The Great Escape

Lids and bottles ready: Big Cat and Nicko side-by-side.

Lids and bottles ready: Big Cat and Nicko side-by-side.

I started hockey more than six years ago largely as an act of escapism. There was a woman involved, of course. Or, more specifically, the fading ghost of a woman I’d loved, and taking up hockey, without having ever skated, seemed like a great idea at that moment. Smashing repeatedly and painfully into hard ice is a good, immediate way to take your mind off a bruised heart. For the duration of a hockey class, at least.

Miraculously, it worked and I healed and I got to play hockey with both my boys, if too briefly with Mackqvist. Big Cat and I have been on the adventure together, all the way, and now he’s taken over an official letter in the Cherokees team as a leader, and that makes me smile, watching him grow and walk taller.

When you're on the ice, the rest of the world fades away. Pic: Luke Milkman

When you’re on the ice, the rest of the world fades away. Pic: Luke Milkman

Off the ice, my career fortunes, in fiction and real work, have waxed and waned, dipped, risen and plunged and then risen again. Life’s a rodeo, but I chose that path, away from the 9 to 5, a long time ago. Meanwhile, I met other women and then they became ghosts and I skated hard all over again, and then I met a French beauty who fundamentally rocked my world and so life got better, and through it all I somehow stuck with hockey and the hockey world was generous enough to stick with me.

And here I am.

And here is my crazy little self-indulgent blog, nickdoeshockey, which has recently passed 100,000 views (a lot more than all five of my published novels combined, just quietly) through almost 33,000 individual users, according to the WordPress statistical robots. Viewers officially from every continent, including Antarctica (even if I suspect that turned out to be a hoax from Adelaide. Nevertheless.) Who would have thought?

The proof. Amazeballs, as the kids like to say. Well, used to like to say.

The proof. Amazeballs, as the kids like to say. Well, used to like to say.

I still find those figures hard to believe. But there they are. Thank you to everybody who has spent time in this icy, random corner of the interweb.

My happy place: the spacious, luxuriously appointed expanses of an Oakleigh change room, with the 16/17 incarnation of the Cherokees.

My happy place: the spacious, luxuriously appointed expanses of an Oakleigh change room, with the 16/17 incarnation of the Cherokees.

Six years after my first hockey class, my first suspected broken arm and my first blog post, my life is in a very different place but the world remains a strange, sometimes cruel and frightening place. I generally have a rosy, optimistic view, by nature, but sometimes keeping that up can be difficult. Like when a truly hideous individual somehow gets voted in as US President, or when I sit in front of my laptop and the prospects of ever making a living as an Australian author of fiction seem more remote than ever (not just for me, for the vast majority of us, hacking away), or when I gaze towards Nauru and Manus Island and see my Government continuing to commit crimes against humanity, or when my everyday sources of paying the rent appear worryingly fragile. To make things worse, the Red Wings are going to finally break The Streak this season (I’m calling it now), Richmond seems to be a non-contender, as ever, and I’m currently sporting a truly horrible moustache – although at least that’s for a good cause.

And so hockey still needs to occasionally play the original role I asked of it – as a pure all-senses-engaged escapism from life outside the glass wall.

And it does. Mysteriously, I am currently in what’s probably the best form of my life, feeling confident, fit and even occasionally quite fast on the ice. I’ve been scoring points and goals and causing trouble, and man, oh man, but is hockey a more fun place when you don’t feel like you’re just making up the numbers or not really contributing to your team.

It’s so nice to feel fit, and not be nursing any injuries. To be with teammates you really like and share an instinctive understanding, including trusty Big Cat on the right wing, slotting a dirty, doorstop rooftop goal to give me a not-much-deserved assist on the weekend.

Have bad mo, will travel.

Have bad mo, will travel.

And so we set sail to who knows where, in life, in hockey and in this blog. Whether the blog makes it to 200,000 views or not doesn’t matter to me at all. It’s charted my crazy hockey adventure to here, and that’s fine. It’s introduced me to so many great people, opened unexpected doors into the small but passionate Melbourne hockey world, is currently hopefully raising a bit of money for Movember (oh, I don’t look good at all) and who knows how long it has to run? The last two summers, I’ve finished the season thinking that was it; I’d almost certainly retire. But then a few months later, I think: why would I?

