The Great Escape

Lids and bottles ready: Big Cat and Nicko side-by-side.

Lids and bottles ready: Big Cat and Nicko side-by-side.

I started hockey more than six years ago largely as an act of escapism. There was a woman involved, of course. Or, more specifically, the fading ghost of a woman I’d loved, and taking up hockey, without having ever skated, seemed like a great idea at that moment. Smashing repeatedly and painfully into hard ice is a good, immediate way to take your mind off a bruised heart. For the duration of a hockey class, at least.

Miraculously, it worked and I healed and I got to play hockey with both my boys, if too briefly with Mackqvist. Big Cat and I have been on the adventure together, all the way, and now he’s taken over an official letter in the Cherokees team as a leader, and that makes me smile, watching him grow and walk taller.

When you're on the ice, the rest of the world fades away. Pic: Luke Milkman

When you’re on the ice, the rest of the world fades away. Pic: Luke Milkman

Off the ice, my career fortunes, in fiction and real work, have waxed and waned, dipped, risen and plunged and then risen again. Life’s a rodeo, but I chose that path, away from the 9 to 5, a long time ago. Meanwhile, I met other women and then they became ghosts and I skated hard all over again, and then I met a French beauty who fundamentally rocked my world and so life got better, and through it all I somehow stuck with hockey and the hockey world was generous enough to stick with me.

And here I am.

And here is my crazy little self-indulgent blog, nickdoeshockey, which has recently passed 100,000 views (a lot more than all five of my published novels combined, just quietly) through almost 33,000 individual users, according to the WordPress statistical robots. Viewers officially from every continent, including Antarctica (even if I suspect that turned out to be a hoax from Adelaide. Nevertheless.) Who would have thought?

The proof. Amazeballs, as the kids like to say. Well, used to like to say.

The proof. Amazeballs, as the kids like to say. Well, used to like to say.

I still find those figures hard to believe. But there they are. Thank you to everybody who has spent time in this icy, random corner of the interweb.

My happy place: the spacious, luxuriously appointed expanses of an Oakleigh change room, with the 16/17 incarnation of the Cherokees.

My happy place: the spacious, luxuriously appointed expanses of an Oakleigh change room, with the 16/17 incarnation of the Cherokees.

Six years after my first hockey class, my first suspected broken arm and my first blog post, my life is in a very different place but the world remains a strange, sometimes cruel and frightening place. I generally have a rosy, optimistic view, by nature, but sometimes keeping that up can be difficult. Like when a truly hideous individual somehow gets voted in as US President, or when I sit in front of my laptop and the prospects of ever making a living as an Australian author of fiction seem more remote than ever (not just for me, for the vast majority of us, hacking away), or when I gaze towards Nauru and Manus Island and see my Government continuing to commit crimes against humanity, or when my everyday sources of paying the rent appear worryingly fragile. To make things worse, the Red Wings are going to finally break The Streak this season (I’m calling it now), Richmond seems to be a non-contender, as ever, and I’m currently sporting a truly horrible moustache – although at least that’s for a good cause.

And so hockey still needs to occasionally play the original role I asked of it – as a pure all-senses-engaged escapism from life outside the glass wall.

And it does. Mysteriously, I am currently in what’s probably the best form of my life, feeling confident, fit and even occasionally quite fast on the ice. I’ve been scoring points and goals and causing trouble, and man, oh man, but is hockey a more fun place when you don’t feel like you’re just making up the numbers or not really contributing to your team.

It’s so nice to feel fit, and not be nursing any injuries. To be with teammates you really like and share an instinctive understanding, including trusty Big Cat on the right wing, slotting a dirty, doorstop rooftop goal to give me a not-much-deserved assist on the weekend.

Have bad mo, will travel.

Have bad mo, will travel.

And so we set sail to who knows where, in life, in hockey and in this blog. Whether the blog makes it to 200,000 views or not doesn’t matter to me at all. It’s charted my crazy hockey adventure to here, and that’s fine. It’s introduced me to so many great people, opened unexpected doors into the small but passionate Melbourne hockey world, is currently hopefully raising a bit of money for Movember (oh, I don’t look good at all) and who knows how long it has to run? The last two summers, I’ve finished the season thinking that was it; I’d almost certainly retire. But then a few months later, I think: why would I?

