Dancing in the dark

In the many hours of training or waiting around to train at the Icehouse, I’ve long admired the skills of the figure skaters. I think I’ve written before about their amazing edge-work, their flawless backward crossovers and the sheer courage of attempting some of the spins and tricks they pull off, without a helmet or anything else of substance protecting them from a nasty concussion if the move goes wrong.

When you think about it, the bottom line is that skating is bloody difficult – I remember coach Lliam Webster saying in one of our first ever classes years ago, that it is a completely unnatural, ‘learned’ skill – and so to actually dance on ice is kind of nuts.

Foot speed and co-ordination is obviously a key for great skating as well as for wider sporting proficiency, and so learning dance can help. A lot of AFL footballers (including, most famously, James Hird when he was still playing and was still the League’s golden boy) train in dancing to help their balance and core strength, for example.

So, in summary, being a better dancer could help me be a better skater. And I need to be a better skater.

But, also in summary, there’s no way in Hell I’m about to try that shit out on the ice and while standing on thin blades of steel.

Chloé came up with a plan.

And so last night the two of us approached a towering yet forbidding church hall in Brunswick East. There was no entrance from Nicholson Street, but we spotted a shadowy figure scurrying across a lawn on the southside of the building. We gave chase, tried to keep her in sight, and picked our way past a grave – I couldn’t make out who it was for in the gathering gloom – before we found ourselves treading carefully down a steep slope so that we were well below street level. Already lined up to get into the dark hall were a gathering of people in hoodies and street clothes, big coats buffering the cold. You would have sworn it was a cult. Nobody was talking much and, if so, any voices were a quiet murmur. There was a sense of anticipation, possibly of nerves. The building itself was completely dark. Mostly women, either alone or in pairs, the line disappeared one by one through the door and into the darkness.

And then it was our turn, paying seven bucks at the door, squinting as our eyes tried to adjust to the lack of light, but being drawn into the music, a cool beat-driven remix of a Sixties classic, as we entered the cavernous, dark hall.

We peeled off our outer clothing. We tentatively moved past swaying silhouettes to find space on the floor.

And then we danced.

The founders of No Lights No Lycra, doing what they do.

The founders of No Lights No Lycra, doing what they do. (Pic: NLNL website)

And so I made my debut at No Lights No Lycra (http://nolightsnolycra.com/), a crazy brilliant concept that was invented in Fitzroy before making its way around the world. If you’re reading this in Berlin or Fremantle, Shanghai, Paris or Whanganui, there’s one near you. Check out their locations list (http://nolightsnolycra.com/location/). If there isn’t, they invite you to create your own.

No Lights No Lycra was created in 2009 by a couple of dance students, Alice Glenn and Heidi Barrett , with the aim of creating a non-judgmental, daggy, be-free dance space for anybody and everybody. Their concept was that if the lights were turned off, people could relax about being ‘cool’, about how they looked, about whether they were even moving in time. They could just dance. This dancing self-consciousness is something I have spent my life battling, so amen to Heidi and Alice. On their website, they have a Jerry Lee Lewis quote, which is perfectly chosen: ‘All you gotta do honey is kinda stand in one spot, Wiggle around just a little bit, That’s what you gotta do, yeah Oh babe whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on.’

Making my debut, along with Chloé who has been to a few sessions, it really felt like that: just have fun. Nobody is watching. Or judging. Or sneering. Or laughing. Or … anything. There’s just you, in the dark, with great music. Go for it.

The whole idea is not to dance for show, or to be seen, but instead to do exactly the opposite: dance in a dark room so that nobody can see what you’re doing. Pull off whatever moves you like. There were just enough people there to feel like you were part of a crowd you couldn’t quite see, but with enough space on the dance floor so that the better, or more expressive dancers could go nuts without taking out their neighbour.

Dance like nobody's watching.

Dance like nobody’s watching.

As far as I could tell anyway, in the murky quarter-light. A woman just behind Chloé seemed to have amazing moves, all angles and elbows and shimmy. Another woman close to me chose to just sway and rock. I didn’t focus for long. In fact, I closed my eyes for minutes at a time, just letting in the music. Chloé told me later that in summer, when there’s more natural daylight in the evening, the room is nowhere near as dark, but even then, I think it would work, because it’s an unwritten but understood code not to pay too much attention to the dancers around you, visible or not.

By the second half hour, as the beats picked up and drove through Kylie and through Lou Bega (Mambo No. 5: a little bit of …)  and Elvis, through some borderline doof doof I didn’t know, and then all the way to a remix of eighties techno classic Pump Up The Jam, which took me way back, I had a decent sweat worked up and was deeply regretting not bringing a water bottle.

All around me, human shapes were moving. Occasionally somebody would fly past, whirling or leaping, even running around the room as they danced. At the end of each song, applause would break out and then we were off again. You could dance to raise a serious sweat or you could dance to release stress, or maybe you could just dance because, fuck it, dancing can be fun. Especially when you turn off the self-conscious and internal critic.

