The door in the jungle

The adventurer’s eyes widened as he spied what looked like a door. Could this really be it? Had he found it against all the odds, after all this time? His heart began to beat in his chest. His breathing quickened. He struggled to contain his excitement, to remain calm.

The adventurer hacked away at the jungle between him and the door, fighting to get closer.

The wilds of Fitzroy North

The wilds of Fitzroy North

Until finally, there it was, right in front of him. Ageing, paint peeling, almost buried in dust and cobwebs, the door’s handle stiff and resistant after how long without human touch?

He used the machete to sweep aside the cobwebs, used some leaves to clear dust. Then took a deep breath, used all his might to creak the handle to vertical, and then yanked. The door opened.

And there it was.

His hockey gear. Resting against the only bag used less over the last 15 weeks, his scuba diving gear.

The adventurer dragged the bag out of the back shed, and wincing, expecting the worst, opened the zip.

And was relieved to find that the hockey smell wasn’t bad at all. That last big airing, after the Cherokees’ lost final, had done the job.

The dormant bags of adventure.

The dormant bags of adventure.

The adventurer flexed his dodgy calf, which had twanged out while running to receive a handball the previous Friday. The adventurer coming off several weeks in a row of gym, boxing, football twice a week and now ready to step back onto the ice. Having been to a few Melbourne Ice games lately, against the Sydney Bears and Newcastle on Saturday. Feeling the anticipation as the nation’s best players swirled and smashed their way around the Henke Rink at Icy O’Briens. Exchanging looks with Big Cat, knowing it was only three more sleeps until they finally stepped back onto that same ice.

Tuesday 6.45 pm scrimmage, a star-studded cast of players from all levels of competitive hockey. Big hellos to the coaches, who he hadn’t seen in months. Big hellos to the players. Big enjoyment of the locker room banter, and the long, complicated donning of the armour, skates and sock tape. That memory jog to take off the skate-guards before stepping onto the ice surface.

The moment of nervous fear as he jumped the boards for warm-up, and didn’t land flat on his face. More moments of uncertainty, gingerly testing hockey stops and turns, his calf holding, his unpractised skating technique mostly holding.

The Ice and Bears get acquainted on Henke Rink. Pic: Nicko

The Ice and Bears get acquainted on Henke Rink. Pic: Nicko

And then playing his first hour of hockey for months and months. Not setting the world on fire, only landing a few good passes, only having a few not-particularly-threatening shots on goal. Falling a few times, taking what sometimes felt like minutes to complete a fast turn , feeling two steps too slow.

But back. Skating. Managing a breakaway or two. Remembering. And smiling.

Laughing and light, on the drive home with Big Cat, who had been just as rusty but looked better and better as the hour progressed.

Hockey players once more.

And it felt good.

 

Bidding for history

I went a bit nuts a year and a half ago and won an auction on a Canadian hockey collectables site. On Wednesdays, at Icy O’Briens training, you see all kinds of jerseys including a lot of novelty jerseys and I’m as guilty as anybody of liking the chance to wear bizarre and obscure colours on the night. With that in mind, I bid for and won a bunch of NHL Old Timer jerseys, as worn by creaky Hall of Famers and other probably long-forgotten NHL stars in exhibition games. My jerseys were mostly from the fifties, with a few Toronto-based ones from the seventies. I still wear one to training on Wednesday nights at Icy O’Briens and gave some as Christmas presents to the coaches that year, because every year I forgot to get them a present and then felt bad.

Lliam Webster rocks out one of the NHL Old Timer jerseys.

Lliam Webster rocks out one of the NHL Old Timer jerseys.

But the best thing about winning this auction was definitely not realising that the exchange rate was steep just then, or that the shipping costs were enormous, or that the other taxes and charges almost doubled the price of what I thought I had agreed to pay. No, none of those joyful discoveries were the awesome bit.

The awesome part was that the auction house people clearly thought, ‘Huzzah, we’ve got a live one in Melbourne, Australia, peoples!’ and have continued to mail me the catalogue for hockey auctions ever since. They arrive three or four times a year.

It’s spectacular bedtime reading. And it totally speaks to the dweeby history-lover in me as I’ve discovered how amazing and varied the names, nicknames and jerseys of hockey teams through the ages have been and continue to be.

