How I roll

Queenscliff, Victoria. Hot day. Scuba-divers gather, to double-dive the HMAS Canberra, now scuttled off the coast outside the Heads.

1. Sabrina: “Um, Nicko, is your wetsuit on back to front?”

Me: “Huh?”

Sabrina: “The knee pads appear to be on the back.”

Awkward silence.

Me: “It’s not my fault. What do I know? … I’m a hockey player.”

2. Sam: “I think the photo will come out really well of Nicko doing a Leonard DiCaprio, arms spread, on the bow of the Canberra.”

(This happened at a depth of about 20 metres)

Marie and Sabrina stare.

Me: Shrug. “I’m a hockey player.”

3. Me to Marie: “That was smart.”

Marie: shrug. “I’m blonde.”

This from a PhD international scientist.

Marie: “Anyway, I didn’t notice you being smarter.”

Me: “I’m a hockey player.”

4. Sabrina: “So, you were in charge of the compass … we surfaced to see how far from the boat we were. You guided us, underwater, by compass, to where it should be, and now we’ve surfaced and it’s hundreds of metres away …”

Me: “It might have moved to pick up other divers. Anyway, there’s something you’ve forgotten  … ” You know the rest.

Fun weekend. Last diving for a while. From here, I concentrate on ice time. And yes, Melbourne is 39 C outside. Fine time to take up ice hockey.


So, I’ve discovered an early hurdle in starting a blog. Feedback from friends and readers accentuates that they are more witty and intelligent than I am. I already knew this, btw – this is not headline news – but now the proof is there.

So, kudos to Richard Stubbs for suggesting the title of this blog should have been: Nick on ice”. As a Richmond fan, I find that deeply offensive, yet funny.

And big kudos to Ms Martine Thompson, who came up with an infinitely better postscript to the “Hockey player versus Car” entry.

In her suggested postscript, after my ribs got taken out by the automatic gate, I should have taken deep breaths, felt my ribs screaming and then said to the empty street, under the ding ding ding ding ding of the boomgates:

“It’s okay. I write a blog about being a hockey player. I need to go write about this now.”

And walked to my car.

More accurate, and funnier. Well played, Irish.

By the way, the Detroit Red Wings won 3-1 today; much needed points as they stagger to a mid-season break and hope to get injured stars back. Will’s favourite player, Darren Helm (#43) scored the opener. Now you know.

Nicko, meet ice. Ice, meet Nicko.

Our instructor, Lliam Webster, in his real job, as Melbourne Ice captain.

The final night of pre-hockey school skating school was intense. I’d had a strange day too, fighting a nameless melancholy, feeling physically drained, so this was the first skate session I’d half-heartedly turned up for, not really in the right place.

Suffice to say, the ice and I got close and personal more than once. Which got my blood going and shook off the lethargy, fast. Plus, I was in my complete hockey kit, so falling was no big deal. As against one skater who turned up in shorts and no padding on his knees or elbows. He went straight over backwards, smacking his back, and helmeted head, a few times. Nasty.

But that’s the point of these classes. You should hit the deck. otherwise you’re not leaving your comfort zone. Even Jack, who is two months and about a thousand on-ice hours ahead of me, crashed a few times, working on correct technique instead of just free-range skating where he’s now awesome.

Given it was the fourth and last week, our instructor (and Melbourne Ice captain) Lliam Webster (pictured) had really stepped things up. Had us standing on one skate, skating forward, while crouching and putting the other skate out in front of our body. Had us getting down on our haunches while skating so our bums were dragging the ice, then standing again. Lots of tough balance stuff. Then skating backwards practice, pushing off just one leg, which requires a strong anchor leg.

Of course, when I say he “had us doing” this … that’s not strictly true. Maybe about a dozen at the elite end of the 30 pupils were more or less pulling off some version of what was required. The rest of us were eating snow. It was fun watching people who have appeared flawless (why are you even doing this beginner course?) finally get pushed into skating they couldn’t handle. Everybody was in good spirits; falls are part of this world.

