A Reality Check, in more ways than one.

This has been a little slow coming because I got distracted by manta rays and sharks, and then by coughing my lungs up for a few weeks. But in the middle of all that, on a remote island way off the coast of Queensland with no WIFI, I had the time and space to finally finish reading Will Brodie’s excellent book, Reality Check.

Will recently wrote for this blog about his two-phase hockey life, and, as you’d probably expect from a long-time mainstream newspaper and online journalist, the guy can really write. His regular AIHL reporting over the past few years was a huge, possibly under-recognised boon for the sport and is sadly missed since he quit Fairfax.

Reality Check, by Will Brodie

Reality Check, by Will Brodie

But his best work was yet to come. Last season, he followed the two Melbourne teams as they navigated their way through the trials, highs and lows of an AIHL season. He lucked out in the sense that the Mustangs came of age, eventually winning the Goodall Cup  over, guess who, the Melbourne Ice (and yes, I realise that is potentially a massive spoiler but then again, if you’re an Australian hockey fan and didn’t know that, then you’ve been off the map in ways I can’t help you with).

So Will got a good yarn, as Melbourne’s fierce-but-sort-of friendly rival teams duked it out all the way to the grand final at the Icehouse, but it’s the wider story and the wider characters of Reality Check that stayed with me. Will’s long history in the sport means he was able to really tap into the people who have kept hockey going in this country for years. Yet he also brought fresh eyes, making him an unlikely and invaluable chronicler. He was able to have detailed, knowledgeable conversations with everybody from new fans to the game, happily getting pissed pre or post-game, through to club presidents and imports, in every hockey-playing city and town in the country. Will sat in team mini-vans, sat up late with coaches and traveled to every AIHL rink and explored the nooks, crannies and idiosyncrasies of those diverse locations. All while throwing in lines like the one about a venue being so cold it offered warnings of future arthritis in his bones.

It all made for a cracking read, and I found myself emerging with three major takeouts:

  1. We need more rinks. A lot of people have been saying this for a long time but Reality Check emphasises the point over and over again. Hockey has enjoyed a huge surge in popularity over the past five years or so, in terms of AIHL fan numbers but maybe even more so in terms of newbies taking up the sport (like the guy typing these words, for example). Already, there is a crush of new players on waiting lists to play the looming IHV summer season that starts in September or so. Winter lists in Melbourne are pretty much full. Throw in training times, for clubs from the lowest social hockey levels to AIHL sessions, Next Level classes at Oakleigh, and Hockey Academy classes at the Icehouse (both at or near capacity), drop-in, and stick-n-pucks or skating sessions, and Melbourne’s two hockey rinks are loaded beyond capacity. I haven’t even mentioned speed skaters, figure skaters or other groups who also want the ice.
    Everybody knows the lack of rinks is an issue – and across Australia, not just Melbourne. There are endless plans, endless rumours of new rinks being developed, waiting for council approval, waiting for finance … but I remain worried that by the time new ice actually happens, if it does, all those wildly enthusiastic new players currently flooding the sport will have drifted away, frustrated by their inability to join a team and play. (Or by the secondary, related problem: that because two rinks can only host so many teams and therefore so many levels of competition, wildly varied levels of skill end up in the same divisions, leading to less-accomplished players feeling overwhelmed by playing hockey against skaters who should really be a division or two higher, if only there was room.)
  2. God, there’s a lot of love behind the momentum of an amateur sport like ice hockey. Time and again, through Will’s book, I was struck by the sheer commitment and dedication and hours of work being poured into the sport by people who have kids, real jobs, need sleep, have other things they could be doing. Again, just by kicking around Victorian hockey at the low level I do, I’m aware of how much work is required and is done by friends who are on committees, or within club management teams, or chasing sponsors, or scoring games, or doing the million other jobs. It’s really humbling and those of us who are not devoting themselves to helping hockey grow in such a grassroots, practical, time-consuming way, should at the very least take a moment to respect those who are. I know I do, and even more so after reading Will’s book, with his eye for those toiling glory-free behind the scenes. In fact, next time there’s a petty squabble about whatever the tempest of the moment is, wouldn’t it be cool if everybody could step back and consider how many unpaid hours the person they’re attacking, or who is attacking them, has put in? Breathe, respect one another, sort out whatever the issue of the moment is. And move on, brothers and sisters in hockey
    … (I know, I know: us idealists have no clue.)
  3. Us Newbies should remember we are Newbies. I’ve been around local hockey since 2010, having ‘discovered’ hockey, through somehow tuning into the Detroit Red Wings, in 2008. It feels like a long time, but it really isn’t. I feel like I know a lot of people in the community now and feel blessed that I happened to start this blog, on January 19, 2011, by chance at the exact moment a whole bunch of others were also discovering AIHL competition and the then fairly new Icehouse facility. Just as the early classes run by Army, Lliam, Tommy and co were taking off. And just as the Ice went on its three-peat run, the grandstands swelling, and the Mustangs arrived. And just as Next Level Hockey was gaining momentum at about the same time. Watching some of the rookies I started with kick on, even now making it to the AIHL rosters.

    The Melbourne Ice players salute the fans after a recent win at the Icehouse. Pic: Nicko

    The Melbourne Ice players salute the fans after a recent win at the Icehouse. Pic: Nicko

I feel like I’ve seen it all but reading Reality Check, I was struck by how people like me are still newcomers to the ranks. There are many people in Australian hockey who have invested decades into the sport they love. In Nite Owls competition, I once had the joy of skating with a bloke who captained Australia’s hockey team 50 years ago, and is still out there, on a Sunday night, effortlessly gliding past a flailing hack like me. But there are also so many others, such as, in my immediate orbit, the Webster family, driving the Ice team and club, on the ice and off, and the Hughes brothers, with their Oakleigh dream and Joey’s intensity and passion that inspires so many rising players, from L-platers to accomplished skaters. Next Level has evolved to the point of having its ‘Next Generation’ program, with a lot of thought and structure behind it. Meanwhile, at the Icehouse, the classes have become more and more sophisticated so that academy students can work specifically on high level skating skills or puck-handling, or game play, or pure shooting. It’s really exciting and it’s impressive, and it all happens because of the long-term and tireless commitment of actually only a few people. Will’s book did a brilliant job of shaking so many of these decades-of-service servants of the game into the spotlight for a brief moment, while never also losing sight of the fact that the sport needs to embrace the new arrivals, the fresh-thinkers, the left-field recent converts who might just take the sport to places it hasn’t been.
This has been a rambling piece. The only point of this particular blog is to add my voice to Will Brodie’s and salute the people who have made our sport rise in Australia and are now working equally hard to accommodate the growing numbers and logistical nightmares of its popularity.
And to say to Will, congrats: he has written one of the best hockey books you or I will ever read, and tied up in a bow everything that is great and worrying and awesome and frustrating about chasing a puck across a block of ice half a world away from the hockey heartlands.
If you haven’t bought Reality Check and read it, I really recommend that you do.

 

 

 

Victorian fans: It’s time to choose.

THIS IS A COMMUNITY SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT FROM NICKO PLACE TO ALL MELBOURNE HOCKEY FANS

Okay, Melbourne hockey fans. We need to make one thing clear as we head into this giddily exciting weekend of finals at the Icehouse with the ‘Stangs and Ice in contention for the Goodall Cup.

You need to pick a side.

I don’t want to hear any of this ‘I just hope one of the Melbourne teams can do it’ crap.

I don’t want to hear: ‘Oh, you know, I know a few guys in the Mustangs and I have a few of my coaches playing for the Ice so, you know …

I don’t even want to overhear: ‘It’s just great for the overall sport in Melbourne that we have both teams in the finals.

I don’t want to hear any of that.

Ice victory: more of this please. This weekend. On Sunday. Go Ice Go. Pic: Fairfax.

Ice victory: more of this please. This weekend. On Sunday. Go Ice Go. Pic: Fairfax.

Choose a side.

And barrack as hard as you humanly can. Until that side is eliminated or wins the whole enchilada.

And then celebrate or seethe.

I have been aware, over the past couple of years, of hockey folk who openly confess to liking both the Melbourne teams. I’m not going to name names but they’re out there. The shift from the Ice to the Mustangs of the Hughes boys, and Martin Kutek, muddied the issue of barracking for a lot of Next Level enthusiasts. I get that. But I’m saying it’s time to choose.

