Leaving town

I’m off overseas for a few weeks so the blog will be even quieter than it has been lately, where all I’ve done is hobble around, grumbling (sorry, again). I’m pretty sure where I’m going (a remote French island, named after a duck, with no cars and one general store) doesn’t have wifi, so I’ll be totally off the air. An adventure in itself.

Somehow, the hockey world will just have to survive without Nicko Place whinging about old age and bad knees.

Somehow, I think it will.

Skate well until I see you all again, hockey peoples.

Til soon,

Nicko

The French island of Houat, off Brittany. A long way from the NHL, or AIHL, or Dev League.

The French island of Houat, off Brittany. A long way from the NHL, or AIHL, or Dev League.

Oh, bring it!

Oh, bring it!

Maybe, just maybe …

I think maybe, just maybe, my genuine recovery has begun.

Of course, I’m talking about The Saga of the Knee and, trust me, I can’t wait for this blog to stop being about my knee either. But there’s potentially good news: especially when compared to three weeks ago, when I was hobbling as much as ever, barely able to climb all the steep stairs of my new house, and I was wondering if I would ever play hockey again? I think I went for three runs, as per a previous post, before things went horribly, horribly wrong again.

And so I spent weeks off the ice, not running, not doing anything. Hating it. Until my knee felt vaguely decent and I decided that was good enough.

But then I did play hockey, last Wednesday, and was mostly pain free. I went to Sydney, for work, and found myself confronted by endless staircases, everywhere I went. Each time, I would wince, bracing for the pain as my left leg pushed off a step, but the pain didn’t come. Even after Wednesday dev league, where I actually moved my legs, skated, for the first time in a few weeks and pushed my legs hard: no pain.

Still, this has happened before: a few days of reprieve and then wham. Back home, I climbed all the steps (50 from the front door to my bedroom) and the knee twinged. Uh oh, I thought, and then stood all night at a party at the Forum, until 3 am. The next morning? Agony? Nope. Felt ok.

And through all this, I had begun a secret training course; totally fed up with being inactive, of reading all the Facebook posts about how awesome hockey training was, how boxing was going over at Mischa’s, how Next Level Training Institute and Friday game day was fantastic and everybody was hurting and feeling fitter and feeling smashed but in a good way. I was only feeling old and fat.

As I’ve written before, I’d love to be part of the Next Level thing. Oakleigh, in terms of geography, is a bastard of a place for me to get to, and the key nights, Monday and Friday, don’t work for me. So I had to shrug and let Joey Hughes’ on-ice training and Martin Kutek’s off-ice training go. A bunch of my closest hockey friends are Next Level devotees and I have no reason to doubt their enthusiasm, plus I can see the improvement in muscle tone and skating.

I needed an alternative, especially while I couldn’t skate, and it turned up in the form of a big bearded bloke who wears #2 for the Melbourne Ice. Yes, one of my Wednesday coaches, Lliam Webster, mentioned that he was now qualified as a personal trainer but with a different training method, which is preached at Fluid, in Port Melbourne; one of the Melbourne Ice major sponsors.

Fluid is run by a bloke called James who apparently was a decent soccer goalkeeper in his day. It is based on a concept called Functional Movement Systems. In my first outing, James put me through a series of bizarre balance and flexibility tests. None of them hurt. Most just felt clumsy and stupid. I knelt on my bad knee, wincing, and tried to put my right arm in front of my head and my right leg out behind me, seeing how long I could balance for. Not long. James and Lliam squinting and taking notes.

The body is divided into quadrants, with one limb in each, and Fluid scores your achievement on the various tests. At the end, James noted that my left leg wasn’t doing its job and that my left shoulder seemed out of whack. Both direct hits on my ailments. He and Lliam worked out a bunch of “corrective’ exercises to get my body working in ways it has forgotten, hunched over keyboards or taking shortcuts to cover for hamstrings that don’t want to stretch and other such bad habits.

This is one of the whackier parts of FMS training: an idea that when you think you have a tight hamstring, one that won’t stretch beyond a certain point, they can prove that wrong in one session (and did, with me). In fact, you have to get other parts of your body working as well, which releases the hamstring to stretch further. It’s wild when it works and you see instant results.

But the long game is what I’m interested in. After my second session, the pinched nerve in my shoulder stopped hurting and hasn’t really bothered me since.

I’m three sessions in now and the training has intensified. Yesterday, Lliam produced the most fun, most hockey-specific apparatus early. It’s a slippery piece of Perspex (as per the Youtube clip above) with wooden blocks at each end, either 8 feet, 9 feet or 10 feet apart. (Yes, it’s from America.) You put little slippery booties over your runners and it’s just like skating, but completely side-to-side. The trick is to trust your stride, pushing hard with the skating leg and then catching the stride on the wooden block, before pushing off hard for the other end. Bum low, knees bent, chest up … every bad habit on the ice instantly being addressed on this slippery board in Port Melbourne. A few sessions in, I’m up to wearing a weighted vest while skating as hard as I can and then doing cowbell dead lifts between sets. Every skating muscle is killing me today in a good way. My gluts are sore, my hamstrings complaining, my stomach tight.