Right now, I’m loving playing and loving the Real Life Shutout that only hockey can provide. Long may it last.

 

 

Using the blog for good instead of evil …

How it looked last time I shaved down to a mo ...

How it looked last time I shaved down to a mo …

This is kind of like a ‘commercial ad break’, as NHL TV likes to call it. But for a good cause…

I’m doing Movember this year, to help raise money for men’s health. I recently interviewed one of the founders of Movember, Trav Garone, and the people who actually make sure the money goes to good causes – which it really does ($A850 million and counting, when I spoke to them …) and it made me realise that I had to stomp on my ego and rejoin, after a break of a few years.

Trav Garone, founder of Movember and a good guy ... Pic: Royal Auto

Trav Garone, founder of Movember and a good guy … Pic: Royal Auto

The break being because I look really fucking terrible with a moustache.

but hey ho, it’s only a month, and it’s only my face …

So feel free to laugh at my hideous looks at the rink, or away from the rink, as long as you donate to help the cause.

The link to donate to my Movember campaign is here.

And if you feel really generous, or hate me but would still like to support men’s health, then the link to the Icehouse crew’s Movember team, led by Matt Armstrong, is here.

Saturday afternoon in Oakleigh

img_1291

It’s been raining for two days and it’s cold.

Winter cold; in the heart of spring. For IHV Summer League div 3 hockey.

Wearing four layers and a beanie, you leave it to your travelling companion to play loud music as you navigate the remorseless bottleneck of Chadstone’s road system. Finally, you pull up in the asphalt car park and lug your giant bag and sticks through the door that is slightly too small, then try to jam them and yourself through the even thinner wedge of metal to avoid the public turnstiles. Hockey players don’t pay at the gate.

Pre-game general skaters.

Pre-game general skaters. (Pic: Nicko)

 

Helpful penguin.

Helpful penguin.  (Pic: Nicko)

 

Dormant goals in the stands.

Dormant goals, waiting for us in the stands. (Pic: Nicko)

Inside, everything is that Oakleigh blue, except the dangling nets, like some demented fisherman’s lair, and the glow of the lights on the scoreboard, reading zero-zero. It’s 50 minutes to the puck drop.

Today is an intra-club grading match, Cherokees v Apaches, so you go say hi to Tony, rugged up and cutting edges in the Next Level shop, then head back down to chat with the ‘opposition’ before heading to your respective rooms. Your team shows up in ones and twos, and suddenly dressing room 3 is packed, strangely warm these days now that an effective heating system has somehow been installed.

Welcome to the shop.

The retail hub of Oakleigh. (Pic: Nicko)

 

Everything you need.

Everything you need. (Pic: Nicko)

 

Branding.

Branding. (Pic: Nicko)

The coaches read the lines one more time and bark instructions as you lace your skates, apply whatever idiosyncratic sock tape pattern you have evolved, give your teammates a grin or a nod, hang shit on the goalie, and then finally stalk your way on thin steel blades through the door, past the ever-dodgy men’s toilets and up the incline towards the rink.

Big crowd in for the Cherokees.

Big crowd in for the Cherokees. (Pic: Nicko)

 

The wait for the gate.

The wait for the gate. (Pic: Nicko)

 

Game time.

Game time. (Pic: Kat Pullin’s dad)

All the figure skaters, families, kids and fake penguins have been removed, Oakleigh’s antique Zamboni has chugged around and at last you step onto the ice, being careful because the drop is always slightly more than you expect, as the refs flip the goals from upside down in the grandstand to upright on the rink.

Water bottles to the narrow shelf behind the bench, a couple of fast laps of the narrow, claustrophobic Olympic rink, so much smaller than Icy O’Briens and with almost non-existent lines. Just as you finish shooting pucks at Stoney the goalie and gently tap all 20 pucks back to the bench, the rain starts in earnest and suddenly you can’t hear the final instructions because of the noise on the tin roof. The captain, Big Cat, shouts: ‘Kees on three. One … two … three!‘

‘KEES!

The crowd is tiny, maybe the occasional partner, family member or two, plus a couple of curious general skaters who have stuck around to see genuine hockey in Melbourne’s last remaining 1970s rink, a long half world away from the true hockey nations of the world.

