Back to work …

So, I have a hockey game on Saturday.

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

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

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

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

Now, almost a month later, who knows?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Off-season distraction: French duo Brigette.

Off-season distraction: French duo Brigette.

See you there?

 

 

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

 

Preparing for a vintage summer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Giddyup. Pic: Luke Milkovic

Giddyup. Pic: Luke Milkovic

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

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

Bring it.

 

 

The end of another summer?

Tonight, I potentially play my last game of the IHV Div 3 2014/15 summer season. My team, the Cherokees, has a game next weekend to finish the regular season but I have a wedding I can’t miss and so tonight, at 10.30 pm at the Icehouse against the Champs, is it for me. Except that we’re going to win tonight and therefore play finals in a couple of weeks, but that’s for another blog.

As always, as the end of the official season approaches, I feel melancholy. There are aspects of being in a team, of sharing adventures with the same group of people, that are impossible to capture elsewhere. It’s something I cherish because I only watched it from the outside for so many years as a sports journalist while, as a kid, I was more of a surfer than a footy player and only played indoor cricket with some mates for fun. The Bang, my winter footy world with a bunch of similarly creaky Sherrin-chasers, goes close but we don’t have actual matches, we don’t skate onto the Henke Rink needing to win to make the finals. That sort of adrenalin is hard to bottle.

I haven’t written the blog since returning from Christmas because there hasn’t been much to write about, in a hockey sense. I’ve been training on Wednesdays, very much as per the final blog of last year, where Tommy, Lliam, Army and Shona own our arses in dev league after we complete drills in Inter class. We’ve played some Cherokee games and continue to get more cohesive and dangerous as a team, just as we’re going to have to stop.

In my happy place (pun intended): playing the goon for the Cherokees.

In my happy place (pun intended): playing the goon for the Cherokees.

Away from the rink, I’ve been on an intense fitness campaign – including a non-negotiable minimum of 50 push-ups and 100 sit-ups per day, over and above hockey training, gym workouts and other fitness – and feel great for it. It’s kind of annoying that I feel like I’m hitting peak fitness at the exact moment I’m about to stop playing competitive hockey.

On Monday, I even walked to work, and therefore found myself wandering past the Punt Road Oval just as my beloved Richmond footy team was warming up for training. Somebody had left a gate open and that’s all a former journo needs to sneak in and take a seat … I eventually made myself useful by collecting the balls that were kicked too high for the epic netting behind the goals (about one in five shots), so that I felt like a little kid again, scurrying around behind the goals at the school end of Lorne’s Stribling Reserve to get the footy as the Lorne Dolphins took on their Otway opponents, surf booming from down the hill.

But I digress. It was fascinating watching the Tigers go through their routines. It’s a long time since I’ve been to an AFL training session. As a journo, I hung out at training all the time and mostly took it for granted but now I saw it all through fresh eyes. The Tigers warm up using many of the time-honoured techniques all footy teams do, such as two players sharing one ball, playing kick-to-kick from 20 metres apart. Even us Bangers do that before starting to run around, but Richmond puts a little spin on it: instead of standing, flat footed, to mark the ball, then kick it back, the Tigers mark it, turn, take four or five steps backwards, then pivot and deliver the pass back to their mate. It’s recreating the movement of taking a grab, and then retreating from somebody standing on the mark, to turn and bullet a pass to a teammate. Kicking with one foot and then the other. Even before their hammies are vaguely warmed up, they’re recreating match conditions.

They weren’t finished. After a while, the players took to marking the ball, then dropping it and letting it bounce on the ground a couple of times before they bent, picked it up and kicked before straightening. Again, in a match, you don’t have time to scoop up the ball, stand straight, balance, look around and then kick. So at training, they’re kicking from a half-crouch, having snared the ball on a half volley.

Jack Riewoldt shows his style at training.

Jack Riewoldt shows his style at training.

Everything had a meaning; everything had purpose. When a coach called ‘drink break’, the Tigers ran back to their drink bottles as fast as they possibly could. I mean: sprinted! It was like there was a thousand bucks cash on the boundary near their bottles. In a game, you don’t jog back to the bench, you get the fuck off the playing surface so your replacement can get on. One player yelled: ‘This is not a drill, peoples. This is not a footy drill!’ just to be a goose, but that’s where I started to see the correlations between what they were doing and hockey training. Sprinting to the boundary, for example, has direct application for hockey. If you’ve ever played in a team with somebody who dawdles back to the bench, stick in the air, because that’s how they’ve seen the NHL players do it … while you’re watching your team now a man down on an opposition breakaway, you’ll know what I mean. If you’re going to end your shift, skate hard to the boards, peoples.

