Announcing, at last, the team I’ll play for …

Mo-town: Having fun while shaving the Play-off Beard after the Wings lost.

This is a question I have been asked a lot, ever since I first pulled on skates back in January: who are you going to play for?

I think we can all be clear that most of the NHL teams are beyond me, and the AIHL teams too … my dreams of lining up for the Melbourne Ice are destined to be crushed.

But that’s okay because I have finally found a team worthy of my ever-blossoming hockey skills. Well, actually, Will found it but who’s blog is this? (Thanks, Will … nice find)

So without any further ado … meet my team:

Even these guys might question whether I’m ready for them yet, if they were at Friday’s Stick & Puck session. There was I, in full kit, stick laid down on the ice, neatly next to my puck, as I skated hard, attempted to hockey stop, went back the other way, attempted to hockey stop, went back the other way, and so on, pausing only to fall horribly and slam into the ice every fifth attempt or so.

Or there was I, deciding the only way to really nail the bastard that is the pivot is to fully 100 per cent commit, as I had during Wednesday’s lesson with good results – except for when Army the coach was watching, at which point I screwed up everything. But anyway, I actually performed some perfect pivots, and so at the stick & puck I decided, nonchalantly, to polish that skill and man, did my helmet bounce off the ice.

But shrug, it’s pushing myself to the point of falling that will get me there.

I’m actually kind of surprised how few falls there are in this round of Intro. I’m one of the few who goes over but, I kid you not, I’m proud of that, because when we do crossovers, and the key is to really lean off your outside edge, which is totally unnatural and difficult and needs to be done with speed so it’s even scarier, I’m trying to get onto that edge, not a flat edge. And so occasionally I lose it and splatter. It’s what the armour is for, right?

All this pushing myself has been important this week. I’m having another of those weeks where I doubt I can ever get the hang of these moves; ever be able to skate well enough to play. Basically, it’s a re-run of the post “Staring Down The Crapness” (Feb 3) where you watch others in Beginner Class skate like they were touched by the skating Gods to skate at levels previously unattainable by humans. Or were born with skates on feet, etc. Inliners, or second-timer-arounders. Better than me.

So I dug out the inline skates I bought a couple of months ago and hit YouTube, looking for clues on inline stopping and moves. At which point, I found the glory that is the SkateLine School (and note the music):

Hmm, when next in America, I might choose not to stay with those guys. They’re just a bit too, umm, happy. Instead Will and I decided to practice crossovers at a basketball half-court near my place (with rocks, twigs and nut shells scattered on the surface, for extra thrills) and practiced backward skating. Then I threw myself at Wednesday class, actually trying hockey stops for the first time since my bizarre first-ever class when I’d been on skates about twice. And then Friday’s Stick & Puck was my final throw-myself-at-it carnage session. I still can’t quite nail the two-foot hockey stop but I’m getting there after only three days of trying.

All in all, fun. On Saturday, I even turned up at 9 am, driving Will to one of his skating classes at the Icehouse, so I could keep working on all this in a General Skate session. Turns out the figure skater classes were dominating the other rink, so I couldn’t. But it was kind of useful anyway, because I found myself unexpectedly sitting in the stands, drinking coffee, and watching an Intro Hockey class, in the same week I’d just completed. And I realised, no disrespect to the skaters out there, that I’m pretty much around the mark of where they were – the usual dream-skater freaks aside. I’m better than quite a few of them, not as good as others.

So enough analysing and fretting, and get on with it, Place. Put on the trusty “Harden the fuck up” black wristband and get on that outside edge.

Army enjoying me failing to get onto the outside edge, as required, during crossover training. Pic: Will.

Hopefully, I can push past the negative demons. In Week 5 (as in, this Wednesday), it’s full kit again. Which means we’re only a couple of weeks away from using sticks in class. And then the scrimmages again, to finish. And by then, I have to be good enough for intermediate classes.

This is what’s playing on my mind, now I come to it. Time ticking, and my skating creeping so slowly towards the level required.

I only have a few more weeks. I need to do this. Now.

Look out! Shark!

Not me at the aquarium ...

So there we were, less than 3 minutes to go, Melbourne Ice down 2-3 to the Sydney Bears, having scored a third period goal to edge back to within reach, yet probably not really.

I turned to my game companions, Will and Hotcakes Gillespie, and said: “Wings deja vu, much?”

Because only a day before, the Red Wings had found themselves trailing 2-3 in the third period one too many times and not been able to find that final goal, against the San Jose Sharks.

