The lucky mo

The lucky mo. Deep in Movember.

The lucky mo. Deep in Movember.

It was halfway through November that it occurred to me. Ever since I had shaved off my beard and started growing an unsightly trucker moustache, for Movember, I had scored a point or even points in every hockey game I’d played. A couple of goals and a few assists for the Cherokees, goals or assists in every development league outing on a Tuesday night… I suddenly thought: is this a thing? And the moment I thought that, then, yes, this was now a thing.

A magical moustache.

Hockey, like most sports, lends itself to superstitions. As the feeling took hold that my moustache was a hideous yet potentially lucky charm, I found myself going onto the ice thinking about The Movember Streak and marvelling when I left the ice with yet more points in my pocket.

Pre-training, sitting in the Henke Rink stands, watching a session before ours, I got chatting to Christine Cockerell, of Melbourne Ice and Australian team fame. Do you have any superstitions, I asked? What’s your version of the Lucky Mo? Chris said, while dressing for a game, she must always touch her left shin guard first. ‘If I can’t see what leg it is in my bag, I move my bag around, or I move it with another item till I can see the left shin pad,’ she said. Chris also always wears two pairs of socks over her shin guards, which is a whacky superstition.

Christine Cockerill in action for the Ice. Pic: Tania Chalmers Photography.

Christine Cockerell in action for the Ice. Pic: Tania Chalmers Photography.

I put a call out on the Book of Faces. Hockey players came back with some beauties, like Justin Young who claims kissing his stick on the way to the bench isn’t a superstition, uh uh, no way; or there was the goalie who doesn’t let his skates touch the blue or centre lines, and who kisses the crossbar (Gary Agular). Dan ‘Yoda’ Byrne doesn’t drink liquid during a game, which is pretty strange, but chews gum, while Daniel Tofters insists on smoking a cigarette before donning his gear. ‘100 per cent success rate this season,’ he wrote.

Emma Rogers also made me laugh with: ‘During my first playoffs I would have half a caramel slice about 5 minutes before the game Every game. We made finals and won . I also have a habit of putting a mint in my mouth at the start of every period. And drink next to no water during a game.’ What is it with these superstitious freaks who actively dehydrate during games?

Will Ong said he carries a potato around in his pocket while coaching the Jets but I’m not sure if that’s a superstition or just a desperate cry for help (I love you, Will!) and Trent Stokes’ answer was hilarious: ‘Not very superstitious but there’s a couple things I do to get into the mindset for a game. Always eat the same meal 2 hours out from a game. Always pack my gear in the same order and put my gear on in the same order. Listen to the same music on the way to the game. Always re-tape and wax my stick on game day whether it needs it or not. Try and sit in the same spot in the locker room. Always get to the game 1 hour early. Always start getting dressed 45mins before the game. Always lace my skates, walk and then re-lace. Always touch the goal once during warm ups. Finally, always look at the scoreboard during warm ups and take a second to envision winning and scoring.’

Other than all that, he’s not superstitious at all.

It’s important to note that a true superstition demands that some illogical part of your brain actually believes this will have an effect on whether you’ll be successful or not. Habits, rituals or systems don’t really count. For example, Will Ong and I both apparently share the exact same socks/skates routine: Socks on first, left skate, right skate, left shin pad, right shin pad, left sock tape, right sock tape. I do that every game, including a complicated over-taping routine that Lee Ampfea taught me years ago and I’ve stuck with. But I don’t think it would ruin my game if I didn’t follow the routine, so that’s not a superstition.

Instead, think of the classics: carrying a rabbit’s foot, throwing salt over your shoulder, seeing a black cat … all pretty whacky. The French have a fantastic one where if you give somebody a knife as a gift (and an Opinel always makes for an awesome gift, btw, if you’re still hunting for Christmas), the recipient MUST give the knife-giver some money in return. It can be five cents, that’s fine. But the friendship will be cut unless money changes hands as a gesture of good will, as the knife passes ownership the other way. I’ve been involved in several knife gifts, because of my French extended family, and trust me, that superstition is taken very seriously. I like it.

