The violence of Vinnie Hughes

On Saturday, on Melbourne’s notoriously violent King Street, a man took umbrage at what he perceived as rough treatment of one of his mates by a Perth tourist. Not a small guy, he determinedly shook off the restraining hands of three police officers, he was so intent on fighting the tourist. Eventually the police threw up their hands and the two went toe-to-toe, the vicious brawl ending with police dragging the man off the tourist who was now lying on the ground, hands attempting to cover his face as unanswered punches found their mark.

Blood splattered the ground as the man was led away, waving to the crowd who had cheered while witnessing the savage beating.

Pretty horrible scenario, huh? But as anybody who was at the Melbourne Ice-Perth Thunder game at the Icehouse on Saturday evening knows, this didn’t happen on King Street. It happened on skates during that game, with Melbourne captain Vinnie Hughes the aggressor who beat the crap out of Perth player Sam Wilson after Wilson had taken out the Ice goalie, Stu Denman.

The ice where Hughes v Wilson happened.

Denman had ventured way out from goal when hit, which leads to questions about whether he was fair game or not, so far from the blue crease. Regardless, it was a hard hit which led to a predictable push and shove between the teams before Hughes made a late decision to “make a statement”, pushing all referees aside until he could get to Wilson and go toe-to-toe.

He was thrown out of the game and Wilson won’t look pretty today.

The whole thing almost made me late for a musical I had tickets for in Elwood – a local production of ‘Avenue Q‘, an adult comedy musical featuring Sesame Street-like puppets and human actors.

Which is where it all gets bizarre, huh? There I was, behind the goals at the South Pole end of the Henke Rink, hollering and hooting and full of blood lust as Hughes beat the shit out of a hockey player metres away. I’d bought a friend along to her first hockey game and my 16-year-old son, Macklin, was there with a friend as well. Mack texted me in the long delay after the fight (as the rattled referees tried to work out how many Melbourne Ice stars they could physically fit in the penalty box for having not left the ice as instructed) to say: “That was awesome”.

Ever the loyal blogger, my main concern at the time was whether my Nikon, battery dying, had managed to get the shots of the blood splattering the ice and then being scooped up by some emo attendant. (It did: as per this post)

It was only the next day, waiting for the ball to come to my wing, in pouring rain, during The Bang footy at Albert Park, that I began to feel uneasy. And then later, at a Mother’s Day pub lunch with my intelligent, caring, gentle ex-wife, where I looked her in the eye and it occurred to me that it was difficult to justify having introduced our two teenage sons to such a violent scene the day before.

I’ve previously written about my uneasy attraction to violence, in boxing and hockey. This Hughes fight felt really savage. On Facebook afterwards, the Rookies were in full flight, crowing about flying the flag for teammates and whether it’s ever okay to hit a goalie, about Vinnie being a legend and a great captain. I posted my blood pics and everybody hit the “like” button, me included. We’re all new to the sport and are like adolescents, flexing our tough-guy hockey muscles that we secretly know won’t actually be tested in the non-fighting leagues we are working up to playing.

Even that is so different to The Bang, which is football unashamedly based around pure skill without bullshit testosterone. I love that we bangers are all too old for that crap. On Sunday, I watched my Bang teammates bring the Sherrin around the flank in the rain, devoted only to clean skills in the wet. It’s well understood that if you feel like a bit of body-on-body and two of you agree, then go for it and we’ll all laugh. I had an exchange like that with a mate, Phil, on Sunday, both of us playfully jostling as the Sherrin approached, then chasing the ball on the deck, with Phil gracefully conceding, stepping back when my head was right there, for his hip or leg to collect had he chosen.

It’s not always like that. One ex-rugby player, Karl, hit me in the jaw with the hardest shots to the head I’ve had in years when I was stupid enough to try and tackle him a year or so ago. But I didn’t complain. I’d bought into the physicality that day.

And then there’s boxing. Tonight I’ll tape my hands and don boxing gloves, to throw an hour’s worth of hopefully hard and fast punches at training partners and heavy bags.

But I understand there are clear boundaries. It’s all pretend violence; controlled aggression with no intent to hurt (unless you’re Karl who can get a little carried away).

Cleaning up after the fight on Saturday.

A truly premeditated hockey fight is something else; planned, vicious punches with the intent to cause harm. Vinnie Hughes went after Wilson with true hatred in his eyes and didn’t stop until the Thunder guy’s face was leaking blood onto the ice in a big way, and the referees managed to tangle his arms to stop more punches.

