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.

Hey, didn’t I used to play hockey?

So, not much hockey being reported on here at nickdoeshockey. I’m thinking of changing the title to nickusedtodohockey.

Actually, things aren’t quite that bad. Yes, we’re between terms at Icehouse dev league, so that’s Wednesday nights briefly cleared out. And summer league is still a long way away and I’m not even sure which team I’m lining up with, so training feels remote.

Mostly, I’m trying to get my body back together. The long-suffering knee has been an issue. At the last night of dev league for the previous term, a couple of weeks ago, I finally had to pull out of playing because the knee was so sore. “You ain’t gonna be playing no more, til you fix me some, bitch” said the knee, midway through the first hour of scrimmage. Actually pretty much in warm-up. Why my knee talks like a poor man’s version of the Gimp’s owner in Pulp Fiction remains unclear, but this is how things are.

I had to sit out the second hour, which hurt a lot because the teams were playing for the Charles Srour Cup, a little dev league tribute to our mate Charlie, who had passed away almost exactly six months before.

The teams for the Charles Srour Cup. 10 pm Dev League, Icehouse. Red team won.

The teams for the Charles Srour Cup. 10 pm Dev League, Icehouse. Red team won.

Knee throbbing, I played music and worked the scoreboard and missed out on being in the teams photo at the end, because my theory is that if you don’t play, you don’t pose. Kind of like those poor bastards I always feel for, who don’t quite make the premiership team each year in the AFL. A nightmare of hollow emptiness among jubilation. OK, my night wasn’t quite that bad. If nothing else, I laughed at Lliam Webster holding off dropping the puck at face offs because he was digging the music blaring from the Henke Rink sound system. Dev leaguers twitching over their sticks.

I’d been to see an osteo the day before (not Magic Enzo, who was away) and I think the new guy did good things by unlocking problems in my knee, but the side effect was 10 days or so of struggling to climb steps or do pretty much anything. My knee felt unstable and just ‘weak’ for the first time in this whole debacle. Mackquist and I headed to Byron for a winter break to be greeted by murky water at Julian Rocks where we peered at grey nurse sharks in the gloom and then returned to the surface to watch horizontal sheet rain drown the town. Even drowned Byron is still good, though. Our Superman 3-D glasses at the local cinema came with their own caped-pouch, which pretty much made the entire trip.

And so I’m back in freezing, sunny Melbourne, not quite hobbling the way I was, but sick to death of this knee. Having to miss Nite Owls hockey on Sunday night because I couldn’t trust the knee and basically tilting my hat and deciding it’s time to beat this bastard and get healthy, even if it means some time off the ice.

In America, the Red Wings did well in free agency and the draft, so the team is coming together well for next season. The camp for rookies and try-outs is happening tomorrow, so already the Detroit machine is winding back up, seemingly moments after the last season finished. I’m hoping Darren Helm is having more luck getting over his nagging back injury than I am this knee, so he can regain his rightful place in the thick of the Wings action from Game One. He’s taking part in this week’s camp to start the long road back. Fingers crossed, Helmster.

Closer to home, Melbourne Ice has been having all kinds of shenanigans, with Joey Hughes and Vinnie Hughes retiring unexpectedly mid-season. There must be a story there – it’s a big thing to walk away from your team-mates mid-campaign in any sport. You’d want to have a bloody good reason. But I haven’t been around hockey people much so I don’t know what’s what and maybe I don’t want to.

I’ll just bunker in, huddle against the cold winter and try to get my legs moving again. Summer will be here and I need to be ready.

Are we having fun yet?

It’s kind of a strange time at the moment. The fact is that hockey is not front and centre in my life right now; hence the long break between blogs. An unexpected twist is that, as I write, the Detroit Red Wings are waking up on the other side of the world, preparing for a huge play-off game, just like last time I wrote more than a week ago.

The Red Wings' underdog run continues ...

