A sleepy Sunday makes for happy Owls

Dusk settles over Melbourne and the streets start to empty, as families head home to bunker in, resting up with the TV glowing, to get ready for the work week ahead. At Piedemontes, my local supermarket, I’m lucky to be in the ‘handbasket only’ queue, so that I avoid the bumper trolleys. Gillian Welch’s ‘I build a highway back to you’ is my soundtrack as the sky settles into pink, deepening, and I open the door of Fern Cottage, my little pre-Federation workers cottage in North Fitzroy, and close out the world, escaping the chill just starting to bite now the sun has gone.

I pour a white wine and put on some Melody Gardot. ‘Your heart is as black as night’ fills the kitchen as I make an omelette for dinner – pushing my culinary capacity to the limit but timing the turn in the pan just right. My new microwave is trusted with handling the cooking of the broccoli and proves up to the task. Of course, one of my boys has stolen into the house at some stage while I wasn’t looking and eaten all the potato chips, which was to be my secret, guilty last dinner ingredient, so that saves my belly some unneeded calories.

It’s only 6.15 pm as I sit down to eat – absurdly early for the night-time meal. The last game of the AFL round hasn’t even finished and I’m eating according to some retirement home timetable.

Calvados - the final shot that did all the damage.

Calvados – the final shot that did all the damage.

It’s not just the hangover. Having that final shot of Calvados, technically a brandy, in reality a lethal poison, wasn’t a great idea the night before. The music had finished at La Niche café, and I’d already had an on-the-house final shot of La Nichette – drinking chocolate with some kind of pear liqueur. And that was after a final shot of Chouchen, a French liqueur so dangerous that punters reportedly have to be hooked onto their stools at some bars in Brittany, for danger of toppling backwards after imbibing. Chloe, my partner and the expert on all this, tells me that she tends to avoid Chouchen because she loses all feeling in her lower face after a few shots. Her theory is that’s because of the bee venom, mixed among the honey, which shows how old-skool Bretonne she is. Reading up on it, venom hasn’t been an official ingredient for a while.

Anyway, the bike ride home from all that was an adventure and Sunday has been understandably quiet. Darkness now gives me every excuse in the world to curl up on the couch, pour a restorative whisky and watch ‘Top of the Lake’, succumbing to my body’s tiredness and my sluggish brain.

Which is why, of course, I am about to instead drag my hockey bag and sticks to the car, and set a course towards Docklands.

Because I am now a member of the Nite Owls, a hockey underworld which unfolds like a ghost story at the Icehouse every Sunday night; the spirits of hockey past drifting into Melbourne’s state-of-the-art hockey rink from all parts of the city. Plus a few of us self-styled rookies from the past few years, who happen to have taken up the sport a little late. ‘Over 35’ is the qualification but many of the Nite Owls players passed that marker many, many years ago.

On Sunday nights, in the most organized unofficial social comp you could ever find, these men and women take over the Henke Rink and play a brand of hockey marked less by furious pace and body-work than astonishing stick-handling and the canny hockey-sense of years on the ice.

And then there’s me; 13 years past the entrance age, with my P-plate skills and skating, feeling like the new kid at school as I walk into the locker-room and find a bunch of strangers, featuring a wild variety of ages and physiques as well as the occasional friendly face from my hockey classes and summer league. Tonight’s my first actual game for a Nite Owls team, after taking part in an unofficial scrimmage last week, involving one old-timer who I was told is a former captain of Australia, now in his Seventies. Still owning the ice as I, badly propping up defence as the new kid, grinned from the blue line.

The queue to get into the Icehouse yesterday. Hockey's popularity is getting scary. (And hi, Richard, in the NY cap!)

The queue to get into the Icehouse yesterday. Hockey’s popularity is getting scary. (And hi, Richard, in the NY cap!)

