought. I’m on Vader.

 

** Postscript: I read once that Gordie Howe, Mr Hockey, perfected this move (the hard stick off the boards) if opponents tried to slam him into the wall. He would brace, but leave the end of his stick out behind him, so they ran into that, instead of his back. Trust me, it hurts.

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.