Playtime is over

The crowd thins out, late in Stick & Puck last night.

Life has been something of an existential struggle lately (which will have my friends asking: what’s new?) and it always amazes me how often what’s going on off the ice is mirrored in my hockey.

But the good news is that, generally, life on the ice is simpler. While the Universe and I may currently disagree on realistic expectations and ambitions in my wider life, the Hockey Gods and I are thankfully on the same page: it’s time for me to lace-up my skates and get back to work.

Thanks to the wild and fun ride of my Detroit News article last week (SEE BELOW) – and the Warhol 15 minutes is officially over, according to this blog’s stats spike that has now returned to normal – as well as a hockey feature still (endlessly) waiting for take-off at The Sunday Age, and the angst over Icehouse ice time, plus other hockey-themed correspondence, there’s been a lot of talking about hockey, writing about hockey and even thinking about hockey recently. There’s even been plenty of general skating.

But playtime is over, as of now.

Last night, I killed myself in the gym then headed to the Icehouse at 8 pm, had a brief general skate and finally donned my armour for the first time in what felt like forever, probably since September. Chest armour, padded shorts, helmet, gloves, shinguards, elbows: the full kit. Which was the whole point.

The occasion was a humble 9.15 pm Stick & Puck session, the ice loaded with mostly intense, serious players working on their stick handling or goal shooting. And me. Hardly anybody wears full armour for these sessions – the people who can really skate often just wear T-shirts, helmets and gloves, but I deliberately waddled onto the ice, wearing everything.

I just wanted to get a feel again for being armoured-up, and for wielding a stick, before official classes start in a week, with me back among the students.

I’m safely signed up for Intermediate, second time around, and my Development League debut, back to back, so Wednesday nights are going to be brutal, physically, but fun.

However, after my self-imposed summer of skating, I feel very rusty when it comes to being a hockey player, to actually playing.

I never did get around to those private skating lessons, even though I have a friend who is a champion figure skater set to give me some tips on Sunday evening, and I’m still talking to Mikey, a musician/ex-pro hockey player about private tutoring. But regardless, the summer has been worthwhile. I feel that I am a lot more solid on my skates, compared to six months ago.

Last night, in full padding, I was pivoting and hockey stopping better than I have all summer. Still not exactly NHL Hall of Fame stuff but a huge improvement on when I last attempted Intermediate. I really hope this translates into a better performance in the new classes. I’m ready to step up from being a wobbly rookie to being a contender for a team by the end of winter. That’s the goal.

As I waited to get onto the ice, a game of drop-in was finishing, and I appraised it, wondering if I’d be killed if I attempted to join one of these at this stage. There has been ongoing debate with the Icehouse folk about this, because as we’ve complained about hockey getting less and less classes and time, they’ve replied that they’ve loaded up the number of drop-in games available. But my point is that for a lot of us, still at Intro or Intermediate level, drop-in as it stands is too frightening and too dangerous, because there might be semi-pro Melbourne Ice players or other established, experienced, highly-skilled players from the various Victorian leagues hurtling around. I’m not about to wobble backwards into a shooting lane while an Ice player is at full pace, getting ready for the season. We’ve been arguing for some time that drop-in games specifically for Intro/Intermediate players, are required, but nothing has happened as yet.

Or maybe this is all a case of slipping on my “Harden the fuck up” bracelet? Maybe I should just get in there and die or not?

As I watched and wondered, a player on the ice gave me a big grin and slammed the glass in front of my face with his stick; a traditional hockey welcome. It was Ray, who started Intro with me a year ago and has rocketed into teams and serious play. After the drop-in finished, he hung around last night for stick & puck, and we spent a while firing passes at one another. Another player, Pete, who I hadn’t met before, gave me some great tips on better pivot technique so the move would hold up at high speed. I told him I understand the theory but really I was just still trying to train my brain not to lurch and have to go through a mental approval process when I try to pivot to the right, as against the more instinctive left. Good tips though.

After an hour, I peeled off my dripping armour and marveled at how time on the ice clears your head of everything – all the way to the car park anyway. And savoured how good it felt to be back in a hockey changing room, with my bulging bag of kit, and needing new tape on my stick because it had finally had a work-out. I’m ready to be a hockey player again. The new round of classes can’t come quickly enough.

Jimmy Howard takes on pretty much the entire St Louis team yesterday. (Pic: Detroit News)

POSTSCRIPT: The Red Wings won again at home yesterday – the streak is now up to 17, wiping records. Pavel Datsyuk scored on a very Datsyukesque deke and backhand, and our goaltender, Jimmy Howard, stopped almost everything and took on four Blues players who he felt had cannoned into him once too often (it happens to him pretty much every game, without any referee action). Go those Wings.




