Blow the horn … at last.

Scored a goal last night. In dev league.

It was a dirty goal, as I saw it. But it went in.

And let me say right from the get-go, this blog is NOT to skite. Ohhhhhhh, no. I have no intention of puffing on a cigar, saying to the wider world, ‘Hey, look at me. Goal scorer!’

Because actually, if I’m honest, this is about pure relief. The fact is it had been a long time since I had put a puck between the posts, in the back of the net.

For a forward, a person in vertical black and white stripes making this signal is the most beautiful thing in the world (unless you're in the defensive zone. Then it sucks.)

The signal you want to see a ref or linesman make immediately after you shoot at goal.

A goal drought is a funny thing, in any sport. You don’t realise you’re in it, until you really undeniably are. And then it becomes extremely hard to ignore.

I guess it’s why the word ‘drought’ is well chosen as a metaphor. It hasn’t rained for a while. Then you begin to realise it has been an unfeasibly long time since there was precipitation of any volume. Then you notice the dryness of the soil, the wilting leaves on the vegetation. The percentage-full stat for the dams has been creeping while you weren’t watching, but now you are and the drop is alarming. That figure keeps creeping in the wrong direction and suddenly, you’re worried and the people with fancy cars are being told they can’t wash their cars, even using buckets, and you start seeing scenarios where it never rains again and Australia finally meets its post-Apocalyptic harsh dry Mad Max future that has always seemed a likely end game in this extreme country and never more so than when a douchecanoe of a Prime Minister waves off all science, declares climate change doesn’t exist and tells reporters how much he loves coal and thinks coal mining is a great thing for our future.

But I digress. Hockey.

A hockey friend of mine logged a Facebook post one day, which read something like: ‘643 days.’

This puzzled me for a while. After all, there was that outside chance he was discussing something unrelated to hockey. 643 days what? Since he last had a drink? Until his best gal arrives home? Until a movie he’s looking forward to is released?

But no, sure enough, fellow hockey players turned up on the thread, gently nudging and ribbing him in the comments, and it became clear he was actually counting, carefully, how much time had passed since his last goal.

This horrified me. That is not a stat I would ever want to voluntarily track. There was a time a while ago when I ran briefly at a goal a game for one short glorious spell. But then, more recently, any dev league or IHV goalscorers could have been forgiven for forgetting the number 17 existed when I was on the ice.

My goal drought had certainly lasted a while before last night’s dev league goal (and I know it’s only dev league but there are lots of very good players going around on Wednesday nights at the Icehouse, so I’m counting it as a genuine competition goal, so there).

It had never, at any point, occurred to me to count the individual days between horns blaring. I do know that after scoring three goals in my debut summer season of 2012/13 (and I can sort of remember them all, even if the sometimes sketchy recording mechanisms of hockey mean only one was officially recorded), I didn’t score at all in the 2013/14 season.

There were reasons for this, including the much-chronicled Lost Year of the Knee, which affected my mobility throughout the season and my sheer, basic ability to be able to get to the puck, or not, which clearly affects your scoring potential.

But whatever the excuses, I hadn’t hit the scoreboard for a long time. And that bothers anybody. Definitely, it bothers me. It just eats into your belief, shift after shift, easily blocked shot after missed net.

There are many kinds of forwards in hockey. It’s a fascinating part of a sport with usually a maximum of 12 forwards in a game, taking the ice in waves of three players at a time. Some forwards, even whole lines, are almost purely defensive, some are grinders, some – in the olden days of the NHL and pro leagues – are dedicated enforcers, only on the team to go beat up an opponent threatening the team’s more skilled goal scorers.

My boy, Big Cat, is mobbed by Cherokees after scoring. He got a hat-trick last night and is a pure goal-scorer when fit and firing. Pic: Luke Milkovic.

My boy, Big Cat, is mobbed by Cherokees after scoring. He got a hat-trick last night and is a pure goal-scorer when fit and firing. Pic: Luke Milkovic.

