An important announcement

Melbourne, Tuesday, June 21 (AP): The Braves Hockey Club and management for Nick Place were pleased to announce today that they have agreed to terms for the upcoming 2016-17 Ice Hockey Victoria summer season.

‘We think it’s a great deal for everybody,’ said Braves President Liam Patrick. ‘If Place pays his fees in full and on time, buys a new jersey, drives himself to trainings and games, doesn’t open his mouth in the changerooms, and doesn’t get in anybody’s way, we might let him play very limited fifth line minutes for the Cherokees in Division 3.’

Place managing to stay vertical in a previous summer. Pic: Luke Milkman

Place managing to stay vertical in a previous summer. Pic: Luke Milkman

Place’s manager, Nick Place, said: ‘I, I mean my client is thrilled that the Braves have agreed to let me, I mean him, don the famous black and yellow for the forthcoming season. I think there’s definitely a role for older, wise veterans in today’s hockey world. When I think of Jaromir Jág-‘

He was then cut off by President Patrick, who whispered: ‘Stick to the agreed script or it’s over.’

President Patrick told reporters, ‘There had been some hope-I mean thought that Nick might consider retirement at the age of 67 but, trooper that he is, and photos of me that he has, he’ll be allowed to go around this summer. What I need the hockey world, especially the Braves family, to understand is that legally we can’t stop him. If he pays his fees, there’s nothing I can do. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.’

The news of Place’s resigning was greeted with universal joy across the league with opposition teams admitting to being rapt with the development. ‘Place’s son, Will – AKA Kittens – AKA Big Cat – would be a huge offensive threat under most circumstances,’ said one coach. ‘So the fact he’ll be totally hamstrung by having to put up with his dad’s ineffectual skating and passing on the left wing should cut his point production in half at least, and is a boon for all of us.’

Cherokees coach Georgia Carson was not available for comment. Friends say she was enjoying a quiet night yesterday evening when she received a txt that appeared to horrify her. ‘They promised! They promised he was gone! They told me it was over!’ she screamed before storming out of the house to a nearby speakeasy bar. She has not been seen since.

Place left immediately after the press conference, telling reporters he was heading to a secret training camp to prepare for September’s action. However, Braves officials confirmed he actually just went to work.

 

Play like a girl

When my hockey linemate, Big Cat Place, was a boy, he played footy for a while, like most Victorian kids who are marched down to the local oval by footy-made fathers (guilty). He was roughly 12 when he decided the sport wasn’t for him, and announced before a routine mid-winter game that it would be his last for the Kew Comets. The coach tried to discuss it, but clearly hadn’t spent much time with Big Cat, because then, like now, once that kid’s mind’s made up, that’s it. In the end, the coach shrugged, said fair enough and arranged for Big Cat to be chaired off the ground by his teammates, as though he’d played 300 games, instead of about 20. Which was a nice touch.

Hello elite women's footy. Goodbye noses. Pic: Getty

Hello elite women’s footy. Goodbye noses. Pic: Getty

One of the kids chairing him off was a girl, whose name, I think, was Megan – it’s a while ago and I’ve had no real reason to remember, until now. She was a gun footballer. In a team of ambitious boys, some of whom were the drilled and burdened with expectation sons of Hawthorn’s Eighties premiership players, she stood out. She was slight, with her blonde hair in a ponytail, but she ran and ran and ran. Megan went in and got hard balls, emerged with them, dished it off and was somehow then a downfield option. She was a midfielder who could play inside or outside, racking up dozens of possessions every week and was quiet, unassuming and humble in the rooms. She could play tall, tackle, do it all. Megan was a runaway Best & Fairest for the team in Big Cat’s Under 12s year and probably went on to win it again in his farewell season. Again, I’m not sure of this but I have a feeling she might have won the overall league’s Best & Fairest too.

