Beating the funk

George Clinton. Different kind of funk.

No, I’m not talking about Kronwalling George Clinton, the Godfather of Funk.

I’m talking about how to shake off a hockey funk. Maybe even a life funk, but let’s take things one step at a time.

As I write this today, I am very much back in the game, compared to the last post, which only needed whisky and a sad soundtrack to complete the misery.

I knew I was okay from the moment my legs complained, already tightening up, as I creaked out of the car just before midnight last night, after driving home from the Icehouse. My legs are even stiffer this morning, finding every movement heavy in pedaling my bike as far as a local cafe. In fact, my whole body is aching in that awesome way that says you skated hard, took some hits, physically committed.

Battling that funk from earlier in the week, I had turned up for last night’s lesson, determined to kick myself back into a happier place. And it worked.

Actually, the anti-funk campaign had started at least 24 hours before. In fact, from the moment I wrote it all out in that last post, I switched into: “OK, whinge over. Time to skate” mode. On Tuesday, my son Mack decided to show off his brand new hockey stop in the opening minute of Intro class, completely lost his edges and cannoned into the boards, taking some poor guy’s legs straight out within him. Boom! In a game, it would have been a misconduct penalty for roughing, 2 minutes easy. The coaches, Army, Tommy and Shona, all cracked up (“Place!”) and looked up to the stands where Big Cat and I were helpless with laughter. I felt hockey moving through my veins. (The guy who got taken out quietly moved a few steps to his left or right every time Mack approached from then on.)

All day Wednesday, I was thinking hockey. I had a big lunch, loading up for the night. I had a rest before heading to the rink, recharging. Couldn’t concentrate on playing pool because I wanted to be out there (which is a coward’s way of saying Big Cat beat me.)

At the Icehouse, I even went for some retail therapy to exorcise the funk, buying  new black Easton body armour that makes me look like the Dark Knight if I ever have my jersey dragged over my head in a fight (unlikely).

Actually, now I think of it, how cool would that be, in the NHL? Two players get into a fight; one player dislodges the other’s helmet and finds that under that helmet the player is wearing a Batman cowl. Oh my God, I’m fighting Batman! (Hmm, I’m not only digressing but I’m veering back towards the Avengers hockey team post. DC Heroes v Marvel Heroes as hockey teams … discuss)

My new armour is much lighter, and slightly smaller, but still seems to do the same job, which rocks. I can finally get a jersey over my head without it snagging on the various bits of foam and padding that jutted out of my old, bulky armour, but I probably don’t look quite so broad across the padded shoulders these days. I can live with that.

Me in my new armour:

Post-pool and pre-class, Big Cat and I had a general skate, to get our legs moving, but I barely raised a sweat; just feeling the skates under my feet. Time ticked slowly. We got dressed way too early. Finally, it was Intermediate class.

I was kind of scared because I’d discovered a week ago that coach Lliam occasionally reads this blog, and so he knew about the funk and had promised to help. “You can solve all the problems of life?” I asked, blinking.

“Um, no,” he said, running away fast. “Just hockey funk.”

Turns out, as a guy who has played for his whole life and around the globe, feeling like you’re flat-lining in developing your skills, or just losing your hockey mojo, is something he has gone through on his journey and knows about.

And so he and Army were there, from the jump, urging us on through stepping over sticks and gliding on one skate, tight turning and Superman-diving to the ice, tight turning and skating backwards (“Both feet, Nicko! Both feet!”) and a final tight turn to bend knees all the way to the ice while skating. Tricky but fun drills. Times three.

And power skating drills, which are my favourites – just belt up and down the ice as fast as you can; me working on my Army-instructed technique to bring my skates close together at the end of each stride for extra push. I’m definitely faster as a result.

Feeling the funk lifting as I puck handled around cones, as I sprinted two laps after each drill, as I sweated and worked and sweated and worked and worked.

I wrote last time that I wasn’t tired after last week’s class and Dev League. Clearly hadn’t worked hard enough. As my group waited our turn to sprint up and down the Henke Rink last night, somebody advised that we needed to pace ourselves and I thought: “Screw that. No pacing myself tonight. Skate ‘til I drop.”

George Clinton’s band, Parliament, back in the day. Oh yeah.

And I did, so that by the time I joined the black team for Dev League, coached again by Lliam after a few weeks on red with Army, I was already feeling it.

Dev League was great as usual. Our team won, something like 7-2, and it’s amazing how much better at playing genuine hockey we’re all getting. People holding positions, making the right passing decisions more often than not, handling the puck with genuine skill.

