The pelican

Yes, we segwayed Washington. Not even sorry.

Yes, we segwayed Washington. Not even sorry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then, finally, it was game time.

Something I had waited years to see. Pic: Nicko

Something I had waited years to see. Pic: Nicko

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can you feel it? A new NHL season begins.

The puck dropped in a new NHL season today and you can feel the energy coursing through the veins of the Australian hockey community. None of last year’s depressing extended lock-out with its owner-player political bullshit. Just a set date for the full season and 30 elite teams ready to go. There’s been no shortage of action on Day One, either, with three games producing 7, 10 and 9 goals.

The Wings play tomorrow, against Buffalo, and I can’t wait to set up my trusty iPad on my desk, and see my team go to it, stopping only for a new year’s range of Belle Tyre adverts and occasional cries of ‘Pizza Pizza!’ Hoping captain Zetterberg and genius Datsyuk can brain ’em from the jump.

Pavel Datsyuk: ready to rock the eastern conference.

Pavel Datsyuk: ready to rock the eastern conference.

It works so beautifully that the AFL season finishes on a Saturday and four days later NHL action streams onto my Gamecenter. It’s not just the Big Show, either. We’re all gearing up for Victoria’s summer league, which is looming fast; ordering jerseys, training, wondering about linemates we haven’t played with yet, secretly hoping we win a C or an A on our jersey, finding a new enthusiasm for stick-and-puck sessions or even general skates at the Icehouse. A bunch of the Melbourne Ice players have headed to North America for a wedding, and so are planning to attend NHL games over there, including most of our coaches, which will make the start of dev league next week kind of interesting. But I can’t wait to talk to them about the experience of walking into the Joe Louis Arena for the first time.

And meanwhile, here in Melbourne, half a world away, I find myself surfing far-flung corners of the interweb, devouring anything I can find about all the levels of hockey underneath the NHL. For example, Australia’s Nathan Walker scored a goal for the Washington Capitals in the pre-season, celebrated wildly by all of us Antipodean skaters – the 19-year-old is the first Australian to make it so far – before he was sent down to the Hershey Bears in the AHL.

The magnificent Youngstown Phantoms jersey.

The magnificent Youngstown Phantoms jersey.

Walker’s continued rise got me looking at the team he was with before the Bears, and so I found myself thinking seriously about spending a hundred bucks on a Youngstown Phantoms jersey. And found myself also checking out the home site of a team Youngstown played – the magnificently-named Green Bay Gamblers.

And over coffee, with old Interceptor friends, tried to come up with the perfect team name (Agreed best effort was ’20 Canadians and a Swede’), and pre-dawn, woken by howling wind, read about the Wings’ top draft pick, Anthony Mantha, scoring four goals and adding an assist for the Les Foreurs de Val-d’Or against the Quebec Remparts. Or watching insane goals like this one.

Or revisiting shenanigans like this:

All between sweating on whether Gustav Nyquist will get his deserved chance soon in the winged wheel, after being shunted back to the Wings’ feeder term, Grand Rapids, because of a roster crunch. And debating the Wings’ defence with fellow fans on Facebook. And hoping my broken toe will fit into a skate at training tonight. Looking forward to a practice match against the

It's not often fans can openly cheer a bunch of gamblers.

It’s not often fans can openly cheer a bunch of gamblers.

Tigersharks, featuring plenty of mates, on the weekend. And watching social media ramp up among fellow local players.

Somewhere I read that Michael Clarke, the Australian Test cricket captain, won’t be going on an Indian tour, as he nurses his bad back for the looming return Ashes series in the Australian summer. I got through maybe one paragraph before his plight sort of ‘keyword-connected’ in my brain and I was flicking the browser over to the Detroit Free Press to see if Darren Helm’s back has improved enough to join general training? Put on injured reserve, to help that roster squeeze; but edging closer to health. OK, that’s cool.

How long until that Red Wings-Sabres game starts at the Joe to start the 2013-14 campaign?

Oh man … one more sleep.

The 100th post. Blow the horn.

A recent highlight from 100 posts-worth of hockey life: Aimee Hough’s brilliant shortbread version of Rookie Nicko, number 17. (She made them of all the Rookies. It wasn’t creepy)

Well, holy crap. The century. Nickdoeshockey‘s 100th post.

I’m not sure it’s strictly good hockey form to wave your stick in the air like a cricket bat; to point it at your teammates in the dressing room.

But I’m going to do it anyway. Because I want to share this moment with you, and thank you for reading and celebrating this crazy ride.

It was on January 19, last year, that I logged my first post on this sketchy attempt at writing a personal diary of my looming hockey adventure.