Having said that, one poor bastard, Lachlan, had just joined the class for his first lesson and was simply overwhelmed. I skated over and pointed out that I was him two weeks ago, having missed the first lesson. He had seen me fall several times already and asked if I was okay. Now he looked me up and down, the Michelin Man in all my padded gear (post to come, concentrating on what you wear) and asked if I had bought all my kit? I said yes.”That’s the point,” I explained. “I know I’m going to hit the ice, and hard. So I’m wearing all the padding I can.”

I was gently encouraged when Lliam looked at the guy in shorts, who had landed hard, and said: “Dude, don’t wear shorts when you’re skating. It’s just going to hurt.”

I was also more than gently encouraged during an early drill where we hung laps and the instructors blew a whistle for us to speed up, slow down or stop and go the other way. I’ve pretty much finally mastered the snow plough stop, which puts me tantalisingly close to the full two-foot hockey stop (to be explained later), and I loved this drill. I could skate faster than even a week ago, when the whistle blew. At the next whistle, I could snow plough gently to brake my speed and then cruise. At two whistles, which means turn, I was actually able to snow plough hard, stop, turn. Go. Me … doing this. Under my face grill, I was grinning like an idiot about stuff that Jack and Will were probably yawning about, it was so 2010.

We finished our four week course with a race. In a group of seven skaters, we had to push a hockey goal the length of the ice, turn it and come back, handing over to a second group of seven in a relay. Two teams. I should point out here that there were about five women in the group of 30. Lots of youth. Male youth. Testosterone. I was in the first group for our team and figured out immediately what was required. As the others pushed hard, powering the goal like this was an Olympic gold medal event, I just kept my skates straight and surfed along, like a water-skier holding the goal frame.

Which worked perfectly until the turn. It was my right skate that didn’t keep up and suddenly my helmet was smacking off the ice like I’d been body-slammed by Hulk Hogan. Strangely, it barely hurt. And I had to scramble to catch up and rejoin the team, who were steaming that I was the one who’d lost it. Not that it mattered. Our second team of seven included a bunch of the skaters who, like me, were genuine beginners. So we lost.

Our punishment? Two laps of the ice. The testosterone crew, muttering, set off to set ice-speed records. I skated happily in their wake, enjoying some final ice time with space and air (no public crowds like in the everyday sessions) to just enjoy how far I’ve come; that I can now skate a lap of the Melbourne Ice rink without any real fear of falling, even at a decent pace.

Will and I headed home, hooked up with Mack, and celebrated graduating from the Beginner Course by watching Mystery. Alaska, a hockey-based film starring a younger Russell Crowe and Burt Reynolds. It’s a pretty good film.

Next week, we start the 12 week hockey school: six weeks of learning some more how to actually skate like a hockey player. Then we get sticks. And pucks. Bring it!

Oh, the humanity! Saturday arvo at the Icehouse.

Just another Saturday afternoon at the Icehouse.

Here are two concepts that don’t go together anywhere near as well as you would think: six-year-old’s birthday party, and ice skating.

Well, let me rephrase that: if you happen to loathe and hate children, then get down to the Melbourne Icehouse on a Saturday afternoon.

Because it was kiddie carnage. There were two birthday parties in the house, all these tiny kids in their best party clothes, strapped into beginner skates and sometimes even helmets. Pushed out onto a white version of Hell.

I have never seen so many knee-highs splattering wherever you looked. Here were two little girls in a misguided attempt to support each other, only succeeding in dragging one another to the hard, remorseless ice, time and again.

Here was a kid who thought the only solution to no balance was to try and go faster. Those walls can hurt. They come up fast.

And our favourite: this one kid who face-planted maybe 10 times in a row; his father, chuckling and trying to appear sympathetic, supportive and determined, all at the same time, helping him back to his feet, well, skates.

Letting go of the kid’s hand.

Whoops. Smash. Face.

One time, straight into the skates of a coach trying to help. That’s got to hurt.

Or occasionally, for a change-up, straight backwards, smashing the back of his head. No helmet.

This kid was a one-man Funniest Home Videos program, but suffering big time for his art.

