Finals fever takes over Melbourne

So, this weekend is shaping up.

The Melbourne Mustangs and Melbourne Ice finished the AIHL regular season in first and second place on the ladder and so the finals, at the Icehouse on Saturday and Sunday, hold the tantalizing promise of an epic local derby as the grand final.

The Icehouse will host the AIHL finals this weekend, with two semis and then a final of no-tomorrow hockey. Picture: Nicko

The Icehouse will host the AIHL finals this weekend, with two semis and then a final of no-tomorrow hockey. Picture: Nicko

Which is not to get ahead of myself. The reborn Canberra Brave and the reigning champions, the Sydney Ice-Dogs, also have genuine claims, so it’s going to be a hectic and tough weekend of hockey.

It’s hard to gauge where hockey in Australia is at, I reckon, as we head into the weekend’s finale. On the surface, it looks super healthy, especially if you’re sitting in Melbourne as a fan of the Ice or the Clippyclops. Both Melbourne teams draw close to sell-out crowds and, as always, the only real problem in Melbourne seems to be the lack of much-needed extra rinks.

Perth, which didn’t make the play-offs, turned up last weekend and beat the Ice twice. Most of the teams in the AIHL were competitive this season. Media interest (the vast majority of which can be placed under the name of Will Brodie, from The Age, who has carried the sport into the mainstream media on his back) and Fox Sports coverage continues to grow. Life’s rosy.

I hope.

But there are issues, from where I sit, as a fan. For starters, the sheer battle of Canberra to exist this season was a wake-up call and several other teams appear to struggle financially to get to the line each season. It’s never about the passion or skill of the players. It’s purely about the cost of running a team, and the ability of state bodies or owners to make it happen.

Meanwhile, the finals format isn’t great. To battle for the entire season, finish first or second, and then find yourself in a cut-throat semi-final doesn’t seem particularly fair. The top team in each semi gets ‘last change’ rights, and ‘home bench’ but so what, really, after months of intense competition? If the grand final does happen to be a Mustangs-Ice clash, those two teams have their own benches anyway so, in practice, the Mustangs would only have ‘last change’ as the competitive advantage for all that work and success.

Of course, it would rock if the finals series could happen across two weekends. One weekend of best-of-three semi-final match-ups. It would be brutal, but compelling and would have a greater chance of revealing the best team in each series.

Then the grand final could be held the following weekend. Again, a best-of-three finals series would be so much better than one hour of no-tomorrow to judge the whole season.

The arguments against that, or other potential formats, are mostly financial, and reasonably so. I get it. As it stands, with one weekend, locked in for Melbourne or Newcastle or another venue months before the actual date, everybody can book tickets as soon as they confirm their place in the top four, achieving cheaper flights etc. Teams are generally not financially flush enough to be flying around for extra weekends, and the league doesn’t seem to have the cash to make that happen, but it’s a shame. It feels like the intensity of the AIHL season comes down to one very fast, very ruthless weekend where the best side all year can have an off five minutes or a dubious penalty or two and that’s it, they’re done.

Well, look at this view from the Melbourne Eye wheel: a giant rink-sized building two sheds to the left from the Icehouse. Does Victoria really even have a film industry needing such a huge sound stage? I say: freeze it, now. Picture: Nicko

Well, look at this view from the Melbourne Eye wheel: a giant rink-sized building two sheds to the left from the Icehouse. Does Victoria really even have a film industry needing such a huge sound stage? I say: freeze it, now. Picture: Nicko

Of course, you can equally argue that this is exactly what makes the weekend exciting; that everything needs to go right. The Melbourne Ice famously achieved the three-peat not so long ago, so teams can get it done.

But wouldn’t a more considered, more-matches, longer finale be cool?

The other huge issue, especially in Melbourne, is the lack of rinks. It’s been talked about endlessly – the Icehouse is amazing, Oakleigh heroically provides ageing, quirky back-up. There is no third rink. Beginner classes and intermediate classes continue to churn out super-enthusiastic wannabe players, just like I was three or four years ago and, Hell, continue to be. But the summer competition is groaning at capacity, in terms of the maximum number of teams and the number of players per team. Our 2011 influx, the Rookies, was followed by a group of hockey class students who called themselves the Ferals, and now there are ‘Black Ice’ jerseys all over the rink at classes. What worries me is that, with only two rinks, there’s going to be nowhere for these players to actually play, and I fear people will lose interest and drift away. Or get thrown into a higher grade of competition than they should attempt and be smashed and limp away.

The view from the cheap seats at Braves try-outs on Saturday at Oakleigh. So many players just wanting to play. Picture: Nicko

The view from the cheap seats at Braves try-outs on Saturday at Oakleigh. So many players just wanting to play. Picture: Nicko

The Icehouse was recently rumoured to be on its way to becoming apartments but has since been sold and looks like it will remain a rink, which saves the sport’s arse in Victoria right there. But any new rink must be a couple of years or more away from being built, even if it’s commissioned, so the time lag is a serious concern.

And yes, time marches on. Has this year flown or what? Spring is definitely in the air – 18 degrees and sunny as I type this – and Ice Hockey Victoria’s winter competition is coming to an end, with finals underway. That means summer competition is looming closer for us lucky enough to have a spot on a team, and everybody I know is suffering ‘ice fever’ as Alex McGoon called it today. We Cherokees can’t wait to reform as a team and play. Facebook banter is hitting unprecedented heights.

Off social media, Big Cat and I have loaded up with new sticks – a stick and puck on Monday was very ugly, for me at least, as I tried to come to terms with a slightly different length and different curve on my stick, compared to my beloved but definitely now dead Reebok 9k. Off-ice and on-ice training remains intense as we get ready.

Spring also means the business end of the AFL, with my beloved Tigers heading to Sydney to try and knock off the Swans and somehow complete their unlikely mission to make the Eight, from the ridiculously terrible mid-season position of 3 and 10. They probably won’t do it, but I’m all about whether the turnaround will carry into 2015. Or am I? As far as this year’s campaign goes, I’m doing my bit for the team by heading overseas, so I’ll be in Europe for the grand final and the most unlikely Richmond flag ever.

In my other spiritual home of Detroit, the media and the fans are counting the days until Red Wings training camp, which is now less than a month away. Will Dan Cleary train the house down and make the line-up? Will Tomas Jurco be sent down to Grand Rapids? Will a right-handed d-man appear out of nowhere, but without costing us Tatar or another treasured rising star? Will Stephen Weiss be healthy and ready to stop being the invisible man? So many questions and ever closer to the puck-drop to start the 2014-15 season. Personally, I think the Wings are going to be better than people think and will give the whole thing a shake. So there.

So much to look forward to, but only after this weekend. As somebody who somehow managed to never be there at the moment the Melbourne Ice won any of the three straight Goodall Cups, I can only say I’m leaving Sunday free and clear for a trip to Docklands. I plan to be in my seat and cheering, no matter which of the four teams lift the Cup. But I know who I’m barracking for.

Go, Ice, go.






What to wear?

The Falcon: if he wasn't so well loved, he'd be worth serious money in America.

The Falcon: if he wasn’t so well loved, he’d be worth serious money in America.

I have been accused of being a hoarder. I prefer the word ‘collector’. I definitely get interested in something and start gathering. It all started when I was very young and somebody gave me a Superman figurine. It turns out you could also get Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Spider-man … I got them all. And Davy Crockett, Dracula, even The Falcon (pictured, who turned out to be the first black super hero and is now highly collectable). I still have them all. In a suitcase, stashed under the stairs at my house, but still there. Bashed to within an inch of their lives, through endless play in my pre-teen years. (The hilarious thing is that the made-up stories, my imagination roaming, with those figurines playing out the storylines? Years later, I’d write The OK Team and OK Team 2, and get that same imaginary roaming published.)

Later came my Mr Potato Head obsession, which started in a church hall in Hawthorn, accompanying my future business partner, Michael, to a

My Sixties Potato Head collection: now showing in my office. How do you like them apples of the earth, MisterSpud?

My Sixties Potato Head collection: now showing in my office. How do you like them apples of the earth, MisterSpud?

collectables auction where he was chasing Collingwood memorabilia. I wandered along the stalls and found Oscar the Orange, a Mr Potato Head character who took me straight back to my childhood. Bidding sensibly stopped for Oscar at $100 or so. I realised my hand was in the air. Now I owned Oscar, it seemed crazy not to start hunting all the other 1960s potato people: Katie Carrot, Cookie Cucumber, Pete Pepper … and wow, in America, there were ones I’d never heard of: Willy Burger, Frenchy Fry. And English ones: Mr Egg Bod and Katie Pear. This was when eBay was just finding its feet and suddenly it was possible to bid furiously for a potato-based character in Cincinnati or Seattle. I had some epic duels with my nemesis, a collector called MisterSpud. I finally got the entire set of Sixties spuds and retired from competition.

Then came magic and treasures like first editions of Robert-Houdin‘s landmark ‘autobiography’ (this French magician was a father of the Golden Age of magic and remains, as far as I know, the only magician to single-handedly use magic to stop an African revolution), or Howard Thurston magic coins. That cost me a lot of money.

And then came hockey. And more specifically, hockey jerseys.

My first one was a Zetterberg #40. Detroit Red Wings, of course. When I first started seriously following the Wings. But then I started playing and my jersey fetish blossomed, grew and mutated, to incorporate the Icehouse Rookies, the Wings’ AHL affiliate Grand Rapids Griffins, and even an obscure Canadian team, the Medicine Hat Tigers, where Wings stars like Darren Helm and Chris Osgood had started out (and it turned out, a team that my coach, Lliam Webster, played against. He got a decent shock when Big Cat and I wandered into the Icehouse wearing Medicine Hat jerseys one day). With many training sessions, dev league (before the dedicated jerseys), skating sessions and just walking around, there has been no shortage of opportunity to strut my many jerseys.

Here’s where the collection stands, three years in:

My first hockey jersey: Hank Zetterberg, 2009.