I can take some inspiration into tonight from a slightly higher standard and more intense game of hockey that took place on the Henke Rink yesterday afternoon. I was in a VIP Box, kindly hosted by the boys from the Ice-Threepeat doco, which meant I was right on the glass as Melbourne Ice and the Melbourne Mustangs opened their AIHL seasons. I sipped my beer as the Mustangs president, I assume, made the longest pre-game speech in hockey history, totally negating the warm-up the players had completed before lining up for a national anthem that was finally sung 15 or 20 minutes later.

Anyway, at last, the puck was dropped and it was so good to be back, watching my coaches Matt Armstrong, Jason Baclig, and Joey Hughes show what they can do when playing for real. (Lliam Webster and Tommy Powell are representing Australia overseas this week).

As Icehouse or Next Level students, we can get complacent about being on the ice with players of this ability. Army maybe hits second gear every now and then, trying to show Icehouse students how to do a move, like a transition or a drill. At the start of class, as students hang laps to get their feet moving and settle onto the ice, Lliam especially loves to hoon around, trying trick shots against the goalies, but even then, we all know he’s not raising a sweat.

Playing for the Ice, only a pane of strong glass away, they reminded me of just how good they are. And nobody here made NHL standard. Holy crap. The stratosphere of hockey ability is high.

I was sharing the box with Jaffa, who coached the Ice to the three straight Goodall Cups, including last year’s, and retired after the 2012 season. He was remarkably calm, given this was his first game not in charge. Yet every comment about a player was so insightful, so totally accurate; spotting the slightest weakness or strength. It must be a strange sensation to have so much knowledge and such great hockey eyes and not really now be able to use them.

The view from the VIP Box. Could be worse. (Thanks, Jason and Shannon!)

The view from the VIP Box. Could be worse. (Thanks, Jason and Shannon!)

Andy Lamrock, also retired as president of the Ice, was there too, pressure off, able to chat instead of sweat every little detail. As were the doco makers, Jason and Shannon, who at this game last year would have been racing around the Icehouse, getting migraines, trying to shoot everything at once and follow multiple storylines. Joey gingerly feeling an arm after a hit – is that major or not? Austin McKenzie scoring fast for the Ice, after failing to find the net for all of last season. Did we get that on tape?

Nope, because this time they were sipping beers and watching, along with the packed stands of the Icehouse. Arriving at the game, the queue to get in had stretched way down Pearl River Road, with a strong blend of the Mustang orange and the Ice white and blue. It was a Mustangs home game so that club gets the receipts, which is a nice start to the year financially. But the Ice won 7-2 and looked very sharp. Ice fans are going to pack the joint every single week.

But not on a Sunday night. That’s when the Nite Owls shuffle into the change rooms and then creak onto the ice. To create hockey magic over and over again for the empty stands, and for the sheer bloody fun of it, years peeling away, or just getting started, depending on where you’re at in your crazy hockey journey.

It’s now 7.30 pm. Dark and quiet outside, with Melbourne settled in front of the television. But ‘The Voice’ and ‘My Kitchen Rules’ will have to soldier on without me. I’m heading to my car.

Falling in love with shifting sands

I more or less grew up down at Lorne so sand was always a key ingredient in my life. Mostly it was something scorching hot to somehow run across between the grass of the Lorne foreshore and the surf. Or it was the wet, gritty crap somehow finding its way into a thick winter wetsuit, no matter how hard you tried not to have sandy feet, leaving nasty rub-rashes that screeched on the skin in the post-surf shower. Beach sex raised a whole new set of issues that probably shouldn’t be discussed in a family-friendly hockey blog. (Nonetheless, I’m ‘for’ it.)

As a young kid, I adored standing on the edge of those sand cliffs that form on beaches after a strong storm, crumbling the edge of the cliff beneath me, often ending up with my foot and jean cuffs in the river. Oops. These days, it’s all about the hardness and flatness of the sand’s surface, as a petanque pitch.

Petanque - an excellent use of sand.

Petanque – an excellent use of sand.

But none of sand’s crimes or games were enough to give me a strong opinion for or against sand. It just was.

