Playing like a girl

On Saturday, I rolled into the Icehouse and went straight to the penalty box.

My view from the home team penalty box. Pic: Nicko

My view from the home team penalty box. Pic: Nicko

Those who like to push the idea that I’m a goon wouldn’t have been surprised, but in fact I was dressed in street clothes and there to help.

Ice hockey in Victoria still largely runs on volunteer efforts, from club presidents to scoreboard attendants, from coaches to Rookie admins* trying to fund-raise to help AIHL players pay their way. I feel guilty that I don’t do more, so volunteered to assist at a Melbourne Ice women’s game and was offered the challenging and powerful role of penalty box attendant. This included the thrilling moment where I carried a tiny Esky full of the game pucks (chilled on ice – what’s that about? I forgot to ask) to the scoreboard attendants, and then drank coffee in the home team box, watching the game from a pane of glass away. It was awesome.

Melbourne was up against the Brisbane Goannas, who were challenged for playing numbers, had one member wearing full rental gear, which hinted at some sort of pre-game drama, and should, imho, have had a team penalty for their jersey, which was largely green, blue and orange and featured what appeared to be a Seventies drawing of a lizard on the front in what could only have been some kind of crazy, ill-thought-out tribute to the Goanna Band and Solid Rock?

Shona Green in action. Pic MIW Facebook page

Shona Green in action. Her outside edges are ever so slightly more impressive than mine. Pic MIW Facebook page

My main take-out from watching Melbourne Ice and Goanna women at work was that it was a blast to finally see skaters like captain Shona Green and my Cherokees coach Georgia Carson playing flat out. Shona is one of the coaches at the Icehouse and so is usually sledging me from behind the opposition bench on a Wednesday night. I’ve had classes with her over the years and always loved her coaching style and been seriously challenged by her drills, but of course the flipside of seeing somebody like Shona only as a coach is that she never gets to more than first-gear, thinking about changing into second gear, on the ice. The same with Georgia, who occasionally joins in a scrimmage at our team training, but is hardly pushing into her red levels at any point.

On Saturday, leading her team to another win (they’re unbeaten in this season), Shona wasn’t in social mode or teacher mode or polite mode. She was in hockey player mode, and I loved seeing it up close. Given she has captained Australia, it shouldn’t surprise that she played at a different level to a lot of the women out there, on either side. Both teams, being in the national competition, had many players who were sublime skaters and had great shots. The defences were solid; as in hard and tenacious and disciplined. The Ice has a few new players this year and I noticed how the veteran defenders (and I’m cautiously calling Georgia one of those, although I think she’s yet to hit 22 years old (wince)), would direct traffic and provide cover and just be there to help at every turn.

Shona was everywhere, scoring at least one goal, but also getting a penalty, which meant she had the joy of being escorted to the gate to be met by none other than Nicko Place, closing the door and wondering what the etiquette is as Attendant. Do you chat? Do you sigh and shake your head? Do you land any of the lines that some friends and I had thrown around as ‘the most inappropriate thing to say to a Melbourne Ice player sitting a minor penalty’? (Random selection: ‘I guess if you were better at hockey that wouldn’t have happened…?’ or: ‘I’ve written some notes that might help once you’re back on the ice’) … btw, for the removal of doubt, the answer to that last question: do you land them? is NO.

My coach, Georgia, on the move v the Goannas. Pic: facebook

My coach, Georgia, on the move v the Goannas. Pic: facebook

In fact, Shona was bemused as she arrived, which made conversation easy because I’ve had the same feeling as I’ve arrived in the box. Genuinely trying to work out what the penalty was for, and whether you did it. This is not to bag the referees, by the way, or to breach the hardcore IHV social media rules … I’m just saying that I know I’ve been called for things in the hurly burly of summer league that I’m genuinely unaware I’ve done. It’s always ineptitude with me, not vicious intent. And so I’ve headed to the box, wondering out loud, why I’m being called. Not complaining; just curious. (As I’ve written before, I secretly kind of like being sent to the box. It feels bad-ass to have a referee or linesman have to personally escort you all the way to the gate, as though you’ve got the potential to explode on the way.) The refs are cool too; they can tell if you’re just confused, as against having a go.

So anyway, Shona and I discussed the many reasons a player might be sent to the box, until the scoreboard attendant yelled from further down what the penalty was actually for. (Slashing, from memory.) Being the captain, Shona also used her two minutes to note that the usual towel and water bottle weren’t in the box, and then she was gone, skating like a fury from the moment I opened the door.

In the third period, as Sarah Teed arrived, gently fuming as everybody always is, I asked if she would like a drink of water from the newly-arrived bottle (Val Webster being omnipresent, having heard Shona’s query and answering every need in every direction, as usual)? ‘Oh, no thank you,’ Sarah said, sweetly, as though I’d offered her a cucumber sandwich. Then got back out there, to throw her weight around as Goannas dared to attack the net.

Quite a few Ice women were called by the refs, and it shouldn’t surprise that they were just like any other team I’ve been part of or witnessed, cursing and swearing slightly under their breath but keeping a lid on it, hoping hard that the other team doesn’t score while on the power play, and engaging in a wildly complicated series of hand gestures with coach Tommy Powell (yes, at the rink again, as he and Army and Shona and Bacsy are pretty much every single day as far as I can tell) to decide whether to rejoin play or just get to the bench as fast as they can skate.

