Almanac Ice Hockey: Bear Necessities

 

 

It’s a sell-out at the Macquarie Ice rink this Friday night, the Bushfire Battle Appeal charity game swelling the venue to capacity. During the regular season you can usually get a seat near the Bears members section, close to the bar. All my mate and I can find tonight are a couple of seats up the far end of the grandstand. We need to lean out to see the scoreboard and the goal line’s obscured by a metal support girder and corner netting.

 

Still it’s an ice hockey game which is good enough.

 

Wait, what? There’s ice hockey in Australia?

 

Confession time. I secretly enjoy like the look of incredulity, usually followed by a glazed disinterest, some people have when I tell them I like ice hockey. It’s like being part of some secret society in Australia, minus the robes and byzantine code. We are among you!

 

 

First ice hockey game in Australia 1906 (From: https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/page/20480504)

 

 

Not entirely sure how this has become my new sporting passion. The sport has intrigued me but not enough to contemplate sharing with footy. After finding out there’s an Australian league with a couple of Sydney teams I figured it was worth a look and last year with a rare free Saturday night went to a Bears game. They won; the Mustangs pulled their goalie in the last minutes which proved a fatal error. It was a good night for Sydney sports teams. A Bears win and the Swans held off North down in Tassie.

 

One game and I was hooked. If  being camped by Youtube two afternoons straight to watch the Bears claim the Goodall Cup wasn’t a strong enough sign, there’s now a bookshelf sagging with hockey tomes. A treasure trove of histories and characters. The original six era, the biff and craziness of the 1970s, the Gretsky years. A dark side too; players ripped off for decades, injuries, paralysing fear, the lurking spectre of long-term concussion. Ultimately what shines through is the courage to play what someone once described as an ‘arcade game on ice.’ Like footy in Melbourne there’s something almost quasi-religious about the sport.

 

We observe a minute’s silence for the victims of the bushfires. It’s been a terrible time. A hockey match seems somewhat not enough in the broader scheme. It’s a gesture coming from the heart though and hopefully the funds raised help those in need.

 

The game gets underway. A Sydney derby, Bears v Ice Dogs, which should make for some good rivalry.

 

I’ve only attended three games so far and it’s a challenge to watch and take notes. With footy I’ve generally followed the play and able to scribble something legible. On the rink its so quick. You lower your eyes to ensure you’re not simply scratching out an EKG signal and suddenly you’ve missed a critical pass, a breakaway, a great save or even worse a goal.

 

Still I’m getting a better handle on positioning and game flow, if not every player’s name. First time around was like hearing jazz. Lots of notes but nothing coalescing into a tune. The velocity, the thwack of the puck off the boards, the line changes. A whistle bringing everything to a mystifying halt. After that first game I was dazed but in a good way.

 

The Dogs draw first blood with a shot over the Bear’s goalie’s shoulder. Who’d be a goalie? Like a drummer they’re the backbone, the warden of a team’s rhythm. But as soon as that beat stumbles, you’re coping the blame. From what I’ve read they’re a different breed. You’d have to be.

 

It’s all Bears attack in the first period with the Dog’s scrambling defence holding firm. The Bears make some exciting breakaways but either blast it over the net or just a fraction out of position to nudge it past the Dog’s goalie who is making some fantastic glove saves. Despite repeated pressure, and getting a powerplay, the Bears just cannot score. Pre-season rust maybe.

 

The Zamboni comes out to refresh the ice. I have this weird desire to see the driver crash through the boards, slowly trundling off into the summer night.

 

Daydreaming of Zamboni freedom I watch the crowd. There’s a real community here. It’s a small amateur league, only eight teams across the country, and so remains refreshingly low key. No blaring screens or being yelled at over the PA or sprawling merch stands. There are sponsors but I get the sense there’s a lot of unpaid love invested in holding this thing together which accounts for the strong solidarity vibe.

 

The second period gets underway. The Dogs sprint up the wing and make a shot which whilst brushed away leaves the Bears goal uncovered. It’s all the Dogs need. 2-0. The Dogs goalie makes another good deflection. A niggling sense we might see a shut out here.

 

Which is when the Bears explode. Firstly, down the wing and ramming the puck in from the faceoff circle. Their second goal comes immediately after, taking the puck up the ice and in. Shades of last year’s finals. A team motivated by scoreboard pressure.

 

They almost squander all the good work by fumbling the puck on their goal line. The goalie recovers. I don’t know how they get that flexible. I’d have pulled twenty different muscles just getting the pads on.

