A question without notice

So, a strange thing happened on Wednesday night in the Icehouse change room.

A friendly member of the local hockey community … unlike that prick, Nicko Place.

Walking off the ice from Dev League, I congratulated my opposition winger, Theresa, on a good game, and she returned the compliment.

Then, with a big smile, said to me: “So Nicko, are you coming to the Melbourne Ice Gala?”

The Gala is a big swanky annual sit-down dinner where the hockey community gets dressed up in formal gear (well, more formal than armour and sweaty jerseys, and mostly favouring shoes instead of skates on the dance-floor). This year is a big one because it’s to celebrate the club’s 10th anniversary.

Theresa, welcoming, ever the energetic social driver of our crew, asking me if I wanted a seat on the Rookies’ table? To which I replied, without even thinking, in a question-without-notice reflex action: “No.”

Theresa’s smile dropping. “How come?”

And I replied, honestly: “I just don’t do those kind of things.”

Which was honest but kind of blunt.

(** and yes, this entire post is a way of apologising, to Theresa, and Wayne, who is – * spoiler alert * – still to come in this anecdote…)

Outside, back in street clothes, about to head off into the night, another Rookie, Wayne (see, told you), asked the same question: “Coming to the gala, Nicko?”

“Nope,” I said. “Any night at the pub with you guys, I’m there. Not the gala.”

And off I went, safe in my suddenly unexpected crowning as the antisocial bastard of the night.

But not feeling great, despite the glory of Aimee and my “perfect” two-on-one tic-tac-toe goals during Intermediate, or some decent efforts by me in Dev League, even if I did screw up in the final minute which led directly to an opposition goal. Oops.

Anyway, doing my usual Wednesday night post-hockey thing of lying wide-awake until after 2 am, I thought about it. Why would my instant reaction to the gala be no? I love the hockey crowd, I would be happy to sit and break bread with pretty much anybody in that world. I like alcohol, a lot. Especially with friends.

So why my instant, brutal dismissal of a fun, formal night out?

It took me two days to work it out, and the good news is that it’s baggage from my past; nothing to do with hockey. In fact, it led to an even deeper love of hockey … I’ll explain.

You see, I was a sportswriter for many years, for The Herald and then The Age and Sunday Age newspapers, as well as The Age online and more recently my own company, Media Giants. I also worked for ten years, off and on, as a reporter/producer/writer for the Seven Network.

It was a great life, in a lot of ways. I covered tennis, including all the Grand Slams (Roland Garros remains the best event I think I ever covered), as well as boxing (including a lot of Jeff Fenech’s world title fights), field hockey and other sports.

Mostly I covered AFL.

And here’s where Wednesday night’s knee-jerk reaction came from.

In tennis and AFL, there are players and there are fans. Football likes to talk of itself as a “family”, but it’s not. There are those who have set foot on a VFL or AFL field, and the rest of us.

(Another warning: there’s some name-dropping ahead. I promise it is to make a point.)

In tennis, where players are told by coaches, family, everybody that they are only a peg or two down from God because they hit a decent forehand when they were 11 years old, the Us and Them is very pronounced. Think rock stars egos with racquets. I remember one story where an Australian player had her arse handed to her at Eastbourne, the women’s pre-Wimbledon event, and her furious coach decided it was time to lay it on the line, let her know that effort was simply not good enough, to really strip things down to the horrible truth … he walked into the players’ lounge and found said player reclining, enjoying a foot massage from her mummy, while her daddy held her hand and literally spoon-fed her, her agent tut-tutting sympathetically off to the side. This player was in her 20s at the time.

Trust me when I tell you that if you’re a journalist who writes that a player who lost 6-1, 6-0 didn’t play well, you can expect attitude from the player and his mates. Seriously. I’ve been there. Had the walls go up from the Australian players as a collective, because I didn’t write the usual excuses and “gee, he tried hard” crap. For all the glamour of covering Wimbledon or the French, Davis Cup in exotic locations, I was happy to leave that world. The players can’t work out why the media isn’t just an extension of their fan club, which includes everybody who makes money out of their success, and star struck fans.

The Woodies – Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge: great people on and off the court.

I’m generalizing here, obviously – and there are distinct and welcome exceptions, who I’m going to name because I’d be horrified on the off-chance they read this and thought I was talking about them. So I am explicitly excluding Mark Woodforde, Todd Woodbridge, Nicole Provis, Yannick Noah, Ivan Lendl, and a bunch of the Swedish players, who generally, in my experience, didn’t take themselves so seriously, including former world No. 1s Stefan Edberg and Mats Wilander. Even Rod Laver – total gentleman, and unaffected by his astonishing record. Others were cool too; including Steffi Graf who showed a lot of poise and grace while carrying a heavy load of battling English and German tabloids.

And then there’s the AFL. I would like to think I have made some genuinely good friends out of footy, and there are wonderful people and players and ex-players who have a welcome perspective on their world.

But many do not and that’s where the Ice Gala comes in (at last). I have suffered through so many AFL functions where there are the players, and everybody else. The players place such a premium on “one-for-all, all-for-one” and all that locker-room crap that they have trouble turning it off once they’re in public, if they even try to.

Fans will approach their table at a club function and the players will mostly be polite, pose for photos etc, but their hearts are rarely in it. Their eyes are often empty, veiled. Media, fans, sponsors … we’re all a kind of annoying sideline to their fame.

And this is what I unwittingly projected onto the Melbourne Ice Gala, when Theresa landed that unexpected question.

It was only on reflection that I realized part of me had gone back to footy/tennis mode. And that was wildly unfair, because the beautiful end to this rant is that hockey is so, so, so different.

One of the reasons I love this world is the lack of pretension, the lack of egos. There’s Matt Armstrong, currently one of the top scorers in the AIHL this season, a veteran of seriously high-quality international competition, driving the Zamboni on a weekday, laughing with us rookies and teaching us with endless patience. Likewise, Lliam, Tommy and Shona, all Australian representatives but never once looking down their noses at mere mortal strugglers like us.

Joey Hughes teaching his unique philosophy and hockey skills at the very unglamorous Oakleigh rink. Giving, giving, giving.

So, I hate that I projected AFL sensibilities onto these people. I swear to remember, wherever possible, how grateful I am to be in this underground, cult-like, happy, friendly, intense world of Melbourne hockey. Solidarity, brothers and sisters. That gala would actually be a lot of fun, and I hope everybody there takes a moment to realize how special it is that the Ice players like Lliam, Army, Tommy, Jason et al, are genuinely happy to chat with fans and rookies, instead of just doing their time because they have to.

Army keeping it real in the local hockey version of an ice bath. Pic: Melbourne Ice

Take it from me, who has sailed the wider waters of international sport. This is a rare treasure.

And no, I still won’t be there … turns out it’s the same weekend that my kids film festival, Little Big Shots  is at the Sydney Opera House, so I’ll be in the Opera House green room, smiling quietly as artistic egos fill the room.

But Theresa, Wayne and other rookies, Lliam, Army and co, have a drink for me. Keep your eye out for how Ice Man manages to drink through that helmet of his … I’ve always wondered. And can he fit a tux over his armour?

I genuinely wish I could be there. Really.