The pelican

Yes, we segwayed Washington. Not even sorry.

Yes, we segwayed Washington. Not even sorry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then, finally, it was game time.

Something I had waited years to see. Pic: Nicko

Something I had waited years to see. Pic: Nicko

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whale sharks, wounded Wings and Arnold, the Estonian.

Life’s been pretty exciting lately, even if this blog has been quiet.

I’m head down on lots of work, and deep in the first draft of the ‘Roll With It’ sequel, which is why I’ve been slack about writing hockey stuff down. But I have been living it. For example, tonight, one of my old Interceptor teammates, Dan ‘Yoda’ Byrne, is in town and so we’re getting the band back together, to play the IBM Business machines at the Icehouse. Should be fun. With summer comp over, all of my current hockey is in this vein of playing for fun, or development on Wednesday nights. I’ve found my intensity has slipped a little, but I’m ok with that. Next summer feels a long way away.

I might also be affected by the fact Tony Abbott is probably hunting me as I type, determined to dump my arse on Nauru or, worse (if that’s possible) Manus Island. You see, I am now an officially rejected boat person – turned back from a country’s border and refused entry. I was on a dive boat a few weeks ago, headed for Burma, to look for manta rays as a scientific project for the Marine Megafauna Foundation, when the Burmese officials decided not to let us through.

It didn’t ruin my week too much, given I had already hung out with manta rays, a whale shark (only a baby at five metres long) and an octopus, doing the whole try-to-turn-into-coral routine. We turned back into Thailand and visited amazing islands for the remainder of the week, even if the mantas deserted us.

Mixing hockey and diving underwater off Thailand.

Mixing hockey and diving underwater off Thailand.

It wasn’t until I was back at Patong that hockey made its inevitable, inexplicable appearance, as it always does no matter how remote or bizarre the location. It started when I walked past a bar in the seedy, dodgy, dubious quarter of Patong, in the middle of the day for safety from bouncers and spruikers, and saw one TV was featuring a replay of the USA v Canada hockey semi-final at the Sochi Olympics. The other TV had Richmond v Collingwood, live and pre-season from Wangaratta, as a Thailand bar would. I took a photo because all of this was so unlikely and the bar owner pounced, screeching at me: ‘100 baht for photo! 100 baht for photo!’

‘Yeah, that’s not going to happen,’ I said, walking away.

I walked and walked and walked, wearing myself out before the plane home, and eventually made it back to where I was staying and plunged into the pool. There I was joined by a European guy with bold shoulder tribal tattoos and Abbott-worthy budgie smugglers. His name was Arnold, we got talking about Estonia versus Australia and the inevitable weather comparisons and I laughed about playing ice hockey when it was sometimes 38 degrees outside the Icehouse.

‘You play hockey?’ Arnold said. ‘I also play hockey!’

Turns out Arnold is in his early 40s and plays for an Estonian team called Total, based in the Estonian capital, Tallinn.

Estonia's Total hockey team. Arnold on the right, middle row.

Estonia’s Total hockey team. Arnold on the right, middle row.

This is the team, along with their coach (who I call Chuckles), and that’s Arnold on the far right of the middle row.

Turns out it’s more expensive to play hockey in Estonia, with Arnold forking out something like 800 Euros a season (compared with about $500-600, including PointStreak, here) but sounds similar otherwise. Arnold was super-keen that my team, the Cherokees, should travel to Estonia to play his. I gently pointed out that we’re all amateur hockey players, like he is, and therefore don’t really have the kind of team funds to travel half way around the world for a friendly social match. … Unless one of my teammates has been holding out on us about hidden riches. Doc? Wolverine? Milkman? We have another plan to swap jerseys, which I should make happen, just for the Hell of it.

As we parted, Arnold said to me, ‘Now we are Facebook friends, we are friends forever!’ Hard to argue with that.

Hockey BFF: Arnold and Nicko. (Pic: Arnold's wife)

Hockey BFF: Arnold and Nicko. (Pic: Arnold’s wife)

Once I got back to Melbourne, I had my usual couple of sessions of shaking off being underwater and instead reacclimatizing to the ice. Had a brilliant stick-n-puck session with a teammate, Wolverine, where my legs screamed, and then a Dev League to get in shape for the Cherokees’ final match of summer, on the Friday night. We were beaten, again, but felt like we were right in it, for long periods. Most of us are planning to stay together for next summer and hopefully we’ll see improvement from a second year together. It was inspiring watching the Tigersharks this year, playing such a beautiful team game after three solid seasons together, even if they were pipped in the Grand Final by Jets Black, with the Blacks’ Swede just edging the Tigershark’s Canadian, two goals to one.

We were definitely playing a better team game towards the end of the season, and that gives us hope.

Nicko v The Wolverines. What happens when Kittens and Chris Hodson peel off for a line change without me realising I'm now all alone ... (Pic: Luke Milkovic)

Nicko v The Wolverines. What happens when Kittens and Chris Hodson peel off for a line change without me realising I’m now all alone … (Pic: Luke Milkovic)

Only this morning, I saw yet another brilliant quote from the Red Wings’ coach, Mike Babcock, who I really think is one of the world’s great coaches. The Wings are still somehow in the playoff race despite suiting up a line-up that has been smashed by injuries all season, and no more than now where Dats, Zetterberg, Ericsson, Helm, Abdelkader and Weiss lead something like 10 first-team absences, meaning the Wings are a defacto Grand Rapids Griffins as they face up to the might of the Crosby-led Penguins today.

Babs’ take on all this? ‘We know tonight … the other team is gonna have more skill than us. So what? Skill doesn’t win, teams win.’

So true. I quote another of Babs’ lines: ‘Choose your attitude,’ all the time. He and the Wings could sigh that the injury Gods hate them, it’s all too hard and fold, or embrace the crazy challenge of this season, skate hard and see what they can do. Choose your attitude.

I’m not convinced the streak can stay alive this year but it’s truly astonishing that it’s not over yet. Go Babs. Go Wings.