And there are the pure goal scorers – forwards who can dart and weave on their skates, can fly, and have cannon shots to targeted corners of the net, or have deft flecks to flip a puck past a bedazzled, helpless goalie. Have their heads up and their eyes open to spot a goalie moving ever so slightly in one direction, and the skill to plant the puck where he or she isn’t.

I am not one of those players. And yet nor am I a purely defensive forward. I’m old fashioned, I guess, and see some sort of responsibility as a usually Left Wing, in a decent team, to put my share of shots on net, to be able to get myself to that dangerous, buffeted slot in front of the goalie, looking for the rebound, or a deflection, while being elbowed and yanked, buffeted and stick-chopped by opposition defenders. I think, after playing for about four years, I need to be able to do something, something, on a breakaway, and I definitely should at least see the number 17 on some assists for my team, the Cherokees, or for my dev league teammates, even if I’m not scoring genuine goals myself.

But it had been a while since these things had happened and that starts to erode at your confidence and your belief, there’s no denying it. It’s amazing what one goal can do to spark you up, to make you feel like you might just maybe actually belong on the ice. As opposed to sucking, night after night.

As I said at the start, I’m not strutting; I’m breathing out, with relief. A bobbling, strategic, not too powerful shot somehow tumbling over the goalie’s stick, to sneak through the five hole. That moment when you realise it has actually disappeared behind the goalie, like Luke Skywalker watching the missile vanish into the air conditioning unit. And in the most unlikely setting of a single shift where all three of us scored, The Milkman and Big Cat bookending my goal with well crafted shots that found the mark.

I have no idea when my next goal will be, or where it will come from, but at least I now know it can happen; that I haven’t completely lost my ability to score after all. Lots of core strength work, lots of skating technique toil to eek out some speed, any possible speed, and re-enrolled in Intermediate classes, which has been fantastic because there are so many puck-handling drills, to feel the puck. Plus a change of gloves, and a new stick. Plus six drops of essence of terror, five drops of sinister sauce. All these little things plus a stroke of luck and a slice of confidence.

Now I just need it to happen in official Div 3 competition.

Fingers crossed. Which is not easy when wearing hockey gloves. Try it some time.

Shot by shock

Solid advice, at the Icehouse.

Solid advice, at the Icehouse.

I pride this blog on being at least in the top 50 ‘hockey blogs written by part-time crime novelists, based in Melbourne, and who took up the sport at a late age (left-hand shooting, Aries division)’.

So in the spirit of that, here’s a juicy true crime fact you may or may not be aware of: when people are shot they generally fall down, but they don’t usually have to. Let’s run through that again, slowly. Falling when shot is actually a learned response, as in: a bullet hits you and you instinctively, somewhere in your confused, horrified, adrenalin-charged brain, think: ‘Oh my God, I’ve been shot … I should probably lie down.’

I read about this in Dan Simon’s book, ‘Homicide: A year on the killing streets’, which is a cracking read and is basically the blueprint of Simon’s later work, like the series that may be the best television drama ever made, ‘The Wire’, depending on where you stand on ‘Real Housewives of Dromana’. I read it as broad brushstroke research for ‘Roll With It.

Omar Little: just one of the characters that made The Wire great.

Omar Little: just one of the characters that made The Wire great.

Simon spent a year hanging out with homicide cops in Baltimore and it’s a brilliant, colourful account of their world. The falling-when-shot thing was especially fascinating. He goes into some details of ballistics and gun force and basically surmises that there are only one or two ‘elephant guns’ that could literally blow an adult human off their feet. The others will put holes in you but not lead to the classic Hollywood-esque blown-backwards-through-a-plate-glass-window scenario. Simon recounts one story of an armed robber who had a wild shoot-out with cops, somehow got in his car and drove away, was eventually cut off and leapt out of the car to indulge in another shoot-out with police and finally slumped to the ground. He died, and the autopsy later showed that it was a bullet from the first exchange, before he even got in the car, drove around, etc, that was the fatal shot.

Anyway, the reason I’m saying all this is because it happened to me last night in dev league.

