Riding the brain loop

Runkeeper app (cycling mode), with its emotion-free American female voice, says, ‘Time 25 minutes, Distance 8 kilometres.’

Riding the Yarra on a perfect day.

Riding the Yarra on a perfect day.

Riding my gorgeous birthday mountain bike on Sunday afternoon, I had swooped off Johnston Street to the Collingwood children’s farm, suddenly among horses and sheep, then climbed the Boulevard and dropped onto the main Yarra cycling track behind Richmond. Fancy houses and Scotch College across the glittery river, rowing crews on the water, and idiots wheeling three prams side-by-side occasionally blocking the path in both directions. I mean, seriously?

Thirty degrees and perfect riding conditions. I breathe and move my legs, feet clipped into the pedals.

My brain? Still in armour and skates from the afternoon before. A nagging internal voice on a loop. My brain replaying The Cherokees giving up a goal in the opening minute to Ice Wolves’ Nick, a gun from dev league. Not the start we wanted. But then roaring back with three goals of our own, none of which I was on the ice for, to carry a handy 3-1 lead into the first period break.

Runkeeper: ‘Time 35 minutes. Distance 10 kilometres.’

Sunday ride ...

Sunday ride …

My head still somewhere else. Ice Wolves scoring two goals in the second period to level the game at 3-3.

But now I get fed a beautiful pass from defence and I cross the blue line, entering our zone, in complete control of the puck, thinking to myself: ‘You haven’t played for a month, don’t rush it. You have more time than you think.’ Seeing where the defender was, with enough room for me to be creative.

Hearing Kittens and Jimmy yelling, that they were also in the zone, ready for a centering pass. My specialty. Letting it fly but a fraction of a second too late, so that my pass hits an opposition skate, deflects straight out of our zone and onto the stick of the opposition’s best player, who sweeps down the ice and scores, all alone on poor Ajay, our keeper. 4-3 Wolves. Fuck.

My bike glides along the Burnley Boardwalk and the music has inexplicably cut out on my phone, so I try to turn off my hockey brain, sing ‘Under the Boardwalk’ softly to myself, as I pass the rangy, sinewed abseilers in the shadowy world under the freeway, the little water garage holding a restored ferry and all the other secret wonders of a bike track.

Now I’m at Birrarung Marr and I have to ride super slowly, and eventually walk so I’m not one of those dicks who tries to be a Tour de France rider in the middle of heavy foot traffic near Flinders Street station. This is going to kill my time-per-kilometre average on Runkeeper, but hey ho.

Now the brain loop fixates on a Kittens shot from the slot that rebounded straight towards me. I’m floating in, just as I should to the left of the goal, seeing the Wolves keeper sprawled and the puck heading my way. I wait for the puck to land exactly on my blade so I can roof it into the near high corner. I’ve practised that shot. I’m confident I can hit it. But let’s make sure by letting the puck come all the way onto my stick blade. By which time, of course, Wolves defenders have descended and hacked my stick and the puck so the shot I attempt barely registers. Sigh. Why didn’t I just whack at it immediately? Shit.

All the essentials: helmet, gloves and coffee.

All the essentials: helmet, gloves and coffee.

Runkeeper: ‘Time 50 minutes. Distance 16 kilometres.’

The Australian Open tennis is like a virus, spreading from the increasing buildings on what were once public ovals and athletics training fields, to now creep, with ‘festival sites’, along both sides of the river, all the way to South Wharf. I covered all the Grand Slams as a journo; don’t remember Paris, London or New York being so overtaken by the event. Maybe they are now? It’s a long time since I covered that sport.

Runkeeper solemnly intones: ‘Time: one hour, 10 minutes. Distance 20 kilometres’ as I creep over the strange intestine-like bridge linking South Wharf to Docklands. I drift up through the Docklands market, close to the water, rather than stick to the faster bike track on Footscray Road. I ride past Icy O’Briens, aka the Icehouse, aka O’Briens Group Arena, scene of yesterday’s game and my hockey spiritual home.

We level the game at 4-4 through a great lone effort by our captain, Patto.

Soon after, my line is on the ice and we charge into attack. Again I’m crashing the net when a rebound bounces off the goalie. I control the puck. The Wolves goalie does the right thing, covering the post and making himself big. I shoot anyway on a tight angle, hoping for a gap, but it hits his body and falls. I try desperately to drag the puck out from below his knee-roll, where it’s half-pinned, but the ref blows the whistle and the moment is lost.

Riding Railway Canal ... the glamour mile of Melbourne's bike paths.

Riding Railway Canal … the glamour mile of Melbourne’s bike paths.

I’m riding away from the giant wheel and Docklands now in shadow, the Bolte Bridge freeway high above my head. The sparkling Yarra and the docks have given way to the smelly water of the Railway Canal, scene of a body dump in the last detective novel I wrote; a book that still hasn’t made it through the maze of agents and publishers. Maybe never will. I should be fretting about that if I’m going to fret.

Why didn’t I hold onto the puck and try a wrap-around? Could I have fed a pass to one of the other forwards? Did I choose the right option, in shooting straight into the keeper’s body?

I ride through low underpasses and then climb carefully up the ramp to Flemington Bridge, a railway station I suspect only cyclists know even exists.

‘One hour, 25 minutes,’ says Runkeeper. ‘Twenty-five kilometres.’

Now I’m heading east. In Jakarta and in the obscure African country of Burkina FasoI, terrorists have been killing people in the last few days. There are real problems in the world, and even among my friends and family, yet I ride on, sighing at my hockey mediocrity. I pass the zoo and that means I’m heading back into the part of Melbourne I call home. There are trams, and people sunbaking in Princes Park, and street art in the tunnel under Sydney Road.

I finally run out of rusty mistakes I made in Saturday’s game. My brain eases up on itself. I tell myself that a friend who was watching the game, and is honest, said he thought I played pretty well. At least I was in the right position for those rebounds, even if they didn’t go in, right?

With my fancy bike; brain loop purged.

With my fancy bike; brain loop purged.

I pass St Ali’s near Nicholson Street and think about coffee, because, well, this is Melbourne.

And I’m me.

And, well … coffee.

But I keep riding.

The team played really well. We didn’t lose. Four-four was a good result, given we were behind for a lot of the third period.

I pull off the bike track as Runkeeper tells me that it’s been 30 kilometres in one hour, 38 minutes. I coast down a side street to Dench’s Bakery and park my bike against the glass. Order a flat white. And a jam bombolone to undo all the good work.

You did trap a puck with your skate on your defensive blue line, kick it onto your stick and pass neatly to Kittens, already flying down the centre, leading to a decent shot attempt by him. That was good.

The coffee tastes fantastic. My legs are warm, tired, sated.

It was the first game of the year. You did lots of good things; why are you focusing on the screw-ups. It’s human nature, right? Or you’re just a dick. Stop doing it. The sun’s out.

The hockey brain is a strange beast. Or maybe it’s just me?

I finish my coffee. I drink some water out of my trusty ‘Itchy and Scratchy’ water bottle that I’ve had since about 1990.

Stop beating yourself up, I think. Hockey’s fun. The team played well. You’ll be right.

When’s the next game?

I get back on my bike to pedal gently home.

Next Saturday, 3.45 pm.

I find myself grinning under my bike helmet.

Bring it.

 

 

 

Back to work …

So, I have a hockey game on Saturday.

This is something of a shock, as it always is after the Christmas break.

It was December 19 when I last strapped on the skates, to play the ice Wolves at Icy O’Briens Arena. Of course, my unprecedented two-game scoring streak came to an end that day, but we Cherokees actually had a great game against the top team, pushing them all the way, and headed into Christmas feeling good.

Showing amazing stick-holding technique v the Icebreakers in December. Pic: Eyal Bernard

Showing amazing stick-holding technique v the Ice Wolves in December. Pic: Eyal Bernard

Now, almost a month later, who knows?

I remember coach Lliam Webster saying, in one of my earliest skating lessons five years ago this week (no, really), that ice-skating is a completely unnatural action. That we humans are designed to walk or run, but not skate – where there is a need to push our feet counter-intuitively to the side – so it has to be totally learned.