Until a few years ago, when I was sent, on assignment by an airline magazine, to Oodnadatta. (The actual eventual story is here)

Oodnadatta is a South Australian town, so far off the map it is literally not covered by any shire or council. It’s 200 kilometres up a corrugated dirt road from Coober Pedy, which isn’t exactly an urban metropolis. Cowboy towns; literally in Oodnadatta’s case, with giant beef stations all around. It used to be a stop on the Ghan railway and the town’s Intercontinental Hotel remains a colourful but genuinely dangerous drinking venue. A guy was killed in the front bar a few days after we were there.

I’d never really put any thought to Oodnadatta before I got sent there, to cover the annual gymkhana and races. But suddenly, here was my dad and I, bouncing along that endless dirt road in a Toyota “troopie”, 20 litres of water in the back, along with satellite navigation gear and other survival essentials. People die on roads like this.

It’s desert; nothing but desert. To the point that Mission to Mars, a mediocre Brian De Palma film, was shot there at the turn of the millennium, because it was the surface of Earth that Hollywood felt most resembled that alien red planet. Not a single distinguishable feature in any direction to the horizon, for 360 degrees, apart from the road itself.

On the road to Oodnadatta. Or on Mars. Who can tell?

On the road to Oodnadatta. Or on Mars. Who can tell?

Sounds pretty boring, huh? But it wasn’t at all. Because over that trip, I gained an entirely new appreciation for sand. As a kid, we used to holiday in Queensland, where you could literally collect “coloured sand” from beachside cliffs near Noosa (you would then put layers of the colours in old bottles for truly crappy works of art that kicked around our house for decades), but the central Australian sands were different. There were hues and grains and entire hills that shifted in colour and texture as the kilometres ticked over. Just as rainforest might change to grassland. I started seeing the landscape as incredibly diverse and beautiful, when previously I would have seen, well, sand.

If you’re open to it, there’s a guide to life right there, folks, and one I still carry with me. Even when you think life is routine, day-to-day, clock-on/clock-off, it’s almost certainly not. There are shades and angles and dimensions going on, if you only look for them.

I’ve come to realize that one of the most interesting parts of my hockey adventure is how the sands are ever shifting. A week ago, I was signed to do Intermediate class at the Icehouse. Again. For the umpteenth time, just to keep working on my outside edges and transitions, and to get some ice time. In which, I’m sure, I would have found new learnings and experiences (see above).

But then a 10 pm development league slot opened up and so Big Cat and I switched out of Inter, and now I’m doing double dev, 8.45 pm and 10 pm, which means two hours of hard skating against hockey friends, with furious meaningless battle and laughter. I adore Wednesday nights, not least because this week, for the first time ever, I went coast-to-coast, carrying the puck from deep in defence to score a goal, just like Pavel Datsyuk does …

OK, nothing like Pavel Datsyuk does.

But also because Mackquist, my younger son and buried in the remorselessness of Year 12, has stepped up to join Big Cat and I in the first hour of dev league, and Mack did really well in his opening appearance. Even if he was one of the opposition I managed to get past, early in the dash to my goal, and he whacked me as I went by. All I heard as I skated doggedly forward was his voice trailing behind me: “Sorry, Daaaaaad!” which made me grin, even as I skated.

This was all after I’d watched friends go into the winter draft and disappear into winter competition. More changes, even though it’s awesome for them all.

And it was after I’d made my debut for the Nite Owls on Sunday night, which will need to be a blog all on its own, and the day before I was due to see a knee surgeon about the ongoing Battle of Wounded Knee. A joint specialist – one of Richmond footy club’s doctors, actually – had read the MRI summary and told me he thought the meniscal tear I’m carrying was almost certainly going to need an arthroscope surgery. But then Thursday’s surgeon looked at the MRI films and said no, let’s try some more physio and see how you go …

Late night dev league: a cult classic.

Late night dev league: a cult classic. (And this shot is a year or so old. I’m sure my stance would never look like that now. Right? Right?)