Given my hood, you’d think No Lights No Lycra would be a hipster paradise, but it actually seems to draw a diverse crowd, from what I could sort of make out, peering vaguely around the dark room. I had expected the dancers to be almost entirely in the under 35 demographic, but I wasn’t the only person blowing that statistic out. When the music finally slowed, and somebody in the darkness yelled: ‘Last song!’ and then the music stopped and the lights were finally turned on, so we could safely make our way out, I was surprised by the mix of body shapes, ages and fashions.

We all dispersed back into the night, grinning and sweating and ready for dinner. Was this a first step to dancing my way to hockey skating proficiency? It’s a long shot but, having done it, who cares? It was so much fun to watch the dark shape of Chloé busting moves and letting herself go. She dances with such joy. And there was her hockey player husband, experimenting with just how crazily he could move to a Jacksons remix, while simultaneously working various muscle groups.

Same time next week? Why not?

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.

Pick a card, any card

I got asked to do some card tricks on the weekend. We’d gone to lunch at a friend’s place and he revealed that he’d pumped me up as a ‘magician’, which is almost as big a lie as telling people I’m an NHL player.

The thing is, I used to be pretty decent at some illusions. I have a close friend, Simon Coronel, who is world class, performs at the Magic Castle in LA, basically rocks after a lifetime, well, half-lifetime of training. I was his first student at his debut CAE close-up magic course years ago, and so we bonded. Worked on moves out of hours and learned that we both like drinking alcohol and talking about women and other subjects. I started carrying at least one deck of Bicycle cards (the magician’s air-cushioned card of choice) around all the time. I worked super hard at lots of complicated and difficult card manoeuvres, and would like to think I definitely rose abovethe standard of  ‘sad uncle at kid party’.

But then I realized that, while I adore magic and the paradigm shift that a truly great trick gives the audience, I was mostly working so hard on my card handling to avoid the deeper issue of a novel that I didn’t know how to finish. And so, regretfully, I put my Bicycle decks away, and swore that I couldn’t work on magic until I’d finished the manuscript. Once I finally did (‘The OK Team‘), I broke out the cards but finally realized that I simply didn’t have the time or dedication to put in the Gladwell 10,000 hours required to become a Jedi.

And so I sank to the level of amateur enthusiast (a group that, to be fair, has included names like Cary Grant and Johnny Carson, and still includes Steve Martin, Neil Patrick Harris and Jason Alexander – all active members of the Magic Castle), collected some cool old magic artifacts and then took up ice hockey, and became obsessed.

But I stay in touch with the magic crowd and they make me laugh as well as teach me things. In fact, I think the biggest lesson I learned out of my time as a wannabe purveyor of truly kick-arse card tricks was that you have to really, really want it, and you have to work at it. Magic is the ultimate example of 1 per cent inspiration, 99 per cent perspiration.

Performing a trick for friends on Sunset Strip, LA, in 2011. Oh yeah.

Performing a trick for friends on Sunset Strip, LA, in 2011. Oh yeah. (Note: brand new Jimmy Hendricks recreation shirt)

I am endlessly impressed by the sheer dedication of my magician friends. The untold hours of experimenting, practising, sessioning, building, wondering, and then repeating and repeating and repeating the moves or the entire trick, to a bedroom mirror or an empty room or, occasionally, to a confederate, until it is ready to go public. And even then, working on it endlessly, to improve it, sharpen it, refine it.

If you can’t commit to that level, then you become like me; a keen enthusiast. With enough cool card tricks to please a Sunday lunch (yes, I survived) but that’s all. The deeper waters of illusion are too hard to swim.

But that’s okay. In life, sometimes, something has to give. Lately for me, hockey has edged into that territory. I worked out recently that I now have five main streams of work happening, three of which could pretty easily be full time employment if I let them, and two of which are unpaid for not-for-profits – actually, three, if you include the pissy money you get from writing a novel, which I’ve included in the first three paid gigs. Plus I have the happy job of building my relationship with Chloe, and melding my old family and my new family. And seeing wider family and friends. And getting stuff done, whether housework or shopping or just … stuff. Walking the dog. Checking my new cat is surviving. The list is a long one. Throw in Tuesday early morning pilates, and Lliam Webster work-out sessions at Fluid, both of which are finally enabling me to skate pain-free in my left knee (Oh, Thank God, less whinging! yells the crowd) and life is pretty busy. As I’m sure yours is. I’m not claiming special status here; just actually did an inventory.

Summer League threw a whole new level of hockey onto the hockey that was already there. For example, team training is on tonight, at 9 pm, but then there’s the usual Wednesday night dev league to think about – I signed for 8.45 pm and 10 pm to get skating miles into my knee, and then low player numbers meant awesome winter players have been allowed to drop into the 10 pm, which raises the standard hugely, and makes me skate like a motherfucker: it’s great – and then my team, the Cherokees, has a game on Thursday night this week. You can see the logjam already, huh? If I go to all three of those nights, when do I catch up with my son, Mackquist, who is deep in the Hell that is the end of Year 12? Or hang out with my partner and a crazy fun five-year-old?