 

The Bears fight through traffic to make it three-two. Then score again. They cope a penalty and in the resulting powerplay a Dog’s player is shoved down near the goalmouth. It’s suddenly on in what you’d think would be an amiable charity match.

 

With almost everyone wearing a jersey I feel strangely unsupportive with just my Bears beanie. Most prevalent are the current Bears and Dogs jerseys but also a few older Bears logos, support going way back. The NHL getting some representation; Bruins, Rangers, Oilers, Mighty Ducks. A few mystery ones, possible minor league or local teams. Two rows back a lone Detroit tragic like me. It’s been a dumpster fire of a season for the Red Wings. Daylight and then some between them and the second last team and a sporting a horrendous league record goal differential. It’s an openly acknowledged rebuild phase and it’ll take years. Still the die is cast, I can’t change teams now. A mate is convinced I have thing for blue collar cities, Oakland Raiders and now Detroit.

 

Speaking of replenishing the stocks the bar has not anticipated our thirst. By now we have a choice of Great Northern lager or…Great Northern Lager. The beer from up here. One can is enough to decide it can stay up there.

 

The third period starts with two Bears in the box. Not sure what for. It could be for high sticking or armed robbery; the announcements are garbled and the refs signal like Freemasons. The Dogs goalie again makes a great save. As the Bears incur a hooking penalty the Dogs powerplay slides the puck in past diving Bears players. Which elicits an immediate response with the Bears winning the centre face off and taking their cleanest shot all night. Score: 5-3.

 

There’s an old joke, you go to a fight only to have a hockey game break out. Australian hockey though doesn’t seem to have the big hits and glove dropping image defining moments. There’s the odd bit of jersey pulling rewarded by a cool off in the penalty box but largely it’s just minor infractions; high sticking, slashing or tripping.

 

Tonight, though, the niggle has been on for a while and now with game in the balance a couple of players have had enough. Gloves are scattered and fists are flying to the roar of the crowd. The square off doesn’t last long. Fighting on ice skates generally has one outcome and as the combatants succumb to gravity the refs jump in. Out on the ice the rest of players are circling the red line, grinning at each other. Each team is allowed four imports, usually European or North American, so they’d be used to this.

 

The Dogs continue to push but time pressure is making them sloppy. A couple of their players are sent packing to the penalty box. When a third goes after firing a shot straight at the line ref I notice the scoreboard can only record two infractions.

 

In the dying moments the Bears get another goal with a big slap shot. They try again but the Dogs’ goalie makes another great save. The clocks winds down to the final horn.

 

6-3 Bears.

 

It’s been an entertaining game. The Bears may have won but despite letting in so many goals the man of the match for me is the Dogs’ goalie. His teammates certainly think so as they crowd round him.

 

As the players tap their sticks on the ground in the traditional signal of fan appreciation, we leave the rink to begin our escape from Macquarie Shopping Centre. Theseus had an easier time of it in Crete.

 

There was talk last year of closing down Macquarie Rink before the state government put those talks on hold. I don’t know how long that’ll last for, but I sincerely hope we can keep the rink. Can’t lose it now not when I’ve just got myself hooked on hockey.

 

 

 

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Comments

  1. Ahoy Tom,

    Thanks for the match report. Ice hockey is such a fast sport, with lots of violent body contact. Great to watch, except that often it’s hard to discern how a goal has been scored due to the speed of the game and the tiny opening in from of the net. I’ve been to a few good games at the Icehouse here in Melbourne, down in that weird corner of the Docklands beside the big wheel. The Melbourne derby games between the Melb Ice and the Mustangs are always good value.

    I saw my first game of ice hockey in Helsinki ten years ago. That’s what got me hooked. I was baffled though when the game ended after three periods. No-one had warned me about that! I was waiting expectantly for the final (fourth) quarter…

  2. Interesting read Tom – I’ve thought about the ice hockey in Melbourne in between brief daydreams about putting a pair of skates on for the first time in a decade. Sounds like it could be fun to go watch.

    While I was double checking if Zamboni should be capitalised as a proper noun, I came across this very cool story: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/sports/zamboni-driver-wins-first-nhl-game-after-being-tapped-emergency-n1141371

    Imagine a runner or boot-studder from Carlton getting tapped on the shoulder to play fullback for the Dockers and helping them win the game? Amazing.

  3. A rare free Saturday night? Is this the same Tom Bally I know?

    Good report.

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