Saturday afternoon in Oakleigh

img_1291

It’s been raining for two days and it’s cold.

Winter cold; in the heart of spring. For IHV Summer League div 3 hockey.

Wearing four layers and a beanie, you leave it to your travelling companion to play loud music as you navigate the remorseless bottleneck of Chadstone’s road system. Finally, you pull up in the asphalt car park and lug your giant bag and sticks through the door that is slightly too small, then try to jam them and yourself through the even thinner wedge of metal to avoid the public turnstiles. Hockey players don’t pay at the gate.

Pre-game general skaters.

Pre-game general skaters. (Pic: Nicko)

 

Helpful penguin.

Helpful penguin.  (Pic: Nicko)

 

Dormant goals in the stands.

Dormant goals, waiting for us in the stands. (Pic: Nicko)

Inside, everything is that Oakleigh blue, except the dangling nets, like some demented fisherman’s lair, and the glow of the lights on the scoreboard, reading zero-zero. It’s 50 minutes to the puck drop.

Today is an intra-club grading match, Cherokees v Apaches, so you go say hi to Tony, rugged up and cutting edges in the Next Level shop, then head back down to chat with the ‘opposition’ before heading to your respective rooms. Your team shows up in ones and twos, and suddenly dressing room 3 is packed, strangely warm these days now that an effective heating system has somehow been installed.

Welcome to the shop.

The retail hub of Oakleigh. (Pic: Nicko)

 

Everything you need.

Everything you need. (Pic: Nicko)

 

Branding.

Branding. (Pic: Nicko)

The coaches read the lines one more time and bark instructions as you lace your skates, apply whatever idiosyncratic sock tape pattern you have evolved, give your teammates a grin or a nod, hang shit on the goalie, and then finally stalk your way on thin steel blades through the door, past the ever-dodgy men’s toilets and up the incline towards the rink.

Big crowd in for the Cherokees.

Big crowd in for the Cherokees. (Pic: Nicko)

 

The wait for the gate.

The wait for the gate. (Pic: Nicko)

 

Game time.

Game time. (Pic: Kat Pullin’s dad)

All the figure skaters, families, kids and fake penguins have been removed, Oakleigh’s antique Zamboni has chugged around and at last you step onto the ice, being careful because the drop is always slightly more than you expect, as the refs flip the goals from upside down in the grandstand to upright on the rink.

Water bottles to the narrow shelf behind the bench, a couple of fast laps of the narrow, claustrophobic Olympic rink, so much smaller than Icy O’Briens and with almost non-existent lines. Just as you finish shooting pucks at Stoney the goalie and gently tap all 20 pucks back to the bench, the rain starts in earnest and suddenly you can’t hear the final instructions because of the noise on the tin roof. The captain, Big Cat, shouts: ‘Kees on three. One … two … three!‘

‘KEES!

The crowd is tiny, maybe the occasional partner, family member or two, plus a couple of curious general skaters who have stuck around to see genuine hockey in Melbourne’s last remaining 1970s rink, a long half world away from the true hockey nations of the world.

Oakleigh action. Rain outside.

Oakleigh action. Rain outside. (Pic: Kat Pullin’s dad)

The puck drops and we go at it.

The game is fast and played in good spirit, both teams getting chances but with strong defences mostly choking breakaways and keeping attacks wide. Tommi in net for the Apaches, and Stoney standing on his head for us, as the heavy rain continues to drive hard and loud into the tin above, and sometimes through the roof, dripping onto our bench, and you wonder if this is going to turn into a famous Oakleigh pea-souper.

The Apaches seem to have only two or three players on the bench, while we have three full lines as well as five D. They get the first goal but we get one back and then another, and start to edge further in front.

Kees v Apaches.

‘Kees v Apaches. (Pic: Kat Pullin’s dad)

 

Kat defending. (Pic: her dad)

Kat defending. (Pic: her dad)

 

Some hack heads up ice.

Some hack heads up ice. (Pic: Kat Pullin’s dad)

In the end, we win, and we’re NHL happy but actually it’s a grading game and the start of summer and the Apaches have beaten us too many times for us to get cocky about managing to snag a win.

We do the handshakes, thank the refs, circle around to thank the coaches. We leave the ice, thank the hockey Gods that you’re allowed to have a beer in the change-rooms at good old Oakleigh, take advantage of that miracle as we get changed, then finish the beers outside, four or five Cherokees huddled in the doorway as the rain continues to fall but less so than during the game. We nod or yell goodbyes to various Braves players from both teams as they scuttle through the puddles to their vehicles, the few of us who are left shooting the shit about nothing in particular before we finally drift to our cars.

The post-game glow.

The post-game glow. (Pic: Nicko)

The long drive back to town has good music, and play-by-play breakdowns of the action, as we dissect the game and our form.

Next weekend, we’re back in the glamour of Icy O’Briens, Australia’s shiny and well-appointed official Winter Olympic training facility at Docklands, skating out no doubt to the disappointment of the remaining crowd after an women’s Australian Ice Hockey League game featuring Melbourne Ice has finished.