A month off takes you inevitably not back to square one, but certainly back quite a few levels of skating comfort. Another of my respected coaches along the way, Joey Hughes, once told me that before the official training starts for an AIHL season, he always books private ice time at his home rink in Oakleigh and

The view from my parents' house on Christmas Day. Lorne was lucky. Poor Wye River and Separation Creek weren't. Pic: Amanda Place

The view from my parents’ house on Christmas Day. Lorne was lucky. Poor Wye River and Separation Creek weren’t. Pic: Amanda Place

then puts himself through several hours of back-to-basics skating drills; the same ones he sets for Next Level newbies or intermediate classes, just refining and recalling the muscle memory for everything from basic crossovers to pivots and fancier hockey moves. It’s only once he’s done several sessions of that and feels like he has his edges back that he picks up his stick and begins genuine hockey training.

Which doesn’t bode well for me on Saturday. I am not now and never will be a Joey Hughes.

The flipside of all this is that having a break from any sport can be a wonderful thing. I fully utilised the break, from helping my elderly parents get the Hell out of Dodge when a bushfire threatened Lorne on Christmas day, to hanging out with friends

French Billy Eliott done well: Is that Lliam Webster playing the dad?

French Billy Elliot done well. But wait, is that Lliam Webster playing the dad?

and amazing fauna at North Stradbroke Island, to watching the aforementioned Lliam Webster unexpectedly play the deaf father in a French film, La Famille Bélier, to missing the Cherokees’ first training skate of the year on Sunday because I was getting sunburnt at a French music festival, digging the sexy and talented duo, Brigitte, or jumping up and down to a bizarre but fun Baltic-French hip-hop crew, Soviet Suprem.

But now party time is over, even if it slated to be 41 degrees Celsius tomorrow.

Just another quiet gig for Soviet Suprem, at So Frenchy So Chic.

Just another quiet gig for Soviet Suprem, at So Frenchy So Chic.

Saturday looms, and the need to be able to stand upright on skates while chasing a small, hard rubber puck, and hopefully not giving away penalties by careering uncontrollably into opponents. Looks like I’ll be the one wobbling around at as many stick ‘n’ puck sessions as I can get to between now and the weekend. Starting at 4.30 pm today.

Off-season distraction: French duo Brigette.

Off-season distraction: French duo Brigette.

See you there?

 

 

One more Soviet Suprem clip, for fun. Trust me, live, they are amazing!

 

Trouble in the making of NickDoesHockey, the movie …

Dateline: November, 2017:
Scene: The office of Timefiller Productions, the production company putting together the “NickDoesHockey” telemovie.

INT: WRITERS ROOM (MEETING IN PROGRESS)              DAY

Producer: ‘Come on, peoples, it’s looking good but we’re lacking an element of fizz.’

Writer 1: ‘Fizz?’

Not even they could save this film ...

Not even they could save this film …

Producer: ‘Yeah, fizz. Steaminess, scandal … it’s all a bit too ‘straight’. This “Nick Place” character seems too straight. I mean, really? Work, hockey, family, the occasional coffee or whisky. Yawn. We need dirt! We need something to burn up the screen.’

Researcher 1: ‘Umm, he got a speeding ticket once …’

Producer: ‘Oh, come on, peoples! Tell you what, let’s focus on that week where Nick’s wife was in France and he was all alone, living the sweet bachelor life, in Melbourne through Cup Week. Researchers, give us the really juicy stuff from that sordid lost week…

Researcher 2: ‘Um, well, there was Cup Day …’

Not Nicko Place: damn.

Not Nicko Place: damn.

Producer: ‘Yeah, excellent. I can see it. Sweeping shot of the Flemington grandstands, zooming in to the crowd, all the women in their amazing frocks, with waaaaaay plunging necklines and showing lots of leg. Now we see Nicko, dressed up in a snappy suit, cruising the drunken race-goers and plying them with alcohol, deciding which three or four to take home? Yeah!’

Writer 2: ‘Um, well, actually, he and his son, Big Cat, went to a stick-and-puck hockey practice session at O’Brien Arena, then he had lunch with a friend. He had a nasty head cold so he watched the Cup, supine on his couch.’

Producer: ‘Oh really? Damn. Still plenty of the week left. What about Wednesday? Shaken the cold, ready to rock out Hump Day in Melbourne’s famous night clubs. Nicko heads out, ready to par-tay…’

Researcher 1: ‘Firstly, nobody says “par-tay” any more, boss. And actually, Nicko spent a quiet day working, then had his usual two hours of hockey that night. Inter class and dev league.’

Producer: ‘Oh man. Well, Thursday equals Sin day! AmIright?

Researcher 3: ‘Met with his accountant, had a couple of other business meetings, saw a quiet movie, home early to bed. Still sneezing.’

Producer: ‘What movie did he see? Porn? Snuff film? Something shocking?’

Researcher 1: “The Lobster” with Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz. By Greek arthouse director Yorgos Lanthimos. Awesome film …’

The Lobster: amazing film.

The Lobster: amazing film.

Producer: ‘For fuck sake, come on, people! Give me something we can use? This movie is going to be rated G if we don’t find something salacious. Let’s refocus: Friday night … of all nights. Unless I’m mistaken, Friday is still the big night of the week? Yeah? What did our boy do? I want drunkenness, I want an orgy, I want Jake Carlisle coming around to Nick’s place for a Snapchat session … I want something!’

Researcher 2: ‘Friday evening? Played hockey again.’

Silence.

Producer: ‘Seriously?’

Writer 2: ‘For the IBM corporate team, filling in, against Australia Post.’

Nicko and Fly in the Icy Obrien rooms: this guy needs a life.

Nicko and Fly in the Icy Obrien rooms: this guy needs a life.

Producer: ‘Did he at least bring his dog to the rink, like the Friday before?’

Researcher 3: ‘Um, nope.’

Writer 2: ‘Scored a goal in the opening five seconds, though, which was a funny moment … I’m thinking we come in tight on the face-off, and then pan-‘

Producer: ‘NOBODY CARES IF HE SCORED A HAT-TRICK, YOU DICKHEAD. I WANT SCANDAL. I WANT CONTROVERSY. Where did he go after the game?’

Researcher 1: ‘A Collingwood cafe, La Niche. Listened to some French music, and ate a big bowl of tartiflette.’

La Niche tartiflette. The ultimate post-hockey meal.

La Niche tartiflette. The ultimate post-hockey meal.

Producer: ‘What the hell is tartiflette?’

Researcher 1: ‘Um, mostly potato covered in several baked cheeses. The ultimate post-hockey meal.’

Producer: ‘Holy shit. The weekend better deliver. His wife’s back on Monday evening. Tell me he went berserk, got arrested, was found in a pool of his own vomit, at a bondage party, over the weekend.’

Researcher 1: ‘Hung out with his seven-year-old step-son, went to the museum, played hockey with the Cherokees on Sunday afternoon, had a quiet dinner with his family, then home to bed.’

Producer (popping Aspirin): ‘So just to be clear: this guy’s wife is out of town for a week and a bit, and he plays hockey four times, goes out drinking or partying exactly zero times?

Research 1: ‘Actually, when you put it like that, it IS pathetic.’

Producer: ‘That’s it. I’m out. This movie’s got nothing. NOTHING.’

Nicko Place, yesterday.

Nicko Place, yesterday.

Writer 2: ‘The Cherokees had a win, on the Sunday. Nicko was patchy … did some good things, screwed up others … managed to stay out of the “Naughty Box” as Cassius calls it.’

Producer: ‘Phone somebody who cares. I’m gone. Where are the keys to my Mercedes?’

PA (entering from outer office): ‘Boss? Pierce Brosnan’s on the phone. He says he’s been learning to skate for three months, with the help of ex-NHL star Nick Lidstrom. Says he thinks he’s ready for the title role.’

Producer: ‘Tell him it’s off. The whole thing’s off. We’re done. You’re all fired.’

Researcher 2: ‘What do we tell Nick Place?’

Producer: ‘Tell him to get a life.’

 

Bruises and bacon

Cassius was trying to be diplomatic.

