The lucky mo

The lucky mo. Deep in Movember.

The lucky mo. Deep in Movember.

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

A magical moustache.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Army's Movember style.

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

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

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

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

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

And I had dev league on December 6.

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

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

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

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

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

Primary assist: N. Place.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Christmas, everybody.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Power Skating: where pain meets purpose

So, Wednesday night has a new routine. Big Cat, Alex McGoon, Big Dan Mellios, Willie Ong and my other usual on-ice partners, all dress in the red and white Icehouse jerseys for 10 pm development league. I walk out of the change rooms wearing something else, like my black Red Wings training jersey, or maybe my blue Grand Rapid Griffins jersey.

And I go seek out Icehouse coaches Army or Tommy who, six weeks in, I’m pretty sure see me coming.

‘How are you for numbers tonight?’ I ask every week.

‘I think we’re okay.’

‘Someone in the change rooms was saying that it looks like the teams might be short,’ I say. ‘I’m supposed to be doing power skating, but I don’t mind switching if you need more players.’

By now, they’ve totally clocked me. ‘Listen Place, if you want to skip out of power skating and play dev league, we don’t care. Just play.’

‘No, no, I’m totally up for power skating,’ I completely lie. ‘I’m only offering to help.’

‘It’s your call, Nicko … totally up to you.’

Knowing eyes and grins. Damn them to Hell.

I trudge off to the Bradbury rink to Power Skating, and an hour of pain.

I tried Power Skating once before, in February last year, but had to stop after about four classes because it was The Year Of The Knee and my injured, then-undiagnosed left knee simply couldn’t handle the work. That, matched with my ineptness on skates when trying some of Zac’s more ambitious manoeuvres, beat me at the time, as I tried to just remain fit enough to play for my summer league team on weekends.

The end of another hour of Power Skating with Zac. Dig deep, peoples. Dig deep. Photo: Macklin Place

The end of another hour of Power Skating with Zac. Dig deep, peoples. Dig deep. Photo: Macklin Place

Since my knee recovered, I’ve done all my usual tricks of playing endless dev league and off-ice work, but I hadn’t had the stomach to return to Power Skating. One move that killed my knee (skating backward on one foot, landing sideways, on the outside edge, of the other foot, spinning 360 degrees on that edge and landing back on the original foot, ready to go again) still haunted me. And yet … in games, I know deep down that it’s my skating ability that holds me back and that others are skating better and better every week, while my improvement has been slower.

It was time to take action, to shake things up. And so this term I resolved to miss the fun and competitiveness of dev league, and go work on my moves.

But man, it’s hard. After almost four years of this hockey adventure, Power Skating is still able to just poke every single element of my game that I haven’t mastered. That’s the entire point, I suppose, but it doesn’t make it an enjoyable hour. Put it this way, I’ve found myself reading articles on negative thinking and how to ward off ‘I can’t do that’ negativity that gets in your way in life. And skating.

Crossover, crossover, crossover. Perfect it, Place. Photo: Macklin

Crossover, crossover, crossover. Perfect it, Place. Photo: Macklin

Every class starts with intense forward C-cuts, and then crossovers. Then the same thing, going backwards. Backward C-cuts. Backward crossovers. Occasionally raising a leg in the air, to glide on one outside edge for a while until Zac tells us to resume skating.

This is the opening ten minutes … a stark reminder of how dubious I remain at backward skating, at crossovers on my lesser side, at performing a genuine C-cut. On the plus side, there are elements of these that most skaters cheat on, and I’m trying really hard not to cheat on technique in this class. Pulling off a genuine toe-to-heel, never-let-your-skate-leave-the-ice C-cut back to heel-meeting-heel is bloody difficult, forward or backward. I know lots of really fast, really nimble skaters who I bet couldn’t do it, if Zac forensically made them show the technique. Of course, it doesn’t matter in a game. See the puck, get the puck. How you scramble down the ice on a breakaway doesn’t actually matter as long as you’re fast enough or nimble enough to outskate and outwit the opposition players. The Shots On Goal stat is ultimately more important than the Flawless Skating Technique stat, even if everybody knows the latter will always help the former.