Right now, I’m loving playing and loving the Real Life Shutout that only hockey can provide. Long may it last.

 

 

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?

 

Riding the brain loop

Runkeeper app (cycling mode), with its emotion-free American female voice, says, ‘Time 25 minutes, Distance 8 kilometres.’

Riding the Yarra on a perfect day.

Riding the Yarra on a perfect day.

Riding my gorgeous birthday mountain bike on Sunday afternoon, I had swooped off Johnston Street to the Collingwood children’s farm, suddenly among horses and sheep, then climbed the Boulevard and dropped onto the main Yarra cycling track behind Richmond. Fancy houses and Scotch College across the glittery river, rowing crews on the water, and idiots wheeling three prams side-by-side occasionally blocking the path in both directions. I mean, seriously?

Thirty degrees and perfect riding conditions. I breathe and move my legs, feet clipped into the pedals.

My brain? Still in armour and skates from the afternoon before. A nagging internal voice on a loop. My brain replaying The Cherokees giving up a goal in the opening minute to Ice Wolves’ Nick, a gun from dev league. Not the start we wanted. But then roaring back with three goals of our own, none of which I was on the ice for, to carry a handy 3-1 lead into the first period break.

Runkeeper: ‘Time 35 minutes. Distance 10 kilometres.’

Sunday ride ...

Sunday ride …

My head still somewhere else. Ice Wolves scoring two goals in the second period to level the game at 3-3.

But now I get fed a beautiful pass from defence and I cross the blue line, entering our zone, in complete control of the puck, thinking to myself: ‘You haven’t played for a month, don’t rush it. You have more time than you think.’ Seeing where the defender was, with enough room for me to be creative.

Hearing Kittens and Jimmy yelling, that they were also in the zone, ready for a centering pass. My specialty. Letting it fly but a fraction of a second too late, so that my pass hits an opposition skate, deflects straight out of our zone and onto the stick of the opposition’s best player, who sweeps down the ice and scores, all alone on poor Ajay, our keeper. 4-3 Wolves. Fuck.

My bike glides along the Burnley Boardwalk and the music has inexplicably cut out on my phone, so I try to turn off my hockey brain, sing ‘Under the Boardwalk’ softly to myself, as I pass the rangy, sinewed abseilers in the shadowy world under the freeway, the little water garage holding a restored ferry and all the other secret wonders of a bike track.

Now I’m at Birrarung Marr and I have to ride super slowly, and eventually walk so I’m not one of those dicks who tries to be a Tour de France rider in the middle of heavy foot traffic near Flinders Street station. This is going to kill my time-per-kilometre average on Runkeeper, but hey ho.

Now the brain loop fixates on a Kittens shot from the slot that rebounded straight towards me. I’m floating in, just as I should to the left of the goal, seeing the Wolves keeper sprawled and the puck heading my way. I wait for the puck to land exactly on my blade so I can roof it into the near high corner. I’ve practised that shot. I’m confident I can hit it. But let’s make sure by letting the puck come all the way onto my stick blade. By which time, of course, Wolves defenders have descended and hacked my stick and the puck so the shot I attempt barely registers. Sigh. Why didn’t I just whack at it immediately? Shit.

All the essentials: helmet, gloves and coffee.

All the essentials: helmet, gloves and coffee.

Runkeeper: ‘Time 50 minutes. Distance 16 kilometres.’

The Australian Open tennis is like a virus, spreading from the increasing buildings on what were once public ovals and athletics training fields, to now creep, with ‘festival sites’, along both sides of the river, all the way to South Wharf. I covered all the Grand Slams as a journo; don’t remember Paris, London or New York being so overtaken by the event. Maybe they are now? It’s a long time since I covered that sport.

Runkeeper solemnly intones: ‘Time: one hour, 10 minutes. Distance 20 kilometres’ as I creep over the strange intestine-like bridge linking South Wharf to Docklands. I drift up through the Docklands market, close to the water, rather than stick to the faster bike track on Footscray Road. I ride past Icy O’Briens, aka the Icehouse, aka O’Briens Group Arena, scene of yesterday’s game and my hockey spiritual home.