My first hockey jersey: Hank Zetterberg, 2009. When we went to Detroit in 2011, I didn’t take it, because I KNEW I’d be buying another one, and I did: a signed Nick Lidstrom jersey, which I occasionally wear around, like to a Melbourne Ice game, horrifying potential collectors. I’m, like, what? Lidstrom never signed another jersey? I prefer enjoying it, to framing it. I still love my Zetterberg first-ever, and sometimes still wear it on the ice.

The signed Lidstrom No. 5, bought at the Joe Louis Arena. It went 'straight to the Pool Room.' But occasionally gets broken out for everyday wear, to the horror of collectors.

The signed Lidstrom No. 5, bought at the Joe Louis Arena. It went ‘straight to the Pool Room.’ But occasionally gets broken out for everyday wear, to the horror of collectors. (And, by the way, it cost me $125 or something … a Kyle Quincey jersey at that USA v Canada extravaganza in Melbourne earlier this year, went for upwards of $400 … sacrilege. )

This is the jersey I was wearing in the first ever wobbly-skating shot on this blog. Medicine hat white: a cool early Richmond Tigers-hockey-obscure Wings crossover. Big Cat shamelessly stole the black version, which is cooler, damn him.

This is the jersey I was wearing in the first ever wobbly-skating shot on this blog. Medicine hat white: a cool early Richmond Tigers-hockey-obscure Wings crossover. Big Cat shamelessly stole the black version, which is cooler, damn him.

Our Icehouse class of 2011 became the self-titled Rookies, with Aimee Hough, Theresa Neate, Jay Hellis, Big Cat and a few others as founders. Big Cat designed the first Rookies jersey: a simple, classic design.

Our Icehouse class of 2011 became the self-titled Rookies, with Aimee Hough, Theresa Neate, Jay Hellis, Big Cat and a few others as founders. Big Cat designed the first Rookies jersey: a simple, classic design.

About to jump the boards in the Rookies white.

About to jump the boards in the Rookies white.

Second generation Rookies jersey: as the Rookies started playing games, against teams like an IBM line-up, we needed different coloured jerseys. This black one was a beauty. I captained my first ever hockey win - and I think the first official Rookies victory of any description - wearing this jersey; an epic comeback. A meaningless social match on a Friday night but we were floating in victory.

Second generation Rookies jersey: as the Rookies started playing games, against teams like an IBM line-up, we needed different coloured jerseys. This black one was a beauty, and is probably the jersey I have worn the most on-ice. I captained my first ever hockey win – and I think the first official Rookies victory of any description – wearing this jersey; an epic comeback. A meaningless social match on a Friday night but we were floating in victory.

Wearing the Rookies black, in action against IBM at the Icehouse.

Wearing the Rookies black, in action against IBM at the Icehouse.

The red version of the Rookie jersey. Recently a new group, formed by the following wave of skaters, has formed with a kcikarse jersey. I love how the sport is growing and evolving in Melbourne.

The red version of the Rookie jersey. Recently a new group, formed by the following wave of skaters, has formed with a kickarse jersey. I love how the sport is growing and evolving in Melbourne.

Grand Rapids is Detroit's feeder team, in the AHL. We follow it closely, watching guys like Nyquist, Tatar, Jurco, and more, get better and closer to Red Wings action. I decided it would be a cool, obscure jersey to wear to training ...

Grand Rapids is Detroit’s feeder team, in the AHL. We follow it closely, watching guys like Nyquist, Tatar, Jurco, and more, get better and closer to Red Wings action. I decided it would be a cool, obscure jersey to wear to training …

... and it was, right up until the Griffins produced this more modern red alternate strip.

… and it was, right up until the Griffins produced this even more awesome red alternate strip.

Maybe my favourite jersey of all time, because it was my first official jersey as a member of an actual team, in IHV competition. As part of the Jets, I played with the Interceptors, as logged in the blog, and even got to put a big white A on my breast, which was one of the best moments of the crazy hockey adventure so far. Loved, and continued, to love  the Ceptors.

Maybe my favourite jersey of all time, because it was my first official jersey as a member of an actual team, in IHV competition. As part of the Jets, I played with the Interceptors, as logged in the blog, and even got to put a big white A on my breast, which was one of the best moments of the crazy hockey adventure so far. Loved, and continued, to love the Ceptors.

The back of the Jets jersey, with the crazy numbering font.

The back of the Jets jersey, with the crazy numbering font.

Working hard for the Ceptors, in my beloved Jets purple  (in an IBM practice match) last summer.

Working hard for the ‘Ceptors, in my beloved Jets purple (in an IBM practice match) last summer.

The Interceptors jersey that caused all the trouble ... the Jets told us, before last summer's comp, that the white alternate jersey might not be available in time for a game where we needed it, so could we come up with another white option? Zac, one of the Ceptors, is a graphic designer and drew up this baby, and we had them made, fast. Weonly wore them a coupleof times in official comp but Jets officials went nuts, saying we were disloyal, not part of the club etc. Was awkward. I scored my only official summer league goal, swinging from a faceoff drop, straight into the net, wearing this (I scored three, but the other two weren't officially tallied). Pre-season I had toyed with being No. 4 instead of No. 17, which is why this pre-order had that number.

The Interceptors jersey that caused all the trouble … the Jets told us, before last summer’s comp, that the white alternate jersey might not be available in time for a game where we needed it, so could we come up with another white option? I guess they meant whatever white jerseys we could all find … but the Interceptors were motivated and committed. One of our team, Zac, is a graphic designer and drew up this baby, and we loved them, got approval and had them made, fast. We only wore them a couple of times in official comp but a couple of  Jets officials went nuts, saying we were disloyal, not part of the club etc, because we weren’t wearing the usual jersey. It was awkward. I scored my only official summer league goal, swinging from a face-off drop, straight into the net, wearing this (I scored three, but the other two weren’t officially tallied). Pre-season I had toyed with being No. 4 instead of No. 17, which is why this pre-order had that number.

This is a recreation jersey of an early Detroit on-ice fashion statement, from when the team was the Cougars in the late 1920s/early 30s. It's so old skool. I love it.

This is a recreation jersey of an early Detroit on-ice fashion statement, from when the team was the Cougars in the late 1920s/early 30s. It’s so old skool. I love it.

If you've seen 'Slap Shot', you know this jersey. If you haven't, go watch 'Slap Shot'.

If you’ve seen ‘Slap Shot’, you know this jersey. If you haven’t, go watch ‘Slap Shot’.

Or Hell, just watch this:

And for the record, of course I'm Hanson brother, no. 17. Big Cat and Macquist have the other two Hanson jerseys, so we can form the entire line if required.

And for the record, of course I’m Hanson brother, no. 17, who was definitely the best, as that clip showed. Big Cat and Macquist have the other two Hanson jerseys, so we can form the entire line if required.

A recent pick-up: a genuine Red Wings practice jersey, as worn by the players at pre-season training camp. Got my name and #17 on the back. I rock this one out for Braves training and it has a lot of movement, lightness, which is good to skate in. I like it a lot.

A recent pick-up: a genuine Red Wings practice jersey, as worn by the players at pre-season training camp. Got my name and #17 on the back. I rock this one out for Braves training and it has a lot of movement, lightness, which is good to skate in. I like it a lot.

My new world: I'm playing for the Cherokees, part of the Braves, in Div 3 this summer and I frickin' love the jersey. Not just because it's Richmond colours. But that helps. I'm loving life as a Brave.

My new world: I’m playing for the Cherokees, part of the Braves, in Div 3 this summer and I frickin’ love the jersey. Not just because it’s Richmond colours. But that helps. I’m loving life as a Brave.

Whoever made the Braves jerseys didn't know about punctuation, so I've become kind of Czechoslovakian. The N in Place is silent.

Whoever made the Braves jerseys didn’t know about punctuation, so I’ve become kind of Czechoslovakian. The N in Place is silent.

Doing my best to look bad-ass in my Braves jersey. Summer 2013-14 season. Go Braves!

Doing my best to look bad-ass in my Braves jersey. Summer 2013-14 season. Go Braves!

Big Cat and I before our first (and only, so far) game together. He then fell over on cowboy boots and broke his anhkle, so who knows if and when we'll get to suit up together once more.

Big Cat and I before our first (and only, so far) game together in the Braves colours. He then fell over on cowboy boots and broke his ankle, so who knows if and when we’ll get to suit up together once more.

Guest writer: Liam Patrick on the Newcastle adventure


Vinnie Hughes brings the Cup to the Rookies. Newcastle, 2012. Pic: Jessica Hough

A roadtrip chasing the Goodall Cup.

By Liam Patrick

What a weekend!

It was the weekend the Ice put the fairy tale finish on their documentary by sealing the 3peat in dramatic fashion in the industrial city of Newcastle.

It was weekend that a motley band of Melbourne Rookies travelled up to support our boys in their quest for a third round of glory.

I offered to blog the experience of following the boys into enemy territory and the finals for Nicko.  He asked for not merely a diary of the weekend but ‘an adventure that ultimately ends in glory’.  So here goes…

The now fabled weekend began early.  Very early.  So early in fact, that a certain Rookie managed to throw away his boarding pass before getting through security.  Whoops!  The players had flown up on the Friday but the first flight out of Melbourne to Newcastle Saturday morning was jam packed with Ice fans, the South Pole crew, the Women’s team and the MI players’ partners and families.  There was a genuine excitement in the air before quite a few people took advantage of the 90 minute flight to recharge their batteries.

Newcastle is, somewhat amazingly, a hockey hotbed.  This weekend was to be the North Stars’ ninth Grand Final in 10 years.  In this time they also have secured four Goodall cups, dominated junior hockey in the region and have a successful involvement in a women’s team.  They’ve accomplished all this in a town with only 190,000 residents.  I had never been to Newcastle before.  While driving the 40 minutes from the airport to Warners Bay where the rink is located, I was struck by how just much the houses we saw resembled those in places such as Broadmeadows and other tough, working class suburbs.  From where I sat, I saw a town that was built on the blood, sweat and tears of “hard” men and women.  A tough, fibro city.  Perhaps this is an indication of why hockey is successful.  The people are bred with hard work and physical strength in their blood.  Combine this with a hockey friendly rink, an intelligent and talented management team and perhaps a lack of competition from other sports or pastimes and I began to form my own opinions as to why the team was so successful for so long.  I chatted about it to a few of my fellow Rookies and while we agreed the North Stars are no doubt a power club of the AIHL, maybe my reasoning wasn’t the full answer.