Out of the play-offs for the second year in a row in Round Two. Beaten by the Sharks for the second year straight, even if the Wings had heroically forced it to a sudden-death Game 7. Banged up and running on fumes and not able to find one goal that might have changed everything.

Unlike the fitful Ice, who somehow slotted home an equaliser and then won in OT on a shoot-out goal. Go Ice!

There was only one thing to do, in the wake of the Wings’ demise. Will and I had a stick and puck session on the Henke Rink after the Ice game and then the next day I went to the Melbourne Aquarium to go mano du sharko with some actual sharks.

It was kind of strange scuba diving at the aquarium: like Disneyland for divers. You’re diving in a seven-metre deep tank and it feels like a giant swimming pool – a long way removed from belting through the Port Phillip Bay heads on a dive boat, the shock of Bass Strait cold water, the surge of the ocean. And yet Sam and I, and the other divers, were surrounded by huge rays, actual sharks, a hammerhead, and all sorts of incredible fish.

And a crowd watching from the aquarium’s observation areas. One kid was staring at me as I swam over the glass tunnel, and I waved. His eyes almost popped out of his head – I felt a strong need to track the family down and have his parents explain the difference between fish and people swimming underwater.

Unlike the super-friendly fiddler rays, the sharks at the aquarium don’t love the divers who turn up each weekend, in groups of five, including a guide, three times per afternoon. They keep to themselves, only occasionally even gliding overhead or nearby.

Not the Melbourne Aquarium

Which meant I was unable to land a roundhouse haymaker on the snout of one of them, hissing through my regulator: “This one’s for the Wings, bitch.”

Probably this was for the best. Instead, I just enjoyed leaning on a fake coral shelf, watching a hammerhead swim by. Not something I do everyday.

Half a world away, in Detroit, the Wings shaved their playoff beards, posed for one last team photo, cleaned out their lockers, and headed for a long off-season. As with all teams, the end of a season leads to questions about who will be there next time around? Modano and Osgood will almost certainly retire. Draper too, probably. Everybody hopes the team captain, mighty Lidstrom, goes around one more time. He’s definitely playing well enough, and Nik, every pro athlete I’ve ever spoken to, post-retirement, rues that you’re a long time retired and should milk it for all you can while it’s there.

Just like an aquarium dive. Even if you can’t beat up the Sharks responsible for Detroit’s demise.

And me? I need to get back on the ice. I missed last Wednesday’s class (pivots!) for an ill-advised attack on the Rocket Clock stage (second place, sigh … I’m blaming the playoff beard scaring the judges; not the story) and so am a skate or so short of good form right now. Just because Zetterberg and Dats have put their skated feet up for the northern summer, doesn’t mean I can. My journey continues.

Don’t Stop Believin’

Don't Stop Believin'

If you’re a Red Wings player, there can be no better feeling than this: it’s deep in a sudden-death play-off game, the Wings’ season on the line, you’re utterly exhausted and you suddenly hear, behind the sound of a capacity Detroit crowd going absolutely nuts, the unmistakable opening piano notes of the Journey song, ‘Don’t Stop Believin’.

And you become bullet-proof. And can skate forever.

Say, what?

Believe it or not, this is Red Wing heaven.

Every team and every sport has its idiosyncracies, which is part of the joy of whichever league or mob of athletes we choose to follow. There’s a baseball team in America where fans bring inflatable fruit to games. Every English soccer team’s fans have their own signature chants and songs. My beloved Richmond Tigers in the AFL boast the best theme song in the League, including the spine-tingling line: “Oh, we’re from Tiger – YELLOW AND BLACK!!! – we’re from Tigerland.” If you’ve never heard the Richmond crowd sing that song in victory, and the emotion that goes into that line, you simply have to one day.

In Detroit, at the Joe Louis Arena, home of the Red Wings, the song is Don’t Stop Believin’, recorded by a band I would normally have very little time for, Journey, back in 1981 for the album, Escape. (If you want to hear it, without hockey atmos, click here) It’s one of those songs that has never gone away, featuring in The Sopranos, Family Guy, Glee, on a Chipmunks album in 2008 (no, really) and continues to be one of the most downloaded songs in Ireland, according to Wikipedia. Go figure.  Several sports teams have embraced it for the sheer motivational force of its title and that opening keyboard riff, but it’s the Wings who emotionally own it.

As far as I can tell, having only become a Detroit devotee in the last few years, the entire basis for the fans’ love of this song is one line, near the start, and it is this:

“Just a city boy, born and raised in South Detroit. (He took the midnight train going anywhere)”

Like Richmond fans and Yellow and Black!, if you’re in on it, the line in bold is the one that can make us Wings fans cry, can make you sing so loudly that your lungs might burst.

