Friday on my mind

Ceptors' captain Jake Adamsons fights for the puck on Friday.

Ceptors’ captain Jake Adamsons fights for the puck on Friday.

Four days later and I’m still smiling about Friday’s night’s game. It was the Interceptors versus a scratch Rookie team, containing lots of my hockey mates, and also my younger son, Mackquist, who continues to improve so that he’s able to join in a match like this, and leaves me excited that we’ll probably be able to play in a team together next summer.

Friday was just one of those games that is played in a fantastic spirit, with everybody going as hard as they can but with smiles on the ice. It was only a practice match; all of us trying to get our legs back, our game sense back, our hockey sense back before summer league starts again (10.30 pm, this Thursday, for my team).

I’d put in a big training effort since returning from the summer holiday to Lorne and Tassie, and since I decided my dodgy knee would survive being on the ice. The week before last, I was on the ice, or in off-ice hockey-dedicated training, for at least two hours each night, every night but Tuesday.

I joined a new initiative, the Icehouse Hockey Academy’s summer program where Melbourne Ice star Jason Baclig, and one of my usual coaches, also a Melbourne Ice star, Matt Armstrong, put us through our paces. It was challenging, doing skating drills, having every weakness in our stride and leg muscles pinpointed by Jason, who skates like you can’t believe.

Jason hadn’t coached us before and it was great to get a new take on how to improve. Just little things like getting us to skate blue-line to blue-line on one skate, crouching. Then having us do it again on both skates, which was easier, and felt so much easier after the one-skate. Confidence builds, just like that. Then he and Army took us up to the Icehouse gym for a hockey-specific strength circuit. In the middle of all this, I continued my own return to upper body training at my usual gym in Fitzroy, and had a practice game against an IBM team, and took part in some Jets training sessions – learning new moves from the wider club’s coaches. All in all, the hockey cobwebs were blown away in a big way, to the point that in the final sprint lap of that Jets training session, skating along next to coach Scotte Giroux, my body hit “empty” and I simply lost my ability to skate hard. In the course of half a lap, I went from next to Scotte to barely moving. Petrol… gone.

It led to a quiet week last week, knee hobbling again – Magic Enzo, the osteo, finally doing some magic – until Friday’s game, by which time I was bursting to hit the ice.

Jack Hammet, on the move for the Rookies, as I attempt, probably unsuccessfully, to close him down and Big Cat waits, ready to pounce. Pic: Dave Walker

Jack Hammet, on the move for the Rookies, as I attempt, probably unsuccessfully, to close him down and Big Cat waits, ready to pounce. Pic: Dave Walker

And it was a blast. A total blast. A reminder of everything I love about playing hockey. Early in the first period, Big Cat, at speed, won the puck on the right wing, looked across the width of the ice, saw me charging and dinked a perfect pass through the air and over two opposition sticks so that I skated onto the puck without breaking stride. Through the blue line and clear, although the defenders were closing. Me travelling fast (for me) and winding up the wrist-shot.

That glorious feeling of seeing the puck disappear through the five-hole, as the goalie dropped but a fraction too late (sorry, Stoney). Interceptors whooping and hollering. A glove-pumping celebration glide-by past our bench.

Then marveling, in the second period, as our captain, Jake, got the puck on the defensive side of the red line, out of the corner of his eye saw an Interceptor player coming over the boards, half a rink away, and duly delivered an almost-blind pass right onto the stick of Big Cat, motoring away from the bench. That left Big Cat all alone with the goalie and his finish was clinical (sorry again, Stoney).

The Rookies had many decent players and scored three goals going the other way, but the Interceptors eventually prevailed 4-3, on the back of a second goal from Big Cat and one from our coach, Will Ong.

I don’t mean to give a match report as much as to convey that it was just a fun, end-to-end game, where we Interceptors felt ourselves click as a team, even if we were missing a bunch of players through travel and injury, and had coach Ong and Mark “Happy Feet” Da Costa Caroselli as one-off free agent players. Our defence was calm and measured, working together and playing smart hockey. The forwards, me included, were charging at every opportunity.

Yesterday, at Lorne, Big Cat and I were still grinning about it.

And so I thought I should share that joy on the blog. As a counter to all those posts where I doubt myself and the journey.

It’s good to stop occasionally and just celebrate the joy of playing.

So this is a salute to the sheer joy of playing with mates and against friends.

The fun of good-naturedly bantering with an opponent who has just scored a great goal; both of you hunkering down for the next face-off.

The fun of skating as hard as you can to try and go with somebody who is better on their legs than you are.