I’d love to make some stick-n-puck or drop-in sessions to work on my skating which, as ever, needs a lot of work, but it’s just impossible.

So I’ve been forced to let go of some of the potential stress. Because I think I’m okay with stepping back a little. It’s social fucking hockey, right, at one of the lowest competitive levels you can play, even if we do all try our hardest. Happily, most weeks, team training isn’t bookending Wednesday night dev, so that eases the pressure straight away. If i make team training or dev,  I’m hitting the ice at least twice a week, which is realistically enough to not be trying to remember which end to hold the stick each time I step into my skates. My broken toe almost fell off after two hours of intense skating last Wednesday, so I need to nurse that too, to ensure I even make it to Cherokee games in one piece.

That’s about as much as I can hope for right now. Maybe when I finish the new manuscript I’ll have more elbow room? Maybe my NFP committees will go into summer recess and I’ll have breathing space? Maybe once Mack and Big Cat finish school and uni, we can more easily find time to mooch around together?

For now, it is what it is, as the entire AFL world took to saying this year for no apparent reason.

Yes, life is crazy busy, but almost universally in awesome ways. I’m flying in as many if not more directions than normal, and things like boxing and scuba have floated into the background for now, like magic, and like hockey could so easily if I chose to let it go.

Fly Girl gives my new #17 Braves jersey plenty of respect.

Fly Girl gives my new #17 Braves jersey plenty of respect.

But I’m not. I can’t wait for tonight. I can’t wait, even more, to don my own personal Braves jersey for the first time on Thursday and partner Big Cat, my son, for our first official outing as Cherokees. That’s going to rock. I can’t wait to score my first summer league goal of the season (this could take months, if ever) and I can’t wait for that unbeatable feeling of keeping your head in the frenzy of an opposition attack to angle the puck off the boards and safely outside the blue or, better, skating with the puck and managing to pass sweetly to a teammate’s stick, as they charge through our blue line and opposition defenders scramble and the goalie crouches, getting ready, and you charge for The Slot, searching rebounds.

Hockey rocks as much as it ever has. My love remains pure.

I just need to understand that it is one beautiful part of a large, complex jigsaw.

And I need to get back to carrying a deck of Bicycle cards around. Pulling off those tricks on Sunday felt good.

A weekend of impossible choices

And so I’m back. Head fuzzy from jetlag and no sleep. Getting my head around being back in the real world instead of in the dream land of a small island off Brittany, or way up in the French Alps, pushing my somewhat startled legs up huge mountains in the name of my own personal summer league altitude training (also known as trying to keep up with my partner Chloe’s French family, who it turns out are half French, half mountain goat) and drinking delicious hot chocolates at the refuge huts to be found at 2500 m or higher.

Braves altitude training in the French Alps. 600 m higher than Mount Kosciuszko, with a knee brace. Oh yeah.

Braves altitude training in the French Alps. 600 m higher than Mount Kosciuszko, with a knee brace. Oh yeah.

Now returned to Melbourne, and facing impossible choices, especially for my not-quite-working brain.

I faced my first impossible choice on Wednesday when I had not even been back in the country for 24 hours and 10 pm dev league was on.

Who am I kidding? That was no choice at all. Of course I played, loved it, was surprised that I skated ok and my knee held up, even had a couple of decent shots on goal. Even if I couldn’t then sleep until 5 am.

So, actually, that choice was easy.

But this weekend isn’t.

For starters, there’s the election from Hell: a Labor Government which has achieved a lot, including surviving the global financial crisis, yet has managed to be so unlikeable and apparently dysfunctional along the way that even rusted-on left-wingers like me are blinking at the idea of endorsing it with our vote. But up against a simply unelectable dickhead with a sour-faced, aggressive front bench. It’s not really an impossible choice – I still stand by the words of Margaret Whitlam, wife of Gough, when asked why she had devoted her life to the Labor Party. She replied: ‘Because ours is the party of compassion.”

Faced with the choice of Abbott and his heartless cronies, it’s a no brainer for me. Labour or Green. (And I don’t usually get political but I’m still pissed off with the death of objective journalism in the Murdoch press, so screw it. Something has to stand up against that campaign.)

Vote done, Saturday’s challenge over, will only bring me to the important stuff, and a potentially harder choice.

This weekend will see the Australian Ice Hockey League finals held at the Icehouse. As usual, the top four teams gather at one rink (Newcastle last year, Icehouse this year) for two semi-finals on the Saturday and then the grand final on the Sunday – a financially easier finale for the national competition.

Of course, my team, the Melbourne Ice, is shooting for a fourth straight title – which is an unlikely but actually achievable goal, the team having managed to finish the season in fourth place despite the turbulence of a new president and coach, and the controversial mid-season retirement of Joey and Vinnie Hughes, and other destabilizing factors, not to mention just the sheer fact of having a massive threepeat target on their back, when every other team shapes up for a face-off.

The semis are tomorrow – vote early hockey fans – and my headaches really begin if the Ice makes it past the top-of-the-table Sydney Ice Dogs into Sunday’s grand final.