The Rookies underpoooosh their way onto the Novastrian ice, pre-finals. Pic: Jess Hough

The Hunter Ice Skating Stadium was somewhat disappointing for me.  If this is the second best rink in the country then we are further behind that I thought.  Now to be clear, this isn’t a knock on the rink.  It had a beautiful ice surface for general skating and Joey Hughes later remarked it was “perfect” come game time.  It was clean.  It was safe.  It was easy to access.  We could tailgate (translation for non-hockey readers: impromptu drinking and socialising, centralised around the boot of a car) in the car park!   My view, however, is that the finals are the marquee product each season and need to be built to attract lucrative sponsorship dollars, global interest and mainstream coverage.  Furthermore, it should be accessible to fans, in a location that’s attractive for travelling fans and capable of providing modern day comforts such as video replays and quality live streaming.  I felt that this wasn’t achieved at the HISS, but conversely, could have been achieved at the Icehouse.  Yes, I know. I am somewhat biased being an Ice fan.  But at the same time, I LOVED being able to go away with my friends and cheer for our boys (next year we may go global and head to NZ for TTCL!).  I just wish the HISS could have the same facilities and benefits to help build the growing momentum of our sport.

Like many questions facing Ice Hockey’s Aussie family – what is the solution?  Is it good practice or sustainable to always use the Icehouse?  Will the Gold Coast get their rumored stadium that could do the job just as well?  Will a couple of other rinks be up for a facelift soon?  Is this where the dollars need to be directed as the league grows or are there other factors to consider (such as beginning to pay the best players)?  I’m not sure.  What I can say with complete certainty is that HISS had made the most of everything they had and helped put on a fantastic show, all while providing great hospitality.

All this being said, I’ll give you an account of our experience on the weekend and leave you to form your own opinions on the big questions above.

Having arrived in Newcastle before most people were even awake on a Saturday morning in Melbourne, our general skate at the HISS was fun.  The rink wasn’t as packed as the Bradbury – but the weather was a sunny 20 degree so why would you freeze yourself unless you were a true hockey tragic like those of us who pulled on our skates.  Martin Kutek (Lord of the Underpoosh and Rookies sponsee) was unable to play under the “four imports rule” and had been unable to make it up with us. It was Dan D’s lucky weekend when he got to wear Martin’s actual playing jersey for the weekend instead. Proudly displaying the number 13, Dan (playing the part of ‘Kutek’ magnificently) did quite well in an on-ice limbo competition narrowly missing out on a pseudo-Czech victory to an unnaturally bendy six-year-old before stacking it, superman-style, on his final crack at the limbo pole.  The marauding, erm I mean travelling, band of Rookies also took the chance to have a little bit of fun at our coach’s expense, staging a few interesting shots in a series known as “Kutek does….”.  For legal reasons and the fact that Martin can make us bag skate several times per week, these probably need to be locked away in a concrete bunker deep underground, or alternatively, posted to Facebook.

For those of us who made the trek, what was most interesting to observe was the mixture of emotions which played themselves out like silent movies across our faces over the course of the weekend.  Personally, I had been very busy moving houses and starting a new job so I hadn’t given much thought or considerations to the weekend other than “thank fuck I have a holiday coming up.”  Even while general skating, I was more worried about my “hockey hangover” (11:30pm finish to NLHA the previous night-30 min drive home-washing to be done so my housemate didn’t kick me out over the stench had meant I was running on three hours of sleep and very dead legs), rather than shift my focus to Finals and the main event. Others, such as MasterChef Rach, a 10-year supporter of Melbourne Ice, were beginning to show outward signs of nerves on behalf of our boys who were about to put it ALL on the line.  This was sudden death playoff hockey – nothing was assured and the best team on the day would take the spoils.  Unlike the NHL and AHL, there was to be no coming back from an off night this weekend.

The general consensus was that the Ice boys should progress to the final.  We had the Sydney Ice Dogs to get past and they would be a Scoobie Snack for us (see what I did there?!). The dogs are a team we had embarrassed 9-1 at the ‘house and then won another 4-3 in a spiteful away game which saw Joey Hughes (one of the Rookies favourites, coach and arguably the best player in the country), having a “brief” 5 game holiday after finding himself on the wrong side of the opposing bench.  Needless to say, the Rookies did not care for the puppies.  The other semi was definitely going to be more interesting.  The local North Stars who had finished one point clear of the ice for the minor premiership, were taking on the Adelaide Adrenaline.  As a Victorian, I found myself torn.  The North Stars were probably the best team all year (marginally ahead of the Ice who slowed a little in the final month as fatigue, injuries, suspension, pressure and other factors seemingly took their toll.)  We wanted to play the Croweaters whom we had beaten 3 times during the year and had smashed in last year’s semi.  But could I really cheer for a South Australian team in the semis?  Don’t they have “Kick a Vic” on their license plates?  We at least knew our $70 tournament pass was going to give us three great games of hockey seated fairly close to the glass.

The nerves finally kicked in while downing the first beverage of the weekend as we tailgated prior to the Stars game.  A brick suddenly dropped in my stomach.  I knew the boys weren’t in great form.  Two losses to Perth before a hard fought win, followed by a tough game against Gold Coast.  There had been so many hurdles for the club this season.  From Vinny having a controversial holiday, Tommy Powell injuring his knee and seemingly not quite having his killer edge (even if his Chemistry with the Bearded one is always exciting to watch), Baxxxy nearly losing his finger/hand/arm (he later admitted it wasn’t back to 100% but even now, still can handle a puck like its glued to his stick, bastard), Joey’s aforementioned battle, Szalinski getting poleaxed during a shattering 4-0 shutout, a taxing Trans-Tasman triumph, Todd Graham having to return to college, 10 year celebrations, the pressure of the 3Peat, a documentary being shot (which I am hanging out for) and I’m sure all the other pitfalls of a team environment.  From my perspective, our last month had been well below what our boys were capable of…

I comforted myself by looking for the positives.  After a slow start, the Bearded one (i.e. Lliam Webster) had been a beast of late.  Averaging over 2 points per game, using his size to keep opponents off the puck while slick and dangerous in his own puck-handling.  Marcus Wong had the pace and skill to be thorn in anybody’s side – and he hits anything that moves. Hard. Coach Jaffa looked like a hardened warrior who wouldn’t let his boys be anything other than perfectly prepared and enabled to use their skills and flair.  Army was up and about.  Sturrock was a rock in defense on the veteran pairing with Vinnie.  And Godammit!  The Rookies would yell ourselves hoarse for our boys no matter what was to happen!

Despite the mounting anxiety I was feeling, it was easy to get swept up in the atmosphere.  An excited bunch of mainly twenty-somethings, sun, alcohol, hockey.  Not a bad way to spend a weekend.  The first game began.  What idiot chose our seats?  We were surrounded by Novacastrians, (thanks to Brenda Parsons for ensuring I used the correct term there), our own little island refuge of navy blue, wedged between the bright superman-esque colours of the Northstars fans.  We were about two metres from the glass and sitting below the ice.  The players looked like giants.  Warriors speeding along smoothly then smashing each other without warning since we couldn’t see the puck while sitting that close to the boards.  The game was a fast, tight affair.  Every time the heavily supported locals drew away, the boys from Adelaide pegged one back.  They weren’t lying down.  It was not just a warm-up game.  It got to the last period.  5-4 Newcastle.  Ray Sheffield (Newcastle captain and one of my favorite non-Ice players) laid a check.  From our vantage point we couldn’t see it but Kittens Place described it as “Not great” and pretty deserving of the five minute penalty and an early shower.  This was it.  At least one goal should be scored.  Maybe two.  Even as a neutral supporter I was edge of my seat.  The logic kicked in: “Let’s hope they go to OT, tire each other out”.  The next five minutes were all about a tight, desperate defense from the offensive juggernaut of Newcastle.  They held on. Just. And that meant they were off to the big show.  Two teams worth of tired hockey gods hit the showers.  One could look forward to the biggest day of the year.  The other, the biggest night of the year and the worst morning after.

It was sometime shortly after that when my nerves ramped up.  Reality hit home.  This is finals.  Anything can happen.  Our boys are good, no doubting it.  But talent counts for nothing when you look at the scoreboard.  Goals marked up there are what entitles you to claim the win over anyone else.

The boys were out kicking the soccer ball around for a warm up.  Joey gave the group an almost shy smile and wave.  Most of us were somewhat well lubricated by now and gave him a big cheer along with any other man clad in a navy blue t-shirt. The Rookies are very ‘equal opportunity’ when it comes to our boys.

We took our seats.  We had survived being accosted by (the aptly or ironically named) Bruiser, the Ice Dogs mascot, on the way in to the HISS, and now the bay next to us was full of Dogs fans in full voice.  My gut twisted tight.  I couldn’t imagine how the boys must be feeling right now.  Maybe they are old hands at this? Many of the Ice guns have played high level hockey around the world, many already having two championships under their belts.  It may be finals, but at the end of the day it’s still hockey.  Skate hard, put that rubber disk past the guy in the leg mattresses.  Should I have been worried?

Fuck no!  Exactly 14 seconds after the first drop of the puck, a Rookies favorite and another sponsee Matt Armstrong, being criminally left unmarked by the puppies defensemen in the slot, put a sexy snipe past the Goalie after some nice passing from Joey and Baxxxy.  BOOM!  The Ice were up and about.  Then another.  And another.  The knot was gone.  Thank fuck!  The overgrown puppies mascot was nowhere to be seen (humping a fire hydrant maybe?).  As expected, the Ice Dogs turned physical, having decided that since they couldn’t beat them, they would beat them for it but, despite a few penalties, our boys heroically held it together.  No doubt they targeted Joey who did well to only take a few penalties.  At one point I remarked: “I just want to go over to the box, tap him on the arse and tell him to get back into it. Don’t worry about those bastards and put a few more in the net”.

