Whale sharks, wounded Wings and Arnold, the Estonian.

Life’s been pretty exciting lately, even if this blog has been quiet.

I’m head down on lots of work, and deep in the first draft of the ‘Roll With It’ sequel, which is why I’ve been slack about writing hockey stuff down. But I have been living it. For example, tonight, one of my old Interceptor teammates, Dan ‘Yoda’ Byrne, is in town and so we’re getting the band back together, to play the IBM Business machines at the Icehouse. Should be fun. With summer comp over, all of my current hockey is in this vein of playing for fun, or development on Wednesday nights. I’ve found my intensity has slipped a little, but I’m ok with that. Next summer feels a long way away.

I might also be affected by the fact Tony Abbott is probably hunting me as I type, determined to dump my arse on Nauru or, worse (if that’s possible) Manus Island. You see, I am now an officially rejected boat person – turned back from a country’s border and refused entry. I was on a dive boat a few weeks ago, headed for Burma, to look for manta rays as a scientific project for the Marine Megafauna Foundation, when the Burmese officials decided not to let us through.

It didn’t ruin my week too much, given I had already hung out with manta rays, a whale shark (only a baby at five metres long) and an octopus, doing the whole try-to-turn-into-coral routine. We turned back into Thailand and visited amazing islands for the remainder of the week, even if the mantas deserted us.

Mixing hockey and diving underwater off Thailand.

Mixing hockey and diving underwater off Thailand.

It wasn’t until I was back at Patong that hockey made its inevitable, inexplicable appearance, as it always does no matter how remote or bizarre the location. It started when I walked past a bar in the seedy, dodgy, dubious quarter of Patong, in the middle of the day for safety from bouncers and spruikers, and saw one TV was featuring a replay of the USA v Canada hockey semi-final at the Sochi Olympics. The other TV had Richmond v Collingwood, live and pre-season from Wangaratta, as a Thailand bar would. I took a photo because all of this was so unlikely and the bar owner pounced, screeching at me: ‘100 baht for photo! 100 baht for photo!’

‘Yeah, that’s not going to happen,’ I said, walking away.

I walked and walked and walked, wearing myself out before the plane home, and eventually made it back to where I was staying and plunged into the pool. There I was joined by a European guy with bold shoulder tribal tattoos and Abbott-worthy budgie smugglers. His name was Arnold, we got talking about Estonia versus Australia and the inevitable weather comparisons and I laughed about playing ice hockey when it was sometimes 38 degrees outside the Icehouse.

‘You play hockey?’ Arnold said. ‘I also play hockey!’

Turns out Arnold is in his early 40s and plays for an Estonian team called Total, based in the Estonian capital, Tallinn.

Estonia's Total hockey team. Arnold on the right, middle row.

Estonia’s Total hockey team. Arnold on the right, middle row.

This is the team, along with their coach (who I call Chuckles), and that’s Arnold on the far right of the middle row.

Turns out it’s more expensive to play hockey in Estonia, with Arnold forking out something like 800 Euros a season (compared with about $500-600, including PointStreak, here) but sounds similar otherwise. Arnold was super-keen that my team, the Cherokees, should travel to Estonia to play his. I gently pointed out that we’re all amateur hockey players, like he is, and therefore don’t really have the kind of team funds to travel half way around the world for a friendly social match. … Unless one of my teammates has been holding out on us about hidden riches. Doc? Wolverine? Milkman? We have another plan to swap jerseys, which I should make happen, just for the Hell of it.

As we parted, Arnold said to me, ‘Now we are Facebook friends, we are friends forever!’ Hard to argue with that.

Hockey BFF: Arnold and Nicko. (Pic: Arnold's wife)

Hockey BFF: Arnold and Nicko. (Pic: Arnold’s wife)

Once I got back to Melbourne, I had my usual couple of sessions of shaking off being underwater and instead reacclimatizing to the ice. Had a brilliant stick-n-puck session with a teammate, Wolverine, where my legs screamed, and then a Dev League to get in shape for the Cherokees’ final match of summer, on the Friday night. We were beaten, again, but felt like we were right in it, for long periods. Most of us are planning to stay together for next summer and hopefully we’ll see improvement from a second year together. It was inspiring watching the Tigersharks this year, playing such a beautiful team game after three solid seasons together, even if they were pipped in the Grand Final by Jets Black, with the Blacks’ Swede just edging the Tigershark’s Canadian, two goals to one.