Power Skating has no scoreboard, gets rid of the excuses and shortcuts of game play, and that’s why I struggle so much. It makes you concentrate intensely on exactly what your feet are doing, and how your weight is balanced, and whether your knees are bent (they never are: never enough) and everything else that, as Melbourne Ice import Sean Hamilton put it to me recently, falls under the essential skater learning category of: ‘Ass to ankles.’

On the adjacent Henke Rink last night I heard the horn blow as one side or another scored a goal (turns out two of them were Big Cat Place, showing some pre-summer form) but I was lost in puck control while high-stepping backward down the ice, or performing double fast-start crossovers in gut-busting races across the ice, or those bastard backward crossovers, or – mercifully – learning saucer passes and flip-passes where, finally, my slightly more presentable puck-handling skills got some airtime.

Despite what my teammates might say, this is not how I would normally skate. Power Skating with Zac takes you to strange places. Photo: Macklin

Despite what my teammates might say, this is not how I would normally skate. Power Skating with Zac takes you to strange places. Photo: Macklin

Zac as a teacher is endlessly patient and supportive. He skates like nobody you’ve ever seen, teaching this stuff since he was a teenager back in Canada. It’s always fun to watch the entire class sag as he shows how a move should be done and casually pulls out some one-foot, crazy-angle snow-flying hockey stop at the end without thinking about it.

Everybody has been telling me that this Power Skating class will be good for my skating. That I will emerge a little faster or with better outside edges or just more complete as a skater. God, I hope so. It’s a truly difficult and challenging class. But I want to hit summer in the best shape I possibly can and I want to make breakaways count and not falter mid-turn when it matters in a game.

As they used to say in one of my favourite ever TV shows, The Wire: ‘All the pieces matter.’

(In fact, the full quote suits my purposes even better: ‘We’re building something here, detective. We’re building it from scratch. Alllll the pieces matter.’)

A few more Wednesday nights of pain won’t kill me and might even do a lot of good. Hell, if I have gained even one kph of extra speed, I might sign up again for next term. Don’t quote me on that.

Watching my garden grow

Gardening and I have never been friends. A dozen years ago, I was living in an awesome house in Fairfield, surrounded by a rich, dense garden. It was a cool house with unofficially renovated windows letting light and unexpected views of the garden into most rooms. The bathroom was even built around the garden, so that the shower was embedded among actual dirt and ferns.

This is pretty much what will happen any time I'm left in charge of a garden. Pic: Flickr

This is pretty much what will happen any time I’m left in charge of a garden. Pic: Flickr

All of which was fantastic except that such a lush garden meant there were also a lot of weeds, and pruning, and all the other stuff that gardens require to look neat and beautiful and enticing, rather than impenetrable jungle.

This was bad news for my then-wife, Anna, who found herself gardening a lot, while I sat in front of my computer. ‘Come help?’ she would not unreasonably demand.

‘Can’t. Sorry. Working on a novel,’ I would reply.

A novel. Sure you are.

You can’t believe how relieved I was when ‘The Kazillion Wish was accepted to be published, giving me a gardening ‘Get Out Of Jail Free’ card that I could never have hoped for. ‘See,’ I told poor, long-suffering Anna, ‘I WASN’T being self-indulgent/wasting my time.’

Which was a total lie.

Like I said, lucky.

Taking a face-off for The Braves. Pic Luke Milkovic.

Taking a face-off for The Braves. Pic Luke Milkovic.

A few years later, I was living in Fern Cottage, Freeman Street, Fitzroy North, which fast became an ironically-named house as the backyard became nothing but weeds. Some were literally higher than my head. I’m not sure when the word ‘weed’ becomes ‘tree’, but this must have been close.

Occasionally I’d hire someone to nuke the entire backyard, ripping out everything but the few battered, half-strangled bushes that were clearly meant to be there. Pleasingly now mostly concrete, the backyard would immediately start to mutate again as I put my Jedi Non-Gardening Powers to use, writing or watching hockey on TV.

All of this meant my partner now, Chloe, was quite reasonably nervous at raising the idea of installing planter boxes on the deck of our new house. I did my bit by swearing a lot and sweating, while lugging two huge wooden boxes up the steep stairs to the rooftop deck, dodgy knee and all. I helped lug soil up the same stairs and then poured it all into the boxes.