The final score for the game read 6-2.  It was almost flattering to the Dogs and our boys never really looked troubled after the magnificent start.  The third line (which was really 5 different forwards who had all had their own moments in the sun during the year) played some minutes giving our powerful top 2 lines some respite.  Marcus Wong looked a metre taller than he really was, smashing anybody silly enough to go near him.  Todd Graham (freshly back from the US for the weekend) was solid as a rock, Dylan Moore looked like he had the decision making to match his skills and was making life really hard in our zone for anybody without the ice logo on the front of their jersey. The old firm of Vinnie and Sturrock looked formidable.  Our D was set.  Our forwards were rockin’; ‘Bring on the locals!’ we cried.

It had been a long day.  But still, despite the early start, it was Saturday so the group met a few other Ice fans in the hotel bar and settled in for a few cold beverages.  We were all obviously very happy with how the day had gone.  No injuries or suspensions to our boys.  The North Stars had played a tough game.  And the bar had something other than Toohey’s on tap!

The next day dawned.  We hoped our boys’ heads weren’t as sore as our own. Over the next three or four hours, all of the Rookies filtered through a local café who apologized for the slow service (45 minutes for that Hot Chocolate, Da Costa?) as they had never been this busy.  Their three tables were clearly a rush.

The noble hockey art of ‘tailgating’. Pic: Jess Hough

Another general skate was forgone in favour of more beers before some good ole’ fashioned tailgating.  Something I had never done before and loved.  The banter with the other fans – friends and enemy.  More “Kutek does…” photography which may or may not have received many likes on facebook.  It’s certainly a culture I think many Aussies would enjoy.  I have always been kept aghast by the soccer community (thankfully to a lesser extent here in Australia) who need to be physically separated before the start of a game.  Having Glaswegian blood I have heard many stories about the vicious rivalries and wondered how the hell that happens when I manage to sit next to an Essendon fan on ANZAC Day or an Ice Dogs fan in a semi?  It was the same type of vibe in the carpark at the HISS.  Both sets of fans knew they were in for an epic battle between the two best teams and some of the best players across the entire league.  Taylor, Bales, Sheffield and co for the North Stars put up the points while superstar goalie Oliver Martin stood in the pipes to shut-down the mighty Ice warriors.

After a few more slightly warmed beverages (including pre-mixed shots which included a tad too much cream for my nervously churning tummy).  The rink was quickly filling.  The tiny skaters of the North Stars ice crew cleared the warmup pucks from the rink like ball boys and girls at the tennis, much to the moans of the travelling Rookies “aww man, that kid shits all over my skating… Sigh…”.  The team assembled for the national anthem.  The Ice standing like zen masters in their white traveling uniform towered above the plebs in the crowd.  The teams crowded their nets, final words before battle. By this point I was in real trouble.  Stomach churning, sweat pouring off me, edge of my seat. Drop that damn puck!

The two power lines faced off. I later saw a photo of Baxxxy taking this face off. He was grinning ear to ear. It’s very endearing to see an athlete having the time of their life.  Then that black rubber disc hit the ice.

It was on.

Like the day before, the puck was quickly into the Ice zone and Baxxxy’s shot went… just wide.  It was quickly followed by a penalty awarded to Joey.

Oh god.


No. Crap, Fuck.

This isn’t the plan right?  A tough PK later and we were back… until the North Stars slotted one.  The Newcastle fans surrounding us went off like frogs in socks.  The eight or so Rookies in the bleachers (Kittens & co were on the glass, apparently regularly spied drinking via the livestream… in the dry venue) were dead silent with our mouths open, stock still. Our little island refuge of navy blue had been invaded and annexed by crazed North Stars fans. You could even hear our collective gasp over the commotion of the mental crowd.  Then we saw the documentary camera panning onto us.  Oh great, I hope they credit us as “disappointed Ice fans” at least.

Next thing we know we are 2-0 down.  No!


More glum silence.  My stomach had dropped.  Maybe it was just the nerves but I was feeling really pessimistic.  Our boys were working hard but these bastards were so damn good.  Crack damnit! Rookies around me muttered to themselves quietly. Our collective spirits were a little dampened, not only by the scoreboard but literally by the North Stars fans behind us who had a particular penchant for screaming (or rather spitting) ‘FORECHECK!’ over our heads for the duration of the period. But, in true Ice fashion, by the end of the first we had pegged one back.  Thank god there would be no embarrassing shutout!  The boys had looked good in the last five minutes of the period.  The Rookies were suddenly less worried.  I secretly still felt like we were gone.  Usually we seem to bully teams early then coast home downhill, unassailably. Not today.  We had to want it more.

That’s exactly what happened.

Many internet sites will provide a blow by blow and we all know the Ice won 4-3.  But I merely want to comment on three more moments.

Firstly, the Lumberjack (aka the Bearded One, aka Little Sexy, aka Coach aka Le-Liam or aka Liliam in the official finals program) put away my favorite goal of the year in a spinning one time snapshot from near the blue line into the top corner, and beating one of the country’s best goalies dead cold.  That was when I KNEW we had enough to do it. This was going to be our day. My stomach slowly began unknotting itself.

Confidence didn’t last long though. It never does in a swings-and-roundabouts game like this had been.  When Lliam went to the box with about 6 to go in the third, and the North Stars scored, despair came flooding back.  Oh god. A huge  momentum shift.  Crap.  Here they come.  How much DO the Ice want this?  Are they hungrier than the team they beat last year,  the very successful club without a Goodall cup in the last two years? What influence will the contrasting semis have in these final desperate minutes…

The final 30 seconds of the game was spent ferverishly chewing nails, sweating bullets, squeezing knees and wringing hands by the Rookies.  Six on five with an empty Newcastle net.  My voice was gone.  Muscle and stomach aching with fear and adrenaline.  Tommy Powell lies on the goal line Doug Glatt style, the puck is lost among smashing sticks and bodies.  ‘Stud’ Denman freezes it or the boys dump it.  The mad scramble starts again and again. I look up and see the clock roll down past 00.01.

Pure.  Joy.

Pure Joy. (Liam Patrick second from left) Pic: Kittens Place

The ice is littered with discarded weapons.  The glass is hammered by over-excited fans.  It was one of those moments where none of the other troubles in the world matter right then to anybody who was on the winning side.  The brick had become a wave of excitement washed over with a tiny bit of relief.  The boys had the fairytale finish to the documentary.  We were the best team in the land.  No matter what the world threw at the Ice family, we would spit it back in their faces and put another puck in the net.

The presentations were made.  Todd Graham was finals MVP, playing a crazy 33 minutes in his second game in as many days.  Amazingly the “third line” didn’t touch the ice Sunday.  Questions were asked by the Rookies, is it a possible depth issue?  Probably not, we decided, as they were all very capable when the big guns were out.

The boys skated the cup around and apparently we made it onto the livestream screaming and hollering against the glass for our boys.  Then Vinnie came running through the crowd holding the cup.  This is probably the best moment of the weekend.  This is how much our boys love the fans and include us.  This is why we come to support them.  Jaffa also went to lengths to include us cheering and waving during celebrations, towards us, saying hello to travelling fans the day prior and all through the celebrations.  On behalf of all the Ice fans, I say this to any of the Ice players or officials: ‘Thank-you, you really are the most welcoming sporting organization I have ever had the pleasure and honour of watching’.

Christmas Angel, Aimee Hough, drinks from the Cup. Pic: Jess Hough

My pride also extended to my jersey. Sitting in my Melbourne colours watching a group of men give everything they had, playing with grit, confidence and determination, made me immensely proud to be part of the family.  I have seen my equally beloved Magpies win a flag, my cricket club with two premierships but this is my favorite victory.  It was won by simply wanting it more than the opposition.

The Rookies snuck onto the ice (perhaps ‘Kutek’ even made some of the official Ice team photos, but we can’t confirm or deny this and will plead the 5th until we die) and grabbed some great photos with our coaches.  The mighty Beard declaring “I’m not putting my arms down.  Get around me people”.  Gladly, and without hesitation, we huddled under his arms then quickly regretted our decision. We stayed long enough for a happy snap then we backed off quickly. The smell radiating from every pore of Lliam like a thermo-nuclear reaction would have choked a donkey! There’s even an awesome photo of me mid-high five with Joey.  We then left the boys to their locker room and families.  After some celebratory beers, a real “crash” feeling occurred as the adrenaline wore off.  Tired but satisfied, we, the travelling Rookies, piled into the van and headed to a buffet dinner.

Soon the boys joined the Melburnian fans and began the celebrations,.  The 103-year-old cup was being filled and ALL in attendance were called upon from Korthuis and Wilson to drink from it.  It may have been Tooheys but damn that was the best beer I’ve ever had!  Was truly a thrill to have the chance to feel so close to the team and, although clichéd, drink from the cup.  Soon the night was moving on and it was time to allow the players their own time to celebrate together.   This upset a couple of people but having played team sports all my life I knew that after such a great success the team had earned the right to lock themselves away and enjoy the moment together as these opportunities in life, not just sport, are rare.

Not to be deterred, the Rookies headed home and spent a very late night talking and drinking.  Despite the best efforts of one Rookie to get some shut eye, the son of a certain older Rookie who happens to be a grizzled ex-journo writing a blog about learning to play hockey *cough* was determined to keep going much to the chagrin of the sleeping Rookie. Incidentally, that same sleeping Rookie was also confronted by two roommates in various state of undress who felt he in his unconscious state really needed a cuddle and were then keen to play upon his somewhat discomfort while flying.

The next morning a few sore heads awoke and made it home in one piece.  The weekend left a very drained but happy group of hockey fans and hockey payers at the airport.