“Born and raised in South Detroit.” (Even though, as I’m hearing the song, he got the hell out of there, but anyway …)

At the Joe, when that song starts up, it means: WE’VE WON.

When that song starts up, it means we’re dancing on the grave of an opponent still shuffling around the ice with increasing desperation, but knowing, as we do, that it’s over.

When that song plays, opposition teams must feel their hearts sink.

On WingsLive, the excellent Coveritlive feed on the Red Wings’ website, provided for the world of fans not at the Joe, fans will start clamouring : “Play Journey! Journey time!” and the audio feed will kick in, followed by a stream of comments all reading the same thing: “BORN AND RAISED IN SOUTH DETROIT”

And at the Joe itself? Well, very high on my Life List, is to attend a game at the Joe, so I can watch the Wings for real and so I can sing that song, live in the stadium. Because it makes me misty-eyed from literally the other side of the world.

Don’t believe me? Well, witness yesterday’s stunning Game 6 in the Western Conference Semi-Finals against the San Jose Sharks. Down 0-1 again, early in the third, the Wings scored twice (Go, Hank Zetterberg!) to steal a narrow lead. If the Sharks can level the scores and force overtime, they know and we know that they’ve beaten us repeatedly through this series in OT, so the momentum will be with them … in other words, this is a knife edge.

With a minute and a half to go, the Sharks pulled their goalie, to give them an extra attacking skater – an all-or-nothing move. It leaves an empty goal net and sure enough, Detroit’s Darren Helm wins a loose puck near the centre of the ice and fires truly to make it 3-1, a minute to go.

Darren Helm celebrates his empty-netter. Start playing our song ...

Game over. We’re back from three games to nil down. We’re going to game seven. Miracle on ice continues.

Cue Don’t Stop Believin’ on the Joe’s sound system, but turn down the volume so the fans can do the rest …

And this is it. Please turn up your computer’s volume and have a listen to pure, unadulterated, beyond-boundaries Red Wing fan joy in full voice. Look at that crowd jumping around. I have tingles even now …

Game 7 is on Friday (Saturday Australian time). In San Jose, at the Shark Tank. Can the Wings finish the miracle?

Don’t Stop Believin’

(and yes, the beard stays!)

The playoff beard dilemma

And so, as the chill of winter descends on my city, I find myself facing the kind of heinous dilemma that would have been unimaginable late last year, before this hockey mania overtook my soul.

Tomorrow I have a major commercial pitch. It would be a great gig to win. And then I plan to perform on stage at the Rocket Clock storytelling slam (Melbourne Trades Hall, Bella Union bar, 8.30 pm – be there. Tickets at the door. This was my first attempt).

The beard today ... almost as hairy as Fly Dog.

Yet I have an increasingly out of control play-off beard, which threatens both events. Do I really want to go on stage, looking like this? Will our potential client call security if I show up for our meeting with this wild facial hair?

Curse my rampant testosterone! (note to self: check if testosterone even related to beard growth?)

Despite this dilemma, I’m actually not complaining in the slightest because it is a minor miracle that I’m still not shaving.

This entire issue would have been solved had the Detroit Red Wings done what everybody expected and folded in San Jose yesterday. Down 3-0 in their best of seven second-round series (Western Conference semi-finals) of the Stanley Cup playoffs last week, after being on the wrong side of three heart-breaking one-goal results in a row, the Wings appeared doomed. But somehow won, 4-3, at the Joe Louis Arena, with a Darren Helm goal near the shadows of full time, to force Game 5.

And so the still-confident Sharks were forced to compete again yesterday, Melbourne-time, in their Shark Tank, urged on by a frenzied home crowd, against a Wings team with nothing to lose but some nagging injuries to key players like “Mule” Franzen and Pavel Datsyuk. Sure enough, San Jose took a 3-1 lead early in the third term and that appeared to be that … season over for the Wings; a disappointing second round exit to the Sharks for the second year in a row.

Well, it should have been. Except that somebody forgot to mention that storyline to the Wings, who scored, and then scored again to level things up. And then Hall of Fame defender and captain Nick Lidstrom drove a bullet through heavy traffic, which Tomas Holmstrom tapped in for the winner.

Victory in Game 5! (Detroit Free Press)

Detroit Free Press writer Michael Rosenberg’s immediate reaction was: “You might want to be careful as you read this column, because it comes with a disclaimer: I have no earthly idea what I just saw. I have no clue how the Red Wings beat the Sharks to keep their season alive. I just know they did.”