I panicked with the puck on my first couple of shifts. Found myself controlling the puck in traffic but only throwing it forward, instead of trusting my ability not to be knocked off it and try to carry it or at least use the puck creatively.

Back on the bench I mentioned my panic to Lliam and he said: “OK, this is how you beat the funk. Do what you’re good at. Don’t worry about what you’re not good at … just concentrate on what you know you do well.”

So, there’s a poser for you … luckily I had a full two shifts before I left the bench, to try and work out if there’s anything I do well, that I could concentrate on? Well, I thought, I’m hard to knock over and I’m not bad at battling for the puck along the boards. At my best, I pass well; can think with the puck and find a teammate in a strong attacking position. So, OK, do that … and skate. Skate hard.

And so I did. Managed to weave through a couple of opponents in centre ice, controlling the puck, and pass to a teammate charging the net. I only do that occasionally but it’s a thrill. I won the puck more than once. Even beat Big Cat pointless in a one-on-one battle, which is rare enough to deserve documenting. Suddenly, I was having a ball, and even happily absorbed a huge collision with a teammate as we were both single-mindedly defending a puck lurking dangerously in the opposition slot. That one actually hurt but I was smiling as I checked my body was still working and skated off towards our goal, straight back in the game.

As always the hour ticked to a close way too fast. As the cursed garage door rolled up to reveal the Zamboni, I was ready for more and my legs were still holding up.

Until I got home, and cooled down.

Which was when I knew I’d achieved my goal.

And wrote down what’s required for anybody battling hockey or life funks:

1. Buy armour.

2. Concentrate on what you do well.

3. Play music, loud. In fact, stare the funk down and put on some Parliament, Funkadelic or P-Funk, with George Clinton.

Take that, funk.

And thanks, Lliam, and Army, as well as Chloe´, and all my hockey classmates, for nursing me through it.

Things I don’t know

The Mustangs’ mascot: real horse or not?

There are many things in hockey, and in life, that I do not understand.

Off the ice, the list is probably too long to attempt; certainly on a blog that at least pretends to be about hockey. Life decisions people make, randomness of life and death, how the Kings and Devils have ended up contesting the NHL Stanley Cup final, why some relationships work and others don’t, laughter and exploration versus the daily grind, contractual discussions instead of pure creativity, whether the Melbourne Mustangs’ mascot thinks he’s a real horse?, choosing to live within tramlines versus leaping into the jungle … yes, be afraid, I’m in one of those moods.

On the ice is, as usual, simpler. I know the things I don’t know, if that makes any kind of sense.

Better, hockey players who do know what they’re doing can spot what I don’t know from 40 skating paces. At a recent stick & puck session on the Henke Rink, a Canadian called Brian skated over and gave me a bunch of tips. They were all gratefully received. They were all brilliant. They were generously offered.

Reflecting on one tiny piece of advice that immediate helped my backward skating in ways Big Cat had been trying to tell me for months (another thing I don’t know: why is it easier to receive observational criticism from strangers than family?), it occurred to me that I remain so green; the sheer mechanics of skating are not yet mastered, more than 16 months – and 100 blog posts – into the adventure. Will they ever be learned? Will I ever step onto a rink and skate with muscle memory, with instinct? I still feel like a P-plate driver, having to consciously concentrate to change gears or work out when to merge lanes.

My lack of knowledge and lack of success in certain areas has played on my mind a bit this week, and tested my self-confidence on and off the ice. I went for a general skate yesterday and was okay; trucking around a happily mostly-empty Bradbury Rink for half an hour or so in a hastily-snared gap between real world commitments. As I moved, I felt underwhelmed by my skating and it occurred to me that hockey-me is flat-lining a little at the moment, just getting through Intermediate class in a serviceable manner, and being respectable in Dev League without doing much that is startling.

Flatlining … but not dead.

At our last Dev League, almost a week ago, my most notable contributions were a solid collision with another skater as we both went for the puck and smacked heavily, and me being the only person on the ice who apparently saw an opposition goal go into the net, hit the back of the net and stop well inside the net, until I fished it out and passed it to a teammate so we could skate back to the middle for the face-off. Instead that teammate took off, thinking it was an attack, and the game continued with only me and a couple of others – no doubt, whoever scored the goal – saying: Huh? Worse, our guys got a goal at the other end, before Dave, the ref, asked me point blank: “Did that go in?” and I answered well, um, yes.

