Mortality, old dogs and hockey players

By Nicko

Fly Dog The Magnificent just briefly woke. She’s curled up on her bed, to the right of my desk. Waking involved staggering to her feet, blinking at me through a tangle of blonde fur, turning in a 360 or two and then settling back down, with a contented groan. Along the way, I could see her dodgy back leg was a little stiff, slightly favoured on the turns. Now, she’s gently snoring.

Sleepy Fly Dog submits to photo, in return for tummy rub.

I can see her ageing, my beautiful pooch. That’s the thing with pets (apart from maybe a turtle or a cockatoo – which, sadly, I can’t condone because they should be wild); they age even faster than us humans. I’ve long believed the most important function of a good cat or dog is to a) give kids unconditional love without judgement or complaint, and b) to die. Because for most of us, facing the death of a loved one is bewildering and painful and, well, just enormous. I know it sounds grim but pets are pre-season training for children, for all the deaths to come.

Four decades into my journey, death and I are acquainted, more than I would like, but then again, where does that line begin or end? Both my parents remain alive, and my sister, my sons and those I would regard as my closest friends, so I really can’t complain.

The thing is, Fly Dog and I are old dogs together, which is a reality I live with yet have trouble accepting. It’s come to mind a lot lately.

Looking back, there have been so many incarnations of me. There was the son of a TV executive who literally grew up on the rehearsal stage of “CountDown“, getting TV into my blood. There was the schoolkid and the weekend dishpig and the teenager trying to surf, endlessly riding a Repco prototype of a single speed bike around the coast, living in imaginary worlds, which much later would turn into novel-writing. There was the runner (cross-country and 800m/1500 m), the schoolboy footy player (wide-running left-footed wing), there was the casual tennis player and golfer and indoor cricketer, and boxer (not competitive), and triathlete (once – fun, though), and scuba diver, and mountain-biker, and … I’ve probably forgotten others along the way.

There was the teenage journalist, and then the international sports reporter, and then the comedy writer, and the TV producer, and the magazine editor, and the film reviewer, and the short film writer and the wannabe novelist and then, shit, the actual novelist, and the media company director, and the film festival founder, and … well others I’ve probably forgotten.

There were friendships that ruled my world then drifted away, or others that have broken for reasons nobody could control. Other friends who have risen or returned. Ones I still hope will come back. Losses, and gains, through the years.

There is the close-up magician (amateur but wildly enthusiastic) and the unlikely scientific research assistant on Project Manta, and the successful husband, then the unsuccessful husband, and the often unsuccessful boyfriend, and now the French language student, and, of course, the hockey player.

The point of this? Only that I was confronted by a significant birthday on the weekend (not mine) and it made me reflect on how much and varied ground I have covered. People say to me, wow, you’ve done so many things, but it could equally be said that I haven’t been able to do what others do: one or two things extremely well.

The latest incarnation: Old Dog Nicko in something resembling flight.

Right now, my obsession is hockey and I finally feel that I’m reaching a level that is competitive at the range of competition available to me. No, I do not think for a second that the journey is close to the end – video of a game on Friday showed my ponderous, straight-legged, inside-edge-heavy skating yet again, goddamnit. I know that I still have a million things to learn.

But mostly, there is the realisation that I can only go so far in hockey. I’m deep into my forties.

The fact is I am not my sons, and I’m jealous as hell.

I am not The Artist Formerly Known as Kittens Place, now known as Big Cat, or his brother, Mackquist von Wookie. Less than two decades each on Earth, barely shaving, and therefore with years, decades, to push themselves, to improve, to see how far up the hockey divisions they can climb.

I do not have their youth and balance and natural energy and strength, to improve and to push and to be fast and to pick up difficult balancing acts on skates, such as transitions. To look back at 35 and laugh about how crap they briefly were as a teenage skater …

Yes, I have some old dog tricks, learned over many years and many sports and many life lessons, and happily I don’t think I’m in bad shape for somebody of my vintage. In fact, I feel better than ever, physically, and bless that fitness and energy every day.