That’s Sunday afternoon.

But this one was classic Oakleigh. Who would have it any other way?

 

UPDATE: It looks like the crazy weather finally took a toll on Oakleigh’s ice sheet. This was from Facebook, apparently taken tonight, as I was finishing this. No idea how you fix something like this but one thing I do know: the resourceful Victorian hockey community will find a way.

Pic: Bron Bird, Monday.

Pic: Bron Bird, Monday.

Cracked ice on Monday night.

Cracked ice on Monday night.

A day is a long time in skating

By Nicko

On Wednesday night, on the Henke rink, in Dev League, I had one of those tiny moments that can give you hope on a crazy quest – like trying to become a hockey player in your forties.

Wayne McBride is a very decent player, despite the remorseless shit we throw at one another, and he took off on a breakaway, with another good skater, Nicole Cliff, alongside him.

Wayne was hammering up the boards but here came the unlikely figure of Nicko Place, new stride flying, to somehow get past Nicole and close Wayne down against the boards as he flew through the blue line.

For every night like this …

Wow, I thought, as I staggered to the bench moments later. Who knew I could backcheck, and against quality players?

The only reason I’m bragging about this is because it was a rare moment of skating proficiency, and even more so given how I remorselessly sucked at Oakleigh 23 hours later. We had our first team training for the Spitfires; both the Fighters and Interceptor teams on the ice – well, about half of our Interceptor team thanks to the lurgy sweeping around Melbourne, and a few players being away at the snow or on other adventures.

I was terrible; to the point that I felt embarrassed in front of the coaches of the night, Next Level’s Martin Kutek and Tony Theobald. My crossovers were rudimentary, my transitions clumsy, my positioning and thinking sluggish. What was wrong with me?

Those guys have put time and energy into me on several Friday nights and now I show up, as acting captain of the Interceptors, no less, barely able to remain vertical on my skates.

I’m exaggerating, but not much. I’ve felt bad that Friday nights have proven, as I feared, to be a close to impossible night for me, so I haven’t been able to take advantage of the generous efforts of Joey Hughes, Martin, Tony and Scott Corbett to push my skating to, yes, the next level. Now, I finally turn up with my team, and have a shocker.

… there can still be a night like this.

“Skate, Nicko, skate!” Martin kept saying and I was trying hard not to be flat-footed, but it was one of those nights where I had to will myself to move. Was a step slow for passes. Was accused of being lazy – and oh, I hate that. For my many often-confessed faults as a skater, or hockey player, I hate being thought of as lazy.

Maybe, just maybe, my ageing legs weren’t up for skating hard a night after Wednesday’s two hours of Intermediate/dev league and a 2 am sleep time? Is that what went wrong? I’m not conceding that. I pride myself on generally skating as hard as everybody 20 years younger and unless this proves a trend, I’m not factoring that excuse.

Although … if it wasn’t that, well then, shit, it was just plain embarrassing. I had hit the ice hard a couple of times the night before, including once where I rattled my helmet, crashing the goalie in a slot-battle late in the match, which left me bruised up my back and with a headache. But it wasn’t anything that should have left me unable to move my feet or balance on a blade the next evening.

A bunch of Melbourne’s hockey community are headed to Newcastle on the weekend for the AIHL finals (Go Ice!), which may mean slightly less crowded ice for those of us who stay behind. Maybe I can get a stick & puck session in on Sunday, to try and rediscover my mojo?

Or maybe I should just put on my old pork pie journo’s hat, and raise a glass or 12 to all the departing hacks from News Ltd and Fairfax, which is finally happening for real. A major piss-up is happening tonight, which will be the Melbourne media equivalent of a dead cop wake in Baltimore, as portrayed in “The Wire“. Toasts, speeches, laughs and memories as journos with 20 or 30 years on the clock walk out the door.

There’s a lot of fear in my industry at the moment. A lot of uncertainty. Dozens of people who have been incredibly skilled, intelligent, professional, loyal writers, editors, sub-editors, layout subs, photographers, graphic artists or other crucial cogs in the newspaper machine for decades are suddenly staring at an unexpected future. Hopefully it turns out to be a future of new opportunities and adventures.

Change is something some people embrace better than others. I’ve always been lucky in that my natural curiosity and sense of adventure has pushed me into trying new things and not becoming set in my ways and I was talking to a media colleague earlier this week about how highly I would recommend taking on a wildly challenging new activity (such as, say, hockey, or skiing, or scuba, or a martial art, or anything else that gets the blood pumping) for anybody in their late 30s/early 40s. It’s a great gear change to keep the rest of your life invigorated.

But that was a choice for me. It’s much harder when change is forced on you and you’re kicked out of the safety of what you know.

The Melbourne media tonight might not break into “I’m a freeborn man of the USA“, crowded around a body on a pool table, but there will be a sense of change and of the reality that things will never be the same.

But, fellow hacks, that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Life can be better, and every day is a new day. Which is lucky, given a man’s skating can switch from encouraging to embarrassing in the space of a day. Skate to where the puck will be, not where it is. We have team training again on Monday. Watch me go.