The door in the jungle

The adventurer’s eyes widened as he spied what looked like a door. Could this really be it? Had he found it against all the odds, after all this time? His heart began to beat in his chest. His breathing quickened. He struggled to contain his excitement, to remain calm.

The adventurer hacked away at the jungle between him and the door, fighting to get closer.

The wilds of Fitzroy North

The wilds of Fitzroy North

Until finally, there it was, right in front of him. Ageing, paint peeling, almost buried in dust and cobwebs, the door’s handle stiff and resistant after how long without human touch?

He used the machete to sweep aside the cobwebs, used some leaves to clear dust. Then took a deep breath, used all his might to creak the handle to vertical, and then yanked. The door opened.

And there it was.

His hockey gear. Resting against the only bag used less over the last 15 weeks, his scuba diving gear.

The adventurer dragged the bag out of the back shed, and wincing, expecting the worst, opened the zip.

And was relieved to find that the hockey smell wasn’t bad at all. That last big airing, after the Cherokees’ lost final, had done the job.

The dormant bags of adventure.

The dormant bags of adventure.

The adventurer flexed his dodgy calf, which had twanged out while running to receive a handball the previous Friday. The adventurer coming off several weeks in a row of gym, boxing, football twice a week and now ready to step back onto the ice. Having been to a few Melbourne Ice games lately, against the Sydney Bears and Newcastle on Saturday. Feeling the anticipation as the nation’s best players swirled and smashed their way around the Henke Rink at Icy O’Briens. Exchanging looks with Big Cat, knowing it was only three more sleeps until they finally stepped back onto that same ice.

Tuesday 6.45 pm scrimmage, a star-studded cast of players from all levels of competitive hockey. Big hellos to the coaches, who he hadn’t seen in months. Big hellos to the players. Big enjoyment of the locker room banter, and the long, complicated donning of the armour, skates and sock tape. That memory jog to take off the skate-guards before stepping onto the ice surface.

The moment of nervous fear as he jumped the boards for warm-up, and didn’t land flat on his face. More moments of uncertainty, gingerly testing hockey stops and turns, his calf holding, his unpractised skating technique mostly holding.

The Ice and Bears get acquainted on Henke Rink. Pic: Nicko

The Ice and Bears get acquainted on Henke Rink. Pic: Nicko

And then playing his first hour of hockey for months and months. Not setting the world on fire, only landing a few good passes, only having a few not-particularly-threatening shots on goal. Falling a few times, taking what sometimes felt like minutes to complete a fast turn , feeling two steps too slow.

But back. Skating. Managing a breakaway or two. Remembering. And smiling.

Laughing and light, on the drive home with Big Cat, who had been just as rusty but looked better and better as the hour progressed.

Hockey players once more.

And it felt good.

 

The Bears: out-numbered, beaten up and beaten

I managed to get along to an AIHL game yesterday: Melbourne Ice versus the Sydney Bears at the Icehouse, on a Sunday afternoon. Having not been training at all (see previous 4000 whinge-posts about my left knee), or seeing the hockey gang on Wednesdays at Dev League, I feel like I’ve been very removed from my usual icy world, so it was nice to sit in the stands at the Henke and say howdy to everybody, while cheering Lliam, Army, Baxy, Tommy and the rest of the Ice team.

Framnk and Schlamp go at it at the Icehouse. Pic courtesy of: MosquitoByte - thanks, Andrew Mercieca!

Frank and Schlamp go at it at the Icehouse. Pic courtesy of: MosquitoByte – thanks, Andrew Mercieca!

It was a long afternoon for the poor Bears, who were coming off six straight losses and had to face the three-time champions. There’s a match report here (yes, the Melbourne Ice have official match reports now!) but I was struck by two things, watching the game.

The first is just the sheer continuing strangeness, in modern day sport, that hockey remains a contest where genuine fistfights can and do occur. I know I’ve written about this before but when you’re watching a fight in real time, it can still strike you that it is sort of bizarre. Yesterday it happened early in the third period, as Ice import Chris Frank and Bear Michael Schlamp dropped the gloves and were both thrown out of the game, but not before Frank had won the fight and waved cheerily to the crowd in celebration while being led to the bench and the locker-room.

For hockey fans, this was no big thing. Neither player appeared particularly hurt and in the understood arena of contact hockey, such a fight is not a particularly rare thing or considered outrageous at any level. This wasn’t like Vinnie Hughes’ ugly hunt down of an opposition player last year. This was just a ‘you-want-to-go?…ok!’ scuffle.

But if you zoom back to take a wider sporting view, how many sports allow a player to genuinely beat somebody up without serious consequence or alarm?

It happened a few weeks ago in a rugby league State of Origin match, leading to mixed reactions (old skool: ‘he was flying the flag, being awesome, being a tough guy’ and new world: WTF?) as eloquently captured and discussed by a friend of mine from the Bang, Ned Manning.

