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.
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:
(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. )