Goodbye to the Joe

Oh man, what a day.

First, Sergio Garcia finally wins the Masters, at his 73rd attempt at winning a major. Then comes news that John Clarke, one of the greatest comedians ever produced by New Zealand/Australia and a local of my hood, passed away while hiking in the Grampians on the weekend. And all this while I was watching the last ever Detroit Red Wings game at the Joe Louis Arena.

This last one was going to be enough to unravel me on its own, even without Clarke’s unexpected passing, or feeling happy for the Spanish golfer who burst onto the scene years ago as a wunderkind who was going to dominate the sport but sadly emerged at the exact same moment Tiger Woods appeared through another door and actually did dominate the sport.

Unfortunately, this was as close as I got to the Red Wings season-ending last game at the Joe today. I cried anyway, from half a world away.

‘The Joe’ was the Red Wings’ home for the last 38 years. It was an old barn of a building; one of the least attractive in a shiny new millennium NHL world, but of course the fans adored it and, until recently, other teams dreaded the lair of the all-conquering Wings. The Joe made its debut just as the infamous Dead Wings period of the club’s history was coming to an end. Within three years of its opening, Detroit pizza magnate Mike Ilitch would buy the team, start spending money, the recruiters would get a lot right and suddenly the team went on a roll that included four Stanley Cups and a record 25 straight years in the playoffs. Until this year, when the team finally fell off a cliff and missed the post-season.

Which is why today happened: the final game at the Joe, in early April instead of a month or so later during playoffs. But you know what? It was kind of perfect. Knowing it was the final game meant the Wings could do it properly, without the uncertainty of playoff success, home and away. The date could be penciled in and man, did they do it right.

For starters, by sheer luck, it was captain Hank Zetterberg’s 1000th game and the pre-game ceremony for that had me misty eyed. He’s always been a favourite of mine since I first tuned into the team and he was an absolute star. Then Riley ‘Tinky Winky’ Sheahan, a guy who had inexplicably not scored a goal all season, at last found the net for the Red Wings’ opening goal. Of course, Zetterberg scored because he’s Zetterberg, and then Tatar goaled and finally Sheahan again (to score his own tiny piece of hockey immortality: last goal ever at the Joe). Meanwhile, the Devils played the straight-men to this Detroit lovefest, a crammed-to-the-rafters Joe in a sea of red. Meanwhile, the TV coverage was keeping an octopi count, to note how many poor deceased octopi were hurled onto the ice (it’s a Red Wing thing), and the last tally I noticed was 27.

Rally Al the octopus’s only appearance this season: as part of the final game’s octocount.

At the very end, at the finale of a long ceremony where Red Wing greats spoke about the old building and the fans and how much they love this hockey team, the organisers showed they knew exactly how to play the heart strings of the fans one more time. The unofficial Red Wings victory anthem, Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’, filled the Joe as the fade out. Born and raised in SOUTH DETROIT.

And to the exits for the final time.

Of course the franchise will move on and the fans will be more comfortable, the ice will probably be better, life will be generally more pleasant in the shiny new Ilitch family stadium, Little Caesar’s Arena, when it opens in September. When the Wings left the creaky but historic Olympia stadium for the brand new Joe in 1979, I’m sure there was just as much sadness and nostalgia.

But today, it was good bye Joe and tears in all directions.

I’ve written before about how being a sports fan is about the journey, not the silverware, because the vast majority of fans are disappointed every year in terms of premierships, cups, whatever the prize.

Flashback to 2011: The Podium Line of Place boys on the glass at the Joe. A life highlight.

In my entire hockey journey, the joy for me has been in being a Red Wing fan, among all the Red Wing fans, from Hockeytown to Australia and everywhere in between. I am so so so so so so so happy today that my boys and I visited the Joe in 2011 to watch some games there. It didn’t occur to me at the time that I would never be there again. The Wings managed to lose all four games we saw, and so we didn’t get to belt out Don’t Stop Believin’ in the flesh, but it didn’t matter. We sat there, in good seats, in a sea of red jerseys with white winged wheels. We saw our heroes – Lidstrom, Zetterberg, Datsyuk, even Helm and Jimmy Howard. We saw Gus Nyquist’s first game as a Wing and Mackquist bought his jersey – without doubt the first one of those to make its way to Australia. A Wings representative showed us around the back corridors of the stadium, showered us in free merchandise and let us watch warm-up from behind the goal. It was a total and complete lifetime-memory blast.

But it wasn’t the Joe that actually stayed in my head as much as the humanity of Detroit. The people of Motorcity embraced us so warmly, unable to believe three Australians had travelled all that way just to sit in the Joe and watch the team.

I have no doubt if and when we make it to the new arena, with slightly roomier seats with better lighting, fancier corporate boxes and a bigger, sharper jumbotron TV screen, we’ll be embraced just as much.

Captain Hank today: The Perfect Human 2.0.