Many superstitions have a basis in fact, or at least a good story behind them, if you bother to dig, such as walking under a ladder. Back in the day, before fancy gallows were invented, it was common to execute somebody by tying a noose to the top of a ladder, putting the rope around their neck, having the condemned person climb the ladder and then swing the ladder the other way so they were now underneath instead of on top of the ladder. They’d be hanged in that space now between the wall and the ladder; hence that space developing a reputation as a place of bad energy.

Army's Movember style.

Melbourne Ice player and dev league coach Matt Armstrong’s strong Movember style.

The Geelong footy club is known as the Cats (instead of its previous nickname The Pivotonians) because, decades ago, a cat ran onto the ground midway through a home game where Geelong was being badly beaten by Collingwood. After the delay, while somebody caught the cat, Geelong roared back and won. The next week, a kid walked into the local hardware shop where the Geelong captain worked, and handed him a pile of homemade badges in the shape of a cat, one for each player. The Geelong team wore the badges that week and won again … the nickname stuck.

Hockey is full of characters, at every level, from Melbourne summer hackers to the NHL, so it shouldn’t surprise that superstitious thinking is ever-present. In fact, goaltender Ben Scrivens wrote a fantastic piece for the Players Tribune on the topic (thanks to Stephen Maroney for pointing me to it). It’s a fun read. As in, Patrick Roy really chatted to his goalposts? Then again, I shouldn’t be surprised: I once wrote a novel where a character had conversations with his own mouth, so all bets are off, really.

My superstitious Mo Streak made it through the entire month. Every time I stepped onto the ice with that bad boy on my top lip, I got points. It was miraculous, really. Plus I raised a thousand bucks for men’s health, which was amazing. (Thanks to everybody who donated.)

And then December arrived, and I shaved. And the mo was gone.

And I had dev league on December 6.

And – rookie error – I told Tommy Powell and Matt Armstrong about the streak, and about this being my first time out there without the mo.

And the entire game, the three of us, and Big Cat, became consumed on whether I’d go pointless and the superstition would be confirmed.

In the first period I had looks but couldn’t score. In the second period, I screwed up a strong chance, losing the handle on the puck while skating with space through the blue line. Tommy was going nuts. ‘No points, Place! Still no points!’

Then late in the second, I flicked a pass off the boards to Malks, who is a Div 2 forward who attacks like a maniac and has a good shot. He’s a good guy to carry you to points, deserved or not, when you’re trying to shake clear of a superstition.

He flew off down the ice, taking on the defence. I shuffled along behind, on my ageing legs, trying to keep up so I could be there for a potential rebound if his shot was blocked. But it wasn’t. He sank it, inside the post, top left corner. Nothing but net.

Primary assist: N. Place.

So long, mo. It was fun while it lasted.

So long, mo. It was fun while it lasted.

On the opposition bench, Army went nuts. On our bench, Tommy exploded with excitement and laughter. I dove to the ice in a joyous Superman, sliding all the way to the red line.
Malks tentatively approached and tapped me on the helmet, saying, ‘Um, nice pass.’
(Later I asked him if he had any idea why this meaningless dev league goal had a response worthy of a Stanley Cup overtime goal? He said no, he had no clue. So that must have been surreal for him.)

And just like that, my superstition bit the dust. It turns out I can still play hockey without the Mo from Hell.

Although, sure enough, with my beard growing back, I was held pointless against a strong Demons team on Sunday, so normality has truly returned, dammnit.

I had better try not to walk under any ladders between now and Sunday’s last game of the year.

Happy Christmas, everybody.

 

 

 

Shot by shock

Solid advice, at the Icehouse.

Solid advice, at the Icehouse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avenge me, Hank Zetterberg. Avenge me!

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.

Wednesday, I’m in love

A hockey player announced his retirement yesterday. Posted on Facebook that he was planning to hang up the skates. The reaction was predictable: everybody saying noooooooo, what are you thinking? (Except for one guy who said he quit nine years ago and has never looked back, which was interesting.) Seems my Facebook friend has decided the other priorities in life, starting with his heart, take precedence over chasing pucks, which is hard to argue with.