And best of all, the idea of playing Dev League or maybe Summer League forever appeals to me. I don’t need to be a Premier A player to feel good about myself. Being a hard-working, decent player in a Summer League team, playing with my mates? Heaven. Give me that, please, for as long as my legs can stand it.

I just hope I have enough juice in my old dog body to keep learning, to keep improving, to be the best that I can be. Until I’m not. And I can’t anymore.

At which point, I wonder what incarnations are still out there, waiting for me? What, if anything, is my next blog? Nickdoeslawnbowls? Nickdoesarealjob? Nickdoestrugo?

I groan. I lift my weary body, recovering from a weekend of hockey, plus footy on a muddy track and in a stiff breeze, from my chair for a meeting. I need a fourth coffee. But then I think of former Red Wings, like Vladimir Konstantinov, a brilliant defenceman until a limo crash days after the 1997 Stanley Cup win that left him brain-damaged and unable to play again. Or Ruslan Salei, a victim of last year’s Locotomotiv plane crash disaster. RIP. None of us know how long we have got on the ice.

Maybe I’m going okay, after all.

I tickle Fly Dog under her ear and she sleepily lifts a big floppy paw to give greater access to her belly, which I rub. She groans again, an old dog groan, and I smile an old dog smile. She and I have a few trails left to run together, before we’re done.

Worlds await. And deaths. And miracles. And adventures. And friendships. And disappointments. Hopefully lots of hockey.

It’s called living.

I try not to wake Fly Dog as I leave the room.

Old Dog. New tricks.

Tonight, as the rain and the wind rattled an old warehouse in Kensington, I stood in a boxing ring, the canvas floor mercifully clear of the puddles elsewhere in the gym, under a leaky roof.

My hands were taped up and gloved, and I was in a singlet and shorts, sweat flowing freely. I still haven’t forked out for proper boxing shoes, so my trusty but expensive Asics running shoes were being slaughtered in the side-to-side, front-and-back shuffle of sparring.

Sam Visciglio, grey-haired, lean as a whippet, ever-encouraging, with a face that shows a lot of life lived and with flat, concentrating eyes that miss nothing, stepped back, pads relaxed, and said: “See, that hand (the left) is the cocky kid from – where are you from again, Nicko?”

“North Fitzroy,” I panted.

“- from North Fitzroy. It’s loose, it’s the right side of the brain controlling that left. Loose, creative. But this hand (pointing to my right) needs to be at your chin, in front of your jaw. That’s left side of the brain. Defend. It’s controlling the elbow tucked into your side, protecting your ribs.

Sam works on the battered face of one of his fighters. No doubt with calm, soothing words when they’re needed.

“And now, when you land that left, I want you to turn the fist so you punch with these knuckles here (index finger, middle finger). Turn on impact. Back to the chin. Turn on impact. Back to the chin.

“And put that cassette into your head, and hit ‘play’. It’s the cassette marked ‘agile’. I want you thinking that word: ‘agile’, ‘agile’, agile’. Footwork. Keep moving. Do you hear what I’m saying? I want you to reprogram your feet.”

“Sam,” I said. “I’m not sure anybody my age can be termed ‘the cocky kid from Fitzroy North’.”

Sam laughed, patted me lightly on the face as he does to say: “Good job”,  and called another fighter into the ring, while I went back to belting the heavybag. A cassette in my head saying the word, “agile” over and again, with my feet moving accordingly. Right fist planted in front of my jaw as the left jab snaked out. Another lesson absorbed.

I love Sam. He trains fighters alongside my mate, Mischa Merz, Australia’s very own queen of the square ring, and an old journo mate of mine when she’s not being hit, hitting people or training people to hit and not be hit.

I learn so much from these two. All that stuff about how old dogs can’t be taught new tricks? It’s not true. For starters, since Fly Dog the Magnificent did her Achilles tendon on Christmas Day (hello $3000 worth of surgery and vet bills), she’s mostly learned to obey my: “Slow! Fly, slow!” command, and she only wants to chase balls like she used to every hour or so, instead of every minute.