Female footballer Tayla Harris displays a flawless kicking technique. Pic: Getty

Female footballer Tayla Harris displays a flawless kicking technique. Pic: Getty

I can remember feeling desperately sorry for Megan. Because I knew and she probably knew that she only had a couple more years of footy to enjoy before it would be over for her. Standing on the boundary, clutching takeaway coffees, the freezing-our-arses-off parents would sigh that she couldn’t graduate to elite AFL levels like the better boys hoped to. Back then, a decade ago, the options for a girl wanting to play into her teens weren’t great. There were female leagues but they had a certain air about them, almost underground, more roller-derby demographic than eastern suburbs parklands; not particularly welcoming to a 15-year-old schoolgirl. Change has been slow but in recent years, I’ve noticed Fitzroy has an all-women’s team running around on the Brunswick Street oval, and now the whole thing is set to go up another notch.So, of course, I thought of Megan yesterday when the AFL announced the eight teams to start an official women’s league under the AFL banner. If only she’d been born a few years later. While she would only be 23 or so now, potentially in her playing prime, I’d be surprised if she’s managed to stay motivated for the years when it looked like her footy dream ran into a dead end.

Georgia Carson flying, for the Melbourne Ice.

Georgia Carson flying, for the Melbourne Ice.

One of the things I’ve really loved about playing hockey has been the unisex nature of it. My team, the Cherokees, is coached by a member of the Australian women’s team, the feisty Georgia Carson (Note to coach: ‘feisty’ is a compliment), and features several women. I can honestly say that mid-game, it makes zero difference whether you’re chasing a puck or battling for it against a female or male opponent. In fact, in five seasons, I have yet to be part of an Ice Hockey Victoria-sanctioned team that has been all-male, which I like. I prefer teams where potential dick-swinging testosterone is dissipated by some feminine controlled aggression. Sure, we’re playing Division 3 – a lower level and firmly non-checking – but several of the women I’ve played and trained with have kicked on to higher divisions. At least two of the women who took up the sport around the same time I did have played in the AIHL’s women’s competition. Sometimes at Wednesday night training, we’d scrimmage and the coaches would join in, allowing Shona Powell, captain of Melbourne Ice women’s, and Australia, to effortlessly dominate.

Likewise, in boxing training, one of my favourite gyms was Mischa Merz’s Boxing Central. I’ve written about Mischa before; a journo mate who fell in love with the allegedly sweet science and ended up winning an Australian welterweight title, as well as international belts. Her gym is perfectly balanced between encouraging men and women to work on their skills and fitness, without some of the rampant testosterone that can dominate other dank sweaty rooms full of heavy bags scattered around a square ring.

The Vixens' Geva Mentor. She rocks.

The Vixens’ Geva Mentor. She rocks.

I covered a lot of women’s sport in my time as a newspaper reporter. In tennis, especially on grasscourts, I found women’s matches more engaging because they didn’t hit the ball quite so hard (this was pre-Serena). Tennis is better with more strategy required than just two lanky giants seeing who can land the most 200 kmh serves. I was lucky enough to cover most of Steffi Graf’s career and her mix of power, balance, skill and strategy was breathtaking. (Then again, so is Federer’s, so I guess I just love the artists, whatever their sex.)

Any idiot who thinks women can’t ‘bring it’ to sport hasn’t watched Australia’s women’s field hockey team in action. Again, I covered that team for a while as they were en route to winning Olympic gold, and holy crap they played hard.

A few weeks ago, I went to a Melbourne Vixens netball game and was dazzled by the speed of the passing and the amount of physicality in what’s supposed to be a non-contact sport. The Vixens’ full back Geva Mentor, who is basically a female Alex Rance – one of my favourite Tigers – was magnificent, prowling and yelling encouragement to the team up the court and ensuring the opposition forwards earned every touch, as much as you can in a sport that seems to heavily discriminate against the defenders.

So, the point of this blog? Just to say that an official pathway for women to play football is well overdue and that I’m proud that hockey is way ahead of the AFL on this one. Women playing sport, either against one another or against/with men where possible, like non-checking hockey, is good for the world, good for everybody involved. Now we just need Richmond to be given a license next year so I can have a team to barrack for.

 

 

 

 

Now is the winter of my content

This blog has had radio silence for a while because I’m taking winter off from hockey. It’s going mostly ok. I had a consultation with a personal trainer who remarked that I was in great shape ‘for my age’, and then had the awkward moment of hoping he didn’t notice the one-third empty bottle of single malt whisky in my sporting backpack. At 11 am on a Saturday.

I’m having a break because I felt flat after the mighty Cherokees fell out of the finals, and realised I’d been busting my arse, on this crazy adventure, for more than five years, without a meaningful break.