“Let’s start with the pain,” I wrote.

With me landing badly in my first ever skating class, then being accidentally taken out by a Columbus fan and feeling proud that I’d taken one for the Red Wings.

Genuinely not sure if this blog would last more than two or three weeks if I copped a really bad injury.

And yet, here we are. Me still major-injury-free (touch a lot of wood), still chasing the puck and adventure, and my little project now recently clicked past 20,000 individual users, enjoying upwards of 150 individual readers every day, sometimes over 300, from Australia, the USA, Canada but also from Turkey, Brazil, Taiwan and three today so far from Albania.

I often wonder if these people have stumbled here, looking for “hockey player eaten by shark” or some other bizarre Google search? Or maybe hockey’s reach is as great as it should be, and somewhere in the United Arab Emirates (10 readers in the last seven days), a loyal Red Wings/Melbourne Ice fan is settling over coffee and a screen?

The biggest day so far was 1,126 readers – spookily on January 19, 2012 – even I didn’t realise that was the one-year anniversary until now, writing this – which was the day I had an article published in the Detroit News (no longer online) and the Motor City’ online community came calling. That entire episode remains the highlight of the 100 blogs, with a brilliant exchange of messages between my little Melbourne outpost and Hockeytown, as the Red Wings enjoyed a fools’ gold home-winning streak and we all celebrated everything great about Detroit, which is a spectacular city, no matter how faded and desperate outside of the creaky Joe Louis Arena.

The jury is very much out on whether I can get back to Detroit for the Winter Classic, scheduled for New Year’s Day, 2013, so the blog has mostly since been about everyday life and hockey. Intro classes have turned into Intermediate and then into Dev League and now the adventure creeps ever closer to joining an actual Summer League team and playing for real. I’m excited, really excited. Hopefully that comes through in these posts.

A guy called Patrick, taking umbrage at my “Violence of Vinnie Hughes” post a week ago, mentioned that this site was self-indulgent and well, yes, guilty as charged. Strangely, as the readership has increased, I’ve worked hard to hold onto that personal angle. It’s not only rampant ego as much as I don’t want nickdoeshockey to become just another online news or opinion site for the Melbourne Ice or the Red Wings. God knows, there are enough of those around and some spectacularly good ones (a big shout out to The Production Line, Winging It In Motown and Nightmare on Helm Street, for example).

I prefer to just keep doing what I started: a diary of my hockey adventure, with strands of life outside the rink creeping in. The whole thing came from two colliding moments: my friend, Richard laughing when I told him that I was planning to take up hockey, looking raised-eyebrow at my then-45-year-frame across a coffee table at Lorne and saying, with no room for argument: “You simply have to blog this.” Which hadn’t occurred to me, so thank you, Richard.

The second element was one of my favourite sayings: “Find the thing you like most in life and then let it kill you.” I kid you not, I silently repeat that line to myself often as I stalk towards the Henke Rink, in my armour and skates, wielding my stick. The Australian bushrangers had another way of saying it, in the 19th century: “Die with your boots on.” R.I.P. Ben Hall and Flash Johnny Gilbert, who lived, and died, under that banner.

Celebrating an Ice goal against the Mustangs last Thursday night. Pic: Alex McNab.

I am very aware that hockey has come to symbolise this as my wider approach to life. At my wake, whether it’s next week or in 40 years, I want everybody laughing, shaking their heads and toasting that Nicko Place had a genuine fucking crack at life. And yes, with columns for wins and losses.

Hockey does symbolise so much.

Like life, hockey is action, fear, philosophy, learning, “you know, science”, teamwork, camaraderie, set-backs, heart-break, pure joy, community and so much more.

I can’t believe that 16 months ago, the concept of me as a hockey player had such wet paint on it. How much I didn’t know. Reading that first post feels so long ago and yet, it really isn’t.

What does astonish me is how much has been packed into my life over that 16 months, on and off the ice. As well as my development as a player – from being literally unable to skate, to now playing dev league and feeling like a genuine, if still very green, potential Right Wing – life off the rink has been a rollercoaster.

In the time of the blog, I have travelled to the US (with my boys for the first time) to see Datsyuk. Lidstrom, Zetterberg, Helm and the rest of the Red Wings play live, even if they lost; been to Hogwarts in Florida; had my heart broken, bounce, stumble and soar; achieved a life dream by diving (twice) with the magnificent manta rays off Lady Elliot Island; kept my company afloat after dastardly treacherous bastardy by a major client; had a novel I’d been working on for many years accepted, and to be the first of a series, and moving me out of one genre with four published into a whole new crime-writing field; had friendships rise and fade; watched my beloved Tigers gradually but distinctly get better as a football team; seen Macklin, my youngest son, join Will (aka Kittens, aka Big Cat) and I on the ice as a player; met a French girl I’m trying to impress who laughs instead of sighs when I let hockey take over my life and return, creaking and sore. And God, so much more. That’s not even close to covering the dramas and emotion. Is every 16-month period like this in my life? I’d never tried to chart it before.