What did Gretsky famously say? Skate to where the puck will be, not where the puck is. Andy’s doing that, as far as I can tell. So good luck, amigo.

I’ve found myself wondering more and more this year how long I’ll stay in my sport. I mean, let’s face it: I took the sport up at 45 years old. I’m still pretty ordinary, at the age of 48. How far can I reasonably expect to go, while the rookies I started with aim for winter competition, then checking hockey, then a jersey with the Melbourne Ice, then the NHL draft … Hampered by a lack of time to train, a lack of skill improvement and a lack of functioning body parts, the frustration of watching others improving, training, getting better, while I flatline, has been overwhelming at times.

But then a Wednesday night like last night comes along and I feel the love for playing just flooding back into my veins.

The awesome Williamsburg cowboy boot shop. New York, 2008.

The awesome Williamsburg cowboy boot shop. New York, 2008.

I headed to the Icehouse for double dev league without my usual partner in icy crime, Big Cat, who had had what could only be described as ‘An Incident’, involving potentially unsteady legs, a spilled drink and a pair of my cowboy boots with slippery soles late on Saturday night. The result was a broken ankle and off the ice for more than a month, at least.

They have a history those cowboy boots. I bought them in a spectacular shop in Williamsburg, just over the Willy B Bridge from Manhattan, quite a few years ago, coincidentally just before Halloween. Two pairs of very authentic, shipped up from Texas or somewhere boots for $150, total. Bargain. They’re not super comfortable and it would now appear they have very little support if you go sideways on them, as Big Cat found out the hard way, but Hell, they have stories.

So last night, I showed up alone, which was strange, and got changed, wondering, as always, if my knee would behave or not, once I started skating? In my last game for the Cherokees, a Halloween special, it started hurting midway through the first shift and I lost all power.

But last night, the knee decided to work and suddenly, bam, I could play again! Two hours of belting up and down the ice, without worrying about whether I had any drive. It was glorious. We were 0-4 down in minutes in the first game, but worked our way back for a 6-4 win. Too much fun. Best of all, I wasn’t muttering or wincing or worrying. I was able to concentrate on other things, like hitting teammates with passes or driving to The Slot. Sometimes, just driving my legs as hard as I could on a chase or a breakaway and feeling the wind through my grill.

The only guy who could have felt happier than me at this point was Darren Helm, the much maligned, injury-prone #43 for the Wings. He finally actually really truly made it back into the line-up for Detroit last weekend, among many speeches from coaches and team staff about how fans couldn’t expect too much, how it would take months for Helm to find his old dangerous speed and  zing, as he returned from a year of back and groin issues. Yeah, yeah, we get it. First shift? Helm gets on a breakaway, burns a D-man in his wake and scores. Oh yeah. Wings win 5-0. Inspiration right there.

Darren Helm, finally back for the Red Wings, shows that he remembers how to skate. Oh, to move like him. Pic: Detroit News.

Darren Helm, finally back for the Red Wings, shows that he remembers how to skate. Oh, to move like him. Pic: Detroit Free Press.

The second hour of Wednesday dev, starting at 10 pm, is more or less a winter player drop-in session now. Numbers are still happily really low, so we were shift-on, shift-off, as we’d been for the 8.45 pm game, which is a thrashing, but the standard is fantastic. It’s one of those hours of hockey where you know half the people on the ice could just tear you a new one if they decided to break a sweat, but they’re nice enough to let you live.

But they play with such skill and flair. The passes are so sharp, and I have to skate like a motherfucker to keep up at times, which is fantastic when I can. Tommy Powell, as ref, helpfully whispering: ‘Get in there, Nicko. Hit someone!’ whenever I skate past, making me laugh. I can’t believe how much I still love Wednesday night dev after several years of turning up. It’s just fun. Coaches like Army, Tommy, Shona and Lliam cracking jokes and enjoying themselves, while we play our hearts out but with no actual stakes. I spent a couple of days beating myself up for a bad mistake in last week’s Cherokees game that cost us a goal. In Dev, you screw up, learn from it, shrug and keep skating.