The Red Wings’ underdog run continues …

This time it’s against the Chicago Blackhawks, at the Joe – Detroit having not only seen off the Ducks, as per the moment of truth looming in my last post, but then proceeding to play astonishingly great hockey to snatch an unexpected and spectacular 3-1 lead over the President’s Cup winning Hawks. ‘Detroit is like a rash that just won’t go away, boys,’ said one commentator. ‘The Chicago Blackhawks just can’t get rid of it.’

This Red Wings team of kids in rebuild mode is within a win of pushing out the No. 1 seeds and going to the Western Conference Final. And, shit, if you make it that far, having beaten the No. 1 and 2 ranked teams, why not go all the way?

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

In Game 5, the Hawks came back hard, as you knew they would, in front of a hometown crowd, so now the series is 3-2, and this second chance to put it away at the Joe is fraught. Some of the highly-rated Hawks started to wake up after a shocking series so far. There is still a real chance that Chicago could become the 21st team in something like 220 series to come back with three straight wins to steal it.

But I’m going to be honest: I reckon my Wings will win. Played such brilliant, tough, play-off hockey to take those three wins – especially the last one at the Joe when Chicago threw everything at them. It’s definitely possible to triumph. LGRW, LG! Wish I was in Detroit to be there.  The old Joe will be rocking.

(Tuesday update: Well, the Wings got edged, 4-3 at the Joe, after some rookie errors, which leads to a sudden-death Game 7 on Wednesday, Motown time. See below for Mike Babcock’s take on that.)

And all of this points to my conundrum. The Red Wings are on a prolonged and unlikely and thrilling play-off run. I’m playing hockey for two hours very Wednesday (although the last two have been kind of tense, grumpy sessions, unlike our usual laughfests) and supposedly every Sunday – although I’ve had trouble getting to a few of those nights. The Melbourne Ice men’s season is well underway, but I’ve only seen their first game.

There is hockey everywhere but I’m on the fringes and this is made more noticeable by the foaming-at-the-mouth enthusiasm a lot of my fellow rookies have been displaying, mostly all over Facebook.

‘OMG training tonight!’ is a pretty standard post. Or arranging seats, hours early at the Ice game.  Or heading down for Sunday night general skating at the Icehouse. Or doing boot camp to train hockey muscles. Some seem to be training or playing at least five nights a week. And these aren’t Melbourne Ice players that I’m talking about.

It’s intense and impressive.

And then there’s me. Driving down to Bairnsdale for a weekend, listening to music, watching the amazing light as storm clouds hit the lower alps to the north, staring at the Yallourn power stations, en route to take part in a panel discussion with a bunch of other authors, discussing writing fact and fiction. Then heading to Sydney, wearing my Giants hat (as against a Giant hat, to be clear), to drink too much coffee with clients and friends, and to walk the streets and stare at the view from the 66th floor of a hotel. Then coming back, now carrying the lurgy everybody seems to have had – I blame Chloe, or Mackquist – and sleeping all day Wednesday instead of working. Then playing dev legue that night to ‘sweat it out’ and feeling awesome about that, despite a mediocre night on the ice. Then throwing up maybe 15 times in the six hours after I got off the ice. Maybe ‘sweating it out’ not such a great idea after all. Bed ridden for two days, then staggering back into the world over the weekend, but with no energy and feeling crap. Meanwhile work and family bushfires, or at least spotfires, spark in different directions, and there’s that next novel sitting there, just waiting for some love – or at least some headspace. So much for catching up with friends, or quality time with anybody in particular. I spread thinner and thinner … Nite Owls play suspended because of illness, bad knee stopping running …

In author mode, in deep dark Gippsland. Look how excited fellow writers Anne Crawford and Kate Forster are by my pearls of wisdom.

In author mode, in deep dark Gippsland. Look how excited fellow writers Anne Crawford and Kate Forster are by my pearls of wisdom.

The tension builds.

But you know what? There’s another important life lesson from the Red Wings that I didn’t mention in the last post and it’s one of my favourites.

When under pressure, when facing elimination or a similarly huge game, coach Mike Babcock, captain Henrik Zetterberg and other leading Wings have a habit of saying one thing: “This is fun.”