Oakleigh action. Rain outside.

Oakleigh action. Rain outside. (Pic: Kat Pullin’s dad)

The puck drops and we go at it.

The game is fast and played in good spirit, both teams getting chances but with strong defences mostly choking breakaways and keeping attacks wide. Tommi in net for the Apaches, and Stoney standing on his head for us, as the heavy rain continues to drive hard and loud into the tin above, and sometimes through the roof, dripping onto our bench, and you wonder if this is going to turn into a famous Oakleigh pea-souper.

The Apaches seem to have only two or three players on the bench, while we have three full lines as well as five D. They get the first goal but we get one back and then another, and start to edge further in front.

Kees v Apaches.

‘Kees v Apaches. (Pic: Kat Pullin’s dad)

 

Kat defending. (Pic: her dad)

Kat defending. (Pic: her dad)

 

Some hack heads up ice.

Some hack heads up ice. (Pic: Kat Pullin’s dad)

In the end, we win, and we’re NHL happy but actually it’s a grading game and the start of summer and the Apaches have beaten us too many times for us to get cocky about managing to snag a win.

We do the handshakes, thank the refs, circle around to thank the coaches. We leave the ice, thank the hockey Gods that you’re allowed to have a beer in the change-rooms at good old Oakleigh, take advantage of that miracle as we get changed, then finish the beers outside, four or five Cherokees huddled in the doorway as the rain continues to fall but less so than during the game. We nod or yell goodbyes to various Braves players from both teams as they scuttle through the puddles to their vehicles, the few of us who are left shooting the shit about nothing in particular before we finally drift to our cars.

The post-game glow.

The post-game glow. (Pic: Nicko)

The long drive back to town has good music, and play-by-play breakdowns of the action, as we dissect the game and our form.

Next weekend, we’re back in the glamour of Icy O’Briens, Australia’s shiny and well-appointed official Winter Olympic training facility at Docklands, skating out no doubt to the disappointment of the remaining crowd after an women’s Australian Ice Hockey League game featuring Melbourne Ice has finished.

That’s Sunday afternoon.

But this one was classic Oakleigh. Who would have it any other way?

 

UPDATE: It looks like the crazy weather finally took a toll on Oakleigh’s ice sheet. This was from Facebook, apparently taken tonight, as I was finishing this. No idea how you fix something like this but one thing I do know: the resourceful Victorian hockey community will find a way.

Pic: Bron Bird, Monday.

Pic: Bron Bird, Monday.

Cracked ice on Monday night.

Cracked ice on Monday night.

The flow of the ice …

Another summer season starts tonight. The plucky Cherokees, full of old and new faces, take on an apparently highly-rated Demons team in a grading game.

It got me to thinking about the summers past, and all the people I’ve played with, as I prepare to step out for my fifth summer of competitive hockey.

A new season begins ...

A new season begins …

Life flows, within and beyond hockey. Years and years now of development league, classes at Icy O’Briens and, briefly, Next Level, of playing for the Nite Owls, Friday night social games, and official IHV comp for the Interceptors and then the Cherokees. All those bench partners, and line partners, and changing room banter partners, and coaches.

I haven’t been writing much on this blog because really it’s been the same story as years past and I haven’t wanted to write for the sake of writing … I’ve been playing dev league, attending occasional team trainings, plus kicking a footy once or twice a week, as well as hitting the gym, boxing, and oh yeah, work and family. In the AFL, Richmond sucked again, while in the about-to-start NHL, the Red Wings are again skating under a question mark, with a bunch of new faces, but the fading Datsyuk gone.

On Monday, I returned to work after a week at Heron Island, doing the Queensland tropical sun-and-beach thing with Chloe and Cassius, as well as scuba diving with one of my French brother-in-laws, Brendan, and a lot of turtles and nudibranchs.

A nudibranch, somewhere underwater just off Heron Island, Qld. (about two centimetres long, for context). Pic: Nicko

A nudibranch, somewhere underwater just off Heron Island, Qld. (about two centimetres long, for context). Pic: Nicko

The first thing I did when I got back to work was grab a coffee with Pete Savvides, one of my Interceptor teammates five years ago. We talked about all sorts of stuff, only a fraction of which was hockey. Pete married now, with a baby, and a senior job and a new summer team as he tries to help enthusiastic rookies get into the sport.