By the end, as 11 pm clicked over, and my teams had won both games, my broken toe was moving from numb to very sore. My legs were jelly. The tape on my stick was fraying off. I felt destroyed in all the good ways. Damn, it was a great feeling. I couldn’t stop smiling.

And today my legs are heavy. The stairs are difficult, just because I’m tired, not because there’s Something Wrong. I feel like I had a work-out, a real work-out, which has been a rare treat this year. And now I just want to be back on the ice, trying to fly. I remember wise Yoda Byrne, my Interceptors teammate (currently terrorising Newcastle defences) telling me about how he could feel it when he got his skating stride right and found speed. How it wasn’t technical, it was a sense. I want to keep exploring that, with legs that will work with my brain. But won’t be able to before Sunday afternoon at the Oakleigh Ghetto, when we take on Jets Black, a mutation of my old Jets team from last year. It should be fun. I might even be able to move.

That game is three days away but I can’t wait.

Retirement? What, are you crazy?

Maybe, just maybe …

I think maybe, just maybe, my genuine recovery has begun.

Of course, I’m talking about The Saga of the Knee and, trust me, I can’t wait for this blog to stop being about my knee either. But there’s potentially good news: especially when compared to three weeks ago, when I was hobbling as much as ever, barely able to climb all the steep stairs of my new house, and I was wondering if I would ever play hockey again? I think I went for three runs, as per a previous post, before things went horribly, horribly wrong again.

And so I spent weeks off the ice, not running, not doing anything. Hating it. Until my knee felt vaguely decent and I decided that was good enough.

But then I did play hockey, last Wednesday, and was mostly pain free. I went to Sydney, for work, and found myself confronted by endless staircases, everywhere I went. Each time, I would wince, bracing for the pain as my left leg pushed off a step, but the pain didn’t come. Even after Wednesday dev league, where I actually moved my legs, skated, for the first time in a few weeks and pushed my legs hard: no pain.

Still, this has happened before: a few days of reprieve and then wham. Back home, I climbed all the steps (50 from the front door to my bedroom) and the knee twinged. Uh oh, I thought, and then stood all night at a party at the Forum, until 3 am. The next morning? Agony? Nope. Felt ok.

And through all this, I had begun a secret training course; totally fed up with being inactive, of reading all the Facebook posts about how awesome hockey training was, how boxing was going over at Mischa’s, how Next Level Training Institute and Friday game day was fantastic and everybody was hurting and feeling fitter and feeling smashed but in a good way. I was only feeling old and fat.

As I’ve written before, I’d love to be part of the Next Level thing. Oakleigh, in terms of geography, is a bastard of a place for me to get to, and the key nights, Monday and Friday, don’t work for me. So I had to shrug and let Joey Hughes’ on-ice training and Martin Kutek’s off-ice training go. A bunch of my closest hockey friends are Next Level devotees and I have no reason to doubt their enthusiasm, plus I can see the improvement in muscle tone and skating.

I needed an alternative, especially while I couldn’t skate, and it turned up in the form of a big bearded bloke who wears #2 for the Melbourne Ice. Yes, one of my Wednesday coaches, Lliam Webster, mentioned that he was now qualified as a personal trainer but with a different training method, which is preached at Fluid, in Port Melbourne; one of the Melbourne Ice major sponsors.

Fluid is run by a bloke called James who apparently was a decent soccer goalkeeper in his day. It is based on a concept called Functional Movement Systems. In my first outing, James put me through a series of bizarre balance and flexibility tests. None of them hurt. Most just felt clumsy and stupid. I knelt on my bad knee, wincing, and tried to put my right arm in front of my head and my right leg out behind me, seeing how long I could balance for. Not long. James and Lliam squinting and taking notes.

The body is divided into quadrants, with one limb in each, and Fluid scores your achievement on the various tests. At the end, James noted that my left leg wasn’t doing its job and that my left shoulder seemed out of whack. Both direct hits on my ailments. He and Lliam worked out a bunch of “corrective’ exercises to get my body working in ways it has forgotten, hunched over keyboards or taking shortcuts to cover for hamstrings that don’t want to stretch and other such bad habits.