The satisfaction of scoring a goal, or of nailing a good pass to a teammate’s stick.

All those little one-percenters, all that sweat, all that effort. The satisfaction of an intense, hectic, brilliant hour.

Icehouse classes (dev league and power-skating) start again on Wednesday night. Thursday, we play the Champs, who smashed us last time.

I play hockey. For a team. Like I dreamed of, crazy dream that it was, two and a bit years ago.

I’m definitely getting better as a player and a skater, bit by bit, skate by skate, game by game.

And I love being a part of it, win or lose.

How fucking awesome is that?

Friday's winning Interceptors line-up. I was so happy with the win and the game that I didn't even care my post-helmet hair looked like Milton the Monster. So there. Pic: Dave Walker.

Friday’s winning Interceptors line-up. I was so happy with the win and the game that I didn’t even care my post-helmet hair looked like Milton the Monster. So there. Pic: Dave Walker.

Guest writer: Clayton Powell

Summer League is a week from resuming and so my team, the Interceptors, is tuning up; getting the band back together, as it were.

One of my Interceptor teammates, Clayton Powell, felt moved to write about what being part of a team means to him. This piece really spoke to me and I wish I’d written it. Over to you, Clayton…


By Clayton Powell

A little while ago a friend of mine had a chance to do a ‘come and try’ ice hockey session with her family. She decided to watch while the rest of them skated. I asked her why she passed up the opportunity. She said it looked scary. She thought she would fall over and hurt herself on the hard ice. And to be honest, I had the same thoughts at the start of my ice hockey journey.

The massive bags that fill your typical hockey change room. Pic: Nicko

The massive bags that fill your typical hockey change room. Pic: Nicko

This got me thinking about why I go out there each week and play hockey. How do I make that transition from an ordinary father of two to an ice hockey player each week? For me, it all starts in the change rooms.

Everybody files in with massive bags of gear. Having travelled from all corners of Melbourne. Then it is time to gear up. Everybody has their own routine. Their own order of putting things on. Variations in gear manufacturers and styles. It is amazing the transformation the gear makes to you mentally and physically. You feel like a warrior suiting up for battle. It gives you the confidence to do things you would never even attempt without it.

When you put on the gear you become a hockey player.

I must admit to not being the youngest player out there. And to carrying a growing number of nagging injuries. I’ve found that the gear can help to compensate for some of the injuries. It helps to support and protect joints and limbs that would otherwise hamper me. I actually feel more capable on the ice than off it.

And then you put on the jersey and you become part of a team. You now have other people depending on you. And people to support you. Everyone has the same jersey. All the differences in backgrounds and abilities melt away. You all go out on the ice as one.

Clayton Powell: "When you put on the gear you become a hockey player."

Clayton Powell: “When you put on the gear you become a hockey player.”

The final transformation occurs when you fill the team bench and assemble into your lines. Those two or three people who will spend the next hour watching out for each other, covering each other. This is the tight cadre that will be your backbone throughout the match.

And so, as the game comes to an end, what was it that enabled you to go out on the unforgiving ice and skate hard and fast? What is it that lets you frantically chase a puck through a maze of fast moving bodies? What is it that enables you to put your body on the line week in and week out?

It is the change room transformation. The gear, the camaraderie, the jersey, the team.

You then return to the change rooms to bask in the afterglow of your time on the ice. A time where you were more than individuals. More than the people who walked into the change room 90 minutes earlier. The jersey and gear come off. And as everyone dissolves back into their day to day lives you begin to dream of next week when the transformation begins all over again.

Hanging out with the Griffins

The AHL’s Grand Rapid Griffins were hauled in to help their parent club, the Detroit Red Wings, tune up this week, as the hurried preparations for this shortened post-lock-out NHL season heat up.

Someone was smart enough to bring along a GoPro and make a video of being behind the scenes at the Wings-Griffins practice scrimmage. It includes the first footage of Henrik Zetterberg in the C, on the ice, and has a great angle on Bertuzzi’s ludicrous shoot-out goal.

Tingles. Bring on the weekend and the return of NHL.

The Old Man and The Knee

(* See what I did there?)

My third year of hockey life is underway and it feels unexpectedly good.

I say unexpectedly because I blew a knee, for the first time ever, right at the close of 2012. I have had many sporting accidents, fallen off a large cliff, played footy, come hard off mountain bikes, but somehow had never hurt a knee before. It’s not fun.

After the final night of dev league, my left knee was troublesome; just sort of achy. At the Next Level Christmas party three days later, I didn’t skate, to look after it. Being oh, so sensible.