We were definitely playing a better team game towards the end of the season, and that gives us hope.

Nicko v The Wolverines. What happens when Kittens and Chris Hodson peel off for a line change without me realising I'm now all alone ... (Pic: Luke Milkovic)

Nicko v The Wolverines. What happens when Kittens and Chris Hodson peel off for a line change without me realising I’m now all alone … (Pic: Luke Milkovic)

Only this morning, I saw yet another brilliant quote from the Red Wings’ coach, Mike Babcock, who I really think is one of the world’s great coaches. The Wings are still somehow in the playoff race despite suiting up a line-up that has been smashed by injuries all season, and no more than now where Dats, Zetterberg, Ericsson, Helm, Abdelkader and Weiss lead something like 10 first-team absences, meaning the Wings are a defacto Grand Rapids Griffins as they face up to the might of the Crosby-led Penguins today.

Babs’ take on all this? ‘We know tonight … the other team is gonna have more skill than us. So what? Skill doesn’t win, teams win.’

So true. I quote another of Babs’ lines: ‘Choose your attitude,’ all the time. He and the Wings could sigh that the injury Gods hate them, it’s all too hard and fold, or embrace the crazy challenge of this season, skate hard and see what they can do. Choose your attitude.

I’m not convinced the streak can stay alive this year but it’s truly astonishing that it’s not over yet. Go Babs. Go Wings.

A full house of hockey life

Getting ready for the Aussie Ben Laden Cup.

Getting ready for the Aussie Ben Laden Cup.

So here’s something that I love about hockey; this allegedly crazy little cult of a sport in Australia, half a world from the heartland of chasing pucks.

On Saturday night, I went to a poker game being run by a friend from work. His name is Ben Laden, which I, being the sparkling world-renowned wit that I am, couldn’t help but notice was a similar name to a certain terrorist, recently dispatched. Turns out that Ben has a lot of trouble at passport control whenever he enters the USA – or did, pre-Abbottabad. Sometimes the entire passport team would ask to pose for a photo.

He’s embraced his fate and on Saturday night, we played for the Aussie Ben Laden Cup, and a stack of cash from the buy-in stakes. Ben’s a pretty keen player and has regaled me with a lot of stories about long, intense poker nights between him and his mates. Some have played professionally or semi professionally. Intimidating just to hear about. So I went in, knowing I was up against it.

But actually, the jeopardy wasn’t that great because I had all of 50 bucks on the line, the cost of buying in. Two tables of 8 players each. Two rounds of play. Best combined finishes went to the final table.

I fancy myself at cards so into the pot went my Edith Cowan.

Naturally, I was dressed as a cowboy. “Aussie” had convinced me that dodgy poker skills could be minimized by startling dress sense in this company. He was wearing a truly appalling and genuine Hawaiian shirt, so lived his preach. That afternoon, getting ready for the evening ahead, I donned my trusty cowboy shirt from a ramshackle second hand shop in Williamsburg, New York, and cowboy boots from the same store, and headed to the Icehouse to coach one of our rival Summer League teams, the TigerSharks.

Say what? You thought this was about poker. Well, eventually it is but first there was a game to get through, as they were down a bench coach. Kittens and I shared the duties – Kittens bravely donning his favourite poncho so I wouldn’t feel out of place as a cowboy. We were definitely setting new trends in bench coach fashion.

We were coming off a disappointing loss on Thursday night, never quite able to get the Interceptors rolling in the fog that envelopes the Oakleigh rink when 30-degree humidity outside meets a melting iceblock inside. The Blackhawks played really well on a night where the goalies could barely see beyond the red line, so pucks could come out of nowhere. I got an assist and played a decent game without ever feeling like I lit it up, so I wasn’t sure how I’d go trying to tell a Summer League rival team how to play.

Oakleigh brings the summer fog.

Oakleigh brings the summer fog.

It was my first taste of hockey coaching and it turned out that I loved it. As I think I’ve written before, I have a lot of friends in the TigerSharks and have enjoyed games against them, because they have a similar intensity-meets-have-fun attitude to the Interceptors.

Suddenly, here I was, two years into this whacky hockey journey, with a change room full of armoured players listening to my pre-game advice. How did that happen? And what I do know?