I’m a big believer that rest can be as important as training, so it won’t hurt me to step away from those late night Wednesday training sessions and the endless quest to improve, to be hopefully competitive, for a while. I miss the social aspect of Icehouse life, hooning with the coaches and Wednesday regulars, and I miss my teammates, but I haven’t stood on skates now for a couple of months and it’s been kind of nice. I guess I’ll see how much I miss the whole thing before deciding to prepare for another summer season campaign. If I happen to decide to hang up the skates, my last official action in an IHV game was an under-pressure backhand thread out of our defensive zone to Big Cat, launching an attack. Which would sum up my career, such as it is or was, nicely.

Uzes, France. A place where you need to watch your head if you try to run through the town.

Uzes, France. A place where you need to watch your head if you try to run through the town.

After five years, a change of gear has been welcome. I completed my first official fun run in a long time – even if world landspeed experts did not sit up straighter in their chairs as the timing stats came in, plus I spent some weeks in France, even going for a jog in the countryside outside the walled city of Uzes. I have had time to see a few films (Captain America: Civil War was fun, Chasing Asylum a lot less fun but vital to see) and have also launched into some time-intensive work projects, one of which has involved spending a lot of time in the Emergency Trauma departments of major hospitals, which is a really, really effective way to make you appreciate your general health.

And I’ve been enjoying trying to work on my fitness in non-hockey-related ways. I’ve joined a new gym and started boxing again; a love that fell by the wayside because of hockey training. I’ve been trying to get back into the Bang, my footy life, but have been called into the front office immediately by my left hamstring to discuss my attempts to sprint and kick a Sherrin, after six months out of that world. The hamstring hasn’t torn but it certainly hasn’t been thrilled by the footy revival.

That’s the problem with getting older or playing different sports or maybe both: you stop for a while and it’s so hard to regain your sport-specific fitness and mojo. I’m actually in decent shape at the moment, various hockey ailments like my strained medial being unusually rested, but to then build my hammies back up to running/kicking strength? Difficult.

Nicko, Bang footy version. Trying to get back to this, hammies permitting.

Nicko, Bang footy version. Trying to get back to this, hammies permitting.

I’ll just keep taking baby steps; do hamstring strengthening curls in the gym and try to ease back into full Bang training. Wear a name tag to remind everybody who I am after so long away from the kick.

As this has been going on, a couple of my hockey mates have suffered nasty injuries over the past week. Todd slid awkwardly into the boards during a stick and puck session, and smashed his humerus, which sucks on many levels, not least because he took a year or so to get over a serious knee injury not so long ago.

Meanwhile, another friend has a big knee, after a nasty collision in a game, and looks like he’s up for a full reconstruction.

I’m sure everybody who plays hockey fields questions about how dangerous it must be, from people outside our little world. I always explain that the sliding motion gives you a lot less jarring than running, and certainly footy-running-and-kicking, but yes, there is the ever-present danger of ‘collision’ injuries.

Unhappy humerus. Poor Todd.

Unhappy humerus. Poor Todd.

It’s so unlucky for those two guys and others who are off the ice because of similar incidents. Hopefully, recovery is smooth and quick – well, as fast as can be expected. To play well, you have to push the thought of major injury out of your mind, and I’ve been lucky – the Year of the Knee, notwithstanding, but that was bad diagnosis, more than a major injury. I hope all my other hockey friends currently contesting winter or AIHL seasons, or skating in preparation for summer, are safe out there.

Me? I’m going to keep hitting heavy bags that don’t punch back, get some more land-miles into my legs and try to convince my left hamstring that the beauty of drilling a perfect pass, lace-out, to a huffing and puffing old man on the lead further down the field is totally worth the pain and suffering of a sporting re-boot. What could possibly go wrong?

 

Losing with a capital L

To be a fan is to be a loser.

I staggered back into Melbourne from overseas late last week, just in time for my beloved Richmond Tigers to get smashed by West Coast. The next day, the Detroit Red Wings got beaten by Tampa Bay, to go 2-0 down in a playoff series that they somehow fell into despite an underwhelming season.