My teammates hated me for being the only witness for the goal, I could tell, but I wasn’t about to try and pull off a sporting robbery in 10 pm Dev League among friends and anyway, I’ve always been in the Adam Gilchrist camp of play sport as you play life, with honesty and honour. Sometimes, honesty is even better if you know you could have gotten away with something.

The Red Wings show how to properly celebrate a goal on the ice. Actually, they’re celebrating just winning a Stanley Cup a few years ago but, you know, same thing, right?

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t want to sound all lofty. I can be as big an arsehole as the next bloke (unless that bloke is Tony Abbott) and have done my share of dodgy acts. But when Dave asked me, straight up, did I see the puck in the net, I wasn’t going to lie. My coach on the night, Army, only half-heartedly berated me, and on the other bench, coach Lliam could be heard haranguing his players for not celebrating a goal to the point that the ref knew it was a goal.

Which brings a side note: we all remain very quiet on the ice. I’m always struck by how little our players yell at one another or try to get the energy up and communicate by voice. It’s like we’re in a maths exam, while earnestly skating around. Apart from at face offs, where you might find yourself opposed to a mate, on the black team, who you didn’t see, pre-game, so you smile, say hi, ask how their week was going, then smash into them, sticks flying, as the puck shoots towards you. I love hockey.

The good news is that the goal didn’t affect our red team winning, which rocked because I have yet to be on a losing team in five weeks of Dev League being organised into distinct, competing teams. I’m the talisman, if not particularly effective on the ice itself.

And if you think I’m being unnecessarily harsh on myself for last week, let me say this: I wasn’t particularly tired after two hours of hockey, and wasn’t sore the next day, which can only mean one thing: I didn’t go hard enough. I’m not writing this blog to bullshit myself. Most Thursdays I can hardly walk, in a great way. Hopefully, tomorrow night when we armour up, I can leave it all on the ice as I should.

I made it to a fair chunk of the Melbourne Ice action on Saturday and Sunday (two emphatic wins) between also attending my first-ever NRL game, watching the Melbourne Storm win, and heading along to the MCG with my oldest friend and his son, and Big Cat, to watch Richmond somehow beat Hawthorn by 10 goals. Plus we fitted in “This American Life” at the Cinema Nova – on again this weekend and really good, if there are any tickets left – and ate out several times and had Blood & Sand cocktails at Collingwoodworld, which is always a good thing, and got to the gym, and spent time with my girl and her son, and more. No wonder my novel isn’t getting written and I’m not getting time on skates or inlines to master backward crossovers.

Something I don’t know? How to fit all the elements and emotions of my life into, well, my life. I guess that’s a good problem to have, in a lot of ways. I’m not bored.

Meme me …

Just saying …

The 100th post. Blow the horn.

A recent highlight from 100 posts-worth of hockey life: Aimee Hough’s brilliant shortbread version of Rookie Nicko, number 17. (She made them of all the Rookies. It wasn’t creepy)

Well, holy crap. The century. Nickdoeshockey‘s 100th post.

I’m not sure it’s strictly good hockey form to wave your stick in the air like a cricket bat; to point it at your teammates in the dressing room.

But I’m going to do it anyway. Because I want to share this moment with you, and thank you for reading and celebrating this crazy ride.

It was on January 19, last year, that I logged my first post on this sketchy attempt at writing a personal diary of my looming hockey adventure.

“Let’s start with the pain,” I wrote.

With me landing badly in my first ever skating class, then being accidentally taken out by a Columbus fan and feeling proud that I’d taken one for the Red Wings.

Genuinely not sure if this blog would last more than two or three weeks if I copped a really bad injury.

And yet, here we are. Me still major-injury-free (touch a lot of wood), still chasing the puck and adventure, and my little project now recently clicked past 20,000 individual users, enjoying upwards of 150 individual readers every day, sometimes over 300, from Australia, the USA, Canada but also from Turkey, Brazil, Taiwan and three today so far from Albania.

I often wonder if these people have stumbled here, looking for “hockey player eaten by shark” or some other bizarre Google search? Or maybe hockey’s reach is as great as it should be, and somewhere in the United Arab Emirates (10 readers in the last seven days), a loyal Red Wings/Melbourne Ice fan is settling over coffee and a screen?

The biggest day so far was 1,126 readers – spookily on January 19, 2012 – even I didn’t realise that was the one-year anniversary until now, writing this – which was the day I had an article published in the Detroit News (no longer online) and the Motor City’ online community came calling. That entire episode remains the highlight of the 100 blogs, with a brilliant exchange of messages between my little Melbourne outpost and Hockeytown, as the Red Wings enjoyed a fools’ gold home-winning streak and we all celebrated everything great about Detroit, which is a spectacular city, no matter how faded and desperate outside of the creaky Joe Louis Arena.