At our training, the coaches endless ask us to skate fast over to the whiteboard so they can explain the next drill, but people saunter back, grab a drink, gradually tune in. The Tigers, professional athletes, are there, drinking, in a flash, and then on their way to the next activity with intent. Impressive intent.

The other drill that caught my eye was when they started doing run-throughs. Six or seven Tigers would leave one end of the ground at a time, running at maybe 60-70 per cent. As they approached the cones 150 metres away, a coach would be standing with a Sherrin in his hands. He would fire a handball to one of the running players, but they didn’t know which until he suddenly rocketed the ball to them. Lightning fast hands snared the ball in one grab every time. In hockey, a lot of our drills are choreographed, as in ‘Man A leaves this corner, skates around this cone, looks for a pass from Man B who then skates to here to receive the pass back before the blue line’. The Tigers add a little matchday randomness to everything, because in a game, you don’t have the choreographed puck arrive just as you’re ready for it after rounding a cone. In fact, hockey games and AFL games are very much about making snap decisions and of having the puck or ball arrive sometimes unexpectedly.

This is not to say footy training is better/smarter than what we do at the Icehouse. I fully get that hockey skill drills are a different beast to the Tigers’ match day recreation stuff and that we hockey rookies need to have drilled into us over and over again how to break-out, how to form a three man rush, how to pass in front of a skater, not to their feet … these are basics that we need to keep working on but the Tigers don’t exactly have to worry about. And anyway, at the Bang, one of our elders, a well-known singer songwriter, is forever trying to get us to do a three-man handball weave as we run warm-up laps, but it’s laughable how incompetent we all are at such a basic move. It drives him insane. Sometimes, hockey players and footy players are better when acting by instinct, instead of trying to handball to here, move from point A to point B, receive the ball there, move from Point B to Point C.

And then, anyway, the Tigers surprised me and made me laugh, by doing a drill that was so robotic and synchronized that it looked like a line-dance.

The whole thing was fun to watch, and scamper around, collecting footys. I walked the rest of the way to work and back to my real life, looking forward to the AFL season starting, so that the Tigers can prove they’re finally the real thing. The calendar clicking ever closer to footy mode also means the Melbourne Ice women will have secured the title by then, which means the Melbourne Ice men will be ready to show the Giddyup Clippy Clop Orange crowd that last year’s final was just a bad day on the wrong day.

Me? I’ll be spending Wednesday nights on the ice with Big Cat, and Sundays at the Bang with my footy brothers, occasionally, hopefully, scuba diving with Mackquist, and all the time wondering if my creaky old body has another summer of competitive hockey left in it? As I do every year. Before I inevitably sign up and pull the Cherokees No. 17 jersey over my shoulder pads, chasing that locker-room brother-and-sisterhood that I adore and the sheer thrill of the battle. I love it all. There’s life in the old dog yet.

Blow the horn … at last.

Scored a goal last night. In dev league.

It was a dirty goal, as I saw it. But it went in.

And let me say right from the get-go, this blog is NOT to skite. Ohhhhhhh, no. I have no intention of puffing on a cigar, saying to the wider world, ‘Hey, look at me. Goal scorer!’

Because actually, if I’m honest, this is about pure relief. The fact is it had been a long time since I had put a puck between the posts, in the back of the net.

For a forward, a person in vertical black and white stripes making this signal is the most beautiful thing in the world (unless you're in the defensive zone. Then it sucks.)

The signal you want to see a ref or linesman make immediately after you shoot at goal.

A goal drought is a funny thing, in any sport. You don’t realise you’re in it, until you really undeniably are. And then it becomes extremely hard to ignore.