The Fishermen. Damn, I wish I had the funds to have bought this jersey, just to wear around.

The 1920’s Fishermen jersey. Damn, I wish I had the funds to have bought this jersey, just to wear around.

Like a lot of people reasonably new to hockey, I only became aware of mysterious, now-gone NHL teams like the Whalers and the Nordiques as I delved deeper into the sport, and I find myself now actively seeking out strange towns, teams, mascots and leagues. Mysterious foreign outposts of the sport I’ve come to love.

This is where the auction catalogues are great. Brilliant team names and jersey designs of decades ago come back to life; some obscure, some just unknown to me. In my most recent catalogue, among endless signed sticks and jerseys by NHL stars, you suddenly turn a page to discover a gorgeous game-worn Selkirk Fishermen jersey from the 1920s (it sold for $C 533 – man, I’d love to wear that around town in winter). Wincingly-designed but funny are the jerseys of the Quebec Aces, an AHL team from the Sixties, or the magnificently terrible Calgary Cowboys jersey from 1975-76.

I even sort of like the world’s worst ever attempt at a shark logo on the WHA Los Angeles Shark jersey from that team’s inaugural season in 1972-73, which sold for more than $C 8,000, incidentally.

French Aces, and Canadian Cowboys and dubious Sharks.

French Aces, and Canadian Cowboys and dubious Sharks.

I’d love my jersey collection to include a Moscow Dynamo design from the mid Seventies but can probably live without rocking the colours of the Port Huron Flags. If you’re a Wayne Gretsky fan, you might have been keeping an eye on a lot last year, which featured the actually strangely hipster-cool jersey of a junior team he played for, the Sault Ste Marie Soo Greyhounds.

The mighty (and extinct) Seibu Prince Rabbits.

The mighty (and extinct) Seibu Prince Rabbits.

But beyond the catalogues, the list of intriguing, beautiful and often hilarious team names is long. It was through hockey that I discovered the Canadian town of Medicine Hat (go Tigers!) and through hockey that I found the now-disbanded Seibu Prince Rabbits in Japan. Or another team in the same league: the Nippon Paper Cranes. The Asia League also had a team from China with the unlikely name of ‘The Nordic Vikings’. It lasted one season; not able to match up with the more expected red and yellow power of the China Dragon team.

Australia’s national league doesn’t really light it up in this sphere. We have Mustangs and Thunder and Brave and North Stars and Ice Dogs (kind of funny), and Bears and Adrenalin. Plus, of course, the somewhat strangely-named Melbourne Ice (if it was a footy team, would it be Melbourne Grass?) But nothing to match the Fishermen, above. I’ve never missed Queensland’s Blue Tongues so much.

An unhappy turtle and Macon's sexy name.

An unhappy turtle and Macon’s sexy name.

Sports Illustrated once noted the existence of an American team (above) called Macon Whoopee, even featuring a bird and a bee on its jersey, while I am also a fan of the Mississippi RiverKings, starring a very grumpy turtle as their mascot. (I’d back the Red Wings’ resident octopus, Rally Al, to kick the turtle around if they dropped the gloves.)

As hockey moved into new American frontiers after the NHL expansion (almost 50 years ago exactly), lower level feeder clubs were created as well, meaning you got bizarre name attempts like the Orlando SolarBears or names mashing local history and hockey, like the Greenville Swamp Rabbits, apparently named after a train but featuring a bunny attempting to frighten grown hockey players. And while we’re there, a special shout out to the Toledo Walleye, a team that deserves a mention just because there’s something endlessly hilarious about the concept of a fish attempting to play ice hockey.

CRAZY TEAMS: Sun-loving hockey-playing polar bears and lump but cranky fish.

CRAZY TEAMS: Sun-loving hockey-playing polar bears and lump but cranky fish.