Red wire or blue wire?

You’ll have a lot more fun this weekend if you foam at the mouth, one way or the other.

One of the fundamental joys of sport, from where I sit, having watched A LOT of it, as a journo and an enthusiast, is the sheer joy that can only be found through complete emotional commitment.

In the AFL, you cannot barrack for Essendon and Collingwood on Anzac Day. (Screw them both. Go Tigers!)

In the NHL, you can’t watch the Red Wings versus the Blackhawks, while barracking for both sides.

It’s fine not to care which team wins, but that makes you an ‘unaligned hockey fan’, not a true Detroit or Chicago fan. (Let’s Go Red Wings!)

Or, if you watch Federer v Nadal and just enjoy the game, you’re a generic tennis fan, not a Federer or Nadal fan. (Go Fed!)

It’s Holden OR Ford at Bathurst.

It was Ali OR Frazier.

It’s Australia OR England in the Ashes.

I could go on …

Some guys from some other Melbourne club celebrate a goal. I'm against this. Pic: Nicko

Some guys from some other Melbourne club celebrate a goal. I’m against this. Pic: Nicko

Trust me, I know of what I type. This is coming from a long-suffering Richmond supporter in the AFL; a fan who still clings to those dusty memories of being 15 years old and at my first ever Grand Final when the Tigers won the flag in 1980, of yelling and chanting myself hoarse, of feeling the delirium of premiership success after going to almost every game that season. And never wavering in my support through all the dark, bleak, losing years since. I’m still a true believer and can’t wait to finally sing the song as they raise the cup, whether that’s in a year or 20. (And yes, I am extremely aware that it might not be in my lifetime.)

But I digress. I’m actually trying to do you, my hockey brothers and sisters, a favour by demanding you choose a side this weekend and ride that choice to glory or despair. It’s the only way to achieve the true bliss of Goodall Cup glory.

Me? I’m a Melbourne Ice fan. Through and through. I deeply want The Beard, Army, Tommy, Bacsy and all the other Ice players to raise that cup one more time. I’ve never actually seen an Ice championship in the flesh and I want Sunday to end that bizarre quirk.

In fact, let’s get shit started and rev into the weekend.

I DON’T want those frauds, the Mustangs, to win for several reasons:

The Mustangs' mascot: real horse or not?

The Mustangs’ mascot: Questions remain about whether he’s an actual horse.

  1. They’re a Johnny Come Lately team with no history or tradition and they play rockabilly and other bizarre musical acts before home games.
  2. Their mascot thinks he’s a horse but he’s not a real horse.
  3. Joey and Vinnie Hughes used to play for the Ice but are now the enemy so I’m trying to come up with taunting chants that rhyme with ‘Hughes’. (Blues? Clues? Fuse? News? … this is almost too easy)
  4. The Mustangs fans were so insufferable in their smugness and gloating after the team somehow beat the Ice in a derby earlier this season that I naturally want them to eat some crow.
  5. Did I mention the horse mascot who shakes hands with people? Not hooves. Hands.

Sure, I have friends who are diehard Clippyclop fans and I’ll be grudgingly happy for them if they win. Jess Kirwan, for example, I fully respect your one-eyed passion for the team. And a shout out to the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, who I have always admired and respected as a hilarious and interesting group.

I’ll be happy for you guys if the team wins. But I don’t want that to be this weekend, because my team is also playing.

As for the reborn Canberra, well, I guess victory would be one of the biggest achievements ever for crowdfunding as a concept but I still struggle to get excited about anything to do with Canberra, especially while politicians are as crap and vision-free as they are on all sides of the House at the moment.

And the Ice-Dogs? Meh, they won it last year so that’s enough success for them and anyway, there’s that whole bullshit Sydney versus Melbourne rivalry that I don’t usually buy into but this weekend, why not? Plus, I fundamentally don’t believe dogs can skate. I’ve seen my labradoodle skitter helplessly while trying to run on the wooden floor boards at home, and I’m pretty sure she’d be even more crap on a white frozen sheet.

My team. Which is yours? Pic: Nicko

My team. Which is yours? Pic: Nicko

So there.That wraps it up for the quasi contenders.

Go Ice go!

Local fence-sitters: pick up ONE scarf, right now.

Paint your face blue, red and white OR black, white and gold.

Be prepared to cry with your chosen team or celebrate wildly.

If it does happen to be a Clippyclop-Ice grand final, and it’s a lopsided scoreboard, there’ll be NO sneaking off to the Icehouse toilets at the end of the second period on Sunday to change colours and clothing. You hear me? There’ll be none of that! I might even check. And I’ll do a sweep of the toilets near the Bradbury Rink as well, in case you’re thinking of getting sneaky. I will. I’ll do it. Don’t think I won’t. You’ve been warned.

Jockeys don’t change horses mid-race in the Melbourne Cup. And neither should we. Which is why sport is torturous and fun.

Got it?

Good. Then see you there.

 

 

 

This shit just got real

Proof that I don’t only go the knuckle these days. Me just getting the pass away in Dev League before James Oliver pounces. Pic: Jack Hammet

An actor/performer friend of mine, Bert Labonte won a Helpmann Award this week, for brilliant work on stage. He fully deserves it. Another friend, Chelsea Roffey, just got named to goal umpire the AFL Grand Final on Saturday. The first woman ever to achieve that honour. I couldn’t be more happy for her. Another friend just finished a film with Robert Duvall, another showed me his latest novel last week and my partner, Chloe, is well on her way to producing Hollywood blockbusters.

Me? I was getting led off the tiny, dilapidated Oakleigh ice rink on Sunday by a member of the Melbourne Ice hockey team, on this occasion moonlighting as a referee, to sit in the penalty box. My first-ever official penalty in a hockey game. So proud.

It was only a one minute penalty because in this Spitfires practice match between my team, the Interceptors, and the Fighters, the periods were short. Even so, the Fighters scored while I was sitting on the little blue bench, forcing my team into an unfamiliar penalty kill. Oops.

So tangling my stick in the legs of a Fighter as we battled for the puck wasn’t my finest moment but it was completely accidental, and the secret guilty truth was that I enjoyed feeling kind of bad-ass being escorted from the ice.

What was worrying was that on both benches, my friends were apparently shaking their head and thinking or even saying: “Oh no, it’s Nicko.”

Because it’s been a strange few weeks since I last blogged. Not just a greater intensity at work, and the small matter of a very tight deadline for the difficult third edit of the 80,000 words that will turn into my first adult crime novel when it’s finally published in March (hence the absence from blogging), but a heightened level of aggression and bizarre activity on and off the ice (thankfully, not always involving me).

In Intermediate Class, words have been exchanged as people got sick of ‘attitude’ among classmates, or of blatant disrespect. In Dev League, a few hits have been harder than is reasonable and there has been some downright nasty play, such as a smallish female player being boarded, and another player repeatedly having shorts tugged from behind. Lots of Facebook discussion asking people to cool it and play nice.

Last Wednesday, we had our final week of term, which means ‘scrimmage’ for Intermediate, and Lliam Webster, serene and peaceful after playing like a demon to help secure Melbourne Ice’s three-peat not long before, sat on the bench in his beanie and Icehouse tracksuit top, shook his head and observed, “That’s hilarious.”

Vinnie Hughes’ infamous fight earlier this year. It really shouldn’t happen in hockey school. Pic: me.

“What is?” I panted, fresh from a shift. Watching two players puffing their chests out on the far boards.

“When you guys try to act tough,” he said.

I agreed with him. I have always thought this. My eyebrow has raised many times towards the dick-swingers among my fellow hockey students who talk a big game when it comes to the prospect of on-ice violence, about dropping the gloves or about Kronwalling. Because the absolute truth is that 99 per cent of us are NEVER going to have to back up such talk. Maybe one or two of the several hundred hockey students in Melbourne will be a natural, be a gun, and somehow get to the Melbourne Ice kind of level where full contact hockey can occur. Even then, it’s actually not supposed to. At AIHL level you can be boarded, can fully collide (Lliam coaching: “In this situation for us, we have to choose, are we going to go for the puck or take the body? For you, it’s only the puck”) but you’re not supposed to fight. Of course, fights occur and players are thrown out for weeks (Vinnie Hughes and then Joey Hughes this season) because it’s intense and hard and for real at that level.