And then there’s life within the walls of the Icehouse. The world I’ve stumbled into and the people within that sphere.

Where do I even start? I’m not going to get all mushy. You can do that for me by indulging me in a simple test. Take a deep breath and think of all the fucking amazing people you have met through your involvement in hockey.

You might be in Minnesota or Melbourne. It doesn’t matter.

I’m not just talking about the Rookies, our self-titled band of ragged, diverse, wildly enthusiastic students who started at the Icehouse, under Lliam and Army’s tutelage last year and have soldiered on, through triumph, disaster, injuries, frustration and elation. I’m talking about Melbourne Ice fans, Red Wings fans, fans of every other team, my work-street-hockey puck-lunch partner, Alex, the amateur Chicago player who saved Will and I in a dodgy section of that town, the wise-cracking crew at the South Pole end of the Henke Rink on Ice match days, the friendly staff of the Harbourside Hotel, the ever-patient partners of the Rookies, and the Rookies crew who turned out in dodgy weather at Albert Park on Saturday to hit pucks together, off-ice. The list goes on and on. Even an inspired fan who riffs at an NHL game on my random thought: “Hockey Player eaten by shark.” (Click on the clip below. Trust me. You really want to.)

What a brilliant community and what an amazing sport.

Will this blog last another 100 posts? Who knows and who cares. Skate to where the puck will be, not to where the puck is, as Wayne Gretsky once said.

The 16-month journey just gone stands alone as one of the greatest times of my life. Thanks for sharing it with me; especially you, Big Cat.

And now let’s hit the ice for wherever this thing goes next.

Giddyup.

(Update: All of this made me think of the final Calvin & Hobbes cartoon when Bill Watterson retired. Dunno why but any time you get a chance to salute Calvin & Hobbes is a good moment. The boy and the tiger’s final stand, their philosophy, feels right for this moment …)

Calvin & Hobbes: the final cartoon. By Bill Watterson.

Triumph and disaster

“If you can meet with triumph and disaster,

And treat those two imposters just the same”

–       if, by Rudyard Kipling.

That quote is above the final doorway as tennis players make their way onto centre court at the All-England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club, better known as Wimbledon.

I’ve always loved it as a quote, since I discovered in it my misspent youth as a tennis writer. It is so fucking true. Let me be the one to tell you, humble readers, that, in life, you’re going to win big, and you’re going to lose horribly. Triumph. Disaster. They’re waiting for us all but I’m with Kipling: see them both for what they are: temporary. For better or worse.

The Dev League game last night. Will AKA Kittens in orange socks mid-ice. Ray, still vertical, behind the goals.

A heavy start to a blog? Nah. All is good. Happily, we’re only talking hockey – even if the first thing I saw as I arrived at the Icehouse last night was a stretcher being loaded into an ambulance. Turns out it was a general skating disaster, so nobody I knew, but it had me wondering; especially because this was Week 10. Scrimmage week. Which meant everybody would be going their hardest.

Every other term this year, in this week, I’d been nervous, excited, fearful I was going to be found out for my lack of skills (justified), worried for my shoulder (End of Intro, second time around – fully justified), hoping I might even briefly feel like I knew what I was doing (end of Intermediate – occasionally justified) … feeling all kinds of emotions.

Last night, not least because I’d stood out of formal classes for the term, I found myself sitting in a three-hour Board meeting for my kids’ film festival while my hockey rookie buddies met their moment of game-play reality on the ice.

By the time I got to the Icehouse, and dodged the ambos, most were through it and full of their various tales of triumph or disaster; everyone eating Aimee Hough’s magnificent puck-shaped chocolate cake and with many wearing the Icehouse Rookie jerseys organised by Chris and designed by my boy, Kittens, who hilariously had “K.Place” printed on the back of his. What started as a Facebook bet is turning into something bigger; I’ll have to remember to show him that old classic film, Cat People.

Our custom jersey.

Anyway, I digress.

I heroically ate some cake, having not skated, felt my belt buckle strain, and wandered over to watch the Dev League end-of-term clash. Lots of my old classmates are now in Dev League so there were many big hellos, as Damon Runyon‘s Broadway narrator liked to say. After a huge day of what I understand to have been boat-based Christmas activities, possibly involving alcohol, a member of my original Intro crew, Ray, gave me a bone-crunching hug and thankfully announced he wasn’t going to skate, which definitely saved another ambulance call. Ray lurched to behind the goals where he grinned happily and supportively at the goalkeeper, whether a goal had gotten through, or a mighty save had been achieved. Ray was loving everything and everyone.

