So wrong it was totally right.

So my half-arsed theory was totally right, which always rocks.

Nicko (in white), Will (in dark), ever ready to go head-to-head, mid-game. Photo: Mack Place

All logic told me not to even attempt to contest our final lesson scrimmage on Wednesday night.

Hadn’t skated for two weeks (apart from one very brief wobble around the Bradbury Rink on Tuesday to see if I could remain vertical after my manta ray lay-off).

A shocking head cold, moving towards flu, moving towards pneumonia or whooping cough. Or straight to death, the way I felt/feel.

Stressed and a heavy heart.

And this was the final hockey date before getting on a plane for a five week USA adventure, which would not be a good time to fall and hurt myself. (A big shout out to my San Jose doppelganger and her partner, who are both nursing broken legs from their Over 40 hockey start-up … hope you’re skating again soon, guys.)

So everything said: take the night off and go to bed. And so, of course, I did what any good hockey player should do and declared: “I’m a hockey player. I need to go play hockey now.”

And I did and it rocked. With low expectations of myself, I had a ball. In fact, if I wasn’t just a dumb hockey player, I could be forgiven for thinking there was a clear lesson there somewhere, like: stop judging myself so harshly on the ice as a rule, and just skate.

It worked on Wednesday. I loved every second of it, and could even breathe one my heart-rate was up, and didn’t need windscreen wipers on my visor for the expected snot. All good.

I think everybody had a ball (except maybe Will who was gutted that he didn’t score, as he usually does). We had white and blue jerseys, and an actual scoreboard and a clock. Our White team won, for the grand prize of a bag of lolly snakes, but nobody was too fussed about the scoreline beyond mindless competing for fun.

I was struck by how different the Intermediate Final Class game was, compared to the last game I’d played (where I’d massively sucked) at the end of my second Intro stint.

In this Intermediate game, everybody was thinking; including me. Gone were the days of seeing the puck in front of you and panicking, swishing indiscriminately.

Instead players were trapping the puck, looking for options. Others were skating to position. Defenders were guarding lanes. There were some really good goals; clean hitting from angles, or from genuine passes.

(Having said that, one of the other team’s goals was clearly offside. At the face-off, I said to coach Lliam, who was ref: “How about off-side?”

He replied sweetly: “How about shut up?”

I love hockey.)

The bottom line was that, for the first time, it felt like I was in an actual hockey game and most surprising of all was that I felt like I was keeping up. I had several moments where I controlled the puck, even in traffic. Won a couple of face-offs, won a puck in defence, trapped it and safely got it outside the blue line to stifle the attack.

Sure, these are all minor moments, but big for me, and sure, I fell over more than most people in the game (this is me we’re talking about), and I totally botched two or three potential goal-scoring opportunities, but even those I feel good about: suddenly finding myself in front of the goal, with the puck, I didn’t swipe it or just blindly shoot. I worked really hard to control it, to guide it home.

Yes, I fell over on one attempt, blowing it. Yes, a defender cleared it just as I thought I was going to score. But I was thinking; I was working the puck, not flapping stupidly. So that’s a big improvement.

It actually gives me a lot of hope for the next phase of all this: dev league or drop-in hockey, when Melbourne Ice players among other much more accomplished players can turn up. As I get more used to being out there in game conditions, and I can see others are playing Thinking Hockey, I reckon I’ll find life easier than Intro, where we were all still mostly flailing.

Oh, and I tried to give Josh, in the blue team, a shove, just because we were playing hockey and so I should try to shove him, right? I only half got him and duly fell over. Jay, a good friend of Josh’s, got into him as well and said, as we headed back to the bench at the end of our shift: “I’ve got your back, Nicko.”

“Thanks,” I replied, “but I should point out that I started it.”

(Hearing us discussing this later, coach Lliam said: “That doesn’t matter. You’re on the same team…”

Lliam had also warned me during the game for trying to Board an opponent, which I took as a win. Happy days.)

And so now, to America, hopefully sans this lurgy. In less than one month my boys and I will be at an NHL stadium in Washington, five rows from the glass, watching the Red Wings live.

God knows how this self-indulgent blog will mutate while I’m away. The NHL teams are playing pre-season games now, so we’re hitting the States at exactly the right time. Maybe this will become a blog about NHL official merchandise retailing?