Because that game is scheduled for exactly the same time as Richmond v Carlton, my footy team’s first appearance in the finals for more than a dozen years. A cut-throat elimination final at the MCG, with a crowd of 90,000 people, many of whom will be Tiger tragics like me, barely able to watch after all these years of patience and waiting and suffering and wanting and hoping and dying and agonizing and fuming and daring to believe and finally starting to actually believe.

So ice hockey or AFL on a September Sunday afternoon?

1980 Tiger celebrations, so long ago they wore lace-up guernseys: This was supposed to happen every year ...

1980 Tiger celebrations: This was supposed to happen every year …

I was 15 years old in 1980 when Richmond won its last premiership; my first attendance at a Grand Final. Best friend Shonko and I standing among so many hulking men, so much black and white, deep in the old Southern Stand of the MCG, as Richmond monstered Collingwood to win by 81 points. Walking out of there, floating out of the ground, and stunned by the groups of Magpie fans slumped on the grass in the carparks, crying, desolate, shattered. My teenage emotions overwhelmed by the euphoria mixed with opposition heartbreak. I’ve always been too empathetic, would be hopeless in a war, where the whole point is to dehumanize the opposition.

I bled for the poor Magpies, against every rule in the footy book, but also sang that mighty Tiger song all the way back to Burwood on the 75 tram. Have never forgotten the thrill of wispy-haired Kevin Bartlett running riot, Michael Roach in flight, Geoff Raines’ long bombs from the centre, Jimmy ‘The Ghost’ Jess dominating centre half back.

Barracking for Richmond was the best thing in the world. This footy power would never fade! Would it? Umm … actually, that was it. Mostly a wasteland since.

The point of all this is that I’m invested in Richmond. Yes, I’ve been a Red Wing fan for a while now, and am clearly passionate about Australian hockey – at summer league level, dev league level and AIHL level. But I’ve been bleeding yellow and black since I was knee high, so Sunday’s choice is a tough one.

Not least because I’ve paid for AIHL tickets and bizarrely I have never managed to be there when the Ice has won its three titles. Through a series of events best not recounted – especially the team’s second title at the Icehouse, when I saw the first half of the Grand Final – I have yet to be there as Big Cat and my hockey mates have, to greet the final scoreline, step onto the ice and congratulate Army, Lliam, Baxy, Tommy and co in the moment of glory.

I guess this weekend will play out as it plays out. I’ll certainly be at the Icehouse tomorrow, barracking hard for the Ice to make it to Sunday’s game, and then see where life lines up from there.

Assuming I can stay awake, that is. Jetlag is a killer. But it’s totally worth it.

Miracle-free on ice, at Hisense Arena

USA v Canada from the cheap seats, at Hisense Arena. ... Meh.

USA v Canada from the cheap seats, at Hisense Arena. … Meh. Pic: Nicko

So, Melbourne just hosted its long-awaited two-night extravaganza of USA v Canada playing hockey for something called the Douglas Webber Cup, at Hisense Arena.

Big Cat got along to both games – Friday night’s 11-9 win to Canada, and tonight’s 10-9 (OT) victory to America.

Mackquist and I joined him and a bunch of our hockey friends for the Saturday night game and I think it’s fair to say we were as underwhelmed by a shoot-out victory, after a 9-9 full-time score, no less, as it’s possible for hockey fans to be.

Don’t get me wrong. This blog is not about to kick the shit out of the USA v Canada concept, or the organisers. We got pretty much what I’d expected for the $88 per ticket or whatever it was. The temporary rink was dubious but held together. It was a game featuring a handful of NHL players (including Canadian captain Kyle Quincey, a genuine Red Wing) and there was some pretty skating, and beautiful passes, and lots of goals with little puffs of artificial fire behind the goals after each score.

But as a stage to show Melbourne just how awesome my sport is, I think it fell short, although for a reason that it couldn’t really help: the game was an exhibition, played like an exhibition. And usually, in any sport, that means it’s going to suck for people who actually know and love the real thing.

I’d spent the afternoon at the MCG, watching my beloved Tigers put in a solid four quarters to see off the dangerous Adelaide Crows by more than six goals. Chloe heroically came along, and it cost me $31 for her ticket, less than half a ticket for USA v Canada. We watched more than 100 minutes of hard, tough, relentless football. Fully committed teams throwing themselves at the ball, and into one another, in pursuit of four premiership points that really mattered for each side. In the last term, with the game pretty much safe, several Tigers were clearly hobbling, carrying ankles or calf injuries, but they refused to come off, chasing and harassing and tackling and pushing, pushing, pushing until the siren mercifully blew and Richmond was in the Eight.

We sang the song long and loud.