The jury is very much out on whether I can get back to Detroit for the Winter Classic, scheduled for New Year’s Day, 2013, so the blog has mostly since been about everyday life and hockey. Intro classes have turned into Intermediate and then into Dev League and now the adventure creeps ever closer to joining an actual Summer League team and playing for real. I’m excited, really excited. Hopefully that comes through in these posts.

A guy called Patrick, taking umbrage at my “Violence of Vinnie Hughes” post a week ago, mentioned that this site was self-indulgent and well, yes, guilty as charged. Strangely, as the readership has increased, I’ve worked hard to hold onto that personal angle. It’s not only rampant ego as much as I don’t want nickdoeshockey to become just another online news or opinion site for the Melbourne Ice or the Red Wings. God knows, there are enough of those around and some spectacularly good ones (a big shout out to The Production Line, Winging It In Motown and Nightmare on Helm Street, for example).

I prefer to just keep doing what I started: a diary of my hockey adventure, with strands of life outside the rink creeping in. The whole thing came from two colliding moments: my friend, Richard laughing when I told him that I was planning to take up hockey, looking raised-eyebrow at my then-45-year-frame across a coffee table at Lorne and saying, with no room for argument: “You simply have to blog this.” Which hadn’t occurred to me, so thank you, Richard.

The second element was one of my favourite sayings: “Find the thing you like most in life and then let it kill you.” I kid you not, I silently repeat that line to myself often as I stalk towards the Henke Rink, in my armour and skates, wielding my stick. The Australian bushrangers had another way of saying it, in the 19th century: “Die with your boots on.” R.I.P. Ben Hall and Flash Johnny Gilbert, who lived, and died, under that banner.

Celebrating an Ice goal against the Mustangs last Thursday night. Pic: Alex McNab.

I am very aware that hockey has come to symbolise this as my wider approach to life. At my wake, whether it’s next week or in 40 years, I want everybody laughing, shaking their heads and toasting that Nicko Place had a genuine fucking crack at life. And yes, with columns for wins and losses.

Hockey does symbolise so much.

Like life, hockey is action, fear, philosophy, learning, “you know, science”, teamwork, camaraderie, set-backs, heart-break, pure joy, community and so much more.

I can’t believe that 16 months ago, the concept of me as a hockey player had such wet paint on it. How much I didn’t know. Reading that first post feels so long ago and yet, it really isn’t.

What does astonish me is how much has been packed into my life over that 16 months, on and off the ice. As well as my development as a player – from being literally unable to skate, to now playing dev league and feeling like a genuine, if still very green, potential Right Wing – life off the rink has been a rollercoaster.

In the time of the blog, I have travelled to the US (with my boys for the first time) to see Datsyuk. Lidstrom, Zetterberg, Helm and the rest of the Red Wings play live, even if they lost; been to Hogwarts in Florida; had my heart broken, bounce, stumble and soar; achieved a life dream by diving (twice) with the magnificent manta rays off Lady Elliot Island; kept my company afloat after dastardly treacherous bastardy by a major client; had a novel I’d been working on for many years accepted, and to be the first of a series, and moving me out of one genre with four published into a whole new crime-writing field; had friendships rise and fade; watched my beloved Tigers gradually but distinctly get better as a football team; seen Macklin, my youngest son, join Will (aka Kittens, aka Big Cat) and I on the ice as a player; met a French girl I’m trying to impress who laughs instead of sighs when I let hockey take over my life and return, creaking and sore. And God, so much more. That’s not even close to covering the dramas and emotion. Is every 16-month period like this in my life? I’d never tried to chart it before.

And then there’s life within the walls of the Icehouse. The world I’ve stumbled into and the people within that sphere.

Where do I even start? I’m not going to get all mushy. You can do that for me by indulging me in a simple test. Take a deep breath and think of all the fucking amazing people you have met through your involvement in hockey.

You might be in Minnesota or Melbourne. It doesn’t matter.