Apparently Martin at Next Level has one as well, so get on it, peoples. It’s a lot of fun and really works you over. In fact, it’s fantastic. Dev league is tonight and I’m actually sore from an intense workout. Like I haven’t been for a few months.

And guess what? Despite such an intense session, my knee feels fine. All the muscles surrounding it did their job during the dead lifts, worked hard without screaming. Just like the physio wanted a few months ago before things derailed again.

I shouldn’t get too cocky. I might step onto the ice tonight and feel the same pain as two dev league sessions ago.

But then again, I might not.

Next Wednesday, I head overseas for three weeks. When I get back, all roads lead to summer comp, with my new team, the Braves. I want to be fit and able to push it as hard as I can, to prove that I can match it in what looks like a far-too-serious summer recreational league. Mostly, I just want to be active without this now eight-month-old pain.

I think I’m finally on the road to that happening. It feels great. Bring on the night.

Nothing to see here. Move along, peoples.

Not much happening on this blog at the moment, huh?

Mostly, that’s because I’m not playing hockey. My last two attempts saw my knee not cope, so I’ve retreated to lick wounds. (Well, not literally. I’m not sure I could reach my knee with my tongue. …Don’t go there!)

Lots is going on, but it’s all off the ice. Packed up my house (yeesh). Moved into an old fire station (50 steep stairs in the apartment … carrying boxes up them for two days? Not good for said knee). Occasionally working on a novel, or talking about it at panels and book clubs. Tuning into my day time job. Preparing to move office (yeesh reprise). Being dismayed and disappointed by hockey communication and politics. Preparing to go overseas. Becoming a Brave for summer. Personal training with the one and only Lliam Webster so my body doesn’t become totally atrophied during the Long Dark Teatime of the Knee.

How to solve the joint that is stopping me cold? No idea yet. Working on it.

But life is good. I just can’t play hockey most days. Or footy. Or run. A temporary problem, I hope. Stay tuned.

The Bears: out-numbered, beaten up and beaten

I managed to get along to an AIHL game yesterday: Melbourne Ice versus the Sydney Bears at the Icehouse, on a Sunday afternoon. Having not been training at all (see previous 4000 whinge-posts about my left knee), or seeing the hockey gang on Wednesdays at Dev League, I feel like I’ve been very removed from my usual icy world, so it was nice to sit in the stands at the Henke and say howdy to everybody, while cheering Lliam, Army, Baxy, Tommy and the rest of the Ice team.

Framnk and Schlamp go at it at the Icehouse. Pic courtesy of: MosquitoByte - thanks, Andrew Mercieca!

Frank and Schlamp go at it at the Icehouse. Pic courtesy of: MosquitoByte – thanks, Andrew Mercieca!

It was a long afternoon for the poor Bears, who were coming off six straight losses and had to face the three-time champions. There’s a match report here (yes, the Melbourne Ice have official match reports now!) but I was struck by two things, watching the game.

The first is just the sheer continuing strangeness, in modern day sport, that hockey remains a contest where genuine fistfights can and do occur. I know I’ve written about this before but when you’re watching a fight in real time, it can still strike you that it is sort of bizarre. Yesterday it happened early in the third period, as Ice import Chris Frank and Bear Michael Schlamp dropped the gloves and were both thrown out of the game, but not before Frank had won the fight and waved cheerily to the crowd in celebration while being led to the bench and the locker-room.

For hockey fans, this was no big thing. Neither player appeared particularly hurt and in the understood arena of contact hockey, such a fight is not a particularly rare thing or considered outrageous at any level. This wasn’t like Vinnie Hughes’ ugly hunt down of an opposition player last year. This was just a ‘you-want-to-go?…ok!’ scuffle.

But if you zoom back to take a wider sporting view, how many sports allow a player to genuinely beat somebody up without serious consequence or alarm?

It happened a few weeks ago in a rugby league State of Origin match, leading to mixed reactions (old skool: ‘he was flying the flag, being awesome, being a tough guy’ and new world: WTF?) as eloquently captured and discussed by a friend of mine from the Bang, Ned Manning.

But it hardly ever happens in AFL any more and would be seen as dinosaur behavior if it did. Soccer, basketball, netball, tennis, golf, triathlon, Trugo? Nope. Officially, fights aren’t encouraged or particularly condoned in Australian hockey – in fact, as somebody pointed out in the stands yesterday, it’s really only the NHL that still casually allows fights – but if one does take off, the refs still stand back until somebody hits the ice. In summer league, where I play, a fight like yesterday’s would mean you are probably out for the season, which is good for encouraging kids to take up the sport. But I don’t think many people at the game yesterday had an issue with Frank and Schlamp testing one another out. in fact, most of the crowd loved it.