I’d been showing him one of my more impressive recent bruises. It happened a week or so ago during a Cherokees game at Icy O’Briens ( as I like to call the artist formerly known as the Icehouse; now officially renamed the O’Brien’s Group Arena). I’d gone into a corner to battle for a puck against the glass, in our offensive end. Fishing for the puck with my stick, with an opponent trying to protect it, I went in fast. Normally when your stick hits the wall, in that situation, it will deflect right or left, depending on the angle, but somehow my stick went dead straight and then got caught against the defender’s skate or something. I’m still not sure. All I know is my stick ‘stuck’ and therefore didn’t ‘give’ when my stomach hit it, perfectly, of course, in the gap between the chest armour and the padded shorts.** It was painful but ok: I wasn’t exactly impaled, and damn, but did all those endless ab workouts finally pay off or what? (shifts eyes)

So now I had a perfect imprint of the rectangular end of my stick and a surrounding deep bruise on my stomach. And Cassius, with all the wisdom of a seven-year-old, who has seen a bit of life, said to me: ‘Nicko, you know, you keep playing ice hockey and you keep getting hurt and I’m just thinking maybe you should try not to get hurt and maybe you should stop?’

Even better, he started to list my historic wounds. ‘There was that time you hit the wall really hard, and there was your knee, and there was your wrist…’

I laughed, no idea he’d been quietly cataloging my hockey carnage, but then thinking it must be pretty interesting at his age, to see a supposedly responsible adult regularly return home limping or wincing or bruised from what’s supposed to be ‘fun’.

But stop hockey because of the bruises? I picked at my food and drank some wine and tried to work out how to reply.

Because I’m pretty sure when I stop playing it will be because I get sick of not being very good, or having no real prospect of improving (deep down, I’m a competitive bastard and don’t like being mediocre), not because of bruises, unless I’m unlucky enough to finally snap a leg or a collarbone or something, as I’ve witnessed more times than I’d prefer during training or games. (It’s still striking, to me, that in the very first ever nickdoeshockey blog, I declared that I would aim to play until I inevitably really hurt myself, whether that was in a week, or two months, or maybe more. Five years later …)

Danger, danger. Me on my latest bike: hurt myself the first time I rode it.

Danger, danger. Me on my latest bike: hurt myself the first time I rode it.

Anyway, what to say to Cassius? He’s has been trying to get the hang of bike riding lately and it’s been tough to convince him on the risk versus reward ratio. When you’re struggling to learn how to balance a bike, and to conceive that going faster makes that easier, there are mental hurdles to jump.

I’ve fallen off bikes in all sorts of ways and in all sorts of situations. Without even pausing for thought, I can reel off: learning on my sister’s Malvern Star that was too big for me and had fixed pedals so you couldn’t glide, couldn’t stop pedaling; a bus almost taking me out riding home from Camberwell, and me choosing to veer, at high speed, into a parked car rather than get wiped by the bigger bus (that one hurt); trying to ride my old Repco down some bark steps in a park in Mount Waverley and making it all the way to the third bottom step before I got out of sync and bounced hard; getting a wire across the stomach from a fence I hadn’t noticed, in front of the entire family of a primary school girl I had a crush on; mountain biking in the bush gone wrong (repeat: by more than a few times). And so on.

But damn, I still love riding bikes.

Bacon: the death of you?

Bacon: the death of you?

Just as I love a glass of wine, or whisky, even though I know they’re bad for me. And just as people love bacon and processed meat, even though the World Health Organisation has now forcefully stated that they can lead to cancer. Not to mention the peril of smoking or heavier drugs.

Every day, in all sorts of ways, we all run risks, we take chances, we make choices, that pit personal health or safety against a wish for pleasure, need, money or other goals. The risks of breathing through apparatus underwater for the reward of hanging out with amazing creatures like manta rays … the risk of financial uncertainty through chasing the reward of a creative life … the risk of death in a plane crash versus the reward of flying to Europe … the risk of your heart, for the reward of love … pouring money into a poker machine to risk losing the rent versus a long shot to win big. This weekend and on Tuesday, Australians will pour ignorant millions into backing racehorses most of us have no idea about, dreaming of a collect and bragging rights.

me diving with a manta ray. Worth any risk ...

Me diving with a manta ray. Worth any risk … Pic: Chris Garraway.

… The risk of hurting yourself in physical exercise for the reward of overall health. This morning, I had to cross one of Melbourne’s most bizarre and intense road intersections, by foot. It’s the one near the Yarra River where Docklands turns into South Melbourne. You know: that little Lorimer Street-Montague Street-Johnson-Street-Wurundjeri Way-Princes Freeway onramp/offramp-West Gate Freeway onramp-offramp crossroad, with massive freeway overpasses overhead. Near South Wharf. I had to walk from the Port Melbourne side to South Wharf, which involves a lot of endless waiting for red men to turn into briefly flashing green men for disjointed crossings. Or you can wait until the little man turns green and just run for it, and see how far you can get before the mountain of traffic closes down all routes, and you’re marooned on a traffic island somewhere in the middle.

It is a lot like that scene in the excellent film, Bowfinger, where Eddie Murphy’s character has to cross an LA freeway for a movie shot.

So, there I was, and the green man turned green. I broke into a loping run, not exactly sprinting but moving fast enough to cover the whole intersection, a dozen or so lanes in eight separate chunks, south to north. Then feeling bold, to cross the six or eight lanes east to west.

Not your average crossroad: LA comes to Port Melbourne/Docklands.

Not your average crossroad: LA comes to Port Melbourne/Docklands.

And I stopped and reflected that I’m so glad I’m fit enough to run an obstacle course like that, without thinking about it; without having to worry about getting puffed or my legs not being ready to work on demand. Sure, I could be fitter, a lot fitter, but hockey and my wider life allows me the luxury of having confidence in my body for everyday/nothing moments like that.

This is not something anybody should take for granted. I watched a kid in a wheelchair struggle around a ‘walkathon’ at his primary school yesterday. Closer to home, my dad is in a bad way at the moment and struggles to leave his chair, let alone leave the house. Everything’s a battle. Watching him wrestle with the absolute basics, I feel thankful for my mostly working body.

And so to my fading stomach bruise and who knows what new bruises or strains are to come when I play a social game of hockey tomorrow night, or next turn out in my black and yellow colours for the Cherokees.

And I finally knew what to say to Cassius. I said: ‘Cass, the thing is, I just have so much fun playing hockey, that it’s worth a few bruises. Let me ask you something, would you rather, in your life, have awesome fun which means a few bruises, or be totally safe, never in danger, and therefore never have a bruise … but also, therefore, not have any fun?

‘For me, it’s easy. I choose the fun.’

He thought about it, shrugged, noticed his Star Wars Lego and that was that. He tossed up another of life’s big questions: who was the cooler bad guy: Darth Vader or Darth Maul? This took less deep thought. I’m on Vader.

 

** Postscript: I read once that Gordie Howe, Mr Hockey, perfected this move (the hard stick off the boards) if opponents tried to slam him into the wall. He would brace, but leave the end of his stick out behind him, so they ran into that, instead of his back. Trust me, it hurts.

The pelican

Yes, we segwayed Washington. Not even sorry.

Yes, we segwayed Washington. Not even sorry.

Four years ago, on this day, I was sitting up on an all-night train from South Carolina to Washington DC. I adore long train rides, always have, but on this ride, I was sad, having waved goodbye, for who knows how long, to one of my best friends in the world. Trent is a Horsham boy and an old journo brother-in-arms who married an American woman and now has to live over there, meaning I hardly ever get to spend time with him. On a big US trip, my boys and I had dropped into his world. We’d attended soccer training with his daughters. We’d gone past a freeway sign to a town called Batcave. I’d driven a left-hand-drive car for the first time. We’d drunk local beer in a folky bar in Asheville. We’d talked deep philosophy until late in the night. We’d talked shit until late into the night. We’d gone white water rafting, accepting a dare from the guide to go overboard, gasping and laughing in freezing river water, and I’d spotted a bald eagle lazily flapping ahead of us. We’d gone camping in bear country where Trent had told me that you didn’t really need to worry about bears unless you were stupid enough to have food in your tent. One guy got mauled because he had a chocolate bar in his pack, for example. I tried to sleep, knowing my two boys were in a tent just on the other side of the dying fire; sleeping soundly but at the mercy of bears that almost certainly would never come. At about 4 am, I became convinced I had a chocolate bar in my bag. I gave myself a lecture about paranoia and finally slept. In the early morning, the sun just rising, Trent and I creaked to our feet, straight-shot local authentic moonshine to jolt ourselves awake, and grinned at one another. I checked my bag and found a chocolate bar.