I had been depressed about the idea of being booked in fast for surgery and being out of hockey for a while, missing all those Wednesday and Sunday nights, or having to wait for surgery, which meant no running, footy , boxing, etc, until the knee was fixed. Now? Well, actually, I have no idea what the latest developments mean.

Physio, I guess. And try again to kick a footy at The Bang, and see how sore I am … and hope I don’t pile on weight or lose condition before I can get seriously active again.

Or see what next week’s medical appointment says. Or what happens in next week’s dev league hours. Or whether work gets in the way. Or trips out of town, for pleasure or to promote the new book. Or whether I whoop as the bits-and-pieces Detroit Red Wings somehow sneak into the NHL play-offs or sigh as the 21-year streak ends … Or whether Melbourne Ice gets off to a winning start tomorrow …

… or … or …

The sands are never the same. Ever-changing. Which is, I guess, why this blog has survived this long.

What happens next? Your guess is as good as mine.

Birds with arms, endless politics and dinosaur sex. I need hockey back.

Life without hockey: meh.

Life without hockey: meh.

Oh, these non-hockey weeks can drag.

The Victorian hockey world is going a little loopy. Well, I know I am, but I suspect I’m not alone.

On Facebook, politics and tension ripple across the various hockey pages. The IHV winter draft was finally held – long delayed because of Game of Thrones machinations in backrooms, leading to resignations and indignations. Friends of mine, from summer league teams, finally discovered their fate; drafted to teams they knew, or didn’t. A goalie got drafted as a player and therefore isn’t playing after all. Or maybe wouldn’t have been drafted anyway. And discuss. Endlessly.  Spitfires moved up to the show, even into “checking” hockey, where bodies can be hit.

For those drafted and meeting teammates, a new world beginning. For us summer players, counting the long months until next season, we have to wait for Icehouse classes to recommence, or at least some scrimmages, or plunge into the Next Level frenzy at Oakleigh.

It’s gotten so bad that this morning (Thursday), a few of my fellow Interceptors dragged their sorry arses down to the Docklands for a 7 am drop-in game. Only to find the ice was double-booked and the drop-in was cancelled. That number again: 7. A.M.

The surprise was that their weekend hangovers had faded. We’d had our end-of-season presentation night on Saturday, full of vote-counts and stories and hockey players in suits or cocktail dresses, and strawberry dacquiris. Hockey players lurching, drunken, out of bars and eventually wandering Chapel Street on the wrong side of 2 am, hunting any place that would serve us beer.

When hockey players scrub up: Spitfires presentation night.

When hockey players scrub up: Spitfires presentation night.

In the taxi, winding home, at 2.55 am, I looked again at my watch and it was suddenly 2.10 am. Huzzah for the end of daylight saving. A respectable finish after all.

And then a long week of no hockey. Throwing myself into culture to fill the hole.

Sunday at the comedy festival, Lawrence Leung funny as a part-time detective, and then roaming the city with my girl.

Monday, finding work and life difficult, eventually riding bikes through the cool evening with Chloe, blowing cobwebs from our minds. Loving the night.

Tuesday, the Pajama Men at the Fairfax Studio at the Arts Centre. Adoring those guys as much as ever. “You’re too kind. On a scale of one-kind to ten-kind, you’re two-kind.” That joke among about a thousand in an hour. Wham, wham, wham, wham.

Wednesday night, eating bargain schnitzel at the Swiss Club on Flinders Street with Mackquist, and watching more comedy festival shows, instead of chasing a puck.

Every day planning to go to the gym, but not quite getting there. Every day, planning to lift weights, but managing it exactly once. Eating the wrong foods, not exercising, feeling my hard-won fitness sliding away. The stupid, troublesome knee aching here, hurting there, or otherwise fine. Seeing the doctor, getting a referral. Wondering what all the medical talk on the MRI result means. A small tear, healing. Surgery or no surgery? Booked for a specialist on Monday.

