Goodbye to the Joe

Oh man, what a day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And to the exits for the final time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Captain Hank today: The Perfect Human 2.0.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The flow of the ice …

Another summer season starts tonight. The plucky Cherokees, full of old and new faces, take on an apparently highly-rated Demons team in a grading game.

It got me to thinking about the summers past, and all the people I’ve played with, as I prepare to step out for my fifth summer of competitive hockey.

A new season begins ...

A new season begins …

Life flows, within and beyond hockey. Years and years now of development league, classes at Icy O’Briens and, briefly, Next Level, of playing for the Nite Owls, Friday night social games, and official IHV comp for the Interceptors and then the Cherokees. All those bench partners, and line partners, and changing room banter partners, and coaches.

I haven’t been writing much on this blog because really it’s been the same story as years past and I haven’t wanted to write for the sake of writing … I’ve been playing dev league, attending occasional team trainings, plus kicking a footy once or twice a week, as well as hitting the gym, boxing, and oh yeah, work and family. In the AFL, Richmond sucked again, while in the about-to-start NHL, the Red Wings are again skating under a question mark, with a bunch of new faces, but the fading Datsyuk gone.

On Monday, I returned to work after a week at Heron Island, doing the Queensland tropical sun-and-beach thing with Chloe and Cassius, as well as scuba diving with one of my French brother-in-laws, Brendan, and a lot of turtles and nudibranchs.

A nudibranch, somewhere underwater just off Heron Island, Qld. (about two centimetres long, for context). Pic: Nicko

A nudibranch, somewhere underwater just off Heron Island, Qld. (about two centimetres long, for context). Pic: Nicko

The first thing I did when I got back to work was grab a coffee with Pete Savvides, one of my Interceptor teammates five years ago. We talked about all sorts of stuff, only a fraction of which was hockey. Pete married now, with a baby, and a senior job and a new summer team as he tries to help enthusiastic rookies get into the sport.

Some of the other Interceptors aren’t even in hockey any more, as far as I know. Others have scattered to different teams or clubs. It’s the way of the hockey world; not many teams are able to stay together, season to season.

Last year’s Cherokees were different to the ‘Kees before that. This year’s team is different again. Players head to the winter draft, or push up to new grades. I still consider my watermark to be solidly Division 3, meaning Cherokee life suits me fine, but others are more ambitious or have actual skills that demand an upgrade in standard.

My first summer team, the Interceptors (missing: Alex McNab)

My first summer team, the Interceptors (missing: Alex McNab). Damn, I look younger.

It’s okay. There are members of the about-to-launch 2016/17 Cherokees team that I barely know yet, but I know we’ll be friends by March, when we hopefully play finals, or wet our disappointment at not making the four. I’ve met all kind of people through hockey and it’s one of the parts of the crazy adventure that I love. Doctors and political analysts, fellow journalists, and plumbers, dog groomers, IT consultants, building workers and yoga instructors … every team is a wild mix of personalities, skills and interests. Coming together for the grand adventure of a 10.30 pm IHV-scheduled game, or a more casual Oakleigh training session.

One of the Cherokee incarnations. I just noticed that I seem to always kneel in the same spot for team photos. Weird.

One of the Cherokee incarnations. I just noticed that I seem to always kneel in the same spot for team photos. Weird.

Tonight, we suit up for real; Big Cat Place and I slated for second-line duties, skating together as the only constant in five years of competition; still the reason I do it. The new look Cherokees beginning our summer journey against a mysterious opponent, but with several of my long-time friends now added to the team as an unexpected bonus.

People rise in your life, people fall out of your life. Friends, lovers, workmates, clients, family. People you wish you’d spent more time with, others you’re pretty happy to see the back of. Hockey is a microcosm of the wider universe, and I embrace the new, while remembering the old.

So, here’s a pre-game toast to teammates past and present.

See you somewhere along the icy way. For the Cherokees, that means 8 pm tonight. Bring it.

Losing with a capital L

To be a fan is to be a loser.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tigers? God, don’t even start me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex Rance: life is about more than silverware.

Alex Rance: life is about more than silverware.