I guess it’s why the word ‘drought’ is well chosen as a metaphor. It hasn’t rained for a while. Then you begin to realise it has been an unfeasibly long time since there was precipitation of any volume. Then you notice the dryness of the soil, the wilting leaves on the vegetation. The percentage-full stat for the dams has been creeping while you weren’t watching, but now you are and the drop is alarming. That figure keeps creeping in the wrong direction and suddenly, you’re worried and the people with fancy cars are being told they can’t wash their cars, even using buckets, and you start seeing scenarios where it never rains again and Australia finally meets its post-Apocalyptic harsh dry Mad Max future that has always seemed a likely end game in this extreme country and never more so than when a douchecanoe of a Prime Minister waves off all science, declares climate change doesn’t exist and tells reporters how much he loves coal and thinks coal mining is a great thing for our future.

But I digress. Hockey.

A hockey friend of mine logged a Facebook post one day, which read something like: ‘643 days.’

This puzzled me for a while. After all, there was that outside chance he was discussing something unrelated to hockey. 643 days what? Since he last had a drink? Until his best gal arrives home? Until a movie he’s looking forward to is released?

But no, sure enough, fellow hockey players turned up on the thread, gently nudging and ribbing him in the comments, and it became clear he was actually counting, carefully, how much time had passed since his last goal.

This horrified me. That is not a stat I would ever want to voluntarily track. There was a time a while ago when I ran briefly at a goal a game for one short glorious spell. But then, more recently, any dev league or IHV goalscorers could have been forgiven for forgetting the number 17 existed when I was on the ice.

My goal drought had certainly lasted a while before last night’s dev league goal (and I know it’s only dev league but there are lots of very good players going around on Wednesday nights at the Icehouse, so I’m counting it as a genuine competition goal, so there).

It had never, at any point, occurred to me to count the individual days between horns blaring. I do know that after scoring three goals in my debut summer season of 2012/13 (and I can sort of remember them all, even if the sometimes sketchy recording mechanisms of hockey mean only one was officially recorded), I didn’t score at all in the 2013/14 season.

There were reasons for this, including the much-chronicled Lost Year of the Knee, which affected my mobility throughout the season and my sheer, basic ability to be able to get to the puck, or not, which clearly affects your scoring potential.

But whatever the excuses, I hadn’t hit the scoreboard for a long time. And that bothers anybody. Definitely, it bothers me. It just eats into your belief, shift after shift, easily blocked shot after missed net.

There are many kinds of forwards in hockey. It’s a fascinating part of a sport with usually a maximum of 12 forwards in a game, taking the ice in waves of three players at a time. Some forwards, even whole lines, are almost purely defensive, some are grinders, some – in the olden days of the NHL and pro leagues – are dedicated enforcers, only on the team to go beat up an opponent threatening the team’s more skilled goal scorers.

My boy, Big Cat, is mobbed by Cherokees after scoring. He got a hat-trick last night and is a pure goal-scorer when fit and firing. Pic: Luke Milkovic.

My boy, Big Cat, is mobbed by Cherokees after scoring. He got a hat-trick last night and is a pure goal-scorer when fit and firing. Pic: Luke Milkovic.

And there are the pure goal scorers – forwards who can dart and weave on their skates, can fly, and have cannon shots to targeted corners of the net, or have deft flecks to flip a puck past a bedazzled, helpless goalie. Have their heads up and their eyes open to spot a goalie moving ever so slightly in one direction, and the skill to plant the puck where he or she isn’t.

I am not one of those players. And yet nor am I a purely defensive forward. I’m old fashioned, I guess, and see some sort of responsibility as a usually Left Wing, in a decent team, to put my share of shots on net, to be able to get myself to that dangerous, buffeted slot in front of the goalie, looking for the rebound, or a deflection, while being elbowed and yanked, buffeted and stick-chopped by opposition defenders. I think, after playing for about four years, I need to be able to do something, something, on a breakaway, and I definitely should at least see the number 17 on some assists for my team, the Cherokees, or for my dev league teammates, even if I’m not scoring genuine goals myself.

But it had been a while since these things had happened and that starts to erode at your confidence and your belief, there’s no denying it. It’s amazing what one goal can do to spark you up, to make you feel like you might just maybe actually belong on the ice. As opposed to sucking, night after night.

As I said at the start, I’m not strutting; I’m breathing out, with relief. A bobbling, strategic, not too powerful shot somehow tumbling over the goalie’s stick, to sneak through the five hole. That moment when you realise it has actually disappeared behind the goalie, like Luke Skywalker watching the missile vanish into the air conditioning unit. And in the most unlikely setting of a single shift where all three of us scored, The Milkman and Big Cat bookending my goal with well crafted shots that found the mark.