Such a simple statement, but so powerful.

Take these quotes from Babs last week before the crucial third game against the Blackhawks: “It’s fun, it’s the most fun I’ve had coaching in a couple of years, by far.”

“At the start of the year, we weren’t a good team, but we understand that. We buckled down and we got better. The coaching staff is fun, the players are fun, it’s been a fun year for us.”

It’s something you hear a lot from the Wings. Intimidated? Nope. Season on the brink? Well, that’s what you play for – the fun of those moments.

Sure, it’s sport. Sure, these guys get paid millions, win tomorrow or not. Sure, they’ve already pretty much over-achieved this season so the pressure is off.

But I really like this take on the world. (Tuesday update) In fact, watch his presser after today’s loss. The “fun stuff” kicks in about midway through.

Same as before. The reporters are all gloomy that Detroit didn’t close it out. Babs is already anticipating how awesome Game 7 will be.

Life gets difficult, stakes get high, shit gets real … it’s okay. That’s fun. That’s the fun of living. To perform under pressure. Or at least have a crack. We’re not here for all the boring moments where nothing much is happening, are we?

Mambo's magnificent 'Not With That Clown (great songs of sexual jealousy)'

Mambo’s magnificent ‘Not With That Clown (great songs of sexual jealousy)’

And so hockey can float for me, for a while, while I have fun dealing with the things that need dealing with right now. Yes, I’ll probably embarrass myself in my office tomorrow, screeching if the Wings get a big goal, as I sneakily watch Gamecenter on my iPad. Then I’ll be off to see the physio yet again tomorrow afternoon, about my knee and maybe my shoulder. I’ll wade through mud professionally. I’ll battle sinus pain.

But I’ll smile because life is about the challenges, and those changes of gear.

I just rediscovered one of my favourite CDs: Mambo Surfwear’s “Not with that clown. (Great songs of sexual jealousy)” (circa 1997, when Mambo was cool) and so ‘I was checkin’ out, she was checkin’ in’ by Don Covay can once again become my soundtrack as I travel around Melbourne, doing what needs to be done. Maybe occasionally even managing to tune back into my hockey world.

I’ll just try not to think about the future games where I’m going to find myself hunkering over my stick to face all the rookies who are currently training five nights a week to get better, better, better, while I’m not.

That’s going to be a tough game when that happens. It will be fun.

Learning from the Wings: never surrender

The Red Wings: down but not beaten. Pic: Detroit Free Press

The Red Wings: down but not beaten. Pic: Detroit Free Press

With an Over Time loss yesterday, Detroit suddenly sits in a 2-3 series hole in the first round of play-offs against Anaheim, facing a sudden-death potential exit game at the Joe on Friday, American time.

With such jeopardy facing the Wings, I want to say right now that I’m very proud of my team.

All season, coach Mike Babcock has been trying to find the magic; putting this player with that, introducing defenders (one who literally arrived at the club on the morning of an early-season game, a guy Babs admitted he barely knew anything about), just holding things together. Helm’s been out all shortened season with his mysterious back, Bertuzzi for almost the entire season … it’s just been one of those seasons of pure struggle.

I was really pleased that the team found cohesion and form to roar into the play-offs for the 22nd straight year, when that could so easily not have happened. And now, against the more highly-rated Ducks, they’ve been dogged and determined and about a goal-a-game short of where they need to be.

In Game 4, it was the Wings that kept falling behind; somehow hanging on by their fingernails to take the game to OT, where Brunner and the rookies combined to steal it. But today was the other way. The Wings got the first goal, then allowed the Ducks one. Detroit got the go-ahead goal but couldn’t hang on to the advantage. The third OT of the series, and it was Anaheim that scored.

Another day, another desperate struggle. Which is how it’s been since the lock-out ended.

I’m not giving up on this Western Conference quarter-final. Game 6 is at the Joe and the Wings have shown that on their day, they can score and score heavily. Which is what they need to do to make Game 7. But they could just as easily be strangled; not be able to find the net. Hank Zetterberg, who has been brilliant all season as our new captain, has yet to score in the play-offs, and Filp has gone cold again. We’re pushing it, to rack up enough goals to overwhelm the experienced, confident Ducks.