The last I saw of him, he had somehow ventured away from the safety of the wall into uncharted ice. “Go, kid, go,” I had to yell, stirred by his courage and his improvement. “Bend your knees. Lean forward so you don’t fall backwa–.”

Wham. Back of head cave-in. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hold onto.

But wait! … emerging from the black spots in front of his eyes, a kindly teenage Icehouse coaching assistant, appearing like an Angel, like a vision, to end his suffering, his pain. Out stretched her slender, confident hand. He grasped it. Was pulled back to vertical. She smiled, an Angel’s smile. Everything was finally going to be okay. Life was great. Skating awesome at last.

She glided away to help others. The kid watched her go. Was ready to finally skate.

Straight backward! Epic skull-cave.

(This kid didn’t cry once, by the way. Full respect.)

The only good thing about The Hour of Kiddie Carnage, apart from the sheer humour?
I was finally not the worst skater out there. And my weaving skills got a work-out as bodies flew in all directions, or stopped dead in front of me, or lurched across my path.

I even kept working on the snow plough stop. Within months, I reckon I’ll have it down.

Going for a run tomorrow, then the Fitzroy Back Beach (read: pool). Don’t want to get ice-obsessed. And it’s going to be 32 C. Skating on such a beautiful day today felt weird enough. But at least I’m not as sore as some kids out there tonight. I almost feel sorry for the little bastards.

Hockey Player versus Car

Brendan Witt, hockey player.

In December, 2009, an NHL player, New York Islanders’ defenceman Brendan Witt, was in Philadelphia, due to play the Flyers that night. He decided to get some coffee and was crossing the street at the exact moment a gold Yukon truck made an illegal U-turn. The truck took him out.

Not just a graze; a genuine knocked-off-his-feet, sliding-down-the-hood hit. Not surprisingly, a crowd gathered, concerned. Hands reached for mobiles to call an ambulance.

But no.

Witt stood up, said a few choice swear words and then announced to the assembled gathering: “I’m okay. I’ve got to go play some hockey. I’m a hockey player. I’m okay. No big deal.”

And walked off.

And played that night.

A witness said it was like meeting Clint Eastwood, only the hockey version.

Sounds too good a story to be true but click on the link. My hockey partner and son, Will, discovered this unfeasibly cool story soon after it happened and we both kind of went: ooooooh, in a very non-mature way. Maybe the seeds of our desire to play hockey were in that moment?

From what I understand, NHL has always been the laughed-at little brother to the major American sports. I guess it’s the Canadian bloodlines that make it easy for Yanks to sneer at – you know, the whole Canada being America Lite thing (easy to blame South Park for perpetuating this. Personally, I blame Bryan Adams. Just for being born. And for the Robin Hood soundtrack.)

Anyway, hockey doesn’t get a lot of respect among your bling-swinging basketballers and footballers. But in Australia, that doesn’t need to matter. For a start, over here, any decent basketballers have the sense to switch codes to AFL (a shout out to Dean Brogan). And US gridiron players? They wear all that padding yet tight gripping pants to show off their arse. AFL players: the opposite. That wraps it up for gridiron. I can’t do baseball either but, let’s face it, cricket isn’t much better right now.

But since my embryonic steps into the world of becoming a low-level amateur ice hockey player (and from here, I’m going to call it hockey because field hockey is nowhere in this blog, and in the (ice) hockey world, it would only ever be called ‘hockey’, so there)

… anyways, even in these, my baby step days in hockey, I’ve noticed something.

And look, before I even say it, I need to first say: It sounds dicky.

It’s not easy to write.

I don’t want to seem like a total wanker.

And it’s not me puffing out my chest because, as I have said repeatedly, I am not even attempting to call myself a hockey player just yet.


But here goes:

Being a hockey player is fucking cool.

Lots of street cred.

Joining Brendan Witt’s world.

People react strongly to the mere mention of this sport. Probably because of the legalised violence contained within (but hopefully nowhere near where I’m playing, in non-contact recreational leagues for the start of my career at least.)

And I’ve noticed the grudging respect, even while demonstrably on training wheels.