Some of the other Interceptors aren’t even in hockey any more, as far as I know. Others have scattered to different teams or clubs. It’s the way of the hockey world; not many teams are able to stay together, season to season.

Last year’s Cherokees were different to the ‘Kees before that. This year’s team is different again. Players head to the winter draft, or push up to new grades. I still consider my watermark to be solidly Division 3, meaning Cherokee life suits me fine, but others are more ambitious or have actual skills that demand an upgrade in standard.

My first summer team, the Interceptors (missing: Alex McNab)

My first summer team, the Interceptors (missing: Alex McNab). Damn, I look younger.

It’s okay. There are members of the about-to-launch 2016/17 Cherokees team that I barely know yet, but I know we’ll be friends by March, when we hopefully play finals, or wet our disappointment at not making the four. I’ve met all kind of people through hockey and it’s one of the parts of the crazy adventure that I love. Doctors and political analysts, fellow journalists, and plumbers, dog groomers, IT consultants, building workers and yoga instructors … every team is a wild mix of personalities, skills and interests. Coming together for the grand adventure of a 10.30 pm IHV-scheduled game, or a more casual Oakleigh training session.

One of the Cherokee incarnations. I just noticed that I seem to always kneel in the same spot for team photos. Weird.

One of the Cherokee incarnations. I just noticed that I seem to always kneel in the same spot for team photos. Weird.

Tonight, we suit up for real; Big Cat Place and I slated for second-line duties, skating together as the only constant in five years of competition; still the reason I do it. The new look Cherokees beginning our summer journey against a mysterious opponent, but with several of my long-time friends now added to the team as an unexpected bonus.

People rise in your life, people fall out of your life. Friends, lovers, workmates, clients, family. People you wish you’d spent more time with, others you’re pretty happy to see the back of. Hockey is a microcosm of the wider universe, and I embrace the new, while remembering the old.

So, here’s a pre-game toast to teammates past and present.

See you somewhere along the icy way. For the Cherokees, that means 8 pm tonight. Bring it.

When the coaches fly

A cat trying to use your crotch as a scratching post is not a great pre-hockey omen. And sure enough, in dev league last night, I felt like my skating was off, my knee inexplicably hurt, my shots at goal were powder puffs, and being an offensive threat when genuine IHV summer hockey starts in six weeks or so felt a million miles away. But you have nights like that; well, I do. I had a few good moments, but also got mown down on a clear breakaway, which sucked. I think I need to do some sprinting, off ice, to get more grunt in my legs. Even footy once or twice a week isn’t enough, it seems.

However, the real mistake I made with regard to my self-confidence was hanging around to watch Melbourne Ice train straight after our session. I hadn’t watched the Ice practicing for a long time. Usually the Mustangs follow our scrimmage but the Clippyclops are done for the season and so Melbourne Ice got the rink ahead of the weekend’s AIHL finals at Icy Obriens (probably sold out but check for tickets).

The Ice on Tuesday night, preparing to hopefully add a new addition to the banners on the far wall.

The Ice on Tuesday night, preparing to hopefully add a new addition to the banners on the far wall.

I’ve probably written this before but I love watching our coaches go flat out. For almost six years, I’ve had a front row seat of Matt Armstrong, Lliam Webster, Tommy Powell, occasionally Jason Baclig, Rob Clark and women’s Ice captain Shona Powell, and Ice star Georgia Carson, as they coach us wannabes week in, week out.

But, of course, they are only ever in second gear, at best. Even when they jump into a scrimmage, I’m always super aware that they’re coasting, that they have so much power and skill they’re holding back. (Sure, we students still can’t help but get an insane burst of euphoria on the rare occasion when we manage to actually strip one of the coaches of the puck, but it is usually followed seconds later by being unceremoniously separated from said puck by the same coach, moving briefly to second-and-a-half gear.)

I think my favourite moment in scrimmage ever was waiting, huddled over my stick, in my usual Left Wing position for a face-off in our defensive zone when Tommy Powell, proud Alternate Captain of Melbourne Ice and, oh yeah, Australia, skated casually over and said, ‘When they drop the puck, just go.’ He tilted his head minimally towards our goal, almost 200 feet away down at the other end of the ice.