Likewise, the old dog that is her owner is learning new things all the time. On Mondays, Mischa and Sam teach me fundamentals that I really should know after so many years of dabbling in hitting heavy bags, floor-to-ceiling bags and training pads with endless jabs, hooks and bodyshots.

Fly Dog The Magnificent, as she spends more of her time these days, post injury: being driven around.

But no, there’s always so  much more to learn, so many bad habits to lose. Tonight, with the crazy Melbourne weather, only the hardcore trainers were there. And me. A new guy, Lee, from England is an ex-amateur fighter and knows his stuff. Was trying to punch holes in the heavy bag as he falls back in love with the sport. When we had to spar, trading body shots, practicing our defence, he was great in teaching me how to be ready to attack but able to close the gates of my elbows as required, to ward off shots to my stomach, elbows ready to defend kidney attacks.

Learn, learn, learn.

And that’s before I get to Wednesday hockey and another Intermediate Class then Dev League session with Lliam and Army at the Icehouse.

This blog has been going for more than 100 posts and I still can’t quite convey how much I learn in every session, how the improvement keeps coming. Jason Baclig, from the Melbourne Ice, said last week – when I mentioned my funk, and feeling like my improvement had flat-lined – that there comes a time where improvement is incremental, so you don’t get the big, obvious breakthroughs on a weekly basis. The solution is, of course, to keep working, and I threw myself into last week’s class and Dev League like a crazy person,  with the support and urging of Lliam, Army and my classmates/teammates. Funk, be gone.

Tonight, Sam gave me another tool for the same job. “Agility,” he said. “The perfect footwork for different punches. Imagine yourself doing it, Nicko. Imagine that you can do it. Of course, you can’t. You have to learn, but pretend you can, think you can. Agility. Believe you know how to, and work from there.”

It’s become a running joke among some of my Dev League peers that I remain a Dev League Virgin, as in: I haven’t scored a goal yet. Last week, I was agonizingly close at least once. But no goals yet.

Maybe I’ll carry Sam’s voice onto the ice this week. Believe you score goals, Nicko. Tell yourself that you’re a guy who can put it in the net. Work from there.

If nothing else, I’ll keep my L-Plates proudly on display. Talking to a long-time friend last week, we warily eyed the future; what it would be like to truly become old men. Our solution? Don’t stop learning. Don’t stop setting challenges. God knows, hockey, and boxing, do that in spades.

Nicklas Lidstrom: will be oh so missed! Pic: Detroit News


1. It was in August last year that that I wrote what turned out to be a contentious blog about the state of the Blue Tongues’ rink at the Gold Coast, after attending a game there to watch the Melbourne Ice. Blue Tongues fans went briefly nuts (which resulted in great readership numbers for the blog – the biggest I had until, umm, the entire city of Detroit decided to visit one day.) Anyway, the Ice just went north again and Sunday’s game had to be called off because of problems with the same rink’s ice or boards or both. I will say again what I tried to say in last year’s blog: I am in awe of the Blue Tongues’ players, that they are so good and have such a great team, while training and playing in Australian hockey’s equivalent of third-world facilities, when put up against the Olympic training-standard glory of the Icehouse. Nothing against the people who run that facility, either: how fucking tough a job is that? Maintaining and running an ice rink on the Gold Coast. Like running an outdoor café in the Antarctic. I hope, for the Blue Tongues’ sake, they can stay in the competition and with a decent rink.