But it hardly ever happens in AFL any more and would be seen as dinosaur behavior if it did. Soccer, basketball, netball, tennis, golf, triathlon, Trugo? Nope. Officially, fights aren’t encouraged or particularly condoned in Australian hockey – in fact, as somebody pointed out in the stands yesterday, it’s really only the NHL that still casually allows fights – but if one does take off, the refs still stand back until somebody hits the ice. In summer league, where I play, a fight like yesterday’s would mean you are probably out for the season, which is good for encouraging kids to take up the sport. But I don’t think many people at the game yesterday had an issue with Frank and Schlamp testing one another out. in fact, most of the crowd loved it.

I know people who won’t go to hockey or take an interest because of the violence of it, or the perceived violence of it. Yet stamping out that violence, even a stoush like Frank-Schlamp – would remove a key component of the sport. Toughness is an essential part of this level of the game. It’s not just fisticuffs either. Hulking Ice defender Todd Graham twice put the same Bears player, the much smaller Silvan Maeder, into the boards yesterday and it would be fair to say Maeder did not appear to enjoy it. He stayed down, face first on the ice, for quite a while after the first hit (which was actually just Graham guiding him gradually into the glass with his arse) and shook his head, either in pain or frustration, after the much harder second hit.

But he copped them both and was still slugging it out at the end, for which I admired him.

The second element where hockey is weird is in participation numbers. How many other sports don’t care if one team starts a game with dramatically more players than the opposition?

The many Ice players still standing at the end of the game salute the crowd.

Some of the many Ice players still standing at the end of the game salute the crowd.

In yesterday’s game, as far as I could count (which isn’t well because, let’s face it, I’m a hockey player), the Bears started with only 12 players, including one goalie. The Ice had at least 18 players, including Dahlen Phillips between the pipes, and probably a second goalie dressed on the bench, who I didn’t happen to notice.

So the Ice had several lines of forwards to run, while the Bears were almost shift-on, shift-off. And it got worse when Schlamp was ejected, as noted, and so was another Bear, Spencer Austin, for the almost farcically undisciplined acts of tripping an Ice player with his stick while being sent to the box, and then swatting the puck down the ice for a further misdemeanor.

Austin tried to regain some tough-guy credits by breaking a stick on the bench boards on his way out but nobody was buying it; especially, I’d imagine, the other Bears. In fact, Holy crap, I wouldn’t have wanted to be Austin when his exhausted teammates finally staggered back into the rooms at the end of the period/game. When he got thrown out for being a dick, the Ice was narrowly holding off the gutsy Bears, 4-3, but now, two men down (compared to the Ice only losing Frank and having plenty of cover), the Bears tired dramatically in the last 10 minutes to lose 7-3.

In my Sunday Nite Owls comp and in summer league, this can happen, where one team barely has enough skaters to legally compete while the other team has up to four full lines of forwards and three lines of D.

It’s very strange and yet another test of your confidence and skill and fitness, if you happen to be on the team with less bodies. I secretly love it when that happens; digging deep, deep and deeper, to keep my shaking legs moving and a cool head, against a larger army.

It’s just another way that hockey is challenging and bizarre and entertaining and uncertain. Long may it stay that way, as long as I don’t find myself bare-knuckle shaping up to Chris Frank. He’s quite a big guy.

The end of summer

Interceptors get ready, before our final game.

Interceptors get ready, before our final game.

Well, somebody had to say it. And, of course, guess who it was.

It was last night, Sunday evening, in the middle of a long weekend. About 6.30 pm, in the Ghetto, which is what we fondly call the Oakleigh ice rink. Yet again, the mighty Interceptors had been handed the tiny, claustrophobic changing room 4, where our bags end up on top of one another because it’s so crowded and we have to take turns sitting on the tiny wooden benches to lace our skates. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

I looked around the room at my team and felt a wave of emotion. “Aw, Nicko’s getting all mushy,” said Alex, true to form, and I shrugged and laughed but said, yeah. Actually. I am.

“I just want us all to take a moment to consider that this team will never play together again,” I said to the ‘Ceptors. And it was true. Whatever future is to unfold, it will never see that group of players combine again.

Given how close we have become as a team, as a little band of warriors, this was no small thing.

At least one player, Savv, is trying his luck in the winter league draft (if you play winter, you can’t play summer) and he’s so good there’s no way he won’t be snapped up. Dan ‘Yoda’ Byrne, a spiritual leader and my fellow alternate captain, is moving to Newcastle with his family in a month. So that’s two. I have no doubt that by the time we have to start actually committing to teams for next summer’s competition, other players will have been injured, or drifted away from the sport, or decided to play with friends in other teams or want more ice time than you get in our over-crowded line-up, or any of the other many reasons why they might not don the Interceptor jersey for the 2013-14 campaign. As Big Cat and I drove out to Oakleigh, through Melbourne’s endless summer heat, I pondered if we would even ever play as teammates again, beyond social matches and scrimmages?