I have no idea when my next goal will be, or where it will come from, but at least I now know it can happen; that I haven’t completely lost my ability to score after all. Lots of core strength work, lots of skating technique toil to eek out some speed, any possible speed, and re-enrolled in Intermediate classes, which has been fantastic because there are so many puck-handling drills, to feel the puck. Plus a change of gloves, and a new stick. Plus six drops of essence of terror, five drops of sinister sauce. All these little things plus a stroke of luck and a slice of confidence.

Now I just need it to happen in official Div 3 competition.

Fingers crossed. Which is not easy when wearing hockey gloves. Try it some time.

Shot by shock

Solid advice, at the Icehouse.

Solid advice, at the Icehouse.

I pride this blog on being at least in the top 50 ‘hockey blogs written by part-time crime novelists, based in Melbourne, and who took up the sport at a late age (left-hand shooting, Aries division)’.

So in the spirit of that, here’s a juicy true crime fact you may or may not be aware of: when people are shot they generally fall down, but they don’t usually have to. Let’s run through that again, slowly. Falling when shot is actually a learned response, as in: a bullet hits you and you instinctively, somewhere in your confused, horrified, adrenalin-charged brain, think: ‘Oh my God, I’ve been shot … I should probably lie down.’

I read about this in Dan Simon’s book, ‘Homicide: A year on the killing streets’, which is a cracking read and is basically the blueprint of Simon’s later work, like the series that may be the best television drama ever made, ‘The Wire’, depending on where you stand on ‘Real Housewives of Dromana’. I read it as broad brushstroke research for ‘Roll With It.

Omar Little: just one of the characters that made The Wire great.

Omar Little: just one of the characters that made The Wire great.

Simon spent a year hanging out with homicide cops in Baltimore and it’s a brilliant, colourful account of their world. The falling-when-shot thing was especially fascinating. He goes into some details of ballistics and gun force and basically surmises that there are only one or two ‘elephant guns’ that could literally blow an adult human off their feet. The others will put holes in you but not lead to the classic Hollywood-esque blown-backwards-through-a-plate-glass-window scenario. Simon recounts one story of an armed robber who had a wild shoot-out with cops, somehow got in his car and drove away, was eventually cut off and leapt out of the car to indulge in another shoot-out with police and finally slumped to the ground. He died, and the autopsy later showed that it was a bullet from the first exchange, before he even got in the car, drove around, etc, that was the fatal shot.

Anyway, the reason I’m saying all this is because it happened to me last night in dev league.

Not shot by a gun, obviously – the hockey rules are clear that such an act would be a game misconduct and I’d imagine a five minute minor penalty to the team, at least.

But at one stage, I found myself all alone in our defensive end after an opposition break-out. Who knows how I was the only player on Red fast enough to get down there to help the goalie, but it happened. Because suddenly I was watching Ballarat’s finest, Phil Clements, winding up from the blue line. I got between the puck and the goal, like you’re supposed to, Phil got some air under the shot and the puck deflected hard, very hard, off my leg. Which was all peachy except that my right knee was suddenly screaming. According to my coach on the night, Shona, I had turned my body slightly as the shot arrived and exposed the side of my knee, the part completely unprotected by the extensive shin and knee padding. Yep, skin and bone: direct hit.

Fresh from trying to kill me, Phil Clements (blur, front) leads another White team charge.

Fresh from trying to kill me, Phil Clements (blur, front) leads another White team charge.

And this is where Dan Simon kicks back in, because I fell immediately to the ice, as though shot.

And once there, as play went on around me, I had time to think:
wow, that hurt
I’m okay
should get up
ouch standing hurts
bench?
nah, keep skating.

Except that after skating for a few moments, I was in a world of pain, changed my mind and went to the bench.

But after a few minutes, the knee was surprisingly fine – I didn’t miss a shift – and is not hurting at all this morning, although I suspect I’m going to have a Hall of Fame bruise, which is annoying because it’s chilly at the moment and all you want to do is wear shorts to show off a bruise like that when they happen. So I’m probably going to catch a cold, wearing inappropriate clothing and all. Mostly, I hope the knee remains fine so I can play the Cherokees’ first official game of summer league tomorrow night. I think it will be all right, luckily.