Not shot by a gun, obviously – the hockey rules are clear that such an act would be a game misconduct and I’d imagine a five minute minor penalty to the team, at least.

But at one stage, I found myself all alone in our defensive end after an opposition break-out. Who knows how I was the only player on Red fast enough to get down there to help the goalie, but it happened. Because suddenly I was watching Ballarat’s finest, Phil Clements, winding up from the blue line. I got between the puck and the goal, like you’re supposed to, Phil got some air under the shot and the puck deflected hard, very hard, off my leg. Which was all peachy except that my right knee was suddenly screaming. According to my coach on the night, Shona, I had turned my body slightly as the shot arrived and exposed the side of my knee, the part completely unprotected by the extensive shin and knee padding. Yep, skin and bone: direct hit.

Fresh from trying to kill me, Phil Clements (blur, front) leads another White team charge.

Fresh from trying to kill me, Phil Clements (blur, front) leads another White team charge.

And this is where Dan Simon kicks back in, because I fell immediately to the ice, as though shot.

And once there, as play went on around me, I had time to think:
wow, that hurt
I’m okay
should get up
ouch standing hurts
nah, keep skating.

Except that after skating for a few moments, I was in a world of pain, changed my mind and went to the bench.

But after a few minutes, the knee was surprisingly fine – I didn’t miss a shift – and is not hurting at all this morning, although I suspect I’m going to have a Hall of Fame bruise, which is annoying because it’s chilly at the moment and all you want to do is wear shorts to show off a bruise like that when they happen. So I’m probably going to catch a cold, wearing inappropriate clothing and all. Mostly, I hope the knee remains fine so I can play the Cherokees’ first official game of summer league tomorrow night. I think it will be all right, luckily.

But between shifts, I found myself wondering why my body had collapsed, sought the safety of the ice, after being struck. I’m pretty sure I could have kept standing, if my brain hadn’t done the ‘learned response’ thing. Weird.

It should be mentioned that the guy who tried to kill me – yeah, that guy Phil – is a dirty Bruins fan and, as I type, his team is sitting in the visitor change rooms at the Joe Louis Arena, with the puck due to drop against my Red Wings in 40 minutes.

Avenge me, Hank Zetterberg. Avenge me!

Going under in Paris.

Catacombs art. Picture: Nicko

Catacombs art. Picture: Nicko

The tunnel is maybe 600 years old. At times I can walk upright; at times I have to crouch. There are parts of it where crawling on your stomach is the only option. And slightly higher parts where you can sort of crawl on your hands and knees.

Which is when I start laughing, startling my much younger ‘cataphile’ companions, who are also grunting, sweating and struggling forward.

I start laughing because I realize that to get through this part of the illegal catacombs, deep under the city of Paris, I need to do what my personal trainer, Lliam Webster, and I call ‘Spider-man-ing.’ Knees out, core strong, hips low, moving forward, one hand then the other.

It’s training I’ve been doing for a year or so, week in week out, and it becomes apparent in this bizarre underground world that while I thought I was training for ice hockey, I was actually doing the perfect training for catacombs adventuring.

'Spider-man' training kicking in. Picture: 'Twist'.

‘Spider-man’ training kicking in. Picture: ‘Twist’.

My training at Fluid with Lliam kicks in everywhere. Sliding on my stomach, I use my hands to push a backpack ahead of me across the muddy clay. Isolating upper body strength and movement from my legs. In parts of the tunnels where you can’t stand upright, classic hockey stance is the perfect way to keep moving; knees bent, back straight, headtorch shining ahead.