A trip away with your mates is always great fun.  It’s a real adventure of sorts.  Hopefully, you’re exploring somewhere new, chatting too much (always about crap) and forming inside jokes (I’m looking at you Brenda, Kutek does Newcastle and that de-fogger-mister). Throw in a Goodall Cup and what else could you ask for in really for a cracking weekend?!

True Story! The amazing highs, the stressful despair and nerves and a very Disney finish to the documentary.  Thank-you again to the Ice for being a fantastic team, fantastic people, a fantastic family (who love MINGLING), the AIHL for putting on a grade A event, the HISS for providing the best environment they could muster, including a perfect ice surface for our boys to break the Newcastle Hoodoo on, and to my fellow Rookies for putting up with me and not giving me too much grief on the plane!

Bring on an Awesome Foursome!

Monday notebook: Rookie triumph, the Jets and lockouts.

by Nicko

Friday night lights

A social match on a Friday night. A bunch of Rookies making up the numbers against mostly better credentialed players who share a love of IBM computers, or at least a pay cheque from IBM. Several players I would normally be with – especially Jake Adamsons – are wearing opposition jerseys. We grin at one another across the face-off line. Pre-game, Chris Janson, who organised it (and thanks for inviting me, Chris), has a DVD on the main scoreboard with pictures of us and our career highlights. Which, for most of us, is pretty short on reading.

After eight minutes, the Rookies are five goals down. It’s ugly. As captain, I call a time-out. I have no idea what to say. My team looks to me expectantly, except Jay the goalie, who is in his own quite loud self-loathing world of pain off to the side. Goalies do it hard. They can’t ever feel like the buck doesn’t stop with them.

“These guys are really good,” I say. “Forget the scoreboard. It’s a social match. Have fun, don’t panic with the puck, give Jay more support in D, challenge yourself against better players. Who cares about the score?”

In the second period, we roar back to 5-5. We’re skating, Jay has heroically held it together and then started holding his own.

Then we hit the front. My boy, Big Cat, has a couple of goals with his mum in the crowd, which is a nice B-plot. I’m concentrating on trying not to fall into my wide-legged flat-footed trap, instead skating hard off both feet, always moving. I anticipate where the puck will be and sprint end to end, and immediately back, at one point, getting it right both times and with the feeling that I haven’t skated that fast in a game ever. The new stride is working. My legs are screaming as I stagger to the bench. It’s awesome. Meanwhile, I have an assist or two, deliver some passes then get pushed hard in the back and find myself sprawled on the ice near the boards. Things are getting that tense (I received an apology later in the rooms, which was cool). Army, reffing, said he thought about calling it but didn’t. Off the next face-off, I push it to Liam Patrick, Apollo Creed to my Rocky Balboa, who buries the one-timer goal. So sweet. Army skates over to the bench a minute later: “That’s exactly how you answer stuff like that,” he says with something approaching paternal pride.

At the end of the second period, things are level.

Game winner: Aimee “Christmas Angel” Hough.

“Forget everything I said earlier,” I tell my team. “Let’s kick some arse.”

We get out to an 8-6 lead.

They peg it back. It’s level with three minutes to go. The hockey is furious. Army is grinning like an idiot. We’ve made his night; two social teams of varying degrees of ability playing like our kids are hostages and their survival depends on the result. The Rookies are intent, hoarse from screaming on the bench, skating and playing at a level that, for us, is thrilling.

Having said that, through it all, I’m aware that IBM’s very good players, such as Pete Sav, are rarely moving out of third gear, often coasting in second, which is gallant of him, of them. We’re throwing everything at them but they respect our limited skills and choose not to burn us anywhere near as much as they could. I have no illusions but, in the moment, taking it to them is so much fun.

And then we get a ninth goal, from Aimee “Christmas Angel” Hough, who has never previously scored in any kind of game. Rookies celebrate as though we just won the Goodall Cup. “Game winner! Game winner!” we yell at Aimee as she returns to the bench. Somehow we control the puck for the remaining two minutes and, while it’s unconfirmed, it might just be that Nicko Place gains a small piece of hockey history as the first player ever to captain a Rookies team to victory. (We won a game once before but didn’t have a captain.)

All of us head into the night, buzzing. The IBM team is gracious in defeat. Summer League, and actual competition, is about a month away and none of us can wait. If this was a taste, in a game that actually had nothing on the line, genuine competition is going to be epic.

Ready for take-off

It appears I am officially a Jet. The final step towards “N. Place: hockey player” is right there.

A few months ago, one of the Rookies, Theresa, called for interest in forming a summer team and a bunch of us put our hand up. Now, weeks and weeks of backroom dealing, surfing the politics of local hockey, seeing who was genuinely interested and meeting in McDonalds kid playrooms (no, really) later, we have two teams set for summer league. Under the auspices of the Jets, we will be the Spitfires – split into the Fighters and the Interceptors (I’m an Interceptor, which has pleasing Mad Max connotations).

Nicko in flight, for the Rookies.

Well played, Theresa.

I haven’t written about any of this on the blog because I wasn’t sure it would happen; as in, we’d actually be given a place in the competition, but now it’s looking likely. The chances are that Jake Adamsons will captain the Interceptors, with me as an AC, which will be a challenge. God knows how I ended up in a captain’s role, given I still spend time trying to remain vertical on the ice.

A few hockey friends are in different teams or have splintered off, which is sad. But I will be playing with a bunch of mates, which rocks. The only unsettling angle is that everything feels more serious as summer looms. Joey at Next Level has ramped up his offerings of classes, and so a heap of Rookies will be training at Oakleigh instead of at Docklands, and everything is starting to focus on competition, instead of the previous journey to simply master a bloody outside edge.

In a way, for me, this is great because I just love playing, I’m competitive now and my skating has to step up when under pressure. Then again, my coaches Lliam, Army and Joey  – especially Joey – believe that playing endless dev league might not be great for me as I fall back into my bad habits instead of working on the fundamentals.

I honestly don’t think I can do another term of Intermediate at the Icehouse – if nothing else, I should clear out a space for somebody coming out of Intro, having done something like four tours of Intermediate duty.

But I simply can’t make it to Oakleigh every Friday night, despite Joey’s endless patience and generosity, so I’ll have to work out how to keep my quest for better skating skills alive around team training, dev league and then Spitfires game play once it happens. A good problem to have but I’m hoping the fun aspect of hockey remains, and my sense of being on a longer journey, once weekly VHL points are on the line.

NHL lock-out looks likely

Every day, it appears less likely that the NHL season will start on time, because of the Owners v Players dispute. The Wings players put their chances of getting onto the ice at 50-50, which isn’t a good sign. September 15 is the day that the current agreement runs out and the owners don’t seem to be particularly worried about that imposed deadline sliding by, meaning no hockey.

I had pretty much given up on being able to make it to Detroit for the Winter Classic, but now there might not even be a Winter Classic to yearn for. It all seems kind of dumb. The game is healthier than ever, lock-outs in the NFL and NBA have pretty much set the bar of where player earnings as a percentage of the game should sit … get on with it, negotiators.

Monday question: Do Wolverine claws beat harsh advice?

Potentially Earth-shattering realisations over the weekend as I pondered whether Eric Millikin is now my favourite non-hockey columnist at the Detroit Free Press? Consider this sample:

Man uses Wolverine claws to attack roommate who is dating his mom

KSL Utah says: “He is accused of using a knife and a replica of the claws associated with the Marvel Comics character Wolverine in his Aug. 8 attack on his 20-year-old roommate. … [His] mother was also stabbed in the left arm during the incident as she tried to pull him off his roommate. [His] mother is dating his roommate, the sergeant said, noting that the two men have been ‘best friends since they were younger.'”

Eric says: I don’t care how many “yo mama” jokes you’ve endured or what kind of mutant super hero you think you are, a Wolverine-claw stabbing is no way to treat your best childhood friend and/or future stepfather.

Until I discovered gems like that from Eric, I’d been loyally devoted to relationships consultant Carolyn (“Also, remember, even a ‘happily married woman’ is just a couple of turns of fate away from an emotional abyss. Puts smugness right back in the bottle.”) Hax. Technically she writes for the Washington Post and gets syndicated, so maybe there’s room for both in my life?

Hax has no hesitation telling those writing for advice if they’re an idiot, selfish, or worse. If only more relationship columnists in Australia had her frankness: Hey, dickhead, stop being a dickhead.

Check out her reply to this guy who worried his ex writing negative things online would damage his reputation:

Brought to you by the letter S, for Snap!


FINAL NOTE: Big ups to the Melbourne Ice – including Lliam, Army, Joey, Tommy Powell, Martin Kutek and Jason Baclig – as they chase their third straight Goodall Cup, skating in Newcastle this weekend. Big Cat and a bunch of hockey fans are going to watch. I couldn’t make it. But I’ll be cheering from the south. Good luck and Go Ice Go.



I heart hockey because …

By Nicko

From the past few weeks, in no particular order:

1. Tonight (Thursday night) at the Icehouse. Mustangs v Ice (Mustangs home game). A few rookies somehow get hold of the “Spotlight Room”, AKA the VIP Balcony. Hilarity ensues.

The Four Horsemen of the Mustang Apocalypse. Full respect.

Mostly, we’re in awe when we look down and see four Mustangs fans wearing their jersey with the names: “War”, “Death”, “Pestilence” and “Famine”.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Rookies unite in a gasp of Whoaaaaaaaa!

A little later, I wander into the bar and chat with a Mustangs fan who is also a Red Wing. He’s impressed by my prized signed Lidstrom jersey. It’s only when I go down for a coffee later in the second period that I see him again, glass-side,and realise I had been chatting with Death.

So I chat with Death some more. He explains that they’d wanted to get “Ice Suck” as their names on the back of the jerseys but the Mustangs president had frowned and shifted in his seat and said no, we don’t want to offend the Ice. Death and I agree, in hockey parlance, that’s kind of soft.

Anyway, there were four of them wanting jerseys, somebody had the brilliant idea … the Mustangs president frowned, shifted in his seat … “I’m not sure we can put ‘Death’ as the name on a Mustangs jersey …”

Thankfully, he lost the argument and the horsemen ride. Respect.