Richmond's captain Trent Cotchin leads his team down the race. Pic: Nicko

Richmond’s captain Trent Cotchin leads his team down the race. Pic: Nicko

A quick change of Tiger scarf for signed Lidstrom Red Wings jersey later, I was on my pushbike, riding to the London Tavern where a truly surreal scene greeted me. Awash with happy Richmond fans, in their traditional post-match haunt, the Tavern also found itself home to a large number of hockey jerseys. Winnipeg Jets, Red Wings, Calgary Flames, Boston Bruins, Penguins, Melbourne Jets, Rookies, and so many more. A rainbow splash of hockey colour among the more traditional Saturday evening yellow and black.

We walked in an ever-growing tide of different jerseys past Richmond station, across Punt Road and on to Hisense Arena, with every NHL team and many teams not at that level represented in the largest hockey crowd I’ve seen in Australia.

So things looked promising, right up until the players took the ice.

I’ve long held a theory that you know how good a sporting event is going to be by how desperate the organisers are, and whether anybody talks over the actual event. Tonight’s event failed both my tests. The on-site commentators were annoying and shrill and increasingly, obviously concerned by the lack of crowd atmosphere. It reminded me a lot of some boxing and mixed martial arts event I covered as a journo, with ramped-up hoopla trying to artificially raise the roof because nobody watching a mediocre event from the bleachers was about to. Interviewing some TV actor mid-game, only mercifully ended by the crowd – gasp – cheering a goal, was a major mis-step and told me that the people behind tonight’s event didn’t trust their own product. If the hockey was excellent, just let the paying customers enjoy it … right?

There is nothing better than the intense silence of a major sporting event being contested: the opening minutes of an AFL grand final when everybody is watching, desperately, for a sign of strength or weakness between the combatants. The opening salvos of a Test match in cricket. The moment in a tennis match when you know a few crucial points are going to decide a Grand Slam title and history. It can be strangely quiet but it’s because it is so gripping, so focused.

The USA-Canada game instead had huge explosive fireworks as a kind of defribulator to try and get hearts pumping. If in doubt, more flames behind the goals, and talking over the action, including increasingly desperate pleas to ‘Let’s hear some noise!’

Flames behind the goalie can only mean one thing. Canada scores at Hisense. Pic: Nicko

Flames behind the goalie can only mean one thing. Canada scores at Hisense. Pic: Nicko

The reason there wasn’t any noise was because the game was mildly interesting, and nothing more. Yes there were a lot of goals. Wowee. Yes, there were some fights – tellingly between the same two fighters as at the Friday night game. Melbourne fans know their sport. Even more so, Melbourne hockey fans – or Canadian Melburnians coming along out of a sense of homesickness – know their hockey.

Nineteen goals each game tells you something about the standard, at least of the defence. Plus, the refs appeared to be under orders not to call off-side or icing, which helped the attacking players no end. Sitting where we were, up in the nosebleeds, I was really struck by how claustrophobically small a NHL-sized rink is. With a genuine NHL-standard defence guarding the goal, plus an elite goalie, the miracle is that anybody can score at all.

In fact, you know what? Earlier this week, the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins went at it in Game One of the Stanley Cup finals. This was a match that mattered, big time. This was when hockey players cared.

After the teams were 3-3 at the final buzzer, they went for the best part of three overtime periods without managing to score a goal. Almost an entire game, on top of the game already played; exhausted, out on their feet, and out of fresh attacking ideas. Yet never conceding, not giving anything up. The winner, when it came, was a cruel deflection of several legs, to beat the keeper.

It would be fair to say that at Hisense Arena, we saw nothing like that.

Which is fine. It’s an exhibition. Guys like Quincey would be under stern orders from head office not to risk their multi-million contracts with a genuine injury playing such a novelty event in Melbourne, Australia. I get that.

Watching a golf-cart or something dragging a wet net impersonating a Zamboni, I would have been nervous about my players too, if I was a NHL or AHL manager. As it was, former Melbourne Ice coach ‘Jaffa’ Wilson was among the American coaches, urging on players who were probably more interested in how the overpriced merchandise was selling than whether the Canadians had gotten one back. Plus, you know, one player handed a female friend of mine a puck with his name, jersey number and mobile number on it. Which impressed her a lot until she realised he had a box of the pucks and was using them for some kind of shotgun pellet pick-up-chicks approach. While applauding such brazen chutzpah, it would suggest to me that the Australian trip is a lot closer to an end-of-season trip for such players than a driven quest for Douglas Webber glory.

In the end, feeling extremely unmoved by the whole spectacle, I came to a realization that actually pleased me. I realized that what makes great sport is not just the rules of a game, or the location, or the shape of the ball or puck or bat or stick or mallet or whatever. Whether tennis or boxing or footy or cricket or rugby or European handball or hockey, there is one truth: what makes great sport is passion. It’s the participants’ commitment and courage and complete dedication to the task at hand. That is what can elevate sport to something magical and worthy. This is what I love.

Moreso, when that is missing, it cannot be faked. In a game like tonight’s – ostensibly, on paper, a rematch of the last Olympic gold medal match (LOL) – when it is an exhibition, and nothing more, it cannot rise to great heights. Defenders will hold off, sometimes very deliberately and at some effort, on finishing their checks. Players who in a NHL game would find depths of effort to skate when exhausted, to reach a puck that they really shouldn’t be able to fight for, won’t.