That’s what it all comes down to in the end. It doesn’t matter where the hockey is played, no matter how much you love the arena and the history seeping out of the walls of the joint – and believe me, I really did with the Joe. But ultimately  it’s the people. It’s the fans.

That’s why I wept when the Bulldogs won last year’s AFL flag. Not for the players, happy though I was for them, and sad though I was for Bob Murphy who was injured. My heart went straight out for the fans who have waited so long, who have stuck through thick and a lot of thin, who finally tasted the ultimate success. My unofficial footy coach at the Bang, Jimmy, flew back from Greece for the finals when he realised something was happening. The phone video of Jimmy and his family celebrating in the stands when they realised they had made the grand final was an all time highlight reel on its own. When they won the whole thing, he painted his house red, white and blue. The joy was so pure.

This year, my team, the Tigers, are 3-0 after three rounds, sitting in unfamiliar atmosphere at second on the ladder. Saturday’s game started in 27 degree sunshine and ended in a wild thunderstorm-battered, rain-drenched tempest. The fans stayed without blinking. We belted out the song in the wind and the rain. The players high-fived the fans on the boundary and we all started to wonder if we can dare to believe this side can do something significant this year.

The weird tradition of octopi on the ice (and Joe manager Al waving them crazily over his head) will no doubt start again in Game 1 at the new stadium.

We’re so lucky that we play at the MCG, the home of football, after a wrench away from the Punt Road Oval many years ago. Some older fans will have been have been there through that entire journey, through the flags of the sixties and the seventies and 1980, and then the dark wasteland years that have followed.

Whether Richmond plays at the G or in Oodnadatta, it doesn’t really matter. It’s those fans, my dedicated Tiger brothers and sisters, who count.

But having said all that, thank you, Joe Louis Arena, for the memories and for being the foundation for all the Wings adventures I have experienced so far. Thank you for honouring ‘The Brown Bomber’, one of the most legendary boxers ever, and for hosting my sons and I when we briefly, happily, took our place among the Wings faithful.

And one more time, rest in peace, John Clarke. Farnarkeling’s finest ever spokesman. You will be missed.

 

 

Hope

My mother’s middle name is Hope. It was my Nan’s doing. She told me many times that she gave it to Mum because, ‘If nothing else, she’ll always have hope.’

hope

As The Beatles never sang: All you need is hope.

I’m currently doing a major clean out of endless boxes of memorabilia and sometimes junk at my office and on Friday I found a Tattslotto ticket. Well, actually, it was the master ticket, that you hand over each week so you can play the same numbers. I don’t know what the technical name for it is; I gave up on Tattslotto long ago, working on my old maths teacher’s theory that lotto is just a gambling tax for people who don’t understand probability factors.

But here, in a box of old newspaper articles I’d written, souvenirs from overseas trips, photos, letters from when people wrote letters, and other stuff, was a ticket, for two ‘games’ of numbers.

And it got into my head: imagine if I played those numbers this week AND THEY WON. This would be a story of fate and coincidence for the ages.

And then, of course, it also got into my head: imagine if, having thought that, I now DON’T play those numbers AND THEY WON. What if I had to spend the rest of my miserable life knowing that I had turned my back on this random, glorious, romantic chance to be a multi-millionaire and Fate had, therefore, duly and rightfully shat on my face while my back was turned, which isn’t physically possible but symbolically might be.

After work, I went to the lotto counter, like one of those clueless non-gamblers at the TAB on Melbourne Cup Day, trying to work out how to lay a two-dollar bet.

Michael 'Disco' Roach (#8) taking his greatest mark ever, with Kevin 'Hungry' Bartlett (#29) roving the pack. Once Tiger champions, now Lotto numbers.

Michael ‘Disco’ Roach (#8) taking his greatest mark ever, with Kevin ‘Hungry’ Bartlett (#29) roving the pack. Once Tiger champions, now Lotto numbers.

It took a while before I even worked out the tickets I had weren’t a couple of crazy-expensive System Nines, but cheaper System Eights. I looked at the numbers, trying to remember when I’d come up with them and why. One is definitely a collection of my favourite guernsey numbers at Richmond: Jack Dyer/Maurice Rioli’s 17, Richo’s 12, Disco Roach/Jack Riewoldt’s number 8. The other game looks like it’s birthdays …

I shrugged and handed over money. I bought the tickets for Saturday night’s draw and dreamed of millions.

And my long-passed Nan smiled in my imagination, eyes twinkling. America appears to be Trump-screwed, Australia’s politicians continue to be heartless bastards without a plan. People around me are struggling with illness and despair. But Nan’s ghost lingers. If nothing else, you always have hope.

Unfortunately, as far as IHV competition, summer season Div 3, is concerned for me, hope is snuffed. My team, the Cherokees, are winding down to a sad end this season, having somehow tumbled down the standings as the finals loom. The Detroit Red Wings, likewise, have staggered and will finally lose their quarter-century play-off streak. The Wings’ unofficial anthem is ‘Don’t Stop Believin’‘ but already they’ve sold off a young player I always liked so much that I purchased what is probably the only Tomas Jurco Wings jersey in the Southern Hemisphere. He’s now a Blackhawk and will have skipped out of town, after sketchy playing time and bad usage in Motorcity, with a lot of hope in his heart, that in Chicago he can finally bloom.