In fact, since announcing to the world my hockey intentions (largely so that peer group pressure would stop me piking, if/when it got/gets hard) I have noticed there are two camps:

“You’re insane.”

(This includes the eye-rolling “Mid-life crisis, huh?” crowd … but I’ve been accused – probably rightly – of suffering a mid-life crisis for at least 15 years now, so I kind of ride that bump pretty easily)


“Cool! Where do you train? I might do that! That rocks” … etc. It even turns out that some friends are also learning/playing hockey, or did as kids or have serious plans to. Like some Masonic handshake I didn’t know about before.

Will and Jack, my younger, better-skating partners in this venture, have definitely noticed the looks as they catch trams to the Docklands, with all their gear, and sticks. And, believe me, they’re learning how to strut.

The embarrassing truth is that I have to admit when I heard that story about Witt, something in me sparked.

Now, I fully understand that I’m far too old to think this way, but when I hear a story like that, I can’t help but think: I want that to be me. And I’m going to take steps to be that guy. (Insert whole new: “Nicko hopes to be even half a witt” joke here)

Tragically, there is a precedent and it involves magic (which will be the subject of a whole other post at some point in this journey, no doubt, so you’ve been warned).

Several years ago, I was fumbling around with making coins disappear. I’d read Michael Chabon’s astonishingly brilliant book, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay”, where Joe Kavalier is a magician among other talents, and can make all sorts of things vanish, appear, etc.

Immediately, some long-dormant trigger in my brain was set off. The classic uncle/friend of parents who had performed some incredible card tricks for me at an impressionable age was suddenly front of lobe. I needed to rediscover that love of magic; to learn how to make a coin vanish.

And so I bought a magic book, learnt the necessary moves and started practising.

At which point I heard the most brilliant story about a resident Melbourne magician. It happened a couple of years ago.

Now this isn’t some big time stage magician, or some household name. Most of the Melbourne magic community are pretty low level, and perform for love as much as ambitions of being professional.

So this dude is no doubt in a black overcoat, heading to some magic session or possibly to uni, or work; who knows? It doesn’t matter.

What does matter is that he’s on a tram. The Ticket Inspector Gorillas get on and demand to see his ticket. He reaches into the inside breast pocket of his jacket, pulls out the ticket and hands it over.

As the Ticket Gorilla examines it, the magician realises he had felt something else in the pocket, wonders what it was? He digs around, pulls out another ticket and realises that he is holding today’s ticket. In other words, he accidentally gave the Gorilla an old, expired ticket, and is now holding the correct, valid ticket.

Not such an astonishing story so far, granted, but pay close attention to what happens next. The magician has skills and an opportunity, and the presence of mind to take things to a whole new level.

The Ticket Gorilla bristles and says: “This ticket isn’t valid. It’s expired.”

Like dogs scenting a bag of bones, the other Ticket Gorillas smell blood and start paying attention to this guy in the overcoat, like some Melbourne low-rent Neo.

And the magician calmly says: “Really? Can I please see the ticket?” and takes it off the inspector. Looks briefly at it, and hands it back.

Then pulls a JEDI MIND TRICK.

“There is nothing wrong with the ticket,” he says, vaguely waving his empty hand. “The ticket is valid. We have no problem here. You can move along.”

The Ticket Gorilla looks at the ticket … and it is now a perfectly valid, current ticket.


I had to learn that move. I had to do whatever tiresome, endless hand manoeuvre practice was required to be able to do that ticket-switch under pressure, if the moment ever somehow arose for me.

And so I have put in several years of close-up magic learning and practice (yet am still mediocre at best. It’s harder than it look).

Because there are some moments that would be so fucking cool, you just have to put in the hours, on the off-chance that one-in-a-million opening ever appears.

Like being a hockey player, crossing a road, being smashed by a truck and standing up, unconcerned … because you’re a hockey player.

For now, I’m currently working hard to disregard the mid-life crisis sniggers. I’m shrugging and smiling a little too happily at the “You’re insane” declarations. They may well be true.