And so the level drops, and becomes pedestrian.

It’s okay. It is what it is.

But nothing more.

No amount of shrieking commentators demanding we yell and scream and stand up or get wildly fakely excited about a shoot-out (that they didn’t actually know how to run, and then couldn’t count to realize that America had won) … none of this will make an exhibition game find heights.

And so our money was spent on exactly that, and we wandered into the night, having enjoyed seeing some actual NHL stars, even if they were just doodling around. And enjoying seeing so many hockey fans and Canadians and Americans and Australian hockey fans in the one place, even if we were tepidly excited for the evening. And so we decided against spending $30 for a souvenir puck. And so we headed off, wishing Melbourne Ice was in town so we could drift to the Icehouse tomorrow and watch some real hockey. Watch players who cared.

Luckily I’m on the ice at 10 pm tomorrow, in Night Owl action. And that’s a good thing.

It’s just like porn versus sex: why watch people faking it, when you can do it for real? Amen.

A sleepy Sunday makes for happy Owls

Dusk settles over Melbourne and the streets start to empty, as families head home to bunker in, resting up with the TV glowing, to get ready for the work week ahead. At Piedemontes, my local supermarket, I’m lucky to be in the ‘handbasket only’ queue, so that I avoid the bumper trolleys. Gillian Welch’s ‘I build a highway back to you’ is my soundtrack as the sky settles into pink, deepening, and I open the door of Fern Cottage, my little pre-Federation workers cottage in North Fitzroy, and close out the world, escaping the chill just starting to bite now the sun has gone.

I pour a white wine and put on some Melody Gardot. ‘Your heart is as black as night’ fills the kitchen as I make an omelette for dinner – pushing my culinary capacity to the limit but timing the turn in the pan just right. My new microwave is trusted with handling the cooking of the broccoli and proves up to the task. Of course, one of my boys has stolen into the house at some stage while I wasn’t looking and eaten all the potato chips, which was to be my secret, guilty last dinner ingredient, so that saves my belly some unneeded calories.

It’s only 6.15 pm as I sit down to eat – absurdly early for the night-time meal. The last game of the AFL round hasn’t even finished and I’m eating according to some retirement home timetable.

Calvados - the final shot that did all the damage.

Calvados – the final shot that did all the damage.

It’s not just the hangover. Having that final shot of Calvados, technically a brandy, in reality a lethal poison, wasn’t a great idea the night before. The music had finished at La Niche café, and I’d already had an on-the-house final shot of La Nichette – drinking chocolate with some kind of pear liqueur. And that was after a final shot of Chouchen, a French liqueur so dangerous that punters reportedly have to be hooked onto their stools at some bars in Brittany, for danger of toppling backwards after imbibing. Chloe, my partner and the expert on all this, tells me that she tends to avoid Chouchen because she loses all feeling in her lower face after a few shots. Her theory is that’s because of the bee venom, mixed among the honey, which shows how old-skool Bretonne she is. Reading up on it, venom hasn’t been an official ingredient for a while.

Anyway, the bike ride home from all that was an adventure and Sunday has been understandably quiet. Darkness now gives me every excuse in the world to curl up on the couch, pour a restorative whisky and watch ‘Top of the Lake’, succumbing to my body’s tiredness and my sluggish brain.

Which is why, of course, I am about to instead drag my hockey bag and sticks to the car, and set a course towards Docklands.

Because I am now a member of the Nite Owls, a hockey underworld which unfolds like a ghost story at the Icehouse every Sunday night; the spirits of hockey past drifting into Melbourne’s state-of-the-art hockey rink from all parts of the city. Plus a few of us self-styled rookies from the past few years, who happen to have taken up the sport a little late. ‘Over 35’ is the qualification but many of the Nite Owls players passed that marker many, many years ago.

On Sunday nights, in the most organized unofficial social comp you could ever find, these men and women take over the Henke Rink and play a brand of hockey marked less by furious pace and body-work than astonishing stick-handling and the canny hockey-sense of years on the ice.

And then there’s me; 13 years past the entrance age, with my P-plate skills and skating, feeling like the new kid at school as I walk into the locker-room and find a bunch of strangers, featuring a wild variety of ages and physiques as well as the occasional friendly face from my hockey classes and summer league. Tonight’s my first actual game for a Nite Owls team, after taking part in an unofficial scrimmage last week, involving one old-timer who I was told is a former captain of Australia, now in his Seventies. Still owning the ice as I, badly propping up defence as the new kid, grinned from the blue line.

The queue to get into the Icehouse yesterday. Hockey's popularity is getting scary. (And hi, Richard, in the NY cap!)

The queue to get into the Icehouse yesterday. Hockey’s popularity is getting scary. (And hi, Richard, in the NY cap!)