Then, the next day, turned out in 38 degree heat for the final Bang! footy session of the year. Galloped around Wattie Oval for 40 minutes or so, then joined the bangers in diving into the cool waters of Elwood beach. Refreshed, galloped around Wattie Oval for another hour, including kicking only drop kicks for the last 15 minutes or so, in celebration of the Christmas break to come, Horse winning player of the year and all the joys that another year of Banging had brought.

Then wondered why my knee was hurting when I turned over in bed sometime in the long dark teatime of that night, and then went to get out of bed the next morning and found I couldn’t use my left leg.

The whole debacle meant on Christmas Day I was hobbling like somebody who had broken his leg in six places, and for most of Christmas week. I eventually went and saw a doctor at Lorne, who was hilarious. His name was Evan, he’s a total cat in Austin Powers glasses and he spent the entire consultation reminiscing about various Place family members he’d known in his time as a trainee doctor at Camperdown. “You had to be nice to them because if you were pulled up by a cop, it was going to be a Place, or if you bought something at a shop down there, it would be a Place serving you,” he said, staring out at the blue waters of Louttit Bay through the gum trees.

“If we could just get back to my knee …” I said.

“Sure. I’ll just call up ‘knee’ on Wikipedia,” he said, typing.

(I’m not making this up.)

Wikipedia's version of a knee; research assistant to good doctors everywhere. Well, Lorne. And Fitzroy North.

Wikipedia’s version of a knee; research assistant to good doctors everywhere. Well, Lorne. And Fitzroy North.

As it loaded, he lent back in his chair. “Yeah, those Places, man, in Camperdown. They were everywhere.”

For the record, I am not related to any of those Place people, or have any connection beyond bumping into a couple at Lorne over the years. I even tracked it down once with one of them, who lent me a thick book, which was their family tree going back to about 1727 or something in England. Couldn’t find a single connection (which is kind of strange, in a small place like Australia).

Anyway, I mentioned this complete disconnect and we got back to Wikipedia, looking at diagrams of knees.

“Here’s what I think,” he finally told me, looking doctorly. “You’ve got an injured knee.”

Genius, I thought.

“If this was 100 years ago, we’d strap it up and have you lie on a bed for three or four months.”

Umm, I thought.

“But it’s not 100 years ago. It’s 2012, almost 2013,” he said confidently.

“Yes’, I said, feeling a need to get involved in this conversation. “Yes, it is.”

“So we’re not going to put you in bed for four months,” he smiled.

“Good,” I said, cautiously.

“Instead we could book you in for an MRI, which will take a picture of your knee and then you’ll probably need an arthroscopy. Now when will you need that? It might be a week, it may be five years.

“If you want to fan the flames, go running every day this week. If you want it to be in a few years, rest it for a week or so and see if it settles down. That’s pretty much it. Here’s my mobile. If you need a referral to get an MRI, just text me and I’ll fax one through. You don’t need to make another appointment or any shit like that. You know, I’m pretty sure, now I think of it, that one of the Place clan in Camperdown had a problem with a knee once …”

Turns out Evan has just started full-time at a new clinic in Fitzroy North, not far from my house. He is SO my doctor, as of now.

The good news of the whole appointment is that among all this eccentricity, he did push and pull my knee in various directions and we both felt satisfied I hadn’t done a cruciate or medial ligament, which would have been Bad. Something had flared, but it was nothing really sinister.

A day or so later, I hobbled across the deck of a friend of mine’s caravan, in Jan Juc. This friend is a highly qualified medical professional so when he asked to look at the knee, I sat and stretched it toward him. He grabbed a tub of some sort of gel and started massaging and probing the sore spots.

Chloe, watching all this, picked up the tub and read the label then silently handed it to me, raising an eyebrow in a way she does very well. For somebody for whom English is a second language, she misses nothing …

“For animal treatment only” was written in clear white letters on blue. The fine print explained: “- for use on horses and dogs”.

“Relax,” said my friend. “Athletes everywhere know about this stuff. It’s brilliant as an anti-inflam. And costs 20 bucks instead of about 120.”

For use on animals only. Well, me.

For use on animals only. Well, me.

And he was right. The next day, my knee felt fantastic. Was streaky here and there for another couple of weeks, especially if I’d been sitting, but basically started to mend.

So the holiday wound on. We travelled to Tasmania, dodged bushfires, visited the southern ocean in 38 degree heat, went to MONA where I got to see all sorts of wonders including watching myself take a dump through binoculars (true story – middle cubicle on the right as you walk into the toilets on the lowest basement level, near the bar) and watching a machine do a human shit. See video, below.