I know people who won’t go to hockey or take an interest because of the violence of it, or the perceived violence of it. Yet stamping out that violence, even a stoush like Frank-Schlamp – would remove a key component of the sport. Toughness is an essential part of this level of the game. It’s not just fisticuffs either. Hulking Ice defender Todd Graham twice put the same Bears player, the much smaller Silvan Maeder, into the boards yesterday and it would be fair to say Maeder did not appear to enjoy it. He stayed down, face first on the ice, for quite a while after the first hit (which was actually just Graham guiding him gradually into the glass with his arse) and shook his head, either in pain or frustration, after the much harder second hit.

But he copped them both and was still slugging it out at the end, for which I admired him.

The second element where hockey is weird is in participation numbers. How many other sports don’t care if one team starts a game with dramatically more players than the opposition?

The many Ice players still standing at the end of the game salute the crowd.

Some of the many Ice players still standing at the end of the game salute the crowd.

In yesterday’s game, as far as I could count (which isn’t well because, let’s face it, I’m a hockey player), the Bears started with only 12 players, including one goalie. The Ice had at least 18 players, including Dahlen Phillips between the pipes, and probably a second goalie dressed on the bench, who I didn’t happen to notice.

So the Ice had several lines of forwards to run, while the Bears were almost shift-on, shift-off. And it got worse when Schlamp was ejected, as noted, and so was another Bear, Spencer Austin, for the almost farcically undisciplined acts of tripping an Ice player with his stick while being sent to the box, and then swatting the puck down the ice for a further misdemeanor.

Austin tried to regain some tough-guy credits by breaking a stick on the bench boards on his way out but nobody was buying it; especially, I’d imagine, the other Bears. In fact, Holy crap, I wouldn’t have wanted to be Austin when his exhausted teammates finally staggered back into the rooms at the end of the period/game. When he got thrown out for being a dick, the Ice was narrowly holding off the gutsy Bears, 4-3, but now, two men down (compared to the Ice only losing Frank and having plenty of cover), the Bears tired dramatically in the last 10 minutes to lose 7-3.

In my Sunday Nite Owls comp and in summer league, this can happen, where one team barely has enough skaters to legally compete while the other team has up to four full lines of forwards and three lines of D.

It’s very strange and yet another test of your confidence and skill and fitness, if you happen to be on the team with less bodies. I secretly love it when that happens; digging deep, deep and deeper, to keep my shaking legs moving and a cool head, against a larger army.

It’s just another way that hockey is challenging and bizarre and entertaining and uncertain. Long may it stay that way, as long as I don’t find myself bare-knuckle shaping up to Chris Frank. He’s quite a big guy.

Hey, didn’t I used to play hockey?

So, not much hockey being reported on here at nickdoeshockey. I’m thinking of changing the title to nickusedtodohockey.

Actually, things aren’t quite that bad. Yes, we’re between terms at Icehouse dev league, so that’s Wednesday nights briefly cleared out. And summer league is still a long way away and I’m not even sure which team I’m lining up with, so training feels remote.

Mostly, I’m trying to get my body back together. The long-suffering knee has been an issue. At the last night of dev league for the previous term, a couple of weeks ago, I finally had to pull out of playing because the knee was so sore. “You ain’t gonna be playing no more, til you fix me some, bitch” said the knee, midway through the first hour of scrimmage. Actually pretty much in warm-up. Why my knee talks like a poor man’s version of the Gimp’s owner in Pulp Fiction remains unclear, but this is how things are.

I had to sit out the second hour, which hurt a lot because the teams were playing for the Charles Srour Cup, a little dev league tribute to our mate Charlie, who had passed away almost exactly six months before.

The teams for the Charles Srour Cup. 10 pm Dev League, Icehouse. Red team won.

The teams for the Charles Srour Cup. 10 pm Dev League, Icehouse. Red team won.

Knee throbbing, I played music and worked the scoreboard and missed out on being in the teams photo at the end, because my theory is that if you don’t play, you don’t pose. Kind of like those poor bastards I always feel for, who don’t quite make the premiership team each year in the AFL. A nightmare of hollow emptiness among jubilation. OK, my night wasn’t quite that bad. If nothing else, I laughed at Lliam Webster holding off dropping the puck at face offs because he was digging the music blaring from the Henke Rink sound system. Dev leaguers twitching over their sticks.

I’d been to see an osteo the day before (not Magic Enzo, who was away) and I think the new guy did good things by unlocking problems in my knee, but the side effect was 10 days or so of struggling to climb steps or do pretty much anything. My knee felt unstable and just ‘weak’ for the first time in this whole debacle. Mackquist and I headed to Byron for a winter break to be greeted by murky water at Julian Rocks where we peered at grey nurse sharks in the gloom and then returned to the surface to watch horizontal sheet rain drown the town. Even drowned Byron is still good, though. Our Superman 3-D glasses at the local cinema came with their own caped-pouch, which pretty much made the entire trip.

And so I’m back in freezing, sunny Melbourne, not quite hobbling the way I was, but sick to death of this knee. Having to miss Nite Owls hockey on Sunday night because I couldn’t trust the knee and basically tilting my hat and deciding it’s time to beat this bastard and get healthy, even if it means some time off the ice.

