Stepping it up

When I was a boy, I fell off a cliff. Like, really. Fell close to 20 metres, although I bounced most of it.

It was a strange experience. The actual feeling of falling is so unusual and horrifying it’s indescribable, and I clearly remember (a) seeing the rock break off in my hand and having time to think: “Oh, that’s not good” before the plummet gathered momentum, and (b) a washed-up detergent bottle on the rocks at the bottom rushing up to meet me.

As I lay at the foot of the drop, covered in blood and red dirt, my brain did an unusual thing: a physical inventory. I shit you not. Semi-dazed, I went mentally checked every body part, as in: “Left arm, bleeding but ok. Right arm, same. Left leg … OH JESUS! Broken ankle? Right leg, seems okay …” and so on.

Who needs rest? Let me out there! Dev League last night. Pic: Ben Weisser.

I woke up this morning and went through a similar routine. Legs? Surprisingly not sore. Right arm, fine. Left shoulder … hmmm, tender but functional. Back, good.

I’m not about to equate signing up for Tuesday Dev League, on top of two hours of dedicated hockey on a Wednesday night as the equivalent of falling 20 metres onto rocks, but it was definitely a work out. I’ve been concerned that I’ve been skating more than running over summer, as running gives me a better cardio workout. Those fears are now behind me, for at least the next month while I go back-to-back on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

My footy crew, the mighty Bang, had also reconvened on Sunday so I ran hard and kicked a Sherrin for the first time in two months or so, leading to creaky legs on Monday. Then on Tuesday, 5.30 pm Dev League began. This is technically a level below Wednesday Dev League, open to people who have completed Intro, but a lot of the usual suspects turned up, who can skate better than well and even play for low-level teams. Being at an awkward time-slot for anybody with a real job (thankfully, that doesn’t include me), numbers were thinner than usual, so our teams only had eight or nine, meaning play was shift-on, shift-off, and sometimes a double-shift. Good way to sort out your fitness, right there.

I felt great and loved it, even if I did have to bolt off the ice with 10 minutes to go so I could catch a plane to Brisbane. (Amen for complimentary showers in the Virgin lounge. My fellow passengers were grateful without even realising it.)

I miraculously got into my Brisbane hotel at about 10.30 pm*, was up in time to be at an interactiveminds.com.au event by 7.30 am, to check slides and video links were working, delivered a talk about online video at 9 am, hailed a cab, made it back to the airport, flew out at 1 pm and landed in Melbourne around 4, just in time to dump my stuff, grab my hockey kit and head straight back to the Icehouse.

As Danny Glover said repeatedly in Lethal Weapon, “I’m too old for this shit.”

And yet, I got home last night, blood pumping, unable to sleep before maybe 2 am, in love with life. Which was yet another surprise, given the first 40 minutes or so of Intermediate, when my legs were like lead. I barely made it through the warm-up laps. It was pathetic, and I was seriously wondering if I should limp off the ice, especially after a drill to practice keeping an opponent behind you away from the puck, using a carefully-positioned arse. Kittens brushed me aside repeatedly. During all the technical skating drills, I struggled, but then, a miracle occurred.

The final drill was a straight out killer, known as a “bag skate”. Two lines of skaters. Lliam tosses pucks onto the ice at random and pairs of skaters, one from each line, fly after it, in a one-on-one length-of-the-ice duel to try and score a goal – actual goalies at each end. It’s a lot of fun; battling for the puck, plus full ice breakaways, or back-checking chases from goal to goal. Death to tired legs … well, should have been. Instead, somehow, I kicked back in. After 15 minutes, when certain junior members of my household confessed later, they were worried they were going to vomit, I unexpectedly found my legs. And was belting up and down the rink.

Army watches, unmoved, as I fail to successfully bad-ass trash-talk, post collision. Pic: Ben Weisser

Which led directly to Intermediate Dev League and me feeling stronger and stronger with every shift. Which was lucky, because (a) a bunch of Will’s posse had turned up, lightly and rowdily drunk, and were yelling for us every time we went near the puck, and (b) it was an intense game. The sides were pretty evenly matched (every week, they divide us into “red’ or “black” jerseys, so the teams are never the same twice) and after three weeks off the ice because of the skating titles, a lot of the players were in a, um, willing mood. There were more full body collisions than I’ve previously seen in any of my classes or games.

I was involved in several but only lost my feet once, which has me wondering if I’m harder to shift on my skates than I would have thought. I was surprised and kind of thrilled when I smashed head on into a pretty good skater from the other team, at pace, and he went flying backwards, landing on his arse, dropping his stick, like he’d hit a brick wall, while I stood above him, unmoved. Who knows how that happened? My skate must have been on just the right angle or something.

I screwed up though, asking if he was okay before it occurred to me how bad-ass I must be looking right now and yelled: “Take that, motha-fucka!” The photo shows what Army thought of me getting the insult and safety-check out of order. Look at his body language.

There was another spectacular pile-up in front of me later in the game, where opponent spilled and I almost got the puck through, nothing but clear ice and a goalie beyond, before my legs got tangled in the humanity. Rats.