Ice president Emma Poynton turned up and had a chat, including thanking me profusely for volunteering to help at the game. I had to fight the urge to yell: ‘Stop being president! You’re mid-game! Go score a goal or hit somebody!’

Nic Cliff in action on saturday. Pic: Matt Wragg Photography

Nic Cliff in action on Saturday. Pic: Matt Wragg Photography

The Ice won pretty easily and it was fascinating to see the mix of skill levels, and the intensity, as compared to when the Melbourne Ice men play. The women wear full face cages (by international hockey law, I believe) and don’t ‘board’ opponents the way the men do. The hockey was fast, furious and committed, as you’d expect, and I felt a little ashamed I hadn’t made it down to a MIW match before now. One of my hockey friends, Nicole Cliff, was making her home debut for the Ice (the second ‘Rookie’ after Georgia Giblin to make it all the way to the national league) and it was cool to be there to see her play. She looked like she belonged too.

I’ve always loved that – at my admittedly low level – hockey is mixed gender, and that I have been able to play with and against quite a few of the women competing for Melbourne Ice on the weekend; even occasionally winning a face-off or a puck battle along the way. It’s exciting to think that you can actually take the ice against a potential national league or Australian team player, to keep pushing yourself and working on your skills. Watching Saturday’s game, when the Melbourne Ice women took off the handbrake and skated to capacity, left no illusions as to how high the standard is at that level. They rocked.

* (shout out to Matt Wragg, Theresa Neate, Brendan Parsons and Chris Janson.)

The bottom of the bag

My hockey bag got wet late last week when unexpected rain swept in as I was drying my stuff, post Dev League. (Hard to imagine as it’s going to be 36 degrees today but … well … gotta love Melbourne.)

I took the opportunity to empty the whole thing out for the first time in a while. I bought a new hockey bag when we went to America in 2011 but I actually later reverted back to my original bag – one of those big non-wheel sack bags that you can just throw endless stuff into. Which I have continued to do, until now.

This then is the horror to be found if you dig all the way to the bottom of a hockey bag.

What rattles around, below the gear ...

What rattles around, below the gear …

The coins are very manky, and I’m not sure I’ll eat what’s left of the chocolate bar. I haven’t dared to look in the plastic bag yet. There are a lot of unused pain-killer drugs, which is a plus.

And yes, kids, carry deodorant. At all times.

Meanwhile, this is post number 200 of Nick Does Hockey. Close to 200,000 words of hockey ramblings over several years. Who would have thought, given I started Post One by genuinely wondering if I would last more than a week in this adventure.

I did. And I now play for actual teams. And have so so so many hockey friends that I had not met way back then in January 2011.

As I head towards 2014 and my third anniversary as a hockey player, I’m finally charging off the injuries that have dogged me all year and feeling fit. Hopefully Big Cat Place is also getting over a broken ankle and will resume when the Braves skate back onto the ice in February.I’m not sure Mackquist is coming back, post Year 12, but maybe we’ll just go for the occasional skate, and scuba dive together?

Warming up, for the Braves.  Pic: Luke Milkovic

Warming up, for the Braves.
Pic: Luke Milkovic

I’d like to take this bicentenary post to thank everybody who has been part of this adventure so far, laughing and sweating and skating and battling on the boards and occasionally fighting, off the ice and on (yes, Donogoon, that means you). For the probably hundreds of players who I’ve shared change-rooms with, swapping shit and telling stories, I say thanks to you all.

I probably won’t blog as often in the new year, just because, well, I kind of play hockey now, more or less, even if my outside edges, backward crossovers and wrong-side crossovers still suck. It’s not exactly Mission Accomplished but I have definitely shifted from the first time blogger who was wondering if it was possible in your mid-40s to even learn how to ice skate, let alone hold a stick and chase a puck.

There’s only so much anybody wants to read about endless dev league sessions or summer league trainings or games. I started this blog as a personal diary of my hockey journey and it’s mostly stayed that way, and I don’t want to chart every training session, either. So we’ll see how we go in 2014, on the ice and in the blogosphere.

Skate well, hockey fans. Happy Christmas if I don’t post again between now and then.

Happy bicentenary.

Nicko

Watching my garden grow

Gardening and I have never been friends. A dozen years ago, I was living in an awesome house in Fairfield, surrounded by a rich, dense garden. It was a cool house with unofficially renovated windows letting light and unexpected views of the garden into most rooms. The bathroom was even built around the garden, so that the shower was embedded among actual dirt and ferns.

This is pretty much what will happen any time I'm left in charge of a garden. Pic: Flickr

This is pretty much what will happen any time I’m left in charge of a garden. Pic: Flickr

All of which was fantastic except that such a lush garden meant there were also a lot of weeds, and pruning, and all the other stuff that gardens require to look neat and beautiful and enticing, rather than impenetrable jungle.

This was bad news for my then-wife, Anna, who found herself gardening a lot, while I sat in front of my computer. ‘Come help?’ she would not unreasonably demand.

‘Can’t. Sorry. Working on a novel,’ I would reply.

A novel. Sure you are.

You can’t believe how relieved I was when ‘The Kazillion Wish was accepted to be published, giving me a gardening ‘Get Out Of Jail Free’ card that I could never have hoped for. ‘See,’ I told poor, long-suffering Anna, ‘I WASN’T being self-indulgent/wasting my time.’

Which was a total lie.

Like I said, lucky.

Taking a face-off for The Braves. Pic Luke Milkovic.

Taking a face-off for The Braves. Pic Luke Milkovic.