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

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

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

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

I’m excited. As usual.

Giddyup.

Just remember it’s all in the journey.

 

 

 

Becoming what you might have been.

‘It’s never too late to be what you might have been.’

I love that truism, even if it works better in some contexts than others. This week, for example, has been a pretty stern test for George Eliot’s quote, and also a stark example of the difference between sport and life.

Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran used their entire 10 years in a Bali prison to try to become the men they might have been, had they not been dickhead enough to try and smuggle heroin in their early 20s. They seem to have succeeded, except for the fact that a dick-swinging Indonesian president, elected on a hardline agenda when it comes to his country’s drug problem, decided the two Australians’ lives were better used as collateral that could deliver popularity, instead of recognising their work to become better people.

As has been endlessly reported, Chan used his time in jail to explore Faith, and devoted himself to making other prisoners’ lives better in his finite time left on Earth. Sukumaran painted, expressed himself, laughed a lot, and reportedly evolved into an intelligent, gentle giant, to the point that the act of shooting him in the heart most definitely felt like murder rather than justice.

In the end, Eliot was wrong: they could not out-run that one massive mistake of their youth but, by the time it fatally caught up with them, they at least were able to stand tall, somehow seen by the wider community as more inspirational than dirty drug mules. (And none of this is to suggest that their original crime was okay: I am vehemently anti hard drugs and the people who would bring them into Australia. I just acknowledge the criminals’ rehabilitation.)

Of course, there’s not much of a link between that whole sorry business and hockey, and especially this now-half-century-old Melbourne struggler.

Except that those horrific events underline, strongly, how much easier sport is, even when it goes badly, compared to real life. Context can be useful sometimes, when we think the sporting Gods are against us. Hockey and other sports are not actually life-and-death, no matter how energetically some commentators may try to put that spin on it. I was encouraged to see several AFL footballers actively dismissing all the ANZAC Day bullshit that likes to make out that football is war. A couple of players went out of their way, in interviews, to underline that they understand and appreciate the difference; that they’re only playing sport, not facing the unimaginable horrors that soldiers, Turk or Australian, New Zealander or British, did at Gallipoli.

Tiger Nathan Drummond buckles his knee in his first game. Pic AFL Media

Tiger Nathan Drummond buckles his knee in his first game. Pic AFL Media

Yes, a promising young Tiger, Nathan Drummond, made his debut for the club last Friday night against Melbourne only to collapse, in agony, clutching his knee, and duly needed season-ending surgery. That sucks dog balls, as an ex-girlfriend of mine liked to say, but Drummond can come back and try again. He gets to do rehab, and sweat and grit his teeth, and overcome this hurdle.

Even as I watched my ever-frustrating Tigers fail to turn up against a young and committed Demon team that night, falling with depressing meekness in the rain, I could be comfortable in the knowledge that Richmond would get another shot at being the finals-bound team it was resolutely failing to be, this weekend at the MCG versus Geelong. That morning, I had already watched my beloved Red Wings, in the first-round of the NHL play-offs, against Tampa Bay, carry a 2-0 lead deep into the third period, all set to go 3-1 up in the series, only to drop three goals in eight minutes to lose and re-earn their underdog status.

It only took them two days to rediscover the team they might have been, winning big in Tampa Bay, before returning to the Joe and losing again. And so, as I type this, it’s 0-0 at the end of the first period of Game 7 at Tampa Bay, and the Wings may or may not be going through to the second round.

Which will lead to whether Mike Babcock will or won’t remain as head coach next year, as he comes off contract and fields huge offers from a range of teams desperate for him to take over their franchises.

Detroit and Tampa Bay battle it out in the NHL play-offs.

Detroit and Tampa Bay battle it out in the NHL play-offs.

And, if the team has lost today, players will come and go and the team will seek to improve beyond the once-mighty power that hasn’t made it past the first couple of rounds of play-offs for years now. The longest active play-off streak in American sport – 24 years and counting – doesn’t mean much when you get KOed straight away every time.

But, to emphasise, Eliot’s point, they get another shot. Every season. And if Babcock does leave, somebody else will take that chair and the team will evolve in a new direction.