I’m not just talking about the Rookies, our self-titled band of ragged, diverse, wildly enthusiastic students who started at the Icehouse, under Lliam and Army’s tutelage last year and have soldiered on, through triumph, disaster, injuries, frustration and elation. I’m talking about Melbourne Ice fans, Red Wings fans, fans of every other team, my work-street-hockey puck-lunch partner, Alex, the amateur Chicago player who saved Will and I in a dodgy section of that town, the wise-cracking crew at the South Pole end of the Henke Rink on Ice match days, the friendly staff of the Harbourside Hotel, the ever-patient partners of the Rookies, and the Rookies crew who turned out in dodgy weather at Albert Park on Saturday to hit pucks together, off-ice. The list goes on and on. Even an inspired fan who riffs at an NHL game on my random thought: “Hockey Player eaten by shark.” (Click on the clip below. Trust me. You really want to.)

What a brilliant community and what an amazing sport.

Will this blog last another 100 posts? Who knows and who cares. Skate to where the puck will be, not to where the puck is, as Wayne Gretsky once said.

The 16-month journey just gone stands alone as one of the greatest times of my life. Thanks for sharing it with me; especially you, Big Cat.

And now let’s hit the ice for wherever this thing goes next.

Giddyup.

(Update: All of this made me think of the final Calvin & Hobbes cartoon when Bill Watterson retired. Dunno why but any time you get a chance to salute Calvin & Hobbes is a good moment. The boy and the tiger’s final stand, their philosophy, feels right for this moment …)

Calvin & Hobbes: the final cartoon. By Bill Watterson.

The violence of Vinnie Hughes

On Saturday, on Melbourne’s notoriously violent King Street, a man took umbrage at what he perceived as rough treatment of one of his mates by a Perth tourist. Not a small guy, he determinedly shook off the restraining hands of three police officers, he was so intent on fighting the tourist. Eventually the police threw up their hands and the two went toe-to-toe, the vicious brawl ending with police dragging the man off the tourist who was now lying on the ground, hands attempting to cover his face as unanswered punches found their mark.

Blood splattered the ground as the man was led away, waving to the crowd who had cheered while witnessing the savage beating.

Pretty horrible scenario, huh? But as anybody who was at the Melbourne Ice-Perth Thunder game at the Icehouse on Saturday evening knows, this didn’t happen on King Street. It happened on skates during that game, with Melbourne captain Vinnie Hughes the aggressor who beat the crap out of Perth player Sam Wilson after Wilson had taken out the Ice goalie, Stu Denman.

The ice where Hughes v Wilson happened.

Denman had ventured way out from goal when hit, which leads to questions about whether he was fair game or not, so far from the blue crease. Regardless, it was a hard hit which led to a predictable push and shove between the teams before Hughes made a late decision to “make a statement”, pushing all referees aside until he could get to Wilson and go toe-to-toe.

He was thrown out of the game and Wilson won’t look pretty today.

The whole thing almost made me late for a musical I had tickets for in Elwood – a local production of ‘Avenue Q‘, an adult comedy musical featuring Sesame Street-like puppets and human actors.

Which is where it all gets bizarre, huh? There I was, behind the goals at the South Pole end of the Henke Rink, hollering and hooting and full of blood lust as Hughes beat the shit out of a hockey player metres away. I’d bought a friend along to her first hockey game and my 16-year-old son, Macklin, was there with a friend as well. Mack texted me in the long delay after the fight (as the rattled referees tried to work out how many Melbourne Ice stars they could physically fit in the penalty box for having not left the ice as instructed) to say: “That was awesome”.

Ever the loyal blogger, my main concern at the time was whether my Nikon, battery dying, had managed to get the shots of the blood splattering the ice and then being scooped up by some emo attendant. (It did: as per this post)

It was only the next day, waiting for the ball to come to my wing, in pouring rain, during The Bang footy at Albert Park, that I began to feel uneasy. And then later, at a Mother’s Day pub lunch with my intelligent, caring, gentle ex-wife, where I looked her in the eye and it occurred to me that it was difficult to justify having introduced our two teenage sons to such a violent scene the day before.

I’ve previously written about my uneasy attraction to violence, in boxing and hockey. This Hughes fight felt really savage. On Facebook afterwards, the Rookies were in full flight, crowing about flying the flag for teammates and whether it’s ever okay to hit a goalie, about Vinnie being a legend and a great captain. I posted my blood pics and everybody hit the “like” button, me included. We’re all new to the sport and are like adolescents, flexing our tough-guy hockey muscles that we secretly know won’t actually be tested in the non-fighting leagues we are working up to playing.