Wednesday, January 18

(Tuesday, Detroit time)

Just call me Mr Streak …

By Nick Place

Melbourne, Australia

Red Wings fans marvelling at the astonishing, historic home winning streak currently being enjoyed by their team are probably wondering who to thank. Jimmy? Lids? Pav? Babcock?

Well, no. Actually, you have to thank me.

You’re welcome. But I should probably explain.

As the Wings set the home streak record today against the Sabres, I was unable to ignore the fact that every one of those wins has come since my two sons and I left Detroit.

Seriously. Since the day that we left Detroit.

But it’s worse than that. You see, I live in Melbourne, Australia. Almost exactly half a world away; about as close to Antarctica as Detroit is to the Arctic. Right now, we’re enduring 100 degree-plus days in the height of summer, as Detroit shivers through winter. In other words, I am a long way from Motor City.

Which is great for Detroit because when my sons and I travelled to Hockeytown to achieve a life-list ambition of watching our beloved Red Wings in action, the team went straight to Hell.

Don’t believe me? Get this. Our first ever Wings game was on Saturday, October 22, in Washington against the Caps. We’d been in America for a month, on a trip of a lifetime that was carefully orchestrated to ensure we hit Washington at the same time as that game.

Reading this in America’s hockey homeland, you probably can’t imagine what it’s like being a Wings fan half a world away. For the small but passionate hockey community here in Australia, seeing an actual NHL game live is a distant dream, so picture our excitement as we made our way into the Verizon Centre, surprised by how many other Wings fans were also in the capital. I’d paid a fortune for decent seats, wanting to make our Wings debut memorable. The Wings were 6-0 coming into the game and the Capitals were 7-0. We were there to salute Nick Lidstrom’s milestone 1500th regular season game. Everything was perfect.

Until the Capitals beat us, 7-1.

Hey ho. We travelled to Detroit for an even bigger life-highlight: our first visit to the Joe Louis Arena, as the Sharks skated onto the ice on October 28. I met Gordie Howe, which had me floating, and we drank in being among the Wings family of fans, at the historic Joe, having walked the decaying but magnificent beauty of Detroit downtown.

And lost, 4-2.

Then read about the Wings failing to even score in losing 1-0 to the Wild away, and then we were back at the Joe for that OT daylight robbery against the Wild on October 29.

We had one more game to see before we had to fly back around the globe to the real world. The Flames at the Joe. By now the media was obsessed by the Red Wings’ complete inability to score more than one goal per game. Zee, Pav, everybody in attack was not so much off the boil as frozen. Jimmy was being heroic but didn’t have enough goals stacking at the other end to ward off the losses.

I was resplendent in my new Lidstrom jersey, Will was now in Bert’s #44 and Macklin, my 16-year-old, had celebrated Nyquist’s Wings debut by having his jersey made up – surely the only Nyquist-flavoured winged wheel going around in the Southern Hemisphere.

The Red Wings organization generously acknowledged our trek by giving us a tour of the Joe, watching the warm-ups from the zamboni race, and we sat right on the glass for the Calgary game.

And lost 4-1; the worst Wings performance of our trip.

The good news for all of you is that we finally had to leave. We flew to LA for a connecting flight, just as the Ducks passed us in the air, and got belted at the Joe, 5-0, the day after we’d left town.

Which, of course, was the start of The Streak, including an avalanche of goals, outscoring opponents 68-21 at the Joe, including today’s game, since being pathologically unable to hit the back of the net the entire time we were in residence. Commentators now get all nostalgic about the October days when the Wings couldn’t score. I laugh bitterly.

But you know what? The good news is that despite the remorseless scoreboards, my boys and I had the time of our lives in Detroit and at the Joe. The welcome of the Wings fans, who universally embraced three Australian wannabe hockey players from Down Under (yes, we play – that’s another story) plus the warmth of the Wings staff, and the wider people of Detroit was unforgettable. Hockeytown rocks.

All the losses? They just mean I still have to see a Wings win at the Joe, which means I’m going to have to find my way to Midwest winter at least one more time.

I promise it won’t be during the 2012 play-offs. I want us to win the Cup as well.

Nick Place is an Australian author, former sports writer, mid-40s hockey rookie and passionate Wings fan. (




  1. Bob M - Chesterfield, Michigan says:

    For what is worth Nicko, a lot of the skating schools here in Michigan are taught by professional figure skaters. Same of the better hockey skaters who have attended these “Power Skating” classes will tell you that figure skaters can skate circles around them (ok bad pun, but its still true).

    • Hi Bob, I’ve chatted with figure skaters here before and their advice has been fantastic. One of my rookie friends here, did lessons over summer and said it was great. I really wish I’d signed up. A mate of mine is an Australian champion so I’m planning to barter dinner for tips. Sounds fair …

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