This is one of the whackier parts of FMS training: an idea that when you think you have a tight hamstring, one that won’t stretch beyond a certain point, they can prove that wrong in one session (and did, with me). In fact, you have to get other parts of your body working as well, which releases the hamstring to stretch further. It’s wild when it works and you see instant results.

But the long game is what I’m interested in. After my second session, the pinched nerve in my shoulder stopped hurting and hasn’t really bothered me since.

I’m three sessions in now and the training has intensified. Yesterday, Lliam produced the most fun, most hockey-specific apparatus early. It’s a slippery piece of Perspex (as per the Youtube clip above) with wooden blocks at each end, either 8 feet, 9 feet or 10 feet apart. (Yes, it’s from America.) You put little slippery booties over your runners and it’s just like skating, but completely side-to-side. The trick is to trust your stride, pushing hard with the skating leg and then catching the stride on the wooden block, before pushing off hard for the other end. Bum low, knees bent, chest up … every bad habit on the ice instantly being addressed on this slippery board in Port Melbourne. A few sessions in, I’m up to wearing a weighted vest while skating as hard as I can and then doing cowbell dead lifts between sets. Every skating muscle is killing me today in a good way. My gluts are sore, my hamstrings complaining, my stomach tight.

Apparently Martin at Next Level has one as well, so get on it, peoples. It’s a lot of fun and really works you over. In fact, it’s fantastic. Dev league is tonight and I’m actually sore from an intense workout. Like I haven’t been for a few months.

And guess what? Despite such an intense session, my knee feels fine. All the muscles surrounding it did their job during the dead lifts, worked hard without screaming. Just like the physio wanted a few months ago before things derailed again.

I shouldn’t get too cocky. I might step onto the ice tonight and feel the same pain as two dev league sessions ago.

But then again, I might not.

Next Wednesday, I head overseas for three weeks. When I get back, all roads lead to summer comp, with my new team, the Braves. I want to be fit and able to push it as hard as I can, to prove that I can match it in what looks like a far-too-serious summer recreational league. Mostly, I just want to be active without this now eight-month-old pain.

I think I’m finally on the road to that happening. It feels great. Bring on the night.

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.

Falling in love with shifting sands

I more or less grew up down at Lorne so sand was always a key ingredient in my life. Mostly it was something scorching hot to somehow run across between the grass of the Lorne foreshore and the surf. Or it was the wet, gritty crap somehow finding its way into a thick winter wetsuit, no matter how hard you tried not to have sandy feet, leaving nasty rub-rashes that screeched on the skin in the post-surf shower. Beach sex raised a whole new set of issues that probably shouldn’t be discussed in a family-friendly hockey blog. (Nonetheless, I’m ‘for’ it.)

As a young kid, I adored standing on the edge of those sand cliffs that form on beaches after a strong storm, crumbling the edge of the cliff beneath me, often ending up with my foot and jean cuffs in the river. Oops. These days, it’s all about the hardness and flatness of the sand’s surface, as a petanque pitch.

Petanque - an excellent use of sand.

Petanque – an excellent use of sand.

But none of sand’s crimes or games were enough to give me a strong opinion for or against sand. It just was.

Until a few years ago, when I was sent, on assignment by an airline magazine, to Oodnadatta. (The actual eventual story is here)

Oodnadatta is a South Australian town, so far off the map it is literally not covered by any shire or council. It’s 200 kilometres up a corrugated dirt road from Coober Pedy, which isn’t exactly an urban metropolis. Cowboy towns; literally in Oodnadatta’s case, with giant beef stations all around. It used to be a stop on the Ghan railway and the town’s Intercontinental Hotel remains a colourful but genuinely dangerous drinking venue. A guy was killed in the front bar a few days after we were there.

I’d never really put any thought to Oodnadatta before I got sent there, to cover the annual gymkhana and races. But suddenly, here was my dad and I, bouncing along that endless dirt road in a Toyota “troopie”, 20 litres of water in the back, along with satellite navigation gear and other survival essentials. People die on roads like this.