But between shifts, I found myself wondering why my body had collapsed, sought the safety of the ice, after being struck. I’m pretty sure I could have kept standing, if my brain hadn’t done the ‘learned response’ thing. Weird.

It should be mentioned that the guy who tried to kill me – yeah, that guy Phil – is a dirty Bruins fan and, as I type, his team is sitting in the visitor change rooms at the Joe Louis Arena, with the puck due to drop against my Red Wings in 40 minutes.

Avenge me, Hank Zetterberg. Avenge me!

Going under in Paris.

Catacombs art. Picture: Nicko

Catacombs art. Picture: Nicko

The tunnel is maybe 600 years old. At times I can walk upright; at times I have to crouch. There are parts of it where crawling on your stomach is the only option. And slightly higher parts where you can sort of crawl on your hands and knees.

Which is when I start laughing, startling my much younger ‘cataphile’ companions, who are also grunting, sweating and struggling forward.

I start laughing because I realize that to get through this part of the illegal catacombs, deep under the city of Paris, I need to do what my personal trainer, Lliam Webster, and I call ‘Spider-man-ing.’ Knees out, core strong, hips low, moving forward, one hand then the other.

It’s training I’ve been doing for a year or so, week in week out, and it becomes apparent in this bizarre underground world that while I thought I was training for ice hockey, I was actually doing the perfect training for catacombs adventuring.

'Spider-man' training kicking in. Picture: 'Twist'.

‘Spider-man’ training kicking in. Picture: ‘Twist’.

My training at Fluid with Lliam kicks in everywhere. Sliding on my stomach, I use my hands to push a backpack ahead of me across the muddy clay. Isolating upper body strength and movement from my legs. In parts of the tunnels where you can’t stand upright, classic hockey stance is the perfect way to keep moving; knees bent, back straight, headtorch shining ahead.

I am with three Frenchmen, all around 30 years of age. They are true cataphiles, as they call themselves. They have nicknames so that if we are caught by the French cops, no real names are used. One is known as Syphilis, and I’m not sure I even want to know the origins of that name. Apparently, by day, he’s a doctor so maybe it’s less sordid than it seems. Another is Twist, or the Philistine. One is so stoned so quickly that I don’t bother with his name much because every time we stop, he either lights up or dozes off. He offers me drags of whatever he’s smoking but I politely decline because the illegal catacombs are NOT a place I want to be out of my head, even one per cent. I want my wits about me. We headed into this place at dusk, from a hole in a wall of a disused rail line, keeping an eye out for the gendarmes, and now it’s closing in on midnight and we are deep deep deep within the rambling catacombs tunnels. If I didn’t have a head torch, I would literally not be able to see a thing. I turn it off occasionally, just to get a sense of how dark darkness can be, when you’re 20 metres below Paris in 15th or 16th century tunnels with zero natural light.

Edging along a particularly narrow part of the illegal catacombs, below Paris. Picture: 'Twist'.

Edging along a particularly narrow part of the illegal catacombs, below Paris. Picture: ‘Twist’.

Apart from the locals, who are showing me around, there are three other guys, Israelis in their twenties. Two are trainee Rabbis, about to be ordained or however you officially become a Rabbi, when they return home to Jerusalem in a couple of days’ time. The other guy runs an abseiling business but is heading home to be commandeered into the Israeli army, for compulsory military service. We stumbled across them in the catacombs, without a map, hoping that they’d find their way back out using a compass and taking notes on when they turn right or left. To my mind, they might have died if we hadn’t happened to be down there on the same Monday night. On a weekend, a hundred people or more might sneak into these catacombs; parties are held most Saturday nights for those in the know. But this is a Monday and once your torch battery runs out, there is nothing. And the concept of turn right/turn left gets fluid as the tunnels veer and fall and rise and curve and do their medieval thing. These three had tried to abseil in earlier in the day and roped straight onto a beehive, being stung hundreds of times each. But came back and somehow did find their way in.

A shallow part of the water-logged section of the tunnels. Picture: Nicko

A shallow part of the water-logged section of the tunnels. Picture: Nicko

‘Can we come with you?’ they asked Syphilis and he said, ‘Well, you need to stay with us the whole way. We’re in here for six hours or more.’