2. So long, Nicklas Lidstrom and thank you for the memories. The Wings’ captain and spiritual leader has called it a day, and celebrated by being given a standing ovation at a Detroit Tigers baseball game, being hailed at a Red Hot Chilli Peppers concert and taking a full page advert out in the local papers to thank fans for all their love over the two decades of his career. Yes, he’s that classy. I only came in on the last few years of the magnificent Swedish defender’s career with Detroit but I fully understand why his teammates’ nickname for him was/is: “The Perfect Human”. Four Stanley Cups, seven-times best defender in the NHL (and in the top three almost every other year), a brilliant captain, cool, calculating, composed and a natural leader like few I’ve seen before on the ice, and possessing a slapshot from the blue line that would put a hole in an armoured tank. I am SO glad that Will, Mack and I got to see Lidstrom play in the flesh last year during our epic trip. (And that I bought a signed No. 5 jersey that is now a collector’s item, and yes, I wear it. To hell with re-sale value.)

The fact that Lidstrom has creakily called a halt to his amazing career at 42 years of age must surely sound some kind of warning bells for a 47-year-old second-year rookie, I’m sure, but I’m choosing not to put too much thought into that. Enjoy retirement, TPH. Man, the Wings are going to look different in 2012-13. As coach Mike Babcock said at the Lidstrom presser: “Embrace change.”

Cyclops on Ice, and other lessons

Things I have learned over the past 24 hours:

If you have a strange incident where your left eye goes totally nuts, waters profusely, then becomes blurry and scratchy for hours, for unknown reasons, this is an excellent time to go skating in a big, unruly General Skate crowd, to test how good your one-eyed-reaction-skating is under pressure.

If you’re not at Mamasita, the brilliant Mexican restaurant tucked away at the top of Collins Street, but arrogant enough not to take bookings, by 6.15 pm, you either have to suck it up in a long queue down the street, or not.

“Not” can be a good option.

Pelligrini’s back room remains a lot of fun and with excellent pasta, if the Italian Waiter’s Club is also full (What’s going on with all the CBD dining, peoples? It’s early January?)

Pelligrini's, Bourke St. Sit out the back.

Falling backwards, mid-pivot on your wrong side, hurts as much as it ever did.

My wrists remain unthrilled with landing hard on ice. But thankfully are strong enough to escape only mildly strained.

Blood & Sand has definitely moved into First Place in the Nicko Place List of Excellent Cocktails. It’s Scotch whisky-based, with blood orange mixed in, and I’ve had it at two venues now (CollingwoodWorld and Lily Black’s) and both were awesome. (The Flaming Lamborghini remains my popular favourite for potentially dying while attempting to drink a cocktail for the entertainment of a crowd).

The Latin for “I will be on my portable communication device” is “Ego meum consilium Donec vulputate“.

Some people don’t like General Skating sessions when there are seemingly hundreds of kids on the ice, all strapped into rental skates and yellow bibs, with no idea of how to skate or which direction to even attempt to go. Me? I love it … working on your tight turns can be helped by weaving through witches hats, right? Well, imagine how good for your on-ice reflexes are metre-high witches hats that move, flail their arms, lurch in random directions and often splatter onto the ice right in front of you. Nothing but fun.

Non-skating witches hats.

My dog has a much higher pain threshold than I do. Her stoic acceptance of a Big Achilles has been an inspiration.

Icehouse staff who stand at the goalline, looking terminally bored, while learner skaters go in all directions, as against the one direction, and then make a point of coming over to growl at you for leaving the ice by the gate nearest the lockers, instead of the gate with 600 people trying to squeeze through? … Well, let’s just say you’ve got a great career as a petty bureaucrat coming up, dude.

Bike couriers have an entire world and culture that I was unaware of, but is actually cool in many ways.I now just have to work out how to weave this knowledge into my new novel.

My pivots and hockey stops are definitely coming along, but I have – dammnit! – somehow become that thing I didn’t want to be: a one-way turner. Turning left, right foot in front, hockey-stops and pivots are getting there. Going the other way? Not so good. Yet I feel like I’ve worked on both equally and tirelessly. How did this happen? Sigh. More ice will be eaten before this one is done.