But it was clear that I was not burning to nurture the plants, to be at one with this boxed nature.

Yet here they now sat, little fledgling strawberry plants, lettuce, passionfruit, zucchini, herbs and tomatoes. Being liberally bombed with random water attacks from Melbourne’s weather or maybe an enthusiastic five-year-old, who also considered it necessary to water the dog, the sky (look out below, walkers) and anything else within reach of the hose. And most mornings, the five-year-old would charge to the window and sigh, because giant plants hadn’t magically bloomed overnight. Things grow by increments, which can be a hard concept when you are five, or even when you’re a lot more than five, like me.

I got on with life.

Especially training, where I am finally dangerously close to full health. I’ve been doing Fluid workouts with Lliam, and it rocks. Crazy, diverse training like cracking giant ropes, or throwing sandbag balls to the ground as hard as I can, and endless lunges and squats, hoping my knee will hold (it mostly has). Explosive, intense workouts unlike training I’ve done before and leaving my legs, glutes and guts heavy with exhaustion. You don’t even want to know what The Torsonator is. But believe me, it’s nasty.

The dodgy left knee occasionally yelps when I climb stairs or once during a hockey game, but mostly it’s coping. Every session I complete makes everything around the meniscal tear stronger, and hopefully moves me further away from this injury. Wednesday nights at Dev League, another Lliam client, Jimmy Oliver, and I creak onto the ice, groaning with aching legs and exchanging knowing grimaces and grins before we even start. I love it.

And my back and upper body are getting a whole new workout, along with my skating muscles, which I’m really enjoying. I can feel it all helping my skating, as I gain more and more power in my stride. Not to say I’m not still proppy compared to the dream skaters in summer league’s midst, but at least I’m not hobbled like I was a couple of months ago. Touch wood.

Unfortunately, I'm still not striding like Alfy for the Wings.

Unfortunately, I’m still not striding like Alfy for the Wings.

My broken toe still can’t kick a footy, which sucks re The Bang, but it’s also definitely on the mend. Closer, ever closer to full health.

Summer league continues and my team, the Cherokees, has strong spirit and a lot of laughter, even if our on-ice results have been less than spectacular. We’re competitive but can’t score enough, and have faced a welter of shots going the other way. As with my skating, I’ve felt my form returning with my health. From barely getting near the puck a few games ago, I’m starting to be competitive – ripped a high shot into the top bar and over (what are the odds of that?) and almost scored on a screened drive from a post-faceoff scramble last weekend. Almost, almost.

Poor Big Cat leans on his crutches, nursing his broken ankle, hating watching his team lose and being unable to help. At least I’m on the ice, even if the results aren’t what we’d all like.

In Detroit, roads are starting to lead to the Winter Classic. Apparently the 24/7 cameras have arrived and I can’t wait for that weekly doco to begin. The Wings hit an incredibly mediocre patch (they seem to have one every year) where they couldn’t score goals and couldn’t close out matches. Finally, Gus Nyquist was brought up from Grand Rapids, along with lectures from everybody involved that he was a kid and not the savior.

Gus Nuyquist, finally where he belongs: wearing the winged wheel and tearing it up at the Joe. Pic Detroit Free Press.

Gus Nyquist, finally where he belongs: wearing the winged wheel and tearing it up at the Joe. Pic Detroit Free Press.

He scored 17 seconds into his first game. And again later, to put the Wings back in front. Hasn’t looked back.

Meanwhile, Pavel Datsyuk got elbowed blatantly in the head during a game and hasn’t played since. No penalty because not a single official saw it. Hmm. Hope 24/7 quietly recorded that hit.

Meanwhile, Darren Helm has gone from strength to strength on his return, but star goaltender Jimmy Howard has hit a strange slump of confidence, replaced for games by The Monster, Jonas Gustavsson, who couldn’t stop a goal at times last year but this season is blitzing. Coach Babs says it’s not a thing, that Jimmy will be fine, that’s there’s nothing to see here. It’s not a thing.

It’s totally a thing. Or maybe he’s right? Babs is about most things. Maybe Jimmy’s struggle is just another of the ups and downs of hockey, and of life.