A few years later, I was living in Fern Cottage, Freeman Street, Fitzroy North, which fast became an ironically-named house as the backyard became nothing but weeds. Some were literally higher than my head. I’m not sure when the word ‘weed’ becomes ‘tree’, but this must have been close.

Occasionally I’d hire someone to nuke the entire backyard, ripping out everything but the few battered, half-strangled bushes that were clearly meant to be there. Pleasingly now mostly concrete, the backyard would immediately start to mutate again as I put my Jedi Non-Gardening Powers to use, writing or watching hockey on TV.

All of this meant my partner now, Chloe, was quite reasonably nervous at raising the idea of installing planter boxes on the deck of our new house. I did my bit by swearing a lot and sweating, while lugging two huge wooden boxes up the steep stairs to the rooftop deck, dodgy knee and all. I helped lug soil up the same stairs and then poured it all into the boxes.

But it was clear that I was not burning to nurture the plants, to be at one with this boxed nature.

Yet here they now sat, little fledgling strawberry plants, lettuce, passionfruit, zucchini, herbs and tomatoes. Being liberally bombed with random water attacks from Melbourne’s weather or maybe an enthusiastic five-year-old, who also considered it necessary to water the dog, the sky (look out below, walkers) and anything else within reach of the hose. And most mornings, the five-year-old would charge to the window and sigh, because giant plants hadn’t magically bloomed overnight. Things grow by increments, which can be a hard concept when you are five, or even when you’re a lot more than five, like me.

I got on with life.

Especially training, where I am finally dangerously close to full health. I’ve been doing Fluid workouts with Lliam, and it rocks. Crazy, diverse training like cracking giant ropes, or throwing sandbag balls to the ground as hard as I can, and endless lunges and squats, hoping my knee will hold (it mostly has). Explosive, intense workouts unlike training I’ve done before and leaving my legs, glutes and guts heavy with exhaustion. You don’t even want to know what The Torsonator is. But believe me, it’s nasty.

The dodgy left knee occasionally yelps when I climb stairs or once during a hockey game, but mostly it’s coping. Every session I complete makes everything around the meniscal tear stronger, and hopefully moves me further away from this injury. Wednesday nights at Dev League, another Lliam client, Jimmy Oliver, and I creak onto the ice, groaning with aching legs and exchanging knowing grimaces and grins before we even start. I love it.

And my back and upper body are getting a whole new workout, along with my skating muscles, which I’m really enjoying. I can feel it all helping my skating, as I gain more and more power in my stride. Not to say I’m not still proppy compared to the dream skaters in summer league’s midst, but at least I’m not hobbled like I was a couple of months ago. Touch wood.

Unfortunately, I'm still not striding like Alfy for the Wings.

Unfortunately, I’m still not striding like Alfy for the Wings.

My broken toe still can’t kick a footy, which sucks re The Bang, but it’s also definitely on the mend. Closer, ever closer to full health.

Summer league continues and my team, the Cherokees, has strong spirit and a lot of laughter, even if our on-ice results have been less than spectacular. We’re competitive but can’t score enough, and have faced a welter of shots going the other way. As with my skating, I’ve felt my form returning with my health. From barely getting near the puck a few games ago, I’m starting to be competitive – ripped a high shot into the top bar and over (what are the odds of that?) and almost scored on a screened drive from a post-faceoff scramble last weekend. Almost, almost.

Poor Big Cat leans on his crutches, nursing his broken ankle, hating watching his team lose and being unable to help. At least I’m on the ice, even if the results aren’t what we’d all like.

In Detroit, roads are starting to lead to the Winter Classic. Apparently the 24/7 cameras have arrived and I can’t wait for that weekly doco to begin. The Wings hit an incredibly mediocre patch (they seem to have one every year) where they couldn’t score goals and couldn’t close out matches. Finally, Gus Nyquist was brought up from Grand Rapids, along with lectures from everybody involved that he was a kid and not the savior.

Gus Nuyquist, finally where he belongs: wearing the winged wheel and tearing it up at the Joe. Pic Detroit Free Press.

Gus Nyquist, finally where he belongs: wearing the winged wheel and tearing it up at the Joe. Pic Detroit Free Press.

He scored 17 seconds into his first game. And again later, to put the Wings back in front. Hasn’t looked back.

Meanwhile, Pavel Datsyuk got elbowed blatantly in the head during a game and hasn’t played since. No penalty because not a single official saw it. Hmm. Hope 24/7 quietly recorded that hit.

Meanwhile, Darren Helm has gone from strength to strength on his return, but star goaltender Jimmy Howard has hit a strange slump of confidence, replaced for games by The Monster, Jonas Gustavsson, who couldn’t stop a goal at times last year but this season is blitzing. Coach Babs says it’s not a thing, that Jimmy will be fine, that’s there’s nothing to see here. It’s not a thing.

It’s totally a thing. Or maybe he’s right? Babs is about most things. Maybe Jimmy’s struggle is just another of the ups and downs of hockey, and of life.

The flow of action

and moments

and news stories

and highlights

and lowlights,

and injuries,

and comebacks,

and weeds, and snails,

and fresh buds and growing leaves,

and wins,

and losses,

from Detroit

to the Icehouse

to Oakleigh

to a training room in Port Melbourne

to a deck on an old fire station in Fitzroy North,

where two boxes of plants are sprouting and shooting and growing and thriving. Now thick with health and growing fruit, and with just a bit of gardening required, here and there.