The Ceptors, after one of our games this summer.

The Ceptors, after one of our games this summer.

I have no idea if Big Cat or the rest of the team was as aware of this as I was last night. My long career as a journo, covering team sports, had seen me observe this moment over and over again. Every AFL season, I watch Richmond’s last game and feel that slight sadness, that this team of young men, mates playing in front of 80,000 people at the MCG, having the time of their fucking lives, will never form as a unit again. Last year, the point was tragically underlined when John McCarthy, a player from that last Richmond v Port Adelaide game – a scrappy, unlikely draw at the MCG – died in mysterious circumstances on the Power’s end-of-season trip to Las Vegas a couple of weeks later.

Even away from a freak accident like that, players come and go. The Melbourne Ice team that won the famous three-peat grand final last year has lost several players (imports Matt Korthuis and Doug Wilson Jnr, for starters) and will gain new faces this season. The Sydney Swans team that won the flag in that classic against Hawthorn is already changed for a new season. With the Red Wings, I don’t have this same sense of ownership of a team as a whole because players can be and are traded in and out even mid-season. It’s a different vibe, when players are thrown out of and onto the bus as it rolls along. In football and local hockey, this is not the case, and I prefer our sporting model to the NHL. Each year, I find myself watching Round 22, aware that Tiger rookies and players I have invested in, urged on and despaired over, wanted to be great and wondered if they’ll make it, will receive that dreaded call into the footy manager’s office a few days after the last game, to be told they’re out. Or will retire. Or, their body just can’t go again. Something like a quarter of the listed 700 AFL players across all clubs fall out of the sport and are replaced each year.

Will it be the same in ice hockey, Summer League Rec D? With the Ceptors, the reality is that we will move in directions over the next six months, and it was important to acknowledge it before we hit the ice. Just enjoy this moment where our team – such a close, happy, enthusiastic, bonded team – would strap on our armour for one last tilt.

Against the league’s top side, and with the Fighters’ Nate Pedretti, one of the better goalies in the league, filling in. What could go wrong?

Actually, for our formidable opponents, the Wolverines, pretty much everything. A bunch of their players didn’t show up (far too much room to spread out in their palatial changing room, I’d imagine) and eventually they were forced to forfeit because they couldn’t come up with the bare minimum number of players to compete, under IHV rules. The Interceptors won on a forfeit, giving us a final 8-7 win-loss record for the season and solidifying us in seventh place in the league; almost exactly where I reckon we should sit and a very decent effort for our first season. Hardly any of us had played truly competitive hockey before this summer, so we held up well, I reckon. Especially for a team that barely got to train together because of scheduling gremlins.

This sounds selfish but the forfeit turned out to be a nice way to end the season. If it had been an official match, I think the Wolverines would have dismantled us – even without refs and playing a friendly scrimmage (because, shit, we were all there and armoured up and on the ice, so why not?) they scored freely and probably beat us about 10-3, but nobody really kept count. I didn’t anyway. Maybe Jay, our goalie, knows how many times he faced down their rampaging No. 5 on a solo breakaway and with our defence trailing behind him. Sorry, Jay.

Period break, versus the Fighters last week.

Period break, versus the Fighters last week.

On the whole, the unofficial nature of the match took all the competitive pressure off. We could just play as a team one last time for fun, and enjoying the ice time. A trademark Oakleigh fog began to settle over the third period as the heat outside the shed battled the coldness of the slushy ice.

I managed to score our third goal and it was a classic example of how an unofficial scrimmage differs from a genuine match.

A puck spilled to the left hand side of Nate, their goalie. I was the first player there (I know, right!) and actually had time to think of how I would usually handle this situation. I think my backhand is serviceable and so I would normally use it to sweep the puck back behind my left leg to the slot, hoping an Interceptor was crashing the net to slot home the blind pass.

This is awesome if it works, but it does also mean you’re passing blind to centre ice, which is a no-no, if the defence can then sweep away up the centre lane.

This time, I had that fraction of a second to devise a different plan. I braked hard, stopping the puck, and sliding my body past it as I hockey-stopped to finish with the puck on my forehand. No real gap between the near goalpost and Nate’s left pad, but what the Hell. I shot, and somehow found that zone of uncertainty. I’m not even sure if it was that first shot that went in, squeezing into that fragment of a gap. I followed the puck and it was lying between Nate’s legs as he looked for it. I poked it into the net, to make sure of the goal.

Like I said, in a genuine game, with high stakes and refs and the Wolverines fielding a less tired, more complete team, maybe I wouldn’t have had the window for all of that to occur? Maybe I would have arrived at that puck under intense defensive pressure and swiped at it, backhand and blind, while I could? Who can say.