Camping by the South Toe River, North Carolina. Bear country. 2011.

Camping by the South Toe River, North Carolina. Bear country. 2011.

Now I was aware that Trent was fading with every mile as American countryside rolled by. This train’s seats were annoyingly about 10 centimetres too close together, just short enough in leg room so there was no way to get comfortable. My youngest son, Macklin, trying to sleep, stirred and shifted and then lay in my lap. I put my arm across his shoulders and it occurred to me that this moment may never come again. When kids are young, you get used to them flailing all over you, sleeping in your bed, or slumping asleep on top of you when they hit that moment kids get when they just can’t stay awake. But Mack was 15 now and at an age where he was starting to want his own space. He had outgrown holding hands as you walk along the street, or overt displays of affection. Was midway through that awkward teenage stage of growing and separating. So it was a rare thing to have him curl up in my lap.

And so we rolled into Washington, a city I had never particularly cared to visit but this time had a reason. As our endless train ride came to an end at Union Station (Paul Kelly: ‘He came in on a Sunday, every muscle aching, walking in slow motion, like he’d just been hit’) a private plane, the Red Wing 1, the Detroit hockey team’s plane, was getting ready to fly from Motor City.

And we had tickets to our first ever NHL game, Detroit @ Washington at the Verizon Centre.

We had a day and a half to fill and hit Washington hard. Peered through the fence at the White House, toured the Smithsonian museums – highly recommend the space museum and the pop culture one – ate at the spy museum café, bought the t-shirt, took a Segway tour of the monuments. Visited Abe Lincoln in his big chair. Stood where Martin Luther-King stood, looking not at a million people by the reflection pond but instead at a work site; an uprooted, drained pond-full of pipes and mud. The boys headed to the Washington zoo while I grabbed a public rent-a-bike and pedalled my way around town, seeing the monuments, the Newseum and other treasures.

And then, finally, it was game time.

Something I had waited years to see. Pic: Nicko

Something I had waited years to see. Pic: Nicko

I can still remember walking into the building; worrying that my first-ever Stubhub ticket purchase would be declared invalid at the door. Relieved as they bleeped us through. So many hockey jerseys, including enough Detroit red and white that I relaxed about us being targeted as the enemy in the building. Americans so friendly, Caps fans or Wings; mostly so happy to meet three crazy Australians who had travelled half a world to be there. I remember watching warm-ups; marvelling at seeing Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Nick Lidstrom in the flesh. Other favourite players like Helm, Bertuzzi and Howard. Taking photos of everything from a pyramid of pucks on the bench to the crowd filling the venue.See the video below: this is my film of my heroes emerging onto the bench and then to the ice (plus a baby-faced assistant coach, Jeff Blashill, making his way onto the bench alongside Babs).

After decades as a journalist, including covering world title fights, grand slam tennis and many other major events, I was like a kid; a fan again. It wasn’t just seeing the Wings either. Our seats were close to the Washington bench and we were only metres from Alexander Ovechkin, the huge Russian with the Bond-villain face, and the hardest shot I have ever seen. He flicked his wrist like every other player but somehow the puck that came off his stick looked like it would blast clean through a brick wall. No wonder he scores so many goals.

It was Nick Lidstrom’s 1500th NHL game. During a break in play, the achievement was written on the four way big screen above the ice and the entire building gave him an ovation. Lidstrom glancing up to the screen, realising the applause was for him and graciously raising his stick, in his under-stated Perfect Human kind of way.

Good seats at my first ever NHL game. Shame about the scoreline. Pic: Nicko

Good seats at my first ever NHL game. Shame about the scoreline. Pic: Nicko

The Wings lost 7-1. Got jumped 3-0 early and never got it back, Ty Conklin having a less than stellar game in net. No matter, we thought. We have three looming games in Detroit, at the Joe, to console us. We’ll watch the Wings win at home and sing ‘Don’t stop believing’ with our people. We flew off to Chicago, then to Motor City, and Detroit lost every game. We flew back to Australia and Detroit proceeded to set a NHL record for winning the most consecutive games at home.

But do I care? Not at all. At the time, I thought I’d be back in a year or two to watch more NHL games. In fact, when the Wings were announced as a Winter Classic team, Big Cat and I started trying to measure up a trip.

But four years is a lot of sand through the hourglass. Life has changed. My boys have grown, become more independent, as they should. Are planning overseas trips that don’t include me – and on their own coin. Meanwhile, I returned to Australia, felt my heart lurch one or two more times and then met a French woman who turned out to be the unlikely piece of the puzzle I needed for my life to make sense. All my overseas travel since has been aimed at Bretagne instead of Detroit, but believe me, I am okay with that. If you’d seen Chloe’s home town of Rennes, you’d understand.

But exactly four years since I saw the Wings first hand, I find myself wondering when or even if I’ll ever see them again in the flesh? Lidstrom’s No. 5 is now in the rafters of the Joe, which itself is on borrowed time as a new stadium starts to take shape in Detroit’s midtown. Zetterberg and Datsyuk are in deep, deep hockey middle age – although I have them covered on that front, even if I am only two games into my fourth competitive summer.

I was among a group of backpackers in Greece a long time ago, who gathered for a communal meal in Delphi. I got talking to a bloke from Yorkshire who had cycled to Delphi in the hope of seeing a pelican. He was a twitcher and pelican was high on his never-seen bucket list. An unimaginably exotic bird if you were from Yorkshire; something he couldn’t quite believe he might actually see, if he was lucky in the next day or so at a nearby lake. I thought of all the pelicans I’d seen in Australia. Even on the wastelands of the Geelong Road, you see flocks of them flapping overhead. Once, between waves while I was surfing alone around the coast from Lorne, a pelican flew up and landed right next to me, in the water. It hung out for 20 minutes or so and, high on nature and surfing and the beauty of life, I talked and sang to this enormous bird. Not unreasonably, it left soon after. Yet for this Yorkshire cyclist, he’d worked so hard to try even to glimpse one. Such a rare jewel.

Maybe live NHL hockey will be that for me? Both my boys are studying careers that could easily see them end up living overseas, including Toronto and LA so perhaps that’s how I will cross paths with the Winged Wheel once more; on a visit to my sons as they take on the world?

Or maybe I never will. Maybe money will tighten or health will change or circumstances will dictate that my days of jetsetting are done? I t took me until I was 24 years of age to manage to leave Australia and I’ve always felt it is a privilege to fly, to see other countries. I’ve never taken it for granted. And one day it will be over.

Maybe Washington and Detroit in 2011 was my one shot. Maybe I’m destined to be huddled in front of NHL Gamecenter for however many years I have left on the planet, riding a televised puck and Detroit’s fortunes, but with the blessing that in my memory bank is the additional colour and flavour of what it was like to Be There. Of having walked into the Verizon Centre and the Joe Louis Arena; of having seen the numbers and the pennants in the rafters; of having lived NHL hockey live and in the flesh.

How blessed am I to have done that? For that experience, and the wider trip with my sons, four years ago. I saw my pelican. And it was amazing.

A finals weekend for the ages.

So, in the end, my team lost and I was sad, but if you move past that, the AIHL weekend of finals was pretty remarkable. Two nail-biting semi-finals and then a final, between the Newcastle North Stars and Melbourne Ice, that transcended both of them.

If you wanted to convince people that hockey is a sport worth watching in this footy-obsessed land, then the weekend would have been a great place to start.

Newcastle's moment of victory. Pic: Nicko

Newcastle’s moment of victory. Pic: Nicko

The final was brilliant. I used to be a boxing writer and standing on the glass, at my usual spot just next to the deliberately-punned Bell End, I was mostly struck by the similarities of this match to a great boxing bout.

Melbourne Ice was the complete team: a strong mix of locals and imports, who trust one another, play strong systems and have been at the top of the league for what, in sports terms, is forever. What was always going to be a vacuum after the astonishing Goodall Cup three-peat of 2010-11-12, has been followed by a narrow semi-final loss in 13, and then back to back losing finals in 2014-15. So close and yet not quite.

