Heavy legs

I’ve always been amazed at the fact NHL players have ‘morning skates’ on game days, and almost always skate on non-game days.

Given they play more than 80 regular season games, plus potentially almost 30 more play-off games, while jetting across America and Canada, often arriving in a city on the wrong side of midnight before playing the following evening, you’d think NHL stars would be preoccupied with resting up and charging their batteries every chance they get.

A Red Wings 'morning skate'. There's rarely such a thing as a day off in the NHL.

A Red Wings ‘morning skate’. There’s rarely such a thing as a day off in the NHL.

Instead, they are dragged onto the ice for drills, to remain ‘sharp’.

And the strangest part of all is that it works. I can always tell if the Red Wings are coming off a few days without an official game, or were given the day off to freshen. They almost always seem to be missing that vital one per cent in skating speed and ferocity.

Just that one day off can make a difference.

Sure, back-to-back games, especially in different cities, can sap their legs, no matter what they do, but on the while, these guys skate and skate and skate and need to, to retain their edge (pun intended).

Which brings us back to a certain advanced middle-aged skater half a world away in Melbourne, Australia, coming off a long summer break. My last official match was on December 19, last year, and I hadn’t skated much since, apart from that one fun hit-out in honour of Charlie a couple of weeks ago.

Of course, I’d spent the entire Christmas-summer break thinking I should really go for a skate or get down to a stick-and-puck session at the Icehouse. Facebook was full of the usual 300 or so posts per day of other hockey players training remorselessly, maybe taking off their skates begrudgingly to sleep. Even Big Cat Place, finally cleared to skate after his broken ankle, started making his way to the Icehouse for sessions.

I was caught up in work and novel-writing and wider life and somehow just didn’t make it to the sessions, most of which, to be fair, are smack bang in the middle of a work day. Local hockey is a lot easier if you’re a uni student, but then again, the super dedicated got there. I didn’t.

All of this could only end badly and, sure enough, the night of reckoning was last night: my first official training session of the year, with my team, the Cherokees, at the freshly-pimped Oakleigh ghetto rink, now looking magnificent.

And oh, my legs.

It’s not like I’m unfit, generally speaking, right now. During the break, I’ve actually been training hard with Lliam Webster on core muscles, skating muscles and explosive power, as well as running and riding my bike around, thanks to my pesky knee finally getting its act together. But I haven’t been skating and oh wow, there is nothing that replicates it.

The Cherokees gather for post-break training. Pic: Alex McNab (instagram)

The Cherokees gather for post-break training. Pic: Alex McNab (instagram)

Last night, we did some basic drills. Lots of back-checking, which means skate as hard as you can to chase two forwards, or, as a forward, trying to blow past defenders along the boards or, if you can, ducking into the centre lane.

Then we scrimmaged with only one player on each bench, which meant very little relief.

Of course, it was awesome. I can never get enough skating and playing, even when I know my legs are completely gassed, but it was hard.

In the Charlie game a fortnight ago, I’d known my legs would die fast, and they did, but it was really just a horse-around hour so I didn’t worry too much. Last night, I tried harder to skate out the entire hour of training, and I was on fumes with 15 minutes to go.

Happily, I was not alone. I think we were all feeling it, except maybe Bianca, who had dodged last week’s crazy over-40 heatwave for four days by pretty much living at the Icehouse, enjoying the air conditioning and ice. Big Cat has found that he feels okay, on the other side of his ankle injury, except that he gets tired but really, he was no worse than most of us as we gasped between drills.

The fact is, no matter how much training you do, you can’t replicate a hockey game, and the interval-training-like sprints that hockey requires. Even a top NHL player might only play 20 minutes of a game, which doesn’t sound like much until you actually play hockey and know what that means. How difficult and aerobically challenging it is.

