Behind the scenes in an ice hockey locker room
What do you expect the atmosphere to be like inside the locker room of an ice hockey team?
I can't remember what I expected before the game.
The plan was to film with the English Premier League's Manchester Phoenix as they hosted fellow pre-season favourites the Basingstoke Bison. I had visions of practical jokes, which became visions of hockey sticks going through camera lenses, which became visions of filling out one of the more ridiculous insurance claims in BBC history.
Mercifully, none of that came to pass, but it goes down as one of the more lively and tense evenings, even in the locker room of a team never once trailing during the match - as you can see from the video.
Looking back, what strikes me most is the quiet. You don't see it in the video, because filming a silent room at length makes for less than gripping viewing, but vast stretches of time spent with the team inside the locker room were almost uncomfortably quiet.
Now this may be because the presence of a camera during a big game had something of a chilling effect on the room, but I doubt that. I didn't get the sense that the party hats, Twister mat and card games had all been stowed for the duration of the my. Nobody seemed to be acting like this was in any way different.
But having spoken to friends afterwards, I wonder why I should be so surprised. They rightly pointed out that these are sportsmen paid to do a job. Breaking out the banjo and singing team-building campfire songs before the game may be the idyllic image of what it means to be in a sports team, but the reality is you turn up, play your game and go home.
That said, I don't feel that quite explains it. A better question I later asked myself is: well, what do you say? Obviously the coach - in this case Tony Hand - has to have his two penn'orth, which you see in the video when he's discussing things like lines (essentially, which players are out on the ice at any one time), but after that, topics of conversation in a room full of psyched-up hockey players start to seem thin on the ground. If you had anything pressing to say to your favourite team-mates, you would have done it by now, and 10 minutes before face-off is no time to debate the lawnmower you're going to buy next week.
Instead, as I observed on the night, what you get is a slightly forced "Come on!" bleated by alternating players on some invisible rota system. The peerless Montreal Canadiens goalie Ken Dryden, in one of the greatest sports books ever written (and with no ghostwriter in sight), summed up his own locker room experience as follows:
It's quieter than before. Ready or not, we have 15 minutes. Nothing can be put off any longer. Skates, some sweaters, shoulder pads, and elbow pads come off, sticks are re-examined and taped, helmets adjusted, bodies slouch back against cool concrete block walls.
Everything is slow, almost peaceful, each of us unconnected one from another, preparing in our own separate ways; as the game approaches, we reconnect. Against the Islanders or the Bruins, the room can be quiet or loud, it makes no difference. We know we are ready. Tonight, we aren't so sure, about each other, about ourselves. So sometimes we're quiet, and sometimes we make ourselves loud.
"C'mon, big gang," Houle exhorts, breaking the silence, "an early goal and they'll pack it in."
"Yessir, guys, they don't want any part of it." But again nothing.
"Where's the life?" Robinson yells. "We're dead in here. C'mon, c'mon..."
That was back in the 1970s and in the NHL, which, as Manchester's own Ed Courtenay has told us, is a slightly different kettle of fish. But I suspect locker rooms are fairly similar no matter your sport, or the level at which you play it. Why waste all your energy getting hyped up in there when you can sit calm and collected, contemplating the game, then let it all out on the ice?
Hand, whose name causes my fingers to lock if I don't automatically add the phrase "legend of British ice hockey" after typing it, is the Phoenix player-coach these days. There is a bit more about Hand here but a one-line summary would read: best British-trained player ever produced, nearly made it in the NHL, has dominated the British game for decades.
Being in a locker room in his presence is an experience, especially if you are in there with a camera, and certainly if you are in there with a camera when the communication lines between the BBC, the team and Hand have been less than reliable.
Filming before the game was fine, but when yours truly showed up in the locker room during the first period break, the player-coach was quick to express his understanding that I wasn't supposed to be there.
No, I explained - a little gingerly, given the presence of an entire ice hockey team in full regalia, with sticks - the team manager (a different gentleman) and I had agreed I'd be back in during period breaks. Hand, to his credit given he was in the middle of a game, relented.
However, towards the end of the second period Manchester had a few dodgy minutes, conceding a couple of goals. As I headed back into the locker room once more, I knew what was coming. Hand had already unleashed a few choice words on his team before he noticed me filming in the corner, and my marching orders were polite, yet swift. I wonder what it's like when they're losing.
It is strange how these things change once a game is won. Back in with the team after their 6-4 victory, as I rubbed the lens clean of the sweaty mist that enveloped the room, Hand happily gave an interview and told me to ignore anything he might have said to me during the game. Even now, bubbles of laughter in the locker room failed to give way to a full-on torrent of celebration after what was a hard-fought, tiring win - although, as immortalised on camera, former NHL man Courtenay knows how to introduce a hot topic.
Finally, a word for Adam Summerfield, the 19-year-old goalie making his Premier League debut. It was a film-maker's gift to have a storyline like his presented on a plate, and I should probably apologise for taking full advantage of the situation, training the camera on his pale, nerve-wracked face in the build-up to the game.
I felt enough adrenaline just filming him, so I can only imagine how he felt (although his social network page lists his only fears as rats, breaking his nose, and ladybirds, at least two of which were unlikely to feature). It's a credit to him that he ended up on the winning team and claimed the man of the match award to boot, and the relief shines through as he speaks to me at the end. While the likes of Courtenay are the ones who normally take the headlines, nothing is better to watch than a young British player getting a chance and taking it.