The flow of action

and moments

and news stories

and highlights

and lowlights,

and injuries,

and comebacks,

and weeds, and snails,

and fresh buds and growing leaves,

and wins,

and losses,

from Detroit

to the Icehouse

to Oakleigh

to a training room in Port Melbourne

to a deck on an old fire station in Fitzroy North,

where two boxes of plants are sprouting and shooting and growing and thriving. Now thick with health and growing fruit, and with just a bit of gardening required, here and there.

We ate lettuce for the first time from our planter boxes last night and I was genuinely excited. I’ve found a form of contained gardening that I can actually enjoy.

Stranger and stranger. Life just keeps evolving. I just keep evolving. There’s your proof.

Friday on my mind

Ceptors' captain Jake Adamsons fights for the puck on Friday.

Ceptors’ captain Jake Adamsons fights for the puck on Friday.

Four days later and I’m still smiling about Friday’s night’s game. It was the Interceptors versus a scratch Rookie team, containing lots of my hockey mates, and also my younger son, Mackquist, who continues to improve so that he’s able to join in a match like this, and leaves me excited that we’ll probably be able to play in a team together next summer.

Friday was just one of those games that is played in a fantastic spirit, with everybody going as hard as they can but with smiles on the ice. It was only a practice match; all of us trying to get our legs back, our game sense back, our hockey sense back before summer league starts again (10.30 pm, this Thursday, for my team).

I’d put in a big training effort since returning from the summer holiday to Lorne and Tassie, and since I decided my dodgy knee would survive being on the ice. The week before last, I was on the ice, or in off-ice hockey-dedicated training, for at least two hours each night, every night but Tuesday.

I joined a new initiative, the Icehouse Hockey Academy’s summer program where Melbourne Ice star Jason Baclig, and one of my usual coaches, also a Melbourne Ice star, Matt Armstrong, put us through our paces. It was challenging, doing skating drills, having every weakness in our stride and leg muscles pinpointed by Jason, who skates like you can’t believe.

Jason hadn’t coached us before and it was great to get a new take on how to improve. Just little things like getting us to skate blue-line to blue-line on one skate, crouching. Then having us do it again on both skates, which was easier, and felt so much easier after the one-skate. Confidence builds, just like that. Then he and Army took us up to the Icehouse gym for a hockey-specific strength circuit. In the middle of all this, I continued my own return to upper body training at my usual gym in Fitzroy, and had a practice game against an IBM team, and took part in some Jets training sessions – learning new moves from the wider club’s coaches. All in all, the hockey cobwebs were blown away in a big way, to the point that in the final sprint lap of that Jets training session, skating along next to coach Scotte Giroux, my body hit “empty” and I simply lost my ability to skate hard. In the course of half a lap, I went from next to Scotte to barely moving. Petrol… gone.

It led to a quiet week last week, knee hobbling again – Magic Enzo, the osteo, finally doing some magic – until Friday’s game, by which time I was bursting to hit the ice.

Jack Hammet, on the move for the Rookies, as I attempt, probably unsuccessfully, to close him down and Big Cat waits, ready to pounce. Pic: Dave Walker

Jack Hammet, on the move for the Rookies, as I attempt, probably unsuccessfully, to close him down and Big Cat waits, ready to pounce. Pic: Dave Walker

And it was a blast. A total blast. A reminder of everything I love about playing hockey. Early in the first period, Big Cat, at speed, won the puck on the right wing, looked across the width of the ice, saw me charging and dinked a perfect pass through the air and over two opposition sticks so that I skated onto the puck without breaking stride. Through the blue line and clear, although the defenders were closing. Me travelling fast (for me) and winding up the wrist-shot.

That glorious feeling of seeing the puck disappear through the five-hole, as the goalie dropped but a fraction too late (sorry, Stoney). Interceptors whooping and hollering. A glove-pumping celebration glide-by past our bench.

Then marveling, in the second period, as our captain, Jake, got the puck on the defensive side of the red line, out of the corner of his eye saw an Interceptor player coming over the boards, half a rink away, and duly delivered an almost-blind pass right onto the stick of Big Cat, motoring away from the bench. That left Big Cat all alone with the goalie and his finish was clinical (sorry again, Stoney).