We ate lettuce for the first time from our planter boxes last night and I was genuinely excited. I’ve found a form of contained gardening that I can actually enjoy.

Stranger and stranger. Life just keeps evolving. I just keep evolving. There’s your proof.

What to wear?

The Falcon: if he wasn't so well loved, he'd be worth serious money in America.

The Falcon: if he wasn’t so well loved, he’d be worth serious money in America.

I have been accused of being a hoarder. I prefer the word ‘collector’. I definitely get interested in something and start gathering. It all started when I was very young and somebody gave me a Superman figurine. It turns out you could also get Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Spider-man … I got them all. And Davy Crockett, Dracula, even The Falcon (pictured, who turned out to be the first black super hero and is now highly collectable). I still have them all. In a suitcase, stashed under the stairs at my house, but still there. Bashed to within an inch of their lives, through endless play in my pre-teen years. (The hilarious thing is that the made-up stories, my imagination roaming, with those figurines playing out the storylines? Years later, I’d write The OK Team and OK Team 2, and get that same imaginary roaming published.)

Later came my Mr Potato Head obsession, which started in a church hall in Hawthorn, accompanying my future business partner, Michael, to a

My Sixties Potato Head collection: now showing in my office. How do you like them apples of the earth, MisterSpud?

My Sixties Potato Head collection: now showing in my office. How do you like them apples of the earth, MisterSpud?

collectables auction where he was chasing Collingwood memorabilia. I wandered along the stalls and found Oscar the Orange, a Mr Potato Head character who took me straight back to my childhood. Bidding sensibly stopped for Oscar at $100 or so. I realised my hand was in the air. Now I owned Oscar, it seemed crazy not to start hunting all the other 1960s potato people: Katie Carrot, Cookie Cucumber, Pete Pepper … and wow, in America, there were ones I’d never heard of: Willy Burger, Frenchy Fry. And English ones: Mr Egg Bod and Katie Pear. This was when eBay was just finding its feet and suddenly it was possible to bid furiously for a potato-based character in Cincinnati or Seattle. I had some epic duels with my nemesis, a collector called MisterSpud. I finally got the entire set of Sixties spuds and retired from competition.

Then came magic and treasures like first editions of Robert-Houdin‘s landmark ‘autobiography’ (this French magician was a father of the Golden Age of magic and remains, as far as I know, the only magician to single-handedly use magic to stop an African revolution), or Howard Thurston magic coins. That cost me a lot of money.

And then came hockey. And more specifically, hockey jerseys.

My first one was a Zetterberg #40. Detroit Red Wings, of course. When I first started seriously following the Wings. But then I started playing and my jersey fetish blossomed, grew and mutated, to incorporate the Icehouse Rookies, the Wings’ AHL affiliate Grand Rapids Griffins, and even an obscure Canadian team, the Medicine Hat Tigers, where Wings stars like Darren Helm and Chris Osgood had started out (and it turned out, a team that my coach, Lliam Webster, played against. He got a decent shock when Big Cat and I wandered into the Icehouse wearing Medicine Hat jerseys one day). With many training sessions, dev league (before the dedicated jerseys), skating sessions and just walking around, there has been no shortage of opportunity to strut my many jerseys.

Here’s where the collection stands, three years in:

My first hockey jersey: Hank Zetterberg, 2009.

My first hockey jersey: Hank Zetterberg, 2009. When we went to Detroit in 2011, I didn’t take it, because I KNEW I’d be buying another one, and I did: a signed Nick Lidstrom jersey, which I occasionally wear around, like to a Melbourne Ice game, horrifying potential collectors. I’m, like, what? Lidstrom never signed another jersey? I prefer enjoying it, to framing it. I still love my Zetterberg first-ever, and sometimes still wear it on the ice.

The signed Lidstrom No. 5, bought at the Joe Louis Arena. It went 'straight to the Pool Room.' But occasionally gets broken out for everyday wear, to the horror of collectors.

The signed Lidstrom No. 5, bought at the Joe Louis Arena. It went ‘straight to the Pool Room.’ But occasionally gets broken out for everyday wear, to the horror of collectors. (And, by the way, it cost me $125 or something … a Kyle Quincey jersey at that USA v Canada extravaganza in Melbourne earlier this year, went for upwards of $400 … sacrilege. )

This is the jersey I was wearing in the first ever wobbly-skating shot on this blog. Medicine hat white: a cool early Richmond Tigers-hockey-obscure Wings crossover. Big Cat shamelessly stole the black version, which is cooler, damn him.

This is the jersey I was wearing in the first ever wobbly-skating shot on this blog. Medicine hat white: a cool early Richmond Tigers-hockey-obscure Wings crossover. Big Cat shamelessly stole the black version, which is cooler, damn him.

Our Icehouse class of 2011 became the self-titled Rookies, with Aimee Hough, Theresa Neate, Jay Hellis, Big Cat and a few others as founders. Big Cat designed the first Rookies jersey: a simple, classic design.

Our Icehouse class of 2011 became the self-titled Rookies, with Aimee Hough, Theresa Neate, Jay Hellis, Big Cat and a few others as founders. Big Cat designed the first Rookies jersey: a simple, classic design.

About to jump the boards in the Rookies white.

About to jump the boards in the Rookies white.

Second generation Rookies jersey: as the Rookies started playing games, against teams like an IBM line-up, we needed different coloured jerseys. This black one was a beauty. I captained my first ever hockey win - and I think the first official Rookies victory of any description - wearing this jersey; an epic comeback. A meaningless social match on a Friday night but we were floating in victory.