Thursday night hanging with a hockey crowd to eat cheap dumplings in Chinatown, and hear hilarious stories of erotic fiction at the Wheeler Centre. Jeff the Wiggle schtupping Dorothy the Dinosaur, a TV reality fitness host taking on Matt Preston, sans cravat. So so so so wrong.

Dorothy: say it ain't so.

Dorothy: say it ain’t so.

Talking hockey politics, so much of that while we’re not skating, and life and everything else. Counting the seconds until Sunday, when a Nite Owl scrimmage will see me back on the ice for the first time in more than two weeks, dodgy knee or not. Wondering if I’ll be able to stand on skates after that break, whether my legs are wasting away as much as I think, while I can’t run.

Reduced to spending too much time on Facebook, looking up ‘birds with arms’ on Google image, watching docos about bikie gangs for my next novel, keeping my breath calm as the mighty Richmond Tigers win their first two games of the season, laughing with my boys, walking my dog, debating with my also-son whether it’s a giant spider or whale on the second floor of a café, making all that furniture-dragging noise, drinking too much coffee, despairing at Australian politics, wondering if North Korea is really that stupid, laughing at the emotional tributes for ruthless Margaret Thatcher, wondering if I’d be fitter if I was on the weight-losing, muscle-building chemicals that AFL people are said to be on, pondering why I haven’t just dug my inlines out of my boot and taken on the Giants car park to fill the skating hole.

In other words, doing anything but chase a puck. Dev league starts again next Wednesday. Summer league is half a year away. The Nite Owls skate on Sunday. It can’t come soon enough.

Today’s word of the day is ‘patellofemoral’

“Small knee joint effusion. Superficial chondral fissuring over the central aspect of the median patellar ridge and at the junction between the middle and odd facet of the patella plus internal osteophytic spurring of the inferior aspect of the femoral trochlea occurring on a background of patellofemoral joint dysplasia. No infrapattelar fat pad oedema to confirm patellar maltracking. Complex tear inferior articular surface posterior horn medial maniscus. Findings in keeping with previous osteochondral injury and spontaneous repear here central weightbearing portion lateral femoral condyle.”

Well, that clears that up.

One of these men …

is about to captain Australia at the hockey world championships in poetically-named Zagreb.

Can you spot the Australian captain?

Can you spot the Australian captain?

Can you guess which one?

(A hint: he has a beard, and doesn’t actually play for China.)

Good luck to Lliam Webster and all the Aussie reps, including Shona and the women’s team, heading to New Zealand.

*With a nod to Jason Baclig, also pictured, who is clearly good enough to play for Australia but has the pesky detail of not actually being an Australian citizen or passport holder.

Guest writer: Liam Patrick on doing it for Charlie

Nothing needs to be said for this one.

Well written, Liam ‘Apollo’ Patrick.

Carrying Charlie, through good times and bad

Liam Patrick in action for the Fighters.

Liam Patrick in action for the Fighters.

By Liam Patrick

Have you ever been “that guy”?

“That guy” who can’t look his (or her) teammates in the eye?  What about when it goes beyond those in the change room?

I’ve been that guy.  It sucks.

A wise man has taught me the only way to be a good hockey player is to give into the team.  This has always been my mantra anyway but it was a good reminder and way of putting it.  Team first.  Do what’s best for the team.  Team > Liam.

Sitting in the penalty box watching the Devils put in the tying goal (whilst Mark Stone impersonated a brick wall) was not what was best for the team.  The call was debatable but it was the karma bus catching up and running me over after I had gotten away with a lot in not only the season but the game itself.  The tie effectively put the Fighters out of finals contention (by half a game) and ended our season.

The post mortem began as soon as bums touched seats in the locker room.  The whole team had the opportunity to say something.  I managed a limp apology and then returned to forensically examining the lacing on my skates.  People didn’t blame me. But the fact was we were on the PK when the goal was scored – I had put us at a disadvantage.

It took half an hour to get out of my gear and into a shower where I attempted to put Victoria back into a state of drought.  Still, trying to avoid my teammates.  Unfortunately it’s much harder to avoid yourself.