Me? Right now, I feel a long way from the hockey player I might have been, or even am. I’m carrying a nasty head cold and I haven’t written any blogs because I’ve had a month off the ice, getting busy with swapping rings, working hard in two jobs, turning 50, entertaining family from France, doing pretty much anything except regular fitness work. Like everybody, I feel in my head that I am much younger than my chronological age, but I think the one part of hitting my half-century that I’m aware of is that if I stop moving, my body starts to immediately lose its edge. Like a shark that must swim to not drown, I simply can’t take a month off any more without noticing it, and so I’m resting only for as long as it takes to see off this virus and then I simply have to get back on the ice, get back in the gym, ride my awesome new mountain bike and do all the things I usually do to be fit and ready for next summer’s Div 3 action.

The good news is that I have that chance, I have the blessed life that I have, to evolve and explore and see what I can still be in the second half of my life. Hopefully better than I am and I have been.

Chan and Sukumaran, and the six men executed with them, don’t have that chance. But if you’re reading this, you do. Live large, people. Take a moment to breathe, to enjoy the feeling of simply being alive. And then get on with things.

 

The end of another summer?

Tonight, I potentially play my last game of the IHV Div 3 2014/15 summer season. My team, the Cherokees, has a game next weekend to finish the regular season but I have a wedding I can’t miss and so tonight, at 10.30 pm at the Icehouse against the Champs, is it for me. Except that we’re going to win tonight and therefore play finals in a couple of weeks, but that’s for another blog.

As always, as the end of the official season approaches, I feel melancholy. There are aspects of being in a team, of sharing adventures with the same group of people, that are impossible to capture elsewhere. It’s something I cherish because I only watched it from the outside for so many years as a sports journalist while, as a kid, I was more of a surfer than a footy player and only played indoor cricket with some mates for fun. The Bang, my winter footy world with a bunch of similarly creaky Sherrin-chasers, goes close but we don’t have actual matches, we don’t skate onto the Henke Rink needing to win to make the finals. That sort of adrenalin is hard to bottle.

I haven’t written the blog since returning from Christmas because there hasn’t been much to write about, in a hockey sense. I’ve been training on Wednesdays, very much as per the final blog of last year, where Tommy, Lliam, Army and Shona own our arses in dev league after we complete drills in Inter class. We’ve played some Cherokee games and continue to get more cohesive and dangerous as a team, just as we’re going to have to stop.

In my happy place (pun intended): playing the goon for the Cherokees.

In my happy place (pun intended): playing the goon for the Cherokees.

Away from the rink, I’ve been on an intense fitness campaign – including a non-negotiable minimum of 50 push-ups and 100 sit-ups per day, over and above hockey training, gym workouts and other fitness – and feel great for it. It’s kind of annoying that I feel like I’m hitting peak fitness at the exact moment I’m about to stop playing competitive hockey.

On Monday, I even walked to work, and therefore found myself wandering past the Punt Road Oval just as my beloved Richmond footy team was warming up for training. Somebody had left a gate open and that’s all a former journo needs to sneak in and take a seat … I eventually made myself useful by collecting the balls that were kicked too high for the epic netting behind the goals (about one in five shots), so that I felt like a little kid again, scurrying around behind the goals at the school end of Lorne’s Stribling Reserve to get the footy as the Lorne Dolphins took on their Otway opponents, surf booming from down the hill.

But I digress. It was fascinating watching the Tigers go through their routines. It’s a long time since I’ve been to an AFL training session. As a journo, I hung out at training all the time and mostly took it for granted but now I saw it all through fresh eyes. The Tigers warm up using many of the time-honoured techniques all footy teams do, such as two players sharing one ball, playing kick-to-kick from 20 metres apart. Even us Bangers do that before starting to run around, but Richmond puts a little spin on it: instead of standing, flat footed, to mark the ball, then kick it back, the Tigers mark it, turn, take four or five steps backwards, then pivot and deliver the pass back to their mate. It’s recreating the movement of taking a grab, and then retreating from somebody standing on the mark, to turn and bullet a pass to a teammate. Kicking with one foot and then the other. Even before their hammies are vaguely warmed up, they’re recreating match conditions.