‘Go?’ I said.

‘Go,’ he confirmed.

Tommy wasn’t even taking the face-off as he was playing defence, but I knew better than to argue. The puck was dropped, I didn’t even look. I just skated flat out down the ice away from everybody. And sure enough, like a magic trick, the puck came tumbling out of the air above me, landing neatly about two metres in front of me, and bouncing gently a couple of times before it was on my stick and I was on a breakaway 20 metres or more clear of any defenders. I still have no idea how he did it, but I have been forever in awe of his confidence, that he knew he could step in, get that puck from the face-off turmoil, find space and then lob it perfectly half a rink to exactly the right spot. Holy shit.

The Ice working on shots, Tuesday before finals weekend.

The Ice working on shots, Tuesday before finals weekend.

So last night, back in street clothes after our dev league hit out, Big Cat, Will Ong and I stopped to watch, before leaving Icy Obriens. And I was struck again by the sheer skill and skating of AIHL level players. It really is something to see and if you’re a hockey player of any level, I would advocate going to watch the Ice train. It’s one thing to watch games, where they duke it out with other teams, but there’s a lot they can’t control there, and all sorts of pressures that they’re dealing with. The Ice love to tic-tac-toe cute passes in attack to end up with a clear scoring chance once a defence is bamboozled, but it’s natural that a lot of those ambitious attempts derail midway.

In training, the skills of the players can shine, uninterrupted. From the moment they took their positions in four groups on the opposing blue lines, everybody knew every drill intimately. A swirl of players looked terrifying, as two skaters would skate fast, fully-committed half circles around the red circle, with pucks crisscrossing the zone, but never in danger of colliding. The skaters would give and receive several hard fast passes, from opposing corners, before suddenly sweeping towards goal.

And that’s when you notice the little things. Lliam Webster received a hard pass half a metre too far behind him. Somehow he kicked it, absolutely smoothly, onto his stick without breaking stride or losing any pace, went in and slotted the shot straight past the goalie.

Tommy Powell took a shot and then hockey stopped from full pace to a complete halt in one fraction of a second, snow flying, like an old animation of the Road Runner going from a blur to dead-stopped, so that he was camped for a potential rebound.

Big weekend coming up for the Ice.

Big weekend coming up for the Ice.

And so it went. Two fast laps, a standard of any training session I’ve ever been part of with any team, was frighteningly quick, with Danish import Lasse Lassen particularly noticeable for his low-gravity style and smooth skating. We also noticed that Joey Hughes has got his trademark long hair back and there are some strong play-off beards in evidence.

Eventually we left them to it and headed off into the night. On the weekend, we’ll be back, hoping the Ice can make it through the semis to Sunday’s Grand Final and then hopefully salute for the first time in a few years, since the glorious days of the threepeat.

I’m not going to mozz them by saying anything more about how sharp and ready they looked. I’m sure the other three teams in finals contention look great in training too. It’s all about bringing it on the day, two days in a row. My feeling is that for the Ice this year, it’s only a question of whether they can mentally turn on when required. The 2016 squad, for mine, is as good as any they’ve had. But they need to blinker-out the inevitable provocation and needle that’s going to come in the semi, secure that win, and then peak for when it matters on Sunday afternoon.

I’ll be there, mouth-agape at the level of play they can achieve, from my viewpoint as a summer trier. And loving every minute. Especially if they trounce Canberra.

Ice, Ice, baby. Go get ’em.

 

The door in the jungle

The adventurer’s eyes widened as he spied what looked like a door. Could this really be it? Had he found it against all the odds, after all this time? His heart began to beat in his chest. His breathing quickened. He struggled to contain his excitement, to remain calm.

The adventurer hacked away at the jungle between him and the door, fighting to get closer.

The wilds of Fitzroy North

The wilds of Fitzroy North

Until finally, there it was, right in front of him. Ageing, paint peeling, almost buried in dust and cobwebs, the door’s handle stiff and resistant after how long without human touch?

He used the machete to sweep aside the cobwebs, used some leaves to clear dust. Then took a deep breath, used all his might to creak the handle to vertical, and then yanked. The door opened.

And there it was.