A former Ice player wrote to me on Friday night, saying he didn’t believe that Ice coach Brent Laver got enough press as one of the best coaches in the land. The former player said Laver was an astonishingly great coach, and should be feted.

I don’t really know Laver, beyond watching his teams, but he has certainly done a great job of nursing the team through the post-Jaffa years; negotiating some changeroom-shaking personality clashes, politics, the inevitable decline of some stars, and the need to blood new players.

Ice captain Lliam Webster shows the joy and relief of beating Perth in Saturday's semi. Pic: Nicko

Ice captain Lliam Webster shows the joy and relief of beating Perth in Saturday’s semi. Pic: Nicko

Last year, the team was smashed in the final by the uppity Melbourne Mustangs, and looked a long way off the pace when it mattered in the season’s finale. But this year, the Ice saddled up again, solidly made the finals, held off a desperate Perth team, 1-0, in a tense semi-final and then shaped up to the undisputed heavyweight champion of the season, Newcastle.

Which, to continue my boxing analogy, is the big puncher, with an anvil in both gloves. Newcastle is a fighter that knocks opponents out. Witness the team’s semi-final when it started slowly and was suddenly down 3-0, on the wrong end of some silky, skilful Brave play. But the slugger wasn’t out and bam bam bam, from late in the second period, Canberra suddenly found itself on the canvas, probably still wondering how. Geordie Wudrick, the NHL-rated Canadian import, who had scored a ridiculous 91 points in 28 games this season, had a third period hat-trick to get Newcastle to Sunday. This was the opponent that the Ice faced in the final: a one-punch knockout machine.

And so it proved. Wudrick inevitably scored the first goal and seemed to be on the ice for 45 of the 60 minutes, as far as I could tell. Alongside him most of the time was another import, defenceman Jan Safar (56 points in 28 games).

The best hair of the final. In fact, nothing short of a skating shampoo commercial. Well played, sir. Well played.

The best hair of the final. In fact, nothing short of a skating shampoo commercial. Well played, sir. Well played. Pic: Nicko

Meanwhile, the Ice also rolled its top two lines, but was the fighter without an obvious knockout punch, relying instead on a strong peekaboo defence and the ability to land regular punches, even if not knockout shots. It seems to me – and I haven’t watched as many games this year as I usually would – that the Ice has maybe lost a percentage of scoring power since the glory days. There was no Wudrick-type in an Ice jersey to have your heart in your mouth every time he was on the ice.

In the end, Newcastle won in overtime, on a penalty shot that I still don’t quite understand, although people who know the game better than me all shrugged was a fair and brave call by the referee. It looked to me like Ice defender Todd Graham just tied up Newcastle’s Brian Bales on a breakaway, stopping Bales from even managing a shot, but the call was apparently tripping.

The beaten Ice team watch Newcastle receive the medals. Pic: Nicko

The beaten Ice team watch Newcastle receive the medals. Pic: Nicko

Any way you cut it, the best team all season won the final, and it was Newcastle’s first for a while so good luck to them.

My take-outs from drinking it all in from among the Ice army? In no particular order:

TOMMY POWELL

I think, as far as the Ice went, Tommy Powell might have been my MVP. I thought his desperation was fantastic and oh, wow, what a goal he scored to level the final after Wudrick had struck. Tommy plucked a high puck from the air, just before it sailed past the blue line, everybody else surging the other way, and suddenly Tommy was one-out against the goalie. It was like watching somebody load a shotgun, rack it and then shoot. Tommy was so calm and sent an absolute exocet past the poor netminder before he could move.

LLIAM WEBSTER

Sure, I’m biased because these guys are my coaches and friends, but I thought Lliam’s opening shift, as captain of the side, was outstanding. He launched off the bench as the second shift, playing wing, and was everywhere, filling the rink and shrinking space for the Newcastle stars. He never stopped all day, even to the point of taking a professional penalty to stop Newcastle scoring deep in the third, only to see them score on the power play. And, as per last year, Webster showed his character by staying on the ice, applauding the victors, beyond requirements. Classy.

OH, THAT LAST ICE GOAL!

A stadium of Ice fans in despair, barely any time left, goalie pulled, a goal down, all hope lost, and then somehow Mitch Humphries was deflecting a shot past the goalie with 31 second left, to tie the game. I don’t think I’ve ever gone so nuts after seeing a puck hit the back of the net – even after one of the very few I’ve scored. Behind the glass was bedlam, and so much fun. Sure, not long after, we were also closest to the goal where Bales put away the penalty shot to win it, but that Humphries goal was an all-time happy memory.

THE OCCASION

Newcastle gear abandoned on the ice, after victory. Pic: Nicko

Newcastle gear abandoned on the ice, after victory. Pic: Nicko

I think the AIHL has to be a little careful with the final weekend. It’s always a great festival, but there is a danger to trying to become too slick, too professional, at the expense of the fans. I’ve seen so many sports go through these growing pains and it’s tricky. A crowd-funding campaign meant the finals were livestreamed, which was good, but I looked at Jaffa the ex-Ice coach dressed in a suit and tie, microphone in hand, and I looked at orange tape along the glass, with ‘media’ scrawled in Texta, where everyday fans have stood all year, and I looked at people with cameras being told that they shouldn’t be shooting because there were official league snappers, and I looked at the fact there were official or unofficial after-parties apparently happening at at least three different venues, instead of everybody coming together, and I just wondered if the organisers aren’t drifting away from the spirit of the event?

Obviously, the final shouldn’t be at some Seventies throwback rink with only 200 fans able to fit along the boards, and no technology, and no media coverage. We’re all blessed to have the size and facilities of The Icehouse, but there is a certain charm in the homespun, unpretentious amateur flavour of Australian hockey. I covered AFL for a long time, with its strict media rules and heavy-handed management. Please oh please don’t get suckered into becoming that, AIHL. If nothing else, consider this: why are the commentators on the live stream in snappy suits and ties? Just because ‘that’s what you do’? Why can’t hockey be different? And, more importantly, has the sport moved far enough that enthusiasts should be stopped from taking happy snaps in the stands and posting them on social media? Isn’t any coverage like that still golden for a growing sport looking for oxygen in the Australian sportscape? Food for thought.

IMPORTS

I don’t want to sound like a sore loser, but there is  a danger that winning the Goodall Cup could just become a inter-club arms race regarding who has the most lethal imports. Maybe that horse has already bolted? Seven of the league’s top scorers this season were imports (only Melbourne Ice’s Tommy Powell made the list as an Australian-born player, at #7) with Wudrick dominating everything, and five of the top eight goalies were imports. How do we truly develop local players if they are sitting on the pine, watching ‘amateur’ imports on accommodation/travel/job/I don’t know what else packages log huge minutes? I worry for Australian-born players trying to get elite exposure. And please believe me, none of this is to detract from Newcastle’s win: they just had an amazing roster of imports (three in the league’s top eight), as per the rules, so well done them.

THE CURSE OF THE MOBILES

Mobile phones should be turned off as you walk into the rink. Look, I’m as big a phone fiend as anybody but for some reason, on Sunday, my mobile decided to have one of those days where it overheats and drains its battery for no real reason. Which meant I turned it off for the final, and therefore actually walked around with my head up, looking at the world. But sometimes I felt like I was the only one. Wandering along the back of the stand between periods, all I could see was a sea of bowed heads, and huddled shoulders, intent on mini screens. I felt suddenly sad for days of banter and discussion between the action, especially during such a draining and pulsating game as the final. I don’t know if I can stick to this but I’m going to try to turn my phone off whenever watching major sport from now on.

NOISY VISITORS

A fully committed Newcastle fan. Pic: Nicko

A fully committed Newcastle fan. Pic: Nicko

Man, during play, the Newcastle fans were loud, and enthusiastic. I was standing behind the glass for a lot of the final, at the Zamboni end, but it sounded to me like the local fans were consistently drowned out by the visitors. To try and rectify this, I went up into the stands in the second period, hollered: ‘Come on, Ice, let’s finish these bums!’ and earned a long, hard, sad, shake of the head from a Newcastle man. It was a textbook ‘I’m very disappointed in you’ headshake that my dad would have been proud of in his time. This was a headshake that said I’d let the sport down. I’d let the team down. I’d let my fellow fans down but, most importantly, Nicko, I’d myself down. I was so shaken that at the next face-off, I yelled: ‘Good luck, everybody from both teams’ but he didn’t even look at me.