So long, Jurco. Have a great career (but not too great: you are now a Blackhawk)

So long, Jurco. Have a great career (but not too great: you are now a Blackhawk)

All that’s left is for the mighty Tigers to march into the 2017 AFL season, their coach saying nothing less than finals will do, and the players talking endlessly of the new spirit and purpose to be found at Punt Road. What could possibly, possibly go wrong? Last season, it took about three weeks for any hope to die, as the team stalled at the gate. This season? Of course I live in hope, endless hope. Richmond supporters are the Hall of Fame Fans of irrationally and against all evidence never letting go of hope.

The NHL trade deadline is in a couple of days and I expect several other favourite Wings to ship out of town as Detroit becomes a seller. The Cherokees have one more game, next weekend, before we go our separate ways until Spring, and I know from every year I’ve played that players will head for winter comp, or retire, or go back to footy, or not be there next year for whatever reason. I’ve really loved this year’s Cherokee line-up, started out with lots of hope, which was gradually dashed, and still wish we’d had more success.

But hey, I got an email from Richmond FC last week, saying my membership pack was on its way. Then the Tigers won on Friday night and looked decent. February pre-season form: it’s the best.

On Sunday, after the ‘Kees had lost 6-0 to a really slick and even Wolverines line-up, after my best shot at goal had hit a few legs, beaten the goalie five-hole but then stopped before crossing the line, after I trudged out of Icy O’Briens, I suddenly remembered I had to check my Tattslotto ticket.

In one game, I had exactly one number, not the required six. The other game was worse: a lone supplementary number.

No miracle. No magic. No millions.

Thanks for nothing, Fate, you unromantic bastard.

And in two days’ time, it’s March. Go Tiges.

 

 

 

 

 

DOC – OAK (aka The Double)

I’d never had to do The Double. I’d seen plenty do it, including my Cherokees teammate, Burty, earlier this season when he went to the wrong rink and had to race to Oakleigh. Even better, I once sat laughing as a goalie arrived triumphantly mid-warm-up, in full kit, to the undying relief of his teammates, as he desperately Doubled (see video at bottom).

Through the Goalposts: Driving across the Bolte Bridge, en route from Docklands to Oakleigh

Through the Goalposts: Driving across the Bolte Bridge, en route from Docklands to Oakleigh. Pic: Big Cat Place

But I’d never before found myself with a hockey schedule that demanded attendance at both of Melbourne’s rinks, Icy O’Briens and Oakleigh, on the same night.

Until Tuesday.

Dev league was at 6.45 pm at Docklands, and ‘Kees team training was at Oakleigh at 10.15 pm. Yes, mid-week life as a Victorian hockey player yet again meant crazy ice times and diminished sleep, but shit, it’s what we do, right? … Big Cat and I decided to embrace the adventure and go for it.

At least we had a gap between sessions. I’ve seen players almost run from Icy O’Briens change rooms because they have to be on the Oakleigh ice within an hour, or so, which, given the standard gridlock of the South-Eastern Freeway and especially Warrigal Road through Oakleigh, is hoping for some kind of Road God miracle. On Tuesday, we almost had too much time between sessions and at least could mosey across Bolte Bridge, through the tunnel and out to the southeast. Of course, we had the greatest run ever because we weren’t in a hurry.

Skating destination two: the magnificent ice skating stadium in Oakleigh

Skating destination two: the magnificent ice skating stadium in Oakleigh

But even then, The Double leaves all kinds of questions for the modern hockey player: do you stay dressed in your hockey gear, probably sans actual skates, for the drive between the rinks? Do you strip off wet post-dev league gear and then re-dress once the gear is two hours’ colder and already festering?

What do you eat between sessions? How much should you eat? And, even more pointedly, where can you eat? Exactly which top restaurants in Melbourne embrace unshowered between-sessions ice hockey players? Or might accept Big Cat in hockey shorts and leg armour, complete with Doc Martens? These are questions The Age Good Food Guide seems to ignore, edition after edition.

On Tuesday, I chose to step out of all my gear, except compression tights, which are always an attractive social look, under running shorts. Big Cat stayed pretty much completely armoured up, with Doc Martens, as stated.

Of course, we ended up at the McDonald’s Drive-Thru; the secret shame – or complete non-shame – of Doubling hockey players for years. We ate in the aesthetically stunning surrounds of the Oakleigh Maccas car park, before trucking the last 500 metres or so to the rink.

Big Cat Place, sporting the latest in Double fashion: Doc Martens and leg armour.

Big Cat Place, sporting the latest in Double fashion: Doc Martens and leg armour.