On the ice, Kittens and the rest were hard at it for an hour. I believe the score was 6-1 to the reds, over the  blacks, but whatever. I sat in the stands with Renee, who’d skated the Intermediate game, and started to get excited for 2012.

I realised that in my self-imposed exile to learn to skate, I’d built up in my head how far ahead everybody else must be getting. Had this idea that those doing Intermediate second time around, as well as Dev League, must be sub-NHL standard by now, – all budding Pavel Datsyuks – while I’m still wobbling around, battling to hockey stop.

Without taking anything away from those on the ice last night in the Dev League game, it was a relief to see falls, to see skates slip, to see passes miss or occasionally shoddy stick-work. Skaters wobbled.

Dev League action

Not that I wished anybody a lack of success; just that I was able to breathe out and think, ok, I’m not on another hockey planet from these guys after all.

Of course, some were flying. But that’s always been the case in every class.

And I definitely noticed that most could chase a puck, hockey stop hard when they got to it, and be ready to use it. I’m not sure where I’d be at with that.

But it was what I needed to see. I know I’m not a natural skater, not a genius, however I don’t feel like a total rookie any more. I’m definitely signing back up for Intermediate next term. I need to get back into class, skating skill or not.

And you know what? Fuck it. I think I’m up for Dev League too.

It will be a triumph or a disaster but I’m fine with that.

Or die trying, right?

Keep that ambo in the precinct. Classes start February.

Playtime for the Sporting Gods

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Above: The Joe Louis Arena, pre-game, this week.