Us? We’re in Development League. L-Plates or P-Plates metaphorically around our neck, and the best we can hope for is a likely hockey career in summer recreational league, or maybe even winter, where hitting, punching, intense take-the-body boarding is still not allowed.

So any tough talk is only that. Or should be. Which is a relief for us middle-aged rookies.

Mid-year, I wandered up to Army, and asked how many fights he had been in during his career? Roughly? Hoping he could narrow it down to the nearest hundred maybe. Matt Armstrong, Canadian, now 15 years or so into a professional/semi-professional hockey career, squinting as he considered the question. Finally, saying: ‘Um, geez, I dunno … probably … ten.”

“Ten?” I said. “Ten fights your entire career?”

“Yeah, about that. Joey would have had more.”

I turned to Lliam. He was already mentally calculating … finally said: “I think five.”

The big bad “Respect the beard” hard man of the Melbourne Ice. Five career fights. Seriously?

“Well, yeah, drop the gloves, actually ‘we’re gonna go’ fights? Five tops, probably.”

But what about all those times you’ve jumped the boards, charged out there, ready to defend a teammate?

Mostly, our hockey is getting more intense in lots of good ways. Pic: Jack Hammet

“Well, nothing much happens, usually. You push and shove, make a presence. You don’t actually fight,” he said. “Joey would have had more.”

So I had to ask Joey, just for journalistic credibility if nothing else. At Oakleigh on a Friday, I posed the question and Joey hated me asking, I could tell. Could see it heading straight to the blog as a headline.

But I really like Joey. He shirks nothing and respects everybody’s hockey journey as he hopes they respect his. He looked me right in the eye, with those dark eyes of his, and said: “Look, I’m not proud of this, ok? The number is probably 60, but you have to understand I’ve had a different career to those guys.”

Siting on the Oakleigh boards, he explained it and he was right. His career is different. Army played almost all his hockey in Canada and then Europe, before coming to Australia for the lifestyle. Worked out Melbourne Ice was a way to scratch the hockey itch while enjoying Australia as a place to settle. In Canada and Europe, fighting is not common – especially in European leagues. Yes, you protect yourself from hits, yes, you occasionally “man up” as Army put it one day, but you don’t go onto the ice expecting UFC action.

Lliam, likewise, in his international stints, hasn’t played much in North American leagues where fighting is common. Or hadn’t felt a need to prove his toughness when he did. Joey had, from a young age. Told me about turning up at teams where there was fighting in camp, just to see who was the real deal, to see if this cocky Australian freak had backbone. Joey fought his way to credibility and, as a younger man, testosterone flying, no doubt felt like a warrior as he walked down the street of pure hockey towns, looking people in the eye because 1. He had proven he could play and 2. he wasn’t scared to fight. A long, long way from the Olympic rink in Oakleigh.

But that was a different time and that’s why Joey doesn’t like to be asked about it, to appear to glorify it, even though he was decent enough to answer my query. He doesn’t go looking for fights these days, even if he was rubbed out for six weeks or something in the season just gone for taking on the entire Sydney Ice Dogs bench. The way I heard it, and not from Joey, he was being held by a referee and an Ice Dog hit him with a huge uppercut to the face, while Joey could not protect himself. A very cheap shot, at which point Joey took issue with the situation, shall we say.

Like father, like son? My younger son, Macklin (aka Mackqvist, in Red Wings jersey, of course), takes out an opponent on the boards then passes from his knees. Yes, he’s a Place, alright … Pic: me.

So that is where things stand regarding hockey fighting. Way over-rated, much rarer than anybody outside of hockey believes. Even more rare if you exclude the NHL where it definitely remains part of The Show in certain situations.

And then there’s last Wednesday when I had enough of getting pushed, held, niggled by my Interceptors teammate, Michael Donohue, playing for the opposition in dev league this night, and decided to give one back the other way. Possibly a little crude in the execution because I’m not experienced in such matters, but making my point. Donohue, always a mad man, usually in a happy way, dropped the gloves and came after me and I found myself testing my new skating speed, thanks to Army, Lliam and Joey’s stride lessons, as fast as I could to stay away from him until he tired chasing me. He said later, as we laughed in the rooms, that he only ever intended to push me over in response (“What else was I going to do? You were wearing a face cage?”) and I finished my shift as he was thrown out of the game.

Back on the bench, Lliam Webster was smiling quietly, as I returned; a full hour after his “That’s hilarious’ observation.

“I know that appeared cowardly,” I said. “But I did the right thing, yeah? You’re not supposed to fight in dev league.”

“You looked incredibly cowardly,” Lliam clarified. “But yes, you did the right thing.”

I’m convinced that dev league refs should call penalties – even if only sending people off the ice if they transgress – to stop everybody taking liberties because nothing short of a chainsaw attack seems to get called. Not being pulled up for hooking, tripping, checking etc, is teaching everybody, especially defenders, bad habits.

Big Cat shows how it should be done: flying feet and puck control. Pic: Jack Hammet

But the tension and aggression of the past few weeks has felt like more than that. There have been insensitive comments in change-rooms, and on the ice, as well as increasingly physical play. Is it just something in the air? Something in our veins? Is it the fact that summer league is around the corner and people are insecure, or nervous? Real competition at last after two years of thinking about it?

Dunno. All I know is that I know the penalty I gave away on Sunday was not even vaguely malicious on my part; just an agricultural and slightly inept puck-attack. Luckily my “victim”, James Oliver, knew that too, wasn’t hurt and held no grudge.

Shit happens on the ice, but we all need to retain the right spirit. The great news, alongside all this turbulence, is that my group of Rookies has taken our hockey to new levels in the past couple of months. You can literally see the improvement, as we train as a team under Martin Kutek and the Next Level coaches, or push Dev League harder and harder. I feel like a hockey player now, not just a wobbly wannabe (any comments on this topic will be deleted).

Hockey is currently taking out Sundays and Monday nights, keeping me away from my beloved Bang footy, and boxing classes, which bites, as well as eating into non-hockey windows, but as summer league approaches, I’m prepared to devote myself. I need to and I want to. I’m loving my team, loving meshing as a group, and supporting each other. Loving playing alongside Kittens aka Big Cat, for what, for all I know, may be our only summer campaign together before he gets good enough to go to Winter comp. I want no part of politics, awkward conversations, or needing to physically stand up to people with tough guy delusions on the ice.

Hopefully everybody else is feeling the same way.

We all need to chill out, smile and enjoy. Thrive on getting better, not get tense because actual competition awaits. We’re about to join Summer League and play for real. It’s supposed to be fun, and it is.

Guest writer: Liam Patrick on the Newcastle adventure

WORLD EXCLUSIVE

Vinnie Hughes brings the Cup to the Rookies. Newcastle, 2012. Pic: Jessica Hough

A roadtrip chasing the Goodall Cup.

By Liam Patrick

What a weekend!

It was the weekend the Ice put the fairy tale finish on their documentary by sealing the 3peat in dramatic fashion in the industrial city of Newcastle.

It was weekend that a motley band of Melbourne Rookies travelled up to support our boys in their quest for a third round of glory.

I offered to blog the experience of following the boys into enemy territory and the finals for Nicko.  He asked for not merely a diary of the weekend but ‘an adventure that ultimately ends in glory’.  So here goes…

The now fabled weekend began early.  Very early.  So early in fact, that a certain Rookie managed to throw away his boarding pass before getting through security.  Whoops!  The players had flown up on the Friday but the first flight out of Melbourne to Newcastle Saturday morning was jam packed with Ice fans, the South Pole crew, the Women’s team and the MI players’ partners and families.  There was a genuine excitement in the air before quite a few people took advantage of the 90 minute flight to recharge their batteries.