Second generation Rookies jersey: as the Rookies started playing games, against teams like an IBM line-up, we needed different coloured jerseys. This black one was a beauty, and is probably the jersey I have worn the most on-ice. I captained my first ever hockey win – and I think the first official Rookies victory of any description – wearing this jersey; an epic comeback. A meaningless social match on a Friday night but we were floating in victory.

Wearing the Rookies black, in action against IBM at the Icehouse.

Wearing the Rookies black, in action against IBM at the Icehouse.

The red version of the Rookie jersey. Recently a new group, formed by the following wave of skaters, has formed with a kcikarse jersey. I love how the sport is growing and evolving in Melbourne.

The red version of the Rookie jersey. Recently a new group, formed by the following wave of skaters, has formed with a kickarse jersey. I love how the sport is growing and evolving in Melbourne.

Grand Rapids is Detroit's feeder team, in the AHL. We follow it closely, watching guys like Nyquist, Tatar, Jurco, and more, get better and closer to Red Wings action. I decided it would be a cool, obscure jersey to wear to training ...

Grand Rapids is Detroit’s feeder team, in the AHL. We follow it closely, watching guys like Nyquist, Tatar, Jurco, and more, get better and closer to Red Wings action. I decided it would be a cool, obscure jersey to wear to training …

... and it was, right up until the Griffins produced this more modern red alternate strip.

… and it was, right up until the Griffins produced this even more awesome red alternate strip.

Maybe my favourite jersey of all time, because it was my first official jersey as a member of an actual team, in IHV competition. As part of the Jets, I played with the Interceptors, as logged in the blog, and even got to put a big white A on my breast, which was one of the best moments of the crazy hockey adventure so far. Loved, and continued, to love  the Ceptors.

Maybe my favourite jersey of all time, because it was my first official jersey as a member of an actual team, in IHV competition. As part of the Jets, I played with the Interceptors, as logged in the blog, and even got to put a big white A on my breast, which was one of the best moments of the crazy hockey adventure so far. Loved, and continued, to love the Ceptors.

The back of the Jets jersey, with the crazy numbering font.

The back of the Jets jersey, with the crazy numbering font.

Working hard for the Ceptors, in my beloved Jets purple  (in an IBM practice match) last summer.

Working hard for the ‘Ceptors, in my beloved Jets purple (in an IBM practice match) last summer.

The Interceptors jersey that caused all the trouble ... the Jets told us, before last summer's comp, that the white alternate jersey might not be available in time for a game where we needed it, so could we come up with another white option? Zac, one of the Ceptors, is a graphic designer and drew up this baby, and we had them made, fast. Weonly wore them a coupleof times in official comp but Jets officials went nuts, saying we were disloyal, not part of the club etc. Was awkward. I scored my only official summer league goal, swinging from a faceoff drop, straight into the net, wearing this (I scored three, but the other two weren't officially tallied). Pre-season I had toyed with being No. 4 instead of No. 17, which is why this pre-order had that number.

The Interceptors jersey that caused all the trouble … the Jets told us, before last summer’s comp, that the white alternate jersey might not be available in time for a game where we needed it, so could we come up with another white option? I guess they meant whatever white jerseys we could all find … but the Interceptors were motivated and committed. One of our team, Zac, is a graphic designer and drew up this baby, and we loved them, got approval and had them made, fast. We only wore them a couple of times in official comp but a couple of  Jets officials went nuts, saying we were disloyal, not part of the club etc, because we weren’t wearing the usual jersey. It was awkward. I scored my only official summer league goal, swinging from a face-off drop, straight into the net, wearing this (I scored three, but the other two weren’t officially tallied). Pre-season I had toyed with being No. 4 instead of No. 17, which is why this pre-order had that number.

This is a recreation jersey of an early Detroit on-ice fashion statement, from when the team was the Cougars in the late 1920s/early 30s. It's so old skool. I love it.

This is a recreation jersey of an early Detroit on-ice fashion statement, from when the team was the Cougars in the late 1920s/early 30s. It’s so old skool. I love it.

If you've seen 'Slap Shot', you know this jersey. If you haven't, go watch 'Slap Shot'.

If you’ve seen ‘Slap Shot’, you know this jersey. If you haven’t, go watch ‘Slap Shot’.

Or Hell, just watch this:

And for the record, of course I'm Hanson brother, no. 17. Big Cat and Macquist have the other two Hanson jerseys, so we can form the entire line if required.

And for the record, of course I’m Hanson brother, no. 17, who was definitely the best, as that clip showed. Big Cat and Macquist have the other two Hanson jerseys, so we can form the entire line if required.

A recent pick-up: a genuine Red Wings practice jersey, as worn by the players at pre-season training camp. Got my name and #17 on the back. I rock this one out for Braves training and it has a lot of movement, lightness, which is good to skate in. I like it a lot.

A recent pick-up: a genuine Red Wings practice jersey, as worn by the players at pre-season training camp. Got my name and #17 on the back. I rock this one out for Braves training and it has a lot of movement, lightness, which is good to skate in. I like it a lot.

My new world: I'm playing for the Cherokees, part of the Braves, in Div 3 this summer and I frickin' love the jersey. Not just because it's Richmond colours. But that helps. I'm loving life as a Brave.

My new world: I’m playing for the Cherokees, part of the Braves, in Div 3 this summer and I frickin’ love the jersey. Not just because it’s Richmond colours. But that helps. I’m loving life as a Brave.