This absorbing battle has mostly been what’s kept me going over the past week or so. My life has been a rollercoaster (although it’s actually fine: all minor bushfires, not major scares).

Like Detroit, I just don’t seem to be able to find the goal often enough; can’t score wins lately in many areas of my life. I’ve taken the Wings’ lesson and kept pushing and persevering, but it can be hard. You want life to be one way and it’s another; you have ambitions and dreams and they drift tantalizingly out of reach. All you can do is breathe, and tell yourself that the buzzer hasn’t gone. Keep your head up. Chase the puck.

On Sunday night, I played for the Nite Owls, where I can feel out of my depth. Many of my teammates have played for 40 years or more and skate without effort or thought. My skating has come along in the last few months – no longer endlessly camped on my inside edges… yes! – but I’m pretty wobbly compared to these old gliders. They notice every hole in my game, in a good way; telling me to skate with both hands on my stick (a bad habit) and to stay high on the blue line in D, things like that. I don’t mind. I respect their experience and game sense and I’m still up for learning everything I can. Even better, I managed to find my way to my usual place in the slot, to jam home the first goal of the night, which gave me a feeling of belonging. I even almost managed to Holmstrom-deflect another goal, which hopefully made my teammates realize the 48-year-old they call “lad” isn’t a total muppet.

Dan Cleary hits the deck, versus the Ducks. You know he's getting up. Pic: Detroit News.

Dan Cleary hits the deck, versus the Ducks. You know he’s getting up. Pic: Detroit News.

But by Wednesday, another few life kicks had me really struggling to ward off a general feeling of emotional flatness. Mackquist was sick with a cold and I thought about missing hockey, mostly to look after him, but also because I just didn’t know if I had it in me to compete in the occasionally wild and willing dev league games.

How sad sack are you to baulk at the idea of playing hockey? Even I couldn’t stomach that … I’m definitely unable to make Sunday’s Nite Owls play, so decided I really wanted to get in some skating this week, and should go. I checked Mack was alive enough for me to head to the Icehouse after all.

Of course, it was a brilliant night. The hockey was fast, furious and good-natured.

Before the game, I’d joked to another player, Todd Harbour, that I was going to kill someone. ‘And if I kill early, I plan to hunt again.’ I was deadpan and he looked worried but then smiled. Minutes in, battling for a loose puck on the blue line, I met an opponent head-on and they went flying backward, landing flat. Yes, it was Todd. I swear, Mr Harbour, I didn’t know it was you. And I was joking beforehand.

Later in that game, Big Cat and I combined for one of my favourite goals ever; me winning a battle on the defensive blue line and sneaking a short pass to his stick, then following his charge down the ice to be there when his shot rebounded off the top crossbar and between goalie Chris Lourey’s pads. I poked home the goal, for an epic one-two-one-two Place combination. Sometimes you have to remember why you got into something in the first place, and playing alongside my boy(s) was a prime motivation for my dive into this crazy world. Playing alongside Big Cat and having that kind of understanding on the ice remains awesome.

Usually I’m pretty buggered by the end of the 10 pm game, staggering into the night, knowing I won’t sleep before 1 am or more and have to wake to a 6.30 am alarm. Last night, I just wanted to keep skating, to keep chasing the puck; all the worries and annoyances of the real world blown away as I felt my legs burn and my chest gasp for air, and laughed with my hockey mates, bantered and sledged the coaches Lliam, Army and Tommy, and couldn’t wait for my next shift, and then the next shift, and then the next shift.

Damn, I love hockey when it’s like that.

And now, that hockey momentum has carried into the real world so that a few of the disappointments dogging me all week seem to be not quite so black. Maybe I’m not out of the game after all? Just like the Wings, I’m definitely 2-3 down in a seven-game series, but that just means I need to keep winning, right?

I have no idea, after watching yesterday’s game, which way the Wings-Duck series will go, but I’m proud of my Detroit team either way.