I was already dead to him. Cold, man. Cold.

I’m in counselling for that but was able to keep track of the  bottom line which is this: amazing finals weekend, everybody. Bad luck, Melbourne, Canberra, and Perth. You all played mightily when it mattered. Newcastle, well done and well deserved.

How good is AIHL hockey?

Now, let’s bring on Spring. Let’s bring on Division 3 summer hockey. And let’s bring on the AFL finals with Richmond in the mix, and let’s bring on the NHL training camps.

Melbourne Ice, take a deep breath. You’ll be back and winning the whole enchilada and soon. You know it, and I know it.

Well played, North Stars. Pic: Nicko

Well played, North Stars. Pic: Nicko

 

Preparing for a vintage summer

Summer hockey is serious business these days. With so many players flowing into the local sport and so few rinks (see several hundred previous posts on that topic) getting your first taste of competitive hockey is tricky.

My club, the Braves, had grading skates over the past two weekends. They weren’t so much try-out skates as working out in which division new Braves should play, with the idea that the teams should be evenly spread with talent and, most importantly, new skaters shouldn’t be blown away by experienced, more accomplished hockey players. As any reader of this blog will know, that remains one of my biggest issues in Ice Hockey Victoria competition – that too often there has been one or two players on a team in say Div 4 or Div 3 who simply shouldn’t be there, who should be playing several grades higher. Watching an opponent skate effortlessly around your entire team and then score top shelf, backhand, over their shoulder, while waving to the crowd, gets old after a while.

But it’s pretty much an honour system. These players are always there because they reportedly ‘want to play with their mates’, and I suppose I get that. I want to skate with my son, Big Cat Place, and then work things out from there. Happily I think we both fit the Div 3 profile without terrorising the opposition. In fact, I wish.

Being the dedicated professional hockey player that I am, I missed both the grading skates. I felt like Kevin Costner’s greatest ever character, ‘Crash’ Davis, in the Hall of Fame baseball film, Bull Durham, explaining that he doesn’t ‘try out’. (One of my favourite movie monologues ever.)

Actually, I had non-hockey alibis. In week one, I was at the world premiere of a friend’s film (Sucker, by one of my magic crowd mates, Lawrence Leung – I heartily recommend it: coming to cinemas soon) and then this weekend I was in Sydney, watching a legendary French dancer, Sylvie Guillem, take her final bows in Australia at the end of a glorious career.

Sylvie Guillem in flight. Amazing. I feel honoured that I got to witness her dancing, live, before she bows out.

Sylvie Guillem in flight. Amazing. I feel honoured that I got to witness her dancing, live, before she bows out.

Guillem is about six weeks older than me and has decided to call her career while she’s still on top of her game and, oh man, she is. Her dancing was unbelievable, especially her final solo piece, ‘Bye’. Astonishing.

Even better, her goodbye tour is titled: ‘A life in progress’. No ‘best of’ dancing for her; instead she’s still pushing herself, exploring, until the moment she steps off the stage. Even then, Guillem’s mantra is that she will no longer be starring in international productions, as she has been since Rudolf Nureyev strode onto the stage after her debut in Swan Lake, and announced she was now the French company’s étiole (top dancer) when she was at the absurdly young age of 19. But she’s not disappearing either. Her take is that it’s time for the next thing, whatever that is, and her life in arts will continue somehow.

Plus she’s a massive supporter of the Sea Shepherd and had Shepherd supporters selling merchandise at the Opera House, which was an unlikely scene. I bought a beanie I didn’t need, just because. She rocks.

Sylvie Guillem. This, peoples, is elite fitness. Pic: Balletoman.

Sylvie Guillem. This, peoples, is elite fitness. Pic: Balletoman.

Over cocktails at Palmer & Co, post-performance, Chloé and I chatted about Life After. I wondered how Guillem will eventually cope with not being so outrageously fit, flexible and just physically incredible, once she retires and drops at least a level or two in training and physical commitment. I think anybody who has worked hard enough to be elite fit, as in really fit, understands what it’s like to drop back to ‘pretty fit’ or even ‘very fit’. Let alone, ‘yeah, kind of fit’.

Guillem has been training remorselessly since she was 11. Thirty-nine years of being at the top of her game. It will take an adjustment, when she realises she can’t just do a vertical split without thinking about it.

The Large No. 12s, at the Labour In Vain, with Tiger Mick on guitar (in the back, far right) and a lead singer with a working back.

The Large No. 12s, at the Labour In Vain, with Tiger Mick on guitar (in the back, far right) and a lead singer with a working back.

But all manner of levels of fitness after 50 can be done and there are many inspirations around me. Tiger Mick is one of my Bang footy brothers. He’s well over 60 (I’m too polite to ask exactly how far) and recently lost a year of Bang action to an infected toe. There are infected toes and infected toes and my understanding is Mick almost lost his, the big toe on his right foot (kicking foot). He’s finally back, running and racing around like a maniac, as always, even tackling much bigger guys, against the Bang rules, and mostly kicking left foot. I watch him and think: if I was 60+ and lost a year of muscle in my legs (i.e. most of the muscle mass) I can’t see myself just jumping straight back in and running running running once given a half-all clear by a doctor. On weekends, Tiger Mick and a bunch of his mates play music in pubs across the town. We went and saw them recently at the Standard in Fitzroy and the lead singer was playing guitar and singing, while sitting down, with his back against the back-wall of the stage. ‘Is that some kind of rockstar affectation?’ I asked Tiger Mick. “Nah, he’s done his back but if he didn’t turn up, we don’t get paid,’ Mick shrugged. These guys are unstoppable.

Magnificently vintage Shonko battles the red dust of central Australia last week.

Magnificently vintage Shonko battles the red dust of central Australia last week.

Likewise, my friend Shonko has just got back from racing mountain bikes at Alice Springs. He finished about 30th overall and second in his division, which was, hilariously, titled: ‘Vintage’. Shonko a few years ago was riding in the age group 24-hour off-road mountain bike titles in Banff, Canada, where you ride and ride and ride for 24-hours around a 13 kilometre course, and he was so fit it was just ridiculous. We actually stopped going bush together because I felt bad that all super-rider Shonko did was wait for huffing puffing me to catch up. He always said that didn’t bother him. These days, he’s stepped it back to shorter races and to more fun challenges and doesn’t seem the worse for it. In fact, he has a better life balance while still being fitter than most 50-year-olds could dream of.

Giddyup. Pic: Luke Milkovic

Giddyup. Pic: Luke Milkovic

Me? I’m a few steps behind him, feeling my way back towards the level of fitness I want, which enables me to compete at hockey and to live my life. My problem/joy has always been that I have too many irons in my far too many fires. It’s impossible to be super-crazy-fit while also running a company, raising kids, writing novels, being social, embracing art and culture, writing for TV, and all the other stuff I do. But after a much-needed break after last summer’s season, I’m starting to build my lungs, legs and momentum towards this season, and it feels good. I’m nowhere near my version of peak fitness yet but I can feel it getting closer. Footy on Sundays, Inter and maybe Dev League on a Wednesday night (even though I was straight-out appalling last Wednesday: one of those nights. Yeesh) as well as occasional gym, running sessions, 50 push-ups and 100 sit-ups (minimum) per day, and riding my new mountain bike. This morning, spring in the air, I rode this incredible machine through the streets of inner Melbourne, past the MCG and Punt Road Oval (Go Tigers!) and then wound through the back streets of Cremorne to the Giants HQ. My hands were freezing in the morning wind but my legs felt good, pumping the pedals towards another summer and another Cherokee adventure. It’s going to be a different season: several of the old Cherokees have moved up to Division 2, pushing onward, higher, but enough of the old ‘Kees still around to make our changeroom the fun, slander-filled space that I love. Can’t wait to pull No. 17 over my head, clip my battered red helmet to my head and go chase the puck.

Sylvie Guillem might feel it’s the right time to go, but I sure don’t. I’m sticking with Tiger Mick and Shonko, in the Old Enough To Know Better division, also known as Vintage.

Bring it.