I need to get to more Come & Try and Stick & Puck sessions so I can skate in full gear and have less fear of damage. Bowing to peer group

The Blood & Sand cocktail. Photo by me. Arty, huh?

pressure, and the fact I don’t actually fall very often any more and can’t remember when I last whacked my head, I’m now hitting General Skates in only elbow pads and hockey gloves (gotta write a novel by October = can’t afford a broken arm just now; uncool fashion or not). But to really step up pivots, and to attempt hockey stops at speed, I’m going to need to have the full armour, so when I splatter, it’s the gear that takes the brunt. Maybe I should sell tickets? Hand out Blood & Sands while the crowd watches me fall? This could be an earner …

The Icehouse hasn’t scheduled anywhere near enough classes for First Term this year, and is squeezing all of it into a Wednesday night. I’m going to have to fight harder than for Falls or Big Day Out tickets, just to get a berth in Intermediate and Dev League. You’d swear they don’t want this sport to take off the way it is. Which would mean I’d need to instead write a blog about Tennis. Nobody wants that. Least of all, me.

Things you might not know about hockey …

1. Hockey stick tape is a perfect way to strap on a plastic bag to protect plaster on a wounded dog’s leg, when storms sweep into town as you’re about to go to work.

Fly Dog shows off quality stick-tape veterinary work.

Kittens and I travelled bravely to the far outskirts of Chicago to buy hockey gear, back in October, and went nuts on the multi-coloured tape, buying red, green, blue and yellow, because our hockey styling simply can’t be constrained in the Icehouse’s options of black tape, or white (and now pink).

Fly Dog the Wounded But Still Magnificent (snapped Achilles tendon on Christmas day; at least six weeks off the ice) thinks the leg looks cool. Everybody’s happy.

 2. Hockey players are dumb.

As it stands, seven members of the Detroit Red Wings roster have suffered serious facial injuries this year, mostly from pucks hitting them in the unprotected face.

There have been plenty of facial stitches, but also a broken cheekbone to defenceman Ian White and a broken jaw to Patrick Eaves, who, at last report, was still sipping food through a straw, his entire jaw wired shut.

The latest victim is an 18-year-old prospect, Ryan Spoule, who took a deflected puck to the face in an Ontario Hockey League game and has now had plates inserted into his jaw.

And yet pretty much every NHL player, apart from the goalies, continues to play without a Perspex or wire face guard. The most they’ll wear is a small Perspex visor vaguely covering their eyes and there’s even debate about that, because, you know, it’s kind of sissy. (Although at least things have moved on from the bad old – read, fucking crazy – days where even goalies didn’t have face guards, back when the world was in black and white.)

Back in the day: goalies with no face protection.

Hear me say, here and now, that I will not be seen in a game situation without a full face mask. I’m far too pretty to take a rubber puck to the face at speed, and anyway, eating through a straw for weeks would get in the way of my biscuit consumption.

3. The Winter Classic has a precedent

Over the past few years, the NHL’s signature Winter Classic game – where two top teams play an official match outdoors, usually at a baseball stadium (The Wings kicked the Blackhawks at Wrigley Field a few years ago: oh yeah!) is gaining momentum every year, with huge coverage of the Rangers victory over the Flyers yesterday.

But there is a precedent to this whole thing. Apparently, in February, 1954, the Detroit Red Wings played an exhibition match outdoors against inmates from the Marquette Branch prison. I shit you not. Red Wings v Jailbirds.

So how did that go? The Wings led 18-0 at the end of the first period and graciously everybody forgot to keep an ongoing score for the remaining two periods.

Which makes the prisoners luckier than Australia’s first ever team to contest the Winter Olympics, back in 1960. Our heroes scored nine goals in the Olympic tournament, at Squaw Valley. They conceded 83 goals in six games. When five rings are involved, everybody keeps score.

4. The Hockey Gods are bastards

Let it be known that the Red Wings have not lost a single game at home since Will, Mack and I sat through three straight losses at the Joe, in late October/early November. The team has now won 12 straight games at home, raining goals. During the stretch where we watched them stink things up, they averaged one goal per game.