In America, the Red Wings did well in free agency and the draft, so the team is coming together well for next season. The camp for rookies and try-outs is happening tomorrow, so already the Detroit machine is winding back up, seemingly moments after the last season finished. I’m hoping Darren Helm is having more luck getting over his nagging back injury than I am this knee, so he can regain his rightful place in the thick of the Wings action from Game One. He’s taking part in this week’s camp to start the long road back. Fingers crossed, Helmster.

Closer to home, Melbourne Ice has been having all kinds of shenanigans, with Joey Hughes and Vinnie Hughes retiring unexpectedly mid-season. There must be a story there – it’s a big thing to walk away from your team-mates mid-campaign in any sport. You’d want to have a bloody good reason. But I haven’t been around hockey people much so I don’t know what’s what and maybe I don’t want to.

I’ll just bunker in, huddle against the cold winter and try to get my legs moving again. Summer will be here and I need to be ready.

The Stavro Mueller edition

Mostly Harmless. Book five of the trilogy.

Mostly Harmless. Book five of the trilogy.

* Warning: there are blatant Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy spoilers in this post. But really, if you haven’t read it by now, then you only have yourself to blame. I mean, seriously? That includes you, Geoff Carstairs.

In that most brilliant collection of books, Douglas Adams’ ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – well, specifically, in book five of the trilogy, ‘Mostly Harmless’, Arthur Dent finds himself on a random moon or whatever and comes across a shrine to himself. This is a strange development among the books’ many, many strange developments, and is made even stranger because this is not a nice shrine. The enormous idol at the centre of the shrine is a particularly hideous rendering of Arthur. It turns out that the shrine has been created by a creature called Agrajag, who, over the course of many, many reincarnations, had come to the enlightenment that every single time it was killed, Arthur Dent was somehow involved, either directly or indirectly.

We first met Agrajag as a bowl of petunia flowers who, when killed, have a last thought: ‘Oh no, not again,’ which doesn’t resonate at the time but only now, in the shrine, makes sense.

Other ways Arthur manages to kill Agrajag over the course of Agrajag’s many lives include swatting flies (including Agrajag); a newt Arthur stepped on; ants Arthur stepped on (included Agrajag); fleas Arthur picked out of his hair (including Agrajag); a fish Arthur caught but then decided he wasn’t really hungry for so left on the side of his plate; (possibly my personal favourite) as Arthur Philip Deodat, a man who had a heart attack at a cricket match when Arthur and Ford Prefect materialised on the pitch with a sofa; an oyster that Arthur ate live … and so on.

Oh, and as Stavro Mueller, the owner of the Beta nightclub who, as a brooding lurking now-aware version of Agrajag, tries to kill Arthur but gets accidentally fatally shot by somebody else also shooting at Arthur and missing.

Have I become Arthur Dent to Charlie Jiang's Agrajag?

Have I become Arthur Dent to Charlie Jiang’s Agrajag?

The point of all this is because I’m worried.

Charlie Jiang might, even now, be fashioning a horrible Nick Place shrine in his garage, only waiting for me to turn up so he can attempt to revenge many lifetimes of wrongs.

Well, two weeks’ worth.

You might remember that last Sunday night, in Nite Owls play, I had an Everyday Ninja moment, but only after giving away a blatantly obvious penalty by taking out an opponent’s legs with my sticks. He went down like a sack of spuds, hit the ice hard, face first, and I apologized and served my two minutes.

Turns out he was Charlie Jiang, the brother of one of my teammates, DeCheng (Johnny) Jiang. We all had a laugh. Charlie was good about it. These things happen.

So last night, in the crowd-pleasing 11.15 pm time slot at the Icehouse (running, inevitably 15 minutes late so that we hit the ice around 11.30 pm), the same Nite Owls teams went at it again.

Given the hour, numbers were down, and so the other side had loaded up with some C-grade players from the game before and so we got duly smashed, 9-1 or 10-1, I lost count. But with three minutes to go, just like last week … on the wrong side of 12.25 am Monday morning, having skated hard, shift-on, shift-off,  for an hour, I stuck a weary stick out, hoping to steal a puck and instead completely hooked the legs of an opponent charging out of defence.

Down he went, like two sacks of spuds. Yes, you guessed it. Charlie Jiang.

Sensible advice for galactic hitchhikers.

Sensible advice for galactic hitchhikers.

And so, for all I know, Charlie starts to join the dots. Over lifetimes. When he was a bee. Or a huntsman spider. Or that guy that time, in that incident we don’t talk about. The shrine begins to take shape.

I’m leaving the state for next week’s third meeting between the teams. No, really. You don’t mess with Douglas Adams’ universe.

Learning from Calvin & Hobbes

Spaceman Spiff about to get a minor penalty.

Spaceman Spiff about to get a minor penalty.

I don’t usually cross-promote my ‘Nicko the author‘ blog and my nickdoeshockey blog, but I recently came across an article detailing a Kenyon commencement speech by Bill Watterson, the creator of the Calvin & Hobbes cartoon strip, and I think a lot of what he says resonates with hockey.