Newcastle is, somewhat amazingly, a hockey hotbed.  This weekend was to be the North Stars’ ninth Grand Final in 10 years.  In this time they also have secured four Goodall cups, dominated junior hockey in the region and have a successful involvement in a women’s team.  They’ve accomplished all this in a town with only 190,000 residents.  I had never been to Newcastle before.  While driving the 40 minutes from the airport to Warners Bay where the rink is located, I was struck by how just much the houses we saw resembled those in places such as Broadmeadows and other tough, working class suburbs.  From where I sat, I saw a town that was built on the blood, sweat and tears of “hard” men and women.  A tough, fibro city.  Perhaps this is an indication of why hockey is successful.  The people are bred with hard work and physical strength in their blood.  Combine this with a hockey friendly rink, an intelligent and talented management team and perhaps a lack of competition from other sports or pastimes and I began to form my own opinions as to why the team was so successful for so long.  I chatted about it to a few of my fellow Rookies and while we agreed the North Stars are no doubt a power club of the AIHL, maybe my reasoning wasn’t the full answer.

The Rookies underpoooosh their way onto the Novastrian ice, pre-finals. Pic: Jess Hough

The Hunter Ice Skating Stadium was somewhat disappointing for me.  If this is the second best rink in the country then we are further behind that I thought.  Now to be clear, this isn’t a knock on the rink.  It had a beautiful ice surface for general skating and Joey Hughes later remarked it was “perfect” come game time.  It was clean.  It was safe.  It was easy to access.  We could tailgate (translation for non-hockey readers: impromptu drinking and socialising, centralised around the boot of a car) in the car park!   My view, however, is that the finals are the marquee product each season and need to be built to attract lucrative sponsorship dollars, global interest and mainstream coverage.  Furthermore, it should be accessible to fans, in a location that’s attractive for travelling fans and capable of providing modern day comforts such as video replays and quality live streaming.  I felt that this wasn’t achieved at the HISS, but conversely, could have been achieved at the Icehouse.  Yes, I know. I am somewhat biased being an Ice fan.  But at the same time, I LOVED being able to go away with my friends and cheer for our boys (next year we may go global and head to NZ for TTCL!).  I just wish the HISS could have the same facilities and benefits to help build the growing momentum of our sport.

Like many questions facing Ice Hockey’s Aussie family – what is the solution?  Is it good practice or sustainable to always use the Icehouse?  Will the Gold Coast get their rumored stadium that could do the job just as well?  Will a couple of other rinks be up for a facelift soon?  Is this where the dollars need to be directed as the league grows or are there other factors to consider (such as beginning to pay the best players)?  I’m not sure.  What I can say with complete certainty is that HISS had made the most of everything they had and helped put on a fantastic show, all while providing great hospitality.

All this being said, I’ll give you an account of our experience on the weekend and leave you to form your own opinions on the big questions above.

Having arrived in Newcastle before most people were even awake on a Saturday morning in Melbourne, our general skate at the HISS was fun.  The rink wasn’t as packed as the Bradbury – but the weather was a sunny 20 degree so why would you freeze yourself unless you were a true hockey tragic like those of us who pulled on our skates.  Martin Kutek (Lord of the Underpoosh and Rookies sponsee) was unable to play under the “four imports rule” and had been unable to make it up with us. It was Dan D’s lucky weekend when he got to wear Martin’s actual playing jersey for the weekend instead. Proudly displaying the number 13, Dan (playing the part of ‘Kutek’ magnificently) did quite well in an on-ice limbo competition narrowly missing out on a pseudo-Czech victory to an unnaturally bendy six-year-old before stacking it, superman-style, on his final crack at the limbo pole.  The marauding, erm I mean travelling, band of Rookies also took the chance to have a little bit of fun at our coach’s expense, staging a few interesting shots in a series known as “Kutek does….”.  For legal reasons and the fact that Martin can make us bag skate several times per week, these probably need to be locked away in a concrete bunker deep underground, or alternatively, posted to Facebook.

For those of us who made the trek, what was most interesting to observe was the mixture of emotions which played themselves out like silent movies across our faces over the course of the weekend.  Personally, I had been very busy moving houses and starting a new job so I hadn’t given much thought or considerations to the weekend other than “thank fuck I have a holiday coming up.”  Even while general skating, I was more worried about my “hockey hangover” (11:30pm finish to NLHA the previous night-30 min drive home-washing to be done so my housemate didn’t kick me out over the stench had meant I was running on three hours of sleep and very dead legs), rather than shift my focus to Finals and the main event. Others, such as MasterChef Rach, a 10-year supporter of Melbourne Ice, were beginning to show outward signs of nerves on behalf of our boys who were about to put it ALL on the line.  This was sudden death playoff hockey – nothing was assured and the best team on the day would take the spoils.  Unlike the NHL and AHL, there was to be no coming back from an off night this weekend.

The general consensus was that the Ice boys should progress to the final.  We had the Sydney Ice Dogs to get past and they would be a Scoobie Snack for us (see what I did there?!). The dogs are a team we had embarrassed 9-1 at the ‘house and then won another 4-3 in a spiteful away game which saw Joey Hughes (one of the Rookies favourites, coach and arguably the best player in the country), having a “brief” 5 game holiday after finding himself on the wrong side of the opposing bench.  Needless to say, the Rookies did not care for the puppies.  The other semi was definitely going to be more interesting.  The local North Stars who had finished one point clear of the ice for the minor premiership, were taking on the Adelaide Adrenaline.  As a Victorian, I found myself torn.  The North Stars were probably the best team all year (marginally ahead of the Ice who slowed a little in the final month as fatigue, injuries, suspension, pressure and other factors seemingly took their toll.)  We wanted to play the Croweaters whom we had beaten 3 times during the year and had smashed in last year’s semi.  But could I really cheer for a South Australian team in the semis?  Don’t they have “Kick a Vic” on their license plates?  We at least knew our $70 tournament pass was going to give us three great games of hockey seated fairly close to the glass.

The nerves finally kicked in while downing the first beverage of the weekend as we tailgated prior to the Stars game.  A brick suddenly dropped in my stomach.  I knew the boys weren’t in great form.  Two losses to Perth before a hard fought win, followed by a tough game against Gold Coast.  There had been so many hurdles for the club this season.  From Vinny having a controversial holiday, Tommy Powell injuring his knee and seemingly not quite having his killer edge (even if his Chemistry with the Bearded one is always exciting to watch), Baxxxy nearly losing his finger/hand/arm (he later admitted it wasn’t back to 100% but even now, still can handle a puck like its glued to his stick, bastard), Joey’s aforementioned battle, Szalinski getting poleaxed during a shattering 4-0 shutout, a taxing Trans-Tasman triumph, Todd Graham having to return to college, 10 year celebrations, the pressure of the 3Peat, a documentary being shot (which I am hanging out for) and I’m sure all the other pitfalls of a team environment.  From my perspective, our last month had been well below what our boys were capable of…

I comforted myself by looking for the positives.  After a slow start, the Bearded one (i.e. Lliam Webster) had been a beast of late.  Averaging over 2 points per game, using his size to keep opponents off the puck while slick and dangerous in his own puck-handling.  Marcus Wong had the pace and skill to be thorn in anybody’s side – and he hits anything that moves. Hard. Coach Jaffa looked like a hardened warrior who wouldn’t let his boys be anything other than perfectly prepared and enabled to use their skills and flair.  Army was up and about.  Sturrock was a rock in defense on the veteran pairing with Vinnie.  And Godammit!  The Rookies would yell ourselves hoarse for our boys no matter what was to happen!

Despite the mounting anxiety I was feeling, it was easy to get swept up in the atmosphere.  An excited bunch of mainly twenty-somethings, sun, alcohol, hockey.  Not a bad way to spend a weekend.  The first game began.  What idiot chose our seats?  We were surrounded by Novacastrians, (thanks to Brenda Parsons for ensuring I used the correct term there), our own little island refuge of navy blue, wedged between the bright superman-esque colours of the Northstars fans.  We were about two metres from the glass and sitting below the ice.  The players looked like giants.  Warriors speeding along smoothly then smashing each other without warning since we couldn’t see the puck while sitting that close to the boards.  The game was a fast, tight affair.  Every time the heavily supported locals drew away, the boys from Adelaide pegged one back.  They weren’t lying down.  It was not just a warm-up game.  It got to the last period.  5-4 Newcastle.  Ray Sheffield (Newcastle captain and one of my favorite non-Ice players) laid a check.  From our vantage point we couldn’t see it but Kittens Place described it as “Not great” and pretty deserving of the five minute penalty and an early shower.  This was it.  At least one goal should be scored.  Maybe two.  Even as a neutral supporter I was edge of my seat.  The logic kicked in: “Let’s hope they go to OT, tire each other out”.  The next five minutes were all about a tight, desperate defense from the offensive juggernaut of Newcastle.  They held on. Just. And that meant they were off to the big show.  Two teams worth of tired hockey gods hit the showers.  One could look forward to the biggest day of the year.  The other, the biggest night of the year and the worst morning after.