 

 

The responsibility of the sports fan

I can tell you, without prompting, what was my worst moment of the 2014 AIHL season.

It was during the grand final, and it wasn’t the fact that my team, the Melbourne Ice, was looking unnaturally lethargic against the uppity Mustangs, to the extent that the Ice eventually fell 6-1 without firing a shot.

It wasn’t even the increasingly rapt and raucous cheering of the Mustangs fans as they realised their Goodall Cup dream was coming true. (Actually, it was hard to begrudge them their joy and, let’s face it, I would have been yelling louder if the Ice was on top, so good for you, Clippyclops.)

No, my worst moment of the season, my least favourite memory of that afternoon, was the moment when former Ice star Joey Hughes, now a Mustang, was on the wrong end of a heavy collision in front of the Mustangs’ bench, and didn’t immediately get up. He stayed down, and we couldn’t see from the stand how badly hurt he was. And he remained down. And a small chunk of the Melbourne Ice fans found their voice; booing him, and goading him, and basically cheering his pain.

Joey Hughes, vertical and pain-free, for the Mustangs. Pic: Hewitt Sports.

Joey Hughes, vertical and pain-free, for the Mustangs. Pic: Hewitt Sports.

How shithouse is that?

Love him or hate him, and Joey is a guy who inspires both emotions in fans, especially having retired from the Ice and then reemerged as a Mustang, but he is all heart. He gives and gives, on the ice and off, and in this collision he had gone down hard. (Happily, he did eventually get back up.)

Dancing on the pain of any hockey player who is down and not necessarily getting up is pretty low, I reckon. As is mindlessly, or maybe not mindlessly booing a man to the point that he contemplates leaving the sport that he loves.

I’m not even going to go into the potential racism or deeper rivers that run under the current furore relating to opposition fans constantly booing Sydney Swans star Adam Goodes in the AFL.

All I have to say is this: I believe that our job as fans, whether watching hockey, footy, cricket, boxing, tennis, bocce, trugo, whatever, is to love our sport. That’s why we’re there, right? I felt all kinds of emotions during that AIHL grand final last year, and mostly sadness that the Ice couldn’t find their usual mojo when it mattered. But I loved being there, I loved being one of more than a thousand hockey fanatics, lifting the roof of the Icehouse and urging on our heroes, whether it was the Mustangs’ O’Kane, Hughes, or that bloody Swedish guy, Viktor, who did all the damage, or Lliam, Tommy, Army, Bacsy, Brown, McKenzie, the Wongs, Graham and the other Ice players.

Adam Goodes: it's time for empathy, not taunting.

Adam Goodes: it’s time for empathy, not taunting.

I believe, generally, that you should work, where you can, to be a force for good in the world. I’m not religious; this is not some sermon from a pulpit. But if you’ve ever travelled, you would know that the reality is that we live blessed lives, here in Australia. Sport is a place for us to have fun in our comparatively awesome lives, to ride the emotional roller coaster, to desperately care about things that actually don’t really matter.

To try and boo a player out of the sport because you consider he’s a ‘sook’ (which is to make the big and, frankly, extremely generous assumption that the fact he’s an outspoken, proud Indigenous man has nothing to do with your booing) is against the contract of being a fan, as I see it.

I can remember once having a word with a Richmond supporter at a Tiger game. Well, he was wearing head-to-toe Richmond gear but did nothing but bag out the Tiger players, screaming that they were useless, that they were hopeless, that they were gutless, etc etc. I finally said to him, mate, you’re giving them a far bigger whack than any of the Brisbane Lions fans also in attendance. Go buy a Lions scarf, go to the Lions’ cheer squad and lead them in the Tiger-hate. He slunk off. The Tigers somehow crawled off the mat and won with the last kick of the day. He was nowhere to be seen as we belted out the song.

I was left thinking: why was he even there? Just to release his wider life frustration into the air? Just to scream abuse at his team, depressing the shit out of all the other Richmond fans around him?

Please understand I am not trying to sound lofty, or like I know how the world works any better than anybody else. Actually, as I get older, I come to realise more and more how little I know. I have no bigger voice than anybody else and recognise that there are a thousand different views on this topic.

But my view is this: when you’re at a sporting event, cheer, don’t boo. Encourage your heroes, don’t kick the shit out of their opponents. Because there’s a difference.

In fact, think about the energy you put into the world, on a daily basis, in the real world as well as the sporting arena.

Are you a positive person? Are you working to make the world better? Or are you just chopping down the Adam Goodes of the world, or a writhing-in-pain Joey Hughes, because you can smell blood and you’re anonymous in a crowd or on social media, and because, well, you can?

This has been an extremely depressing week. Hopefully, it leads somewhere better than where we are now.

A Reality Check, in more ways than one.

This has been a little slow coming because I got distracted by manta rays and sharks, and then by coughing my lungs up for a few weeks. But in the middle of all that, on a remote island way off the coast of Queensland with no WIFI, I had the time and space to finally finish reading Will Brodie’s excellent book, Reality Check.

Will recently wrote for this blog about his two-phase hockey life, and, as you’d probably expect from a long-time mainstream newspaper and online journalist, the guy can really write. His regular AIHL reporting over the past few years was a huge, possibly under-recognised boon for the sport and is sadly missed since he quit Fairfax.

Reality Check, by Will Brodie

Reality Check, by Will Brodie

But his best work was yet to come. Last season, he followed the two Melbourne teams as they navigated their way through the trials, highs and lows of an AIHL season. He lucked out in the sense that the Mustangs came of age, eventually winning the Goodall Cup  over, guess who, the Melbourne Ice (and yes, I realise that is potentially a massive spoiler but then again, if you’re an Australian hockey fan and didn’t know that, then you’ve been off the map in ways I can’t help you with).

So Will got a good yarn, as Melbourne’s fierce-but-sort-of friendly rival teams duked it out all the way to the grand final at the Icehouse, but it’s the wider story and the wider characters of Reality Check that stayed with me. Will’s long history in the sport means he was able to really tap into the people who have kept hockey going in this country for years. Yet he also brought fresh eyes, making him an unlikely and invaluable chronicler. He was able to have detailed, knowledgeable conversations with everybody from new fans to the game, happily getting pissed pre or post-game, through to club presidents and imports, in every hockey-playing city and town in the country. Will sat in team mini-vans, sat up late with coaches and traveled to every AIHL rink and explored the nooks, crannies and idiosyncrasies of those diverse locations. All while throwing in lines like the one about a venue being so cold it offered warnings of future arthritis in his bones.

It all made for a cracking read, and I found myself emerging with three major takeouts:

  1. We need more rinks. A lot of people have been saying this for a long time but Reality Check emphasises the point over and over again. Hockey has enjoyed a huge surge in popularity over the past five years or so, in terms of AIHL fan numbers but maybe even more so in terms of newbies taking up the sport (like the guy typing these words, for example). Already, there is a crush of new players on waiting lists to play the looming IHV summer season that starts in September or so. Winter lists in Melbourne are pretty much full. Throw in training times, for clubs from the lowest social hockey levels to AIHL sessions, Next Level classes at Oakleigh, and Hockey Academy classes at the Icehouse (both at or near capacity), drop-in, and stick-n-pucks or skating sessions, and Melbourne’s two hockey rinks are loaded beyond capacity. I haven’t even mentioned speed skaters, figure skaters or other groups who also want the ice.
    Everybody knows the lack of rinks is an issue – and across Australia, not just Melbourne. There are endless plans, endless rumours of new rinks being developed, waiting for council approval, waiting for finance … but I remain worried that by the time new ice actually happens, if it does, all those wildly enthusiastic new players currently flooding the sport will have drifted away, frustrated by their inability to join a team and play. (Or by the secondary, related problem: that because two rinks can only host so many teams and therefore so many levels of competition, wildly varied levels of skill end up in the same divisions, leading to less-accomplished players feeling overwhelmed by playing hockey against skaters who should really be a division or two higher, if only there was room.)
  2. God, there’s a lot of love behind the momentum of an amateur sport like ice hockey. Time and again, through Will’s book, I was struck by the sheer commitment and dedication and hours of work being poured into the sport by people who have kids, real jobs, need sleep, have other things they could be doing. Again, just by kicking around Victorian hockey at the low level I do, I’m aware of how much work is required and is done by friends who are on committees, or within club management teams, or chasing sponsors, or scoring games, or doing the million other jobs. It’s really humbling and those of us who are not devoting themselves to helping hockey grow in such a grassroots, practical, time-consuming way, should at the very least take a moment to respect those who are. I know I do, and even more so after reading Will’s book, with his eye for those toiling glory-free behind the scenes. In fact, next time there’s a petty squabble about whatever the tempest of the moment is, wouldn’t it be cool if everybody could step back and consider how many unpaid hours the person they’re attacking, or who is attacking them, has put in? Breathe, respect one another, sort out whatever the issue of the moment is. And move on, brothers and sisters in hockey
    … (I know, I know: us idealists have no clue.)
  3. Us Newbies should remember we are Newbies. I’ve been around local hockey since 2010, having ‘discovered’ hockey, through somehow tuning into the Detroit Red Wings, in 2008. It feels like a long time, but it really isn’t. I feel like I know a lot of people in the community now and feel blessed that I happened to start this blog, on January 19, 2011, by chance at the exact moment a whole bunch of others were also discovering AIHL competition and the then fairly new Icehouse facility. Just as the early classes run by Army, Lliam, Tommy and co were taking off. And just as the Ice went on its three-peat run, the grandstands swelling, and the Mustangs arrived. And just as Next Level Hockey was gaining momentum at about the same time. Watching some of the rookies I started with kick on, even now making it to the AIHL rosters.