When I get back, I start following my plan to get private skating lessons and become a much better skater, before tackling Intermediate again with more sure footing on blades.

It’s a good plan. But only after some major adventuring.

Bring it.

Once more with feeling …

Nicko (right) and a manta friend.

So, I have a game of ice hockey tomorrow night. Turns out I’m in town, back from crazy manta ray adventures, for the final class of Wednesday night lessons. And that means scrimmages.

Having not been on the ice for a couple of weeks, and having been in a different universe (see picture) and now caught in the quicksand of life and labouring under a heavy head cold … well, what could go wrong?

Weirdly, this could be just what I need. I can hit the ice tomorrow with no real expectation of performing at a high standard. I should just get out there, crash into people and have fun. Given that I don’t plan to take formal classes next term (Will and many others are doing Intermediate again, and Dev League, so I’m very worried about being left behind, but I think I need to follow my plan to become a better pure skater) … this could be my last real game for a long time, unless I take the plunge into Drop-In hockey when I’m back from America.

The last scrimmage session I attempted was at the end of my second stint of Intro and it was an absolute shocker. My dodgy shoulder exploded very early in the piece after a nasty fall, confidence ebbed with every shift and I was terrible all night.

I’m pretty sure the whole experience was made worse because I was dumb enough to carry expectations onto the ice. I hadn’t played so badly in my first end-of-Intro scrimmage and it made sense that, 10 weeks of refining and underlining skills later, I should be an infinitely better player, right?

Wrong. When I was clearly fumbling and bumbling like your standard end-of-Intro beginner, I unravelled.

Happily, in Intermediate, I’ve known all term that I’m at the lower end of skills among the class, so I can just embrace that and do what I can. The others have been in hockey mode right through, whereas I blew off to Lady Elliot Island to dive with Project Manta, and you can’t believe what an awesome/foreign headspace that was.

hockey sledging in the Tropics.

If it wasn’t for the fact that the lead scientist, Kathy, is a Canadian who wore her Canadian hockey jersey around between dives, and one of the dive masters, Alesh, was a Czech who gave Kathy anti-Canada hockey shit at every turn, well, hockey would have been another planet.

Canadian Kathy.

Even stranger than spending seven days underwater with giant mantas was having no phone or internet access for a week. You tried that lately? It’s freaky, if you’re as connected as most people who would bother to read a blog. I had no idea Sam Stosur had won the US Open, only sketchy details of the footy finals and missed a whole week of friends’ lives on facebook. Very unusual.

Since I got back to Melbourne, I’ve been absorbing the trusty Detroit Free Press and Detroit News sites, to see what’s been happening at the Red Wings. Informal training has now ended and the team is in Traverse City, holding formal pre-season training. Pavel Datsyuk is wearing No. 24 instead of his usual No. 13 for the entire pre-season, as a tribute to the Wings’ previous 24, the late Ruslan Salei, killed in that plane crash a week or so ago.

Me at Earthwatch's Project Manta.

My last blog stands, about not knowing where life is going to take you; allowing those Wings of Fate to flap. For good and bad, and often at the same time.

Right now, I need to concentrate on the good, because there’s a lot of it if I tune in. I can’t believe last week I was swimming with manta rays, with up to a five-metre wingspan. I can’t believe in two and a half weeks, I’ll be in Manhattan, skating at Central Park. I can’t believe in a month and a bit, we’ll be watching the Wings live, in Washington and then Detroit. I even have tickets, stashed among my luggage. As long as online booking across two countries works, we’re there. Or very unhappy.

But first I need to survive tomorrow night, including coming up with a way to handle mass snot under a glass visor. I never said this hockey adventure would be pretty.

A matter of life & death

RIP Ruslan Salei

I hadn’t planned on posting anything before taking off tomorrow for the great manta ray adventure, but news has come through of the Russian plane crash that has killed 44 people, including many hockey stars, from Swedish Olympic champions and ex-NHL players to several ex-Red Wings, most notably Ruslan Salei, who only left the team at the end of last season, and coach Brad McCrimmon.

Bam. Just like that. A faulty 18-year-old Russian plane and an entire team of hockey players in their prime, or not far off it, are gone.