And so the teams head back to Detroit for an unexpected Game 6, which is cool for so many reasons, including the fact we get to see them stepping off their own frickin’ plane (Take that, AFL teams) and that Wings fans everywhere (like Will and I) are barely daring to hope …

You see, only three sides ever have managed to come back from 0-3  down in playoff competition; the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs, 1975 New York Islanders and 2010 Philadelphia Flyers.

Can the Red Wings pull off a miracle? Or will it all come crashing to a halt, with one decent Sharks performance? Every game remains sudden death for Detroit.

And, more to the point, does the result hinge completely on my playoff beard, as superstition suggests? The players themselves have some good playoff beards happening – Zetterberg, as always, leading the way – but mine is getting unkempt and there is this big presentation tomorrow, at exactly the time the Wings will be on the ice, in sudden death action.

The Red Wings disembark from their private jet, as you do. (Pic: Detroit Free Press)

Does trimming a beard affect its power to help the team? Would a goatee look worse? Could I ever forgive myself if I shave and they lose? Would my business partner ever speak to me again if we lose our pitch because of my unsightly facial hair? Will I be laughed off the stage at Rocket Clock if I look like Saddam Hussein when he was dragged out of his hole in the ground?

FML. What a dilemma.

Go Wings.

WEDNESDAY UPDATE: Beard stayed. Meeting went pretty well.

In a huge performance, the Red Wings won Game 6, 3-1 (Oh, you should have heard the crowd at the Joe belt out : “Born and raised in South Detroit!” in Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ – their equivalent of Richmond’s “YELLOW AND BLACK!”)

The series heads back to San Jose for the sudden-death Game 7 decider.

Rocket Clock? Who cares if I get laughed off stage … The beard is going NOWHERE now until this is over!

General hockey awesomeness …

Not me. Yet.

This week: nothing but hockey awesomeness.

Having tweaked a hammie being my own brand of awesome on the weekend, I haven’t really been on the ice since (although I did scuba dive at Rye Pier with a seal – spookily at exactly the same time Navy Seals were taking out Usama bin Laden; conspiracy theorists, your time starts now …)

So, one leg down, I’ve been watching my beloved Tigers win two in a row in the AFL, scuba diving, like I said, and surfing the net, just digging my crazy new sport.

Like trying not to spend every cent I’ve got on novelty hockey T-shirts, like “Jesus Always has a Play-off Beard” *, or the even better: “Jesus Saves! … Passes to Noah. He shoots, He scores!

On the back of last week’s exciting broken-stick adventure, I started wondering what you can do to upcycle an ex-hockey stick? It’s one of those things that I was pretty sure, hockey people being hockey people, somebody will have gotten weird and creative somewhere on the topic.

And yes, they have. Chairs are a popular theme, such as this link, or this link, or even this link, even if that one is more a bench than a chair. You can sit on it, though, right?

Another option for broken stick upcycling is to make a table, which is actually very cool.

A cool hockey-stick chair.

But possibly not as cool as the concept of unicycle hockey. Although, to be honest, I’d only be truly impressed if those guys attempted it on real ice.

As I would be if Australia could take the title of World’s Largest Hockey Stick from British Columbia. Why is the Docklands precinct persisting with the stupid Melbourne Eye (codename: iFail) when this is an option? I’m available as a consultant, on a stupidly high retainer, if required, Docklands people.

My search for bizarre and fun hockey connections also introduced me to the guy pictured above. Turns out I’m not the oldest or the ugliest hockey player going around, although give me a few years and a few sticks or pucks to the face and that could change. I just hope I’m as happy as he is at that age.

Let’s face it, hockey players don’t trade on their looks, which made me wonder if it was considered enticing or a threat when there was a competition: “Score a date with a cool Hockey Player“, way back when? (These days, at least if you’re dating an NHL player, you know you’re giving up looks for a great pay cheque …)

I also happened upon this truly awesome image of an NHL game before I realised it was from an NHL-themed console game. Nice graphics. Who needs real life?

Actually, the more I think about it, maybe I should immerse myself in NHL virtual, instead of NHL reality.

I was going to blog this week about the NHL Play-offs but given the Red Wings have somehow managed to find themselves two games down, after two, against San Jose, in the second round, I’m losing my heart to wax lyrical.

Nicko play-off beard, May 3

I still believe, but it’s time my Wings got trucking, now they’re back at the Joe.

Is there a bright side to this? Only that my own Play-Off Beard is getting itchy and unkempt. Parents haven’t quite started crossing the road to keep their children away from me as I walk my hood, but it can’t be far off.

Go Wings! Beat up those Sharks so that my beard may grow.

* Kudos to northern skating champ Hotcakes Gillespie for finding that one.