And then, at about 10 pm, stomach still regretting what in Pulp Fiction parlance is a Royale with cheese, I stepped back into now horrendous pre-worn gear, reminiscent of putting on a wet wetsuit for a winter surf in my youth, and stepped onto the ice once more.

And this is where the biggest learning of my first Double kicked in. I’d always known the ice at Icy O’Briens and Oakleigh were different, but when you try to skate on both on the same night, the difference is profound. Not saying one is better than the other; they’re just wildly diverse underfoot. I’d just had my edges cut, picking up my skates before dev league, and felt fine on the ice during that scrimmage. Yet at Oakleigh, I could barely skate for the first couple of laps, and throughout our training session I never felt solid on my skates. The ice at Oakleigh is softer, often slightly wet, especially on a hot night like Tuesday, but somehow the ice felt ‘hard’, like I wasn’t getting the same grip as I had at Docklands.

The fact is that no two rinks are the same. Recently, after a Red Wings home game in Detroit, a visiting team complained about the ice at the Joe Louis Arena, with players saying it was so bad that it made it hard to display NHL-standard skills. Skating two rinks on one night shows how dramatically different the feel of ice can be under your skates. It’s wild.

The Oakleigh ice surface. I've never been able to skate as well there as I do at Docklands.

The Oakleigh ice surface. I’ve never been able to skate as well there as I do at Docklands.

But we had fun. Only a handful of ‘Kees had managed to make yet another workday-unfriendly training time but we had a good session, with strong spirit. The fog that had suspended games on the weekend at Oakleigh hung in the air but never badly enough to make the hockey difficult. As we left the building, just before midnight, the fog was thickening over the ice.

We got back in the car, drove through the empty night streets across the city, legs tired, brains tired, hockey sated. Wednesday morning was rough, as it always is after late night hockey, but that’s ok. I’d ticked off another item on my hockey bucket list: The Double.

Now I just need to find a frozen pond on which to play genuine pond hockey. I suspect, in the current high-30s heat wave gripping Australia, that’s not going to happen any time soon.

(https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2FNIckDoesHockey%2Fvideos%2F802253009903271%2F&show_text=0&width=560)

 

 

We need to talk about the odour …

I’m not sure, in all 250-plus blog posts, that I’ve ever adequately addressed the delicate subject of Hockey Smell.

Put it this way: it’s fucking appalling.

Or to put it another way: things that probably smell better than sweaty hockey gear:
– an animal carcass in the hot sun,
– a municipal tip,
– off eggs that are, like, two weeks ‘off’,
– the Werribee sewerage farm on a bad day.

A constant, hopefully downwind sight in my pokey backyard: the big dry.

A constant, hopefully downwind sight in my pokey backyard: the big dry.

Or to put it another way: I was lucky enough to play in a social game on Sunday, to celebrate the engagement of two local hockey stars, Christine Cockerell and Nate Pedretti. He’s a goalie, but is somehow a good bloke, regardless. Yes, most people have a party to mark an engagement: these guys hired a rink for an hour. The teams were a mixed bag of friends and teammates from their years in Melbourne hockey and so a bunch of us started climbing into our gear in the Melbourne Ice rooms at Icy O’Briens, which was ironic because Nate has represented the Mustangs, and Chris (whose team was changing in the Clippyclops room down the corridor) plays for the Ice.

Anyway, those of us on Nate’s team were busy lacing on skates and pulling on armour when Veronica Ryan, from the Jets, wandered in with a toddler, and said something like: ‘Here you go, son. Breathe it in! Breathe in the hockey smell! Better get used to it.’

And we all laughed because this is the eternal truth of hockey: you will learn to live with an unfathomable stench. Like veteran cops attending yet another decomposing body. Or garbologists who seem to develop an impervious nose while running along the street, emptying garbage bins that have been fermenting for a week in 35 degree heat. It goes with the job.

Will Ong and I, ready to make our debuts for Australia* (*not actually playing for Australia) Photo: Limpy Wunderbomb

Will Ong and I, ready to make our debuts for Australia*
(*not actually playing for Australia)
Photo: Limpy Wunderbomb

My wife tolerates my hockey obsessions in many ways, but one iron-clad rule is that I have to have showered thoroughly, washed my hair and washed my hands, with soap, at least three times before attempting to climb into bed after a game (this is a rule that sucks, if I’m staggering home from a 10.30 pm or 11 pm puck drop). It’s the smell of gloves on the skin of my hands that is Chloé’s breaking point, which I regard as completely fair enough. I think if you gathered all the hockey gloves of Melbourne’s active players and put them in the middle of the MCG, it would be declared a potentially lethal biohazard disaster zone within seconds.