His hockey gear. Resting against the only bag used less over the last 15 weeks, his scuba diving gear.

The adventurer dragged the bag out of the back shed, and wincing, expecting the worst, opened the zip.

And was relieved to find that the hockey smell wasn’t bad at all. That last big airing, after the Cherokees’ lost final, had done the job.

The dormant bags of adventure.

The dormant bags of adventure.

The adventurer flexed his dodgy calf, which had twanged out while running to receive a handball the previous Friday. The adventurer coming off several weeks in a row of gym, boxing, football twice a week and now ready to step back onto the ice. Having been to a few Melbourne Ice games lately, against the Sydney Bears and Newcastle on Saturday. Feeling the anticipation as the nation’s best players swirled and smashed their way around the Henke Rink at Icy O’Briens. Exchanging looks with Big Cat, knowing it was only three more sleeps until they finally stepped back onto that same ice.

Tuesday 6.45 pm scrimmage, a star-studded cast of players from all levels of competitive hockey. Big hellos to the coaches, who he hadn’t seen in months. Big hellos to the players. Big enjoyment of the locker room banter, and the long, complicated donning of the armour, skates and sock tape. That memory jog to take off the skate-guards before stepping onto the ice surface.

The moment of nervous fear as he jumped the boards for warm-up, and didn’t land flat on his face. More moments of uncertainty, gingerly testing hockey stops and turns, his calf holding, his unpractised skating technique mostly holding.

The Ice and Bears get acquainted on Henke Rink. Pic: Nicko

The Ice and Bears get acquainted on Henke Rink. Pic: Nicko

And then playing his first hour of hockey for months and months. Not setting the world on fire, only landing a few good passes, only having a few not-particularly-threatening shots on goal. Falling a few times, taking what sometimes felt like minutes to complete a fast turn , feeling two steps too slow.

But back. Skating. Managing a breakaway or two. Remembering. And smiling.

Laughing and light, on the drive home with Big Cat, who had been just as rusty but looked better and better as the hour progressed.

Hockey players once more.

And it felt good.

 

An important announcement

Melbourne, Tuesday, June 21 (AP): The Braves Hockey Club and management for Nick Place were pleased to announce today that they have agreed to terms for the upcoming 2016-17 Ice Hockey Victoria summer season.

‘We think it’s a great deal for everybody,’ said Braves President Liam Patrick. ‘If Place pays his fees in full and on time, buys a new jersey, drives himself to trainings and games, doesn’t open his mouth in the changerooms, and doesn’t get in anybody’s way, we might let him play very limited fifth line minutes for the Cherokees in Division 3.’

Place managing to stay vertical in a previous summer. Pic: Luke Milkman

Place managing to stay vertical in a previous summer. Pic: Luke Milkman

Place’s manager, Nick Place, said: ‘I, I mean my client is thrilled that the Braves have agreed to let me, I mean him, don the famous black and yellow for the forthcoming season. I think there’s definitely a role for older, wise veterans in today’s hockey world. When I think of Jaromir Jág-‘

He was then cut off by President Patrick, who whispered: ‘Stick to the agreed script or it’s over.’

President Patrick told reporters, ‘There had been some hope-I mean thought that Nick might consider retirement at the age of 67 but, trooper that he is, and photos of me that he has, he’ll be allowed to go around this summer. What I need the hockey world, especially the Braves family, to understand is that legally we can’t stop him. If he pays his fees, there’s nothing I can do. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.’

The news of Place’s resigning was greeted with universal joy across the league with opposition teams admitting to being rapt with the development. ‘Place’s son, Will – AKA Kittens – AKA Big Cat – would be a huge offensive threat under most circumstances,’ said one coach. ‘So the fact he’ll be totally hamstrung by having to put up with his dad’s ineffectual skating and passing on the left wing should cut his point production in half at least, and is a boon for all of us.’

Cherokees coach Georgia Carson was not available for comment. Friends say she was enjoying a quiet night yesterday evening when she received a txt that appeared to horrify her. ‘They promised! They promised he was gone! They told me it was over!’ she screamed before storming out of the house to a nearby speakeasy bar. She has not been seen since.

Place left immediately after the press conference, telling reporters he was heading to a secret training camp to prepare for September’s action. However, Braves officials confirmed he actually just went to work.