UPDATE (Tuesday, May 15, 11.30 am): Vinnie Hughes offers formal apology.

With so much debate in the NHL right now about brain damage from hockey, and the after-effects of the game’s traditional enforcers, or “goons”, who are a dying breed, it was an unusual sight, even if Big Cat Place, who goes to most Ice games, shrugged that it was the third or fourth such fight he’s seen.

(And again, as a father, should I be concerned that he was so casual about it? At 19 years old, so unconcerned that he had just watched one guy belt the crap out of another, while officials stood by, in the name of sport? In fact, smiling and loving it.)

I understand that violence is part of hockey, like AFL and other contact sports. I’ve had fights on the footy field in my youth, and even towards the end of my youth. The only time I genuinely, truly saw red and instigated a fight was, of all things, in a Herald newspaper v The Age newspaper “social match” at the Punt Road Oval (my one game ever on the holy home grass of my beloved Tigers).

An Age photographer known to have serious anger management issues dived with both knees into the lower back of a Herald player who had lost his footing and was lying on his stomach, but still reaching for the ball in a pack. It was a cowardly act to an unprotected player that was incredibly dangerous and bad form at any level of footy. But in a fucking social match? Stripling that I was back then, nobody was more surprised than me when I found myself face-to-face with the photographer hard man, his guernsey bunched in my fists and the momentum of righteous anger carrying me through the moment.

Looking back, I have no problem with that encounter. Somebody had to make a point that his act was low and had no place in a social match. I’d like to think more than any physical damage I may have caused, what I said to him about his character and behaviour (and maybe his mother, his penis size and anything hopefully more creative I came up with in that moment) humiliated him in front of a bunch of workmates and journalistic colleagues. And yes, it all occurred right on the wing, in front of the crowd – oops.

Perhaps that’s how Vinnie Hughes feels today? Righteous in that he protected his goalie as a captain should in the accepted violent parameters of hockey culture?

Whenever I tell people outside the sport that I’m a hockey player, their almost-universal reaction is to say: isn’t that an ultra-violent slugfest? I’ve always enjoyed the faux hard-man reputation this reaction offers me.

Of course, at my development league level – and any level I’m ever likely to play – it isn’t a thug sport at all. Even at the Melbourne Ice level, fights are banned and I’m expecting Hughes will miss a few matches as a result of his exploits.

But occasionally, like Saturday, you’re reminded of the savagery that is in the DNA of hockey over the past century or so, and that such primitive violence is not as far below the surface as modern officialdom would like to think. In the NHL, there remain times where to not fight would be regarded as wrong. (Such as Bertuzzi shaping up to Weber in the game after Weber slammed Zetterberg’s head into the boards during the recent play-offs – I applauded Bert for that.)

Like boxing, it’s a sport where people can be hurt, and by deliberate, expertly-delivered punches.

And I stand and cheer. Against every value I hold in the world outside that bubble.

I’m still not sure what that means. I guess the obvious answer is to skate hard on Wednesday night and play the puck, not the man. And probably be laughed at by my Rookies peer group for genuinely hoping Sam Wilson is okay.

As another violent man, Ned Kelly, once said: “Such is life”.

Infiltrating Blue Tongue country

It’s winter on the Gold Coast in Queensland, which means it’s sunny and 26 degrees. I’m freezing (which could be a virus I’m battling), wearing a Red Wings baseball cap, a jumper and a scarf, watching my breath fog in front of my face. In front of me, a diesel-powered Zamboni is chugging along an ice rink in what can only be described as an old shed.

I’m at Iceland, in the suburb of Bundall. Bundall is not close to “The Worlds” to the north or

The Iceland rink, in all its glory.

Coolangatta airport to the south, which basically means it’s part of the endless industrial park hinterland that makes up any part of the Gold Coast that hasn’t been subdivided into tiny housing blocks.

Having skated at Iceland, Hotcakes Gillespie, the celebrated northern skater, tells me to watch for the arch across the road on approach. It turns out the piping, like some plumbing experiment gone wrong, is celebrating the Gold Coast Turf Club, which is nearby, but, hey, it’s a landmark among the factories and we sail under the arch, turn left and find ourselves at the home rink of the Gold Coast Blue Tongues ice hockey team.

I don’t want to get all elitist about this place. I had always kind of known that the Melbourne

The view from my seat: Ice players stand in front of the crowd between shifts.