Hockey everywhere

Sydney's temporary ice rink

So I’m in Sydney for my kids film festival, and it’s a Wednesday so I’m a little bummed because I’m missing hockey class (despite my last blog’s exploration of fear in Intermediate hockey).  I screw up on the local train system and end up blundering back into the night at St James station, near Hyde Park, not very far at all from where I’d boarded a train at Circular Quay, and decide to walk back to my hotel. Which means I cross a road and find myself staring at a temporary outdoor ice rink. It was like a movie set: people skating in strange fluoro orange rental skates, marquees everywhere selling German sausage or beer or Dutch pancakes. Chicks in that slightly kinky Swiss/German outfit with the white blouse and the skirt and the long socks. And a bunch of hockey players aimlessly skating around between the punters, or sucking on cigarettes and drinking beer; probably not coincidentally perched right near the gorgeous Heidi chicks.

I went over and said hi and found out they were a local team, the Sydney Bears, presumably hired by the Winter Festival organisers to add some colour to the event. It turns out there are five or so regular rinks in Sydney (as against Melbourne’s two, that I know of). The Bears carefully hid their fags while posing for my photo. I wished them well, as fellow ice warriors.

It should have surprised me to find ice skating in the heart of Sydney. But it didn’t. For some reason, here in Australia, deep in the southern Hemisphere, about as far from Canada as you can get, ice hockey turns up much more than it rightfully should.

Getting a haircut at Dr Follicles, it turns out the dude cutting my locks as I sip my beer ($28 the lot:

The Bears: fags hidden.

great deal) is from Canada and plays a level or so below Melbourne Ice in the local leagues. (I’ve since seen him in action at Stick & Puck sessions: he’s amazing.) When my boys and I had a Thai exchange student stay with us earlier in the year and suggested hockey as a bizarre treat, she sniffed that her dad used to play. Say what? In Thailand? He studied in America and got a taste for it. She admitted she had played back home, and the subtle hint she was too polite to spell out was that she would kick Will and my arses all around the ice if it came down to it. A mate from journalism turns out to have played for years.

And so it goes. If you raise this crazy sport in conversation, almost everybody has a story, or a friend who plays, or some connection. I wonder if I still had my now-defunct Yarraville connection and had therefore become obsessed by, say, Trugo, if I would be having the same experience of constant connection with strangers? Is hockey on the rise as a Melbourne pastime and phenomenon, or am I just more aware of it when it crosses my path?

The good news is that I got back to Melbourne in time for Saturday’s class, led by Steve “Scuba” Edwards (No. 17 for the Ice) and Shona. This week, to my undying relief, the class was almost entirely skating and passing and shooting. I still sucked compared to some, but my stick handling is actually okay so I was able to keep up and it was a lot more fun than the pivots and transitions and other fancy skating that had unraveled me last time.

The skating Ninja, who chooses to partake in the classes without armour, was unexpectedly sent on his way, presumably for health and safety reasons, and Will was laid up after an operation on his toe, which left me and almost the entire team from the Ice Dogs, a Development League team who all seem to be using this class as practice and hunt in packs. They’re welcoming though, if tough on the ice.

We did a heap of drills and the sweat was pouring as we came off, in a good way. A genuine workout.

And for the first time, I had a genuine goalie in net, a woman who effortlessly stopped every one of my shots. Added to my list of skills to be worked on is a more powerful shot. I once broke a stick, cracking hard at the goal. I seem to have lost that power when it matters, which means I need to hit some Stick & Puck sessions to keep swinging until I can trouble a goalie.

But this week it all feels achievable again. Difficult, yes. Daunting, yes. A long road to be travelled, sure. But doable. What a difference a week makes – even if I did finally get around to watching “The Mighty Ducks”, a compulsory rite of passage for any hockey player, only to discover it was predictable early Nineties pap. (“What?” Will sneered at me. “You were expecting M. Night Shyamalan twists?”)

Even that couldn’t throw me off my stride this week. I have whisky, chocolate and True Blood following “send” on this post. I still have a functioning shoulder, after lots of hockey and a spirited footy hitout in today’s brilliant sunshine. Plus Melbourne Ice won in a shoot out last night against the Gold Coast Blue Tongues (who had an excellent goalie), with Jason Baclig and Army sealing the goals to win it. And I have my official Census forms, with the only question being what joke religion I’m going to go with on August 9? I’m thinking “Red Wing”, ahead of Jedi or Pastafarian.

Life is good.