So, on Sunday, at 4.15 pm, I officially become a hockey player. I know I’ve argued for 20 months or so that I’m a player but I’ve been a student until now.
On Sunday, I pull on a purple Jets jersey, as Alternate Captain of the Interceptors team, against an Ice Wolves team of mostly strangers at Oakleigh, in Melbourne’s Summer Recreation League, Div 4; the lowest level of competitive hockey for championship points in town.
On Tuesday night, I hung laps at the Icehouse in a happily not-very-crowded general skate. As usual, my skating was so-so. I was gliding gentle outside edge to gentle outside edge, just feeling them. Occasionally I’d head into the centre circle and work on my backward crossovers, batting away other skaters who came to offer the inevitable and necessary advice. Not up for a barrage of well-meaning advice this night. Feeling the same frustrations that have been brewing to the surface over the past few weeks. Noticing the distinct lack of other 40-something rookies wobbling around this ice, instead of being at home with loved ones, nestled in front of a television, on a week night. Heroic or delusional, Place? Such a fine line.
Tuesday didn’t solve anything and on Wednesday, back on the Bradbury Rink but now in full hockey gear, warming up for 10 pm development league, I started to think about Sunday. My first official match as a player. A working scoreboard, a league ladder, official hockey rules, everybody needing matching socks, genuine referees who weren’t Melbourne Ice players laughing: Lliam in dev league later that night, after calling a big guy, Charles, for elbowing a little guy, Geoff, in the head: “(Laughter) I’m sorry. I know you didn’t mean it, but I have to call it. You’re just so big and he’s so small. That’s hilarious. I’m sorry … Penalty. Hahahaha.” This is the sort of ref call that’s unlikely on Sunday, where a player actually gets sent to the box instead of awarding a penalty shot for goalie practice in a game where the score is irrelevant.
Plus, we Spitfires face the unknown of whether we’re going to be competitive against other teams, like the Ice Wolves, Demons and Champs.
A lot to think about but then on Wednesday, pre-Dev League, in my gear, on the Bradbury ice, everything suddenly became clear to me; all anxiety dissolved. Just like that.
I thought: You know what, Nicko? Your skating is what it is. It’s actually not terrible (despite all the angst on this blog); you just can’t pull off moves that would make you better. But you’re not going to master transitions or Kutek-level outside edge C-cuts before Sunday. It’s done. And you are a 47-year-old rookie with only limited time to master this sport, among (in no particular order) running a business, falling in love, raising kids, writing novels, scuba diving, having a social life, enjoying street art, books, films, footy, art, waves, sky, whisky. You can only be so good, giving hockey the windows you do, which is as much as you can. And you are giving away 20 or more years to most of these teammates and opponents, but screw that, who cares? You have other strengths.
As I cruised, outside edge to outside edge, my mind travelled back to Lliam Webster’s sage advice when I was in that performance funk, months ago. “When you’re in a funk, concentrate on what you do well. Don’t worry about all the things you can’t do, or think you suck at. Just do the things you do well and the rest will follow.”
Not even realizing at the time, not until I saw the Ice 3-Peat doco, which talked about Lliam’s early season scoring drought, just how much he was also living that reality when he spoke to me.
And finally, as 10 pm ticked closer, as Big Cat Place and the rest of the preceding Intermediate class cleared the Henke Rink and the goalies shoved the goals to the side so the Zamboni could chug its way onto the surface, I felt strangely calm. Shit, I’m going to play recreational league. We’re all going to go as hard as we can; try our guts out; hurt if we lose; go nuts if we win, but it’s Division 4, it’s the lowest rung of being a competitive player. Just do what you do well, love being in a team, equally share the ice time between the guns and the strugglers, and let the rest happen.
10 pm arrived and I stepped onto the ice with a clear mind and had my best game in a long time. Didn’t try to skate at warp 10 speeds, instead slowed slightly and moved better, all while controlling and using the puck, doing the slice-through-traffic passes that seem to be my specialty. Was unlucky not to score a few times. Had so much fun that Big Cat and I thought ‘To Hell with Thursday and real world commitments” and stayed around for the 11.15 game, finally getting off the ice at 12.15 am, in bed an hour later, wide awake. I played defence, alongside Wunders, which was a learning experience but just as enjoyable. Even if I did give away a penalty by tangling my stick in Aimee Hough’s legs and headbutting her into the boards. Turns out that’s a penalty …
My teammates good-naturedly gave it to me as I skated sheepishly back to the bench to watch her penalty shot (she missed). I shrugged. Sorry, all … just clumsy.
An NHL player wouldn’t have given away that penalty.
… Expectations versus Realities.
All leading into Sunday …
This player, this ever-improving, ever-striving rookie will continue to make mistakes. But will also occasionally position himself well, use hand-eye and innate hockey sense to steal pucks and even stone-cold his more talented son, playing for the other team in the 11.15 game, every now and then on a forward rush; will no doubt be part of an Interceptors team that comes up against a more seasoned, experienced unit this season and gets belted, or has that moment when everything clicks as a team and we win large and feel like world beaters.
Play-offs? Maybe. Or not.
It’s all to come and I’m in for the ride; warts and all, age and all, faults and all, strengths and learnings and wisdoms and laughter and friends and all.
Can’t wait. Roll on, Sunday. I’m good to go.