On Saturday, I took the concept of odour as a tactical weapon to a whole new level. We’d been camping down at Wilsons Promontory, and it had rained hard on Friday, mixed occasionally with strong grit-carrying winds. By the time I drove the 220 kilometres back to Melbourne on Saturday afternoon, I hadn’t had a surf, swim or proper shower for a couple of days. I’d hiked, worked up a sweat packing up the tent, and done other exercise. Dirt was caked onto my legs, and black soil was under my fingernails. It’s as straight-out filthy as I can remember being. Even when I clambered around for a night in the illegal catacombs of Paris a couple of years ago, and got caked head-to-toe in the yellow mud of those tunnels, it was a clean mud, and the water was part of the Parisian drinking system. Unlike camping filthy, which is the real thing.

Wilsons Prom: so goddamn beautiful. Pic: Chloé

Wilsons Prom: so goddamn beautiful. Pic: Chloé

And so I headed to Icy O’Briens, to take on the Mako Sharks team, straight from the drive and still unshowered. That’s right, I donned my stinky hockey gear over the top of camping stench, and headed out to play, working on the theory that none of the opposition would want to come within five metres of me all night.

It sort of worked. We had an entertaining, if chippy, two-all draw.

But I wasn’t finished. Sweating hard from the game, I got straight back into my grubby shorts and T-shirt, and headed home. Chloé had had hours to return to her usual highly hygienic state of cleanliness. I walked in like some kind of swamp creature from the living dead. But finally, at around 10.45 pm, I had the luxury of a shower in my home shower, not a dodgy campground shower, and shampooed and soaped myself almost out of existence.

Of course, it meant my gear had less than 24 hours to air before the engagement game, and so I was back in a world of dodgy hockey hygiene by mid-afternoon on Sunday, wearing an actual Australian team training jersey for what will certainly be the only time in my skating life. The engagement game featured a lot of veteran players, Australian women’s players, and skaters from divisions way above mine, and I felt well out of my depth. Luckily it was a social match. There was at least one moment where I tore down my left wing, pushing the puck, and eventually letting loose a shot (unsuccessful) on Stoney the goalie (normally a Cherokee team-mate) where I’m certain the opposition defender was just skating politely backward, giving me room and deciding not to a) kill me, or b) strip me unceremoniously of the puck through the entire sequence.

The moment before the long-awaited post-hokey, post-camping shower. Just before a crew of feds in hazmat suits descended.

The moment before the long-awaited post-hockey, post-camping shower. Just before a crew of feds in hazmat suits descended.

But I was on a line with Will Ong, who’s a mate and, more importantly, can really play, and I got some decent passes away and had some shots on goal. I love playing among players of such skill and experience. Passes are so crisp, positioning is so perfect, and man, some of them can skate! Oh, to have those wheels.

The game ended with the bride, Christine, taking a penalty shot on Nate, the groom. (This is the hockey world at its finest.) She skated in, deeked, beat him, and hit the sidebar. The puck stayed out, but Chris knocked the rebound in and celebrated wildly, even though, technically, that would be an illegal goal.

Care factor, zero. There’s no day-to-day, moment-to-moment referee to enforce the rules in marriage, my friends.

Suck it up, Natester.

Yes, the entire institution of matrimony summed up in one penalty shot. Yet another reason to love hockey, even if it smells like a bastard.

Nate and Christine's engagement classic, the after-game photo. They argued about whether the other had stacked their team, she bent the rules to score on a penalty shot. It was marriage, summarised,on ice. Pic: Veronica Ryan

Nate and Christine’s engagement classic, the after-game photo. They argued about whether the other had stacked their team, she bent the rules to score on a penalty shot. It was marriage, summarised,on ice. Pic: Veronica Ryan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A good week to be a bat

Fly on, my bats.

#Batlyfe

Heading to Icy O’Briens on Monday night for a death slot 10.30 pm game, against the Wolverines, I was blown away by the number of bats in the post-dusk sky above me. I’ve always loved bats and have even tried to write them into poems, without any kind of publishable success. For years, I’ve sat on balconies around Fitzroy or Fitzroy North and watched them flapping determinedly to the west, deep in the gloaming, so sure of where they’re going while it sometimes feels like I lurch along underneath their flight path. I’m so happy that they’re around in such numbers this year and decided it was a good omen for the game, given I occasionally find myself dressing up as Batman and getting stared at by worried parents as I sit inexplicably on a public playground’s swing, scaring the little ones. Look, it’s a long story. The tl;dr version is that I’m practically a bat.

I can explain, Your Honour ...

I can explain, Your Honour …

Big Cat has moved to the other end of town so the Icy O’Briens commute is now a solo-journey which still feels weird, but on Monday night, with the companionship of my fellow bats, I grinned and turned the radio up louder as I went past the zoo. Feelin’ Alright’ by Joe Cocker was blasting and the night was perfect. I was primed and ready to tear up my first competitive hockey game of 2017.

You guessed it. The Cherokees lost and I was reasonably ineffective, not managing to get any points.

Driving home, I clicked the music down a few notches: ‘One more cup of coffee’ by Bob Dylan. Nothing but hits and memories in my car right now. I usually listen to more new music than old, but lately I’ve noticed that’s shifted. Maybe it’s because the here and now feels a little threatening, a little daunting, off the ice more than on. Music is always an exceptional way of taking yourself back to better times.