No, really. Everything he says about the journey, and not actually knowing where you’ll end up, or what detours and struggles and hurdles you’ll face along the way, can be more or less directly applied to our collective battle to become hockey players, at who knows what level.

Well, I know it certainly resonates with my hockey and my occasional pondering of how far I can go, how long I can play for, and whether I’ll ever actually perform an unconscious, flawless clockwise crossover?

If you’re interested, or just want to enjoy some awesome cartoon strips, the blog is here:

http://nickplace.me/2013/06/20/bill-wattersons-guide-to-life-for-creatives/

Ninja moves.

A close friend of mine, Simon Coronel, is an illusionist (no really: go see his show at the looming Melbourne Magic Festival – he’s world class). We get together for coffee or possibly something more alcoholic whenever we can, and swap stories, brainwaves, concepts, crazy plans, angst, moments, the germ of a good idea … you get the picture.

Button available here.

Button available here.

Once, during one of these sessions, at the Black Cat on Brunswick Street, we got to talking about moments where you somehow accidentally pulled off something pretty much impossible in everyday life, for no great reward. Let me explain: in movies, this happens all the time. An action Hero will catch a spear out of mid-air and throw it back, killing the original thrower. Or will leap out of a skyscraper and one-handed-catch the foot-rail of a helicopter to be carried to safety, or maybe kill everybody in the helicopter and then jump off, rolling neatly off a café umbrella, breaking his fall, to land on his feet next to  Halle Berry, who will take him straight to a hotel room to celebrate. That kind of thing. They never miss that spear, or that catch, or that leap, or that umbrella. Usually, these actions save the world.

In real life, you don’t save the world. And rarely in real life can you pull off such feats of physical skill, timing and sheer chutzpah anyway.

Especially while managing to look like you totally meant it.

But sometimes it can happen. OK, I’ll give you a lesser example. I am the world’s worst soccer player. That, and basketball, are the two ball sports I simply cannot play. I’ve tried. I’ve failed.

So years ago, when a newspaper I was working for organized a social game of soccer against another paper, I groaned, laced up my footy boots and volunteered to be a substitute, rather than a player. Deep in the second half, the coach decided it was time for me to have a run and so I reluctantly jogged onto the dodgy suburban pitch, with its uneven grassy surface, to be humiliated in front of all my friends and workmates. With no real idea about soccer, I kind of wandered into the middle of the field and that was when one of our defenders, no doubt English and expert, having seen off an opposition attack, spotted Nick Place, all alone in the centre, and punted the ball in a long looping arc.

I had no clue what to do, but the ball was coming in fast, dying in its trajectory, and so I kind of stuck out my left foot and the ball cannoned off my boot and went straight up in the air.

I had no idea where it had gone. Just lost sight of it and sort of turned around, 180 degrees, looking for it.

At which time, the ball having neatly risen over my head and looped past me, landed perfectly at my feet, but this time facing our goal. I saw one of our forwards running past, kicked it to him and pretty much retired from soccer on the spot. I could never look that good again. Anybody watching this flawless, casual over-the-head flick pass to myself must have been wondering how I had never made it to the English Premier League.

Of course, later, when it was mentioned, I shrugged and said: ‘Oh yeah, whatever’; like that was the kind of thing I pulled off all the time.

So that, my friends, is an Everyday Ninja moment. You’re privately thinking: Whoa, how the Hell did I even do that?

Anybody watching would be thinking: That was incredible. That guy/girl is basically Neo from The Matrix.

It was Coronel and I, laughing about such moments, who came up with the term Everyday Ninja and have lived for the rare moments they occur ever since. (Simon has a great one about catching his mobile phone on an escalator in a split-second reflex action, as the phone was about to plummet several stories of Melbourne Central to its certain death.)

Be a ninja, get the chicks. Actually this guy (askaninja.com) is hilarious, if you've never checked him out. And has a great opening tune.

Be a ninja, get the chicks. Actually this guy (askaninja.com) is hilarious, if you’ve never checked him out. And has a great opening tune.

Hockey is built for this stuff. Each game is full of so many tiny moments within the wider picture, and often they’re personal. None of your teammates might even spot it, good or bad, but you either curse yourself blue for an error (that happens a lot – and not just me. Teammates arrive back at the bench, earnestly apologizing for that crap pass or this failed shot, and you honestly have no idea what they’re talking about) or you get to enjoy a private oh-yeah moment of pure satisfaction.

Usually, it’s blind luck or barely-controlled skating/stick-handling that somehow comes off. I had a pass come to behind my feet as I had momentum surging forward on Sunday night, in a 10 pm Nite Owls game, and somehow reached back with my stick and perfectly deflected the puck 90 degrees so that it was now in front of me, bouncing off the boards. Sure, a D-man for the opposition beat me to it, but almost. Almost. I reckon I could pull that move off maybe once in every 20 attempts.

And then, weirdly, I had a true Everyday Ninja moment, with only three minutes to go in the game, moments after getting my first penalty in a long time. I’d been dicing for the puck on our defensive blue line and somehow managed to get my stick totally tangled in the legs of my opponent. Worse, when I yanked my stick, I completely took his legs and he fell hard, face first. It basically should have been videoed as a textbook example of the most blatant tripping foul possible.