In 2007, I was at one of the lowest ebbs of my life. I was lurching toward an inescapable conclusion that I couldn’t stay in my marriage. No need to dwell here, but when you deeply love the woman involved and have two boys, that is a very hard place to be.
So, to distract myself, I did what all sports fans do and went to lose myself in some live sport.
I know, I thought, I’ll go watch Richmond play Geelong in a Sunday twilight game at the Docklands stadium! That will be awesome!
If I had thought to look, the Icehouse was probably under construction at the time, just a little over to the west.
I caught the tram from Fitzroy to Docklands with an uncomfortable awareness that the afternoon might not go according to my plan. See, Richmond v Geelong has a certain history in recent times. Yes, my Tigers kicked Geelong in the 1967 Grand Final but that was quite a while ago. Almost perfectly matching the time I spent as a football journalist for major Melbourne papers, and The Seven Network, Richmond had fallen into a hole deeper than the Romanche Trench. It wasn’t so much that successive Geelong sides of the late Eighties, Nineties and new millennium, featuring several Hall of Famers, would beat the hapless Tigers, whose back line would struggle to get a game in the VFA, but more that the Cats would slice and dice with the needless brutality of A Clockwork Orange. Gary Ablett Snr would perform party tricks that made the entire press box* burst into spontaneous laughter and applause (journo humour being what it is, I was ALWAYS sent to cover these games; to suffer it out) and I’d laugh and clap along. What the Hell. It wasn’t as though we had a chance. One day at the MCG, I can recall Ablett flying so high and so ridiculously early (over Brian Leys, maybe, or Mark Summers, or both) that he found himself metres into the air, looking around for the ball. It finally arrived as he was well into his potentially painful descent. The great No. 5 marked it one handed, jammed into his elbow, moments before he hit the turf. He booted 10 or maybe 12 that day …
So anyway, Richmond had improved a bit by 2007 but the Terry Wallace five-year plan was lurching and our young kids would be up against it on this day. But I needed a change of headspace, I needed some light in my life. Surely, my mule-headed lifelong devotion to the often hapless Tigers would show mercy and give me something to smile about.
Richmond lost by what I believe was an all-time record against the Cats. 157 points. I didn’t need to look that margin up for this blog. It’s scarred into my withered soul.
The loss was so huge that by mid third quarter, I was smiling. Even chuckling. Ah, Tigers, you never fail to let me down. It’s not only that you continue to kill us fans, you run the truck over us four or five times to make sure of it, when we are most hurt. The funniest part was that the sheer black humour of The Universe that day strangely did the trick. The massacre was so horrific, it was awesome. I walked all the way home, lighter, thinking: OK, you’ve got more planned for me, huh, Universe? Bring it.
And it did. And it has.
What has all this got to do with hockey?
Well, a key component of my current massive American trip has involved watching the Detroit Red Wings live. To actually witness some games at the Joe Louis Arena. And Will (aka Kittens), Mack and I have now seen three of four.
The Red Wings are the most consistently successful team of the past two decades. They haven’t missed the play-offs in 20 seasons, despite salary caps, equalization, etc. They are very much a Geelong, not a Richmond.
The Red Wings home-grow players, churn them out and create great team after great team. In that 20 year span, the Wings have won four Stanley Cups. In poor, half-deserted, out-of-money-and-luck Detroit, they have been a shining light. Because Detroit IS Hockeytown and the Wings MATTER.
So, our first Wings game ever was in Washington DC, against the Capitals at the Verizon Centre. Detroit lost, 7-1. A massacre.
No, matter. Bring on the Joe Louis Arena, hometown Detroit with a Wings crowd revving them on. Against the San Jose Sharks, who knocked the Wings out of the last two play-off series but haven’t been as dominant this season. The Wings lost, 4-2.
Tuesday night, we were there again to see the increasingly worried Wings take on Minnesota Wild. By now the losing streak, home and away, was at four, the worst straight streak since 2008. The Wings hit the ice like skaters possessed. A goal inside of 5 minutes to Nick Lidstrom, with Zetterberg and Datsyuk on assists; our main line sparking. The Wild barely had a shot on goal for the entire first period. The Wings lost, 2-1 in Over Time. We were totally robbed by the refs on the final goal, but still …
The lesson: No matter which side of the world you are on, in any sport, the Sporting Gods will fuck with you, given half a chance. “Hey! It’s that Richmond loser in a Lidstrom jersey!” they must say to one another, sniggering.
Happily, I am in a much better headspace than 2007. I have genuinely shaken my head with nothing more than bemusement at Detroit hitting such a trough at the exact moment we are in town and have paid hundreds of dollars to be in excellent seats at the Joe.
It actually occurred to me after the Wild fiasco that I must be in a good place. I have genuinely loved every game – just being at NHL games, with all the excitement, hoopla and energy. The sheer breathtaking level of skating and shooting and skill of NHL players. Seeing my heroes, “Hank” “Zee” Zetterberg, Dats, Lids, Mule, Helm, Abby, Jimmy Howard in the flesh. Gazing at the retired numbers and all the pennants hanging from the roof of the ageing Joe arena. Being surrounded by genuine Wings fans and being accepted, unquestioningly into the fold.
Between games, we have wandered the eery streets of Detroit and fallen in love with this art deco, decaying city. We have examined every inch of the Hockeytown Cafe – sort of a Red Wings version of the Hard Rock Cafe – and grinned at old time Wing names like Honey Walker, Ebbie Goodfellow, Art Giloux and Wilf Starr (all 35-36 Cup-winning team), Gunzo Humeniuk and Red Kelly (49-50 Cup team, with Gordie Howe) and Lefty Wilson and Enio Scisizzi (51-52 Cup). I’ve loved building my knowledge of Wings lore and general hockey history.
The NHL home and away season is 82 games, so the Wings don’t have to panic yet, although this form slump is worrying. They have barely scored since we arrived in America – five goals in five games, which is ridiculous.
Maybe tonight will be when the drought breaks? At our final game, when we’re sitting on the glass. Row 1, Seat 1. And the Red Wings are giving us a personal tour of the Joe before the game. and it is Bobblehead Thursday, so we get to add three Henrik Zetterberg bobbleheads to our already groaning baggage.
Or maybe the Wings will lose again, to the struggling Calgary Flames and I’ll head home to Australia on Saturday, possibly never to see the team play live ever again, having not seen a win, having not sung “Don’t Stop Believin'” to celebrate victory because we’re enough goals clear with a minute to go.
I don’t really care either way. I have a lifetime of Tiger training on absorbing match day disappointment to fall back on.
I’m just happy to be here. Getting momentarily annoyed by opposition goals, dud ref calls or whooping at Wings brilliance. Letting my passion soar.
Watch for the three of us, behind the glass in Section 120, screaming our lungs out, whichever way tonight goes.

LATER THAT NIGHT UPDATE: Wings played like crap and got beaten 4-1, the last goal being an empty netter after they’d pulled Jimmy Howard. Laugh it up, Sporting Gods. Like I said, I can take it. On a brighter note, we stood on the ice at the Joe Louis Arena, during our tour. The ice maintenance guy wasn’t thrilled but we did it. Stood on that famous ice. Now we’re leaving the country, Detroit can get back to winning …

* As I was typing this, auto-correct on my iPad changed Press Box to Pessimism Box, which is so perfect I never could have come up with it.

Below: happier days at the Joe. The celebrations after a Cup victory.

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