On Monday night, just past midnight, as Bob took a last look at his lover and prepared to go to the valley below, I was driving through empty streets, dirty about the loss, dirty that I hadn’t done more with the puck, dirty with the world, but then I remembered, shit, it was only hockey.

I’ve had two friends my age smacked hard by cancer in the last year and I worry, and barrack, deeply for their health. Other friends are doing it tough for various reasons. I have my own off-ice trials, like everybody, but then I look to Manus Island or Nauru, and I read over Christmas about a legitimate refugee pleading with the Australian government for medical help and being denied, and dying, to very little community outrage, and I shudder and realise my trials, whatever they are, are honestly not so bad. I’m 51 years old, living in one of the greatest cities in the world, and healthy enough to play hockey with my son and a bunch of mates on a brilliant rink deep into the night.

The People's Champion: America keeping it real.

The People’s Champion: America keeping it real.

But if you have any kind of world awareness, darkness looms, just on the edge of our vision and it’s hard not to be spooked. Maybe the bats have the right idea, after all, flying away to who knows where? I’m following their lead, heading out of town on Friday and plan/hope to have no wifi or phone signal where we’re camping. I honestly don’t want to be plugged in on January 20 when a reprehensible human is sworn in as President of the United States. It all comes down to one thing for me: Trump just seems like a fucking horrible person. Forget Russians, forget whether Clinton was better, forget everything: what a nasty piece of shit ‘The Donald’ appears to be. Honestly. And he’ll be President. (Fun fact: I actually was once in the same room as him, at the Plaza Hotel ballroom, on the edge of Central Park, in Manhattan, surrounded by fake smiles and giant diamonds and a Tom Wolfe cast of glittering social creatures, a long, long time ago, but that’s a journalistic anecdote and has no place on a hockey blog. I hope I never have the same proximity again, given what I know now, about his views on women, disabled reporters, honesty, ethics, Muslims, Mexicans, and everything else.)

Save me, Betty Davis.

Save me, Betty Davis.

So anyway, I think next week is going to be a rough week, for anybody who cares about the world. And I’m glad I’ll be seriously unplugged on a remote Victorian beach, with very good wine and single malt whisky, with people who love me and even with a couple of my Bang footy brothers.

I might go surfing, or kick a Sherrin, then crank up the happy beats of ‘Hangin’ Out’ from Betty Davis – The Colombia Years. Push the camp chairs back and dance with my wife in the gathering gloom. And trust that life will get better, for ailing friends, for my hockey team, for the staggering Red Wings, for legal asylum seekers, for the wider world.

Stay safe, everybody, and try to keep believing the world remains a mostly good place, not mostly bad. Even when the evidence sometimes disputes that fact, like it will next week.

All we can do is play the long game. Peace.

 

 

The lucky mo

The lucky mo. Deep in Movember.

The lucky mo. Deep in Movember.

It was halfway through November that it occurred to me. Ever since I had shaved off my beard and started growing an unsightly trucker moustache, for Movember, I had scored a point or even points in every hockey game I’d played. A couple of goals and a few assists for the Cherokees, goals or assists in every development league outing on a Tuesday night… I suddenly thought: is this a thing? And the moment I thought that, then, yes, this was now a thing.

A magical moustache.

Hockey, like most sports, lends itself to superstitions. As the feeling took hold that my moustache was a hideous yet potentially lucky charm, I found myself going onto the ice thinking about The Movember Streak and marvelling when I left the ice with yet more points in my pocket.

Pre-training, sitting in the Henke Rink stands, watching a session before ours, I got chatting to Christine Cockerell, of Melbourne Ice and Australian team fame. Do you have any superstitions, I asked? What’s your version of the Lucky Mo? Chris said, while dressing for a game, she must always touch her left shin guard first. ‘If I can’t see what leg it is in my bag, I move my bag around, or I move it with another item till I can see the left shin pad,’ she said. Chris also always wears two pairs of socks over her shin guards, which is a whacky superstition.

Christine Cockerill in action for the Ice. Pic: Tania Chalmers Photography.

Christine Cockerell in action for the Ice. Pic: Tania Chalmers Photography.

I put a call out on the Book of Faces. Hockey players came back with some beauties, like Justin Young who claims kissing his stick on the way to the bench isn’t a superstition, uh uh, no way; or there was the goalie who doesn’t let his skates touch the blue or centre lines, and who kisses the crossbar (Gary Agular). Dan ‘Yoda’ Byrne doesn’t drink liquid during a game, which is pretty strange, but chews gum, while Daniel Tofters insists on smoking a cigarette before donning his gear. ‘100 per cent success rate this season,’ he wrote.

Emma Rogers also made me laugh with: ‘During my first playoffs I would have half a caramel slice about 5 minutes before the game Every game. We made finals and won . I also have a habit of putting a mint in my mouth at the start of every period. And drink next to no water during a game.’ What is it with these superstitious freaks who actively dehydrate during games?