There’s a lot of shit and death at MONA, but it’s awesome.

Back in Melbourne, I hooked up with the hockey family again. Thursday night was a general Jets training session, where I tried to remember how to stand and move on skates after three or so weeks away. My knee didn’t collapse on me, which was a plus but my skating was as wobbly as you might expect. A Mustangs player and senior Jets took us through drills and I acclimatized to the feel of catching a puck with my stick again. So rusty.

The next day was Charlie Srour’s funeral, which was desperately sad, as it was always going to be. And then that night, there was a social game; Rookies v IBM. After the funeral, several rookies didn’t feel like they had it in them to play, which I totally understood, but I was the other way. I couldn’t wait to blow everything away on the ice, and it felt fantastic to be in a game situation, helplessly chasing some Swedish guy who used to play sub-NHL level in his homeland, and just feeling the burn in my legs as I tried to skate hard.

The knee held. In fact, the knee felt better and better with the work.

With every day of training, this is proving to be the case. After sitting for three hours watching The Hobbit, I’d been hobbling again, all creaky. After an hour on the ice last night doing skating drills and then an hour in the Icehouse gym, with Army and Jason Baclig pushing us hard, my knee felt great. My whole body feels great.

I’m training pretty much every night this week, planning to spend several hours each day on skates and in armour, or in the gym, and I can feel my fitness and legs responding to the challenge.

Likely new Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg hits the gym this week. Pic: Detroit Free Press.

Likely new Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg hits the gym this week. Pic: Detroit Free Press.

The Interceptors’ first official game isn’t until the end of the month, it’s still hovering in the high 20s, early 30s with the occasional day over 40 in a blazing hot summer, but I’m an ice hockey player again and life is fine.

The NHL lock-out is even over, thank God (and fire Bettman), and the Detroit papers are full of images of the Red Wings sweating it out in the gym, and doing skating drills on the ice, getting ready for a shortened, intense season.

I read every line, looking to see who is training the house down.

And then, half a world away, I aim to do the same.

Let the new year roll on. I’m good to go.

The fabulous MONA poo machine …

A death in the family

Oh, Charlie Srour. Goddamn.

Charlie Srour shooting for goal, playing for the Fighters.

Charlie Srour shooting for goal, playing for the Fighters.

For the first time, my little hockey family has lost somebody forever. It was only a few months ago that Charlie and I were shooting the shit, pre-dev league.  Big Charlie, with his usual goofy grin, trying to convince me that, as a Lebanese-Russian, he was the toughest guy on the ice. An ethnic combination that definitely deserved respect. Me pointing out that as the direct descendent of a Van Diemen’s Land convict, and of Scottish heritage, I had some claims too, even if things did go a little wrong at Culloden all those years ago when the Scots took on the English.

This entire debate flying against the fact that Charlie was the most likely to be caught grinning happily mid-game, from the sheer joy of being out there on the ice. Charlie nothing but a gentle giant at all times. He was that guy who was always laughing, always hanging shit, always had eyes shining with the joy of being alive. That guy. A guy you loved being around and who you were happy to see walk into a change room. A giant ball of positive energy and laughter.

The day after that dev league game, my favourite Lebbo-Ruskie hockey player went into Monash Medical Centre for tests and didn’t immediately come out.

After a couple of weeks, I messaged him, saying I needed to step clear of our usual verbal sledging and trashtalking for a moment to ask a serious question: WTF? He wrote back, saying that he’d been unwell, mostly fatigued, for months and now they were running all kinds of tests. “I’m fine and could play hockey except for the fact I am yellow,” he wrote in typical breezy Charlie fashion. “I miss the sledging …”

“There’ll be time for sledging,” I replied, equally breezily.

Hockey folk who play regularly at Oakleigh would drop by and post pics of them goofing around, and the pics would include that brilliant Charlie smile, but in the unusual surround of a hospital ward instead of the Icehouse. Somebody found the worst possible photo they could – of Charlie gobbling like a turkey – and printed it so we could insert his face, like Dicky Knee in Hey Hey It’s Saturday into any social occcasion or hockey-related event. Rookies phoned him the pics. It was a temporary Charlie, filling his place until he got out of hospital.

Except that he didn’t. They found what he called “the suspicion of cancer” on his liver, along with other damage to that organ, and an operation was set up, to remove half the liver and to be followed by a long period of recuperation for regeneration. Except that he kept turning back into a Simpsons character, all yellow skin, his own body poisoning itself, and the op was put off several times. He messaged of his frustration and concern turned to real worry on the part of his friends. I can’t imagine how sick with fear his family and girlfriend must have been by now.