I honestly don’t know if it can be replicated elsewhere. Maybe, off-ice, you could try going to the local park or oval, and then running as hard as you possibly can for one minute. Not just flat out sprinting, either: changing gear up and down. Back off slightly here or there, watching the imaginary puck, but then sprint 20 metres and then go, go, go for 80 or 100 metres to replicate charging down the length of a rink.

Now wander over to the fence and sit for one or two minutes and repeat. For an hour.

It doesn’t sound that hard, does it? But it is. You might be actively running, sprinting, jogging, sprinting!!! for no more than 15 minutes total, but see how you’re faring in the last 20 minutes of that hour stretch. See how your speed is holding up, and your ability to dig for an extra gear.

That’s what we Cherokees were doing last night; trying to regain our legs. And what a bunch of us will be doing at the first Development League session of the year at the Icehouse on Wednesday night, and then heading into Sunday’s first actual IHV game since the break.

Trying to remind our legs that they can’t stop. That we need to will ourselves to make that next contest, to out-skate that chasing D-man.

I haven’t even mentioned regaining puck-handling skills, or hockey strategy and split-second decisions. I’m only concerned right now with standing on two skates. Trying to kick my muscles back into that place where they need to respond, even when everything is screaming that there’s no more petrol, no more sprints are possible, no more ice can be covered.

A breakaway is on? GO!

A heatwave, the Winter Classic and question marks

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive. The world needs more people who have come alive.”

–       Jonathan Harris

It’s been an unusual summer. Of course, in Melbourne, there’s the weather, which did its perverse trick of being cold, grey and mostly un-beachy through the two weeks or so that almost everybody is on holidays and sitting in traffic jams along the coast, dreaming of sitting on a beach, so they can fret about how they look semi-naked in swimwear, and, all going well, just bask. Now most people are back at work, it’s hitting 40 degrees Celsius. Every. Day. And they say God, that complex woman in the sky, doesn’t have a sense of humour …

I had all kinds of plans for my Christmas-New Year break. Six days clear? Let’s hit LA!!!! Hmmm, timezone issues, and we’d lose an entire day (literally – that fun/crazy phenom where you leave LA near midnight on, say, a Friday, and arrive back in Melbourne on Sunday, Saturday having somehow evaporated in space or science or something). So, not LA. Then, hey, Tokyo!!! No? Lombok!! Umm, Byron! Err, shit, another few days at my parents’ place at Lorne?

In the end, Chloe and I mostly hung around Melbourne., enjoying how awesome the city is when there aren’t any actual people living in its canyons, the crowd absent from its streets. Riding bikes along mostly empty roads and bike trails, and watching films in sparcely populated cinemas.

More and more, as is my brain’s way, I fell into introspection and wondering where I’m heading next? Off the ice for almost a month, I found myself with no real desire to attempt a general skate at the Icehouse. Part of this was practical: Facebook told me that the Henke Rink was being relaid, so I knew general skates and any other on-ice activities would be crammed onto the Bradbury Rink, and general skates on half or two thirds of a rink are remorselessly crap. You need some room to move.

But I also started to worry that I had so little desire to skate, to be on the ice.

A panorama of the Big House: the largest hockey crowd ever, and in snow and 12 degrees F.

A panorama of the Big House: the largest hockey crowd ever, and in snow and 12 degrees F.

I watched a lot of hockey. On my Apple TV and iPad, the NHL continued, and my Red Wings were lurching along, as they have this season; suffering injury after injury, patchy results building as a play-off spot becomes less certain. The Wings suffering from star goalie Jimmy Howard losing form, confidence and health, plus an ongoing inability to score goals, and a bunch of Grand Rapid Griffins kids filling holes (although one of my absolute favourite prospects, Tomas Jurco, debuted, scored, looked great in a Wings jersey!)

