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A love no longer on ice

I played 100 games of ice hockey as a child. My parents are both Canadian.

In Canada, a child is put on skates before it can walk. To not do so is considered child abuse.

However, I was born and raised in Melbourne and it was in our city’s humble rinks that my love of hockey (afficionados drop the word ‘ice’) was fostered.

I tried most sports when I was young and played cricket until I was 30, but footy got in my blood. Hockey, it seems, was already there.

But I played the last of my 100 games in 1981, and I was estranged from the local game until 2011. I used to have dreams in which I was playing, eerie reminders of a neglected passion, but rinks closed, my life changed…

Then I went to the opening of the glittering new Icehouse in Docklands, and last year, an Australian Ice Hockey League game there featuring the Melbourne Ice. And the infatuation was rekindled.

Here was the eternal ‘minor’ sport being played in a proper rink by skilled players in a well-run, high-standard competition. Watching the crisp passing plays, the rapt involvement of the big crowds, the slick audio-visual presentation, I was agape. I was amazed, ecstatic, and strangely proud. How long had this been going on?

Well, in Ice’s case, 10 years, though eight of them were spent at the comparatively grungy Oakleigh rink, and the sport was undoubtedly going to a new level at the Icehouse.

A few plays were all it took for the love to flow back.

Hockey has a long, tenacious history in Australia: the trophy now used for the Australian Ice Hockey League champions, the Goodall Cup, formerly presented to the annual interstate competition winner, is the third oldest in the sport.

But the survival of the game was usually tenuous. Clubs and leagues were always been at the behest of rink owners, for whom casual paying skaters are usually more financially lucrative than amateur sportsman. Even then, it seemed running a rink was no licence to print money.  

When I played, there were rinks in Footscray, Ringwood, Dandenong and Oakleigh. All but the latter shut down.

Despite occasionally drawing half-decent crowds, hockey teams always trained at the most inhospitable hours, generally 6am Sunday mornings.

It didn’t bother this sports-loving child, but my Dad, whose Saturday nights were often social, must have suffered. He never complained, however. Every winter Sunday he woke me, made Ovaltine and toast lathered with ridiculously thick lashings of peanut butter and ‘stink cheese’ (Danish blue – on separate slices mind you!), then drove us to the outpost suburb that hosted our rink, usually a not-so glorified warehouse.

I first attended my dad’s team’s sessions, playing with the sons of other players at the opposite end of the rink to the senior players’ drills, using sawn-off mini-sticks. When the seniors began their practice match ‘scrimmage’ sessions, we would play with curled up balls of electrical tape on the sidelines. These mates later became teammates in junior teams. One of those friends went right on playing – for the Blackhawks, Victoria, Australia and the Ice – and he’s still going.

The early mornings left me with an unusual affliction. A lifelong non-smoker, I am rendered hopelessly nostalgic by the smell of ‘heartstarter’ cigarettes or diesel exhaust (from the ice-cleaning tractors), in cool pre-dawn darkness.

Some of those cigarettes were smoked by my teammates. I was 10 when I first played, in the under-16s – the only age group at that nascent stage of junior hockey – and most of the 'big kids' were bursting with stories about what they had been up to the previous night, which provided a solid, if slightly picaresque education for a young boy. (Unfortunately I understood little of the terminology of sex and booze they used.)

Some of the older kids had real life problems, and the coaches tried to help them stay out of trouble. They always seemed to respond with gratitude to the attention paid to them, but at least one met a sticky end. He had been a protective, big-brotherly type, who always stood over any opponent who tried to intimidate we youngsters.

Not that I ever felt scared playing hockey. I was probably the gentlest player in the history of the game, (one penalty in those 100 games), but I never recall being hurt, or really scared of physical harm. That sort of primal fear was probably to come later, had I kept playing as an older boy. As with footy, the excitement of hockey is performing acts of skill and co-operation under physical duress.

Modern Australian hockey, despite the negative sterotypes still fostered by blithe mainstream journalists, is clean. It is certainly tough, but fights are rare. The league knows that in an era in which the AFL is so conspicuously concerned about its image, the old Canadian tradition of brawling must be jettisoned. The sport’s highest level, Canada and America’s NHL, is facing a much more difficult transition than here.

I do not have a single negative memory about my junior hockey days. I couldn’t keep up once I started going to school in the city, and training moved to midnight Friday, and we were forced to play in a combined team with our arch-rivals, and I 'did' a knee, but in my mind I was not really leaving hockey.

I did though.

I have skated twice since then, and never again picked up a stick. The hiatus was three decades long.

It left with with strange nightmares where I take too long to suit up, and miss the start of a game, or I 'come back' too late and no-one recognises me…

But in those dreams, or memories, I also experience the unrivalled satisfaction of sliding into position just at the right moment to set up a teammate with a perfect pass, or anticipate an interception with my own move.

Most people who play hockey will tell you that it’s the most invigorating game they have ever played, and don’t ever doubt them. Most sports fans who see a game say they will be back.

For sheer sensation, its hard to beat – with only ten players (plus the two goalies) it has the intimate involvement you get from basketball, but there is contact, so eluding an opponent is everything (the Canadian word for baulk is to 'deke'), and in the confines of a rink, if you can deke a defender 'out of his jockstraps', you can set up a goal-scoring opportunity. The puck feels just the right weight, an ideal object, and your stick is totemic – part pet, part tool. A play where two or three passes combine to set up a shot is an enacted purity of satisfaction.

As a spectator sport, it is hard to beat. Fast-paced, aggressive, but played in a compact arena, you can sense the options available to a player at the same time as he is executing his choice. In hockey there is less of a gap between the thought and action, and between rushes of potential drama, than in almost any game.

The slogan for the Ice is “Be Part of The Action’ and as a fan, you feel just that, being so close to the players.

This sport has faced many false dawns – it was on national TV briefly, in the 1980s, and that didn’t prove enough to get it to the next level.

AIHL teams are still reliant on volunteers, though on a much bigger scale than local clubs, and the players, even each team’s four overseas star ‘imports’, are unpaid. But the game really is on the brink of emergence now. The Icehouse, despite being a quantum leap in terms of quality of facilities, is not enough. There is a need for more spectator seating, and more ice time for the teams, and the burgeoning numbers of adult beginners and new juniors wanting to play and practice.

Hockey, as always, still needs a dedicated venue, to be in control of its destiny. Previously, this had seemed an unobtainable pipedream dependant on a wealthy benefactor. Now it is tantalisingly possible. It is viable. There are talks beginning, there is some chance NHL team San Jose Sharks, experts in non-traditional hockey markets, could be involved. The success of Melbourne Ice – membership and most games are sold out – prove that the game needs to keep growing, and it can. If the sport can be a major partner in a new, multi-purpose venue, hockey could finally take its place in this city as a niche sport, reaching the many prospective fans who as yet barely know it exists.

If the magic venue comes about, it will have been a long journey from the run-down outer suburban factories. If I see that day, my amazement will be tempered by knowing how much fun this game is to play, and how thrilling it is to watch – it should be no surprise that such a captivating pastime becomes so popular.

I still pinch myself everytime I make my way to the back of the grandstand at the Icehouse, as the music blares. This is really happening. Hockey is making it in Melbourne.

But it doesn’t matter what I think. Crowds are voting with their feet, and have been doing so for quite a while.

I may have a Canadian heritage, I might have played hockey as a kid, but now, I am just another green fan jumping on to a highly entertaining bandwagon.

And I couldn’t be happier about it.