By the end of the night, when we stumbled up a ladder and out a manhole into the middle of a major St Germaine street at 3 am, they were starting to realize how lucky they were to find him.

Me too, as we wander through a big party room called The Beach, with all kinds of street art on the walls, or the Santa Claus room, or past what is occasionally a cinema, or past a sobering tunnel where the roof fell in. There is a part of the catacombs elsewhere in the city that has been cleaned up, made safe and opened for tourists, but we’re in the other part – the catacombs that are officially blocked off and supposed to be out of bounds. There’s no guarantee that the exit we aim for won’t have been locked by council workers, or blocked by cops. At least, now we’re in, we know we can always hike all the way back to where we arrived, if necessary, but that would see us emerge around 7 am and I’m hoping that is not the case.

The catacombs are closed for a reason. They can be dangerous and, among other things, are apparently part of the Paris reserve water supply, so that even as we walk through parts where the water is up to our mid-thigh, it feels clean and fresh. But of course, people find their way in, and I love that there are always those who will find cracks in the city, other dimensions beyond the ordinary. Once inside, the place doesn’t feel overly dangerous, especially with a map (hello, Israel) and the right equipment. There are no rats, no spiders; there is no life at all. We walk past graffiti from the 18th and 19th century, we walk past skulls and bones. We crawl through a tiny hole into a circular room loaded with a mountain of human bones from the Cimetière des Innocents, a large cemetery that was in the heart of Paris in the 1700s and 1800s. Twist tells me that there was a plague, maybe 500 years ago, and it was blamed on the cemetery, so the bodies were dug up and dumped down here. I work hard not to step on a single bone. One of the Israeli dudes laughs, grabs a skull and pretends to be eating lunch.

Five hundred years ago, there was a plague ...

Five hundred years ago, there was a plague …

We head on to the Oyster Room, and have one of the best pic-niques of my life. Twist pulls out a dozen or so candles and we turn off our headtorches, preserving batteries. By candlelight, we drink beer, eat breadstick and pate, Camembert cheese and the awesome Petit Écolier chocolate biscuits that would be the best thing ever invented in France if it wasn’t for French women and wine. The stoner tokes and dozes, and Twist peers at a map of the catacombs, downloaded off the internet, plotting our next course. I chat about the stark difference between the word ‘normal’ in Israel and Australia with the army-bound abseiler (Him: ‘We had a war last month. Three of my friends died. It’s how it is where I live. It’s normal. You cry for two days and then you move on. My parents both carry guns. I carry a gun sometimes, to move around town. People don’t want peace. They want revenge. They want to fight.’ Me: ‘So let me tell you about Melbourne, where I come from …’)

Spongebob makes an appearance among the catacomb artwork. Picture: Nicko

Spongebob makes an appearance among the catacomb artwork. Picture: Nicko

And again, I am struck by the mysteries and wonder of my blessed life. That I have the means and contacts and spirit and ability to be sitting in a candlelit cave, deep within the bedrock of Paris, somewhere under the Jardin Luxembourg or thereabouts, chatting war and peace with a Jerusalem native while his Rabbi friends softly prays and then sings next to us. I had been genuinely apprehensive, leaving my flat and heading off to this adventure, but I have a policy that if fear is the only thing stopping me doing something, then I have to do it. So I went, and oh man, I am so glad at this moment that I did.

And as we literally crawl through tiny tunnels and I slide into holes so small I am not sure I’ll fit through, being the lead explorer at this point and needing to bend in an L-shape and corkscrew my torso to make it, feet dangling, unsure where the floor is or, shit, even if there is a floor on the other side, I give thanks for Lliam Webster and hockey and the fact that at almost 50 years of age I am fit enough and supple enough (and stupid enough) and have built enough trained core strength to be able to embrace a fucking crazy adventure like this one and come through it in one piece, smiling.

A candlelight dinner in the Oyster Room.

A candlelight dinner in the Oyster Room.

We pass a former font of the Chartreuse monks, who invented that lethal spirit. We decide it’s past 2 am and we haven’t got time to detour to the German war bunker nearby. (Urban legend has it that Hitler pissed in the toilet there.) We also can’t visit the only official underground grave of the catacombs – a gatekeeper who started walking them 200 years ago (possibly hunting Chartreuse) and one day didn’t return, his body found 21 years later in the tunnels. This trip, the cataphiles won’t make it all the way to under the military hospital, where punk concerts have been known to happen.