Icehouse, where I train, is Australia’s official winter Olympic training facility and as such is pretty schmick. I guess what I hadn’t taken into account is life away from the Icehouse.

In fact, far from being all sniffy about the Gold Coast Iceland, I’m in awe of the Blue Tongues players. To train and play at such a dilapidated, sub-standard rink and then duke it out with the better resourced teams, like Melbourne Ice, is nothing short of heroic.

A photo on the Melbourne Ice facebook page from Sunday showed the showers at Iceland … several plastic water drums on top of a shed, with hoses to let the water fall. When we arrived, Jason Baclig and other members of the Ice were warming up in the carpark. The actual rink looked wet, not frozen, and instead of that pleasing, sharp scrapped-ice sound of a good hockey stop, when players changed direction there was a kind of slushy sound. I have never seen so many players in an AIHL game lose their footing, sliding around on watery ice. And the rink looked smaller than the Heinke Rink where we train, and where Melbourne Ice plays its home games. I’m not sure if it was an optical illusion or not. I suspect this rink was NHL sized, not Olympic sized.

Watching all this was about 150-200 fans, who had paid ten bucks each at the door. Five or six people were wearing Gold Coast jerseys, which are based on the Canucks’ colour scheme. Otherwise the major fundraising initiative was a sausage sizzle out the front, cooked by parents of Blue Tongue players.

Two or three rows of seats lined one wall, meaning even such a small crowd was capacity. Amazingly, there was no glass around the rink, meaning netting was all that protected spectators from the flying puck, and also meant any player getting “boarded” was pushed into a waist-high wall, not safer glass.

The scoreboard was for “Visitors” v “Grizzlies” (much better name than the Blue Tongues, btw, Coasters). There were no benches for the teams, or penalty boxes. That swarthy sex symbol of the Ice, Jacques Perreault, got a penalty and had to stand with the rest of the team for two minutes, seething quietly.

Ice goalie Stu Denman didn't bother trying to go outside to the change room during intervals.

Between shifts, Melbourne Ice players stood in front of us, local fans wandering past them with sausages in bread, as the Ice players discussed tactics and were baited by the crowd. After one dodgy penalty, an old dude standing next to us muttered in a super-satisfied growl under his breath: “Welcome to the Gold Coast.” By the game’s end, when the Blue Tongues sunk an empty netter to take a 5-3 lead, Ice captain Vinnie Hughes was leaning on the wall, having verbal stoushes with the crowd, sitting a whole metre away.

“Man, tomorrow’s game is going to have an edge,” Hotcakes Gillespie observed, as Joey Hughes was led out of a fight with three seconds to go on the clock. And she was right … according to Twitter, the refs tried to give Army a five minute penalty for fighting the next day, when Melbourne claimed he wasn’t even on the ice at the time, Lliam got thrown out of the game, and Ice eventually won 5-3 after Jason Baclig (who else?) chipped into the empty net to split the weekend’s scorelines.

So this is AIHL life away from the palatial Icehouse? I felt genuinely concerned for the Melbourne Ice and Blue Tongue players, trying to play at the professional level they do on such a dodgy rink (a game was cancelled recently because the Iceland ice was deemed dangerous) EDIT: a broken thermostat made the ice too cold, according to a local, replying to this post (see below).

But I also felt amazed that the Gold Coast team could be at such a decent standard, given their home. And I felt admiration for the bloke who clearly runs everything to keep Iceland going, driving the Zamboni, putting up the netting, checking the bar is ticking over, renting skates on weekdays and ensuring the shipping container that doubles as team changing rooms is clean and tidy for visiting sides. All while 99 per cent of the local population are at the beach down the road.

Aduba, Tommy Powell and Lliam Webster watch the game; a long way from the AHL.

At one stage, I was watching Melbourne’s star import Obi Aduba clamber over the sponsor-free wall to stand on wet carpet with only a net separating him from the fans, dodgy under-wattage lighting making the whole scene gloomy. When the AIHL finals finish, Aduba is heading back to America to play for the Quad City Mallards, in Illinois, (This is him dropping the gloves for Quad City before he joined the Ice) and will try out with Springfield, in the AHL – one level below NHL. What must he have made of this Gold Coast scene? It would be like an ATP tennis player competing at antbed tennis courts in central Queensland, local farmers manning the lines.

I guess, like so much else in hockey, he’s in it for the adventure. Iceland provided that.