By the weekend, I needed to shake off jetlag so I attempted to go for a run. As I plodded through Edinburgh Gardens, I heard an unmistakable roar from the Brunswick Street Oval on the other side of the tennis courts. Feeling excited, I made my way to the top of the small rise overlooking the oval to see that the mighty Reds (what’s left of the Fitzroy club that used to be a VFL/AFL side) had goaled to edge to within a straight kick of their opponents with minutes to go. Of course, as I watched, the opposition booted two to put the game away. I ran sadly on.

A big crowd in for the 'Roys at home on a perfect autumn afternoon. Shame they lost. Pic: Nicko

A big crowd in for the ‘Roys at home on a perfect autumn afternoon. Shame they lost. Pic: Nicko

It all got me reflecting on how the life of a sports fan, or player for that matter, is almost completely one of ultimate loss, apart from the occasional miraculous occasion.

At the most elite level, I have seen exactly one championship win by a team I support in my half century on the planet. Granted, Richmond won flags in 1967 and 1969, as well as 1973/74, but I was really young and only just tuning in by those Seventies flags, so they didn’t really resonate. By the time I was a foaming at the mouth, dedicated Tiger, we won the premiership in 1980 – my first live grand final at the MCG; the most epic of days, with my lifetime friend and fellow Tiger, Shaun.

I had no idea that by the age of 51, that would remain my only flag.

The Red Wings? I saw them lift the Stanley Cup in 2007/2008, when I fell in love with the team. But I can’t claim it. I only tuned in, as a flu-ridden, bored total hockey novice, for the Stanley Cup finals, and became engrossed over the course of the Wings victory over the Penguins. So I don’t feel that I can claim that as a cup that I ‘earned’ as a fan. Now, eight years later? Yes, I sweat blood for the Wings and can absolutely claim to be among the Motown army, even from half a world away.

Thank God for the Melbourne Ice with a quiver of men’s and women’s titles, and the Lorne Dolphins’ several flags over the years, in coastal footy, because as far as Richmond and now the Red Wings go, every single year except for once when I was 15, the season has ultimately ended badly.

Detroit's 2008 Cup: I was lucky to see it.

Detroit’s 2008 Cup: I was lucky to see it.

Which is pretty standard, unless you happen to be a Hawthorn fan in the AFL, winning life’s lottery over the past three decades. For the vast majority of sports fans, barracking life is destined to end, year-in, year-out, at some stage in failure. Look at the Collingwood Football Club with its vast, ever-cocky army – and exactly one more premiership in my lifetime than the bedraggled Tigers. Meanwhile, my more recent love, the Wings, have made the play-offs now for an unbelievable 25 years straight – through salary cap introduction, through Hall of Famers’ retirements (God, I miss The Perfect Human, in defence), through everything, but it’s eight years since they actually won the Cup and could be a while yet.

The Tigers? God, don’t even start me.

And trust me, in footy I know that I’m doing better than fans of the Bulldogs, Saints and Demons, all without a flag in my half century on the planet, or, in the NHL, fans of the Blues, Canucks, Capitals, Sabres and Sharks: teams that have NEVER won the Stanley Cup.

The Tigers triumph in 1980. My one and only premiership. Back before the world was in colour.

The Tigers triumph in 1980. My one and only premiership. Back before the world was in colour.

Imagine being a player. Matty Richardson for the Tigers, maybe Bob Murphy for the Dogs; playing your guts out for almost two decades and never raising that cup … watching other players who maybe manage 50 AFL games for their career luck out to be on the ground when the stars align and it matters. I feel vaguely disappointed that I’ve played four seasons of summer hockey now without any medals to show for it, so how must they feel? But again, in 2016, for 17 AFL teams and 29 NHL teams, and all but one Summer Division Three team, this will be the way it goes.

For some reason, we never look at this big picture, at how we almost always see a season end in despair. Instead, the fans, and players, get lost in the individual games, even in the individual moments within those sirens or buzzers. Players are touted as genius or idiot, rising star or useless, game to game, or minute to minute. Us fans watch it all, riding every bump, pouring with emotions, sweating on the next puck or goal or wicket or farnarkle or whatever happens to be your poison. I read Winging It in Motown, a very enthusiastic and well-populated Wings blog, and the screen seethes with rage and frustration and elation and sorrow and anger and happiness and wistfulness and … well, you get the picture. Sometimes all during a single game feed.

