Kettlebells, rubber bands, Icelandic horse sex and me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bring on the summer.

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.