When the coaches fly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Go?’ I said.

‘Go,’ he confirmed.

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

The Ice working on shots, Tuesday before finals weekend.

The Ice working on shots, Tuesday before finals weekend.

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

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

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

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

Big weekend coming up for the Ice.

Big weekend coming up for the Ice.

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

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

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

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

Ice, Ice, baby. Go get ’em.

 

Play like a girl

When my hockey linemate, Big Cat Place, was a boy, he played footy for a while, like most Victorian kids who are marched down to the local oval by footy-made fathers (guilty). He was roughly 12 when he decided the sport wasn’t for him, and announced before a routine mid-winter game that it would be his last for the Kew Comets. The coach tried to discuss it, but clearly hadn’t spent much time with Big Cat, because then, like now, once that kid’s mind’s made up, that’s it. In the end, the coach shrugged, said fair enough and arranged for Big Cat to be chaired off the ground by his teammates, as though he’d played 300 games, instead of about 20. Which was a nice touch.

Hello elite women's footy. Goodbye noses. Pic: Getty

Hello elite women’s footy. Goodbye noses. Pic: Getty

One of the kids chairing him off was a girl, whose name, I think, was Megan – it’s a while ago and I’ve had no real reason to remember, until now. She was a gun footballer. In a team of ambitious boys, some of whom were the drilled and burdened with expectation sons of Hawthorn’s Eighties premiership players, she stood out. She was slight, with her blonde hair in a ponytail, but she ran and ran and ran. Megan went in and got hard balls, emerged with them, dished it off and was somehow then a downfield option. She was a midfielder who could play inside or outside, racking up dozens of possessions every week and was quiet, unassuming and humble in the rooms. She could play tall, tackle, do it all. Megan was a runaway Best & Fairest for the team in Big Cat’s Under 12s year and probably went on to win it again in his farewell season. Again, I’m not sure of this but I have a feeling she might have won the overall league’s Best & Fairest too.

Female footballer Tayla Harris displays a flawless kicking technique. Pic: Getty

Female footballer Tayla Harris displays a flawless kicking technique. Pic: Getty

I can remember feeling desperately sorry for Megan. Because I knew and she probably knew that she only had a couple more years of footy to enjoy before it would be over for her. Standing on the boundary, clutching takeaway coffees, the freezing-our-arses-off parents would sigh that she couldn’t graduate to elite AFL levels like the better boys hoped to. Back then, a decade ago, the options for a girl wanting to play into her teens weren’t great. There were female leagues but they had a certain air about them, almost underground, more roller-derby demographic than eastern suburbs parklands; not particularly welcoming to a 15-year-old schoolgirl. Change has been slow but in recent years, I’ve noticed Fitzroy has an all-women’s team running around on the Brunswick Street oval, and now the whole thing is set to go up another notch.So, of course, I thought of Megan yesterday when the AFL announced the eight teams to start an official women’s league under the AFL banner. If only she’d been born a few years later. While she would only be 23 or so now, potentially in her playing prime, I’d be surprised if she’s managed to stay motivated for the years when it looked like her footy dream ran into a dead end.

Georgia Carson flying, for the Melbourne Ice.

Georgia Carson flying, for the Melbourne Ice.

One of the things I’ve really loved about playing hockey has been the unisex nature of it. My team, the Cherokees, is coached by a member of the Australian women’s team, the feisty Georgia Carson (Note to coach: ‘feisty’ is a compliment), and features several women. I can honestly say that mid-game, it makes zero difference whether you’re chasing a puck or battling for it against a female or male opponent. In fact, in five seasons, I have yet to be part of an Ice Hockey Victoria-sanctioned team that has been all-male, which I like. I prefer teams where potential dick-swinging testosterone is dissipated by some feminine controlled aggression. Sure, we’re playing Division 3 – a lower level and firmly non-checking – but several of the women I’ve played and trained with have kicked on to higher divisions. At least two of the women who took up the sport around the same time I did have played in the AIHL’s women’s competition. Sometimes at Wednesday night training, we’d scrimmage and the coaches would join in, allowing Shona Powell, captain of Melbourne Ice women’s, and Australia, to effortlessly dominate.

Likewise, in boxing training, one of my favourite gyms was Mischa Merz’s Boxing Central. I’ve written about Mischa before; a journo mate who fell in love with the allegedly sweet science and ended up winning an Australian welterweight title, as well as international belts. Her gym is perfectly balanced between encouraging men and women to work on their skills and fitness, without some of the rampant testosterone that can dominate other dank sweaty rooms full of heavy bags scattered around a square ring.

The Vixens' Geva Mentor. She rocks.

The Vixens’ Geva Mentor. She rocks.

I covered a lot of women’s sport in my time as a newspaper reporter. In tennis, especially on grasscourts, I found women’s matches more engaging because they didn’t hit the ball quite so hard (this was pre-Serena). Tennis is better with more strategy required than just two lanky giants seeing who can land the most 200 kmh serves. I was lucky enough to cover most of Steffi Graf’s career and her mix of power, balance, skill and strategy was breathtaking. (Then again, so is Federer’s, so I guess I just love the artists, whatever their sex.)

Any idiot who thinks women can’t ‘bring it’ to sport hasn’t watched Australia’s women’s field hockey team in action. Again, I covered that team for a while as they were en route to winning Olympic gold, and holy crap they played hard.

A few weeks ago, I went to a Melbourne Vixens netball game and was dazzled by the speed of the passing and the amount of physicality in what’s supposed to be a non-contact sport. The Vixens’ full back Geva Mentor, who is basically a female Alex Rance – one of my favourite Tigers – was magnificent, prowling and yelling encouragement to the team up the court and ensuring the opposition forwards earned every touch, as much as you can in a sport that seems to heavily discriminate against the defenders.

So, the point of this blog? Just to say that an official pathway for women to play football is well overdue and that I’m proud that hockey is way ahead of the AFL on this one. Women playing sport, either against one another or against/with men where possible, like non-checking hockey, is good for the world, good for everybody involved. Now we just need Richmond to be given a license next year so I can have a team to barrack for.