My cluster of Richmond diehard mates are already wincing at another season wobbling alarmingly at the start, with the team down 1-3 and not inspiring much hope of a premiership run. Again. All the parts that looked so bright and formidable in the pre-season, a month ago, now looking blunt and harmless compared to the razor-sharp skills, game plans and promising rookies of other teams. But then again, if the Tiges suddenly win five in a row …

And so the road goes, as ever. Up and down, peaks, troughs, but hardly ever reaching the desired destination.

Alex Rance: life is about more than silverware.

Alex Rance: life is about more than silverware.

Which is actually okay. In an excellent interview with The Age’s Emma Quayle during the week, the Tigers’ charismatic full back Alex Rance spoke about caring too much and about how his unstoppable competitiveness and passion for the game can get in his way. Raised a Jehovah’s Witness, Rance thought about leaving the game, leaning back into his beliefs to consider whether he even wanted to play football any more; worried that in the end it was pointless and took him away from his family and true priorities.

Rance said, ‘I’d play a crap game and think, “life sucks”. Then I’d play a good game and everything was awesome. It was like, how can you survive like this? There were peaks and troughs all over the place. It made me think about what faith is, and what I should really be basing my happiness on.”

You don’t have to be of a religious persuasion to see a general wisdom in Rance’s words. Sure, play hard, barrack hard, live or die on a swirling Sherrin in a breeze, or a deflected puck bobbling near a flailing goalie, or a putt curling towards the lip of a golf hole. But see it for what it is, win or lose; an entertaining aside to the real world that is ever travelling alongside, with much higher stakes and greater highs and lows.

In a day or so? Red Wings v Lightning, Game 4.
On the weekend? Richmond v Melbourne at the MCG.
Down at Lorne? Hopefully the Dolphins will be in action, so I can drink a beer on the muddy step grandstand and cheer the locals.
At the Icehouse? The Melbourne Ice men’s team begins another campaign, searching for a Goodall Cup, something has been tantalisingly out of reach for a few years now, but here we all go again.

I’m excited. As usual.

Giddyup.

Just remember it’s all in the journey.

 

 

 

Bidding for history

I went a bit nuts a year and a half ago and won an auction on a Canadian hockey collectables site. On Wednesdays, at Icy O’Briens training, you see all kinds of jerseys including a lot of novelty jerseys and I’m as guilty as anybody of liking the chance to wear bizarre and obscure colours on the night. With that in mind, I bid for and won a bunch of NHL Old Timer jerseys, as worn by creaky Hall of Famers and other probably long-forgotten NHL stars in exhibition games. My jerseys were mostly from the fifties, with a few Toronto-based ones from the seventies. I still wear one to training on Wednesday nights at Icy O’Briens and gave some as Christmas presents to the coaches that year, because every year I forgot to get them a present and then felt bad.

Lliam Webster rocks out one of the NHL Old Timer jerseys.

Lliam Webster rocks out one of the NHL Old Timer jerseys.

But the best thing about winning this auction was definitely not realising that the exchange rate was steep just then, or that the shipping costs were enormous, or that the other taxes and charges almost doubled the price of what I thought I had agreed to pay. No, none of those joyful discoveries were the awesome bit.

The awesome part was that the auction house people clearly thought, ‘Huzzah, we’ve got a live one in Melbourne, Australia, peoples!’ and have continued to mail me the catalogue for hockey auctions ever since. They arrive three or four times a year.

It’s spectacular bedtime reading. And it totally speaks to the dweeby history-lover in me as I’ve discovered how amazing and varied the names, nicknames and jerseys of hockey teams through the ages have been and continue to be.

The Fishermen. Damn, I wish I had the funds to have bought this jersey, just to wear around.

The 1920’s Fishermen jersey. Damn, I wish I had the funds to have bought this jersey, just to wear around.

Like a lot of people reasonably new to hockey, I only became aware of mysterious, now-gone NHL teams like the Whalers and the Nordiques as I delved deeper into the sport, and I find myself now actively seeking out strange towns, teams, mascots and leagues. Mysterious foreign outposts of the sport I’ve come to love.

