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.
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.
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?