I can take some inspiration into tonight from a slightly higher standard and more intense game of hockey that took place on the Henke Rink yesterday afternoon. I was in a VIP Box, kindly hosted by the boys from the Ice-Threepeat doco, which meant I was right on the glass as Melbourne Ice and the Melbourne Mustangs opened their AIHL seasons. I sipped my beer as the Mustangs president, I assume, made the longest pre-game speech in hockey history, totally negating the warm-up the players had completed before lining up for a national anthem that was finally sung 15 or 20 minutes later.

Anyway, at last, the puck was dropped and it was so good to be back, watching my coaches Matt Armstrong, Jason Baclig, and Joey Hughes show what they can do when playing for real. (Lliam Webster and Tommy Powell are representing Australia overseas this week).

As Icehouse or Next Level students, we can get complacent about being on the ice with players of this ability. Army maybe hits second gear every now and then, trying to show Icehouse students how to do a move, like a transition or a drill. At the start of class, as students hang laps to get their feet moving and settle onto the ice, Lliam especially loves to hoon around, trying trick shots against the goalies, but even then, we all know he’s not raising a sweat.

Playing for the Ice, only a pane of strong glass away, they reminded me of just how good they are. And nobody here made NHL standard. Holy crap. The stratosphere of hockey ability is high.

I was sharing the box with Jaffa, who coached the Ice to the three straight Goodall Cups, including last year’s, and retired after the 2012 season. He was remarkably calm, given this was his first game not in charge. Yet every comment about a player was so insightful, so totally accurate; spotting the slightest weakness or strength. It must be a strange sensation to have so much knowledge and such great hockey eyes and not really now be able to use them.

The view from the VIP Box. Could be worse. (Thanks, Jason and Shannon!)

The view from the VIP Box. Could be worse. (Thanks, Jason and Shannon!)

Andy Lamrock, also retired as president of the Ice, was there too, pressure off, able to chat instead of sweat every little detail. As were the doco makers, Jason and Shannon, who at this game last year would have been racing around the Icehouse, getting migraines, trying to shoot everything at once and follow multiple storylines. Joey gingerly feeling an arm after a hit – is that major or not? Austin McKenzie scoring fast for the Ice, after failing to find the net for all of last season. Did we get that on tape?

Nope, because this time they were sipping beers and watching, along with the packed stands of the Icehouse. Arriving at the game, the queue to get in had stretched way down Pearl River Road, with a strong blend of the Mustang orange and the Ice white and blue. It was a Mustangs home game so that club gets the receipts, which is a nice start to the year financially. But the Ice won 7-2 and looked very sharp. Ice fans are going to pack the joint every single week.

But not on a Sunday night. That’s when the Nite Owls shuffle into the change rooms and then creak onto the ice. To create hockey magic over and over again for the empty stands, and for the sheer bloody fun of it, years peeling away, or just getting started, depending on where you’re at in your crazy hockey journey.

It’s now 7.30 pm. Dark and quiet outside, with Melbourne settled in front of the television. But ‘The Voice’ and ‘My Kitchen Rules’ will have to soldier on without me. I’m heading to my car.

The Old Man and The Knee

(* See what I did there?)

My third year of hockey life is underway and it feels unexpectedly good.

I say unexpectedly because I blew a knee, for the first time ever, right at the close of 2012. I have had many sporting accidents, fallen off a large cliff, played footy, come hard off mountain bikes, but somehow had never hurt a knee before. It’s not fun.

After the final night of dev league, my left knee was troublesome; just sort of achy. At the Next Level Christmas party three days later, I didn’t skate, to look after it. Being oh, so sensible.

Then, the next day, turned out in 38 degree heat for the final Bang! footy session of the year. Galloped around Wattie Oval for 40 minutes or so, then joined the bangers in diving into the cool waters of Elwood beach. Refreshed, galloped around Wattie Oval for another hour, including kicking only drop kicks for the last 15 minutes or so, in celebration of the Christmas break to come, Horse winning player of the year and all the joys that another year of Banging had brought.

Then wondered why my knee was hurting when I turned over in bed sometime in the long dark teatime of that night, and then went to get out of bed the next morning and found I couldn’t use my left leg.

The whole debacle meant on Christmas Day I was hobbling like somebody who had broken his leg in six places, and for most of Christmas week. I eventually went and saw a doctor at Lorne, who was hilarious. His name was Evan, he’s a total cat in Austin Powers glasses and he spent the entire consultation reminiscing about various Place family members he’d known in his time as a trainee doctor at Camperdown. “You had to be nice to them because if you were pulled up by a cop, it was going to be a Place, or if you bought something at a shop down there, it would be a Place serving you,” he said, staring out at the blue waters of Louttit Bay through the gum trees.

“If we could just get back to my knee …” I said.

“Sure. I’ll just call up ‘knee’ on Wikipedia,” he said, typing.

(I’m not making this up.)

Wikipedia's version of a knee; research assistant to good doctors everywhere. Well, Lorne. And Fitzroy North.

Wikipedia’s version of a knee; research assistant to good doctors everywhere. Well, Lorne. And Fitzroy North.

As it loaded, he lent back in his chair. “Yeah, those Places, man, in Camperdown. They were everywhere.”