This is where the auction catalogues are great. Brilliant team names and jersey designs of decades ago come back to life; some obscure, some just unknown to me. In my most recent catalogue, among endless signed sticks and jerseys by NHL stars, you suddenly turn a page to discover a gorgeous game-worn Selkirk Fishermen jersey from the 1920s (it sold for $C 533 – man, I’d love to wear that around town in winter). Wincingly-designed but funny are the jerseys of the Quebec Aces, an AHL team from the Sixties, or the magnificently terrible Calgary Cowboys jersey from 1975-76.

I even sort of like the world’s worst ever attempt at a shark logo on the WHA Los Angeles Shark jersey from that team’s inaugural season in 1972-73, which sold for more than $C 8,000, incidentally.

French Aces, and Canadian Cowboys and dubious Sharks.

French Aces, and Canadian Cowboys and dubious Sharks.

I’d love my jersey collection to include a Moscow Dynamo design from the mid Seventies but can probably live without rocking the colours of the Port Huron Flags. If you’re a Wayne Gretsky fan, you might have been keeping an eye on a lot last year, which featured the actually strangely hipster-cool jersey of a junior team he played for, the Sault Ste Marie Soo Greyhounds.

The mighty (and extinct) Seibu Prince Rabbits.

The mighty (and extinct) Seibu Prince Rabbits.

But beyond the catalogues, the list of intriguing, beautiful and often hilarious team names is long. It was through hockey that I discovered the Canadian town of Medicine Hat (go Tigers!) and through hockey that I found the now-disbanded Seibu Prince Rabbits in Japan. Or another team in the same league: the Nippon Paper Cranes. The Asia League also had a team from China with the unlikely name of ‘The Nordic Vikings’. It lasted one season; not able to match up with the more expected red and yellow power of the China Dragon team.

Australia’s national league doesn’t really light it up in this sphere. We have Mustangs and Thunder and Brave and North Stars and Ice Dogs (kind of funny), and Bears and Adrenalin. Plus, of course, the somewhat strangely-named Melbourne Ice (if it was a footy team, would it be Melbourne Grass?) But nothing to match the Fishermen, above. I’ve never missed Queensland’s Blue Tongues so much.

An unhappy turtle and Macon's sexy name.

An unhappy turtle and Macon’s sexy name.

Sports Illustrated once noted the existence of an American team (above) called Macon Whoopee, even featuring a bird and a bee on its jersey, while I am also a fan of the Mississippi RiverKings, starring a very grumpy turtle as their mascot. (I’d back the Red Wings’ resident octopus, Rally Al, to kick the turtle around if they dropped the gloves.)

As hockey moved into new American frontiers after the NHL expansion (almost 50 years ago exactly), lower level feeder clubs were created as well, meaning you got bizarre name attempts like the Orlando SolarBears or names mashing local history and hockey, like the Greenville Swamp Rabbits, apparently named after a train but featuring a bunny attempting to frighten grown hockey players. And while we’re there, a special shout out to the Toledo Walleye, a team that deserves a mention just because there’s something endlessly hilarious about the concept of a fish attempting to play ice hockey.

CRAZY TEAMS: Sun-loving hockey-playing polar bears and lump but cranky fish.

CRAZY TEAMS: Sun-loving hockey-playing polar bears and lump but cranky fish.

Look out! Cliff!*

Summer League - well, me and Jimmy - in full flight. Pic: Luke Media.

Summer League – well, me and Jimmy – in full flight. Pic: Luke Media.

I fell off a cliff when I was 15 years old. Well, technically, I was trying to climb a cliff when a piece of rock broke off in my hand and down I went. It happened in probably no more than a second or two. One moment I’m rock-climbing sans rope because, well, I’m teenager-stupid and clearly haven’t thought this through, and the next thing, I’m bouncing and falling through the air and bouncing hard and then lying on rocks at the foot of the cliff, right near the Airey’s Inlet lighthouse – for any Round The Twist fans out there.

But here’s the thing, and I’ve experienced it once or twice since: that second or so when gravity took over and my poor teenage body karoomed down that jagged cliff face: it felt like it took about a minute, and I can vividly remember it even now, almost exactly 36 years later.

I had so much time to think. In a fraction of second: multiple thoughts. From thinking, ‘Oh shit, that’s not good,’ as I looked at the rock broken off in my hand, nothing else to support me, to watching an empty detergent bottle at the base of the cliff rising up to meet me.

(I survived, in case you’re worried. Pretty bashed up but alive.)