They weren’t finished. After a while, the players took to marking the ball, then dropping it and letting it bounce on the ground a couple of times before they bent, picked it up and kicked before straightening. Again, in a match, you don’t have time to scoop up the ball, stand straight, balance, look around and then kick. So at training, they’re kicking from a half-crouch, having snared the ball on a half volley.

Jack Riewoldt shows his style at training.

Jack Riewoldt shows his style at training.

Everything had a meaning; everything had purpose. When a coach called ‘drink break’, the Tigers ran back to their drink bottles as fast as they possibly could. I mean: sprinted! It was like there was a thousand bucks cash on the boundary near their bottles. In a game, you don’t jog back to the bench, you get the fuck off the playing surface so your replacement can get on. One player yelled: ‘This is not a drill, peoples. This is not a footy drill!’ just to be a goose, but that’s where I started to see the correlations between what they were doing and hockey training. Sprinting to the boundary, for example, has direct application for hockey. If you’ve ever played in a team with somebody who dawdles back to the bench, stick in the air, because that’s how they’ve seen the NHL players do it … while you’re watching your team now a man down on an opposition breakaway, you’ll know what I mean. If you’re going to end your shift, skate hard to the boards, peoples.

At our training, the coaches endless ask us to skate fast over to the whiteboard so they can explain the next drill, but people saunter back, grab a drink, gradually tune in. The Tigers, professional athletes, are there, drinking, in a flash, and then on their way to the next activity with intent. Impressive intent.

The other drill that caught my eye was when they started doing run-throughs. Six or seven Tigers would leave one end of the ground at a time, running at maybe 60-70 per cent. As they approached the cones 150 metres away, a coach would be standing with a Sherrin in his hands. He would fire a handball to one of the running players, but they didn’t know which until he suddenly rocketed the ball to them. Lightning fast hands snared the ball in one grab every time. In hockey, a lot of our drills are choreographed, as in ‘Man A leaves this corner, skates around this cone, looks for a pass from Man B who then skates to here to receive the pass back before the blue line’. The Tigers add a little matchday randomness to everything, because in a game, you don’t have the choreographed puck arrive just as you’re ready for it after rounding a cone. In fact, hockey games and AFL games are very much about making snap decisions and of having the puck or ball arrive sometimes unexpectedly.

This is not to say footy training is better/smarter than what we do at the Icehouse. I fully get that hockey skill drills are a different beast to the Tigers’ match day recreation stuff and that we hockey rookies need to have drilled into us over and over again how to break-out, how to form a three man rush, how to pass in front of a skater, not to their feet … these are basics that we need to keep working on but the Tigers don’t exactly have to worry about. And anyway, at the Bang, one of our elders, a well-known singer songwriter, is forever trying to get us to do a three-man handball weave as we run warm-up laps, but it’s laughable how incompetent we all are at such a basic move. It drives him insane. Sometimes, hockey players and footy players are better when acting by instinct, instead of trying to handball to here, move from point A to point B, receive the ball there, move from Point B to Point C.

And then, anyway, the Tigers surprised me and made me laugh, by doing a drill that was so robotic and synchronized that it looked like a line-dance.

The whole thing was fun to watch, and scamper around, collecting footys. I walked the rest of the way to work and back to my real life, looking forward to the AFL season starting, so that the Tigers can prove they’re finally the real thing. The calendar clicking ever closer to footy mode also means the Melbourne Ice women will have secured the title by then, which means the Melbourne Ice men will be ready to show the Giddyup Clippy Clop Orange crowd that last year’s final was just a bad day on the wrong day.

Me? I’ll be spending Wednesday nights on the ice with Big Cat, and Sundays at the Bang with my footy brothers, occasionally, hopefully, scuba diving with Mackquist, and all the time wondering if my creaky old body has another summer of competitive hockey left in it? As I do every year. Before I inevitably sign up and pull the Cherokees No. 17 jersey over my shoulder pads, chasing that locker-room brother-and-sisterhood that I adore and the sheer thrill of the battle. I love it all. There’s life in the old dog yet.