It was sometime shortly after that when my nerves ramped up.  Reality hit home.  This is finals.  Anything can happen.  Our boys are good, no doubting it.  But talent counts for nothing when you look at the scoreboard.  Goals marked up there are what entitles you to claim the win over anyone else.

The boys were out kicking the soccer ball around for a warm up.  Joey gave the group an almost shy smile and wave.  Most of us were somewhat well lubricated by now and gave him a big cheer along with any other man clad in a navy blue t-shirt. The Rookies are very ‘equal opportunity’ when it comes to our boys.

We took our seats.  We had survived being accosted by (the aptly or ironically named) Bruiser, the Ice Dogs mascot, on the way in to the HISS, and now the bay next to us was full of Dogs fans in full voice.  My gut twisted tight.  I couldn’t imagine how the boys must be feeling right now.  Maybe they are old hands at this? Many of the Ice guns have played high level hockey around the world, many already having two championships under their belts.  It may be finals, but at the end of the day it’s still hockey.  Skate hard, put that rubber disk past the guy in the leg mattresses.  Should I have been worried?

Fuck no!  Exactly 14 seconds after the first drop of the puck, a Rookies favorite and another sponsee Matt Armstrong, being criminally left unmarked by the puppies defensemen in the slot, put a sexy snipe past the Goalie after some nice passing from Joey and Baxxxy.  BOOM!  The Ice were up and about.  Then another.  And another.  The knot was gone.  Thank fuck!  The overgrown puppies mascot was nowhere to be seen (humping a fire hydrant maybe?).  As expected, the Ice Dogs turned physical, having decided that since they couldn’t beat them, they would beat them for it but, despite a few penalties, our boys heroically held it together.  No doubt they targeted Joey who did well to only take a few penalties.  At one point I remarked: “I just want to go over to the box, tap him on the arse and tell him to get back into it. Don’t worry about those bastards and put a few more in the net”.

The final score for the game read 6-2.  It was almost flattering to the Dogs and our boys never really looked troubled after the magnificent start.  The third line (which was really 5 different forwards who had all had their own moments in the sun during the year) played some minutes giving our powerful top 2 lines some respite.  Marcus Wong looked a metre taller than he really was, smashing anybody silly enough to go near him.  Todd Graham (freshly back from the US for the weekend) was solid as a rock, Dylan Moore looked like he had the decision making to match his skills and was making life really hard in our zone for anybody without the ice logo on the front of their jersey. The old firm of Vinnie and Sturrock looked formidable.  Our D was set.  Our forwards were rockin’; ‘Bring on the locals!’ we cried.

It had been a long day.  But still, despite the early start, it was Saturday so the group met a few other Ice fans in the hotel bar and settled in for a few cold beverages.  We were all obviously very happy with how the day had gone.  No injuries or suspensions to our boys.  The North Stars had played a tough game.  And the bar had something other than Toohey’s on tap!

The next day dawned.  We hoped our boys’ heads weren’t as sore as our own. Over the next three or four hours, all of the Rookies filtered through a local café who apologized for the slow service (45 minutes for that Hot Chocolate, Da Costa?) as they had never been this busy.  Their three tables were clearly a rush.

The noble hockey art of ‘tailgating’. Pic: Jess Hough

Another general skate was forgone in favour of more beers before some good ole’ fashioned tailgating.  Something I had never done before and loved.  The banter with the other fans – friends and enemy.  More “Kutek does…” photography which may or may not have received many likes on facebook.  It’s certainly a culture I think many Aussies would enjoy.  I have always been kept aghast by the soccer community (thankfully to a lesser extent here in Australia) who need to be physically separated before the start of a game.  Having Glaswegian blood I have heard many stories about the vicious rivalries and wondered how the hell that happens when I manage to sit next to an Essendon fan on ANZAC Day or an Ice Dogs fan in a semi?  It was the same type of vibe in the carpark at the HISS.  Both sets of fans knew they were in for an epic battle between the two best teams and some of the best players across the entire league.  Taylor, Bales, Sheffield and co for the North Stars put up the points while superstar goalie Oliver Martin stood in the pipes to shut-down the mighty Ice warriors.

After a few more slightly warmed beverages (including pre-mixed shots which included a tad too much cream for my nervously churning tummy).  The rink was quickly filling.  The tiny skaters of the North Stars ice crew cleared the warmup pucks from the rink like ball boys and girls at the tennis, much to the moans of the travelling Rookies “aww man, that kid shits all over my skating… Sigh…”.  The team assembled for the national anthem.  The Ice standing like zen masters in their white traveling uniform towered above the plebs in the crowd.  The teams crowded their nets, final words before battle. By this point I was in real trouble.  Stomach churning, sweat pouring off me, edge of my seat. Drop that damn puck!

The two power lines faced off. I later saw a photo of Baxxxy taking this face off. He was grinning ear to ear. It’s very endearing to see an athlete having the time of their life.  Then that black rubber disc hit the ice.

It was on.

Like the day before, the puck was quickly into the Ice zone and Baxxxy’s shot went… just wide.  It was quickly followed by a penalty awarded to Joey.

Oh god.

Fuck.

No. Crap, Fuck.

This isn’t the plan right?  A tough PK later and we were back… until the North Stars slotted one.  The Newcastle fans surrounding us went off like frogs in socks.  The eight or so Rookies in the bleachers (Kittens & co were on the glass, apparently regularly spied drinking via the livestream… in the dry venue) were dead silent with our mouths open, stock still. Our little island refuge of navy blue had been invaded and annexed by crazed North Stars fans. You could even hear our collective gasp over the commotion of the mental crowd.  Then we saw the documentary camera panning onto us.  Oh great, I hope they credit us as “disappointed Ice fans” at least.

Next thing we know we are 2-0 down.  No!

No-no-no.

More glum silence.  My stomach had dropped.  Maybe it was just the nerves but I was feeling really pessimistic.  Our boys were working hard but these bastards were so damn good.  Crack damnit! Rookies around me muttered to themselves quietly. Our collective spirits were a little dampened, not only by the scoreboard but literally by the North Stars fans behind us who had a particular penchant for screaming (or rather spitting) ‘FORECHECK!’ over our heads for the duration of the period. But, in true Ice fashion, by the end of the first we had pegged one back.  Thank god there would be no embarrassing shutout!  The boys had looked good in the last five minutes of the period.  The Rookies were suddenly less worried.  I secretly still felt like we were gone.  Usually we seem to bully teams early then coast home downhill, unassailably. Not today.  We had to want it more.

That’s exactly what happened.

Many internet sites will provide a blow by blow and we all know the Ice won 4-3.  But I merely want to comment on three more moments.

Firstly, the Lumberjack (aka the Bearded One, aka Little Sexy, aka Coach aka Le-Liam or aka Liliam in the official finals program) put away my favorite goal of the year in a spinning one time snapshot from near the blue line into the top corner, and beating one of the country’s best goalies dead cold.  That was when I KNEW we had enough to do it. This was going to be our day. My stomach slowly began unknotting itself.

Confidence didn’t last long though. It never does in a swings-and-roundabouts game like this had been.  When Lliam went to the box with about 6 to go in the third, and the North Stars scored, despair came flooding back.  Oh god. A huge  momentum shift.  Crap.  Here they come.  How much DO the Ice want this?  Are they hungrier than the team they beat last year,  the very successful club without a Goodall cup in the last two years? What influence will the contrasting semis have in these final desperate minutes…

The final 30 seconds of the game was spent ferverishly chewing nails, sweating bullets, squeezing knees and wringing hands by the Rookies.  Six on five with an empty Newcastle net.  My voice was gone.  Muscle and stomach aching with fear and adrenaline.  Tommy Powell lies on the goal line Doug Glatt style, the puck is lost among smashing sticks and bodies.  ‘Stud’ Denman freezes it or the boys dump it.  The mad scramble starts again and again. I look up and see the clock roll down past 00.01.