Even that is so different to The Bang, which is football unashamedly based around pure skill without bullshit testosterone. I love that we bangers are all too old for that crap. On Sunday, I watched my Bang teammates bring the Sherrin around the flank in the rain, devoted only to clean skills in the wet. It’s well understood that if you feel like a bit of body-on-body and two of you agree, then go for it and we’ll all laugh. I had an exchange like that with a mate, Phil, on Sunday, both of us playfully jostling as the Sherrin approached, then chasing the ball on the deck, with Phil gracefully conceding, stepping back when my head was right there, for his hip or leg to collect had he chosen.

It’s not always like that. One ex-rugby player, Karl, hit me in the jaw with the hardest shots to the head I’ve had in years when I was stupid enough to try and tackle him a year or so ago. But I didn’t complain. I’d bought into the physicality that day.

And then there’s boxing. Tonight I’ll tape my hands and don boxing gloves, to throw an hour’s worth of hopefully hard and fast punches at training partners and heavy bags.

But I understand there are clear boundaries. It’s all pretend violence; controlled aggression with no intent to hurt (unless you’re Karl who can get a little carried away).

Cleaning up after the fight on Saturday.

A truly premeditated hockey fight is something else; planned, vicious punches with the intent to cause harm. Vinnie Hughes went after Wilson with true hatred in his eyes and didn’t stop until the Thunder guy’s face was leaking blood onto the ice in a big way, and the referees managed to tangle his arms to stop more punches.

UPDATE (Tuesday, May 15, 11.30 am): Vinnie Hughes offers formal apology.

With so much debate in the NHL right now about brain damage from hockey, and the after-effects of the game’s traditional enforcers, or “goons”, who are a dying breed, it was an unusual sight, even if Big Cat Place, who goes to most Ice games, shrugged that it was the third or fourth such fight he’s seen.

(And again, as a father, should I be concerned that he was so casual about it? At 19 years old, so unconcerned that he had just watched one guy belt the crap out of another, while officials stood by, in the name of sport? In fact, smiling and loving it.)

I understand that violence is part of hockey, like AFL and other contact sports. I’ve had fights on the footy field in my youth, and even towards the end of my youth. The only time I genuinely, truly saw red and instigated a fight was, of all things, in a Herald newspaper v The Age newspaper “social match” at the Punt Road Oval (my one game ever on the holy home grass of my beloved Tigers).

An Age photographer known to have serious anger management issues dived with both knees into the lower back of a Herald player who had lost his footing and was lying on his stomach, but still reaching for the ball in a pack. It was a cowardly act to an unprotected player that was incredibly dangerous and bad form at any level of footy. But in a fucking social match? Stripling that I was back then, nobody was more surprised than me when I found myself face-to-face with the photographer hard man, his guernsey bunched in my fists and the momentum of righteous anger carrying me through the moment.

Looking back, I have no problem with that encounter. Somebody had to make a point that his act was low and had no place in a social match. I’d like to think more than any physical damage I may have caused, what I said to him about his character and behaviour (and maybe his mother, his penis size and anything hopefully more creative I came up with in that moment) humiliated him in front of a bunch of workmates and journalistic colleagues. And yes, it all occurred right on the wing, in front of the crowd – oops.

Perhaps that’s how Vinnie Hughes feels today? Righteous in that he protected his goalie as a captain should in the accepted violent parameters of hockey culture?

Whenever I tell people outside the sport that I’m a hockey player, their almost-universal reaction is to say: isn’t that an ultra-violent slugfest? I’ve always enjoyed the faux hard-man reputation this reaction offers me.

Of course, at my development league level – and any level I’m ever likely to play – it isn’t a thug sport at all. Even at the Melbourne Ice level, fights are banned and I’m expecting Hughes will miss a few matches as a result of his exploits.

But occasionally, like Saturday, you’re reminded of the savagery that is in the DNA of hockey over the past century or so, and that such primitive violence is not as far below the surface as modern officialdom would like to think. In the NHL, there remain times where to not fight would be regarded as wrong. (Such as Bertuzzi shaping up to Weber in the game after Weber slammed Zetterberg’s head into the boards during the recent play-offs – I applauded Bert for that.)

Like boxing, it’s a sport where people can be hurt, and by deliberate, expertly-delivered punches.

And I stand and cheer. Against every value I hold in the world outside that bubble.

I’m still not sure what that means. I guess the obvious answer is to skate hard on Wednesday night and play the puck, not the man. And probably be laughed at by my Rookies peer group for genuinely hoping Sam Wilson is okay.

As another violent man, Ned Kelly, once said: “Such is life”.


Backwards is the new forwards

Intermediate was fun this week. Lots of stick-handling and puck-moving drills.