As it is, I finished the season with one officially recorded goal, but actually three goals in summer league play, which I’m happy with, given I started the season genuinely wondering if I would score even once. I got a few assists, I improved a lot in my game play, my positioning and my sheer skating. I loved being an AC of my team and I loved feeling part of a genuine team, something I haven’t experienced – apart from the ragtag brotherhood that is The Bang footy – for a long time. Deep in my forties, I had every right to think I would never feel that team spirit again.

High-fiving the bench: we Interceptors have always been good at celebrating goals.

High-fiving the bench: we Interceptors have always been good at celebrating goals.

On Facebook, after the game, Interceptors poured out their emotion at the season being over, at the reality that we won’t assemble as a team, apart from at the presentation night in a few weeks. A bunch of us are carrying knees or other ailments. Big Cat and I hung our black bowties, celebrating Charlie Srour, in safe places until next season.Then went out drinking with the hockey crowd.

I woke late, on a public holiday Monday, watched the fitful Red Wings lurch to a shoot-out loss against the Blue jackets, cursed some, staggered out of bed, hung out my armour in the heat and rode my bike down to Brunswick Street cafes for coffee and over-priced eggs.

In what’s left of this afternoon, I’ll go to the gym, maybe hit the Fitzroy Back Beach (pool), catch a movie, think again about how I organize that MRI for my knee, and then start to tune in on Wednesday night. That’s dev league at the Icehouse or, as I like to call it, the Happy Scrimmage Club, with Army, Tommy and Lliam.

A few ‘Ceptors will be out there, wearing red or black, happily beating each other up. Maybe there’ll be a Wolverine, maybe some Ice Wolves, Fighters, TigerSharks, Braves, Sharks, Demons, Devils and Jets. Possibly even a Nite Owl. I can’t keep exact track of who played for which teams in summer league. And now, apart from those who made the play-offs, it really doesn’t matter.

We’re all the one band of brothers and sisters.

We’ll laugh and collide and skate and shoot and curse and whinge and chase that puck all over the Henke Rink, like we do every Wednesday.

Only 50 hours to wait.

After the game: The original Interceptors team members have left the building, forever.

And we’re gone.

Sunday on my mind

So, on Sunday, at 4.15 pm, I officially become a hockey player. I know I’ve argued for 20 months or so that I’m a player but I’ve been a student until now.

On Sunday, I pull on a purple Jets jersey, as Alternate Captain of the Interceptors team, against an Ice Wolves team of mostly strangers at Oakleigh, in Melbourne’s Summer Recreation League, Div 4; the lowest level of competitive hockey for championship points in town.

On Tuesday night, I hung laps at the Icehouse in a happily not-very-crowded general skate. As usual, my skating was so-so. I was gliding gentle outside edge to gentle outside edge, just feeling them. Occasionally I’d head into the centre circle and work on my backward crossovers, batting away other skaters who came to offer the inevitable and necessary advice. Not up for a barrage of well-meaning advice this night. Feeling the same frustrations that have been brewing to the surface over the past few weeks. Noticing the distinct lack of other 40-something rookies wobbling around this ice, instead of being at home with loved ones, nestled in front of a television, on a week night. Heroic or delusional, Place? Such a fine line.

The Power-Hough gals model the new Jets jersey.

Tuesday didn’t solve anything and on Wednesday, back on the Bradbury Rink but now in full hockey gear, warming up for 10 pm development league, I started to think about Sunday. My first official match as a player. A working scoreboard, a league ladder, official hockey rules, everybody needing matching socks, genuine referees who weren’t Melbourne Ice players laughing: Lliam in dev league later that night, after calling a big guy, Charles, for elbowing a little guy, Geoff, in the head: “(Laughter) I’m sorry. I know you didn’t mean it, but I have to call it. You’re just so big and he’s so small. That’s hilarious. I’m sorry … Penalty. Hahahaha.” This is the sort of ref call that’s unlikely on Sunday, where a player actually gets sent to the box instead of awarding a penalty shot for goalie practice in a game where the score is irrelevant.

Plus, we Spitfires face the unknown of whether we’re going to be competitive against other teams, like the Ice Wolves, Demons and Champs.

A lot to think about but then on Wednesday, pre-Dev League, in my gear, on the Bradbury ice, everything suddenly became clear to me; all anxiety dissolved. Just like that.

I thought: You know what, Nicko? Your skating is what it is. It’s actually not terrible (despite all the angst on this blog); you just can’t pull off moves that would make you better. But you’re not going to master transitions or Kutek-level outside edge C-cuts before Sunday. It’s done. And you are a 47-year-old rookie with only limited time to master this sport, among (in no particular order) running a business, falling in love, raising kids, writing novels, scuba diving, having a social life, enjoying street art, books, films, footy, art, waves, sky, whisky. You can only be so good, giving hockey the windows you do, which is as much as you can. And you are giving away 20 or more years to most of these teammates and opponents, but screw that, who cares? You have other strengths.