The Rookies had many decent players and scored three goals going the other way, but the Interceptors eventually prevailed 4-3, on the back of a second goal from Big Cat and one from our coach, Will Ong.

I don’t mean to give a match report as much as to convey that it was just a fun, end-to-end game, where we Interceptors felt ourselves click as a team, even if we were missing a bunch of players through travel and injury, and had coach Ong and Mark “Happy Feet” Da Costa Caroselli as one-off free agent players. Our defence was calm and measured, working together and playing smart hockey. The forwards, me included, were charging at every opportunity.

Yesterday, at Lorne, Big Cat and I were still grinning about it.

And so I thought I should share that joy on the blog. As a counter to all those posts where I doubt myself and the journey.

It’s good to stop occasionally and just celebrate the joy of playing.

So this is a salute to the sheer joy of playing with mates and against friends.

The fun of good-naturedly bantering with an opponent who has just scored a great goal; both of you hunkering down for the next face-off.

The fun of skating as hard as you can to try and go with somebody who is better on their legs than you are.

The satisfaction of scoring a goal, or of nailing a good pass to a teammate’s stick.

All those little one-percenters, all that sweat, all that effort. The satisfaction of an intense, hectic, brilliant hour.

Icehouse classes (dev league and power-skating) start again on Wednesday night. Thursday, we play the Champs, who smashed us last time.

I play hockey. For a team. Like I dreamed of, crazy dream that it was, two and a bit years ago.

I’m definitely getting better as a player and a skater, bit by bit, skate by skate, game by game.

And I love being a part of it, win or lose.

How fucking awesome is that?

Friday's winning Interceptors line-up. I was so happy with the win and the game that I didn't even care my post-helmet hair looked like Milton the Monster. So there. Pic: Dave Walker.

Friday’s winning Interceptors line-up. I was so happy with the win and the game that I didn’t even care my post-helmet hair looked like Milton the Monster. So there. Pic: Dave Walker.

Monday notebook: Rookie triumph, the Jets and lockouts.

by Nicko

Friday night lights

A social match on a Friday night. A bunch of Rookies making up the numbers against mostly better credentialed players who share a love of IBM computers, or at least a pay cheque from IBM. Several players I would normally be with – especially Jake Adamsons – are wearing opposition jerseys. We grin at one another across the face-off line. Pre-game, Chris Janson, who organised it (and thanks for inviting me, Chris), has a DVD on the main scoreboard with pictures of us and our career highlights. Which, for most of us, is pretty short on reading.

After eight minutes, the Rookies are five goals down. It’s ugly. As captain, I call a time-out. I have no idea what to say. My team looks to me expectantly, except Jay the goalie, who is in his own quite loud self-loathing world of pain off to the side. Goalies do it hard. They can’t ever feel like the buck doesn’t stop with them.

“These guys are really good,” I say. “Forget the scoreboard. It’s a social match. Have fun, don’t panic with the puck, give Jay more support in D, challenge yourself against better players. Who cares about the score?”

In the second period, we roar back to 5-5. We’re skating, Jay has heroically held it together and then started holding his own.

Then we hit the front. My boy, Big Cat, has a couple of goals with his mum in the crowd, which is a nice B-plot. I’m concentrating on trying not to fall into my wide-legged flat-footed trap, instead skating hard off both feet, always moving. I anticipate where the puck will be and sprint end to end, and immediately back, at one point, getting it right both times and with the feeling that I haven’t skated that fast in a game ever. The new stride is working. My legs are screaming as I stagger to the bench. It’s awesome. Meanwhile, I have an assist or two, deliver some passes then get pushed hard in the back and find myself sprawled on the ice near the boards. Things are getting that tense (I received an apology later in the rooms, which was cool). Army, reffing, said he thought about calling it but didn’t. Off the next face-off, I push it to Liam Patrick, Apollo Creed to my Rocky Balboa, who buries the one-timer goal. So sweet. Army skates over to the bench a minute later: “That’s exactly how you answer stuff like that,” he says with something approaching paternal pride.

At the end of the second period, things are level.