Just then, a Mustang rush happens right in front of us, the puck beating Denman and finding the top corner.

The orange fans go wild and I learn another valuable life lesson: Never chat to Death mid-game. It can only go badly for your team.

I go back to the balcony and the Ice dominate from that moment. Lliam scores a couple of scorching goals. Army drives home a bullet. Jason Baclig is back from injury and firing. 6-1 to my team.

Death and I shake hands after the buzzer. War stops by to say hello. We head our separate ways into the night. I love Thursday evening AIHL games.


2.    Oakleigh rink. A Friday night. Freezing, foggy, dilapidated, wonderful. Intermediate class in full swing, apart from me, still on the Ice from intro. Alongside me, Martin Kutek, Melbourne Ice defender, is sliding across the Oakleigh ice with both arms outstretched, pretending he’s an aeroplane … the idea being to lean your body and find an outside edge. This is my homework … I’m four years old again. I love it.

 3. A Wednesday at the Icehouse. I’m skating along, in the Intermediate warm-up, tapping a puck along.

Rookies invade the balcony for the Mustangs game.

Suddenly, my puck is gone. Ice star Lliam Webster has magically appeared to my right, controlling a puck.

The following exchange takes place:
Lliam: “What happened to your puck, huh? What happened to your puck?”
Me: “What happened to your face?”

Do AFL stars coach midweek and have exchanges like that? I doubt it. I’m five years old again. I love it.

4. Dev League and I’m gliding through the defensive blue line, concentrating hard, past the opposition bench. My legs are splayed apart, camped on my inside edges: my bloody annoying bad habit when gliding.

On the opposition bench, a player who shall remain nameless goes to yell: “Hey Place, my girlfriend can’t spread her legs that wide!”

But then decides such a sledge would be uncouth, and not befitting the noble, fine game of hockey where nobody ever cusses or cracks an inappropriate joke.

Plus his girlfriend, Tamara Bird, would kill him if she found out.

We’re teenagers again. I love it.

5. Watching the film, “Goon”. Crazy violent but funny.

Goon: crude but funny.

One scene:

Film’s hero gets called into the manager’s office.
The manager: “My brother has a team up in Halifax …”

(Jump cut to:)
A hockey locker-room, post game, with a bunch of bedraggled looking hockey players sitting around. In the middle of the floor stands a manager, hands on hips. Angry.
Halifax manager: “You know why you’re losing? BECAUSE YOU’RE SHIT!”

(Jump cut back to the manager’s office.)
The manager (still talking): “…Anyway, he has this player …”

“You now why you’re losing …?” becomes an instant catchcry in the Place household, right alongside “I’m so sorry I broke your rule, giant bat.

6. Dev League. A backhand shot of mine finds its way through a forest of sticks and legs and skates, pings off the inside of the goalpost, Nate the keeper unsighted and beaten. Stays out. So close.

Later, the puck is at my feet and the goal is half a metre away but there’s no way through the sticks and Nate’s padding. So close.

Later, Big Cat pings a hard shot at a gap, it rebounds, I’m there but my shot catches a deflection and ends in the side netting of the goal. So close.

We lose by a goal.

7. The Red Wings yet again prove themselves a team to love by officially signing draft pick Tomas Jurco to an entry level three-year contract, which means he will play in the feeder team, Grand Rapids, this season, and is a strong chance to make his debut for Detroit.

Big Cat and I have been following Jurco since he was a kid and his mad skills showed up on youTube way before he was drafted by Detroit. Big Cat was slightly deflated when he discovered there is only one day in age difference between them. Jurco, having been playing for a little longer than my boy, can do things like this:

8. A puck spills loose down the boards. Miraculously I am closest to it, defenders all going the wrong way. I turn, I skate hard, I almost get the shot at goal in before I’m mown down by faster skaters, back-checking.

How not to skate: Flatfoot Place strikes again – this is an extreme example of the bad habit I am working desperately to break. (Slowly getting there. Slowly)

I curse. It sits with me. In the rooms, a teammate says breezily: “You need to learn to skate faster.”

I take deep breaths. This is something I am aware of.

I get home by midnight and, as usual, can’t sleep before about 2 am. Something is gnawing at me but won’t quite come to front of lobe.

In the morning, I wake and it is there: In starting that breakaway, chasing the loose puck, I didn’t crossover or attempt a tight turn. No, I  turned, slowly, creakily, on both feet. I didn’t put a foot forward for a fast outside edge turn, or crossover to grab speed as I turned and chased the puck. I lost metres in that lack of manoeuvring, right at the start of my attack.

In class, or general skates, I can now mostly do crossovers, and tight turns, especially anti-clockwise.

But they’re still not instinctive, and that’s a problem.

Eyes only for an escaped puck and a free run to the goalie, these moves do not happen, are not my muscle-memory way to grab the speed I need. Or short steps, or whatever else would have helped.

A good realisation. Something I can work on. Interesting. Notes to self …

9. It’s now late on a Thursday night and the hockey week isn’t even close to over. Tomorrow night is NLHA training at Oakleigh; direct, meaningful drills and maybe a little philosophy with Joey Hughes. Then an Ice game on Saturday. (And one on Sunday, but I have footy.)

And so my hockey world continues to spin in its orbit. What’s not to like?

Guest writer (Origin story): Theresa


Today’s guest writer is Theresa, a dynamo of organisation and hockey passion who has become a leading figure in the self-proclaimed Rookies and our dreams of forming a summer team. Well, actually, it simply wouldn’t happen, or have a chance of happening, without her drive.

Here, she explains how her hockey obsession began and how it survived so many false starts.

My hockey addiction: a love story

By Theresa

Theresa, about to tear it up at the Icehouse. Pic: Wayne McBride

Hi, my name is Theresa, and I am addicted to hockey.

First a bit of background info:

I grew up in South Africa. I found hockey at age 13 when I went general skating to go look at some handsome hockey boys.  I happily general-skated once a week for a few years, gaping from afar at these boys.  By age 16 I was a real “rink rat” and running the rink cafeteria. By age 18 I was dating one of these boys, and tried to play a bit of hockey myself for a half season.  My prized birthday gift was a pair of Graf hockey skates.

But I was talked out of playing hockey by the boy I was dating, because he and his friends felt it was “unladylike”.  I was impressionable back then; I listened to him.

I moved continents to North America (L.A.), and while I only took one suitcase, they contained my skates. In my year in L.A., I bought everything Kings and Gretzky at the time, though I never skated.

At age 19, I presented myself to the Canadian consulate in South Africa and filled in all the paperwork they could give me for immigration. The Canadians are pretty strict about who they let in, and who they don’t. This 19-year old upstart with no qualifications to speak of, no hockey skills, on her own dime, was hardly given a glance.  I was told in no uncertain terms that I didn’t qualify.

By age 21, I was on my way to Sydney, Australia.  In my two suitcases, was one suitcase of shoes (what else??), and one of clothing and again my prized Graf skates. I worked crazy hours and hardly skated. I can count on one hand how many times I skated in many years. I lost most of the ability to skate.

Fast forward to the near-present, when I settled in Melbourne a few years ago. That’s where I met Adam McGuinness of (among others) Nite Owls fame, who encouraged me to come back to hockey.  He didn’t seem to think it was unseemly for me to play – in fact he encouraged it!

For a work social outing, Adam suggested we all go watch a hockey game, and so I was introduced to the Melbourne Ice. And here my resistance to being involved in hockey crumbled.

In my head went around a myriad of thoughts, among others: “Wow the standards in Australia are high!  The Icehouse is amazing! I am mesmerised! I am in LOVE!!”

I knew that in all my years out of hockey, I was still madly in love with it. All of it. Perhaps it was self-preservation that kept me away from it. I could feel the pull back into it, magnetic and irresistible. I remember saying to my sister at the time: “This is going to suck me in, it’s a bit scary”.

And so it sucked me in.

I enrolled in beginner hockey school at the Icehouse, and started over again.  Imagine my awe when I found out that the Melbourne Ice captain, Lliam Webster, was also my coach! Talk about weak knees! And this other guy called Army, whom I couldn’t understand at the time because of his thick Canadian accent, also from the Melbourne Ice, was coaching me!  Army is the guy who skates over opposition defence men like a tank and scores multiple goals! Wow, I was in the company of hockey royalty!!

I went to all the Melbourne Ice games in the remainder of 2010 and in 2011. In 2012 I bought a Melbourne Ice membership and went on a road trip to Adelaide and the Gold Coast as a MI “groupie”. I will be going to Perth for the MI games in August, and of course to the finals in Newcastle in September. I have become a “one-eyed” MI fan (as fellow Rookie Wayne McBride calls me).

I attended all the IIHF world championship games in Melbourne in February 2011. It was there that I really noticed the hockey marvel called Joey Hughes, awarded the top forward for the tournament. I remember Googling him at the time and not only discovering his business NLHA, but also seeing more about his international career. I mistakenly thought at first: “Wow, there is another Joey Hughes who plays professional hockey in North America, also with a brother Vinnie Hughes!” – only to realise it was this very same person I was seeing in action in front of me.

I vowed to be trained by him, and after emailing him a few times, but not getting enough people to join me to help cover the cost of private lessons, I didn’t make it to NLHA in 2011.

In June that year, some of us started a Facebook group called “The Rookies“. We have grown from a five-person group of hockey school friends, to several hundred. We are intensely enthusiastic, intensely vocal, intensely passionate about hockey.  We are all, to a greater or lesser degree, addicted to hockey. I am one of its five “admins” who monitor and steer the group direction and activities.

At the end of 2011, I enthusiastically bought my first full kit and another pair of Grafs online, which (due to being very ill-fitting) regressed my skating noticeably.