And then I’m having a lot of fun, embracing the cool. As long as nobody actually sees me, wobbling pathetically around the ice – often in full hockey protective kit while 13-year-olds in jeans and a T-shirt zoom carelessly past me on the Icehouse everyday rink – I hope to foster this whole new level of street cred. Maybe I can start carrying a hockey stick to work? As long as I don’t have to use it – given I have no clue – it could be a cute accessory.

(POSTSCRIPT: Immediately after writing this post, I had dinner on Greville Street, Prahran. I was walking back to my car and about to cross the railway line when the lights started flashing. I looked left and right and couldn’t see a train anywhere, so I kept crossing, but in watching the tracks hadn’t realised an automatic gate was closing in front of me, at perfect rib height. Yes, I smacked into it, the metal gate digging sharply into my rib right below the heart, even breaking the skin under my shirt. Hurt like a mother-fucker and I still had to scramble through the closing gate. Luckily it was late; nobody was watching that I saw. Rib screeching, I stood there, took a deep breathe. Said to the empty street, under the ding ding ding ding ding: “It’s okay. I’m a hockey player. I need to go now.”

And walked to my car. )

The start of it all: How Hank Zetterberg changed my life

Star Red Wing Henrik (AKA Hank, AKA Zee) Zetterberg

Star Red Wing Henrik Zetterberg

I should probably briefly take the Wayback Machine, to explain how this all came about.

It starts with me sick as eight dogs, bedridden for a week, in mid-2008. Coughing, sneezing and channel-surfing Foxtel at the exact same time the Detroit Red Wings were contesting (and winning)  the Stanley Cup, the NHL’s grand final series.

I’d never watched ice hockey before. Never taken much of an interest, beyond knowing vaguely from my sportswriter days that it was alleged to be the fastest-moving sport in the world; at least involving something like a ball, or a puck, being hit.

The Red Wings logo caught my eye immediately. Vivid bright red jersey with a winged wheel. Fantastic. I’d never seen such a strong, simple brilliant logo.

And the Wings were great. Chris Osgood was having a career-defining season as goalie. Future Hall of Famer Nick Lidstrom leading the defence. And Henrik (Hank) Zetterberg was totally blitzing. This Swede is on something like a 12-year, $60 million deal with the Wings. He’s one of their marquee players. Alternate captain and wearing number. 40. And I just instantly liked him; the way he took the other team on, scored goals regularly, got back to help with defence.

And suddenly I was barracking for this strange team in red from Detroit. And some Swede called ‘Zee’ or ‘Hank’.

Fast forward a while and I’m in New York and wander into an NHL franchise store. “Hey,” I ask the guy at the counter. “Do you have anything from that Detroit team? You know, the Flying Wheelers or whatever they’re called?”

He looks at me, down his nose. “The Red Wings?”

“Yeah, that’s them … (awkward silence. Somewhere a dog barks) … I’m from Australia.”

And so now I return home with a Red Wings T-shirt, and a year later, I’m staying in touch with the Wings (who lose the 2009 Stanley Cup to the Pittsburgh Penguins) but my son Will starts to take an interest and then, in a very Will way, gets far more interested than I am. And becomes close to obsessed.

Now we’re both decked out in Wings tees and caps. And then I get a Zetterberg jersey and Will is sporting a Darren Helm No 43 jersey. And Mack, my younger son, is in a Pavel Datsyuk No. 13, although personally I think he’s only in it for the fashion, not the hockey.

And now we’re back to the Present Day, as Hollywood scripts like to call it.

Will, just 18 and finally free of VCE, is fully into watching Melbourne’s very own ice hockey team, the imaginatively-titled Melbourne Ice, and is taking things a step further, learning to skate like a madman with ambitions to start actually playing hockey, instead of just watching.

I’m lurching from a broken relationship and wondering how I can throw myself out of my comfort zone; out of howling at the moon? On a whim, I perform a stand-up story at Rocket Clock, a storytelling slam and get an adrenalin rush.

I watch the Wings and think: man, it could be fun to play … if I could learn to skate.

I’ve skated precisely once, desperately clutching the wall of the Ringwood ice rink when I was about 10 years old.

I’ve always been crap at skateboarding, rollerblading, surfing – anything where things are moving under my feet.