They just never ever stop trying, pushing forward, believing. It’s the Red Wing mantra, a non-negotiable, and I wish I could explain it to my AFL team, Richmond, which is building and building but does not yet believe. Something I can be guilty of as well.

I need to hang on to the Red Wings’ sense of self-confidence and excellence, no matter the scoreline; refusing to concede until the buzzer says it’s over …

And it ain’t, Anaheim Ducks. It ain’t over at all.

The walking wounded

A huge Oakleigh crowd watches the dying seconds of the Ceptors' win; Jay Hellis in perfect pose, mid shut-out. (Pic: Elizabeth Vine)

A huge Oakleigh crowd watches the last seconds of the Ceptors’ win; Jay Hellis in perfect pose, mid shut-out. (Pic: Elizabeth Vine)

“So, let’s get this straight,” I said, looking around the purple haze of Interceptor jerseys in the Oakleigh rink’s tiniest change-room. Pointing, and ticking off our players.

Two bad knees: one for the season, the other almost certainly for the season.

Next player: a suspected broken toe.

Next along: a badly swollen puck-hammered thumb.

Next along: separated shoulder, now strapped up and on a prayer to survive the game about to start.

Next to me, on the right: painful back that hurts badly after every game.

Me: dubious knee that is refusing to heal.

Next to me, on the left: another strained and painful lower back.

And so it went. Around the room.

“You know what?” I said, thinking aloud. “We’re a real hockey team now.”

Mid-season, winning some, losing some. Just about everybody carrying something; maybe major, maybe not. At the bare minimum number of players without forfeiting, because Interceptors were away or on hens’ nights or sick or elsewhere.

And about to face a bunch of our friends in the TigerSharks, who had played the night before and were also only just able to scrape a healthy team together on a Saturday evening for this clash.

It’s 30 degree C-plus almost every day outside at the moment in Melbourne, but in the magnificently dilapidated surrounds of the Olympic Ice Rink, sliding and scrapping across a block of freshly-laid ice, or at the Icehouse, the war of attrition between Summer Rec D teams continues.

Maybe this is not mid-season as much as just hockey. After the endless NHL lockout, the Red Wings returned to find they were alrady in disarray with a bunch of injuries that have stopped coach Babcock fielding what he would regard as his best team at any stage so far, a quarter of the way into the season. Heroically, my winged wheel team keeps finding ways to win, more than they lose, although there have been a few meek days. This photo from the game against the Oilers on the weekend is one of the best hockey shots I’ve seen (and well found, James Smith).

Red Wings v Oilers. Pic: NHL (I think) via Facebook.

Red Wings v Oilers. Pic: NHL (I think) via Facebook.

The staggering Ceptors managed a win, with my boy, Big Cat, scoring a hat-trick and his old man, camped in the slot at the moment that counted, managing to swipe a rebound through the goalie’s five-hole for our other goal. Unfortunately the refs didn’t see it like that, giving one of Big Cat’s goals to somebody else, and mine to the assist before it. But gave me the assist. Weird. If I had one take-out of my first summer league competition, it would be to politely suggest to Ice Hockey Victoria that the official scorers consult the coach and captain of each team before officially signing off on the score sheet. Nobody is about to deliberately steal somebody else’s goal, and it would be nice to have them right when they’re lodged. Every time I talk to players from other teams, they have stories of wrongly-attributed goals but I don’t blame the refs at all – they have a million other things to think about mid-game. We should just be able to correct mistakes before we leave the rooms. Then again, Pete Sav got the goal for his shot, which deflected off Big Cat’s leg. Does it change anything? All that really matters is that the goal went in. It counted.

So we had a win – goalie Jay having a kick-arse shut-out that I was crazy-excited about, for him, after all his hard work, over the last couple of years – and we shared our post-game beer with the TigerSharks, before I limped off into the dusk, my stupid knee still giving me grief. Don’t know right now if it’s going to last the season or not. Strangely, it is least troublesome when skating, but I pulled out of Powerskating with Zac, at the Icehouse last Wednesday (it is an intense class – everything I hate, but NEED to do, from intensive crossover work to outside edge work) because I wanted to make sure I made it safely to Saturday’s game where we were so short of numbers. The injury feels like a timebomb, yet hasn’t collapsed yet.