The only nasty moment was when we had to practice backward-skating defending. This is a tough drill, because a forward takes a puck and skates as fast as they can along the boards. The struggling defender (let’s call him, say … “Nicko”) has to attempt to backward skate at the same pace from well inside the defensive blueline to the red line at the centre of the rink before he can pivot and try to back-check/stop the attacker from having a shot at goal.

For people who are really good at backward skating, the drill is an exercise in closing down the angles, and forcing the forward into the boards, or at least contesting the puck head-to-head. For someone like me, it’s an exercise in just trying to skate backwards as fast as you can, while watching somebody coming at – and usually past you.

Luckily, this is okay because I’ve had a revelation over the past few weeks. I’ve realized that while I may still be crap at certain skills, I’m a lot less daunted by them.

In my first time around at Intermediate, late last year, I can remember feeling something approaching dread when certain drills were announced.

“Oh God, not pivots/transitions/backward skating,” the little voice in my head would sigh. I would always have an honest crack, but I knew I was going to fail, and badly, before I began, because I simply wasn’t good enough on my skates to even attempt some of the moves. It’s why I spent the summer trying to just get better at skating.

Thomas Tatar versus all of America, at the world championships.

And you know what? I’m no genius, but that plan might have worked.

Backward crossovers remain a mystery to me, and transitions are still very hard, but I’m much more willing now to actually try them. I feel like I have a better sense of where my feet are supposed to be and what my legs should be doing, where my weight should be, even if I can’t always make it happen in reality.

So, this week’s backward skating drill was in this category.

OK, yes, I suck at backwards skating. It’s a difficult thing to work on in the hurly burly of a General Skating session – I watched a fellow rookie (no need to name names) smash a poor little girl while practicing backward crossovers on Tuesday night … nice work, Alex McNab, you thug – or a stick & puck, where you wobble into the path of good skaters. I really need to get on my inline skates more, for backward work). On Wednesday, I almost battled a puck away from a decent forward skater at one point. Mostly I just tried to build actual speed while pushing backward. Shrug. The journey continues, and for the most part, over the past fortnight, I’ve caught myself grinning between drills from the sheer fun of being on the ice. A journo mate of mine, Fairfax sports writer Will Brodie, wrote a great piece this week about his childhood playing hockey, and the rise of the sport in Australia (look at the old pics of Blackhawks junior teams – gold), and I think Will nailed it with these paragraphs:

Most people who play hockey will tell you that it’s the most invigorating game they have ever played, and don’t ever doubt them. Most sports fans who see a game say they will be back.
For sheer sensation, its hard to beat – with only ten players (plus the two goalies) it has the intimate involvement you get from basketball, but there is contact, so eluding an opponent is everything (the Canadian word for baulk is to ‘deke’), and in the confines of a rink, if you can deke a defender ‘out of his jockstraps’, you can set up a goal-scoring opportunity. The puck feels just the right weight, an ideal object, and your stick is totemic – part pet, part tool. A play where two or three passes combine to set up a shot is an enacted purity of satisfaction.
As a spectator sport, it is hard to beat. Fast-paced, aggressive, but played in a compact arena, you can sense the options available to a player at the same time as he is executing his choice. In hockey there is less of a gap between the thought and action, and between rushes of potential drama, than in almost any game.

Amen.

Dev league was also fun this week, although Kittens, Morgan and I had to share our line with other skaters, meaning we all had to miss occasional shifts. This sucked, because it meant we never felt like we had a settled line (it’s amazing how quickly you come to want that) and, worse, it meant sitting out shifts, when we already had to wait three shifts for our line to come around again.

Alex McNab laughs after killing another defenceless child.

I want to be out there every shift, or at least every second, so it was difficult to sit patiently, watching the game, cooling skated heels.

But that whinge aside, it was a fun session. I did a few good things, including a couple of shots at goal, had some battles for the puck, and enjoyed a couple of times where I controlled a puck in dangerous climes inside our defensive blue line, turned and delivered measured passes to the sticks of teammates.

We’re all getting a lot better at holding our correct positions, especially with Lliam’s coaching from the bench, which remains entertaining, given his penchant for hurling waterbottles at the ref. He also takes the time to preach position to us; where you should be at all times. This can be a mystery in the swirl of a hockey game. Check out the picture above, from the current world championships, where Red Wings prospect Thomas Tatar appears to be taking on the entire USA team on his own. But there are actually systems at play, zones a wing should cover, as opposed to the centre or a D. Lliam is working hard to make us understand our jobs, and I’m drinking the knowledge.