My tripping penalty was basically one degree of blatancy behind this one.

My tripping penalty was basically one degree of blatancy behind this one.

Because the Nite Owls play by proper hockey rules, there was no whistle, just a delayed penalty. I just saw the referee’s arm shoot into the air, meaning I was going to the box as soon as our opponents lost possession. In the meantime, play continued (a delayed penalty, for those new to hockey, is when you sometimes see a team pull their goalie, because only the non-penalty team is allowed to touch the puck in this situation. As soon as one of my team gets the puck, play stops and I get sent off. But in the meantime, the infringed opponent has an advantage, and can bring on an extra skater if they’ve got their wits about them.)

So now I’m skating, knowing I’m facing a delayed penalty, and their defender has the puck and is looking to set something up. I skate to centre ice just as he attempts a “saucer pass” – as in looping the puck through the air – past me, and here’s where I pull off my Everyday Ninja move.

I see the puck coming, raise my stick and somehow – who knows how? – use The Force to knock the puck clean out of the air, dead to the ice at my feet. If this doesn’t sound impressive, try standing on thin strips of metal on impossibly slippery ice sometime, peering through the cage of a helmet and wave a long hockey stick maybe four centimetres wide to intercept a flying block of circular rubber traveling at speed.

I manage it. Just this once.

The whistle blows. I pat the killed puck with my stick, to make sure it’s stopped, and nonchalantly skate straight to the penalty box, without waiting for the referee to come and point at me and escort me off the ice.

“Number 17. Goon Place,” I announce to the scorers, who laugh, and then I allow myself to smile, even though incarcerated in hockey’s Naughty Corner. Big Cat Place, watching the game, grins from the other side of the ice and I enjoy how badass that whole moment must have looked.

Or didn’t.

Who cares? I saw it. I lived it.

Everyday Ninja, and a nice two-minute breather. Yeah!

Do YOU have an Everyday Ninja moment? Either in hockey or elsewhere?

Simon and I have set up a WordPress page, just to share these epic moments of pointless heroics. Why? Meh, why not? We Everyday Ninjas need to celebrate our awesomeness! Click here.

Miracle-free on ice, at Hisense Arena

USA v Canada from the cheap seats, at Hisense Arena. ... Meh.

USA v Canada from the cheap seats, at Hisense Arena. … Meh. Pic: Nicko

So, Melbourne just hosted its long-awaited two-night extravaganza of USA v Canada playing hockey for something called the Douglas Webber Cup, at Hisense Arena.

Big Cat got along to both games – Friday night’s 11-9 win to Canada, and tonight’s 10-9 (OT) victory to America.

Mackquist and I joined him and a bunch of our hockey friends for the Saturday night game and I think it’s fair to say we were as underwhelmed by a shoot-out victory, after a 9-9 full-time score, no less, as it’s possible for hockey fans to be.

Don’t get me wrong. This blog is not about to kick the shit out of the USA v Canada concept, or the organisers. We got pretty much what I’d expected for the $88 per ticket or whatever it was. The temporary rink was dubious but held together. It was a game featuring a handful of NHL players (including Canadian captain Kyle Quincey, a genuine Red Wing) and there was some pretty skating, and beautiful passes, and lots of goals with little puffs of artificial fire behind the goals after each score.

But as a stage to show Melbourne just how awesome my sport is, I think it fell short, although for a reason that it couldn’t really help: the game was an exhibition, played like an exhibition. And usually, in any sport, that means it’s going to suck for people who actually know and love the real thing.

I’d spent the afternoon at the MCG, watching my beloved Tigers put in a solid four quarters to see off the dangerous Adelaide Crows by more than six goals. Chloe heroically came along, and it cost me $31 for her ticket, less than half a ticket for USA v Canada. We watched more than 100 minutes of hard, tough, relentless football. Fully committed teams throwing themselves at the ball, and into one another, in pursuit of four premiership points that really mattered for each side. In the last term, with the game pretty much safe, several Tigers were clearly hobbling, carrying ankles or calf injuries, but they refused to come off, chasing and harassing and tackling and pushing, pushing, pushing until the siren mercifully blew and Richmond was in the Eight.

We sang the song long and loud.

Richmond's captain Trent Cotchin leads his team down the race. Pic: Nicko

Richmond’s captain Trent Cotchin leads his team down the race. Pic: Nicko

A quick change of Tiger scarf for signed Lidstrom Red Wings jersey later, I was on my pushbike, riding to the London Tavern where a truly surreal scene greeted me. Awash with happy Richmond fans, in their traditional post-match haunt, the Tavern also found itself home to a large number of hockey jerseys. Winnipeg Jets, Red Wings, Calgary Flames, Boston Bruins, Penguins, Melbourne Jets, Rookies, and so many more. A rainbow splash of hockey colour among the more traditional Saturday evening yellow and black.

We walked in an ever-growing tide of different jerseys past Richmond station, across Punt Road and on to Hisense Arena, with every NHL team and many teams not at that level represented in the largest hockey crowd I’ve seen in Australia.