Nicko, v Champs at the Icehouse. Lots to work on, including not looking at the puck while skating, apparently. (Pic Elizabeth Vine)

Nicko, v Champs at the Icehouse. Lots to work on to improve, including not looking at the puck while skating, apparently. (Pic Elizabeth Vine)

I think this week I’ll play Dev League. And power-skating. No tomorrow; suffering in the interests of improving my ever-not-good-enough skating. If my knee folds, it folds.

It was strange to score a goal but leave the game feeling unsatisfied, knowing that I hadn’t skated well enough and feeling like I hadn’t put skating skills I know I have into practice during the actual games. Why don’t I do crossovers when carrying the puck? Why don’t I carry the puck more? Things to work on this Wednesday at Dev. If I can walk.

I don’t mean to sound like I’m whinging by the way. I loved our win and had an awesome weekend on and off the ice, even if painful when I walk or ride my bike. Then again, when I show up on Wednesday night and look around the change room, the chances are that everybody else at Dev League will  also be carrying a wound or strain or bruise or knee or back or something at this stage of things.

So giddyup, Nicko.

We’re hockey players. We need to go play hockey now.

Pucks, like life, can bounce randomly. Ask Rodriguez

It’s been a patchy couple of weeks, in terms of hockey. The NHL lock-out rolls endlessly on, with occasional flares of optimism that a deal will get done and hockey will be played but then, no, everybody walks off in a huff, like schoolkids fighting over marbles.

I’ve been reduced to watching documentaries about Detroit. A few weeks ago, I watched the mesmeric Detropia, and last night Chloe and I finally hit the Nova to see Searching for Sugar Man, an astonishing and moving documentary about Rodriguez, who you, like the rest of the world, had probably never heard of before this film. Strangely, I had, because of one of my more ridiculous little-known hobbies. It goes like this: sometimes, on a whim, I march into Polyester or one of my other favourite music stores, on a mission. The challenge is to choose a CD or vinyl album that I have never heard of, that purely attracts me on the day. It might be cover art or the name of the band or who knows what “Use the Force, Luke” factor that draws me to it.

I can only choose one.

I can never have heard of the band.

It’s a hobby that has clearly led to some horrible mistakes. There are definitely vinyl albums and CDs sitting on my shelf that have had only earned one or maybe two optimistic listens. (A copy of Fourtet’s “There is love in you” double vinyl album is going way cheap if anybody is interested) but not as many disasters as you’d think, and the wins can be huge. The Herbaliser’s “Same As It Never Was” CD probably remains my single greatest triumph of this game, although local artist Matt Bailey’s first album “The Three I’s” is a rival for Best Ever. (A graphic designer friend of mine, who turned out to have designed the art for a Bailey follow-up album, when I looked at the liner notes, said to me, in amazement: “How did you discover Matt Bailey??” Hopefully sales have picked up. For a down low night at home, it’s up there with Massive Attack.) Other honourable mentions go to The Two Things In One (Together Forever – The Music City Sessions; back cover pic won me) and Delta Swamp Rock (vinyl – the sheer name and the photo of two dweebs sitting awkwardly in a picnic area as the cover shot. How could I not?)

Yes, this back cover photo convinced me to buy an album. I never said the game was smart, or sophisticated. But really, how could you not want to hear this band?

So one day, playing this game, I wandered around a shop on the corner of Gertrude and George Street and stumbled upon a CD, “Cold Fact” by some guy called Rodriguez. It was clearly very old … late Sixties or Seventies old. He was pictured, cross-legged, in big dark glasses and a hat, as though floating.