I could get hurt.

I’m terrified just thinking about it.

It’s the middle of an Australian summer.

I sign up.

And here we are.

Setting the scene

Wobbly, in full protective gear, and surrounded by kids skating happily. The humiliation begins.

Let’s start with the pain…

Week one. First fall. I feel myself going, and backwards: where you’re not supposed to land. Instinctively I throw my right arm out to catch myself. Mistake No. 2 and it’s a big mistake. It means my body lands hard, very hard, on the ice, with my arm trapped beneath. My shoulder screams. Somewhere under my bicep and tricep, where the bone is, something like a sharp ache.

Incredibly, at 45 years old, I have never broken a bone. I’ve fallen off a 20 metre cliff. I’ve tumbled from many bikes. I’ve smacked into underwater reef rocks, when surfing has gone wrong. I’ve landed awkwardly, turning my ankle, so many times. Crutches and I have a long acquaintance. Played enough Australian Rules football to know what it is to be hurt. Yet never broken a limb.

I’ve heard the pain isn’t sharp: it’s an ache. Just like this. Oh please, no, I think to myself.

I flip around like a drunk seal on the white, so-slippery ice. I get to my hands and knees. I somehow regain my feet, strapped mercilessly and painfully into rental skates.

“It’s not broken,” I tell myself. “This can’t end that quickly. That’s ridiculous.”

I skate on. All week, my shoulder kills me, but it’s fine; has full movement. It only reminds me what I’ve just taken on.

Week two: I’ve had a couple of practice skates between lessons. Looking like a total and complete dick on the Melbourne Icehouse’s everyday ice rink, dressed in my hockey protective gear, which is bulky and unmissable and not even remotely cool when all around me are people in jeans and T-shirts, little kids included, skating happily with no fear of falling. And I’m wobblier than a giraffe tap-dancing on slimy wet rocks. But what? I’m going to break a wrist now, at the start of things, because I was too worried about appearing cool to wear my protective gloves?

And the couple of short sessions are paying off. I’m standing most of the time on the skates, even daring to believe I can master the snow plough stopping technique with a little practice.

At the end of the skating lesson, we play Red Rover. Most of the people in this class seem to have been skating for a while. It’s like starting driving lessons – first time ever behind the steering wheel – and discovering that everybody else has been driving for years.

So in Red Rover – tag, in other words – everybody is darting in all directions, avoiding being tagged, but I’m not. I can do nothing but skate my wobbly skate in a straight line, no chance of changing direction.

Third round, I’m duly tagged and just as I register that fact, I’m blindside taken-out by a guy traveling fast and trying to avoid a tagger. I never see it coming, not even in my peripheral vision. Just suddenly slammed and down.

And down hard. Unprotected ribs smack the ice, full weight of body crashing. Head (in helmet, luckily) slams into ice, and whips up and down as it bounces.

I try to get up and am surprised that it takes two attempts. *

We haven’t even started playing hockey yet, where people get hit routinely. Where people try to take one another out. This is an L-plate skating class. And yet I turn up for work the next day with minor whiplash and bruised ribs.

What have I gotten myself in for?

This blog is an attempt to answer that question. It’s to record a plan so crazy that I simply had to chronicle the journey.

Hear me say this: at this moment, on January 18, 2011, I fully intend to be an ice hockey player in maybe a year, playing some probably very low level of competition in the Melbourne leagues.

But also understand that I know the jeopardy. This could go horribly, horribly wrong at any moment and in six months I may well be thinking: what was I thinking?

Which is why it’s totally worth doing, right? Let the Blog commence.

* As I try to regain my feet after that Week Two hit, the guy who took me out looks at me, in my Detroit Red Wings jersey, struggling to regain my skates, in a world of pain. He says: “Man, sorry, but then again I do go for Columbus (an NHL team: the Blue Jackets, beaten 6-5 in overtime earlier that week by Detroit) …”

I grin, despite whiplash and possible broken ribs and concussion. “That’s cool,” I say. “If I’m taking one for the Wings, I’m okay with that.”

This is hockey and I’m part of this world now. Even if it’s early days.