Whoever made the Braves jerseys didn't know about punctuation, so I've become kind of Czechoslovakian. The N in Place is silent.

Whoever made the Braves jerseys didn’t know about punctuation, so I’ve become kind of Czechoslovakian. The N in Place is silent.

Doing my best to look bad-ass in my Braves jersey. Summer 2013-14 season. Go Braves!

Doing my best to look bad-ass in my Braves jersey. Summer 2013-14 season. Go Braves!

Big Cat and I before our first (and only, so far) game together. He then fell over on cowboy boots and broke his anhkle, so who knows if and when we'll get to suit up together once more.

Big Cat and I before our first (and only, so far) game together in the Braves colours. He then fell over on cowboy boots and broke his ankle, so who knows if and when we’ll get to suit up together once more.

Wednesday, I’m in love

A hockey player announced his retirement yesterday. Posted on Facebook that he was planning to hang up the skates. The reaction was predictable: everybody saying noooooooo, what are you thinking? (Except for one guy who said he quit nine years ago and has never looked back, which was interesting.) Seems my Facebook friend has decided the other priorities in life, starting with his heart, take precedence over chasing pucks, which is hard to argue with.

What did Gretsky famously say? Skate to where the puck will be, not where the puck is. Andy’s doing that, as far as I can tell. So good luck, amigo.

I’ve found myself wondering more and more this year how long I’ll stay in my sport. I mean, let’s face it: I took the sport up at 45 years old. I’m still pretty ordinary, at the age of 48. How far can I reasonably expect to go, while the rookies I started with aim for winter competition, then checking hockey, then a jersey with the Melbourne Ice, then the NHL draft … Hampered by a lack of time to train, a lack of skill improvement and a lack of functioning body parts, the frustration of watching others improving, training, getting better, while I flatline, has been overwhelming at times.

But then a Wednesday night like last night comes along and I feel the love for playing just flooding back into my veins.

The awesome Williamsburg cowboy boot shop. New York, 2008.

The awesome Williamsburg cowboy boot shop. New York, 2008.

I headed to the Icehouse for double dev league without my usual partner in icy crime, Big Cat, who had had what could only be described as ‘An Incident’, involving potentially unsteady legs, a spilled drink and a pair of my cowboy boots with slippery soles late on Saturday night. The result was a broken ankle and off the ice for more than a month, at least.

They have a history those cowboy boots. I bought them in a spectacular shop in Williamsburg, just over the Willy B Bridge from Manhattan, quite a few years ago, coincidentally just before Halloween. Two pairs of very authentic, shipped up from Texas or somewhere boots for $150, total. Bargain. They’re not super comfortable and it would now appear they have very little support if you go sideways on them, as Big Cat found out the hard way, but Hell, they have stories.

So last night, I showed up alone, which was strange, and got changed, wondering, as always, if my knee would behave or not, once I started skating? In my last game for the Cherokees, a Halloween special, it started hurting midway through the first shift and I lost all power.

But last night, the knee decided to work and suddenly, bam, I could play again! Two hours of belting up and down the ice, without worrying about whether I had any drive. It was glorious. We were 0-4 down in minutes in the first game, but worked our way back for a 6-4 win. Too much fun. Best of all, I wasn’t muttering or wincing or worrying. I was able to concentrate on other things, like hitting teammates with passes or driving to The Slot. Sometimes, just driving my legs as hard as I could on a chase or a breakaway and feeling the wind through my grill.

The only guy who could have felt happier than me at this point was Darren Helm, the much maligned, injury-prone #43 for the Wings. He finally actually really truly made it back into the line-up for Detroit last weekend, among many speeches from coaches and team staff about how fans couldn’t expect too much, how it would take months for Helm to find his old dangerous speed and  zing, as he returned from a year of back and groin issues. Yeah, yeah, we get it. First shift? Helm gets on a breakaway, burns a D-man in his wake and scores. Oh yeah. Wings win 5-0. Inspiration right there.

Darren Helm, finally back for the Red Wings, shows that he remembers how to skate. Oh, to move like him. Pic: Detroit News.

Darren Helm, finally back for the Red Wings, shows that he remembers how to skate. Oh, to move like him. Pic: Detroit Free Press.

The second hour of Wednesday dev, starting at 10 pm, is more or less a winter player drop-in session now. Numbers are still happily really low, so we were shift-on, shift-off, as we’d been for the 8.45 pm game, which is a thrashing, but the standard is fantastic. It’s one of those hours of hockey where you know half the people on the ice could just tear you a new one if they decided to break a sweat, but they’re nice enough to let you live.

But they play with such skill and flair. The passes are so sharp, and I have to skate like a motherfucker to keep up at times, which is fantastic when I can. Tommy Powell, as ref, helpfully whispering: ‘Get in there, Nicko. Hit someone!’ whenever I skate past, making me laugh. I can’t believe how much I still love Wednesday night dev after several years of turning up. It’s just fun. Coaches like Army, Tommy, Shona and Lliam cracking jokes and enjoying themselves, while we play our hearts out but with no actual stakes. I spent a couple of days beating myself up for a bad mistake in last week’s Cherokees game that cost us a goal. In Dev, you screw up, learn from it, shrug and keep skating.

By the end, as 11 pm clicked over, and my teams had won both games, my broken toe was moving from numb to very sore. My legs were jelly. The tape on my stick was fraying off. I felt destroyed in all the good ways. Damn, it was a great feeling. I couldn’t stop smiling.