Dunno. Looking at it now it’s an unremarkable cover. One track, “Sugar Man”, rang a bell but not one that I could isolate and identify. I honestly don’t know why I chose it. There’s every chance it was the title of a song more often known as “The Establishment Blues”. Its full title is: “This Is Not A Song, It’s An Outburst: Or, The Establishment Blues”.

Yeah, actually, that would have won me for sure. Where’s my wallet?

Back in the car, I slotted the CD and Sugar Man, and The Establishment Blues justified the money on their own. Rodriguez went into rotation on my iPad and life moved along. You know, the usual … I worked, I fell in and out of love, I bought other CDs with varying degrees of success, my dog and I grew older, I started playing hockey, I finished a novel, I swam with manta rays, I went to America with my boys, I saw the Red Wings live (but not win). I fell in love again … Rodriguez was part of the soundtrack.

And then this doco came out and the story is mind-blowing. Go see it. I openly cried. If you’re a creative type, it’s the ultimate bittersweet fairytale. Which is quite an achievement for a film that explains before the opening credits that Rodriguez, a commercial musical failure, reportedly died when he poured petrol on himself, on stage, and set himself alight.

But guess where the mystery man, Rodriguez, came from? Yep, good old Detroit. Straight out of the opening credits, I’m looking at a helicopter shot of the city, and having been there a year ago, I was easily able to spot the unglamorous blocky shape of the Joe Louis Arena by the Detroit River. Even better, Chloe (who a year ago may never have heard of ice hockey) squeezed my hand when somebody walked past a shop window with a poster celebrating various Red Wing Stanley Cup championships.

Even if you’re not a Wings fan or an increasingly passionate Detroitophile like me, it’s a brilliant doco.

But that’s as close to the Red Wings as I’ve been able to get lately. Detroit stars are scattered across Europe or training listlessly at minor rinks, waiting for the lock-out to end. The 2012-13 season shrinks and is probably gone. No Datsyuk magic in the winged wheel for another year? Fuck. Although Dats is having fun, making the best players in the top professional league in Russia look like development leaguers up against Lliam Webster:

(Thanks to Zak Wookie for that link)

Luckily, half a world away, on Melbourne ice rinks, hockey is being played, and sometimes by me.

In Rec D, my team lost 7-1 but then won 2-0 over the past fortnight. I missed the loss, because I was making sandcastles at Lorne, which might possibly endanger my claims for Devoted Team Player of the Year.

In between, we had a strangely listless two hours of dev league on the Wednesday night; one of those nights where players were flat-footed, waiting for the puck to come to them, not powering up and down the ice. I was probably as guilty as anybody, it was just a night where mojo was missing, although I did wake up sore the next day, which is always a good sign I’ve skated hard, and I did manage a goal – my third in four games.

The best thing was that when I woke the next morning with my usual Thursday morning hockey hangover, I was unexpectedly aware that I had made a surprise breakthrough in my hockey learning.

I had spent the night, especially the second game, determined to “own the puck”. As in, if it was there on my wing, I was going to win it. There are many better skaters than me in dev league; many better puck-handlers or more experienced players. But that’s what is great about dev league. It’s training, it’s learning, it’s not entirely about the scoreboard, even if we pretend it is. So I  didn’t back off when I would normally think, ‘Oh, that guy’s good; he’ll beat me to it/win it,’; I better go into defensive mode early. Instead, I kept charging. And the shock was that I won a share of pucks. Not always, obviously, but enough that it reminded me all over again how much easier hockey is and how the puck comes to you, when you take this attitude, instead of feeling, in the back of your mind, that you’re somehow making up the numbers. It’s the same in footy, probably the same in most sports. Confidence and commitment leads to good results.

Maybe it’s the fact I’ve managed a few goals lately? Maybe it’s false confidence? Maybe I’m delusional?

I don’t care. It’s been working and tomorrow night, when dev league cranks up again, and this weekend, against the Ice Wolves, I’m looking for that puck.

And after that? As Rodriguez sang, I’ll slip away.

Vale the octopus

The legend of the octopus. Every April, at the Joe Louis Arena.