Of course even worse than avoiding your teammates in the change room is avoiding the ones who aren’t.  I’m of course talking about Charlie.

Charlie should have been in that room with us, undoubtedly trying to make us feel better.  But due to the bastard that is the universe he wasn’t.  So naturally I felt like I had let him down as well.  I had the opportunity to be here and played not only like shit, but may as well have worn a Devils jersey.

For the next 24 hours I was the most miserable individual in the world. Yes, I had mostly reconciled that “hey, its just a game of hockey – there are more important things in life than damn hockey”.  Letting my mates down still hurt though, and the thought of letting Charlie down hurt the most.  All I wanted was a chance to be able to look back and know I hadn’t let Charlie down and had given everything I could.

Then the karma bus stopped, just before it was about to pancake me completely (OK, it was now a karma steamroller).

In an amazing turn of events, we found ourselves in third position when the dust settled and the 79th iteration of the IHV ladder was released.

The Fighters were back, baby.

This was it.  How many times in sport or life do you get a genuine chance to atone?

It got better.  We were wearing our alternate jerseys in the final, and Charlie’s 21 was my size.  Having the opportunity to wear Charlie’s number was truly special and something that I will cherish for a long time. It even smelt of money (well monopoly money – and Aimee Hough can vouch for me!).  I’d like to think by wearing that jersey, Charlie was out on the ice with us and had his chance to be part of our team in a final and the final game of that team.  Truly the highlight of my season.

History shows we lost 1-0 in the final.  I had a game that was neither brilliant nor disastrous.  I had a shot late where I should have passed had my vision been up.  Dave White clearly hadn’t worn deodorant that morning (sorry Dave) as nobody wanted to be within coo-eee of him leaving him open to take a pass and tie the game up.  However I took the shot and the goalie froze the puck.  I skated to the bench completely spent.   I knew I had given it all I could for the team and Charlie.

Time ran down.  We lost.  The mad cheering fans (all 8 of them who sounded like 8000) still cheered.  I waved in appreciation and pointed to the 21 on my sleeve.  Being the hard man that I am, I had to contend with the foggy/sweaty visor and the annoying tears/contact lens combo whilst skating off of the Oakleigh ice.

Even back in the rooms, the lid stayed on with the visor covering my eyes to maintain the appearance of being a heartless, hardman goon.  I was again forensically examining those laces in my skates but this time had a small grin.  We hadn’t been able to go all the way, but at least I knew both myself and the team gave everything we had in the tank.  Our brother in arms was out there with us – I’m sure of it.  He probably would have scored on that last shot too.

I also know his family came down to watch and experience something that was very dear to Charlie.  The story goes that they weren’t sure which team to follow but felt like they should cheer for the white team (i.e. us).  That must bring a damn smile to even the hardest of faces.

Losing Charlie is one of the hardest and most emotional things I have experienced in life, let alone sport.  There no logic for it.  He should be here with us.

Liam, Wunders and Charlie taking hospital life seriously late last year.

Liam, Wunders and Charlie taking hospital life seriously late last year.

Instead of catching him for some drinks and shenanigans at the Spitfires’ presentation night this weekend, I plan to visit him beforehand and probably sound like an idiot talking to him and shed a few more tears thanks to the universe being an unfair prick.  I also owe Charlie thanks: I think he has appreciated the improved effort final and helped me out lately when I’ve needed an extra 10 per cent on the ice (in what is meant to be my off-season – but that’s a different story entirely).  Or maybe I just want that to be the case, so it feels like he is still part of our hockey world and that, while we want him with us in spirit, he isn’t really gone.

But if we can take anything away from the experience of losing Charlie, it is that we must take every opportunity and give it everything we have when doing something we love –you never know when the chance to do what you love is going to be taken away.

Either way – I wasn’t “that guy” anymore. At least until the next time my brain disconnects from the body and I do something stupid, which is surely not far away.  Again I’ll owe my teammates for an error of judgement.

But I won’t ever let Charlie down again – every time on the ice is 110 per cent now.