And today my legs are heavy. The stairs are difficult, just because I’m tired, not because there’s Something Wrong. I feel like I had a work-out, a real work-out, which has been a rare treat this year. And now I just want to be back on the ice, trying to fly. I remember wise Yoda Byrne, my Interceptors teammate (currently terrorising Newcastle defences) telling me about how he could feel it when he got his skating stride right and found speed. How it wasn’t technical, it was a sense. I want to keep exploring that, with legs that will work with my brain. But won’t be able to before Sunday afternoon at the Oakleigh Ghetto, when we take on Jets Black, a mutation of my old Jets team from last year. It should be fun. I might even be able to move.

That game is three days away but I can’t wait.

Retirement? What, are you crazy?

Pick a card, any card

I got asked to do some card tricks on the weekend. We’d gone to lunch at a friend’s place and he revealed that he’d pumped me up as a ‘magician’, which is almost as big a lie as telling people I’m an NHL player.

The thing is, I used to be pretty decent at some illusions. I have a close friend, Simon Coronel, who is world class, performs at the Magic Castle in LA, basically rocks after a lifetime, well, half-lifetime of training. I was his first student at his debut CAE close-up magic course years ago, and so we bonded. Worked on moves out of hours and learned that we both like drinking alcohol and talking about women and other subjects. I started carrying at least one deck of Bicycle cards (the magician’s air-cushioned card of choice) around all the time. I worked super hard at lots of complicated and difficult card manoeuvres, and would like to think I definitely rose abovethe standard of  ‘sad uncle at kid party’.

But then I realized that, while I adore magic and the paradigm shift that a truly great trick gives the audience, I was mostly working so hard on my card handling to avoid the deeper issue of a novel that I didn’t know how to finish. And so, regretfully, I put my Bicycle decks away, and swore that I couldn’t work on magic until I’d finished the manuscript. Once I finally did (‘The OK Team‘), I broke out the cards but finally realized that I simply didn’t have the time or dedication to put in the Gladwell 10,000 hours required to become a Jedi.

And so I sank to the level of amateur enthusiast (a group that, to be fair, has included names like Cary Grant and Johnny Carson, and still includes Steve Martin, Neil Patrick Harris and Jason Alexander – all active members of the Magic Castle), collected some cool old magic artifacts and then took up ice hockey, and became obsessed.

But I stay in touch with the magic crowd and they make me laugh as well as teach me things. In fact, I think the biggest lesson I learned out of my time as a wannabe purveyor of truly kick-arse card tricks was that you have to really, really want it, and you have to work at it. Magic is the ultimate example of 1 per cent inspiration, 99 per cent perspiration.

Performing a trick for friends on Sunset Strip, LA, in 2011. Oh yeah.

Performing a trick for friends on Sunset Strip, LA, in 2011. Oh yeah. (Note: brand new Jimmy Hendricks recreation shirt)

I am endlessly impressed by the sheer dedication of my magician friends. The untold hours of experimenting, practising, sessioning, building, wondering, and then repeating and repeating and repeating the moves or the entire trick, to a bedroom mirror or an empty room or, occasionally, to a confederate, until it is ready to go public. And even then, working on it endlessly, to improve it, sharpen it, refine it.

If you can’t commit to that level, then you become like me; a keen enthusiast. With enough cool card tricks to please a Sunday lunch (yes, I survived) but that’s all. The deeper waters of illusion are too hard to swim.

But that’s okay. In life, sometimes, something has to give. Lately for me, hockey has edged into that territory. I worked out recently that I now have five main streams of work happening, three of which could pretty easily be full time employment if I let them, and two of which are unpaid for not-for-profits – actually, three, if you include the pissy money you get from writing a novel, which I’ve included in the first three paid gigs. Plus I have the happy job of building my relationship with Chloe, and melding my old family and my new family. And seeing wider family and friends. And getting stuff done, whether housework or shopping or just … stuff. Walking the dog. Checking my new cat is surviving. The list is a long one. Throw in Tuesday early morning pilates, and Lliam Webster work-out sessions at Fluid, both of which are finally enabling me to skate pain-free in my left knee (Oh, Thank God, less whinging! yells the crowd) and life is pretty busy. As I’m sure yours is. I’m not claiming special status here; just actually did an inventory.

Summer League threw a whole new level of hockey onto the hockey that was already there. For example, team training is on tonight, at 9 pm, but then there’s the usual Wednesday night dev league to think about – I signed for 8.45 pm and 10 pm to get skating miles into my knee, and then low player numbers meant awesome winter players have been allowed to drop into the 10 pm, which raises the standard hugely, and makes me skate like a motherfucker: it’s great – and then my team, the Cherokees, has a game on Thursday night this week. You can see the logjam already, huh? If I go to all three of those nights, when do I catch up with my son, Mackquist, who is deep in the Hell that is the end of Year 12? Or hang out with my partner and a crazy fun five-year-old?

I’d love to make some stick-n-puck or drop-in sessions to work on my skating which, as ever, needs a lot of work, but it’s just impossible.

So I’ve been forced to let go of some of the potential stress. Because I think I’m okay with stepping back a little. It’s social fucking hockey, right, at one of the lowest competitive levels you can play, even if we do all try our hardest. Happily, most weeks, team training isn’t bookending Wednesday night dev, so that eases the pressure straight away. If i make team training or dev,  I’m hitting the ice at least twice a week, which is realistically enough to not be trying to remember which end to hold the stick each time I step into my skates. My broken toe almost fell off after two hours of intense skating last Wednesday, so I need to nurse that too, to ensure I even make it to Cherokee games in one piece.