Nevertheless, we believe. Big Cat Place turned up at my house for a 5 am alarm so we could watch Detroit play Toronto in the outdoor Winter Classic. Man. Two Melburnians in Winter Classic merchandise huddled in the dark in an Australian summer, watching 105,000 people brave sub-zero temperatures at the Big House, in Ann Arbor (and receiving gloating snapchats from Ice stars Tommy Powell and Shona Green, in head-to-toe Toronto gear, a few suburbs away). Snow on the seats, snow on fans’ heads. The weather so cold as the polar vortex approached the mid-west of America that the goalie waterbottles had to be constantly replaced because the water was freezing inside.

Cold, cold seats at the Winter Classic, half a world away from a Melbourne summer.

Cold, cold seats at the Winter Classic, half a world away from a Melbourne summer. Pic: Detroit Free Press.

It looked awesome, and fun, and freezing. The Wings, of course, lost in a shoot-out, looking ineffectual when it mattered most.

But then, in their next start, smashed the Dallas Stars, 5-1, with Tomas Tatar, ever-growing in confidence, scoring a fantastic lone-drive goal. Then had a few days off and got belted by the Sharks. And so it goes.

Between Wings angst, I read an amazing book, by Bill Bryson. It’s called ‘One Summer’ and is about America in the summer of 1927. Charles Lindbergh became the first aviator to fly the Atlantic, and became a national hero, before turning into a Nazi enthusiast. The crazy art project of Mount Rushmore began. Sacco and Vanzetti were tried and executed, rightly or wrongly. The Jazz Singer was released, making talking pictures a mainstream reality. Baseballer Babe Ruth was hitting home runs at unprecedented levels, and living an impressively sordid lifestyle to go with it. The entire mid-west was flooded to unbelievable levels. Pre-Nazi America First ‘pure race’ theories were so extreme the Klu Klux Klan looked tame (tens of thousands of Americans regarded as being of ‘lower race’ or ‘lower intelligence’ or ‘lower morals’ were sterilized against their will. No, seriously.) Even as I read of these horrors, in this much more enlightened world, almost 100 years later, Liberal Senator dipshit Cory Bernardi was declaring to Australia that ‘non-traditional’ families with a single parent are more likely to have higher criminality among boys and promiscuity among girls.

Tomas Jurco celebrates knowing he's pretty much NHL ready. Pic: Ducks website.

Tomas Jurco celebrates knowing he’s pretty much NHL ready. Pic: Ducks website.

Where Australia is headed worries me more and more.

And then the holiday was over, work was back and my usual world started to return to its normal rhythms. I belted out 4000 words of my new novel in one day, showing that, as I’d suspected, my brain had really needed some time off by the end of 2013. But then found myself staring at the screen once more. Hey ho. Do the work.

And I wondered what 2014 will hold, should hold? An American philosopher/artist Jonathan Harris wrote a heartfelt essay on being ‘stuck’ and assessing why he’d been stuck at various points in his life and how he’d moved past those moments. (Thanks Kayt Edwards, for finding it and posting it.)

I’d fully recommend reading it, but ultimately Harris argues that you have a very limited time on Earth and you need to spend it doing things that move you, inspire you, fully engage your creativity and energy.  It’s a nice theory for the wealthy: he’s the kind of guy who apparently can afford to go and sit in a cabin in Oregon for months at a time without having to worry about paying for groceries. People with mortgage headaches and medical bills and whatnot might not have his free-thinking luxury. Nevertheless, there is merit in what he says.

Squinting at 2014 from the top of the ride, I find myself wondering whether I’m stuck? What most moves me, what most excites me? Is it still working in media? Is it still hockey? Is it still writing novels? Is it Little Big Shots, the kids film festival I work on? Is it still living in Melbourne?

Is it still being, well, Me?

These are questions I ask myself a lot and I think it’s mostly healthy, if it doesn’t paralyze you. According to Harris, being ‘stuck’ precedes a fundamental shift of some sort, but I don’t think I’m at that point. Am I? I can see friends who definitely are, whether in their relationships, or work, or other aspects of their life. It’s always easier to see clearly looking in, as against looking out. But where am I at?

A highlight of summer: Big Cat Place back on two legs and back in skates, at the Charlie Srour game.