It’s desert; nothing but desert. To the point that Mission to Mars, a mediocre Brian De Palma film, was shot there at the turn of the millennium, because it was the surface of Earth that Hollywood felt most resembled that alien red planet. Not a single distinguishable feature in any direction to the horizon, for 360 degrees, apart from the road itself.

On the road to Oodnadatta. Or on Mars. Who can tell?

On the road to Oodnadatta. Or on Mars. Who can tell?

Sounds pretty boring, huh? But it wasn’t at all. Because over that trip, I gained an entirely new appreciation for sand. As a kid, we used to holiday in Queensland, where you could literally collect “coloured sand” from beachside cliffs near Noosa (you would then put layers of the colours in old bottles for truly crappy works of art that kicked around our house for decades), but the central Australian sands were different. There were hues and grains and entire hills that shifted in colour and texture as the kilometres ticked over. Just as rainforest might change to grassland. I started seeing the landscape as incredibly diverse and beautiful, when previously I would have seen, well, sand.

If you’re open to it, there’s a guide to life right there, folks, and one I still carry with me. Even when you think life is routine, day-to-day, clock-on/clock-off, it’s almost certainly not. There are shades and angles and dimensions going on, if you only look for them.

I’ve come to realize that one of the most interesting parts of my hockey adventure is how the sands are ever shifting. A week ago, I was signed to do Intermediate class at the Icehouse. Again. For the umpteenth time, just to keep working on my outside edges and transitions, and to get some ice time. In which, I’m sure, I would have found new learnings and experiences (see above).

But then a 10 pm development league slot opened up and so Big Cat and I switched out of Inter, and now I’m doing double dev, 8.45 pm and 10 pm, which means two hours of hard skating against hockey friends, with furious meaningless battle and laughter. I adore Wednesday nights, not least because this week, for the first time ever, I went coast-to-coast, carrying the puck from deep in defence to score a goal, just like Pavel Datsyuk does …

OK, nothing like Pavel Datsyuk does.

But also because Mackquist, my younger son and buried in the remorselessness of Year 12, has stepped up to join Big Cat and I in the first hour of dev league, and Mack did really well in his opening appearance. Even if he was one of the opposition I managed to get past, early in the dash to my goal, and he whacked me as I went by. All I heard as I skated doggedly forward was his voice trailing behind me: “Sorry, Daaaaaad!” which made me grin, even as I skated.

This was all after I’d watched friends go into the winter draft and disappear into winter competition. More changes, even though it’s awesome for them all.

And it was after I’d made my debut for the Nite Owls on Sunday night, which will need to be a blog all on its own, and the day before I was due to see a knee surgeon about the ongoing Battle of Wounded Knee. A joint specialist – one of Richmond footy club’s doctors, actually – had read the MRI summary and told me he thought the meniscal tear I’m carrying was almost certainly going to need an arthroscope surgery. But then Thursday’s surgeon looked at the MRI films and said no, let’s try some more physio and see how you go …

Late night dev league: a cult classic.

Late night dev league: a cult classic. (And this shot is a year or so old. I’m sure my stance would never look like that now. Right? Right?)

I had been depressed about the idea of being booked in fast for surgery and being out of hockey for a while, missing all those Wednesday and Sunday nights, or having to wait for surgery, which meant no running, footy , boxing, etc, until the knee was fixed. Now? Well, actually, I have no idea what the latest developments mean.

Physio, I guess. And try again to kick a footy at The Bang, and see how sore I am … and hope I don’t pile on weight or lose condition before I can get seriously active again.

Or see what next week’s medical appointment says. Or what happens in next week’s dev league hours. Or whether work gets in the way. Or trips out of town, for pleasure or to promote the new book. Or whether I whoop as the bits-and-pieces Detroit Red Wings somehow sneak into the NHL play-offs or sigh as the 21-year streak ends … Or whether Melbourne Ice gets off to a winning start tomorrow …

… or … or …

The sands are never the same. Ever-changing. Which is, I guess, why this blog has survived this long.

What happens next? Your guess is as good as mine.