I am with three Frenchmen, all around 30 years of age. They are true cataphiles, as they call themselves. They have nicknames so that if we are caught by the French cops, no real names are used. One is known as Syphilis, and I’m not sure I even want to know the origins of that name. Apparently, by day, he’s a doctor so maybe it’s less sordid than it seems. Another is Twist, or the Philistine. One is so stoned so quickly that I don’t bother with his name much because every time we stop, he either lights up or dozes off. He offers me drags of whatever he’s smoking but I politely decline because the illegal catacombs are NOT a place I want to be out of my head, even one per cent. I want my wits about me. We headed into this place at dusk, from a hole in a wall of a disused rail line, keeping an eye out for the gendarmes, and now it’s closing in on midnight and we are deep deep deep within the rambling catacombs tunnels. If I didn’t have a head torch, I would literally not be able to see a thing. I turn it off occasionally, just to get a sense of how dark darkness can be, when you’re 20 metres below Paris in 15th or 16th century tunnels with zero natural light.

Edging along a particularly narrow part of the illegal catacombs, below Paris. Picture: 'Twist'.

Edging along a particularly narrow part of the illegal catacombs, below Paris. Picture: ‘Twist’.

Apart from the locals, who are showing me around, there are three other guys, Israelis in their twenties. Two are trainee Rabbis, about to be ordained or however you officially become a Rabbi, when they return home to Jerusalem in a couple of days’ time. The other guy runs an abseiling business but is heading home to be commandeered into the Israeli army, for compulsory military service. We stumbled across them in the catacombs, without a map, hoping that they’d find their way back out using a compass and taking notes on when they turn right or left. To my mind, they might have died if we hadn’t happened to be down there on the same Monday night. On a weekend, a hundred people or more might sneak into these catacombs; parties are held most Saturday nights for those in the know. But this is a Monday and once your torch battery runs out, there is nothing. And the concept of turn right/turn left gets fluid as the tunnels veer and fall and rise and curve and do their medieval thing. These three had tried to abseil in earlier in the day and roped straight onto a beehive, being stung hundreds of times each. But came back and somehow did find their way in.

A shallow part of the water-logged section of the tunnels. Picture: Nicko

A shallow part of the water-logged section of the tunnels. Picture: Nicko

‘Can we come with you?’ they asked Syphilis and he said, ‘Well, you need to stay with us the whole way. We’re in here for six hours or more.’

By the end of the night, when we stumbled up a ladder and out a manhole into the middle of a major St Germaine street at 3 am, they were starting to realize how lucky they were to find him.

Me too, as we wander through a big party room called The Beach, with all kinds of street art on the walls, or the Santa Claus room, or past what is occasionally a cinema, or past a sobering tunnel where the roof fell in. There is a part of the catacombs elsewhere in the city that has been cleaned up, made safe and opened for tourists, but we’re in the other part – the catacombs that are officially blocked off and supposed to be out of bounds. There’s no guarantee that the exit we aim for won’t have been locked by council workers, or blocked by cops. At least, now we’re in, we know we can always hike all the way back to where we arrived, if necessary, but that would see us emerge around 7 am and I’m hoping that is not the case.

The catacombs are closed for a reason. They can be dangerous and, among other things, are apparently part of the Paris reserve water supply, so that even as we walk through parts where the water is up to our mid-thigh, it feels clean and fresh. But of course, people find their way in, and I love that there are always those who will find cracks in the city, other dimensions beyond the ordinary. Once inside, the place doesn’t feel overly dangerous, especially with a map (hello, Israel) and the right equipment. There are no rats, no spiders; there is no life at all. We walk past graffiti from the 18th and 19th century, we walk past skulls and bones. We crawl through a tiny hole into a circular room loaded with a mountain of human bones from the Cimetière des Innocents, a large cemetery that was in the heart of Paris in the 1700s and 1800s. Twist tells me that there was a plague, maybe 500 years ago, and it was blamed on the cemetery, so the bodies were dug up and dumped down here. I work hard not to step on a single bone. One of the Israeli dudes laughs, grabs a skull and pretends to be eating lunch.

Five hundred years ago, there was a plague ...