Pavel Datsyuk broke the news to the Wings as they were about to go onto the ice for an informal training session and the team closed the locker-room to the media. Coach Mike Babcock and his wife headed for the home of McCrimmon’s wife and kids, to offer support.

Just like that, hockey and sport and so much everyday life is put into perspective.

There’s not much to say, except for this: live your lives, people.

Embrace life. Smell the air. Look at the sky. Take a moment to be aware of the fact that you’re alive and the world is full of potential.

I’ve had a few deaths, and other losses, in my circles over the past couple of years and they’ve hit me deeply. This one is on a grander scale, we’ve already watched the Japanese earthquake in horror, and tomorrow you can guarantee every news service will carry the images of those planes slamming into the twin towers exactly 10 years ago over and over again.

In one month, my boys and I will be standing at Ground Zero, in downtown Manhattan, site of those fallen towers, looking at the reflecting pools they have built as a memorial. The first time I went there, less than a year after the terrorist act, I stood contemplating that twisted metal, the carnage visible from Church Street, the financial district only a block or so away. I can remember the smell of decay and death that hung over the mountains of rubble, and drifted through the subway system. And I became aware of the people around me, many crying, many holding photos, many silent. They were the family members of those lost in the towers, paying painful homage.

I walked away from that site thinking about the thousands of people who went to work that day, not realising they weren’t coming home. That such a random vicious act would snatch their lives.

My cousin, an oncologist, has told me many times how cancer is so random; it takes whoever it wants, and he treats so many “gunna” people – those who were “gunna do this or gunna do that” but now they won’t have that chance. I determined early that I would not be one of those people.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a long fucking way from perfect. I continue to hurt people and I fail at things and I stumble in fog and have no idea where I’m going; more or less than most? I have no idea.

But I try. To be a good person. To do the right thing. To take my seat on a small plane flying precariously from Hervey Bay to Lady Elliot Island on Saturday morning with the knowledge that those around me hopefully know they are loved and I have tried my absolute hardest, for them and for me. Win or lose.

I spend possibly too much time wondering about this stuff; what do I need to wrestle, to ensure is right, rather than just letting life unfold. I just got a large tattoo of a yellow-tailed black cockatoo feather on my upper left arm to remind myself every single day that we are all in the Wings of Fate.

And we are. If I broke my leg last week at hockey, that adventure would be over and my trip to Project Manta and America a week or so later would be scuppered. Do I stop skating in fear of that? Or trust those flapping wings?

And that’s not the least of it. If I had happened to be a member of an elite Russian hockey team attempting to take off from Yaroslavl Airport yesterday, could I say I’ve lived a life? Could I say I have left the world a better place? Could I say that I took the bites out of existence that justifies time on Earth?

Rest in peace, Ruslan Salei, Brad McCrimmon and everybody else on that plane.

For the rest of us? None of us know how long we’ve got so live life as though you mean it. I intend to, starting with manta ray face time.

After that? Who knows.

Take care, hockey fans.

Triumph & travel

The biggest congratulations to Lliam, Army, and all the Melbourne Ice players for going back-to-back and winning the Goodall Cup for 2011, dominating the semi-final against Adelaide and then edging Newcastle in the grand final, all at the Icehouse on the weekend. Army, Lliam and Joey Hughes scored in the big one, so it was a brilliant result on every front. Congrats, too, to Jason Baclig, for winning the AIHL MVP. Well earned. Jason is amazing.

I can’t make it to class tonight because of work commitments, which is a bummer because I was genuinely interested to see what shape our coaches would turn up in, three days later.
The Facebook photos were getting more and more impressive as Sunday night unfolded.

But shit, if you’re not going to party over that, when are you going to party?

Me? I’m leaving town. Sea, sand, sky, and the sanctuary of my other underwater world, on this occasion at the Barrier Reef. Project Manta: An entire week of diving with manta rays for Earthwatch.

Life list: tick.

Here’s a taste:

(Well found, Katey Slater)

See you all on the other side of the ice.

Scubacam …

OK, so I got a new GoPro camera ( …. they rock) for my looming manta ray adventure. And thought, hey, I wonder what the view would be like from the top of a hockey helmet?

So we did it twice in the warm-up for today’s class at the Icehouse: once with me in the skates, and once with Melbourne Ice player and our sometime coach, Steve “Scuba” Edwards (# 17 for the Ice), who agreed to take it for a real spin, at speed.