Game winner: Aimee “Christmas Angel” Hough.

“Forget everything I said earlier,” I tell my team. “Let’s kick some arse.”

We get out to an 8-6 lead.

They peg it back. It’s level with three minutes to go. The hockey is furious. Army is grinning like an idiot. We’ve made his night; two social teams of varying degrees of ability playing like our kids are hostages and their survival depends on the result. The Rookies are intent, hoarse from screaming on the bench, skating and playing at a level that, for us, is thrilling.

Having said that, through it all, I’m aware that IBM’s very good players, such as Pete Sav, are rarely moving out of third gear, often coasting in second, which is gallant of him, of them. We’re throwing everything at them but they respect our limited skills and choose not to burn us anywhere near as much as they could. I have no illusions but, in the moment, taking it to them is so much fun.

And then we get a ninth goal, from Aimee “Christmas Angel” Hough, who has never previously scored in any kind of game. Rookies celebrate as though we just won the Goodall Cup. “Game winner! Game winner!” we yell at Aimee as she returns to the bench. Somehow we control the puck for the remaining two minutes and, while it’s unconfirmed, it might just be that Nicko Place gains a small piece of hockey history as the first player ever to captain a Rookies team to victory. (We won a game once before but didn’t have a captain.)

All of us head into the night, buzzing. The IBM team is gracious in defeat. Summer League, and actual competition, is about a month away and none of us can wait. If this was a taste, in a game that actually had nothing on the line, genuine competition is going to be epic.

Ready for take-off

It appears I am officially a Jet. The final step towards “N. Place: hockey player” is right there.

A few months ago, one of the Rookies, Theresa, called for interest in forming a summer team and a bunch of us put our hand up. Now, weeks and weeks of backroom dealing, surfing the politics of local hockey, seeing who was genuinely interested and meeting in McDonalds kid playrooms (no, really) later, we have two teams set for summer league. Under the auspices of the Jets, we will be the Spitfires – split into the Fighters and the Interceptors (I’m an Interceptor, which has pleasing Mad Max connotations).

Nicko in flight, for the Rookies.

Well played, Theresa.

I haven’t written about any of this on the blog because I wasn’t sure it would happen; as in, we’d actually be given a place in the competition, but now it’s looking likely. The chances are that Jake Adamsons will captain the Interceptors, with me as an AC, which will be a challenge. God knows how I ended up in a captain’s role, given I still spend time trying to remain vertical on the ice.

A few hockey friends are in different teams or have splintered off, which is sad. But I will be playing with a bunch of mates, which rocks. The only unsettling angle is that everything feels more serious as summer looms. Joey at Next Level has ramped up his offerings of classes, and so a heap of Rookies will be training at Oakleigh instead of at Docklands, and everything is starting to focus on competition, instead of the previous journey to simply master a bloody outside edge.

In a way, for me, this is great because I just love playing, I’m competitive now and my skating has to step up when under pressure. Then again, my coaches Lliam, Army and Joey  – especially Joey – believe that playing endless dev league might not be great for me as I fall back into my bad habits instead of working on the fundamentals.

I honestly don’t think I can do another term of Intermediate at the Icehouse – if nothing else, I should clear out a space for somebody coming out of Intro, having done something like four tours of Intermediate duty.

But I simply can’t make it to Oakleigh every Friday night, despite Joey’s endless patience and generosity, so I’ll have to work out how to keep my quest for better skating skills alive around team training, dev league and then Spitfires game play once it happens. A good problem to have but I’m hoping the fun aspect of hockey remains, and my sense of being on a longer journey, once weekly VHL points are on the line.

NHL lock-out looks likely

Every day, it appears less likely that the NHL season will start on time, because of the Owners v Players dispute. The Wings players put their chances of getting onto the ice at 50-50, which isn’t a good sign. September 15 is the day that the current agreement runs out and the owners don’t seem to be particularly worried about that imposed deadline sliding by, meaning no hockey.

I had pretty much given up on being able to make it to Detroit for the Winter Classic, but now there might not even be a Winter Classic to yearn for. It all seems kind of dumb. The game is healthier than ever, lock-outs in the NFL and NBA have pretty much set the bar of where player earnings as a percentage of the game should sit … get on with it, negotiators.