It takes both Syphilis and Twist to push against the solid metal manhole cover and release us into the early morning air of a deserted Paris street. Covered head to toe in yellow clay, seven men emerge from the ladder and run for the darkness of a nearby sidestreet. No yells. No sirens. No flashing lights. We jump a fence into the deserted jardin, peel off our wading boots and rainjackets, stash headlamps and I try to regain some sense of normal appearance for the 4 am bus ride back to where I’m staying. My hair is caked in yellow clay and dust. Twist and I share one last beer, grinning at one another like maniacs, like brothers who have shared secrets, like friends who have seen things most don’t get to see, like outlaws who have somehow, against all odds, escaped the law.

And the next day, I avoid a trip to the Eiffel Tour with my travelling companions, because I’ve climbed it before and anyway, oh God, I need to sleep. But my body isn’t even that sore, given what I put it through underground. My hockey training has come through again. When I needed it. In the most unlikely circumstances.

Resting in not much peace. Picture: Nicko

Resting in not much peace. Picture: Nicko

Today, I’m back at my desk, more than a little jetlagged, and tomorrow night I’m back at the Icehouse, wobbling around in yet another round of development training. On Friday, the Detroit Red Wings begin another NHL campaign, playing the Bruins, and then that night I dress for a practice match with my summer league team, the Cherokees, to see if all my fitness work will translate into actually being a better competitive player.

In other words, life is back to normal, but I have a whole new batch of memories to carry me along.

Here’s to hockey, and to Lliam Webster, and to keeping fit, and to embracing adventures when you can. This was a good one.

Ah, Paris.

Ah, Paris.

Kettlebells, rubber bands, Icelandic horse sex and me.

I’ve been going to a lot of Melbourne International Film Festival screenings over the past week. French films about relationships, relationships or, maybe, relationships. A strange Icelandic film about horse sex and people who are slightly mad. A beautiful but strangely emotionless Japanese animation. Robert Connolly’s fantastic new live-action kids film, Paper Planes. Between sessions, we walk from the Forum to the Capitol or maybe Hoyts at Melbourne Central, rugged up in puffy jackets and beanies, huddled against the biting breeze.

The Podium Line does the red carpet, at the world premiere of 'Paper Planes'.

The Podium Line does the red carpet, at the world premiere of ‘Paper Planes’.

But then, on Facebook yesterday, somebody posted: ‘Only six weeks until daylight savings.’ I blinked. Really?

Meanwhile, in the AFL, it’s coming down to the wire with less than a month to the finals, which means two things: Richmond will finish ninth and the sun will start to shine and the grounds will become less muddy.

At the Bang, my footy brothers and I will stop and sniff the Spring in the air and start to lairize even more than we do now, with one handed marks, drop-kick attempts and other shenanigans we’re too old and only occasionally skilled enough to attempt.

And, most importantly of all, Ice Hockey Victoria’s summer season will loom and my team, the Cherokees, will again continue our quest to be competitive in Division 3.

Just like all the other summer players, we’re busy getting ready, doing the training, hoping we’re better than last season.

I can hardly wait for the competition to start. Last summer was pretty much blown out for me by the much-chronicled Year of the Knee, as I could hardly skate or, when the knee finally repaired, didn’t have enough legs to feel like I was at my best.

Even, so, I unfortunately did better than Big Cat Place who broke his ankle before the season had found full stride and barely played from that point until the last few games months later.

Big Cat and I committed there and then to play at least one more summer together, both fit, both able to be true teammates, before the inevitable happens and he gets too good to play on the same team as me, and so the summer of 2014/15 is shaping as a critical time of my hockey life.

I haven’t written much here lately because, as always, I don’t want the blog to just repeat the same old stuff and I would get as bored writing it as you would reading about every development league game or Red Wings playoff blowout.

Plus I had a manuscript to finish, which I just have, and so all my writing hours were taken up with that 135,000 word-mountain.

But between my real job and the novel draft, I have been training hard, getting ready for summer. I’m currently heavier on the scales than I have been for a while but feel fitter than I have been for a long time, which either means I’m delusional or I’ve gained extra (heavier than fat) muscle where I need it. Maybe those two things aren’t mutually exclusive.