At a lesser extent, I had that time-slows moment a few weeks ago during hockey training and it will not shock any even occasional readers of nickdoeshockey to know that my hockey mortality flashed before my eyes.

We were in Wednesday class warm-up and completing the seemingly innocuous skating drill of ‘superman with barrel roll’.

It would seem reasonable to think that the opening part of a superman – falling to the ice on your stomach – would be the simplest segment of that drill, but somehow this genius managed to screw that up. I still don’t really know how. All I know is that the very back of the blade of my left skate somehow bit into the ice and stuck so I instinctively stopped falling forward and tried to correct, which made my bodyweight go backwards and sideways, while my left leg didn’t give as it normally would.

I’ve covered enough AFL and other sport to see a lot of ‘Big Knees’ (which is what that industry calls a bad ACL tear that requires a complete knee reconstruction and a year of recovery). I know that usually it’s marked, even in an innocuous training incident, by a knee being bent in the direction it’s not supposed to go and having no give to escape the pressure.

I also know that they happen most often early in the AFL season, when the grueling pre-season training has left joints ‘exhausted’. And I’d been for a rare hard run the day before this happened, ticking another ‘impending disaster’ tick box.

And so we’re into that fraction of a second of endless think time as I feel the inside of my left knee screech with pain and I’m aware that my skate isn’t letting go of the ice, and if something doesn’t give, it’s inevitably going to be my knee that gives completely.

All while everybody else is doing superman with barrel rolls with the easy simplicity that you’d expect. It was like drowning five metres away from kids frolicking in gentle surf.

In the end, my hamstring took some of the strain, and the rest of my leg and so I got out of it with a medial ligament strain, which is nasty and hurts but means I still have a hockey season. It also means I’ve had to tape the knee for hockey, so that I have one bald knee among my otherwise hairy legs, which has been a great look in shorts-weather. But no, I’m not shaving both my legs. What am I? A middle-aged cyclist?

Hmm. Maybe Shane Warne should start doing dodgy hair-restoration adverts for knees?

Hmm. Maybe Shane Warne should start doing dodgy hair-restoration adverts for knees?

I’m about to embark on a major journalistic freelance project, which will involve following victims of major trauma, possibly for three or more years, as they attempt to recover. The strangest and most disquieting part of it is now, before we start, where the patients I’ll be following through the staff-only doors into hospital emergency and surgery, and finally into wards and then into rehab, currently have no idea that they’re going to be enduring this experience within a month or so, that this road is ahead of them.

Somewhere in Melbourne, people are going about their lives; picking up kids, playing cricket, doing the shopping, who knows … living daily life. And yet all that is going to change. As it will this weekend for some people, who don’t know an accident is looming in their immediate future, as it will for people being told today that they have a major illness. As it just did for a former AFL star –now-aging TV footy show panelist who made some unpleasant discoveries about the breakdown of his marriage last year.

OK, deep breath. I remain aware that such depths of life are a long, long way from an old man suffering a slightly strained knee in an ice hockey training session. Amen that they are.

But it’s worth thinking about, hey? If that ice rut hadn’t finally released my skate blade, taking the strain off my knee and leg, and allowing me to fall, this blog post would be a retirement one, crutches leaning on my desk.

Instead, it released, just in time, and so I was able to step onto the ice on Sunday to play MC TC and the Demons 3, and found – relief! – my knee carried my weight. Skated with joy, even if I was rusty and lacking game smarts after more than a week off the ice.

So happy this can still happen... Pic: Luke Media

So happy this can still happen… Pic: Luke Media

There’s a Buddhist teaching: when you wake each day, you should take a short moment to think: ‘I am alive!’ It sounds strange, given we are mostly blasé about our actual existence, and fair enough, but I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: take a moment to feel the air going in and out of your lungs. Stand up and stretch and feel the power in your arms and your legs; the wholeness of your body. Savour fitness. Savour being alive. Savour the passing stroke of your partner’s hand on your back, or the brush of loving lips on yours.
Savour two strong knees, if you have them, because it’s surprising how quickly and how easily it can all be taken away.

And having written this surprisingly intense blog, I’m limping back down stairs to buy another coffee.

 

  • For anybody who got the reference of the headline, this is for you:

 

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.