A highlight of summer: Big Cat Place back on two legs and back in skates, at the Charlie Srour game. Pic: Nicko.

One definite way to avoid paralysis and to keep the brain process moving is to retain context. On Sunday evening, I picked up Big Cat and made the long trek to the (freshly-painted and spruiced up!) Oakleigh Ghetto. Tried to remember the order my armour goes on, and strapped on skates for the first time since mid-December. Nobody in the rooms but close friends from the hockey world, all united for a game in  honour of Charlie Srour, a treasured member of our little gang who died a year ago on New Year’s Day, to eternal regret. We toasted Charlie with Russian vodka, Big Cat spent the warm-up managing to stand in skates and move around on the ice for the first time since breaking his leg, and then we had a very informal scrimmage for the sheer joy of being back on the ice.

It was one of those games where nobody cared about the score. In fact, I honestly can’t recall what it was, three days later. We played four-on-four and laughed a lot. Melbourne Ice women players attempted figure skating moves between face-offs, the standard good-natured sledging hit astronomical levels, and I felt fantastic for about three shifts before my rusty legs started to run out of steam. Man, that happened fast. In the photos that Big Cat took, I can see myself return to my bad-old legs-wide flat-foot skating, as I get tired. God, another year of trying to move my legs, to become more mobile on the ice. That’s where one of my 2014 challenges lies – not to listen to the voice inside that says I don’t seem to be getting any better, that I’m only ever going to be mediocre; that after three years, I remain so so-so.

I have to banish those thoughts. The fact was, it was fun to be back out there. I did love playing again. I still have chapters of this hockey journey left, I think. I just have to keep doing the work.

Wayne McBride does his best Frank the Tank post-brawl celebration, after 'fighting' Apollo Patrick in the Charlie game. Pic: Big Cat.

Wayne McBride does his best Frank the Tank post-brawl celebration, after ‘fighting’ Apollo Patrick in the Charlie game. Pic: Big Cat.

And so yesterday, in 43 degree heat, I made my way to Port Melbourne and survived a training session with Lliam Webster at Fluid; remorselessly working my stomach and core and every skating muscle in my legs and butt. I’d only wished I was wearing a Stetson so I could have tugged it meaningfully over my eyes, showing I mean business as I face down a new year.

Because I am going to train like a mothertrucker now my knee is troubling me less.

I am going to get generally super-fit, using the functional movement training ideas, to hit the end of 2014 in better, different shape to now.

I am going to return to the Bang, able to run once more, and kick a footy with that bunch of guys.

I am going to improve my skating on the ice, so that I can play one more summer at least, and really smoke it.

I am going to watch the Red Wings somehow pull themselves together, get healthy when it matters, and storm the 2014 play-offs.

I am going to have non-hockey adventures to add diversity, adventure and different angles to my existence.

I am going to adore every member of my complicated, non-traditional family, and I’m going to fully believe in my two boys and my step-son, even if a misguided Liberal whacko Senator doesn’t.

And I am going to let my brain free, to write fiction and explore new paths for my company and to fully engage in my working life.

Mostly, I’m going to laugh, and have fun. Because in hockey and life, it’s amazing how easy it is to forget that we’re supposed to be enjoying the journey. When I shake off expectations and fretting, and just enjoy, everything is simpler.

These are not New Years resolutions. These are just the wanderings of life, now closing alarmingly on a half century within two years.

‘The world needs more people who have come alive,’ writes Jonathan Harris.

In 2014, on the ice and off, I plan for that to continue to be me.

My first ice-time of 2014: facing Brendan Parssons in a face-off with his girlfriend, Lex, dropping the puck. Life's a loaded deck, folks, but that doesn't mean it can't be fun. Pic: Big Cat.

My first ice-time of 2014: facing Brendan Parsons (right) in a face-off with his girlfriend, Lex, dropping the puck. Life’s a loaded deck, folks, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. Pic: Big Cat.