Will Ong said he carries a potato around in his pocket while coaching the Jets but I’m not sure if that’s a superstition or just a desperate cry for help (I love you, Will!) and Trent Stokes’ answer was hilarious: ‘Not very superstitious but there’s a couple things I do to get into the mindset for a game. Always eat the same meal 2 hours out from a game. Always pack my gear in the same order and put my gear on in the same order. Listen to the same music on the way to the game. Always re-tape and wax my stick on game day whether it needs it or not. Try and sit in the same spot in the locker room. Always get to the game 1 hour early. Always start getting dressed 45mins before the game. Always lace my skates, walk and then re-lace. Always touch the goal once during warm ups. Finally, always look at the scoreboard during warm ups and take a second to envision winning and scoring.’

Other than all that, he’s not superstitious at all.

It’s important to note that a true superstition demands that some illogical part of your brain actually believes this will have an effect on whether you’ll be successful or not. Habits, rituals or systems don’t really count. For example, Will Ong and I both apparently share the exact same socks/skates routine: Socks on first, left skate, right skate, left shin pad, right shin pad, left sock tape, right sock tape. I do that every game, including a complicated over-taping routine that Lee Ampfea taught me years ago and I’ve stuck with. But I don’t think it would ruin my game if I didn’t follow the routine, so that’s not a superstition.

Instead, think of the classics: carrying a rabbit’s foot, throwing salt over your shoulder, seeing a black cat … all pretty whacky. The French have a fantastic one where if you give somebody a knife as a gift (and an Opinel always makes for an awesome gift, btw, if you’re still hunting for Christmas), the recipient MUST give the knife-giver some money in return. It can be five cents, that’s fine. But the friendship will be cut unless money changes hands as a gesture of good will, as the knife passes ownership the other way. I’ve been involved in several knife gifts, because of my French extended family, and trust me, that superstition is taken very seriously. I like it.

Many superstitions have a basis in fact, or at least a good story behind them, if you bother to dig, such as walking under a ladder. Back in the day, before fancy gallows were invented, it was common to execute somebody by tying a noose to the top of a ladder, putting the rope around their neck, having the condemned person climb the ladder and then swing the ladder the other way so they were now underneath instead of on top of the ladder. They’d be hanged in that space now between the wall and the ladder; hence that space developing a reputation as a place of bad energy.

Army's Movember style.

Melbourne Ice player and dev league coach Matt Armstrong’s strong Movember style.

The Geelong footy club is known as the Cats (instead of its previous nickname The Pivotonians) because, decades ago, a cat ran onto the ground midway through a home game where Geelong was being badly beaten by Collingwood. After the delay, while somebody caught the cat, Geelong roared back and won. The next week, a kid walked into the local hardware shop where the Geelong captain worked, and handed him a pile of homemade badges in the shape of a cat, one for each player. The Geelong team wore the badges that week and won again … the nickname stuck.

Hockey is full of characters, at every level, from Melbourne summer hackers to the NHL, so it shouldn’t surprise that superstitious thinking is ever-present. In fact, goaltender Ben Scrivens wrote a fantastic piece for the Players Tribune on the topic (thanks to Stephen Maroney for pointing me to it). It’s a fun read. As in, Patrick Roy really chatted to his goalposts? Then again, I shouldn’t be surprised: I once wrote a novel where a character had conversations with his own mouth, so all bets are off, really.

My superstitious Mo Streak made it through the entire month. Every time I stepped onto the ice with that bad boy on my top lip, I got points. It was miraculous, really. Plus I raised a thousand bucks for men’s health, which was amazing. (Thanks to everybody who donated.)

And then December arrived, and I shaved. And the mo was gone.

And I had dev league on December 6.

And – rookie error – I told Tommy Powell and Matt Armstrong about the streak, and about this being my first time out there without the mo.

And the entire game, the three of us, and Big Cat, became consumed on whether I’d go pointless and the superstition would be confirmed.

In the first period I had looks but couldn’t score. In the second period, I screwed up a strong chance, losing the handle on the puck while skating with space through the blue line. Tommy was going nuts. ‘No points, Place! Still no points!’

Then late in the second, I flicked a pass off the boards to Malks, who is a Div 2 forward who attacks like a maniac and has a good shot. He’s a good guy to carry you to points, deserved or not, when you’re trying to shake clear of a superstition.

He flew off down the ice, taking on the defence. I shuffled along behind, on my ageing legs, trying to keep up so I could be there for a potential rebound if his shot was blocked. But it wasn’t. He sank it, inside the post, top left corner. Nothing but net.

Primary assist: N. Place.

So long, mo. It was fun while it lasted.

So long, mo. It was fun while it lasted.