Only just enough, apparently, and yet not enough, because the game against the Devils was a 1-1 draw. The TigerSharks had most of the attacking but the Devils’ defence was resolute, with their goalie, Mark Stone, standing on his head to deny them time and again. I tried to observe and advise stuff other than the obvious and battled with not knowing all the players, yet found myself totally caught up in the moment, desperately wanting my team to win; a TigerSharks team that I was thrilled to beat a couple of weeks ago, while wearing my Interceptor #17 jersey. Now I was a cowboy, willing them to find that final goal. Suddenly I could see how much fun coaching would be, if you had a team for a whole season. Maybe, if my knee collapses completely, or I get too old to skate (never!), this could be a hockey path I could explore?

Although I would run out of cowboy shirts pretty quickly.

And so finally through the heat to the top of Sydney Road (I still can’t help but think of that area as Jill Meagher country) and on to the poker game. Battling 15 other players, 14 of whom I had never met and had no connection with. And as I said at the start, this I where I found yet another thing I love about hockey. Sitting outside on the deck playing for hours on a hot night, a couple of strange smelling cigarettes and light beers down, I finally took off my cowboy shirt to reveal a Zetterberg #40 Red Wings T-shirt underneath.

Immediately, one guy on my table, with a Canadian drawl, said: “You’re a Wings fan?”

Turns out he grew up in Quebec and played as a kid.

Inevitably, my stack dwindled, I had not much left to lose, went all in on a couple of picture cards that turned out not to be enough and was out of Round One, appropriately losing to Wild Bill Hickok’s “dead man’s hand”.

The most stylish coaches in Summer League Rec D. Pic: Rachael Hands

The most stylish coaches in Summer League Rec D. Pic: Rachael Hands

At which point, a tall guy from the other table, also out, wandered over and said: “Did I hear that you play hockey? I used to play for Queensland in goals, inline and on ice, in juniors. I’ve been in England for the last eight years but I’m looking to get back into it.”

And so we spent Round Two yarning about Datsyuk’s genius, and Thomas Jurco coming up behind, and inline hockey in London, and the standard of the local scene, and how he can join the Icehouse rookie family.

Do the maths. Sixteen players in a card game: three, including me, with a hockey connection. At the northern Brunswick end of Sydney Road, on a Saturday night. There are allegedly a thousand or so registered players in Australia, plus a few thousand keen fans, and yet here were three of us, out of 16. What are the odds?

If I could work out ratios like that in my head, I might have made the final table.

So long, 50 bucks.

Sub-standard skating in context

Spitfires v Tigersharks. Waiting for a whistle to start things off. Pic: Zac Arato.

Quite the weekend. In Melbourne, a classic AFL grand final took everybody’s mind off the unspeakably horrific murder of Jill Meagher, although in her local hood, Brunswick, they did what Brunswick people do and discussed “yarn-bombing a tree” as a tribute to her. Well played, Swans, and thank you for the distraction.

In Sydney, fuckwit shock jock Alan Jones said Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s father had “died of shame” when he passed away a few weeks ago, because his daughter was such a liar. A paid-up dinner of Young Liberals chortled and applauded. Sponsors are now pulling out of his radio show but what’s the bet he isn’t even sacked?

Big Cat Place prepares for a face-off against the Tigersharks.

Overseas, things were even stranger. American being America, there was a report of a man in a black ski mask being spotted near a window and so a neighbor strode out, invoking his goddamn Constitutional Right to bear arms and to defend property, and shot the intruder dead. Then took off the balaclava and found out it was his 15-year-old son.  This was on the same day that Fox News America was busy following a police car chase in Arizona after some guy had carjacked a vehicle and taken off. The coverage was being enjoyed by the Fox audience right up until the bad guy stopped his car, got out and shot himself in the head, live on national TV. “We really messed up,” a Fox spokesman said.  Meanwhile in Manchester, Britain, two female police – unarmed because that’s how the Brits roll – were shot down by a psycho who had phoned in his own burglary to attract them, and then turned himself into the local police station. In one report on that story, it was pointed out that five British police have been killed by gunfire in the past decade. In the same period, 544 American police have been slain. Over the weekend, of course, in Tennessee, in the USA, there was also a conference of those opposed to gun control. “In a perfect world, without carry permits, anybody ought to be able to own a gun and anybody ought to be able to carry a gun,” said enthusiast Mike Crow.

The point of all this is to provide context to my hockey battles of the weekend. I played twice and was mildly frustrated both times at how my skating is going, or not going, depending on how you look at it. In both games, I was serviceable, didn’t suck – and in the first game, on Friday night, my passing, especially to Big Cat in the forward line, was really happening.

