The Goalie From Down Under
Here at Howies Hockey Tape, we love hockey. There's no doubt about it. Contrary to popular belief, there is no prerequisite that you need to know how to skate to work here, but there is an unspoken rule that you, at the very least, enjoy some version of hockey. Whether it's watching Wednesday Night Hockey on national television or going to our local AHL team's weekend games downtown or keeping tabs on friends and relatives playing in Austria's Erste Bank Eishockey Liga (yes, we're looking at you, Ty Loney), all of us love hockey in some way, shape, or form.
So naturally, whenever a local customer or a travel team from Nashville stop by at our headquarters here in Grand Rapids, we love hearing their stories - where they play, what their favorite team is, or who their favorite player is. It's the spark to a conversation that is seemingly endless. As we give tours of our warehouse and let the younger players roam freely in what they sometimes describe as "heaven" or "better than Disneyland," we talk hockey. We talk old-time hockey and reminisce about the Red Wings' dominance back in the day with some of the parents. We try to stay relevant with the younger players and try to rile up a McDavid vs. Matthews discussion. We're constantly surrounded by hockey. We watch the games. We hear the stories. How their seasons are going. Which player is the best? Where they grew up playing hockey.
That's when we met Justin.
We first met Justin sometime last year on a Friday afternoon. We were getting close to wrapping up for the day and finishing up some projects before the weekend when we heard the door open. We assumed that it would be a local parent looking to pick up their order or an exasperated FedEx delivery driver asking us to move one of our cars out of the parking lot so that he could pull his truck into the loading dock. Instead, we were met with an animated "hello" that resonated throughout the room. It sounded cheerful. It sounded excited. It sounded different. It was Australian.
Justin was a goaltender from Queensland, Australia that was in town for an entire week to hone his goaltending skills. He would be working out with a local goalie coach that we're close friends with over at Bandits Goaltending School in Grand Rapids. He flew all the way from Australia to our little city of Grand Rapids, Michigan! It was surreal. As we took him back to our warehouse, we exchanged pleasantries and started a conversation about hockey in Australia and what it's like over there. How the ice is slushier in Australia. How there are not that many pro shops that sell our products over there. What Vegemite tastes like. Things like that. Steps progressed deeper and deeper into the warehouse as we gave Justin a grand tour - one of the most extensive ones we've ever given. After all, he had traveled almost 10,000 miles to be here. We talked, we laughed, shared our stories, got to know each other, and as the conversation flowed, we got to know more about Justin and where his love for hockey blossomed from. Hours passed, beers were had, but just as quickly as he arrived, it was time for him to go. He promised to return the following year, and as I sit here typing this, we just got off the ice for our weekly Tuesday morning skate where the guys here at the HQ got the opportunity to play alongside Justin. He heads out tomorrow, but he was here for a week for his annual return to the Bandits Goaltending Camp and we're so glad that we got to catch up, show him around (again), and send him home with more Howies stuff to tide him over until 2021.
Howie: So - introduce yourself!
Justin: I'm Justin and I'm from Deagon, Queensland, Australia.
Howie: And how long are you here for?
Justin: I got to Grand Rapids last Monday and I'm heading out tomorrow to go to Las Vegas to meet up with some friends. From there, I think we're heading to Edmonton, Alberta to play a few games with some friends that I know there, and then I'm heading to Toronto, Ontario to visit some friends and family. My four-week "hockey-cation" officially ends in mid-March, which is when I'll return to Australia.
Howie: You know we've since dubbed you a nickname - "the Goalie from Down Under".
Justin: *laughs* I like that. That's a good one.
Howie: You mentioned that you used to play with carved wooden pucks when you were growing up. Tell us about that.
Justin: Yeah. I used to play street hockey with my brother, Alan, growing up. We grew up on a quiet street in Queensland, but we didn't have a regular 6oz black puck made out of rubber, so we used wooden pucks. It worked as well as it could. People don't believe me, but it worked!
Howie: That's unbelievable. When did you start playing hockey?
Justin: I used to play inline hockey in the street when I was maybe 12 or 13 years old, so that would be around 1995 when I first discovered a love for hockey.
Howie: You realize half of the interns we have here were born around that time?
Justin: *laughs* Don't say that. That makes me feel old. But yes, that was around the time that Al and I decided to join an inline hockey club in Lawnton, Queensland. Al as a forward and myself as a goalie, obviously.
Howie: That's awesome. Did you guys buy some gear to start off? What did you guys use for pads and equipment?
Justin: Honestly, it was just borrowed gear or secondhand gear. Hockey gear wasn't and still isn't very accessible in Australia compared to the United States or Canada and if it was, it was usually fairly expensive. Both of my parents worked hard to help support our hobbies, but there wasn't a lot of money to go around to get me and my brother the top-of-the-line gear and equipment that we wanted.