On the opposition bench, Army went nuts. On our bench, Tommy exploded with excitement and laughter. I dove to the ice in a joyous Superman, sliding all the way to the red line.
Malks tentatively approached and tapped me on the helmet, saying, ‘Um, nice pass.’
(Later I asked him if he had any idea why this meaningless dev league goal had a response worthy of a Stanley Cup overtime goal? He said no, he had no clue. So that must have been surreal for him.)

And just like that, my superstition bit the dust. It turns out I can still play hockey without the Mo from Hell.

Although, sure enough, with my beard growing back, I was held pointless against a strong Demons team on Sunday, so normality has truly returned, dammnit.

I had better try not to walk under any ladders between now and Sunday’s last game of the year.

Happy Christmas, everybody.

 

 

 

The Great Escape

Lids and bottles ready: Big Cat and Nicko side-by-side.

Lids and bottles ready: Big Cat and Nicko side-by-side.

I started hockey more than six years ago largely as an act of escapism. There was a woman involved, of course. Or, more specifically, the fading ghost of a woman I’d loved, and taking up hockey, without having ever skated, seemed like a great idea at that moment. Smashing repeatedly and painfully into hard ice is a good, immediate way to take your mind off a bruised heart. For the duration of a hockey class, at least.

Miraculously, it worked and I healed and I got to play hockey with both my boys, if too briefly with Mackqvist. Big Cat and I have been on the adventure together, all the way, and now he’s taken over an official letter in the Cherokees team as a leader, and that makes me smile, watching him grow and walk taller.

When you're on the ice, the rest of the world fades away. Pic: Luke Milkman

When you’re on the ice, the rest of the world fades away. Pic: Luke Milkman

Off the ice, my career fortunes, in fiction and real work, have waxed and waned, dipped, risen and plunged and then risen again. Life’s a rodeo, but I chose that path, away from the 9 to 5, a long time ago. Meanwhile, I met other women and then they became ghosts and I skated hard all over again, and then I met a French beauty who fundamentally rocked my world and so life got better, and through it all I somehow stuck with hockey and the hockey world was generous enough to stick with me.

And here I am.

And here is my crazy little self-indulgent blog, nickdoeshockey, which has recently passed 100,000 views (a lot more than all five of my published novels combined, just quietly) through almost 33,000 individual users, according to the WordPress statistical robots. Viewers officially from every continent, including Antarctica (even if I suspect that turned out to be a hoax from Adelaide. Nevertheless.) Who would have thought?

The proof. Amazeballs, as the kids like to say. Well, used to like to say.

The proof. Amazeballs, as the kids like to say. Well, used to like to say.

I still find those figures hard to believe. But there they are. Thank you to everybody who has spent time in this icy, random corner of the interweb.

My happy place: the spacious, luxuriously appointed expanses of an Oakleigh change room, with the 16/17 incarnation of the Cherokees.

My happy place: the spacious, luxuriously appointed expanses of an Oakleigh change room, with the 16/17 incarnation of the Cherokees.

Six years after my first hockey class, my first suspected broken arm and my first blog post, my life is in a very different place but the world remains a strange, sometimes cruel and frightening place. I generally have a rosy, optimistic view, by nature, but sometimes keeping that up can be difficult. Like when a truly hideous individual somehow gets voted in as US President, or when I sit in front of my laptop and the prospects of ever making a living as an Australian author of fiction seem more remote than ever (not just for me, for the vast majority of us, hacking away), or when I gaze towards Nauru and Manus Island and see my Government continuing to commit crimes against humanity, or when my everyday sources of paying the rent appear worryingly fragile. To make things worse, the Red Wings are going to finally break The Streak this season (I’m calling it now), Richmond seems to be a non-contender, as ever, and I’m currently sporting a truly horrible moustache – although at least that’s for a good cause.

And so hockey still needs to occasionally play the original role I asked of it – as a pure all-senses-engaged escapism from life outside the glass wall.

And it does. Mysteriously, I am currently in what’s probably the best form of my life, feeling confident, fit and even occasionally quite fast on the ice. I’ve been scoring points and goals and causing trouble, and man, oh man, but is hockey a more fun place when you don’t feel like you’re just making up the numbers or not really contributing to your team.

It’s so nice to feel fit, and not be nursing any injuries. To be with teammates you really like and share an instinctive understanding, including trusty Big Cat on the right wing, slotting a dirty, doorstop rooftop goal to give me a not-much-deserved assist on the weekend.

Have bad mo, will travel.

Have bad mo, will travel.

And so we set sail to who knows where, in life, in hockey and in this blog. Whether the blog makes it to 200,000 views or not doesn’t matter to me at all. It’s charted my crazy hockey adventure to here, and that’s fine. It’s introduced me to so many great people, opened unexpected doors into the small but passionate Melbourne hockey world, is currently hopefully raising a bit of money for Movember (oh, I don’t look good at all) and who knows how long it has to run? The last two summers, I’ve finished the season thinking that was it; I’d almost certainly retire. But then a few months later, I think: why would I?

Right now, I’m loving playing and loving the Real Life Shutout that only hockey can provide. Long may it last.