Monday question: Do Wolverine claws beat harsh advice?

Potentially Earth-shattering realisations over the weekend as I pondered whether Eric Millikin is now my favourite non-hockey columnist at the Detroit Free Press? Consider this sample:

Man uses Wolverine claws to attack roommate who is dating his mom

KSL Utah says: “He is accused of using a knife and a replica of the claws associated with the Marvel Comics character Wolverine in his Aug. 8 attack on his 20-year-old roommate. … [His] mother was also stabbed in the left arm during the incident as she tried to pull him off his roommate. [His] mother is dating his roommate, the sergeant said, noting that the two men have been ‘best friends since they were younger.'”

Eric says: I don’t care how many “yo mama” jokes you’ve endured or what kind of mutant super hero you think you are, a Wolverine-claw stabbing is no way to treat your best childhood friend and/or future stepfather.

Until I discovered gems like that from Eric, I’d been loyally devoted to relationships consultant Carolyn (“Also, remember, even a ‘happily married woman’ is just a couple of turns of fate away from an emotional abyss. Puts smugness right back in the bottle.”) Hax. Technically she writes for the Washington Post and gets syndicated, so maybe there’s room for both in my life?

Hax has no hesitation telling those writing for advice if they’re an idiot, selfish, or worse. If only more relationship columnists in Australia had her frankness: Hey, dickhead, stop being a dickhead.

Check out her reply to this guy who worried his ex writing negative things online would damage his reputation:

Brought to you by the letter S, for Snap!

 

FINAL NOTE: Big ups to the Melbourne Ice – including Lliam, Army, Joey, Tommy Powell, Martin Kutek and Jason Baclig – as they chase their third straight Goodall Cup, skating in Newcastle this weekend. Big Cat and a bunch of hockey fans are going to watch. I couldn’t make it. But I’ll be cheering from the south. Good luck and Go Ice Go.

 

 

Beating the funk

George Clinton. Different kind of funk.

No, I’m not talking about Kronwalling George Clinton, the Godfather of Funk.

I’m talking about how to shake off a hockey funk. Maybe even a life funk, but let’s take things one step at a time.

As I write this today, I am very much back in the game, compared to the last post, which only needed whisky and a sad soundtrack to complete the misery.

I knew I was okay from the moment my legs complained, already tightening up, as I creaked out of the car just before midnight last night, after driving home from the Icehouse. My legs are even stiffer this morning, finding every movement heavy in pedaling my bike as far as a local cafe. In fact, my whole body is aching in that awesome way that says you skated hard, took some hits, physically committed.

Battling that funk from earlier in the week, I had turned up for last night’s lesson, determined to kick myself back into a happier place. And it worked.

Actually, the anti-funk campaign had started at least 24 hours before. In fact, from the moment I wrote it all out in that last post, I switched into: “OK, whinge over. Time to skate” mode. On Tuesday, my son Mack decided to show off his brand new hockey stop in the opening minute of Intro class, completely lost his edges and cannoned into the boards, taking some poor guy’s legs straight out within him. Boom! In a game, it would have been a misconduct penalty for roughing, 2 minutes easy. The coaches, Army, Tommy and Shona, all cracked up (“Place!”) and looked up to the stands where Big Cat and I were helpless with laughter. I felt hockey moving through my veins. (The guy who got taken out quietly moved a few steps to his left or right every time Mack approached from then on.)

All day Wednesday, I was thinking hockey. I had a big lunch, loading up for the night. I had a rest before heading to the rink, recharging. Couldn’t concentrate on playing pool because I wanted to be out there (which is a coward’s way of saying Big Cat beat me.)

At the Icehouse, I even went for some retail therapy to exorcise the funk, buying  new black Easton body armour that makes me look like the Dark Knight if I ever have my jersey dragged over my head in a fight (unlikely).