It was in these ill-fitting Grafs that I presented myself to Joey for my first NLHA camp in January 2012. It was a group bootcamp, and more affordable than private lessons. Joey was diplomatically horrified with my skating abilities.  But he and Czech legend Martin Kutek and local hard man Tony Theobald (and guest instructors like Vinnie), persisted with me and patiently got me to skate better and faster and harder, despite my feet aching almost every time I skated. They truly took me to my next level – many of them. I love every camp and every individual class with NLHA. I get better and better and better. I even deferred my part-time degree for one semester, to be able to fit in all the NLHA camps. (Now of course, I am going to buy new skates from them, after NLHA sized me up for the right fit!)

I almost went to Poland to support the Mighty Roos in April this year, but I couldn’t get anyone to come with me! Even my husband, who has reluctantly but obligingly been dragged along to all my hockey excursions and activities, wasn’t up for this one.

Earlier this year, The Rookies secretly raised funds within our group, and surprised our coaches and heroes (and now our friends) Joey, Army and Martin, each with full 2012 Melbourne Ice player sponsorship. If we had more money we would have sponsored Lliam and Tommy and Shona too!

The Rookies are also doing volunteer work for The Melbourne Mustangs, particularly in supporting their imports. For instance this Saturday just past, we had an off-ice training day and fundraiser with three of the imports (and with import Martin Kutek from the Melbourne Ice).

We vocally and enthusiastically support anything that is Melbourne hockey and hockey school, in either of its two rinks.  We believe in “Hockey Karma” and in paying it forward.

And now we are starting to look at putting some IHV 2012/2013 summer league teams on the ice for the Rookies, with at least two clubs so far expressing an interest in assisting us, and at least two or three teams’ worth of Rookies ready and willing to commit.

Theresa where she’s happiest: on the ice with a bunch of Rookies.

We believe that while we are working hard at opening up avenues for our own development and involvement in hockey, we also try to give back as much as (and more, if possible) than we have received.  I look forward to seeing more individuals and more clubs join hands in this cause.

My renewed dreams of “making the big time” in hockey, will of course never be realised.  I have a full time job, which pays my mortgage and limits my hockey practise time.  Besides, I am now *cough* a bit older, and not really able to compete against 20-year olds anymore. And yes, I am getting back to that degree next semester because I like to finish what I started; which means I consciously have to cut back a bit on hockey.

But that does not alter my love of (read: passion for, addiction to) the sport.

I still have dreams of going on an extended leave/sabbatical/whatever to Canada. I might do a short one, a teaser, at the end of this year.

But the longer one will also still happen…

One day.

And so, here we all sit (again) …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10.54 am …

Refresh. Refresh. Refresh.

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

The 100th post. Blow the horn.

A recent highlight from 100 posts-worth of hockey life: Aimee Hough’s brilliant shortbread version of Rookie Nicko, number 17. (She made them of all the Rookies. It wasn’t creepy)

Well, holy crap. The century. Nickdoeshockey‘s 100th post.

I’m not sure it’s strictly good hockey form to wave your stick in the air like a cricket bat; to point it at your teammates in the dressing room.

But I’m going to do it anyway. Because I want to share this moment with you, and thank you for reading and celebrating this crazy ride.

It was on January 19, last year, that I logged my first post on this sketchy attempt at writing a personal diary of my looming hockey adventure.

“Let’s start with the pain,” I wrote.

With me landing badly in my first ever skating class, then being accidentally taken out by a Columbus fan and feeling proud that I’d taken one for the Red Wings.

Genuinely not sure if this blog would last more than two or three weeks if I copped a really bad injury.

And yet, here we are. Me still major-injury-free (touch a lot of wood), still chasing the puck and adventure, and my little project now recently clicked past 20,000 individual users, enjoying upwards of 150 individual readers every day, sometimes over 300, from Australia, the USA, Canada but also from Turkey, Brazil, Taiwan and three today so far from Albania.

I often wonder if these people have stumbled here, looking for “hockey player eaten by shark” or some other bizarre Google search? Or maybe hockey’s reach is as great as it should be, and somewhere in the United Arab Emirates (10 readers in the last seven days), a loyal Red Wings/Melbourne Ice fan is settling over coffee and a screen?

The biggest day so far was 1,126 readers – spookily on January 19, 2012 – even I didn’t realise that was the one-year anniversary until now, writing this – which was the day I had an article published in the Detroit News (no longer online) and the Motor City’ online community came calling. That entire episode remains the highlight of the 100 blogs, with a brilliant exchange of messages between my little Melbourne outpost and Hockeytown, as the Red Wings enjoyed a fools’ gold home-winning streak and we all celebrated everything great about Detroit, which is a spectacular city, no matter how faded and desperate outside of the creaky Joe Louis Arena.

The jury is very much out on whether I can get back to Detroit for the Winter Classic, scheduled for New Year’s Day, 2013, so the blog has mostly since been about everyday life and hockey. Intro classes have turned into Intermediate and then into Dev League and now the adventure creeps ever closer to joining an actual Summer League team and playing for real. I’m excited, really excited. Hopefully that comes through in these posts.

A guy called Patrick, taking umbrage at my “Violence of Vinnie Hughes” post a week ago, mentioned that this site was self-indulgent and well, yes, guilty as charged. Strangely, as the readership has increased, I’ve worked hard to hold onto that personal angle. It’s not only rampant ego as much as I don’t want nickdoeshockey to become just another online news or opinion site for the Melbourne Ice or the Red Wings. God knows, there are enough of those around and some spectacularly good ones (a big shout out to The Production Line, Winging It In Motown and Nightmare on Helm Street, for example).

I prefer to just keep doing what I started: a diary of my hockey adventure, with strands of life outside the rink creeping in. The whole thing came from two colliding moments: my friend, Richard laughing when I told him that I was planning to take up hockey, looking raised-eyebrow at my then-45-year-frame across a coffee table at Lorne and saying, with no room for argument: “You simply have to blog this.” Which hadn’t occurred to me, so thank you, Richard.

The second element was one of my favourite sayings: “Find the thing you like most in life and then let it kill you.” I kid you not, I silently repeat that line to myself often as I stalk towards the Henke Rink, in my armour and skates, wielding my stick. The Australian bushrangers had another way of saying it, in the 19th century: “Die with your boots on.” R.I.P. Ben Hall and Flash Johnny Gilbert, who lived, and died, under that banner.

Celebrating an Ice goal against the Mustangs last Thursday night. Pic: Alex McNab.

I am very aware that hockey has come to symbolise this as my wider approach to life. At my wake, whether it’s next week or in 40 years, I want everybody laughing, shaking their heads and toasting that Nicko Place had a genuine fucking crack at life. And yes, with columns for wins and losses.

Hockey does symbolise so much.

Like life, hockey is action, fear, philosophy, learning, “you know, science”, teamwork, camaraderie, set-backs, heart-break, pure joy, community and so much more.

I can’t believe that 16 months ago, the concept of me as a hockey player had such wet paint on it. How much I didn’t know. Reading that first post feels so long ago and yet, it really isn’t.

What does astonish me is how much has been packed into my life over that 16 months, on and off the ice. As well as my development as a player – from being literally unable to skate, to now playing dev league and feeling like a genuine, if still very green, potential Right Wing – life off the rink has been a rollercoaster.

In the time of the blog, I have travelled to the US (with my boys for the first time) to see Datsyuk. Lidstrom, Zetterberg, Helm and the rest of the Red Wings play live, even if they lost; been to Hogwarts in Florida; had my heart broken, bounce, stumble and soar; achieved a life dream by diving (twice) with the magnificent manta rays off Lady Elliot Island; kept my company afloat after dastardly treacherous bastardy by a major client; had a novel I’d been working on for many years accepted, and to be the first of a series, and moving me out of one genre with four published into a whole new crime-writing field; had friendships rise and fade; watched my beloved Tigers gradually but distinctly get better as a football team; seen Macklin, my youngest son, join Will (aka Kittens, aka Big Cat) and I on the ice as a player; met a French girl I’m trying to impress who laughs instead of sighs when I let hockey take over my life and return, creaking and sore. And God, so much more. That’s not even close to covering the dramas and emotion. Is every 16-month period like this in my life? I’d never tried to chart it before.

And then there’s life within the walls of the Icehouse. The world I’ve stumbled into and the people within that sphere.

Where do I even start? I’m not going to get all mushy. You can do that for me by indulging me in a simple test. Take a deep breath and think of all the fucking amazing people you have met through your involvement in hockey.

You might be in Minnesota or Melbourne. It doesn’t matter.

I’m not just talking about the Rookies, our self-titled band of ragged, diverse, wildly enthusiastic students who started at the Icehouse, under Lliam and Army’s tutelage last year and have soldiered on, through triumph, disaster, injuries, frustration and elation. I’m talking about Melbourne Ice fans, Red Wings fans, fans of every other team, my work-street-hockey puck-lunch partner, Alex, the amateur Chicago player who saved Will and I in a dodgy section of that town, the wise-cracking crew at the South Pole end of the Henke Rink on Ice match days, the friendly staff of the Harbourside Hotel, the ever-patient partners of the Rookies, and the Rookies crew who turned out in dodgy weather at Albert Park on Saturday to hit pucks together, off-ice. The list goes on and on. Even an inspired fan who riffs at an NHL game on my random thought: “Hockey Player eaten by shark.” (Click on the clip below. Trust me. You really want to.)

What a brilliant community and what an amazing sport.

Will this blog last another 100 posts? Who knows and who cares. Skate to where the puck will be, not to where the puck is, as Wayne Gretsky once said.

The 16-month journey just gone stands alone as one of the greatest times of my life. Thanks for sharing it with me; especially you, Big Cat.

And now let’s hit the ice for wherever this thing goes next.


(Update: All of this made me think of the final Calvin & Hobbes cartoon when Bill Watterson retired. Dunno why but any time you get a chance to salute Calvin & Hobbes is a good moment. The boy and the tiger’s final stand, their philosophy, feels right for this moment …)

Calvin & Hobbes: the final cartoon. By Bill Watterson.

Amen. Class warfare starts again.

Me (in red) winning a breakaway in my Dev League debut. A very rare photo. Pic: Ben Weisser

OK, I need you to imagine drinking three straight litres of water without a break. Then sitting in a locked room for nine hours. A room with no, um, facilities. Now you’re allowed out of the room but only to jog up and down on the spot for one hour, all while continuing to sip water at regular intervals.