Last Sunday was the anniversary of a quirky piece of Red Wings’ history. It was exactly 60 years ago that a Detroit fan, and the owner of a local fish market, Pete Cusimano, in cahoots with his brother, Jerry, tossed an octopus onto the ice of the Olympia stadium, at the start of the 1952 play-offs. At that time, a team needed to win eight games to lift the Stanley Cup so the Cusimano’s symbolic gesture was that the Wings needed one win for each cephalopod leg*.

The Wings didn’t lose a game from that moment, sweeping the semi-finals and final to lift the Cup. The legend of the octopus was born and Red Wings games have been routinely interrupted by octopi landing on the ice ever since, especially during the play-offs. It remains perfectly acceptable, come April and the play-offs, for Detroit fans to declare: “Respect the octopus!” without anybody looking sideways.

Of course, the real losers in his tradition are the poor sacrificed octopi, and the sourpusses at NHL headquarters who have tried repeatedly to stop the tradition, to the amusement of Wings fans. The Wings’ Zamboni driver, Al Sobotka, is the one who usually gets handed the octo-remains by a linesman and he has the endearing habit of waving the octopus above his head as he leaves the ice, which doesn’t exactly discourage fans.

Al Sobotka does his best to discourage Wings fans from their favourite prank.

In fact, the Wings’ play-off mascot since 1995, Rally Al, a giant purple and ferocious-looking octopus that hangs from the rafters of the Joe Louis Arena, is named after Sobotka.

Anyway, anniversary or not, none of this helped the Red Wings in this year’s play-offs. As of this morning, Melbourne time, they’re already out. First-round losers to the Nashville Predators, having won only one game and having failed to score anywhere near enough goals to threaten to progress. Even with all our alleged forward firepower.

It’s the earliest exit since 2006 and follows two pretty limp efforts in second round exits in the previous two seasons.

I’m gutted but not surprised. We started this season strangely and slowly, then hit a golden mid-season run of form. But lately, with a badly-timed rash of injuries and a complete, inexplicable lack of mojo when it mattered, we’ve looked off the pace.

You get the sense that the Wings’ owner, pizza czar Mike Ilitch, general manager Ken Holland and coach Mike Babcock are going to be having some serious discussions in the wake of this one. I’m even nervous for Babcock’s job, and I generally like him a lot as a coach. The fact is, our wildly-talented team – good enough to set an all-time NHL record for consecutive home-wins (starting the day Big Cat, Mack and I left town, as you may recall) and briefly top the entire competition, barely gave a yelp against the Preds.

Nik Lidstrom, post today's loss. I so hope this isn't the last shot of him in the No. 5.

We need new blood, new tactics or new energy, from somewhere. And we’re no longer talking a few tweaks here or there.

Depressing, but the good news is that the Melbourne Ice team starts a new season next Saturday, and the Richmond Tigers are showing definite signs of finally becoming a team worth barracking for in the footy (he wrote nervously – I have said that before and been proven wrong, and Richmond plays Geelong on the rebound, at Geelong, tomorrow. Gulp).

But one thing about sport, in your moment of disappointment, you can take comfort in the fact a new season will bring fresh hope and memories. The Wings will rest, players will go, players will be hired, our veteran defender, captain and inspiration, Niklas Lidstrom (nickname: The Perfect Human), will hopefully decide to play again, and maybe the cards will be reshuffled into a better team than the one that just lost.

From my point of view, it was the most memorable Red Wings season ever, simply because Will, Mack and I made our live NHL debut and actually saw the team live, four times, in Washington DC and then at the fabled Joe – an absolute life highlight, regardless of the play-off fizzle. I’m still eyeing the idea of trying to get back to Motor City for the Winter Classic.

The city of Detroit’s official flag features not one but two Latin quotes: Speramus Meliora and Resurget Cineribus. Written after the great Detroit fire of 1805, when the entire city, apart from one building and one chimney, burnt to the ground, they translate as: “We hope for better things” and “It will rise from the ashes”.

For Red Wings fans, they both resonate today.

(* See, and you thought you didn’t learn stuff on this blog).

See you next year, Rally Al.