As I cruised, outside edge to outside edge, my mind travelled back to Lliam Webster’s sage advice when I was in that performance funk, months ago. “When you’re in a funk, concentrate on what you do well. Don’t worry about all the things you can’t do, or think you suck at. Just do the things you do well and the rest will follow.”

Not even realizing at the time, not until I saw the Ice 3-Peat doco, which talked about Lliam’s early season scoring drought, just how much he was also living that reality when he spoke to me.

And finally, as 10 pm ticked closer, as Big Cat Place and the rest of the preceding Intermediate class cleared the Henke Rink and the goalies shoved the goals to the side so the Zamboni could chug its way onto the surface, I felt strangely calm. Shit, I’m going to play recreational  league. We’re all going to go as hard as we can; try our guts out; hurt if we lose; go nuts if we win, but it’s Division 4, it’s the lowest rung of being a competitive player. Just do what you do well, love being in a team, equally share the ice time between the guns and the strugglers, and let the rest happen.

TigerShark and 11.15 pm dev league mate Brendan Parsons seems less stressed about the looming Summer League comp than some.

10 pm arrived and I stepped onto the ice with a clear mind and had my best game in a long time. Didn’t try to skate at warp 10 speeds, instead slowed slightly and moved better, all while controlling and using the puck, doing the slice-through-traffic passes that seem to be my specialty. Was unlucky not to score a few times. Had so much fun that Big Cat and I thought ‘To Hell with Thursday and real world commitments” and stayed around for the 11.15 game, finally getting off the ice at 12.15 am, in bed an hour later, wide awake. I played defence, alongside Wunders, which was a learning experience but just as enjoyable. Even if I did give away a penalty by tangling my stick in Aimee Hough’s legs and headbutting her into the boards. Turns out that’s a penalty …

My teammates good-naturedly gave it to me as I skated sheepishly back to the bench to watch her penalty shot (she missed). I shrugged. Sorry, all … just clumsy.

An NHL player wouldn’t have given away that penalty.

I did.

… Expectations versus Realities.

All leading into Sunday …

This player, this ever-improving, ever-striving rookie will continue to make mistakes. But will also occasionally position himself well, use hand-eye and innate hockey sense to steal pucks and even stone-cold his more talented son, playing for the other team in the 11.15 game, every now and then on a forward rush; will no doubt be part of an Interceptors team that comes up against a more seasoned, experienced unit this season and gets belted, or has that moment when everything clicks as a team and we win large and feel like world beaters.

Play-offs? Maybe. Or not.

It’s all to come and I’m in for the ride; warts and all, age and all, faults and all, strengths and learnings and wisdoms and laughter and friends and all.

Can’t wait. Roll on, Sunday. I’m good to go.

A day is a long time in skating

By Nicko

On Wednesday night, on the Henke rink, in Dev League, I had one of those tiny moments that can give you hope on a crazy quest – like trying to become a hockey player in your forties.

Wayne McBride is a very decent player, despite the remorseless shit we throw at one another, and he took off on a breakaway, with another good skater, Nicole Cliff, alongside him.

Wayne was hammering up the boards but here came the unlikely figure of Nicko Place, new stride flying, to somehow get past Nicole and close Wayne down against the boards as he flew through the blue line.

For every night like this …

Wow, I thought, as I staggered to the bench moments later. Who knew I could backcheck, and against quality players?

The only reason I’m bragging about this is because it was a rare moment of skating proficiency, and even more so given how I remorselessly sucked at Oakleigh 23 hours later. We had our first team training for the Spitfires; both the Fighters and Interceptor teams on the ice – well, about half of our Interceptor team thanks to the lurgy sweeping around Melbourne, and a few players being away at the snow or on other adventures.

I was terrible; to the point that I felt embarrassed in front of the coaches of the night, Next Level’s Martin Kutek and Tony Theobald. My crossovers were rudimentary, my transitions clumsy, my positioning and thinking sluggish. What was wrong with me?

Those guys have put time and energy into me on several Friday nights and now I show up, as acting captain of the Interceptors, no less, barely able to remain vertical on my skates.

I’m exaggerating, but not much. I’ve felt bad that Friday nights have proven, as I feared, to be a close to impossible night for me, so I haven’t been able to take advantage of the generous efforts of Joey Hughes, Martin, Tony and Scott Corbett to push my skating to, yes, the next level. Now, I finally turn up with my team, and have a shocker.

… there can still be a night like this.

“Skate, Nicko, skate!” Martin kept saying and I was trying hard not to be flat-footed, but it was one of those nights where I had to will myself to move. Was a step slow for passes. Was accused of being lazy – and oh, I hate that. For my many often-confessed faults as a skater, or hockey player, I hate being thought of as lazy.