Fluid Health: just a few of the tools of happy torture.

Fluid Health: just a few of the tools of happy torture.

All I can do is the work. Twice a week I trek to Port Melbourne to meet with the bearded one, Melbourne Ice and Australian captain Lliam Webster, to toil on improving my functional body movement, core strength and explosive power. This training remains the best and most entertaining I have done after years in gyms, lugging weights. It involves everything from Spiderman crawling along the floor to carrying barbells as far and as fast as I can while a giant rubber band threatens to twang me through the opposite wall. Some days I’m pushing a sled loaded with weights across the room, or deadlifting a barbell, other days I’m sliding on the slide board while Lliam has fun frisbeeing plastic cones at me to swat away as I glide.

The muscles being worked are all core hockey muscles and I can feel the extra balance and strength through my deep stomach muscles, glutes and hamstrings. As a happy aside, my dodgy lower back is better than it’s ever been, I have shaken off a shoulder that was hurting me for months and The Knee is now strong enough that I’m hopping onto platforms or over distances and landing on the same left leg.

In other words, for the first time in at least 18 months, I am pain free. Amen.

This has all been a long process involving Fluid Health, acupuncture needles, Enzo the magic osteo and a lot of damage to my credit card, but it feels fine to sit here and be able to write that I am pain free and feeling fit, with a couple of months to go before I skate out in the Braves jersey for a new season.

On days I’m not at Fluid, I hit the gym near my work in Richmond, lifting weights and building upper body strength.

The weights room at my local gym. Every now and then, I actually turn up there.

The weights room at my local gym. Every now and then, I actually turn up there.

On Wednesday nights, I have signed up for power skating, which is an hour of pure Hell – well, actually, that’s not strictly true: the bag skating and explosive speed stuff I quite like. The outside edge work, not so much, because I remain so shit at it.

But I made a conscious decision – with much support from hockey friends: ‘Do power skating. You need to. You NEED to.’ – to spend at least one term of Wednesday nights working specifically on my still dubious skating, instead of playing dev league.

Getting better on skates is such a slow, gradual thing that it is difficult to chart progression. Some games, friends/opponents vow that they were astonished at how much faster I have become. Other times I know that I sucked dogs balls, as an old girlfriend used to say. Wobbling around like an Intro Class rookie.

One thing, though: I’ve actually reached a significant point in my skating, where I don’t mostly think about it during games. I see the puck and go to get the puck, or make position. I don’t have to think abut my legs or where my feet are moving.

It’s like learning a language where they say you have truly made progress when you think in that language. At some point, skating stopped being something I had to concentrate on and became something happening while I was playing hockey, so that’s an improvement.

But then come those moments where I get run down from behind on a breakaway because I’m not fast enough, or I have to turn fast, clockwise (my “bad side”) and I curse that I’m less nimble. Or I just watch others who I started with, several years ago, who now skate like a dream. Or I realize that there are entire moves, like backward crossovers, that I simply don’t ever attempt under pressure in a game.

The beauty and balance of an Icehouse power-skating class. (Ten bucks says one of us, probably me, was on his arse within 30 seconds of this being taken.) Pic: Macklin Place

The beauty and balance of an Icehouse power-skating class. (Ten bucks says one of us, probably me, was on his arse within 30 seconds of this being taken.) Pic: Macklin Place

And so I trudge off to the Bradbury Rink for skating lessons with Zac, not the Henke Rink for the fun of playing actual games.

Today, I’m hitting the gym at lunchtime for some weights. Tonight I have power skating. Tomorrow, Fluid with Lliam. Friday? Maybe the gym again, if I don’t have a social game of hockey with or against the IBM team. Sunday: the Bang.

This is not to brag. I need to do this to even attempt to keep up with those young’uns I’ll be skating with and against this summer.

I need to do this anyway. I long ago realised how important regular exercise is to maintaining my potentially fragile mental health. I also long ago realised how draining on my emotional and mental health writing fiction can be. So it’s no coincidence that I’m on a big fitness campaign while driving a draft to the line.

Anyway you look at it, I believe that’s known as win-win. My body is coping. I have miles in my legs. Spring is in the air. My book first draft is done. The Cherokees are starting to get excited.

Bring on the summer.