I’d sent him a copy of my new novel to read, to fill the hospital hours, and he messaged me at one point to say he hadn’t been able to read it for a few days because “I’ve been pretty crook.” I sensed the understatement in the words.

The op happened. All went quiet. We assumed he was in ICU, starting the long road to recovery. His mother posted photos of prayer candles. We all held our collective breath.

What none of us expected was that Charles’ girlfriend would post on his Facebook wall yesterday that he hadn’t survived beyond 7.41 pm on New Year’s Day. At the time of writing, I have no idea what went wrong; whether it was the tricky operation Charles didn’t survive or the illness that put him under the knife in the first place. It doesn’t matter, I suppose. The only thing that counts right now is that Charlie won’t be back among his Spitfire Fighter teammates, won’t be at dev league, won’t be at our usually impromptu dinners or drinks or sharing a post-game drink in the car park, or a Big M at crazy hours at a Footscray service station. Won’t be living the happy, smiling life that he was leading, pictured endlessly pulling faces or hamming it up (if you’re a Facebook friend of Charlie, check out the “gorilla love” photo), or hanging off his girlfriend Emma’s arm, both of them laughing.

I’ve written several times on this blog about death and here is yet another example of the truth: you don’t know how long you’ve got, peoples, so live while you can.

Charlie is a young death, and one that is very hard to find positives in. A friend of mine died in a car accident at the age of 21 and his death had the same feeling: that it couldn’t be positively spun, that it couldn’t be shrugged off as “oh well, she was old” or “he had a good innings”. Charlie was indisputably too young to go, had his whole life ahead of him. Had so many countless hours to skate, chase a puck, get married, have children, see the world, do all the things that we hope for in our life.

We’ve had others leave the hockey world; drifting back into non-hockey life so that it’s only later that you realise you haven’t seen them for a while. There was Renee, skating to ward off a serious health issue and bravely getting back up after every fall, and there was a woman who left the ice crying after performing a Superman, but landing hard on her chest (the female equivalent of being kicked in the balls, I’ve been reliably informed) and never returned. There was a dev leaguer who was helped off the ice with a broken ankle and who I haven’t seen since, now I think of it.

You hold out the hope that they’ll turn up one day for class, or to watch the Melbourne Ice or Mustangs; returned for us to say hi to. To find out that their life is going well, and they’re having new adventures, even if they’re not part of the crazy Melbourne hockey rookies ride anymore.

Charlie’s death has a bottomless permanence to it and is proving very hard to digest, 12 hours after hearing the news, even if we’d all feared the worst since the dreaded medical c-word was mentioned in association with his liver. Under any scenario, it hadn’t occurred to me he wouldn’t be here beyond the dawn of 2013, and I simply can’t imagine what his family and close friends must be going through.

All I could say to them is that, as a parent, my heart aches so much that it could burst. I am so sorry for their loss.

I was only a bit player in Charlie’s life, somebody who occasionally skated and laughed on the same block of frozen water in Oakleigh or the Melbourne Docklands. In the movie of his life, I’d be one of those unspoken roles, at best. “Bystander at fire”, “Dog-walking guy” or “Bar room loudmouth”. If I even made the credits.

But his death has hit me hard, as it has most of my little hockey tribe, and his wider circles, going by the outpouring of grief on Facebook.

I’m assuming that my team, the Interceptors, the sister team to Charlie’s Fighters, will wear black armbands in respect of our mate when we play our next summer league game. I’m sure, knowing the passion and great minds of the hockey crew, much better tributes are being schemed.

I’m posting this from Tasmania today so am likely to miss Charlie’s funeral. I have no doubt the hockey world will be represented, and represented well.

If I’m not back in time, then I will stop, on Bruny Island or wherever I happen to be, to raise a whisky glass to a fallen friend. I’ll stare out to sea and wonder yet again why some are cut down and others aren’t. Especially why somebody who was a constant source of humour, smiles, happiness and enthusiasm, a force for good, would be taken so young.

There is no explanation; that’s what you learn over the years. It is totally fucking random, and that’s why I’m going to breathe the Tasmanian air deeply, hug my lover literally like there is no tomorrow and set my usual New Year’s resolution: to live hard and energetically and hopefully, more often than not, with a smile on my face. Like Charlie did.

And damn, I’ll miss him.

To his family, and girlfriend … every condolence the universe can allow. Rest in peace, Charlie.

Charles Srour. You will be missed. Pic: Facebook

Charles Srour. Pic: Facebook