That aside, I think the most pressing, truly urgent issue coming out of Wednesday nights is how I survive Thursdays, when I’m exhausted after so little sleep.

I can’t sleep before 1.30-2 am, post hockey, and the get-a-kid-to-school hack can start at 6.30 am. I was a fucking zombie yesterday. Perhaps I just need to be a hockey player and harden up?

Mullets, Tigers, scattered Wings and future dreaming

Pavel Datsyuk enjoys his off-season, getting maybe a touch careless with a high stick while playing for Russia. Pic: Gettys/Detroit Free Press.

There’s a fundamental difference between supporting the Detroit Red Wings in the National Hockey League and barracking for the Richmond Tigers in the Australian Football League. And it goes way beyond the teams’ dramatically different (but both way cool) colour schemes.

Detroit is all about winning, where any year that doesn’t bring a Stanley Cup is met with blinks of disbelief and then the disgruntled shaking of collective heads, by management, players and fans.

Richmond used to be like that, in the 1960s and 70s, but over the past 30 years has sunk so that expectations are much, much lower. Put it this way, Richmond has made the finals twice since 1982, while Detroit has made the play-offs in 26 out of the last 28 seasons, including a ridiculous 21 years in a row, including the season just completed.

Right now, all is quiet in Detroit, as a result of the Wings being uncharacteristically bundled out of the first round of those 21st-straight play-offs by the uppity Predators; Nashville out-winging the Wings by being hard and tough and skilful and uncompromising and just frickin’ wanting it more. My guys looked slow and flat and out-psyched and out-muscled. Yes, I am still steaming about Weber’s Ultimate Fighting head-slam of Hank Zetterberg but – deep breath – it’s now history.

Talk has turned to whether the Wings can snare a big name Unrestricted Free Agent in June, and whether any of our very promising draft picks can make the next one, two or three steps to move out of the minors, into the Wings roster and then into serious Stanley Cup-contending form?

In my opinion, we need to pay attention to hair. Last summer, the Wings drafted a big-bodied defenceman with a ranga-afro, Mike Commodore. Wings fans tried to love him, even after he refused to wear the number 64 in honour of the old video console, but then he was in and out of the Wings line-up and eventually traded for not much more than a couple of free beers and maybe a book shop voucher and is now plying his trade with Tampa Bay. (Big Cat Place remains as filthy about this as I am about the Weber hit on Zee. We’ve had a lot to seethe about lately.)

The Tigers also badly needed a big body after the 2011 season and got one in Ivan Maric, a ruckman with the best mullet hairstyle going around in football and maybe in sport.

Big Ivan Maric: bringing mullety goodness to the Tigers. Pic: The Age.

In fact, after Ivan dominated (46 hit outs in the ruck, 20 possessions) yesterday’s game against Port, which the Tigers won, the Richmond coach, Damien Hardwick, was moved to say: “He (Ivan) still has some areas he can work on, mainly his hair, but other than that we move on. He seems to be getting better the longer the mullet.”

Of the Wings stars, an early start to summer has meant a chance to compete in the IIHF World Hockey Championships, Division 1. This is the main stage of the world titles that Australia recently competed in. Zetterberg, Franzen, Ericsson, Filppula, and even prospect Tomas Tatar are all among those playing. The Wings’ goalie, Jimmy Howard, made 40-odd saves as the USA beat Canada, so at least he’s hit top form a month too late.

Pavel Datsyuk is playing for Russia, and seems to be enjoying not being in official NHL competition and therefore not having to worry about trying to win the Lady Byng, the NHL sportsmanship award. At least if the picture above is any indication. He scored Russia’s first goal and they won …

All I care about is that Datsyuk, Zee and the rest have months to gear up for the 2012-2013 NHL season. Hopefully he’s joined in September’s training camp by a few of our better prospects who surprise everybody by being fitter, stronger, bigger and hungry, ready to be genuine NHL stars. Plus a big name or two from free agency, to add extra two-way grunt up forward. And ideally even Nik Lidstrom, fit and eager for at least one more brilliant season in D.

They Wings gather in September for training camp. By then, I will have spent an Australian winter belting up and down the ice at the Icehouse and Oakleigh, getting ready to join the Rookies, my very first actual team, in summer league competition. Plus I hopefully will have watched big Ivan and the Tigers continue to build into something resembling a genuine finals prospect over the next couple of years.

Is that too much to ask?*

* Don’t answer, re Richmond. I know the answer is almost certainly yes.

 

UPDATE: Ivan Maric wallpaper now available. Respect the Mullet! … click here.