Pure.  Joy.

Pure Joy. (Liam Patrick second from left) Pic: Kittens Place

The ice is littered with discarded weapons.  The glass is hammered by over-excited fans.  It was one of those moments where none of the other troubles in the world matter right then to anybody who was on the winning side.  The brick had become a wave of excitement washed over with a tiny bit of relief.  The boys had the fairytale finish to the documentary.  We were the best team in the land.  No matter what the world threw at the Ice family, we would spit it back in their faces and put another puck in the net.

The presentations were made.  Todd Graham was finals MVP, playing a crazy 33 minutes in his second game in as many days.  Amazingly the “third line” didn’t touch the ice Sunday.  Questions were asked by the Rookies, is it a possible depth issue?  Probably not, we decided, as they were all very capable when the big guns were out.

The boys skated the cup around and apparently we made it onto the livestream screaming and hollering against the glass for our boys.  Then Vinnie came running through the crowd holding the cup.  This is probably the best moment of the weekend.  This is how much our boys love the fans and include us.  This is why we come to support them.  Jaffa also went to lengths to include us cheering and waving during celebrations, towards us, saying hello to travelling fans the day prior and all through the celebrations.  On behalf of all the Ice fans, I say this to any of the Ice players or officials: ‘Thank-you, you really are the most welcoming sporting organization I have ever had the pleasure and honour of watching’.

Christmas Angel, Aimee Hough, drinks from the Cup. Pic: Jess Hough

My pride also extended to my jersey. Sitting in my Melbourne colours watching a group of men give everything they had, playing with grit, confidence and determination, made me immensely proud to be part of the family.  I have seen my equally beloved Magpies win a flag, my cricket club with two premierships but this is my favorite victory.  It was won by simply wanting it more than the opposition.

The Rookies snuck onto the ice (perhaps ‘Kutek’ even made some of the official Ice team photos, but we can’t confirm or deny this and will plead the 5th until we die) and grabbed some great photos with our coaches.  The mighty Beard declaring “I’m not putting my arms down.  Get around me people”.  Gladly, and without hesitation, we huddled under his arms then quickly regretted our decision. We stayed long enough for a happy snap then we backed off quickly. The smell radiating from every pore of Lliam like a thermo-nuclear reaction would have choked a donkey! There’s even an awesome photo of me mid-high five with Joey.  We then left the boys to their locker room and families.  After some celebratory beers, a real “crash” feeling occurred as the adrenaline wore off.  Tired but satisfied, we, the travelling Rookies, piled into the van and headed to a buffet dinner.

Soon the boys joined the Melburnian fans and began the celebrations,.  The 103-year-old cup was being filled and ALL in attendance were called upon from Korthuis and Wilson to drink from it.  It may have been Tooheys but damn that was the best beer I’ve ever had!  Was truly a thrill to have the chance to feel so close to the team and, although clichéd, drink from the cup.  Soon the night was moving on and it was time to allow the players their own time to celebrate together.   This upset a couple of people but having played team sports all my life I knew that after such a great success the team had earned the right to lock themselves away and enjoy the moment together as these opportunities in life, not just sport, are rare.

Not to be deterred, the Rookies headed home and spent a very late night talking and drinking.  Despite the best efforts of one Rookie to get some shut eye, the son of a certain older Rookie who happens to be a grizzled ex-journo writing a blog about learning to play hockey *cough* was determined to keep going much to the chagrin of the sleeping Rookie. Incidentally, that same sleeping Rookie was also confronted by two roommates in various state of undress who felt he in his unconscious state really needed a cuddle and were then keen to play upon his somewhat discomfort while flying.

The next morning a few sore heads awoke and made it home in one piece.  The weekend left a very drained but happy group of hockey fans and hockey payers at the airport.

A trip away with your mates is always great fun.  It’s a real adventure of sorts.  Hopefully, you’re exploring somewhere new, chatting too much (always about crap) and forming inside jokes (I’m looking at you Brenda, Kutek does Newcastle and that de-fogger-mister). Throw in a Goodall Cup and what else could you ask for in really for a cracking weekend?!

True Story! The amazing highs, the stressful despair and nerves and a very Disney finish to the documentary.  Thank-you again to the Ice for being a fantastic team, fantastic people, a fantastic family (who love MINGLING), the AIHL for putting on a grade A event, the HISS for providing the best environment they could muster, including a perfect ice surface for our boys to break the Newcastle Hoodoo on, and to my fellow Rookies for putting up with me and not giving me too much grief on the plane!

Bring on an Awesome Foursome!

Guest writer (Origin story): Theresa

WORLD EXCLUSIVE

Today’s guest writer is Theresa, a dynamo of organisation and hockey passion who has become a leading figure in the self-proclaimed Rookies and our dreams of forming a summer team. Well, actually, it simply wouldn’t happen, or have a chance of happening, without her drive.

Here, she explains how her hockey obsession began and how it survived so many false starts.

My hockey addiction: a love story

By Theresa

Theresa, about to tear it up at the Icehouse. Pic: Wayne McBride

Hi, my name is Theresa, and I am addicted to hockey.

First a bit of background info:

I grew up in South Africa. I found hockey at age 13 when I went general skating to go look at some handsome hockey boys.  I happily general-skated once a week for a few years, gaping from afar at these boys.  By age 16 I was a real “rink rat” and running the rink cafeteria. By age 18 I was dating one of these boys, and tried to play a bit of hockey myself for a half season.  My prized birthday gift was a pair of Graf hockey skates.

But I was talked out of playing hockey by the boy I was dating, because he and his friends felt it was “unladylike”.  I was impressionable back then; I listened to him.

I moved continents to North America (L.A.), and while I only took one suitcase, they contained my skates. In my year in L.A., I bought everything Kings and Gretzky at the time, though I never skated.

At age 19, I presented myself to the Canadian consulate in South Africa and filled in all the paperwork they could give me for immigration. The Canadians are pretty strict about who they let in, and who they don’t. This 19-year old upstart with no qualifications to speak of, no hockey skills, on her own dime, was hardly given a glance.  I was told in no uncertain terms that I didn’t qualify.

By age 21, I was on my way to Sydney, Australia.  In my two suitcases, was one suitcase of shoes (what else??), and one of clothing and again my prized Graf skates. I worked crazy hours and hardly skated. I can count on one hand how many times I skated in many years. I lost most of the ability to skate.

Fast forward to the near-present, when I settled in Melbourne a few years ago. That’s where I met Adam McGuinness of (among others) Nite Owls fame, who encouraged me to come back to hockey.  He didn’t seem to think it was unseemly for me to play – in fact he encouraged it!

For a work social outing, Adam suggested we all go watch a hockey game, and so I was introduced to the Melbourne Ice. And here my resistance to being involved in hockey crumbled.

In my head went around a myriad of thoughts, among others: “Wow the standards in Australia are high!  The Icehouse is amazing! I am mesmerised! I am in LOVE!!”

I knew that in all my years out of hockey, I was still madly in love with it. All of it. Perhaps it was self-preservation that kept me away from it. I could feel the pull back into it, magnetic and irresistible. I remember saying to my sister at the time: “This is going to suck me in, it’s a bit scary”.

And so it sucked me in.

I enrolled in beginner hockey school at the Icehouse, and started over again.  Imagine my awe when I found out that the Melbourne Ice captain, Lliam Webster, was also my coach! Talk about weak knees! And this other guy called Army, whom I couldn’t understand at the time because of his thick Canadian accent, also from the Melbourne Ice, was coaching me!  Army is the guy who skates over opposition defence men like a tank and scores multiple goals! Wow, I was in the company of hockey royalty!!

I went to all the Melbourne Ice games in the remainder of 2010 and in 2011. In 2012 I bought a Melbourne Ice membership and went on a road trip to Adelaide and the Gold Coast as a MI “groupie”. I will be going to Perth for the MI games in August, and of course to the finals in Newcastle in September. I have become a “one-eyed” MI fan (as fellow Rookie Wayne McBride calls me).