    The Melbourne Ice players salute the fans after a recent win at the Icehouse. Pic: Nicko

    The Melbourne Ice players salute the fans after a recent win at the Icehouse. Pic: Nicko

I feel like I’ve seen it all but reading Reality Check, I was struck by how people like me are still newcomers to the ranks. There are many people in Australian hockey who have invested decades into the sport they love. In Nite Owls competition, I once had the joy of skating with a bloke who captained Australia’s hockey team 50 years ago, and is still out there, on a Sunday night, effortlessly gliding past a flailing hack like me. But there are also so many others, such as, in my immediate orbit, the Webster family, driving the Ice team and club, on the ice and off, and the Hughes brothers, with their Oakleigh dream and Joey’s intensity and passion that inspires so many rising players, from L-platers to accomplished skaters. Next Level has evolved to the point of having its ‘Next Generation’ program, with a lot of thought and structure behind it. Meanwhile, at the Icehouse, the classes have become more and more sophisticated so that academy students can work specifically on high level skating skills or puck-handling, or game play, or pure shooting. It’s really exciting and it’s impressive, and it all happens because of the long-term and tireless commitment of actually only a few people. Will’s book did a brilliant job of shaking so many of these decades-of-service servants of the game into the spotlight for a brief moment, while never also losing sight of the fact that the sport needs to embrace the new arrivals, the fresh-thinkers, the left-field recent converts who might just take the sport to places it hasn’t been.
This has been a rambling piece. The only point of this particular blog is to add my voice to Will Brodie’s and salute the people who have made our sport rise in Australia and are now working equally hard to accommodate the growing numbers and logistical nightmares of its popularity.
And to say to Will, congrats: he has written one of the best hockey books you or I will ever read, and tied up in a bow everything that is great and worrying and awesome and frustrating about chasing a puck across a block of ice half a world away from the hockey heartlands.
If you haven’t bought Reality Check and read it, I really recommend that you do.

 

 

 

Splattered

Driving to hockey training on Wednesday, it crossed my mind: is this a good idea?

On Tuesday, I head to one of my favourite places in the world, Lady Elliot Island, a tiny speck off the coast of Queensland at the southern base of the Barrier Reef. Mackquist and I are going to dive for a week with the manta rays, and hopefully a whale or two if one passes while we’re underwater (which can happen at this time of year).

Lady Elliot Island - so small that the strip across the middle is the runway.

Lady Elliot Island – so small that the strip across the middle is the runway.

It’s peak manta season and I can’t wait to get on the plane, to see if you can really leave Victorian winter and be in the warm Queensland waters with up to 30 or more mantas at a time.

So, driving to training, the thought strayed into my brain that this would not be a good night to hurt myself. But just as quickly, I dismissed it, thinking: you can’t live like that. I’ve skated constantly now for more than four years and have mostly been okay. Why should a standard Wednesday Intermediate class be any different?

And so yes, you know what happened. About ten minutes in, Tommy Powell calls for two quick laps and off I go, skating as fast as I can. I actually love those fast laps: they kill your legs and lungs, but in a good way. It’s the best cardio workout I get all week. And so I throw myself at them. If I’m not the fastest skater out there, and invariably I’m not, at least I’m working hard.

Right up until a goalie was stretching near where I had to turn left, to pass behind the goals, and that made my turn a little sharper than I had planned, especially at speed, and before I could process it, I’d lost an edge on my skate and I was down, bouncing off the ice and careering, completely out of control towards the boards, less than two metres away and closing fast.

This is NOT how you want to hit the boards. Somehow, Ranger Brad Richards came out of this okay.  Pic: Getty.

This is NOT how you want to hit the boards. Somehow, New York Ranger Brad Richards came out of this okay. Pic: Getty.

Without trying I can think of five cases where I’ve witnessed a hockey player in this situation end up with a broken leg or collar bone. I can think of other lesser injuries, but still significant ones from uncontrolled slides into the wall.

I’ve had it happen a couple of times and had a badly hurt shoulder/upper neck from one of them.

All of this somehow had time to pass through my mind in the micro-seconds before I hit the boards.

I’m sure I’ve written in this blog before about once doing laps with Bathurst-winning racing car driver Jim Richards. I asked him: what’s it like when you go sideways and you know you’re going to hit the wall? What passes through your mind?

He stopped, squinted, thought about it and said, surprisingly, that he’d never been in that situation.

I said: you’ve never hit a wall?

And, to paraphrase, he said: no, I’ve hit plenty of walls, but here’s the thing … a racing car is an incredible piece of machinery. It can do things that a normal car simply can’t do. And I am a highly trained, expert driver, so I can drive that car in a way people normally can’t. So, if things have gone pear-shaped, I am doing everything I possibly can not to hit the wall … right up until the actual moment that I hit the wall. If I think about it, it’s always a bit of a surprise to hit the wall, because I was concentrating, working so hard not to, and then oh wow, I hit the wall.

Another nasty board collision. You do not want to lose an edge while heading towards the wall.

Another nasty board collision. You do not want to lose an edge while heading towards the wall.

Richards’ answer has become one of my central pieces of life philosophy: until you hit a wall, do everything you possibly can not to hit that wall. (Even if you end up crashing into whatever the wall is – and believe me, in life, I have hit my share of walls – you can comfort yourself with the knowledge that you did everything humanely possible not to, despite the fact you failed.)

But on Wednesday night, this all went out the window. Skates off the ice, 85 kilos of full body momentum sliding across the surface, at velocity, with two metres or less to stop, and no way to brake, I had no hope.

Time did helpfully slow down enough for me to think: Oh shit, Lady Elliot! Oh crap, mantas! Oh fuck, Macklin will kill me …

And I also somehow had time to think: do NOT stick out an arm or a leg to take the hit. I was a relaxed ironing board in armour when I collided – and it was a beauty. I hit the boards hard. Helmet took it. Right shoulder took it. Knee took it.

But a miracle. No joint got bent the wrong way; my helmet did its job. Two days later, I’m completely fine; a vague dull ache in my shoulder but nothing to stop me boarding a plane and diving.

Such a relief.

Later in the session, I went for a puck from one direction as a classmate came fast the other way. Again, the collision was a big one. Again, I skated away, intact.

Double sigh of relief.

Today I got an email from one of my brothers at the Bang, our social footy group. He wanted to know if anybody wanted to play in a real game of Aussie Rules, to help a team he knows make up numbers, this Saturday only.

No, I wrote back, as quickly as I could type. No, I will not be putting my body in line to twang a hammie or do a big knee. Not with Tuesday’s flight looming.

For once, just this once, I am letting myself be grateful I survived Wednesday’s big hits and I’m voluntarily putting myself in cotton wool between now and Tuesday. It’s all about Mackquist, the mantas and me.

My final dive, with a manta on the surface, at Lady Elliot, a few years ago: