We need to talk about the odour …

I’m not sure, in all 250-plus blog posts, that I’ve ever adequately addressed the delicate subject of Hockey Smell.

Put it this way: it’s fucking appalling.

Or to put it another way: things that probably smell better than sweaty hockey gear:
– an animal carcass in the hot sun,
– a municipal tip,
– off eggs that are, like, two weeks ‘off’,
– the Werribee sewerage farm on a bad day.

A constant, hopefully downwind sight in my pokey backyard: the big dry.

A constant, hopefully downwind sight in my pokey backyard: the big dry.

Or to put it another way: I was lucky enough to play in a social game on Sunday, to celebrate the engagement of two local hockey stars, Christine Cockerell and Nate Pedretti. He’s a goalie, but is somehow a good bloke, regardless. Yes, most people have a party to mark an engagement: these guys hired a rink for an hour. The teams were a mixed bag of friends and teammates from their years in Melbourne hockey and so a bunch of us started climbing into our gear in the Melbourne Ice rooms at Icy O’Briens, which was ironic because Nate has represented the Mustangs, and Chris (whose team was changing in the Clippyclops room down the corridor) plays for the Ice.

Anyway, those of us on Nate’s team were busy lacing on skates and pulling on armour when Veronica Ryan, from the Jets, wandered in with a toddler, and said something like: ‘Here you go, son. Breathe it in! Breathe in the hockey smell! Better get used to it.’

And we all laughed because this is the eternal truth of hockey: you will learn to live with an unfathomable stench. Like veteran cops attending yet another decomposing body. Or garbologists who seem to develop an impervious nose while running along the street, emptying garbage bins that have been fermenting for a week in 35 degree heat. It goes with the job.

Will Ong and I, ready to make our debuts for Australia* (*not actually playing for Australia) Photo: Limpy Wunderbomb

Will Ong and I, ready to make our debuts for Australia*
(*not actually playing for Australia)
Photo: Limpy Wunderbomb

My wife tolerates my hockey obsessions in many ways, but one iron-clad rule is that I have to have showered thoroughly, washed my hair and washed my hands, with soap, at least three times before attempting to climb into bed after a game (this is a rule that sucks, if I’m staggering home from a 10.30 pm or 11 pm puck drop). It’s the smell of gloves on the skin of my hands that is Chloé’s breaking point, which I regard as completely fair enough. I think if you gathered all the hockey gloves of Melbourne’s active players and put them in the middle of the MCG, it would be declared a potentially lethal biohazard disaster zone within seconds.

On Saturday, I took the concept of odour as a tactical weapon to a whole new level. We’d been camping down at Wilsons Promontory, and it had rained hard on Friday, mixed occasionally with strong grit-carrying winds. By the time I drove the 220 kilometres back to Melbourne on Saturday afternoon, I hadn’t had a surf, swim or proper shower for a couple of days. I’d hiked, worked up a sweat packing up the tent, and done other exercise. Dirt was caked onto my legs, and black soil was under my fingernails. It’s as straight-out filthy as I can remember being. Even when I clambered around for a night in the illegal catacombs of Paris a couple of years ago, and got caked head-to-toe in the yellow mud of those tunnels, it was a clean mud, and the water was part of the Parisian drinking system. Unlike camping filthy, which is the real thing.

Wilsons Prom: so goddamn beautiful. Pic: Chloé

Wilsons Prom: so goddamn beautiful. Pic: Chloé

And so I headed to Icy O’Briens, to take on the Mako Sharks team, straight from the drive and still unshowered. That’s right, I donned my stinky hockey gear over the top of camping stench, and headed out to play, working on the theory that none of the opposition would want to come within five metres of me all night.

It sort of worked. We had an entertaining, if chippy, two-all draw.

But I wasn’t finished. Sweating hard from the game, I got straight back into my grubby shorts and T-shirt, and headed home. Chloé had had hours to return to her usual highly hygienic state of cleanliness. I walked in like some kind of swamp creature from the living dead. But finally, at around 10.45 pm, I had the luxury of a shower in my home shower, not a dodgy campground shower, and shampooed and soaped myself almost out of existence.

Of course, it meant my gear had less than 24 hours to air before the engagement game, and so I was back in a world of dodgy hockey hygiene by mid-afternoon on Sunday, wearing an actual Australian team training jersey for what will certainly be the only time in my skating life. The engagement game featured a lot of veteran players, Australian women’s players, and skaters from divisions way above mine, and I felt well out of my depth. Luckily it was a social match. There was at least one moment where I tore down my left wing, pushing the puck, and eventually letting loose a shot (unsuccessful) on Stoney the goalie (normally a Cherokee team-mate) where I’m certain the opposition defender was just skating politely backward, giving me room and deciding not to a) kill me, or b) strip me unceremoniously of the puck through the entire sequence.

The moment before the long-awaited post-hokey, post-camping shower. Just before a crew of feds in hazmat suits descended.

The moment before the long-awaited post-hockey, post-camping shower. Just before a crew of feds in hazmat suits descended.

But I was on a line with Will Ong, who’s a mate and, more importantly, can really play, and I got some decent passes away and had some shots on goal. I love playing among players of such skill and experience. Passes are so crisp, positioning is so perfect, and man, some of them can skate! Oh, to have those wheels.

The game ended with the bride, Christine, taking a penalty shot on Nate, the groom. (This is the hockey world at its finest.) She skated in, deeked, beat him, and hit the sidebar. The puck stayed out, but Chris knocked the rebound in and celebrated wildly, even though, technically, that would be an illegal goal.

Care factor, zero. There’s no day-to-day, moment-to-moment referee to enforce the rules in marriage, my friends.

Suck it up, Natester.

Yes, the entire institution of matrimony summed up in one penalty shot. Yet another reason to love hockey, even if it smells like a bastard.

Nate and Christine's engagement classic, the after-game photo. They argued about whether the other had stacked their team, she bent the rules to score on a penalty shot. It was marriage, summarised,on ice. Pic: Veronica Ryan

Nate and Christine’s engagement classic, the after-game photo. They argued about whether the other had stacked their team, she bent the rules to score on a penalty shot. It was marriage, summarised,on ice. Pic: Veronica Ryan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Now is the winter of my content

This blog has had radio silence for a while because I’m taking winter off from hockey. It’s going mostly ok. I had a consultation with a personal trainer who remarked that I was in great shape ‘for my age’, and then had the awkward moment of hoping he didn’t notice the one-third empty bottle of single malt whisky in my sporting backpack. At 11 am on a Saturday.

I’m having a break because I felt flat after the mighty Cherokees fell out of the finals, and realised I’d been busting my arse, on this crazy adventure, for more than five years, without a meaningful break.

I’m a big believer that rest can be as important as training, so it won’t hurt me to step away from those late night Wednesday training sessions and the endless quest to improve, to be hopefully competitive, for a while. I miss the social aspect of Icehouse life, hooning with the coaches and Wednesday regulars, and I miss my teammates, but I haven’t stood on skates now for a couple of months and it’s been kind of nice. I guess I’ll see how much I miss the whole thing before deciding to prepare for another summer season campaign. If I happen to decide to hang up the skates, my last official action in an IHV game was an under-pressure backhand thread out of our defensive zone to Big Cat, launching an attack. Which would sum up my career, such as it is or was, nicely.

Uzes, France. A place where you need to watch your head if you try to run through the town.

Uzes, France. A place where you need to watch your head if you try to run through the town.

After five years, a change of gear has been welcome. I completed my first official fun run in a long time – even if world landspeed experts did not sit up straighter in their chairs as the timing stats came in, plus I spent some weeks in France, even going for a jog in the countryside outside the walled city of Uzes. I have had time to see a few films (Captain America: Civil War was fun, Chasing Asylum a lot less fun but vital to see) and have also launched into some time-intensive work projects, one of which has involved spending a lot of time in the Emergency Trauma departments of major hospitals, which is a really, really effective way to make you appreciate your general health.

And I’ve been enjoying trying to work on my fitness in non-hockey-related ways. I’ve joined a new gym and started boxing again; a love that fell by the wayside because of hockey training. I’ve been trying to get back into the Bang, my footy life, but have been called into the front office immediately by my left hamstring to discuss my attempts to sprint and kick a Sherrin, after six months out of that world. The hamstring hasn’t torn but it certainly hasn’t been thrilled by the footy revival.

That’s the problem with getting older or playing different sports or maybe both: you stop for a while and it’s so hard to regain your sport-specific fitness and mojo. I’m actually in decent shape at the moment, various hockey ailments like my strained medial being unusually rested, but to then build my hammies back up to running/kicking strength? Difficult.

Nicko, Bang footy version. Trying to get back to this, hammies permitting.

Nicko, Bang footy version. Trying to get back to this, hammies permitting.

I’ll just keep taking baby steps; do hamstring strengthening curls in the gym and try to ease back into full Bang training. Wear a name tag to remind everybody who I am after so long away from the kick.

As this has been going on, a couple of my hockey mates have suffered nasty injuries over the past week. Todd slid awkwardly into the boards during a stick and puck session, and smashed his humerus, which sucks on many levels, not least because he took a year or so to get over a serious knee injury not so long ago.

Meanwhile, another friend has a big knee, after a nasty collision in a game, and looks like he’s up for a full reconstruction.

I’m sure everybody who plays hockey fields questions about how dangerous it must be, from people outside our little world. I always explain that the sliding motion gives you a lot less jarring than running, and certainly footy-running-and-kicking, but yes, there is the ever-present danger of ‘collision’ injuries.

Unhappy humerus. Poor Todd.

Unhappy humerus. Poor Todd.

It’s so unlucky for those two guys and others who are off the ice because of similar incidents. Hopefully, recovery is smooth and quick – well, as fast as can be expected. To play well, you have to push the thought of major injury out of your mind, and I’ve been lucky – the Year of the Knee, notwithstanding, but that was bad diagnosis, more than a major injury. I hope all my other hockey friends currently contesting winter or AIHL seasons, or skating in preparation for summer, are safe out there.

Me? I’m going to keep hitting heavy bags that don’t punch back, get some more land-miles into my legs and try to convince my left hamstring that the beauty of drilling a perfect pass, lace-out, to a huffing and puffing old man on the lead further down the field is totally worth the pain and suffering of a sporting re-boot. What could possibly go wrong?

 

Look out! Cliff!*

Summer League - well, me and Jimmy - in full flight. Pic: Luke Media.

Summer League – well, me and Jimmy – in full flight. Pic: Luke Media.

I fell off a cliff when I was 15 years old. Well, technically, I was trying to climb a cliff when a piece of rock broke off in my hand and down I went. It happened in probably no more than a second or two. One moment I’m rock-climbing sans rope because, well, I’m teenager-stupid and clearly haven’t thought this through, and the next thing, I’m bouncing and falling through the air and bouncing hard and then lying on rocks at the foot of the cliff, right near the Airey’s Inlet lighthouse – for any Round The Twist fans out there.

But here’s the thing, and I’ve experienced it once or twice since: that second or so when gravity took over and my poor teenage body karoomed down that jagged cliff face: it felt like it took about a minute, and I can vividly remember it even now, almost exactly 36 years later.

I had so much time to think. In a fraction of second: multiple thoughts. From thinking, ‘Oh shit, that’s not good,’ as I looked at the rock broken off in my hand, nothing else to support me, to watching an empty detergent bottle at the base of the cliff rising up to meet me.

(I survived, in case you’re worried. Pretty bashed up but alive.)

At a lesser extent, I had that time-slows moment a few weeks ago during hockey training and it will not shock any even occasional readers of nickdoeshockey to know that my hockey mortality flashed before my eyes.

We were in Wednesday class warm-up and completing the seemingly innocuous skating drill of ‘superman with barrel roll’.

It would seem reasonable to think that the opening part of a superman – falling to the ice on your stomach – would be the simplest segment of that drill, but somehow this genius managed to screw that up. I still don’t really know how. All I know is that the very back of the blade of my left skate somehow bit into the ice and stuck so I instinctively stopped falling forward and tried to correct, which made my bodyweight go backwards and sideways, while my left leg didn’t give as it normally would.

I’ve covered enough AFL and other sport to see a lot of ‘Big Knees’ (which is what that industry calls a bad ACL tear that requires a complete knee reconstruction and a year of recovery). I know that usually it’s marked, even in an innocuous training incident, by a knee being bent in the direction it’s not supposed to go and having no give to escape the pressure.

I also know that they happen most often early in the AFL season, when the grueling pre-season training has left joints ‘exhausted’. And I’d been for a rare hard run the day before this happened, ticking another ‘impending disaster’ tick box.

And so we’re into that fraction of a second of endless think time as I feel the inside of my left knee screech with pain and I’m aware that my skate isn’t letting go of the ice, and if something doesn’t give, it’s inevitably going to be my knee that gives completely.

All while everybody else is doing superman with barrel rolls with the easy simplicity that you’d expect. It was like drowning five metres away from kids frolicking in gentle surf.

In the end, my hamstring took some of the strain, and the rest of my leg and so I got out of it with a medial ligament strain, which is nasty and hurts but means I still have a hockey season. It also means I’ve had to tape the knee for hockey, so that I have one bald knee among my otherwise hairy legs, which has been a great look in shorts-weather. But no, I’m not shaving both my legs. What am I? A middle-aged cyclist?

Hmm. Maybe Shane Warne should start doing dodgy hair-restoration adverts for knees?

Hmm. Maybe Shane Warne should start doing dodgy hair-restoration adverts for knees?

I’m about to embark on a major journalistic freelance project, which will involve following victims of major trauma, possibly for three or more years, as they attempt to recover. The strangest and most disquieting part of it is now, before we start, where the patients I’ll be following through the staff-only doors into hospital emergency and surgery, and finally into wards and then into rehab, currently have no idea that they’re going to be enduring this experience within a month or so, that this road is ahead of them.

Somewhere in Melbourne, people are going about their lives; picking up kids, playing cricket, doing the shopping, who knows … living daily life. And yet all that is going to change. As it will this weekend for some people, who don’t know an accident is looming in their immediate future, as it will for people being told today that they have a major illness. As it just did for a former AFL star –now-aging TV footy show panelist who made some unpleasant discoveries about the breakdown of his marriage last year.

OK, deep breath. I remain aware that such depths of life are a long, long way from an old man suffering a slightly strained knee in an ice hockey training session. Amen that they are.

But it’s worth thinking about, hey? If that ice rut hadn’t finally released my skate blade, taking the strain off my knee and leg, and allowing me to fall, this blog post would be a retirement one, crutches leaning on my desk.

Instead, it released, just in time, and so I was able to step onto the ice on Sunday to play MC TC and the Demons 3, and found – relief! – my knee carried my weight. Skated with joy, even if I was rusty and lacking game smarts after more than a week off the ice.

So happy this can still happen... Pic: Luke Media

So happy this can still happen… Pic: Luke Media

There’s a Buddhist teaching: when you wake each day, you should take a short moment to think: ‘I am alive!’ It sounds strange, given we are mostly blasé about our actual existence, and fair enough, but I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: take a moment to feel the air going in and out of your lungs. Stand up and stretch and feel the power in your arms and your legs; the wholeness of your body. Savour fitness. Savour being alive. Savour the passing stroke of your partner’s hand on your back, or the brush of loving lips on yours.
Savour two strong knees, if you have them, because it’s surprising how quickly and how easily it can all be taken away.

And having written this surprisingly intense blog, I’m limping back down stairs to buy another coffee.

 

  • For anybody who got the reference of the headline, this is for you:

 

Bruises and bacon

Cassius was trying to be diplomatic.

I’d been showing him one of my more impressive recent bruises. It happened a week or so ago during a Cherokees game at Icy O’Briens ( as I like to call the artist formerly known as the Icehouse; now officially renamed the O’Brien’s Group Arena). I’d gone into a corner to battle for a puck against the glass, in our offensive end. Fishing for the puck with my stick, with an opponent trying to protect it, I went in fast. Normally when your stick hits the wall, in that situation, it will deflect right or left, depending on the angle, but somehow my stick went dead straight and then got caught against the defender’s skate or something. I’m still not sure. All I know is my stick ‘stuck’ and therefore didn’t ‘give’ when my stomach hit it, perfectly, of course, in the gap between the chest armour and the padded shorts.** It was painful but ok: I wasn’t exactly impaled, and damn, but did all those endless ab workouts finally pay off or what? (shifts eyes)

So now I had a perfect imprint of the rectangular end of my stick and a surrounding deep bruise on my stomach. And Cassius, with all the wisdom of a seven-year-old, who has seen a bit of life, said to me: ‘Nicko, you know, you keep playing ice hockey and you keep getting hurt and I’m just thinking maybe you should try not to get hurt and maybe you should stop?’

Even better, he started to list my historic wounds. ‘There was that time you hit the wall really hard, and there was your knee, and there was your wrist…’

I laughed, no idea he’d been quietly cataloging my hockey carnage, but then thinking it must be pretty interesting at his age, to see a supposedly responsible adult regularly return home limping or wincing or bruised from what’s supposed to be ‘fun’.

But stop hockey because of the bruises? I picked at my food and drank some wine and tried to work out how to reply.

Because I’m pretty sure when I stop playing it will be because I get sick of not being very good, or having no real prospect of improving (deep down, I’m a competitive bastard and don’t like being mediocre), not because of bruises, unless I’m unlucky enough to finally snap a leg or a collarbone or something, as I’ve witnessed more times than I’d prefer during training or games. (It’s still striking, to me, that in the very first ever nickdoeshockey blog, I declared that I would aim to play until I inevitably really hurt myself, whether that was in a week, or two months, or maybe more. Five years later …)

Danger, danger. Me on my latest bike: hurt myself the first time I rode it.

Danger, danger. Me on my latest bike: hurt myself the first time I rode it.

Anyway, what to say to Cassius? He’s has been trying to get the hang of bike riding lately and it’s been tough to convince him on the risk versus reward ratio. When you’re struggling to learn how to balance a bike, and to conceive that going faster makes that easier, there are mental hurdles to jump.

I’ve fallen off bikes in all sorts of ways and in all sorts of situations. Without even pausing for thought, I can reel off: learning on my sister’s Malvern Star that was too big for me and had fixed pedals so you couldn’t glide, couldn’t stop pedaling; a bus almost taking me out riding home from Camberwell, and me choosing to veer, at high speed, into a parked car rather than get wiped by the bigger bus (that one hurt); trying to ride my old Repco down some bark steps in a park in Mount Waverley and making it all the way to the third bottom step before I got out of sync and bounced hard; getting a wire across the stomach from a fence I hadn’t noticed, in front of the entire family of a primary school girl I had a crush on; mountain biking in the bush gone wrong (repeat: by more than a few times). And so on.

But damn, I still love riding bikes.

Bacon: the death of you?

Bacon: the death of you?

Just as I love a glass of wine, or whisky, even though I know they’re bad for me. And just as people love bacon and processed meat, even though the World Health Organisation has now forcefully stated that they can lead to cancer. Not to mention the peril of smoking or heavier drugs.

Every day, in all sorts of ways, we all run risks, we take chances, we make choices, that pit personal health or safety against a wish for pleasure, need, money or other goals. The risks of breathing through apparatus underwater for the reward of hanging out with amazing creatures like manta rays … the risk of financial uncertainty through chasing the reward of a creative life … the risk of death in a plane crash versus the reward of flying to Europe … the risk of your heart, for the reward of love … pouring money into a poker machine to risk losing the rent versus a long shot to win big. This weekend and on Tuesday, Australians will pour ignorant millions into backing racehorses most of us have no idea about, dreaming of a collect and bragging rights.

me diving with a manta ray. Worth any risk ...

Me diving with a manta ray. Worth any risk … Pic: Chris Garraway.

… The risk of hurting yourself in physical exercise for the reward of overall health. This morning, I had to cross one of Melbourne’s most bizarre and intense road intersections, by foot. It’s the one near the Yarra River where Docklands turns into South Melbourne. You know: that little Lorimer Street-Montague Street-Johnson-Street-Wurundjeri Way-Princes Freeway onramp/offramp-West Gate Freeway onramp-offramp crossroad, with massive freeway overpasses overhead. Near South Wharf. I had to walk from the Port Melbourne side to South Wharf, which involves a lot of endless waiting for red men to turn into briefly flashing green men for disjointed crossings. Or you can wait until the little man turns green and just run for it, and see how far you can get before the mountain of traffic closes down all routes, and you’re marooned on a traffic island somewhere in the middle.

It is a lot like that scene in the excellent film, Bowfinger, where Eddie Murphy’s character has to cross an LA freeway for a movie shot.

So, there I was, and the green man turned green. I broke into a loping run, not exactly sprinting but moving fast enough to cover the whole intersection, a dozen or so lanes in eight separate chunks, south to north. Then feeling bold, to cross the six or eight lanes east to west.

Not your average crossroad: LA comes to Port Melbourne/Docklands.

Not your average crossroad: LA comes to Port Melbourne/Docklands.

And I stopped and reflected that I’m so glad I’m fit enough to run an obstacle course like that, without thinking about it; without having to worry about getting puffed or my legs not being ready to work on demand. Sure, I could be fitter, a lot fitter, but hockey and my wider life allows me the luxury of having confidence in my body for everyday/nothing moments like that.

This is not something anybody should take for granted. I watched a kid in a wheelchair struggle around a ‘walkathon’ at his primary school yesterday. Closer to home, my dad is in a bad way at the moment and struggles to leave his chair, let alone leave the house. Everything’s a battle. Watching him wrestle with the absolute basics, I feel thankful for my mostly working body.

And so to my fading stomach bruise and who knows what new bruises or strains are to come when I play a social game of hockey tomorrow night, or next turn out in my black and yellow colours for the Cherokees.

And I finally knew what to say to Cassius. I said: ‘Cass, the thing is, I just have so much fun playing hockey, that it’s worth a few bruises. Let me ask you something, would you rather, in your life, have awesome fun which means a few bruises, or be totally safe, never in danger, and therefore never have a bruise … but also, therefore, not have any fun?

‘For me, it’s easy. I choose the fun.’

He thought about it, shrugged, noticed his Star Wars Lego and that was that. He tossed up another of life’s big questions: who was the cooler bad guy: Darth Vader or Darth Maul? This took less deep thought. I’m on Vader.

 

** Postscript: I read once that Gordie Howe, Mr Hockey, perfected this move (the hard stick off the boards) if opponents tried to slam him into the wall. He would brace, but leave the end of his stick out behind him, so they ran into that, instead of his back. Trust me, it hurts.

Ninja moves.

A close friend of mine, Simon Coronel, is an illusionist (no really: go see his show at the looming Melbourne Magic Festival – he’s world class). We get together for coffee or possibly something more alcoholic whenever we can, and swap stories, brainwaves, concepts, crazy plans, angst, moments, the germ of a good idea … you get the picture.

Button available here.

Button available here.

Once, during one of these sessions, at the Black Cat on Brunswick Street, we got to talking about moments where you somehow accidentally pulled off something pretty much impossible in everyday life, for no great reward. Let me explain: in movies, this happens all the time. An action Hero will catch a spear out of mid-air and throw it back, killing the original thrower. Or will leap out of a skyscraper and one-handed-catch the foot-rail of a helicopter to be carried to safety, or maybe kill everybody in the helicopter and then jump off, rolling neatly off a café umbrella, breaking his fall, to land on his feet next to  Halle Berry, who will take him straight to a hotel room to celebrate. That kind of thing. They never miss that spear, or that catch, or that leap, or that umbrella. Usually, these actions save the world.

In real life, you don’t save the world. And rarely in real life can you pull off such feats of physical skill, timing and sheer chutzpah anyway.

Especially while managing to look like you totally meant it.

But sometimes it can happen. OK, I’ll give you a lesser example. I am the world’s worst soccer player. That, and basketball, are the two ball sports I simply cannot play. I’ve tried. I’ve failed.

So years ago, when a newspaper I was working for organized a social game of soccer against another paper, I groaned, laced up my footy boots and volunteered to be a substitute, rather than a player. Deep in the second half, the coach decided it was time for me to have a run and so I reluctantly jogged onto the dodgy suburban pitch, with its uneven grassy surface, to be humiliated in front of all my friends and workmates. With no real idea about soccer, I kind of wandered into the middle of the field and that was when one of our defenders, no doubt English and expert, having seen off an opposition attack, spotted Nick Place, all alone in the centre, and punted the ball in a long looping arc.

I had no clue what to do, but the ball was coming in fast, dying in its trajectory, and so I kind of stuck out my left foot and the ball cannoned off my boot and went straight up in the air.

I had no idea where it had gone. Just lost sight of it and sort of turned around, 180 degrees, looking for it.

At which time, the ball having neatly risen over my head and looped past me, landed perfectly at my feet, but this time facing our goal. I saw one of our forwards running past, kicked it to him and pretty much retired from soccer on the spot. I could never look that good again. Anybody watching this flawless, casual over-the-head flick pass to myself must have been wondering how I had never made it to the English Premier League.

Of course, later, when it was mentioned, I shrugged and said: ‘Oh yeah, whatever’; like that was the kind of thing I pulled off all the time.

So that, my friends, is an Everyday Ninja moment. You’re privately thinking: Whoa, how the Hell did I even do that?

Anybody watching would be thinking: That was incredible. That guy/girl is basically Neo from The Matrix.

It was Coronel and I, laughing about such moments, who came up with the term Everyday Ninja and have lived for the rare moments they occur ever since. (Simon has a great one about catching his mobile phone on an escalator in a split-second reflex action, as the phone was about to plummet several stories of Melbourne Central to its certain death.)

Be a ninja, get the chicks. Actually this guy (askaninja.com) is hilarious, if you've never checked him out. And has a great opening tune.

Be a ninja, get the chicks. Actually this guy (askaninja.com) is hilarious, if you’ve never checked him out. And has a great opening tune.

Hockey is built for this stuff. Each game is full of so many tiny moments within the wider picture, and often they’re personal. None of your teammates might even spot it, good or bad, but you either curse yourself blue for an error (that happens a lot – and not just me. Teammates arrive back at the bench, earnestly apologizing for that crap pass or this failed shot, and you honestly have no idea what they’re talking about) or you get to enjoy a private oh-yeah moment of pure satisfaction.

Usually, it’s blind luck or barely-controlled skating/stick-handling that somehow comes off. I had a pass come to behind my feet as I had momentum surging forward on Sunday night, in a 10 pm Nite Owls game, and somehow reached back with my stick and perfectly deflected the puck 90 degrees so that it was now in front of me, bouncing off the boards. Sure, a D-man for the opposition beat me to it, but almost. Almost. I reckon I could pull that move off maybe once in every 20 attempts.

And then, weirdly, I had a true Everyday Ninja moment, with only three minutes to go in the game, moments after getting my first penalty in a long time. I’d been dicing for the puck on our defensive blue line and somehow managed to get my stick totally tangled in the legs of my opponent. Worse, when I yanked my stick, I completely took his legs and he fell hard, face first. It basically should have been videoed as a textbook example of the most blatant tripping foul possible.

My tripping penalty was basically one degree of blatancy behind this one.

My tripping penalty was basically one degree of blatancy behind this one.

Because the Nite Owls play by proper hockey rules, there was no whistle, just a delayed penalty. I just saw the referee’s arm shoot into the air, meaning I was going to the box as soon as our opponents lost possession. In the meantime, play continued (a delayed penalty, for those new to hockey, is when you sometimes see a team pull their goalie, because only the non-penalty team is allowed to touch the puck in this situation. As soon as one of my team gets the puck, play stops and I get sent off. But in the meantime, the infringed opponent has an advantage, and can bring on an extra skater if they’ve got their wits about them.)

So now I’m skating, knowing I’m facing a delayed penalty, and their defender has the puck and is looking to set something up. I skate to centre ice just as he attempts a “saucer pass” – as in looping the puck through the air – past me, and here’s where I pull off my Everyday Ninja move.

I see the puck coming, raise my stick and somehow – who knows how? – use The Force to knock the puck clean out of the air, dead to the ice at my feet. If this doesn’t sound impressive, try standing on thin strips of metal on impossibly slippery ice sometime, peering through the cage of a helmet and wave a long hockey stick maybe four centimetres wide to intercept a flying block of circular rubber traveling at speed.

I manage it. Just this once.

The whistle blows. I pat the killed puck with my stick, to make sure it’s stopped, and nonchalantly skate straight to the penalty box, without waiting for the referee to come and point at me and escort me off the ice.

“Number 17. Goon Place,” I announce to the scorers, who laugh, and then I allow myself to smile, even though incarcerated in hockey’s Naughty Corner. Big Cat Place, watching the game, grins from the other side of the ice and I enjoy how badass that whole moment must have looked.

Or didn’t.

Who cares? I saw it. I lived it.

Everyday Ninja, and a nice two-minute breather. Yeah!

Do YOU have an Everyday Ninja moment? Either in hockey or elsewhere?

Simon and I have set up a WordPress page, just to share these epic moments of pointless heroics. Why? Meh, why not? We Everyday Ninjas need to celebrate our awesomeness! Click here.

Friday on my mind

Ceptors' captain Jake Adamsons fights for the puck on Friday.

Ceptors’ captain Jake Adamsons fights for the puck on Friday.

Four days later and I’m still smiling about Friday’s night’s game. It was the Interceptors versus a scratch Rookie team, containing lots of my hockey mates, and also my younger son, Mackquist, who continues to improve so that he’s able to join in a match like this, and leaves me excited that we’ll probably be able to play in a team together next summer.

Friday was just one of those games that is played in a fantastic spirit, with everybody going as hard as they can but with smiles on the ice. It was only a practice match; all of us trying to get our legs back, our game sense back, our hockey sense back before summer league starts again (10.30 pm, this Thursday, for my team).

I’d put in a big training effort since returning from the summer holiday to Lorne and Tassie, and since I decided my dodgy knee would survive being on the ice. The week before last, I was on the ice, or in off-ice hockey-dedicated training, for at least two hours each night, every night but Tuesday.

I joined a new initiative, the Icehouse Hockey Academy’s summer program where Melbourne Ice star Jason Baclig, and one of my usual coaches, also a Melbourne Ice star, Matt Armstrong, put us through our paces. It was challenging, doing skating drills, having every weakness in our stride and leg muscles pinpointed by Jason, who skates like you can’t believe.

Jason hadn’t coached us before and it was great to get a new take on how to improve. Just little things like getting us to skate blue-line to blue-line on one skate, crouching. Then having us do it again on both skates, which was easier, and felt so much easier after the one-skate. Confidence builds, just like that. Then he and Army took us up to the Icehouse gym for a hockey-specific strength circuit. In the middle of all this, I continued my own return to upper body training at my usual gym in Fitzroy, and had a practice game against an IBM team, and took part in some Jets training sessions – learning new moves from the wider club’s coaches. All in all, the hockey cobwebs were blown away in a big way, to the point that in the final sprint lap of that Jets training session, skating along next to coach Scotte Giroux, my body hit “empty” and I simply lost my ability to skate hard. In the course of half a lap, I went from next to Scotte to barely moving. Petrol… gone.

It led to a quiet week last week, knee hobbling again – Magic Enzo, the osteo, finally doing some magic – until Friday’s game, by which time I was bursting to hit the ice.

Jack Hammet, on the move for the Rookies, as I attempt, probably unsuccessfully, to close him down and Big Cat waits, ready to pounce. Pic: Dave Walker

Jack Hammet, on the move for the Rookies, as I attempt, probably unsuccessfully, to close him down and Big Cat waits, ready to pounce. Pic: Dave Walker

And it was a blast. A total blast. A reminder of everything I love about playing hockey. Early in the first period, Big Cat, at speed, won the puck on the right wing, looked across the width of the ice, saw me charging and dinked a perfect pass through the air and over two opposition sticks so that I skated onto the puck without breaking stride. Through the blue line and clear, although the defenders were closing. Me travelling fast (for me) and winding up the wrist-shot.

That glorious feeling of seeing the puck disappear through the five-hole, as the goalie dropped but a fraction too late (sorry, Stoney). Interceptors whooping and hollering. A glove-pumping celebration glide-by past our bench.

Then marveling, in the second period, as our captain, Jake, got the puck on the defensive side of the red line, out of the corner of his eye saw an Interceptor player coming over the boards, half a rink away, and duly delivered an almost-blind pass right onto the stick of Big Cat, motoring away from the bench. That left Big Cat all alone with the goalie and his finish was clinical (sorry again, Stoney).

The Rookies had many decent players and scored three goals going the other way, but the Interceptors eventually prevailed 4-3, on the back of a second goal from Big Cat and one from our coach, Will Ong.

I don’t mean to give a match report as much as to convey that it was just a fun, end-to-end game, where we Interceptors felt ourselves click as a team, even if we were missing a bunch of players through travel and injury, and had coach Ong and Mark “Happy Feet” Da Costa Caroselli as one-off free agent players. Our defence was calm and measured, working together and playing smart hockey. The forwards, me included, were charging at every opportunity.

Yesterday, at Lorne, Big Cat and I were still grinning about it.

And so I thought I should share that joy on the blog. As a counter to all those posts where I doubt myself and the journey.

It’s good to stop occasionally and just celebrate the joy of playing.

So this is a salute to the sheer joy of playing with mates and against friends.

The fun of good-naturedly bantering with an opponent who has just scored a great goal; both of you hunkering down for the next face-off.

The fun of skating as hard as you can to try and go with somebody who is better on their legs than you are.

The satisfaction of scoring a goal, or of nailing a good pass to a teammate’s stick.

All those little one-percenters, all that sweat, all that effort. The satisfaction of an intense, hectic, brilliant hour.

Icehouse classes (dev league and power-skating) start again on Wednesday night. Thursday, we play the Champs, who smashed us last time.

I play hockey. For a team. Like I dreamed of, crazy dream that it was, two and a bit years ago.

I’m definitely getting better as a player and a skater, bit by bit, skate by skate, game by game.

And I love being a part of it, win or lose.

How fucking awesome is that?

Friday's winning Interceptors line-up. I was so happy with the win and the game that I didn't even care my post-helmet hair looked like Milton the Monster. So there. Pic: Dave Walker.

Friday’s winning Interceptors line-up. I was so happy with the win and the game that I didn’t even care my post-helmet hair looked like Milton the Monster. So there. Pic: Dave Walker.