Maybe, just maybe, my ageing legs weren’t up for skating hard a night after Wednesday’s two hours of Intermediate/dev league and a 2 am sleep time? Is that what went wrong? I’m not conceding that. I pride myself on generally skating as hard as everybody 20 years younger and unless this proves a trend, I’m not factoring that excuse.

Although … if it wasn’t that, well then, shit, it was just plain embarrassing. I had hit the ice hard a couple of times the night before, including once where I rattled my helmet, crashing the goalie in a slot-battle late in the match, which left me bruised up my back and with a headache. But it wasn’t anything that should have left me unable to move my feet or balance on a blade the next evening.

A bunch of Melbourne’s hockey community are headed to Newcastle on the weekend for the AIHL finals (Go Ice!), which may mean slightly less crowded ice for those of us who stay behind. Maybe I can get a stick & puck session in on Sunday, to try and rediscover my mojo?

Or maybe I should just put on my old pork pie journo’s hat, and raise a glass or 12 to all the departing hacks from News Ltd and Fairfax, which is finally happening for real. A major piss-up is happening tonight, which will be the Melbourne media equivalent of a dead cop wake in Baltimore, as portrayed in “The Wire“. Toasts, speeches, laughs and memories as journos with 20 or 30 years on the clock walk out the door.

There’s a lot of fear in my industry at the moment. A lot of uncertainty. Dozens of people who have been incredibly skilled, intelligent, professional, loyal writers, editors, sub-editors, layout subs, photographers, graphic artists or other crucial cogs in the newspaper machine for decades are suddenly staring at an unexpected future. Hopefully it turns out to be a future of new opportunities and adventures.

Change is something some people embrace better than others. I’ve always been lucky in that my natural curiosity and sense of adventure has pushed me into trying new things and not becoming set in my ways and I was talking to a media colleague earlier this week about how highly I would recommend taking on a wildly challenging new activity (such as, say, hockey, or skiing, or scuba, or a martial art, or anything else that gets the blood pumping) for anybody in their late 30s/early 40s. It’s a great gear change to keep the rest of your life invigorated.

But that was a choice for me. It’s much harder when change is forced on you and you’re kicked out of the safety of what you know.

The Melbourne media tonight might not break into “I’m a freeborn man of the USA“, crowded around a body on a pool table, but there will be a sense of change and of the reality that things will never be the same.

But, fellow hacks, that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Life can be better, and every day is a new day. Which is lucky, given a man’s skating can switch from encouraging to embarrassing in the space of a day. Skate to where the puck will be, not where it is. We have team training again on Monday. Watch me go.

He shoots! He scores!

The big moment: I’m in the red helmet. If you look carefully, you can see the puck just over the line to the left of the goalie. Pic: Wayne McBride

It had become something of a running joke at Dev League that I had never scored a goal. I know it’s probably hard to believe that hockey players would hang shit on one another, but it has been known to happen. Roughly 4000 times per game, in my experience.

Last Wednesday was “game night”, for intermediate, which is the traditional end-of-term scrimmage, meaning Big Cat and I were shaping up for two hours of solid game play, including the usual Dev League hour-long scrimmage where black and red teams blissfully beat the hell out of one another.

And I scored a genuine goal. Sure, it was in the Intermediate game, and sure, the puck bounced off my shoulder onto the ice and I reflex-poked the puck over the goal-line with my stick, but that’s a goal, mofos. It counts.

Big Cat gets an official assist because it was his hard, off-balance shot that cannoned into the goalie’s chest, before ricochetting onto my shoulder as I did a Holmstrom and crowded the goalface, looking for the rebound, which miraculously came.

It was such a fun moment. I did everything but stop for autographs, although I resisted the urge to ride my stick, like a rodeo horse, down the ice. Apparently, according to Lliam, you can get a 10 minute penalty for that – he had a friend in a Canadian game who got a hat-trick in the first period, and sat on the ice, using his stick to row like a canoe, and got the 10 minutes. “Why, exactly?” I asked. “For being a dick,” Lliam shrugged.

Still too many times where my legs are flat-footed like this. Pic: Wayne McBride

So I stopped short of the rodeo-celebration that I’ve been working on. Shared the moment with Big Cat, Alex, my team and then got on with things. Minutes later, as I skated along, coach Army said, with a large element of surprise in his voice: “Did you score?”

It means a lot, knowing he believes in me so unwaveringly.

Army and I have a healthy vocal dialogue going most of the time. On Wednesday, we should have received a penalty for some atrocity and I yelled out: “Oh, umpire!” and Army pointed out it’s ‘ref’ in hockey, so I pointed out he was wearing a Collingwood beanie (which he only does to annoy people at the Icehouse) and he said that still didn’t mean I could use ‘umpire’ instead of ‘ref’ and I told him to just go out there and do some umpiring (now using an affectation English accent) and he would have dropped the gloves, I’m sure, if he had been wearing any, or cared. I love hockey.