I attended all the IIHF world championship games in Melbourne in February 2011. It was there that I really noticed the hockey marvel called Joey Hughes, awarded the top forward for the tournament. I remember Googling him at the time and not only discovering his business NLHA, but also seeing more about his international career. I mistakenly thought at first: “Wow, there is another Joey Hughes who plays professional hockey in North America, also with a brother Vinnie Hughes!” – only to realise it was this very same person I was seeing in action in front of me.

I vowed to be trained by him, and after emailing him a few times, but not getting enough people to join me to help cover the cost of private lessons, I didn’t make it to NLHA in 2011.

In June that year, some of us started a Facebook group called “The Rookies“. We have grown from a five-person group of hockey school friends, to several hundred. We are intensely enthusiastic, intensely vocal, intensely passionate about hockey.  We are all, to a greater or lesser degree, addicted to hockey. I am one of its five “admins” who monitor and steer the group direction and activities.

At the end of 2011, I enthusiastically bought my first full kit and another pair of Grafs online, which (due to being very ill-fitting) regressed my skating noticeably.

It was in these ill-fitting Grafs that I presented myself to Joey for my first NLHA camp in January 2012. It was a group bootcamp, and more affordable than private lessons. Joey was diplomatically horrified with my skating abilities.  But he and Czech legend Martin Kutek and local hard man Tony Theobald (and guest instructors like Vinnie), persisted with me and patiently got me to skate better and faster and harder, despite my feet aching almost every time I skated. They truly took me to my next level – many of them. I love every camp and every individual class with NLHA. I get better and better and better. I even deferred my part-time degree for one semester, to be able to fit in all the NLHA camps. (Now of course, I am going to buy new skates from them, after NLHA sized me up for the right fit!)

I almost went to Poland to support the Mighty Roos in April this year, but I couldn’t get anyone to come with me! Even my husband, who has reluctantly but obligingly been dragged along to all my hockey excursions and activities, wasn’t up for this one.

Earlier this year, The Rookies secretly raised funds within our group, and surprised our coaches and heroes (and now our friends) Joey, Army and Martin, each with full 2012 Melbourne Ice player sponsorship. If we had more money we would have sponsored Lliam and Tommy and Shona too!

The Rookies are also doing volunteer work for The Melbourne Mustangs, particularly in supporting their imports. For instance this Saturday just past, we had an off-ice training day and fundraiser with three of the imports (and with import Martin Kutek from the Melbourne Ice).

We vocally and enthusiastically support anything that is Melbourne hockey and hockey school, in either of its two rinks.  We believe in “Hockey Karma” and in paying it forward.

And now we are starting to look at putting some IHV 2012/2013 summer league teams on the ice for the Rookies, with at least two clubs so far expressing an interest in assisting us, and at least two or three teams’ worth of Rookies ready and willing to commit.

Theresa where she’s happiest: on the ice with a bunch of Rookies.

We believe that while we are working hard at opening up avenues for our own development and involvement in hockey, we also try to give back as much as (and more, if possible) than we have received.  I look forward to seeing more individuals and more clubs join hands in this cause.

My renewed dreams of “making the big time” in hockey, will of course never be realised.  I have a full time job, which pays my mortgage and limits my hockey practise time.  Besides, I am now *cough* a bit older, and not really able to compete against 20-year olds anymore. And yes, I am getting back to that degree next semester because I like to finish what I started; which means I consciously have to cut back a bit on hockey.

But that does not alter my love of (read: passion for, addiction to) the sport.

I still have dreams of going on an extended leave/sabbatical/whatever to Canada. I might do a short one, a teaser, at the end of this year.

But the longer one will also still happen…

One day.

The violence of Vinnie Hughes

On Saturday, on Melbourne’s notoriously violent King Street, a man took umbrage at what he perceived as rough treatment of one of his mates by a Perth tourist. Not a small guy, he determinedly shook off the restraining hands of three police officers, he was so intent on fighting the tourist. Eventually the police threw up their hands and the two went toe-to-toe, the vicious brawl ending with police dragging the man off the tourist who was now lying on the ground, hands attempting to cover his face as unanswered punches found their mark.

Blood splattered the ground as the man was led away, waving to the crowd who had cheered while witnessing the savage beating.

Pretty horrible scenario, huh? But as anybody who was at the Melbourne Ice-Perth Thunder game at the Icehouse on Saturday evening knows, this didn’t happen on King Street. It happened on skates during that game, with Melbourne captain Vinnie Hughes the aggressor who beat the crap out of Perth player Sam Wilson after Wilson had taken out the Ice goalie, Stu Denman.

The ice where Hughes v Wilson happened.

Denman had ventured way out from goal when hit, which leads to questions about whether he was fair game or not, so far from the blue crease. Regardless, it was a hard hit which led to a predictable push and shove between the teams before Hughes made a late decision to “make a statement”, pushing all referees aside until he could get to Wilson and go toe-to-toe.

He was thrown out of the game and Wilson won’t look pretty today.

The whole thing almost made me late for a musical I had tickets for in Elwood – a local production of ‘Avenue Q‘, an adult comedy musical featuring Sesame Street-like puppets and human actors.

Which is where it all gets bizarre, huh? There I was, behind the goals at the South Pole end of the Henke Rink, hollering and hooting and full of blood lust as Hughes beat the shit out of a hockey player metres away. I’d bought a friend along to her first hockey game and my 16-year-old son, Macklin, was there with a friend as well. Mack texted me in the long delay after the fight (as the rattled referees tried to work out how many Melbourne Ice stars they could physically fit in the penalty box for having not left the ice as instructed) to say: “That was awesome”.

Ever the loyal blogger, my main concern at the time was whether my Nikon, battery dying, had managed to get the shots of the blood splattering the ice and then being scooped up by some emo attendant. (It did: as per this post)

It was only the next day, waiting for the ball to come to my wing, in pouring rain, during The Bang footy at Albert Park, that I began to feel uneasy. And then later, at a Mother’s Day pub lunch with my intelligent, caring, gentle ex-wife, where I looked her in the eye and it occurred to me that it was difficult to justify having introduced our two teenage sons to such a violent scene the day before.

I’ve previously written about my uneasy attraction to violence, in boxing and hockey. This Hughes fight felt really savage. On Facebook afterwards, the Rookies were in full flight, crowing about flying the flag for teammates and whether it’s ever okay to hit a goalie, about Vinnie being a legend and a great captain. I posted my blood pics and everybody hit the “like” button, me included. We’re all new to the sport and are like adolescents, flexing our tough-guy hockey muscles that we secretly know won’t actually be tested in the non-fighting leagues we are working up to playing.

Even that is so different to The Bang, which is football unashamedly based around pure skill without bullshit testosterone. I love that we bangers are all too old for that crap. On Sunday, I watched my Bang teammates bring the Sherrin around the flank in the rain, devoted only to clean skills in the wet. It’s well understood that if you feel like a bit of body-on-body and two of you agree, then go for it and we’ll all laugh. I had an exchange like that with a mate, Phil, on Sunday, both of us playfully jostling as the Sherrin approached, then chasing the ball on the deck, with Phil gracefully conceding, stepping back when my head was right there, for his hip or leg to collect had he chosen.

It’s not always like that. One ex-rugby player, Karl, hit me in the jaw with the hardest shots to the head I’ve had in years when I was stupid enough to try and tackle him a year or so ago. But I didn’t complain. I’d bought into the physicality that day.

And then there’s boxing. Tonight I’ll tape my hands and don boxing gloves, to throw an hour’s worth of hopefully hard and fast punches at training partners and heavy bags.

But I understand there are clear boundaries. It’s all pretend violence; controlled aggression with no intent to hurt (unless you’re Karl who can get a little carried away).

Cleaning up after the fight on Saturday.

A truly premeditated hockey fight is something else; planned, vicious punches with the intent to cause harm. Vinnie Hughes went after Wilson with true hatred in his eyes and didn’t stop until the Thunder guy’s face was leaking blood onto the ice in a big way, and the referees managed to tangle his arms to stop more punches.

UPDATE (Tuesday, May 15, 11.30 am): Vinnie Hughes offers formal apology.

With so much debate in the NHL right now about brain damage from hockey, and the after-effects of the game’s traditional enforcers, or “goons”, who are a dying breed, it was an unusual sight, even if Big Cat Place, who goes to most Ice games, shrugged that it was the third or fourth such fight he’s seen.