Will (in red) collides with an opponent. On the bench, Jay said Kittens is turning into a Big Cat. (Update: Todd is claiming this original line. Well played. 'Big Cat' has stuck) Pic: Ben Weisser.

Fun night, and oh boy, am I going to be fitter after a month or more of scrimmages two nights in a row. Too old for this shit? Never!

* “Miraculous” because I got in a taxi at Brisbane airport, and the conversation went like this:

Me: Sofitel, please.

Cabbie: The Sofitel? You mean the Novetel?

Me: No, the Sofitel. Next to Central Station.

Cabbie: Central Station? Oh, I think I know where that is.

Me: Um, you think? It’s right in the city centre. Turbot Street.

Cabbie: …. Turbot Street?

Me: You been driving a cab for long.

Cabbie: Yeah, seven years. But mostly around Rockcliffe. Don’t worry, I bought a GPS thing today, second hand, and I’m learning how to use it.

Hooooo boy.

So wrong it was totally right.

So my half-arsed theory was totally right, which always rocks.

Nicko (in white), Will (in dark), ever ready to go head-to-head, mid-game. Photo: Mack Place

All logic told me not to even attempt to contest our final lesson scrimmage on Wednesday night.

Hadn’t skated for two weeks (apart from one very brief wobble around the Bradbury Rink on Tuesday to see if I could remain vertical after my manta ray lay-off).

A shocking head cold, moving towards flu, moving towards pneumonia or whooping cough. Or straight to death, the way I felt/feel.

Stressed and a heavy heart.

And this was the final hockey date before getting on a plane for a five week USA adventure, which would not be a good time to fall and hurt myself. (A big shout out to my San Jose doppelganger and her partner, who are both nursing broken legs from their Over 40 hockey start-up … hope you’re skating again soon, guys.)

So everything said: take the night off and go to bed. And so, of course, I did what any good hockey player should do and declared: “I’m a hockey player. I need to go play hockey now.”

And I did and it rocked. With low expectations of myself, I had a ball. In fact, if I wasn’t just a dumb hockey player, I could be forgiven for thinking there was a clear lesson there somewhere, like: stop judging myself so harshly on the ice as a rule, and just skate.

It worked on Wednesday. I loved every second of it, and could even breathe one my heart-rate was up, and didn’t need windscreen wipers on my visor for the expected snot. All good.

I think everybody had a ball (except maybe Will who was gutted that he didn’t score, as he usually does). We had white and blue jerseys, and an actual scoreboard and a clock. Our White team won, for the grand prize of a bag of lolly snakes, but nobody was too fussed about the scoreline beyond mindless competing for fun.

I was struck by how different the Intermediate Final Class game was, compared to the last game I’d played (where I’d massively sucked) at the end of my second Intro stint.

In this Intermediate game, everybody was thinking; including me. Gone were the days of seeing the puck in front of you and panicking, swishing indiscriminately.

Instead players were trapping the puck, looking for options. Others were skating to position. Defenders were guarding lanes. There were some really good goals; clean hitting from angles, or from genuine passes.

(Having said that, one of the other team’s goals was clearly offside. At the face-off, I said to coach Lliam, who was ref: “How about off-side?”

He replied sweetly: “How about shut up?”

I love hockey.)

The bottom line was that, for the first time, it felt like I was in an actual hockey game and most surprising of all was that I felt like I was keeping up. I had several moments where I controlled the puck, even in traffic. Won a couple of face-offs, won a puck in defence, trapped it and safely got it outside the blue line to stifle the attack.

Sure, these are all minor moments, but big for me, and sure, I fell over more than most people in the game (this is me we’re talking about), and I totally botched two or three potential goal-scoring opportunities, but even those I feel good about: suddenly finding myself in front of the goal, with the puck, I didn’t swipe it or just blindly shoot. I worked really hard to control it, to guide it home.

Yes, I fell over on one attempt, blowing it. Yes, a defender cleared it just as I thought I was going to score. But I was thinking; I was working the puck, not flapping stupidly. So that’s a big improvement.

It actually gives me a lot of hope for the next phase of all this: dev league or drop-in hockey, when Melbourne Ice players among other much more accomplished players can turn up. As I get more used to being out there in game conditions, and I can see others are playing Thinking Hockey, I reckon I’ll find life easier than Intro, where we were all still mostly flailing.

Oh, and I tried to give Josh, in the blue team, a shove, just because we were playing hockey and so I should try to shove him, right? I only half got him and duly fell over. Jay, a good friend of Josh’s, got into him as well and said, as we headed back to the bench at the end of our shift: “I’ve got your back, Nicko.”

“Thanks,” I replied, “but I should point out that I started it.”

(Hearing us discussing this later, coach Lliam said: “That doesn’t matter. You’re on the same team…”

Lliam had also warned me during the game for trying to Board an opponent, which I took as a win. Happy days.)

And so now, to America, hopefully sans this lurgy. In less than one month my boys and I will be at an NHL stadium in Washington, five rows from the glass, watching the Red Wings live.

God knows how this self-indulgent blog will mutate while I’m away. The NHL teams are playing pre-season games now, so we’re hitting the States at exactly the right time. Maybe this will become a blog about NHL official merchandise retailing?

When I get back, I start following my plan to get private skating lessons and become a much better skater, before tackling Intermediate again with more sure footing on blades.

It’s a good plan. But only after some major adventuring.

Bring it.

Once more with feeling …

Nicko (right) and a manta friend.

So, I have a game of ice hockey tomorrow night. Turns out I’m in town, back from crazy manta ray adventures, for the final class of Wednesday night lessons. And that means scrimmages.

Having not been on the ice for a couple of weeks, and having been in a different universe (see picture) and now caught in the quicksand of life and labouring under a heavy head cold … well, what could go wrong?

Weirdly, this could be just what I need. I can hit the ice tomorrow with no real expectation of performing at a high standard. I should just get out there, crash into people and have fun. Given that I don’t plan to take formal classes next term (Will and many others are doing Intermediate again, and Dev League, so I’m very worried about being left behind, but I think I need to follow my plan to become a better pure skater) … this could be my last real game for a long time, unless I take the plunge into Drop-In hockey when I’m back from America.

The last scrimmage session I attempted was at the end of my second stint of Intro and it was an absolute shocker. My dodgy shoulder exploded very early in the piece after a nasty fall, confidence ebbed with every shift and I was terrible all night.

I’m pretty sure the whole experience was made worse because I was dumb enough to carry expectations onto the ice. I hadn’t played so badly in my first end-of-Intro scrimmage and it made sense that, 10 weeks of refining and underlining skills later, I should be an infinitely better player, right?

Wrong. When I was clearly fumbling and bumbling like your standard end-of-Intro beginner, I unravelled.

Happily, in Intermediate, I’ve known all term that I’m at the lower end of skills among the class, so I can just embrace that and do what I can. The others have been in hockey mode right through, whereas I blew off to Lady Elliot Island to dive with Project Manta, and you can’t believe what an awesome/foreign headspace that was.

hockey sledging in the Tropics.

If it wasn’t for the fact that the lead scientist, Kathy, is a Canadian who wore her Canadian hockey jersey around between dives, and one of the dive masters, Alesh, was a Czech who gave Kathy anti-Canada hockey shit at every turn, well, hockey would have been another planet.

Canadian Kathy.

Even stranger than spending seven days underwater with giant mantas was having no phone or internet access for a week. You tried that lately? It’s freaky, if you’re as connected as most people who would bother to read a blog. I had no idea Sam Stosur had won the US Open, only sketchy details of the footy finals and missed a whole week of friends’ lives on facebook. Very unusual.

Since I got back to Melbourne, I’ve been absorbing the trusty Detroit Free Press and Detroit News sites, to see what’s been happening at the Red Wings. Informal training has now ended and the team is in Traverse City, holding formal pre-season training. Pavel Datsyuk is wearing No. 24 instead of his usual No. 13 for the entire pre-season, as a tribute to the Wings’ previous 24, the late Ruslan Salei, killed in that plane crash a week or so ago.

Me at Earthwatch's Project Manta.

My last blog stands, about not knowing where life is going to take you; allowing those Wings of Fate to flap. For good and bad, and often at the same time.

Right now, I need to concentrate on the good, because there’s a lot of it if I tune in. I can’t believe last week I was swimming with manta rays, with up to a five-metre wingspan. I can’t believe in two and a half weeks, I’ll be in Manhattan, skating at Central Park. I can’t believe in a month and a bit, we’ll be watching the Wings live, in Washington and then Detroit. I even have tickets, stashed among my luggage. As long as online booking across two countries works, we’re there. Or very unhappy.

But first I need to survive tomorrow night, including coming up with a way to handle mass snot under a glass visor. I never said this hockey adventure would be pretty.

A matter of life & death

RIP Ruslan Salei

I hadn’t planned on posting anything before taking off tomorrow for the great manta ray adventure, but news has come through of the Russian plane crash that has killed 44 people, including many hockey stars, from Swedish Olympic champions and ex-NHL players to several ex-Red Wings, most notably Ruslan Salei, who only left the team at the end of last season, and coach Brad McCrimmon.

Bam. Just like that. A faulty 18-year-old Russian plane and an entire team of hockey players in their prime, or not far off it, are gone.

Pavel Datsyuk broke the news to the Wings as they were about to go onto the ice for an informal training session and the team closed the locker-room to the media. Coach Mike Babcock and his wife headed for the home of McCrimmon’s wife and kids, to offer support.

Just like that, hockey and sport and so much everyday life is put into perspective.

There’s not much to say, except for this: live your lives, people.

Embrace life. Smell the air. Look at the sky. Take a moment to be aware of the fact that you’re alive and the world is full of potential.

I’ve had a few deaths, and other losses, in my circles over the past couple of years and they’ve hit me deeply. This one is on a grander scale, we’ve already watched the Japanese earthquake in horror, and tomorrow you can guarantee every news service will carry the images of those planes slamming into the twin towers exactly 10 years ago over and over again.

In one month, my boys and I will be standing at Ground Zero, in downtown Manhattan, site of those fallen towers, looking at the reflecting pools they have built as a memorial. The first time I went there, less than a year after the terrorist act, I stood contemplating that twisted metal, the carnage visible from Church Street, the financial district only a block or so away. I can remember the smell of decay and death that hung over the mountains of rubble, and drifted through the subway system. And I became aware of the people around me, many crying, many holding photos, many silent. They were the family members of those lost in the towers, paying painful homage.

I walked away from that site thinking about the thousands of people who went to work that day, not realising they weren’t coming home. That such a random vicious act would snatch their lives.

My cousin, an oncologist, has told me many times how cancer is so random; it takes whoever it wants, and he treats so many “gunna” people – those who were “gunna do this or gunna do that” but now they won’t have that chance. I determined early that I would not be one of those people.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a long fucking way from perfect. I continue to hurt people and I fail at things and I stumble in fog and have no idea where I’m going; more or less than most? I have no idea.

But I try. To be a good person. To do the right thing. To take my seat on a small plane flying precariously from Hervey Bay to Lady Elliot Island on Saturday morning with the knowledge that those around me hopefully know they are loved and I have tried my absolute hardest, for them and for me. Win or lose.

I spend possibly too much time wondering about this stuff; what do I need to wrestle, to ensure is right, rather than just letting life unfold. I just got a large tattoo of a yellow-tailed black cockatoo feather on my upper left arm to remind myself every single day that we are all in the Wings of Fate.

And we are. If I broke my leg last week at hockey, that adventure would be over and my trip to Project Manta and America a week or so later would be scuppered. Do I stop skating in fear of that? Or trust those flapping wings?

And that’s not the least of it. If I had happened to be a member of an elite Russian hockey team attempting to take off from Yaroslavl Airport yesterday, could I say I’ve lived a life? Could I say I have left the world a better place? Could I say that I took the bites out of existence that justifies time on Earth?

Rest in peace, Ruslan Salei, Brad McCrimmon and everybody else on that plane.

For the rest of us? None of us know how long we’ve got so live life as though you mean it. I intend to, starting with manta ray face time.

After that? Who knows.

Take care, hockey fans.

Scubacam …

OK, so I got a new GoPro camera (gopro.com …. they rock) for my looming manta ray adventure. And thought, hey, I wonder what the view would be like from the top of a hockey helmet?

So we did it twice in the warm-up for today’s class at the Icehouse: once with me in the skates, and once with Melbourne Ice player and our sometime coach, Steve “Scuba” Edwards (# 17 for the Ice), who agreed to take it for a real spin, at speed.

This is Scuba in flight. HD video from a camera the size of a matchbox, mounted on his helmet.  Check it out:

I’ll post the one with me skating if and when I work out how to edit out all the crap before (as I try to nut out if it’s working). Yes, technology and me are great friends …

Be the puck. Clear your mind. Be the puck.

Aimee meets Nicko

Ah, the glamour of hockey.

Last night’s session saw us trying to master the following skill: skate as fast as you could to the boards, spin and hit the wall with your arse, while the puck came screeching along the boards from Lliam’s stick behind the goals, like something out of Rollerball.

Now you’re planting your skate so that the puck ricochets off it, neatly stopping on the ice at the end of your stick, as you take off, passing to a teammate gliding past.

That was the theory anyway.

Of course, I got maybe one out of six attempts right, but the puck only clean-bowled me once, which I took as a minor victory.

Heady with this newfound skill, we even extended it to a more involved drill where one skater did the arse-to-wall-ricochet thing while another received the pass, they both skated hard down the rink, the puck-holder did a tight turn and passed to the original arse-waller* to have a shot.

I was okay at all this. But not great. I’d received a very bad email, from my day job perspective, literally as I was getting in my car to drive to the Icehouse and I found it, and some wider Life stuff going on, hard to shake out of my head while on the ice.

This is a very rare occurrence. In fact, one of the things I most love about hockey is that I tend to leave the rest of my brain at the gate as I step onto the ice.

From my very first skating lesson, where I thought I’d broken my arm about two minutes in, I learned to be in the moment while on the ice. And generally I am.

While skating, I feel all sorts of emotions; including exhilaration and excitement, but also frustration at not being better, anger when my skills let me down, determination, fear … the list goes on, but that’s the point.

I usually also end up laughing, and often because of Lliam and Army’s way of teaching. They’ll explain something to us and we’ll all stare, silently processing, taking it in.

And they’ll say: “We all good with that?”

Silence.

“No questions?”

More silence.

“… OK … (under breath:) Good talk.”

We get “OK, good talk” a lot. And Lliam’s other favourite, when explaining why a puck bounces a certain way off the boards, or why your front foot needs to be just so during a tight turn – which is tough for him because skating is like breathing for these guys and they don’t think at all, they just auto-skill/muscle memory this stuff – so he often ends up shrugging and saying: “It’s … you know, science.”

Hockey player science. There’s a reality show waiting to happen.

So I’m always engaged and very alive when on the ice. In fact, off the top, I can only think of twice where I have caught myself staring into the middle distance, thinking of non-hockey matters.

So last night had a touch of that and my skating wasn’t great. I was a step slow, lacking the confidence, or at least the who-gives-a-shit?-have-a-crack attitude that can improve your skating, and I think it showed.

Happily, you can rely on your teammates. For the last five minutes or so, we played Russian roulette again (see last week’s blog) although, this time, Will and I were both in dark/red jerseys so we were on the same team and couldn’t be set up for a one-on-one Placefest, luckily for me.

In the first shift, five-on-five, I had my finest moment of the night. Skated to a loose puck on the boards, controlled it, kept my head among swarming opponents, spotted a teammate free and clear and passed it right in front of him, so he could skate onto it and cruise to goal … except that as I skated hard to provide emergency back-up, he turned and almost collided with me, heading the other way. Turns out we were shooting to the other end. Oops. I decided instead it was a mature look-for-your-defender-behind-the-play kind of pass.

And then, in my final shift, I was chasing the puck and a classmate, Aimee, still sporting an impressive technicolour bruise from last Wednesday’s smash-up-derby session, came hard the other way and collided front-on, helmet-to-helmet, like two steam trains at full speed. Go helmets! And armour! And go Aimee, who had no intention of doing anything but taking me out. (She fessed up later it was premeditated revenge for the Mighty Ducks Incident.)

So I crashed and landed on my knees and, for the first time that session, all non-hockey thoughts were definitely nowhere in my head. We looked at each other in surprise, post-crash, and I instinctively called her a motherfucker, which I suspect shocked Aimee more than the crash. But I said it fondly.

And we were grinning. Especially me. That full body collision was just what I needed. It was a great way to finish the hour because, amen, I was a hockey player again. (Thanks, Aimee.)

At least for those next last few minutes, before the Real World came calling again. But you know what? Bring it.

… Good talk.

 (* technical hockey term)

Bobblehead shenanigans

True sports fans understand that the worst moment of the year is not necessarily when you realise your team won’t make the finals, or that gun recruit might not be all he was cracked up to be, or even losing a grand final (although clearly that is up there).

The worst moment is the day after the grand final, when you realize you have just entered the wasteland known as the off-season.

For AFL fans, this runs October through to February, although there is enough cattle trading of players and draft news through the first month or so to feed the cravings. English Premier League fans I know are only just joyously losing sleep to watch the first games of a new season. Golf and tennis pretty much never stop, between official events and meaningless exhibitions, for those 12 people who still care about those sports.

The NHL has been on summer vacation for quite a while now and the absence of meaningful hockey is starting to bite. Even from half a world away, you can feel the stir-crazy. The biggest hockey story running on the Detroit Free Press website, as I type this, is that Red Wings coach Mike Babcock is planning to speak at a luncheon in a few weeks. Also that the Wings have renewed their affiliation with Double A team, Toledo. Wow.

Red Wing bobbleheads: competition is fierce.

This was after the great bobblehead face-off where the Free Press breathlessly reported on the Red Wings’ official site running a poll for which player fans would most like to have made into a bobblehead figurine. Clearly as bored by the off-season wasteland as the rest of us, several Wings players started campaigning, with Dan Cleary creating a video where he said: ““Hi, this is Dan Cleary. Vote for me for my bobblehead. I really want one. Please. Don’t vote for Bertuzzi — his head is way too big, it won’t even fit on a bobblehead anyway.”

Cleary’s victory led to my favourite headline of the off-season: “Wings’ Cleary gets a bobblehead; Bertuzzi calls shenanigans”.

Given shenanigans remains close to my favourite word in the English language, I was thrilled on many levels, not least that a hockey player for my team could use it and in the right context.

Of course, half a world away, it’s not summer, we’re not running countdown clicks until the first NHL game, the leading local hockey players are not reclining in their summer mansions in Canada or Sweden or Russia. The hockey season is in full swing, with the mighty Melbourne Ice confirmed as minor premiers and all roads leading to the semi-finals and final, on the weekend of September 3-4 at the Icehouse.

At training last Wednesday, somebody pointed out that Lliam’s beard is getting bushy and he confirmed it was a play-off growth, making the point that players have to start early because it’s kind of hard to grow the traditional play-off beard over the single weekend of Australian Ice Hockey League finals. Army is also getting scruffy so the Melbourne Ice players are clearly getting in the zone.

In the locker-room, we’re starting to wonder how to fill the summer, with players considering private lessons or the training programs that run through December and January. This time last year, it hadn’t occurred to me to play hockey so it’s all new to me. How is it possible that I was completely uninvolved in playing this sport nine months ago?

As the great Harry Hoo, off Get Smart, would say: “Amazing.” …

On Saturday, we had our usual intense session, fuelled by all the teammates from dev league, who aren’t shy to tell you if they think you’re not pushing it. I got talking to one guy in a cool jersey who confirmed it was the official jersey of a Kuala Lumpur ex-pats team, with his actual name on the back. So there’s another guy who has played for real. The terms “intermediate” and “learning” are pretty loose at the Icehouse.

But even post-intro hacks like me can have fun. We played a game ‘Scuba’ Edwards introduced, called “boggle”, where it was five-on-five inside the blue line, kind of the hockey equivalent of half-court basketball. If your team got the puck, and you made a pass to a teammate, you could go for goal. The other side switched to defence until they got the puck back. It was fun, even if I did have one embarrassing moment of watching a loose puck too closely while at speed and forgetting to stop until it was too late.

“You boarded yourself,” said the celebrated northern skater, Hotcakes Gillespie, who had been watching from the stands, just above where I slammed into the glass. “Impressive.”

I’m just glad she wasn’t watching the other time it happened.

Yes, managed it twice.

I rock.

Supermans, Russian roulette & a hip-hopper called G-Storm

“So,” said Magic Enzo, the osteo, on Monday. “How’s that shoulder? Have you been looking after it.”

“You bet,” I said.

“What did you do on the weekend.”

“Um, played hockey, then watched hockey, then got wildly drunk, then played footy, then watched footy. Rode my bike around.”

“Did you land on your shoulder at all?”

“In hockey or footy?”

“Either.”

“Actually both. Why? What’s your point?”

I kind of got away with Saturday’s hockey training, not nailing the shoulder even in tricky, nasty backward skating defence drills, where I’m never at my peak. Then at The Bang, my Sunday footy, I did my usual quota of 10x push-ups for skill errors, but laughed as a couple of rising Timorese hip-hop artists, Fabrice and G-Storm, ran around like giant puppies, learning AFL. Until recently they were in a detention camp for seven years, an old mate of mine, who’d brought them down for the kick, told me. Even that guy, Paulie, had been so sick a couple of years ago that he was literally given the Last Rites. I was trying to get my head around such life swings but was probably too hungover for such ponderings. Damn vodka. It was a beautiful, sunny, crisp Sunday morning and, going by their attitude, Fabrice, G-Storm and Paulie aren’t unhappy with their change in fortunes, By the end of the session, they were leading and yelling like old-time Bangers.

The Superman. Getting up is the hard bit.

Suddenly my dodgy shoulder didn’t seem so bad. I landed on it again five or six more times last night at hockey training, and several were enforced. Lliam decided it was time we became Jedis at Supermans (where you throw yourself full length at the ice then get back to your skates – last night in a very short distance, between the blue and red line). If one skater failed, we were all punished with laps or skating drills. Supermans are a good time to be wearing armour and I wince in sympathy for the women in our class, landing six or seven times on their chest. I’m reliably informed it’s like men being kicked in the balls.

After that drill, though, last night’s session took off. One drill, for example, had us taking a puck the length of the rink, being chased by a back-checker (defender hunting you down from behind). Then, after you took a shot, you tapped the left goal post with your stick, which was the signal for another skater to take off with the puck and you became the back checker. It meant sprinting as fast as you possibly could down the rink and, even if I didn’t catch many of the others, I can’t remember just out-and-out sprinting on my skates with such intensity. I was even able to snowplough stop at the end before I slammed into the boards, which helped.

We also had two-on-two drills, with pairs trying to score goals, alternating from defence to attack depending on who had the puck. My puck-handling actually stood up, so that I controlled it repeatedly, made passes, scored two or three goals. One was a sneaky backhand slide from a tight angle between three flailing sticks. Army had a lot of trouble hiding his astonishment that I made the shot, but that was okay. I was right with him in the open-mouthed stakes.

And then we played Russian roulette scrimmage, where we were divided into two teams, on the benches, and Lliam or Army would yell a number between one and five, and that many skaters would hit the ice, chasing a puck, tossed randomly onto the rink. I was part of a four-on-four, and then a three-on-three. Scored a goal on that one. And then was next skater on as I waited my next turn. I should have known from Lliam’s sneaky look what was coming. “Nicko, make sure the gate’s open,” he said. “ONE!!!” (The only “one” for the night.)

Will getting ready.

I charge onto the ice as Lliam and Army woop, and of course it’s Will flying out of the other gate. Place v Place; always entertaining. (Will told me later that he was at the other end, last to go, and they called him to the front, so they could set it up.)

I wasn’t too far behind Will when we got to the puck, guessed right that he would turn left, clashed sticks, SO close to stealing it, and lost my legs, crashing hard (Hello, shoulder. Sorry, Enzo). I figure Will was long gone, but then saw over my screaming shoulder that he was also in a pile of armour on the ice. Apparently he’d hurt a knee earlier in the session and it buckled as he tried to take off. He still had the advantage though, and by the time we found our feet, he was in shape to goal, and did.

Back on the bench, as Will explained the knee thing, Army just gave it to him about excuses, laughing his arse off. I love the merciless nature of hockey players in hanging shit.

“I still got the goal,” Will said.

“At least I hurt him, right, Army?” I said.

Everyone was happy.

In the rooms, we were all buzzing. We all agreed that was the most intense, full-on session we’d had, at least on a Wednesday. People were bruised and battered. All grinning like maniacs. I definitely skated better because I was so pushed for speed and need.

Up until last night, it felt like I’d had a low-key hockey week, more interested in my AFL team,

Saturday whiteboard: Us (11.30 am), minor leagues, Melbourne Ice and Blue Tongues all represented.

Richmond, actually winning a game and some life matters swirling around me. But now I think about it, I’ve read the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News at least twice a day, hunting Red Wings news (as well as noticing there were no less than 28 shootings in Detroit last weekend, including seven dead. We’re there in November … there goes Father of the Year), watched Melbourne Ice wrap up the minor premiership for finishing top of the ladder, started trying to write a commissioned feature for The Age about being a 40-something hockey rookie, and spent a couple of hours looking up hockey gear warehouses in America, for our looming trip. I might be more hooked than I thought. Then again, who am I kidding?

Gotta love hockey.

Getting edgy

Since I got back from the Gold Coast, I’ve managed to hit the ice a few times. I had a morning skate, which I always love because a) the ice is practically empty and b) those who are there are usually interesting.

On Tuesday, there were a few figure skaters doing their thing and one older dude speed skating, but in third gear. As in, sort of lazily doing laps but in full speed-skate position, one arm behind back, crouched, long strides.

I was down on the goal line at the far end of the rink, entertaining the hockey Gods with my attempts

Cossack dancing: Not so good on the ice, or on new edges.

to skate only on my outside edges along the line, or doing the tight-turn drill Army had us doing a few weeks ago, stepping over the line and trying to turn as tightly as possible on one foot, either inside or outside edge.

Like I said, the key word here is attempting.

While I was getting up off the deck from one such attempt, another hockey player hit the ice. Tall, dark, dashing. Name of Tom, once we’d introduced ourselves. He skated like a dream, with powerful confident strides, broken only by the occasional flawless one-foot hockey stop, snow flying. Or to pivot effortlessly, to either side. Or to skate backwards, with the occasional backward crossover to mix things up.

“Wow,” I said. “What level are you at? Dev league?”

“Intro,” he said.

Motherfucker.

But one thing I liked about him: he fell over a lot. As in, I’d be doing my thing on that far goal line and I’d hear the crash as Tom bodily hit the boards at speed at the other end (figure skaters, not so happy). Tom was fully prepared to push himself and his ability beyond comfortable, which I liked him for. It was apparently his first time in armour, so he figured he may as well as crash and get used to it.

Falling is the only way to get better, as they keep telling us in class, and as I keep proving … but without getting better. (Ok, maybe a bit, at glacier pace.) Another friend was skating last night as we finished class and was proud and/or relieved to get through the skate with a dry butt, which is reasonable. I looked down at my hockey kit, covered in snow from repeated falls. Maybe that’s the key: to know that by wearing the kit, you’re padded and able to get wet and icy without worrying?

At class last night, Melbourne Ice player Tommy Powell joined Shona and Scuba in putting us through lots of drills. Heaps of skating, which was good, involving puck handling, one-on-two, attack-and-defence. Fun.

Well, eventually fun. To start things off, they had us doing all sorts of skating drills, such as skating and crouching while trying to put one leg forward and then the other, like a Russian Cossack dancer jogging. Nuts. In fact, here’s video of our class trying it. (I’m the one in the traditional Red Wings colours). See for yourself.

I had just had my skates re-edged and to a different, deeper cut. Having new edges always makes me skate like a drunkard (ok, even more so), and I was not loving these drills to push your skating ability. My feet felt wrong all night and I was wobbly, but not so badly that I didn’t enjoy the class.

Talking to Josh, a classmate, between drills, he said that it usually takes him three skates before new edges feel okay. So I had better try to somehow skate between now and Saturday’s next official Intermediate outing. Or maybe I should just wear the skates to the supermarket, or for a day at work … that should blunt the edge, huh?

In other news: Our big USA trip is close to booked and looks like including four Red Wings games. One in Washington (four rows back from the glass: booked!), three at the Joe Louis Arena, plus a tour of the facility by the Wings, who seem genuinely pleased we’re making the trip from Melbourne. And, for a change-up, we are also ticketed for Harry Potter World in Florida.

Life is about diversity. Write that down.

Infiltrating Blue Tongue country

It’s winter on the Gold Coast in Queensland, which means it’s sunny and 26 degrees. I’m freezing (which could be a virus I’m battling), wearing a Red Wings baseball cap, a jumper and a scarf, watching my breath fog in front of my face. In front of me, a diesel-powered Zamboni is chugging along an ice rink in what can only be described as an old shed.

I’m at Iceland, in the suburb of Bundall. Bundall is not close to “The Worlds” to the north or

The Iceland rink, in all its glory.

Coolangatta airport to the south, which basically means it’s part of the endless industrial park hinterland that makes up any part of the Gold Coast that hasn’t been subdivided into tiny housing blocks.

Having skated at Iceland, Hotcakes Gillespie, the celebrated northern skater, tells me to watch for the arch across the road on approach. It turns out the piping, like some plumbing experiment gone wrong, is celebrating the Gold Coast Turf Club, which is nearby, but, hey, it’s a landmark among the factories and we sail under the arch, turn left and find ourselves at the home rink of the Gold Coast Blue Tongues ice hockey team.

I don’t want to get all elitist about this place. I had always kind of known that the Melbourne

The view from my seat: Ice players stand in front of the crowd between shifts.

Icehouse, where I train, is Australia’s official winter Olympic training facility and as such is pretty schmick. I guess what I hadn’t taken into account is life away from the Icehouse.

In fact, far from being all sniffy about the Gold Coast Iceland, I’m in awe of the Blue Tongues players. To train and play at such a dilapidated, sub-standard rink and then duke it out with the better resourced teams, like Melbourne Ice, is nothing short of heroic.

A photo on the Melbourne Ice facebook page from Sunday showed the showers at Iceland … several plastic water drums on top of a shed, with hoses to let the water fall. When we arrived, Jason Baclig and other members of the Ice were warming up in the carpark. The actual rink looked wet, not frozen, and instead of that pleasing, sharp scrapped-ice sound of a good hockey stop, when players changed direction there was a kind of slushy sound. I have never seen so many players in an AIHL game lose their footing, sliding around on watery ice. And the rink looked smaller than the Heinke Rink where we train, and where Melbourne Ice plays its home games. I’m not sure if it was an optical illusion or not. I suspect this rink was NHL sized, not Olympic sized.

Watching all this was about 150-200 fans, who had paid ten bucks each at the door. Five or six people were wearing Gold Coast jerseys, which are based on the Canucks’ colour scheme. Otherwise the major fundraising initiative was a sausage sizzle out the front, cooked by parents of Blue Tongue players.

Two or three rows of seats lined one wall, meaning even such a small crowd was capacity. Amazingly, there was no glass around the rink, meaning netting was all that protected spectators from the flying puck, and also meant any player getting “boarded” was pushed into a waist-high wall, not safer glass.

The scoreboard was for “Visitors” v “Grizzlies” (much better name than the Blue Tongues, btw, Coasters). There were no benches for the teams, or penalty boxes. That swarthy sex symbol of the Ice, Jacques Perreault, got a penalty and had to stand with the rest of the team for two minutes, seething quietly.

Ice goalie Stu Denman didn't bother trying to go outside to the change room during intervals.

Between shifts, Melbourne Ice players stood in front of us, local fans wandering past them with sausages in bread, as the Ice players discussed tactics and were baited by the crowd. After one dodgy penalty, an old dude standing next to us muttered in a super-satisfied growl under his breath: “Welcome to the Gold Coast.” By the game’s end, when the Blue Tongues sunk an empty netter to take a 5-3 lead, Ice captain Vinnie Hughes was leaning on the wall, having verbal stoushes with the crowd, sitting a whole metre away.

“Man, tomorrow’s game is going to have an edge,” Hotcakes Gillespie observed, as Joey Hughes was led out of a fight with three seconds to go on the clock. And she was right … according to Twitter, the refs tried to give Army a five minute penalty for fighting the next day, when Melbourne claimed he wasn’t even on the ice at the time, Lliam got thrown out of the game, and Ice eventually won 5-3 after Jason Baclig (who else?) chipped into the empty net to split the weekend’s scorelines.

So this is AIHL life away from the palatial Icehouse? I felt genuinely concerned for the Melbourne Ice and Blue Tongue players, trying to play at the professional level they do on such a dodgy rink (a game was cancelled recently because the Iceland ice was deemed dangerous) EDIT: a broken thermostat made the ice too cold, according to a local, replying to this post (see below).

But I also felt amazed that the Gold Coast team could be at such a decent standard, given their home. And I felt admiration for the bloke who clearly runs everything to keep Iceland going, driving the Zamboni, putting up the netting, checking the bar is ticking over, renting skates on weekdays and ensuring the shipping container that doubles as team changing rooms is clean and tidy for visiting sides. All while 99 per cent of the local population are at the beach down the road.

Aduba, Tommy Powell and Lliam Webster watch the game; a long way from the AHL.

At one stage, I was watching Melbourne’s star import Obi Aduba clamber over the sponsor-free wall to stand on wet carpet with only a net separating him from the fans, dodgy under-wattage lighting making the whole scene gloomy. When the AIHL finals finish, Aduba is heading back to America to play for the Quad City Mallards, in Illinois, (This is him dropping the gloves for Quad City before he joined the Ice) and will try out with Springfield, in the AHL – one level below NHL. What must he have made of this Gold Coast scene? It would be like an ATP tennis player competing at antbed tennis courts in central Queensland, local farmers manning the lines.

I guess, like so much else in hockey, he’s in it for the adventure. Iceland provided that.