At the face-offs, Liam Patrick and I were having even more fun, trash-talking one another mercilessly. I got my stick to the puck and pushed it away, yelling back at Liam, “Did you see that, Patrick? Yet another face-off win to Place!” … Except that I had hit it straight to one of their players. At the next face-off, coach Lliam said: “You know, you didn’t win that last face-off.”

Liam Patrick v Nicko Place at a face-off. Words were occasionally said. Pic: Wayne McBride

“Do you mind. I’m trying to sledge here,” I replied happily. Which worked well until Patrick scored with a really slick first-time slapshot about 30 seconds later. Another rookie Wayne McBride was taking photos and there’s a great sequence, post Liam’s goal, where we’re both yapping insults and smiling.

And so another term ended. My third round of Intermediate and my second time around in Dev League. I am definitely getting better – we all are, you can really see it, all over the ice – even though I know what I still need to work on. In what is not exactly a shock twist, it’s mainly my skating. I was actually really happy with my passing on Wednesday – I was genuinely creative with the puck, hustled players away from it, controlled it, scored that goal, and got an assist in the better-standard Dev League game. I’m chasing the puck now, believing I belong on the ice and can be a factor (even if my attempts to rename myself “a scoring threat” since Wednesday has met with stony silence from Big Cat, with all his fancy goals). I actually think they were my best games of the term, and that one drop-in session a fortnight ago has made a difference to my passing.

… and more words, after Liam’s (very good) goal.

But in so many of the photos from Wednesday, my legs are still planted, far apart and flat-footed on the ice. Yes, there were many more photos this time where I was moving, genuinely power-skating, which is pleasing. But I really have to get my outside edges happening and I really need to move my feet while controlling the puck.

But it will come and it can happen. I’m not intimidated by the challenge – I just have some bad habits to drop. Best of all, it’s stuff I can work on in general skating, on inlines and in stick & pucks, starting tonight where there’s an unexpected 8.30 pm session.

What else would you do on a Saturday night but don rain-soaked armour and skate joyfully onto the Henke Rink ice yet again?

IN OTHER NEWS:

1. Anybody who thinks ice rinks are cold should have been with Sammy Tanner, Chloe and I on a boat, going through the Heads, last Saturday, to dive the Coogee wreck off Barwon Heads. It was 13 degrees in the water and, at 30 metres down, a lot colder than that. Fun though. Murky though the water was, my trusty GoPro captured things:

 2. RIP Daryl Joyce, a friend of mine who went upstairs to read, and listen to his beloved Cats play footy last Saturday, and passed away, just like that. Sad memorial service. Generally shitful. I’ve written before about how we all need to make the most of the life we have, right now, while we have it. Lesson learned, again.

 3. In happier news – well, sort of – a former Red Wing, Darren McCarty, and his wife have been in court, slapping restraining orders on a group of friends, or something. Strange case. Their argument is that they feel threatened by these people, which led to this beautiful piece of writing in the Detroit News:

  • “(Defence lawyer) Abood suggested the protection orders were simply an effort by the McCartys to “cut off” people they didn’t want to associate with anymore, rather than a product of genuine fear.
    At one point, when Abood asked McCarty how many fights he had been in, the judge interjected: “He’s a hockey player.”

That’s my kind of judge.

And finally, how much do I love this sequence from the Dev League scrimmage?

Bwahahahaha! (Actually, I was asking if he was okay. Lucky Lliam didn’t hear that.)

Beating the funk

George Clinton. Different kind of funk.

No, I’m not talking about Kronwalling George Clinton, the Godfather of Funk.

I’m talking about how to shake off a hockey funk. Maybe even a life funk, but let’s take things one step at a time.

As I write this today, I am very much back in the game, compared to the last post, which only needed whisky and a sad soundtrack to complete the misery.

I knew I was okay from the moment my legs complained, already tightening up, as I creaked out of the car just before midnight last night, after driving home from the Icehouse. My legs are even stiffer this morning, finding every movement heavy in pedaling my bike as far as a local cafe. In fact, my whole body is aching in that awesome way that says you skated hard, took some hits, physically committed.

Battling that funk from earlier in the week, I had turned up for last night’s lesson, determined to kick myself back into a happier place. And it worked.

Actually, the anti-funk campaign had started at least 24 hours before. In fact, from the moment I wrote it all out in that last post, I switched into: “OK, whinge over. Time to skate” mode. On Tuesday, my son Mack decided to show off his brand new hockey stop in the opening minute of Intro class, completely lost his edges and cannoned into the boards, taking some poor guy’s legs straight out within him. Boom! In a game, it would have been a misconduct penalty for roughing, 2 minutes easy. The coaches, Army, Tommy and Shona, all cracked up (“Place!”) and looked up to the stands where Big Cat and I were helpless with laughter. I felt hockey moving through my veins. (The guy who got taken out quietly moved a few steps to his left or right every time Mack approached from then on.)