(And again, as a father, should I be concerned that he was so casual about it? At 19 years old, so unconcerned that he had just watched one guy belt the crap out of another, while officials stood by, in the name of sport? In fact, smiling and loving it.)

I understand that violence is part of hockey, like AFL and other contact sports. I’ve had fights on the footy field in my youth, and even towards the end of my youth. The only time I genuinely, truly saw red and instigated a fight was, of all things, in a Herald newspaper v The Age newspaper “social match” at the Punt Road Oval (my one game ever on the holy home grass of my beloved Tigers).

An Age photographer known to have serious anger management issues dived with both knees into the lower back of a Herald player who had lost his footing and was lying on his stomach, but still reaching for the ball in a pack. It was a cowardly act to an unprotected player that was incredibly dangerous and bad form at any level of footy. But in a fucking social match? Stripling that I was back then, nobody was more surprised than me when I found myself face-to-face with the photographer hard man, his guernsey bunched in my fists and the momentum of righteous anger carrying me through the moment.

Looking back, I have no problem with that encounter. Somebody had to make a point that his act was low and had no place in a social match. I’d like to think more than any physical damage I may have caused, what I said to him about his character and behaviour (and maybe his mother, his penis size and anything hopefully more creative I came up with in that moment) humiliated him in front of a bunch of workmates and journalistic colleagues. And yes, it all occurred right on the wing, in front of the crowd – oops.

Perhaps that’s how Vinnie Hughes feels today? Righteous in that he protected his goalie as a captain should in the accepted violent parameters of hockey culture?

Whenever I tell people outside the sport that I’m a hockey player, their almost-universal reaction is to say: isn’t that an ultra-violent slugfest? I’ve always enjoyed the faux hard-man reputation this reaction offers me.

Of course, at my development league level – and any level I’m ever likely to play – it isn’t a thug sport at all. Even at the Melbourne Ice level, fights are banned and I’m expecting Hughes will miss a few matches as a result of his exploits.

But occasionally, like Saturday, you’re reminded of the savagery that is in the DNA of hockey over the past century or so, and that such primitive violence is not as far below the surface as modern officialdom would like to think. In the NHL, there remain times where to not fight would be regarded as wrong. (Such as Bertuzzi shaping up to Weber in the game after Weber slammed Zetterberg’s head into the boards during the recent play-offs – I applauded Bert for that.)

Like boxing, it’s a sport where people can be hurt, and by deliberate, expertly-delivered punches.

And I stand and cheer. Against every value I hold in the world outside that bubble.

I’m still not sure what that means. I guess the obvious answer is to skate hard on Wednesday night and play the puck, not the man. And probably be laughed at by my Rookies peer group for genuinely hoping Sam Wilson is okay.

As another violent man, Ned Kelly, once said: “Such is life”.


Infiltrating Blue Tongue country

It’s winter on the Gold Coast in Queensland, which means it’s sunny and 26 degrees. I’m freezing (which could be a virus I’m battling), wearing a Red Wings baseball cap, a jumper and a scarf, watching my breath fog in front of my face. In front of me, a diesel-powered Zamboni is chugging along an ice rink in what can only be described as an old shed.

I’m at Iceland, in the suburb of Bundall. Bundall is not close to “The Worlds” to the north or

The Iceland rink, in all its glory.

Coolangatta airport to the south, which basically means it’s part of the endless industrial park hinterland that makes up any part of the Gold Coast that hasn’t been subdivided into tiny housing blocks.

Having skated at Iceland, Hotcakes Gillespie, the celebrated northern skater, tells me to watch for the arch across the road on approach. It turns out the piping, like some plumbing experiment gone wrong, is celebrating the Gold Coast Turf Club, which is nearby, but, hey, it’s a landmark among the factories and we sail under the arch, turn left and find ourselves at the home rink of the Gold Coast Blue Tongues ice hockey team.

I don’t want to get all elitist about this place. I had always kind of known that the Melbourne

The view from my seat: Ice players stand in front of the crowd between shifts.

Icehouse, where I train, is Australia’s official winter Olympic training facility and as such is pretty schmick. I guess what I hadn’t taken into account is life away from the Icehouse.

In fact, far from being all sniffy about the Gold Coast Iceland, I’m in awe of the Blue Tongues players. To train and play at such a dilapidated, sub-standard rink and then duke it out with the better resourced teams, like Melbourne Ice, is nothing short of heroic.

A photo on the Melbourne Ice facebook page from Sunday showed the showers at Iceland … several plastic water drums on top of a shed, with hoses to let the water fall. When we arrived, Jason Baclig and other members of the Ice were warming up in the carpark. The actual rink looked wet, not frozen, and instead of that pleasing, sharp scrapped-ice sound of a good hockey stop, when players changed direction there was a kind of slushy sound. I have never seen so many players in an AIHL game lose their footing, sliding around on watery ice. And the rink looked smaller than the Heinke Rink where we train, and where Melbourne Ice plays its home games. I’m not sure if it was an optical illusion or not. I suspect this rink was NHL sized, not Olympic sized.

Watching all this was about 150-200 fans, who had paid ten bucks each at the door. Five or six people were wearing Gold Coast jerseys, which are based on the Canucks’ colour scheme. Otherwise the major fundraising initiative was a sausage sizzle out the front, cooked by parents of Blue Tongue players.

Two or three rows of seats lined one wall, meaning even such a small crowd was capacity. Amazingly, there was no glass around the rink, meaning netting was all that protected spectators from the flying puck, and also meant any player getting “boarded” was pushed into a waist-high wall, not safer glass.

The scoreboard was for “Visitors” v “Grizzlies” (much better name than the Blue Tongues, btw, Coasters). There were no benches for the teams, or penalty boxes. That swarthy sex symbol of the Ice, Jacques Perreault, got a penalty and had to stand with the rest of the team for two minutes, seething quietly.

Ice goalie Stu Denman didn't bother trying to go outside to the change room during intervals.

Between shifts, Melbourne Ice players stood in front of us, local fans wandering past them with sausages in bread, as the Ice players discussed tactics and were baited by the crowd. After one dodgy penalty, an old dude standing next to us muttered in a super-satisfied growl under his breath: “Welcome to the Gold Coast.” By the game’s end, when the Blue Tongues sunk an empty netter to take a 5-3 lead, Ice captain Vinnie Hughes was leaning on the wall, having verbal stoushes with the crowd, sitting a whole metre away.

“Man, tomorrow’s game is going to have an edge,” Hotcakes Gillespie observed, as Joey Hughes was led out of a fight with three seconds to go on the clock. And she was right … according to Twitter, the refs tried to give Army a five minute penalty for fighting the next day, when Melbourne claimed he wasn’t even on the ice at the time, Lliam got thrown out of the game, and Ice eventually won 5-3 after Jason Baclig (who else?) chipped into the empty net to split the weekend’s scorelines.

So this is AIHL life away from the palatial Icehouse? I felt genuinely concerned for the Melbourne Ice and Blue Tongue players, trying to play at the professional level they do on such a dodgy rink (a game was cancelled recently because the Iceland ice was deemed dangerous) EDIT: a broken thermostat made the ice too cold, according to a local, replying to this post (see below).

But I also felt amazed that the Gold Coast team could be at such a decent standard, given their home. And I felt admiration for the bloke who clearly runs everything to keep Iceland going, driving the Zamboni, putting up the netting, checking the bar is ticking over, renting skates on weekdays and ensuring the shipping container that doubles as team changing rooms is clean and tidy for visiting sides. All while 99 per cent of the local population are at the beach down the road.

Aduba, Tommy Powell and Lliam Webster watch the game; a long way from the AHL.

At one stage, I was watching Melbourne’s star import Obi Aduba clamber over the sponsor-free wall to stand on wet carpet with only a net separating him from the fans, dodgy under-wattage lighting making the whole scene gloomy. When the AIHL finals finish, Aduba is heading back to America to play for the Quad City Mallards, in Illinois, (This is him dropping the gloves for Quad City before he joined the Ice) and will try out with Springfield, in the AHL – one level below NHL. What must he have made of this Gold Coast scene? It would be like an ATP tennis player competing at antbed tennis courts in central Queensland, local farmers manning the lines.

I guess, like so much else in hockey, he’s in it for the adventure. Iceland provided that.