This is Scuba in flight. HD video from a camera the size of a matchbox, mounted on his helmet.  Check it out:

I’ll post the one with me skating if and when I work out how to edit out all the crap before (as I try to nut out if it’s working). Yes, technology and me are great friends …

Punches & Plans

The fun started on Saturday, right off the top.

“To warm up,” said coach Shona, “I want you to dump your sticks and pair up. OK, one person has to protect the puck and one has to get it.”

Will and I had faced off and he had the puck, so we went to it; a fun drill actually, as you lean hard on one another while trying to push your weight off a skate without losing the edge so that your foot slides out. We pushed and shoved and he was smart enough to kick the puck away from me. I got it once or twice, mainly by falling and landing on it.

Then Shona ordered us to swap, and now I had the puck. My 18-year-old son glided in, ready for more body-weight tests … and you should have seen the look of shock behind the visor when my first punch, a fast right hook, caught him perfectly in the midriff, just in the gap between hockey padded shorts and chest armour.

Before he registered what was happening, I hit him with a left-right combination to the shoulder armour and then snuck another sneaky right to the stomach – nothing so hard that it was going to see me dragged before the Worst Fathers in History Commission and, anyway, we’re wearing armour, right? And we’re hockey players, right?

Will finally got what was happening, and then it was on. We were both crying with laughter while beating into each other. Of course, it was me who lost my balance and fell on my back, still aiming rights to his stomach and trying to hold his jersey with my left glove. On Facebook, later, Will was bragging about how he’d beaten me up … I’m happy to sit quietly in the knowledge of what really happened.

(Big ups to Icehouse Rookie Daniel Epstein, who found that video.)

So Saturday’s session was a good one with lots of end-to-end skating drills, which is when I’m happiest.

I’ve also been aware that this intermediate term is fast coming to an end, even though it has two or three weeks to go. I’ve got lots of travels and adventures looming, which will keep me away from the ice for an extended period and, anyway, I’m thinking of stepping away from lessons for a while.

After last Wednesday’s session, I was talking to classmate Jay who made the very kind and hopefully accurate observation that my stick-handling (as in, controlling the puck, passing and general hand-eye-coordination) is up there with most in the class, but agreed that it’s my skating that is still letting me down. I’d been telling him about my crazy plan to become the skater I want to be.

My theory is: I go diving with manta rays for eight days on an Earthwatch project (leaving next Friday; oh yeah!), then I go to America for almost six weeks, with Will and Mack, taking in some Detroit Red Wings games (leaving late September, Oh yeah!!!) and then I get back to work on hockey, but not in another round of intermediate.

Instead, I sign up for private skating lessons.

The fact is that I’m slow but solid when skating forward, calling for a puck, passing, etc. But as soon as any of the trickier hockey skating moves like pivots, tight turns (front leg forward), transitions and even fast backward skating are required, I’m not up to it. The next steps for me are drop-in hockey games (where Melbourne Ice players might show up) or Development League, and I need to be a lot better on my legs if I’m going to tackle either.

A couple of friends, Dave and Mel (who used to do hockey class, and with whom I had my celebrated first on-ice fight) came along to watch last night and Mel couldn’t believe how much better we had all got, since she quit to travel. “You looked like you knew what you were doing,” Dave observed, which showed I had him fooled.

But they’re right: the improvement since January’s first skate has been fast and steady. I’m heading in the right direction. But I also know where my weaknesses lie and it’s time to step out of class and fix them. Private lessons at the Icehouse are my go for the first few months after getting back from overseas.

Having said all that, last night’s Wednesday session was a beauty, with Lliam and Army getting ever scruffier around the face as this weekend’s play-offs loom. Melbourne Ice is in a semi-final on Saturday and then hopefully the final on Sunday night. I was expecting some pre-finals edge to the coaches but they both seemed pretty calm.

We finished the session with an awesome drill. Two Wings take off down the ice, tackling a Defender, two-on-one, then the Defender passes the puck, if he or she wins it, to another couple of Wings ready to charge the other way. It’s a continuous drill and actually needs judgement on when to take off, when to step in and try to help. I loved it, and on my final run of the night even managed to slide home a goal. It was my last touch of the session in maybe my last class of the year.

Nice way to go out.