So things looked promising, right up until the players took the ice.

I’ve long held a theory that you know how good a sporting event is going to be by how desperate the organisers are, and whether anybody talks over the actual event. Tonight’s event failed both my tests. The on-site commentators were annoying and shrill and increasingly, obviously concerned by the lack of crowd atmosphere. It reminded me a lot of some boxing and mixed martial arts event I covered as a journo, with ramped-up hoopla trying to artificially raise the roof because nobody watching a mediocre event from the bleachers was about to. Interviewing some TV actor mid-game, only mercifully ended by the crowd – gasp – cheering a goal, was a major mis-step and told me that the people behind tonight’s event didn’t trust their own product. If the hockey was excellent, just let the paying customers enjoy it … right?

There is nothing better than the intense silence of a major sporting event being contested: the opening minutes of an AFL grand final when everybody is watching, desperately, for a sign of strength or weakness between the combatants. The opening salvos of a Test match in cricket. The moment in a tennis match when you know a few crucial points are going to decide a Grand Slam title and history. It can be strangely quiet but it’s because it is so gripping, so focused.

The USA-Canada game instead had huge explosive fireworks as a kind of defribulator to try and get hearts pumping. If in doubt, more flames behind the goals, and talking over the action, including increasingly desperate pleas to ‘Let’s hear some noise!’

Flames behind the goalie can only mean one thing. Canada scores at Hisense. Pic: Nicko

Flames behind the goalie can only mean one thing. Canada scores at Hisense. Pic: Nicko

The reason there wasn’t any noise was because the game was mildly interesting, and nothing more. Yes there were a lot of goals. Wowee. Yes, there were some fights – tellingly between the same two fighters as at the Friday night game. Melbourne fans know their sport. Even more so, Melbourne hockey fans – or Canadian Melburnians coming along out of a sense of homesickness – know their hockey.

Nineteen goals each game tells you something about the standard, at least of the defence. Plus, the refs appeared to be under orders not to call off-side or icing, which helped the attacking players no end. Sitting where we were, up in the nosebleeds, I was really struck by how claustrophobically small a NHL-sized rink is. With a genuine NHL-standard defence guarding the goal, plus an elite goalie, the miracle is that anybody can score at all.

In fact, you know what? Earlier this week, the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins went at it in Game One of the Stanley Cup finals. This was a match that mattered, big time. This was when hockey players cared.

After the teams were 3-3 at the final buzzer, they went for the best part of three overtime periods without managing to score a goal. Almost an entire game, on top of the game already played; exhausted, out on their feet, and out of fresh attacking ideas. Yet never conceding, not giving anything up. The winner, when it came, was a cruel deflection of several legs, to beat the keeper.

It would be fair to say that at Hisense Arena, we saw nothing like that.

Which is fine. It’s an exhibition. Guys like Quincey would be under stern orders from head office not to risk their multi-million contracts with a genuine injury playing such a novelty event in Melbourne, Australia. I get that.

Watching a golf-cart or something dragging a wet net impersonating a Zamboni, I would have been nervous about my players too, if I was a NHL or AHL manager. As it was, former Melbourne Ice coach ‘Jaffa’ Wilson was among the American coaches, urging on players who were probably more interested in how the overpriced merchandise was selling than whether the Canadians had gotten one back. Plus, you know, one player handed a female friend of mine a puck with his name, jersey number and mobile number on it. Which impressed her a lot until she realised he had a box of the pucks and was using them for some kind of shotgun pellet pick-up-chicks approach. While applauding such brazen chutzpah, it would suggest to me that the Australian trip is a lot closer to an end-of-season trip for such players than a driven quest for Douglas Webber glory.

In the end, feeling extremely unmoved by the whole spectacle, I came to a realization that actually pleased me. I realized that what makes great sport is not just the rules of a game, or the location, or the shape of the ball or puck or bat or stick or mallet or whatever. Whether tennis or boxing or footy or cricket or rugby or European handball or hockey, there is one truth: what makes great sport is passion. It’s the participants’ commitment and courage and complete dedication to the task at hand. That is what can elevate sport to something magical and worthy. This is what I love.

Moreso, when that is missing, it cannot be faked. In a game like tonight’s – ostensibly, on paper, a rematch of the last Olympic gold medal match (LOL) – when it is an exhibition, and nothing more, it cannot rise to great heights. Defenders will hold off, sometimes very deliberately and at some effort, on finishing their checks. Players who in a NHL game would find depths of effort to skate when exhausted, to reach a puck that they really shouldn’t be able to fight for, won’t.

And so the level drops, and becomes pedestrian.

It’s okay. It is what it is.

But nothing more.

No amount of shrieking commentators demanding we yell and scream and stand up or get wildly fakely excited about a shoot-out (that they didn’t actually know how to run, and then couldn’t count to realize that America had won) … none of this will make an exhibition game find heights.