For the record, I am not related to any of those Place people, or have any connection beyond bumping into a couple at Lorne over the years. I even tracked it down once with one of them, who lent me a thick book, which was their family tree going back to about 1727 or something in England. Couldn’t find a single connection (which is kind of strange, in a small place like Australia).

Anyway, I mentioned this complete disconnect and we got back to Wikipedia, looking at diagrams of knees.

“Here’s what I think,” he finally told me, looking doctorly. “You’ve got an injured knee.”

Genius, I thought.

“If this was 100 years ago, we’d strap it up and have you lie on a bed for three or four months.”

Umm, I thought.

“But it’s not 100 years ago. It’s 2012, almost 2013,” he said confidently.

“Yes’, I said, feeling a need to get involved in this conversation. “Yes, it is.”

“So we’re not going to put you in bed for four months,” he smiled.

“Good,” I said, cautiously.

“Instead we could book you in for an MRI, which will take a picture of your knee and then you’ll probably need an arthroscopy. Now when will you need that? It might be a week, it may be five years.

“If you want to fan the flames, go running every day this week. If you want it to be in a few years, rest it for a week or so and see if it settles down. That’s pretty much it. Here’s my mobile. If you need a referral to get an MRI, just text me and I’ll fax one through. You don’t need to make another appointment or any shit like that. You know, I’m pretty sure, now I think of it, that one of the Place clan in Camperdown had a problem with a knee once …”

Turns out Evan has just started full-time at a new clinic in Fitzroy North, not far from my house. He is SO my doctor, as of now.

The good news of the whole appointment is that among all this eccentricity, he did push and pull my knee in various directions and we both felt satisfied I hadn’t done a cruciate or medial ligament, which would have been Bad. Something had flared, but it was nothing really sinister.

A day or so later, I hobbled across the deck of a friend of mine’s caravan, in Jan Juc. This friend is a highly qualified medical professional so when he asked to look at the knee, I sat and stretched it toward him. He grabbed a tub of some sort of gel and started massaging and probing the sore spots.

Chloe, watching all this, picked up the tub and read the label then silently handed it to me, raising an eyebrow in a way she does very well. For somebody for whom English is a second language, she misses nothing …

“For animal treatment only” was written in clear white letters on blue. The fine print explained: “- for use on horses and dogs”.

“Relax,” said my friend. “Athletes everywhere know about this stuff. It’s brilliant as an anti-inflam. And costs 20 bucks instead of about 120.”

For use on animals only. Well, me.

For use on animals only. Well, me.

And he was right. The next day, my knee felt fantastic. Was streaky here and there for another couple of weeks, especially if I’d been sitting, but basically started to mend.

So the holiday wound on. We travelled to Tasmania, dodged bushfires, visited the southern ocean in 38 degree heat, went to MONA where I got to see all sorts of wonders including watching myself take a dump through binoculars (true story – middle cubicle on the right as you walk into the toilets on the lowest basement level, near the bar) and watching a machine do a human shit. See video, below.

There’s a lot of shit and death at MONA, but it’s awesome.

Back in Melbourne, I hooked up with the hockey family again. Thursday night was a general Jets training session, where I tried to remember how to stand and move on skates after three or so weeks away. My knee didn’t collapse on me, which was a plus but my skating was as wobbly as you might expect. A Mustangs player and senior Jets took us through drills and I acclimatized to the feel of catching a puck with my stick again. So rusty.

The next day was Charlie Srour’s funeral, which was desperately sad, as it was always going to be. And then that night, there was a social game; Rookies v IBM. After the funeral, several rookies didn’t feel like they had it in them to play, which I totally understood, but I was the other way. I couldn’t wait to blow everything away on the ice, and it felt fantastic to be in a game situation, helplessly chasing some Swedish guy who used to play sub-NHL level in his homeland, and just feeling the burn in my legs as I tried to skate hard.

The knee held. In fact, the knee felt better and better with the work.

With every day of training, this is proving to be the case. After sitting for three hours watching The Hobbit, I’d been hobbling again, all creaky. After an hour on the ice last night doing skating drills and then an hour in the Icehouse gym, with Army and Jason Baclig pushing us hard, my knee felt great. My whole body feels great.

I’m training pretty much every night this week, planning to spend several hours each day on skates and in armour, or in the gym, and I can feel my fitness and legs responding to the challenge.

Likely new Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg hits the gym this week. Pic: Detroit Free Press.

Likely new Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg hits the gym this week. Pic: Detroit Free Press.

The Interceptors’ first official game isn’t until the end of the month, it’s still hovering in the high 20s, early 30s with the occasional day over 40 in a blazing hot summer, but I’m an ice hockey player again and life is fine.

The NHL lock-out is even over, thank God (and fire Bettman), and the Detroit papers are full of images of the Red Wings sweating it out in the gym, and doing skating drills on the ice, getting ready for a shortened, intense season.

I read every line, looking to see who is training the house down.

And then, half a world away, I aim to do the same.

Let the new year roll on. I’m good to go.

The fabulous MONA poo machine …