Actually, now I think of it, how cool would that be, in the NHL? Two players get into a fight; one player dislodges the other’s helmet and finds that under that helmet the player is wearing a Batman cowl. Oh my God, I’m fighting Batman! (Hmm, I’m not only digressing but I’m veering back towards the Avengers hockey team post. DC Heroes v Marvel Heroes as hockey teams … discuss)

My new armour is much lighter, and slightly smaller, but still seems to do the same job, which rocks. I can finally get a jersey over my head without it snagging on the various bits of foam and padding that jutted out of my old, bulky armour, but I probably don’t look quite so broad across the padded shoulders these days. I can live with that.

Me in my new armour:

Post-pool and pre-class, Big Cat and I had a general skate, to get our legs moving, but I barely raised a sweat; just feeling the skates under my feet. Time ticked slowly. We got dressed way too early. Finally, it was Intermediate class.

I was kind of scared because I’d discovered a week ago that coach Lliam occasionally reads this blog, and so he knew about the funk and had promised to help. “You can solve all the problems of life?” I asked, blinking.

“Um, no,” he said, running away fast. “Just hockey funk.”

Turns out, as a guy who has played for his whole life and around the globe, feeling like you’re flat-lining in developing your skills, or just losing your hockey mojo, is something he has gone through on his journey and knows about.

And so he and Army were there, from the jump, urging us on through stepping over sticks and gliding on one skate, tight turning and Superman-diving to the ice, tight turning and skating backwards (“Both feet, Nicko! Both feet!”) and a final tight turn to bend knees all the way to the ice while skating. Tricky but fun drills. Times three.

And power skating drills, which are my favourites – just belt up and down the ice as fast as you can; me working on my Army-instructed technique to bring my skates close together at the end of each stride for extra push. I’m definitely faster as a result.

Feeling the funk lifting as I puck handled around cones, as I sprinted two laps after each drill, as I sweated and worked and sweated and worked and worked.

I wrote last time that I wasn’t tired after last week’s class and Dev League. Clearly hadn’t worked hard enough. As my group waited our turn to sprint up and down the Henke Rink last night, somebody advised that we needed to pace ourselves and I thought: “Screw that. No pacing myself tonight. Skate ‘til I drop.”

George Clinton’s band, Parliament, back in the day. Oh yeah.

And I did, so that by the time I joined the black team for Dev League, coached again by Lliam after a few weeks on red with Army, I was already feeling it.

Dev League was great as usual. Our team won, something like 7-2, and it’s amazing how much better at playing genuine hockey we’re all getting. People holding positions, making the right passing decisions more often than not, handling the puck with genuine skill.

I panicked with the puck on my first couple of shifts. Found myself controlling the puck in traffic but only throwing it forward, instead of trusting my ability not to be knocked off it and try to carry it or at least use the puck creatively.

Back on the bench I mentioned my panic to Lliam and he said: “OK, this is how you beat the funk. Do what you’re good at. Don’t worry about what you’re not good at … just concentrate on what you know you do well.”

So, there’s a poser for you … luckily I had a full two shifts before I left the bench, to try and work out if there’s anything I do well, that I could concentrate on? Well, I thought, I’m hard to knock over and I’m not bad at battling for the puck along the boards. At my best, I pass well; can think with the puck and find a teammate in a strong attacking position. So, OK, do that … and skate. Skate hard.

And so I did. Managed to weave through a couple of opponents in centre ice, controlling the puck, and pass to a teammate charging the net. I only do that occasionally but it’s a thrill. I won the puck more than once. Even beat Big Cat pointless in a one-on-one battle, which is rare enough to deserve documenting. Suddenly, I was having a ball, and even happily absorbed a huge collision with a teammate as we were both single-mindedly defending a puck lurking dangerously in the opposition slot. That one actually hurt but I was smiling as I checked my body was still working and skated off towards our goal, straight back in the game.

As always the hour ticked to a close way too fast. As the cursed garage door rolled up to reveal the Zamboni, I was ready for more and my legs were still holding up.

Until I got home, and cooled down.

Which was when I knew I’d achieved my goal.

And wrote down what’s required for anybody battling hockey or life funks:

1. Buy armour.

2. Concentrate on what you do well.

3. Play music, loud. In fact, stare the funk down and put on some Parliament, Funkadelic or P-Funk, with George Clinton.

Take that, funk.

And thanks, Lliam, and Army, as well as Chloe´, and all my hockey classmates, for nursing me through it.