Five hundred years ago, there was a plague …

We head on to the Oyster Room, and have one of the best pic-niques of my life. Twist pulls out a dozen or so candles and we turn off our headtorches, preserving batteries. By candlelight, we drink beer, eat breadstick and pate, Camembert cheese and the awesome Petit Écolier chocolate biscuits that would be the best thing ever invented in France if it wasn’t for French women and wine. The stoner tokes and dozes, and Twist peers at a map of the catacombs, downloaded off the internet, plotting our next course. I chat about the stark difference between the word ‘normal’ in Israel and Australia with the army-bound abseiler (Him: ‘We had a war last month. Three of my friends died. It’s how it is where I live. It’s normal. You cry for two days and then you move on. My parents both carry guns. I carry a gun sometimes, to move around town. People don’t want peace. They want revenge. They want to fight.’ Me: ‘So let me tell you about Melbourne, where I come from …’)

Spongebob makes an appearance among the catacomb artwork. Picture: Nicko

Spongebob makes an appearance among the catacomb artwork. Picture: Nicko

And again, I am struck by the mysteries and wonder of my blessed life. That I have the means and contacts and spirit and ability to be sitting in a candlelit cave, deep within the bedrock of Paris, somewhere under the Jardin Luxembourg or thereabouts, chatting war and peace with a Jerusalem native while his Rabbi friends softly prays and then sings next to us. I had been genuinely apprehensive, leaving my flat and heading off to this adventure, but I have a policy that if fear is the only thing stopping me doing something, then I have to do it. So I went, and oh man, I am so glad at this moment that I did.

And as we literally crawl through tiny tunnels and I slide into holes so small I am not sure I’ll fit through, being the lead explorer at this point and needing to bend in an L-shape and corkscrew my torso to make it, feet dangling, unsure where the floor is or, shit, even if there is a floor on the other side, I give thanks for Lliam Webster and hockey and the fact that at almost 50 years of age I am fit enough and supple enough (and stupid enough) and have built enough trained core strength to be able to embrace a fucking crazy adventure like this one and come through it in one piece, smiling.

A candlelight dinner in the Oyster Room.

A candlelight dinner in the Oyster Room.

We pass a former font of the Chartreuse monks, who invented that lethal spirit. We decide it’s past 2 am and we haven’t got time to detour to the German war bunker nearby. (Urban legend has it that Hitler pissed in the toilet there.) We also can’t visit the only official underground grave of the catacombs – a gatekeeper who started walking them 200 years ago (possibly hunting Chartreuse) and one day didn’t return, his body found 21 years later in the tunnels. This trip, the cataphiles won’t make it all the way to under the military hospital, where punk concerts have been known to happen.

It takes both Syphilis and Twist to push against the solid metal manhole cover and release us into the early morning air of a deserted Paris street. Covered head to toe in yellow clay, seven men emerge from the ladder and run for the darkness of a nearby sidestreet. No yells. No sirens. No flashing lights. We jump a fence into the deserted jardin, peel off our wading boots and rainjackets, stash headlamps and I try to regain some sense of normal appearance for the 4 am bus ride back to where I’m staying. My hair is caked in yellow clay and dust. Twist and I share one last beer, grinning at one another like maniacs, like brothers who have shared secrets, like friends who have seen things most don’t get to see, like outlaws who have somehow, against all odds, escaped the law.

And the next day, I avoid a trip to the Eiffel Tour with my travelling companions, because I’ve climbed it before and anyway, oh God, I need to sleep. But my body isn’t even that sore, given what I put it through underground. My hockey training has come through again. When I needed it. In the most unlikely circumstances.

Resting in not much peace. Picture: Nicko

Resting in not much peace. Picture: Nicko

Today, I’m back at my desk, more than a little jetlagged, and tomorrow night I’m back at the Icehouse, wobbling around in yet another round of development training. On Friday, the Detroit Red Wings begin another NHL campaign, playing the Bruins, and then that night I dress for a practice match with my summer league team, the Cherokees, to see if all my fitness work will translate into actually being a better competitive player.

In other words, life is back to normal, but I have a whole new batch of memories to carry me along.

Here’s to hockey, and to Lliam Webster, and to keeping fit, and to embracing adventures when you can. This was a good one.

Ah, Paris.

Ah, Paris.