OK, we need to talk about violence.
Almost every time I mention hockey, non-hockey people have the same reaction: “Whoa, you’re going to be beating heads??? / getting your head punched in???”
The answer is, in the short term at least, no.
When I’m good enough – which could take months yet – I plan to play Rec Hockey, which equates to recreational leagues where the wild violence associated with hockey is somewhat frowned upon. In fact, there are mixed male/female leagues, so I’m assuming it’s considered bad form to bodyslam a chick into the boards, or drop gloves and helmets and go toe-to-toe. Then again, maybe I assume too much …
If you don’t know much about the hockey violence I’m discussing, either watch the pretty funny Paul Newman film, “Slap Shot”, which is frighteningly based on a true story and stars the actual hockey players it’s about, or crank up the volume for AC DC and watch this youtube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZCZEMSsGWYU
It stars Bob Probert, one of the great (read: most habitual, vicious) fighters of NHL history – and yes, he was, at times, a Red Wing. You’ll notice that in NHL, unlike most civilised sports, the referees don’t do a thing while a fight is happening. You can knock helmets off, drop gloves, and KO a guy, knock him clean out, but nobody lifts a finger until somebody hits the ice. As soon as somebody’s horizontal, even if they slip, the refs jump in. Crazy, no?
The Red Wings even have a much-celebrated achievement called a Gordie Howe Hattrick, named after the greatest ever Wing. It means a modern-day Wing managed a goal, an assist and a fight, all in the one game. Nobody frowns. Everybody cheers.
So I’m a little conflicted about the violence in hockey. Truth is I’ve always had a secret, and occasionally not so secret, relationship with violence. I was a boxing writer for newspapers and magazines for years, and loved it. As a sports reporter, I covered Wimbledon and the French Open, AFL Grand Finals, all sorts of highlight events, but the boxing round was my favourite. (OK, covering the French Open might shade it, for sheer wow factor, but let’s move on, past the rows of French wine in the media canteen at Roland Garros, the simple fact of Paris (!) and French female ushers in designer clothes that fitted them very well. It was a long time ago.)
Boxing was full of such wild characters, many of whom – in these post-Melbourne gang war days – I now realize were criminals (for any of the hard-men, tough-guy criminals from boxing back-then reading this, I’m clearly not talking about you. You were great.) One trainer said to me, when I asked how his fighter, Tony “Mad Dog” Miller would go: “Tony’s gonna do to this guy what Marc Antony did to Cleopatra while Julius Caesar was out.” Gold. And between these dodgy types, these street-smart men leaning on the outside of the ropes, were super fit athletes facing genuine danger; somebody could get hurt. Fighters occasionally die. I watched and got to know these fighters who had to step alone into that ring, facing down genuine fear, finding courage, skill in a split second, mixing defence and attack, digging deep deep deep into reserves you and I don’t necessarily know if we have.
I even trained for a while at the Fitzroy Stars Aboriginal youth club and gymnasium on Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, and still miss it. In fact, I might go back. I never planned to fight, obviously. Just wanted to keep fit and be among fighters. It was run by Jock Austin, and is now run by his daughter. Trainers there included Dana Goodsen, a former world heavyweight kickboxing contender (RIP) and it was the least racist place I’ve ever found. It was rightly assumed that if you chose to be there – even a white boy like me – surrounded by Kooris, Africans, Italian, Turks, you name it, then the chances were you probably didn’t have a problem with skin colour. I fucking loved the place.
It was Dana, then in the corner of Lester Ellis and other locals, devoted to saving lost Koori youth in my hood, who taught me how to hit the bags, and used to make me laugh with his life lessons. This massive Hawaiian African-American showing me how to pose, where my left foot should be, how to swivel my knee on the hook as against the jab, where to hold my non-punching fist to protect the ear and jaw.
Me saying: “Heavy bags don’t hit back, Dana.”
Him saying, “Draw a line at your feet, Nicko. If they cross that line, you go to work!”
Me: “Nobody is crossing lines, Dana. I just want to hit bags for fitness.”
Dana, as though I hadn’t spoken: “Look, your hands are open and in front of you, hey, hey, we got no problem here, buddy … but you only have to close your fists and, shit, you actually already in your fighting stance. Your left is inches from their face and you got a jab. They don’t even know it til you go left-right, bam. You go to work. They cross that line, you’re ready.”
Me: “Nobody’s going to work, Dana.”
I think I have twice since found myself holding that pose, heart thumping, hands open but ready to close my fists if this prick takes one more step. Happily, the prick didn’t but thank you, Dana.
So I, for a brief time, covered murder scenes as a police roundsman. I covered boxing. I thrilled to the inherent violence of AFL. Still do. I’ve taken some hard, usually accidental shots to the head in my Sunday Footy adventure, The Bang!, and got a strange thrill from it; kind of liking the knowledge that I can still take a big shot and stand up. The hardest head shot I ever took was when I once almost KOed myself with a tree branch, collecting firewood in the Grampians (a whole other story; never said I was smart.)
And now I’m learning to play one of the most notoriously violent sports there is (recently a European cable network ran a series where hockey players would skate out in full playing kit, one-on-one, no sticks, to simply fight. The winner got something like 500 bucks.)
It’s a mystery. I don’t plan on going toe-to-toe with anybody – especially while I’m so unsteady on my skates.
But does the violence of my new sport bother me? No, not at all.
Yet I regard myself absolutely to be a pacifist.
Riddle me that.
(POSTSCRIPT: Just like the post, “Hockey Player v Car”, where I managed to hurt myself right after publishing that post about hockey players hurting themselves, today I went to my gym, a few hours after publishing this one and ended up having my most intense boxing session for a while. The major reason, in fact a deal-breaker reason, for being a member of the Artist Formerly Known As Hunt’s Gym (now Goodlife, Johnston St) is that it has a decent boxing set-up. A converted squash court with a floor-to-ceiling bag, two heavy bags, speedballs, etc. I usually take my gloves and try to whack the bags around, post-weights, as a warm-down/up before I leave. Today, one of the personal trainers, Ben, saw me arrive and said: “Want to do that boxing work we’ve been talking about?” I said sure, and he put me through 30 minutes or so of hitting the pads, kickboxing, punching combinations, bag work, the lot. Was awesome and sweet timing after everything I’d just written, above. Gonna be sore at hockey training tomorrow but hey ho. After my endless viral lurgy, was good for me to be pushed.)