Howie: So did you use some sort of old school street hockey gear or something?
Justin: Exactly! Lucky for us, our local department store randomly started carrying hockey gear. It was unusual, but they started selling Brett Hull street hockey gear and Gretzky Street Attack hockey gear. This was great for me and Al because it was useful and very affordable.
Howie: No way. That's awesome. We need to see a picture after.
Justin: Sure thing. So yeah, we purchased as much as we could with the money that we had and wore that gear into the ground with use.
Howie: So you've got your gear. What did you guys do for everything else? Hockey has too many things you need to buy. You guys would've been better off playing soccer or basketball.
Justin: Seriously. Well, from there, we could only afford a couple of ice pucks back then. I think a legitimate ice puck was about $10, which was a lot back in that time. We had a few of those and a few street hockey pucks, which were also not very cheap. Plus, we definitely lost a bunch of those in our neighbor's yard, so that didn't help.
Howie: That's insane. We'll send you home with some pucks to make sure you never run out of pucks ever again.
Justin: *laughs* Thanks, man.
Howie: Where did you and Al play? Did you guys just play one-on-one all the time in the street?
Justin: Yup! He used to shoot pucks at me in a homemade goal. We scavaged an old trampoline frame with a secondhand marine trawler net that I got from a fisherman down by the local wharf and created a makeshift net. It didn't look anything like a real hockey net, but it worked. We used an old, dirty stick welder to put it all together.
Howie: That's unbelievable. Hey, it's better than playing with no net at all!
Justin: That's right. We played inside the house, but once a few windows broke in the house, we got kicked to the street by our parents.
Howie: Happens to the best of us! So, tell us more about these wooden pucks!
Justin: Right! That's what we were talking about. Like I had mentioned, these store-bought inline and hockey pucks were getting expensive - especially due to the fact that we kept losing them in our neighbor's yard.
Howie: Wait... couldn't you have just asked to get your pucks from your neighbor?
Justin: No, she was a mean and cranky old lady. As kids, we didn't dare go near her yard, let alone knock on her door and face her wrath.
Howie: Fair enough. Go on.
Justin: So, we would always be losing these pucks and sometimes, we'd lose every single puck we had and would have to stop playing hockey until we saved up enough to buy a new one. We would get frustrated that we couldn't play hockey, so we formulated a plan to make wooden pucks.
Howie: So the equivalent of an ice rink having one puck for a game and being doomed if the puck goes into the netting or out of play and rolls under the stands.
Justin: Basically, but at least you'd be on the ice.
Howie: Make sense. So you made these wooden pucks yourself?
Justin: Yes! With a budget of a whopping zero dollars, we asked our dad if we could take down the old pine framing off the side of our house. We detached a good chunk of wood and used that to make our hockey pucks. We traced out about a hundred pucks using a single regular hockey puck that we had as a template and spend an entire weekend cutting each one out with a hand saw. It wasn't a perfect circle, but we tried to get it pretty close. The almost-finished product was the shape of an octagon and we used hand files to round them out as best we could.
Howie: So you guys went from having one or two regular pucks lying around to having a hundred wooden pucks?
Justin: Yeah, it was crazy. It wasn't the most ideal situation because the wood would have knots in it and had an inconsistent balance throughout, but we made it work. When we finished making the pucks, we took to the street and Al would wind up a hundred shots in a row right at me.
Howie: I mean, it's technically every goalie's dream to be able to face a hundred shots, right?
Justin: I'd prefer regular pucks, but yeah, the wooden pucks definitely helped me with my reaction time. When my brother would fire them at me, some of them would split, some would curve, and some would feel like a normal puck, but if there was one consistency with these wooden pucks, it was that they FLEW. I mean, Al had quite the shot with regular pucks, but these things were nuts. They were just lighter, so they zipped right past me sometimes.
Howie: That's crazy. We might have to have you bring some of these wooden pucks with you next time and give them a go on the ice or something.
Justin: Yeah, definitely! I'm excited to be back next year.
Howie: Hey - we'll be here! Just let us know!
Justin wraps up his time here in Grand Rapids and heads off to different cities before he heads back home to Australia. The same guy that showed up and introduced himself to us is now a good friend of ours and a relationship that we look forward to rekindling every year. A familiar and friendly face around the office, we look forward to his cheerfulness and the many stories that he has to tell every year. He's one of many people that we've met through this spiderweb of connections in the hockey world and we're so blessed to have had created lasting friendships with so many people - from hockey moms, hockey players, to simply lovers of hockey, we're at the center of it all.