You are then placed in a car and sit in the back seat for four hours as the car travels over bumpy roads, all while listening to a CD: “The magnificent sounds of a trickling stream”.

Finally the car stops at the world’s largest waterfall and you watch the water cascading, streaming down the rocks. You are made to drink another three large glasses of soda water.

Your fingers and toes are placed in warm water.

Get the idea …

Well, now replace the need for a toilet at this time with the need to play ice hockey, and that was me last night. Intermediate, Week One, could not come around quickly enough and there was nothing I could do to fast forward the day leading to 8.45 pm. Sure, Will (aka Kittens) and I got a little excited and turned up at the Icehouse at 6 pm, but it turned out that didn’t make 8.45 pm come any faster. We played pool at the Harbourside (modesty prevents me offering the scoreline [I kicked his arse]) and I ate pizza and drank dry ginger ale because the ice was beckoning, beating out even the desire for alcohol.

Kittens, in classic pose. Of course, he scored a goal. Uppity kid. Pic: Ben Weisser

And finally it was time. Greeting the other rookies, meeting a few I only knew by facebook profile; strapping into full armour and looking like a sumo on skates as my Grand Rapids Griffins jersey, on Australian debut, ballooned over my gear. And, ready!

Of course, our coaches Army, Lliam and Michael welcomed us back with hardcore skating tests and obligingly sent my group of skaters to outside edge drills as the opening gambit. One of my worst skills. And of course the other three guys I was bracketed with are in the running for Outside Edge Rookies of the Year while I managed not to fall.

Until the second drill when Michael had us attempting to transition at speed from forwards to backwards skating, around a cone. And I found out fast that my new helmet, bought in Chicago, has excellent impact-absorption in the back of the lid when your head smacks hard against the ice during a backward plank.

Then we were doing crossovers and I didn’t suffer any mortal injuries – Army even raised an eyebrow at my improvement – before Lliam gave me some tips at inside edge skating that worked all the way until the fourth cone at which point I tested the ice impact capabilities of my new gloves and my ageing elbow pads, falling heavily while fully committed to one foot inside edge around a cone. At least I was fully committed, right?

All that was left to start the term was a game of two-on-two where my partner and I played the Washington Generals to the other pair’s Harlem Globetrotters, and a bizarre tapdancing crossover drill where the miracle was I didn’t fall.

It was actually an awesome class, finished with four rounds of straight-up tearaway fast sprints up and down the ice. That’s when I’m at my happiest, even if I’m not the fastest rookie out there. I just love seeing how fast I can go, getting that cardio-hit, and then morbidly wondering if I can stop in time as the boards approach. The answer was universally yes last night, which shows my summer of toil wasn’t totally wasted.

This was always going to happen in my Dev League debut. Pic: Ben Weisser

But the best was yet to come, because a quick Zamboni run later, I was back on the ice, now in my Zetterberg Wings jersey, as part of the red team in my Development League debut.

I’m not sure I can hope to convey how awesome Dev League was. I could try poetry but after rhyming “ice” with “nice” I start to struggle. “Dice”? “Mice”? “Concise”? “Condoleezza Rice”?

One thing I know: I’m glad I didn’t do Dev League last term, as Will did. I wouldn’t have been ready. But with a summer of skating practice under my belt, and so many supportive, friendly rookie classmates urging me on, it was brilliant, truly brilliant.

For the first time, I felt like a real hockey player, playing an hour of scrimmage, deciding when to end my shifts, powering up and down the ice (mown down on two attempted breakaways, first to the puck on one – shot went wide, dammnit) and just generally deciding that ok, I won’t suck embarrassingly among these players, even if there are clearly superior skaters out there.

Condoleezza Rice: not relevant here.

The game had one casualty – Ken went down with a nasty split lip and was lucky not to lose teeth – and I had a couple of spills but nothing fatal. On my first shift, I failed to trap a puck along the boards which ended up in a goal at the other end, which had me doing some old fashioned cussing, but I got progressively more comfortable with every following shift and didn’t panic, didn’t just flail, kept an eye on staying onside, didn’t lose my position most of the time and generally felt like the beginnings of an idea of a genuine hockey player in a team.

It felt very good.

The other rookies were awesome in welcoming me to the game and this level. Benched between shifts, Jay and I marvelled at how far some of the skaters who started with us a year ago in Intro have come. Morgan Squires was dominating but then (and don’t take this the wrong way, Morgan) it was just as heartening for me to see him and others occasionally screw up. They’re not all bulletproof and error-free as I blunder along. We’re all still in class, training, getting better, striving. And I can see how this term is going to make me blossom, trying to keep up.

A very very very good night, back on the ice, even if I was home at midnight, accidentally drinking off-milk and unable to consider sleep until much later.

Today, my groin, hips and legs were hurting in the second best way they can and I loved every second of feeling the aches. Next Wednesday, please oh please come around without delay.

I wouldn’t have thought it was possible but hockey just became a whole lot more fun.

Jack, a committed Penguins fan, in a Washington jersey, so he could play Dev League in the red team. These are the lengths people will go to. Pic: Ben Weisser

Strange times

It’s always darkest before the dawn, right?

Maybe it’s equally true that it’s always craziest in the days before hockey classes start again, to provide order and release?

Because, believe me, these are strange times, my friends. Oh, what strange times we live in that blue jelly balls can fall as hail from the English sky, and a Lego man can be sent clear into space by a couple of teenage nerds or, while we’re on Lego, that shit, a giant Lego man can wash ashore in Florida and the local police don’t have any better ideas than to arrest him.

Super Kane. Pic: espn

What strange times are these that an NHL star can wear a Superman cape and Clark Kent glasses on the ice, or that the bass player for The Stone Roses can try to withdraw cash to buy milk from an autobank and find two million pounds he wasn’t expecting in the account balance?

Is it any wonder that last Thursday, having decided to spend the Australia Day holiday working on my new novel (Hereby known as “Let It Slide” – thanks for the working title, Mack), I wrote exactly 155 words before realising strange flashes of light were still in my peripheral vision, as they had been the night before. Five hours later, at the Victorian Eye & Ear Hospital, a doctor and I were discussing when I had last eaten, because he was planning an emergency operation, if theatre was set up on the public holiday, and a surgeon was in the house. We discussed the likelihood of my losing the sight in my right eye if the retina fully tore away. As it was, a small retina tear was corralled by “lasers” (Dr Evil air-quote marks there) on the spot and I was sent back into the day, reeling, but allegedly ok.

But not totally ok. It means I am still seeing the world through what looks like a dirty car windscreen and it forced an exercise-free weekend – no running, no boxing last night – when I really needed to bust some stress. It should also mean no hockey tomorrow night but, hey, I’m a hockey player and with some of the stuff that’s been going on in my life, I really need to go play hockey.

Blue jelly rain. Pic: The Guardian

It’s a strange world when you can be bodysurfing at Lorne at 3.30 pm, then ice skating (gently, protecting eye) at the Icehouse by 6 pm. And even stranger when you can sit with your parents, making important decisions about whether they will leave your spiritual home or not, and the decision starts to lean to ‘not’, and you start to breathe again and you look out the window and right then, at that exact moment, no less than five yellow-tailed black cockatoos, your totem bird, do a fly-by, all but winking as they pass, a few metres away. And yet a few hours later, in the remorseless heat of a Melbourne summer night that forgets to cool down, and in the wake of the parts of life that are difficult to understand and after an airport run to collect your teenage son who has wild stories of elephants and being the first westerner in a village for four years, meaning the littlest kids had never seen a white person, you find you cannot sleep because of the way everything is swirling and sneaking up on your brain and conspiring to stop you sleeping. And yet you can’t open your eyes because the flashes are there, hinting that your retina may yet blow a fuse and release your secret fear of blindness, not to mention ending your hockey career right there.

So you lie sweating in the pre-dawn, idly listing all the things you need two eyes to achieve, and trying not to think about much better reasons to be sweaty in the pre-dawn and how far away the prospect of exploring that ever again feels, and whether Jimmy Howard and Pavel Datsyuk will star in the NHL All-Star game later that day (they did pretty well) and eventually you surf Facebook and smile at how stir-crazy the hockey group’s posts are becoming as we all wait for action, sweet action, and you spend the dawn trading emails with a friend just in from skiing in the French Alps, rugged up in a beanie and gloves and scarf as the heat smashes you in your bed.

A strange world in need of another friend, a magician, who is wise beyond his years and sips his cider 12 hours later as a cool breeze finally blows through your town and tells you: “I’ve learned that what people say doesn’t mean what they said and even what people do doesn’t mean that’s what they did.” Or something like that. It doesn’t make sense to me either, now, but magic is about misdirection, I suppose, or maybe I was distracted, as I always am at the Black Cat, by the giant framed tarantulas on the wall, hammered into a wooden vertical map of my suburb; wondering if the people on the corner of Gore and Napier streets realize an arachnid bigger than two houses is right there, hovering over them?

Giant Lego man, before he was locked up. Pic: LA Times

A strange, uncertain world but starting to right itself, if I let it. If I remain open to the fact that the future is full of possibility and adventures, if danger and sadness. But then, isn’t that always the case? Yet again, I repeat the mantra of a wise woman I met, who told me that when heaviness weighed down her world, she reminds herself: “Levity, punk!”

Lightness. As any hockey player knows, all you can do is put one skate in front of the other and try to skate to where the puck will be, not where the puck is. One more sleep, heat permitting, until I don my shoulder armour, my padded shorts, my knee guards, elbow guards and gloves, pull my Australian-first Grand Rapids Griffins jersey over my bulky armour and lace up my gorgeous Reeboks. I’ll buckle my helmet (full visor to protect my eye), grab my Crosby stick, watch the Zamboni finish its run, banter with my fellow rookies, feel my heartbeat start to race and finally make my way onto the smooth Icehouse ice.

Let the new term begin. I think you can believe me when I say I can honestly hardly wait.