Several of my hockey mates on the move in Spitfires v Tigersharks action. Pic: Zac Arato.

But I still need to work on moving my feet. I still need to get those first few quick steps to put distance between me and back-checkers on a breakaway.

Even so, driving home on Sunday night, I was very aware that my world and the wider world had bigger issues than whether I can train myself to have faster wheels by the time summer league starts in a fortnight. Context can be a good thing sometimes.

On Sunday, a bunch of our new summer team, The Spitfires, took on another actual team, the TigerSharks. This was my first time playing against players I didn’t really know, against genuine opposition.

Sure, I skated onto the ice to take a face-off and said, “Oh, hi, Brendan,” to Brendan Parsons, facing me across the red dot (he duly kicked my arse in getting the puck away) and then said, “Oh hi, Georgia,” to Georgia Giblin, the TigerSharks’ other centre I faced. And said hi to Dan and Mark and others I knew on that team … but honestly, really, there were people playing who I didn’t know, and therefore it was a good test of where our team was at, and where I was at.

Short answer: still not a good enough skater to play centre now we’re playing for real. On a wing, I’m okay, and I’m getting better, but I have to get to more general sessions, just to keep my legs getting faster.

The Spitfires team listen to our coach for the day, Melbourne Ice player Austin McKenzie. It’s quite possible he was saying: “Kittens? Really? Kittens? Was that to get the chicks?” Pic: Zac Arato

Hockey remains a lot of fun though. It was a very clean game on Sunday; hard-fought but with great spirit. Just the way it should be. I got to share a line with Liam Patrick,  my friendly rival, Apollo Creed to my Rocky,  who excelled by yelling the opposition team’s name instead of our own as we did a group gloves-together-inspirational-yell thing at the start of the third period. “I honestly didn’t mean that,” he said as we prepared for the face-off. I told Georgia, newly named among the Melbourne Ice women’s team and now an intimidating presence staring at me across the face-off dot. “For real?” she asked, wondering what she was up against. My distraction didn’t work; I think she won that one.

Even so, the Spitfires won the day. We somehow jumped to a three goal lead in the opening few minutes (it turned out the TigerSharks hadn’t really been together, as a team, on the ice at all since last summer season and had a lot of ring rust, as boxers call it). Once they woke up, it was a nil-all draw, but we had lots of chances and played well.

Can’t wait for the actual season to start now, in two weeks.

But in the meantime, I’ll distract myself by watching the wider world and scratching my head about bigger issues. Like how Melbourne is mourning Jill Meagher’s murder, or how Alan Jones can be such a dickhead after so many years on Earth, or even what the business plan is behind opening a Victoria’s Secret store at the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium? Life is never boring.

The goalie’s lament

A goalie's dread: the puck in the net. Pic: ibtimes.com

We might have lost one. The Icehouse Rookies, as our class of 2011 has taken to calling ourselves, is a member down after the weekend.

I am not standing in judgement. I want to make that clear from the start because this is a difficult post to write.

Summer league is currently happening and on Sunday the Tigersharks played the Devils. No sugar-coating, it was a massacre. The final score was, I believe, 20-0. That’s a goal every third minute, assuming it was a normal length hockey game.

The losing side’s goalie, Jason, appears to have hung up his pads in the wake of such a caning. I’m hoping that’s not the case and this entire post is premature but our Icehouse Rookies’ Facebook group (which rocks, btw, as a community) has been fielding requests for a potential fill-in goalie for the next game and beyond.

Jason must be in a bad place and it got me thinking about the attrition rate over the course of this year. As I wrote in my very first nickdoeshockey post, I have always felt just one bad fall, one vital broken bone, away from this whole hockey adventure crashing to a halt.

I’ve seen that happen too; players with broken collar bones or other nasty injuries. One woman in my second Intro class was a decent skater but landed hard on her chest during supermans, hobbled to the bench in pain (I have it on good authority this is chick equivalent of being kicked in the balls), cried a little and it occurred to me weeks later that I had never seen her again.

I’ve stepped out of classes right now because I felt exposed and potentially humiliated by my lack of skating skill (especially once most of a Division 4 team joined my Intermediate class for extra training, skating literal rings around me, and becoming frustrated when us lesser players couldn’t keep up with their drilled moves).

But this is the first case I know of where somebody has actually walked away from the game.