All day Wednesday, I was thinking hockey. I had a big lunch, loading up for the night. I had a rest before heading to the rink, recharging. Couldn’t concentrate on playing pool because I wanted to be out there (which is a coward’s way of saying Big Cat beat me.)

At the Icehouse, I even went for some retail therapy to exorcise the funk, buying  new black Easton body armour that makes me look like the Dark Knight if I ever have my jersey dragged over my head in a fight (unlikely).

Actually, now I think of it, how cool would that be, in the NHL? Two players get into a fight; one player dislodges the other’s helmet and finds that under that helmet the player is wearing a Batman cowl. Oh my God, I’m fighting Batman! (Hmm, I’m not only digressing but I’m veering back towards the Avengers hockey team post. DC Heroes v Marvel Heroes as hockey teams … discuss)

My new armour is much lighter, and slightly smaller, but still seems to do the same job, which rocks. I can finally get a jersey over my head without it snagging on the various bits of foam and padding that jutted out of my old, bulky armour, but I probably don’t look quite so broad across the padded shoulders these days. I can live with that.

Me in my new armour:

Post-pool and pre-class, Big Cat and I had a general skate, to get our legs moving, but I barely raised a sweat; just feeling the skates under my feet. Time ticked slowly. We got dressed way too early. Finally, it was Intermediate class.

I was kind of scared because I’d discovered a week ago that coach Lliam occasionally reads this blog, and so he knew about the funk and had promised to help. “You can solve all the problems of life?” I asked, blinking.

“Um, no,” he said, running away fast. “Just hockey funk.”

Turns out, as a guy who has played for his whole life and around the globe, feeling like you’re flat-lining in developing your skills, or just losing your hockey mojo, is something he has gone through on his journey and knows about.

And so he and Army were there, from the jump, urging us on through stepping over sticks and gliding on one skate, tight turning and Superman-diving to the ice, tight turning and skating backwards (“Both feet, Nicko! Both feet!”) and a final tight turn to bend knees all the way to the ice while skating. Tricky but fun drills. Times three.

And power skating drills, which are my favourites – just belt up and down the ice as fast as you can; me working on my Army-instructed technique to bring my skates close together at the end of each stride for extra push. I’m definitely faster as a result.

Feeling the funk lifting as I puck handled around cones, as I sprinted two laps after each drill, as I sweated and worked and sweated and worked and worked.

I wrote last time that I wasn’t tired after last week’s class and Dev League. Clearly hadn’t worked hard enough. As my group waited our turn to sprint up and down the Henke Rink last night, somebody advised that we needed to pace ourselves and I thought: “Screw that. No pacing myself tonight. Skate ‘til I drop.”

George Clinton’s band, Parliament, back in the day. Oh yeah.

And I did, so that by the time I joined the black team for Dev League, coached again by Lliam after a few weeks on red with Army, I was already feeling it.

Dev League was great as usual. Our team won, something like 7-2, and it’s amazing how much better at playing genuine hockey we’re all getting. People holding positions, making the right passing decisions more often than not, handling the puck with genuine skill.

I panicked with the puck on my first couple of shifts. Found myself controlling the puck in traffic but only throwing it forward, instead of trusting my ability not to be knocked off it and try to carry it or at least use the puck creatively.

Back on the bench I mentioned my panic to Lliam and he said: “OK, this is how you beat the funk. Do what you’re good at. Don’t worry about what you’re not good at … just concentrate on what you know you do well.”

So, there’s a poser for you … luckily I had a full two shifts before I left the bench, to try and work out if there’s anything I do well, that I could concentrate on? Well, I thought, I’m hard to knock over and I’m not bad at battling for the puck along the boards. At my best, I pass well; can think with the puck and find a teammate in a strong attacking position. So, OK, do that … and skate. Skate hard.

And so I did. Managed to weave through a couple of opponents in centre ice, controlling the puck, and pass to a teammate charging the net. I only do that occasionally but it’s a thrill. I won the puck more than once. Even beat Big Cat pointless in a one-on-one battle, which is rare enough to deserve documenting. Suddenly, I was having a ball, and even happily absorbed a huge collision with a teammate as we were both single-mindedly defending a puck lurking dangerously in the opposition slot. That one actually hurt but I was smiling as I checked my body was still working and skated off towards our goal, straight back in the game.

As always the hour ticked to a close way too fast. As the cursed garage door rolled up to reveal the Zamboni, I was ready for more and my legs were still holding up.

Until I got home, and cooled down.

Which was when I knew I’d achieved my goal.

And wrote down what’s required for anybody battling hockey or life funks:

1. Buy armour.

2. Concentrate on what you do well.

3. Play music, loud. In fact, stare the funk down and put on some Parliament, Funkadelic or P-Funk, with George Clinton.

Take that, funk.

And thanks, Lliam, and Army, as well as Chloe´, and all my hockey classmates, for nursing me through it.