And so our money was spent on exactly that, and we wandered into the night, having enjoyed seeing some actual NHL stars, even if they were just doodling around. And enjoying seeing so many hockey fans and Canadians and Americans and Australian hockey fans in the one place, even if we were tepidly excited for the evening. And so we decided against spending $30 for a souvenir puck. And so we headed off, wishing Melbourne Ice was in town so we could drift to the Icehouse tomorrow and watch some real hockey. Watch players who cared.

Luckily I’m on the ice at 10 pm tomorrow, in Night Owl action. And that’s a good thing.

It’s just like porn versus sex: why watch people faking it, when you can do it for real? Amen.

Miracle on ice … at drop-in

Detroit d-man Kyle Quincey

Detroit d-man Kyle Quincey

So on Wednesday, there was no Development League at the Icehouse. The scale of this catastrophe can really only be understood by those who base their entire week around the fact that they’ll be playing one or two hours of hard, competitive, non-official scrimmage on hump day, being yelled at and taunted by Melbourne Ice stars Tommy, Army and The Beard (Lliam Webster last week as I skated for the puck: ‘Watch out for the angry pensioner!’) to kick them towards the weekend.

Because Dev League wasn’t on, other plans had to be made. There was a stick-and-puck practice session at 1.30 pm that quite a few of my fellow Rookies planned to skate, and then there was a drop-in (unofficial scrimmage – whoever shows up can play) after that.

I was stuck at work, in meetings, and then had to truck across to Fitzroy to meet a friend, so I regretfully bowed to my reality and cursed, conceding that I couldn’t do either of those sessions and would be off the ice for the entire Wednesday. The friend I was meeting was one of those guys who doesn’t like it when you don’t show up or plans go awry. Really doesn’t like it. Needs order in his life, including plans happening as they should.

Geoff's pic of the whiteboard. Note the 5 pm slot.

Geoff’s pic of the whiteboard. Note the 5 pm slot.

All of which is fine, except that a hockey mate, Geoff Carstairs, turning up for the stick-n-puck, took a snapshot of the whiteboard that tells groups which change-rooms to use at the Henke Rink, at the Icehouse that day. It all looked normal except for the 5 pm slot, which read ‘USA/Canada practise’. Say, what?

Actually, a bunch of big-time professional players from the USA and Canada are in town, to play exhibition matches at the Hisense Arena tonight and tomorrow. (I’m going along on Saturday, straight after Richmond v Adelaide at the MCG, which promises to be one of the more epic days.)

Most of the internationals competing are AHL players, as far as I can tell – the level below NHL – but there is genuine NHL experience in there. In fact, one name has leapt out at Big Cat, Macquist and I from the moment we heard about this event: Canadian captain Kyle Quincey.

A current Detroit Red Wing D-man, fresh from the play-offs where Detroit lost that agonising Game 7 Over-Time heartbreaker to the Blackhawks (who are now one game up in the Stanley Cup finals, having prevailed in an astonishing triple-overtime slugfest against the Bruins yesterday).

So, Kyle Quincey was going to be training at the Icehouse? And I wasn’t there?

It gets worse, hockey fans. So much worse.

Because the next photo to hit Facebook was from the drop-in session. There are a hard-core bunch of drop-in players who turn up often. There are occasional players. Sometimes Melbourne Ice players show up, taking it easy against dev leaguers pushing themselves.

On Wednesday, a bunch of USA and Canada international stars saw that drop-in was on and signed up.

And yes, the bottom line of all of this is that I could have actually shared a bench, played alongside or against Quincey. An actual Red Wing. In the flesh.

Kyle Quincey on the bench at an Icehouse drop-in. Pic: Wayne McBride

Kyle Quincey on the bench at an Icehouse drop-in. (Pic: posted by Wayne McBride but I’m not sure who took it.)

When instead I was hacking through traffic, walking in the rain to the Newry Hotel, and then realising that my friend wasn’t showing up because somehow we had gotten our plans screwed after all. Meaning my loyalty, avoiding drop-in, was completely unrewarded. So I went to the gym, gave my dodgy knee and my neglected upper-body a decent thrashing. Had a sauna. Got home. Logged into Facebook and saw the picture of Quincey grinning on the drop-in bench.

Cut to overhead camera POV as I look to the Heavens and scream: Noooooooooooo.

How cool is that, though? How cool is my sport that NHL players and dev leaguers can share the ice like that. What an awesome experience for those who were there. It’s like Kelly Slater paddling out to the Lorne Point to surf with the locals. Or a Test cricketer joining a pub cricket game. Occasionally an active AFL player will show up at the Bang and have a kick with the geriatric bunch that we are, which is fun, but Quincey is so out of context that having him at an Icehouse drop-in really feels like a one-in-a-lifetime event.

That I missed. To be clear. That I could have been at but wasn’t. Just so there’s no mistaking the reality, here.

Oh well.

The sauna was nice.

Kyle Quincey in a Melbourne nightclub this week? Actually it's from a mag called 'The Fourth Period', a 'hockey lifestyle magazine'.

Kyle Quincey in a Melbourne nightclub this week? Actually it’s from a mag called ‘The Fourth Period’, a ‘hockey lifestyle magazine’.