That’s about as much as I can hope for right now. Maybe when I finish the new manuscript I’ll have more elbow room? Maybe my NFP committees will go into summer recess and I’ll have breathing space? Maybe once Mack and Big Cat finish school and uni, we can more easily find time to mooch around together?

For now, it is what it is, as the entire AFL world took to saying this year for no apparent reason.

Yes, life is crazy busy, but almost universally in awesome ways. I’m flying in as many if not more directions than normal, and things like boxing and scuba have floated into the background for now, like magic, and like hockey could so easily if I chose to let it go.

Fly Girl gives my new #17 Braves jersey plenty of respect.

Fly Girl gives my new #17 Braves jersey plenty of respect.

But I’m not. I can’t wait for tonight. I can’t wait, even more, to don my own personal Braves jersey for the first time on Thursday and partner Big Cat, my son, for our first official outing as Cherokees. That’s going to rock. I can’t wait to score my first summer league goal of the season (this could take months, if ever) and I can’t wait for that unbeatable feeling of keeping your head in the frenzy of an opposition attack to angle the puck off the boards and safely outside the blue or, better, skating with the puck and managing to pass sweetly to a teammate’s stick, as they charge through our blue line and opposition defenders scramble and the goalie crouches, getting ready, and you charge for The Slot, searching rebounds.

Hockey rocks as much as it ever has. My love remains pure.

I just need to understand that it is one beautiful part of a large, complex jigsaw.

And I need to get back to carrying a deck of Bicycle cards around. Pulling off those tricks on Sunday felt good.

Can you feel it? A new NHL season begins.

The puck dropped in a new NHL season today and you can feel the energy coursing through the veins of the Australian hockey community. None of last year’s depressing extended lock-out with its owner-player political bullshit. Just a set date for the full season and 30 elite teams ready to go. There’s been no shortage of action on Day One, either, with three games producing 7, 10 and 9 goals.

The Wings play tomorrow, against Buffalo, and I can’t wait to set up my trusty iPad on my desk, and see my team go to it, stopping only for a new year’s range of Belle Tyre adverts and occasional cries of ‘Pizza Pizza!’ Hoping captain Zetterberg and genius Datsyuk can brain ’em from the jump.

Pavel Datsyuk: ready to rock the eastern conference.

Pavel Datsyuk: ready to rock the eastern conference.

It works so beautifully that the AFL season finishes on a Saturday and four days later NHL action streams onto my Gamecenter. It’s not just the Big Show, either. We’re all gearing up for Victoria’s summer league, which is looming fast; ordering jerseys, training, wondering about linemates we haven’t played with yet, secretly hoping we win a C or an A on our jersey, finding a new enthusiasm for stick-and-puck sessions or even general skates at the Icehouse. A bunch of the Melbourne Ice players have headed to North America for a wedding, and so are planning to attend NHL games over there, including most of our coaches, which will make the start of dev league next week kind of interesting. But I can’t wait to talk to them about the experience of walking into the Joe Louis Arena for the first time.

And meanwhile, here in Melbourne, half a world away, I find myself surfing far-flung corners of the interweb, devouring anything I can find about all the levels of hockey underneath the NHL. For example, Australia’s Nathan Walker scored a goal for the Washington Capitals in the pre-season, celebrated wildly by all of us Antipodean skaters – the 19-year-old is the first Australian to make it so far – before he was sent down to the Hershey Bears in the AHL.

The magnificent Youngstown Phantoms jersey.

The magnificent Youngstown Phantoms jersey.

Walker’s continued rise got me looking at the team he was with before the Bears, and so I found myself thinking seriously about spending a hundred bucks on a Youngstown Phantoms jersey. And found myself also checking out the home site of a team Youngstown played – the magnificently-named Green Bay Gamblers.

And over coffee, with old Interceptor friends, tried to come up with the perfect team name (Agreed best effort was ’20 Canadians and a Swede’), and pre-dawn, woken by howling wind, read about the Wings’ top draft pick, Anthony Mantha, scoring four goals and adding an assist for the Les Foreurs de Val-d’Or against the Quebec Remparts. Or watching insane goals like this one.

Or revisiting shenanigans like this:

All between sweating on whether Gustav Nyquist will get his deserved chance soon in the winged wheel, after being shunted back to the Wings’ feeder term, Grand Rapids, because of a roster crunch. And debating the Wings’ defence with fellow fans on Facebook. And hoping my broken toe will fit into a skate at training tonight. Looking forward to a practice match against the

It's not often fans can openly cheer a bunch of gamblers.

It’s not often fans can openly cheer a bunch of gamblers.

Tigersharks, featuring plenty of mates, on the weekend. And watching social media ramp up among fellow local players.

Somewhere I read that Michael Clarke, the Australian Test cricket captain, won’t be going on an Indian tour, as he nurses his bad back for the looming return Ashes series in the Australian summer. I got through maybe one paragraph before his plight sort of ‘keyword-connected’ in my brain and I was flicking the browser over to the Detroit Free Press to see if Darren Helm’s back has improved enough to join general training? Put on injured reserve, to help that roster squeeze; but edging closer to health. OK, that’s cool.

How long until that Red Wings-Sabres game starts at the Joe to start the 2013-14 campaign?

Oh man … one more sleep.