The reality is that us rookies are forever bordering on exposure as the starters we are, and the system, as it stands, doesn’t do much to protect us. It’s skate to keep up, or fail publicly. Of course, for the goalies, this is magnified hugely. I read a book while in America called “Open Ice” by a former Sports Illustrated hockey writer, Jack Falla, who had spent his youth as a goalie. He talked about the endless hours of taking shots, on the ice, in his driveway, anywhere he could absorb thousands and thousands of pucks/shots. I was doing other things for 45 years before January … and given my age as a rookie, I’ve been painfully aware of all the people who started skating 30 years or more before me. For goalies like Jason, it’s, again, magnified.

I wasn’t at Sunday’s game but, reading the Facebook accounts, Jason faced something like 51 shots on goal. So he stopped 31. In a NHL game, that’s a very good night’s work for a goalie. But of course, 20 got through, which is less thrilling and has apparently drained his self-confidence.

To have that many shots pepper a goalface is an impossible task for a goalie. It means the defence is not working, and the forwards are not playing each-way effectively (sorry to the Tigersharks – trust me, I’m not saying I would have done better. In fact, I’m sure I would have been worse).

But while those players will spend the week nursing nasty plus/minus figures and copping some ribbing from rival teams, Jason can know only the baseline figure.

Twenty. Compared to a shut-out. And feel responsible.

I’ve hung out with Jason at General Skates, stood on the ice with him while he explained new angles and ways of covering the goal that he’d learned in his first ever game the week before. It was a total voyage of discovery and there was no way of gaining this education without playing, and almost certainly losing.

He spoke with passion and enthusiasm, and I hate to think of him this week, deciding the sport is simply too hard. I really, really hope he connects with his temmates or the wider hockey community and realises nobody thinks badly of him for the weekend’s scoreline. We all get it. We will all have our bad days. The Wings’ stand-in goalie Ty Conklin is going through an NHL version of Jason’s angst right now. It never stops.

It seems to me that one of the major issues with hockey in Victoria is that there are a couple of badly needed missing-steps in the development path. Jason just tumbled off one of those unnecessarily large ledges. Summer League, and all the steps past Dev League, are fraught for newbies like us because we step straight onto the ice against potentially much better players. Players coming out of class want to join teams but might not be ready for genuine competition. With such limited ice time, for training as well as competition, players get squeezed into the same matches, and slaughters like the weekend become possible.

Some rookies, like me, are taking it cautiously. Others are charging into teams as fast as they can, on the theory that scrimmages and actual matches will improve them in ways rounds of Intermediate classes never will.

It’s a decent plan except that it means teams can be wildly mismatched, and results like last weekend happen.

Even drop-in hockey, where anybody can show up for an impromptu game at the Icehouse, is open to everybody. So last week, you had Intermediate class members, maybe even Intro players, out on the ice against or alongside Tommy Powell, Army and other Melbourne Ice players. Plus Shona, captain of the Ice women’s team. Tommy is set to represent Australia in Poland next year, but is skating against, potentially, me. This seems dangerous, relying completely on the Ice players to back off the throttle to cater for the L-platers in their midst, which they invariably do, but that must suck for them as well.

We definitely need Intermediate drop-in. We definitely need more ice time for rookie teams to wobble around and get their legs in games, even if we all understand there are only a couple of rinks and only so many hours in a day. But push is coming to shove. Devils smashing Tigersharks does nobody any favours.

ONE LAST THING:

Jason, if you read this, one last, left-field thing to consider. I hang out with a bunch of professional magicians and they have an understanding: if you choose to perform card tricks or other sleight of hand, for an audience or just friends, it is recognised that it will go catastrophically wrong probably 10 times in your career. I’m talking, no way out, complete disaster, self-inflicted, user-error, in-front-of-an-audience, floor-open-up-and-swallow-me-please humiliation.

Ten times.

So every time it happens – and oh God, it’s nasty when it does (I’m up to four) – you die a little, but you take a breath and say very deliberately: OK, that’s another of the 10 out of the way, never to be suffered again. It’s a rite of magical passage, so to speak, and is accepted. Hated but accepted.

By 10, you should have your chops.

And so, post-disaster, you lick your ego wounds, work on your card skills, figure out how you fucked up, and find somebody else to perform the same trick too. And you get it right and breathe again …

Put the pads back on, Jason. Nobody wants to see you slink away. You just endured one of the Big Ten. I’m going to as well. It would be awesome to see you at the rink.