We level the game at 4-4 through a great lone effort by our captain, Patto.

Soon after, my line is on the ice and we charge into attack. Again I’m crashing the net when a rebound bounces off the goalie. I control the puck. The Wolves goalie does the right thing, covering the post and making himself big. I shoot anyway on a tight angle, hoping for a gap, but it hits his body and falls. I try desperately to drag the puck out from below his knee-roll, where it’s half-pinned, but the ref blows the whistle and the moment is lost.

Riding Railway Canal ... the glamour mile of Melbourne's bike paths.

Riding Railway Canal … the glamour mile of Melbourne’s bike paths.

I’m riding away from the giant wheel and Docklands now in shadow, the Bolte Bridge freeway high above my head. The sparkling Yarra and the docks have given way to the smelly water of the Railway Canal, scene of a body dump in the last detective novel I wrote; a book that still hasn’t made it through the maze of agents and publishers. Maybe never will. I should be fretting about that if I’m going to fret.

Why didn’t I hold onto the puck and try a wrap-around? Could I have fed a pass to one of the other forwards? Did I choose the right option, in shooting straight into the keeper’s body?

I ride through low underpasses and then climb carefully up the ramp to Flemington Bridge, a railway station I suspect only cyclists know even exists.

‘One hour, 25 minutes,’ says Runkeeper. ‘Twenty-five kilometres.’

Now I’m heading east. In Jakarta and in the obscure African country of Burkina FasoI, terrorists have been killing people in the last few days. There are real problems in the world, and even among my friends and family, yet I ride on, sighing at my hockey mediocrity. I pass the zoo and that means I’m heading back into the part of Melbourne I call home. There are trams, and people sunbaking in Princes Park, and street art in the tunnel under Sydney Road.

I finally run out of rusty mistakes I made in Saturday’s game. My brain eases up on itself. I tell myself that a friend who was watching the game, and is honest, said he thought I played pretty well. At least I was in the right position for those rebounds, even if they didn’t go in, right?

With my fancy bike; brain loop purged.

With my fancy bike; brain loop purged.

I pass St Ali’s near Nicholson Street and think about coffee, because, well, this is Melbourne.

And I’m me.

And, well … coffee.

But I keep riding.

The team played really well. We didn’t lose. Four-four was a good result, given we were behind for a lot of the third period.

I pull off the bike track as Runkeeper tells me that it’s been 30 kilometres in one hour, 38 minutes. I coast down a side street to Dench’s Bakery and park my bike against the glass. Order a flat white. And a jam bombolone to undo all the good work.

You did trap a puck with your skate on your defensive blue line, kick it onto your stick and pass neatly to Kittens, already flying down the centre, leading to a decent shot attempt by him. That was good.

The coffee tastes fantastic. My legs are warm, tired, sated.

It was the first game of the year. You did lots of good things; why are you focusing on the screw-ups. It’s human nature, right? Or you’re just a dick. Stop doing it. The sun’s out.

The hockey brain is a strange beast. Or maybe it’s just me?

I finish my coffee. I drink some water out of my trusty ‘Itchy and Scratchy’ water bottle that I’ve had since about 1990.

Stop beating yourself up, I think. Hockey’s fun. The team played well. You’ll be right.

When’s the next game?

I get back on my bike to pedal gently home.

Next Saturday, 3.45 pm.

I find myself grinning under my bike helmet.

Bring it.

 

 

 

Kettlebells, rubber bands, Icelandic horse sex and me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bring on the summer.

The violence of Vinnie Hughes

On Saturday, on Melbourne’s notoriously violent King Street, a man took umbrage at what he perceived as rough treatment of one of his mates by a Perth tourist. Not a small guy, he determinedly shook off the restraining hands of three police officers, he was so intent on fighting the tourist. Eventually the police threw up their hands and the two went toe-to-toe, the vicious brawl ending with police dragging the man off the tourist who was now lying on the ground, hands attempting to cover his face as unanswered punches found their mark.

Blood splattered the ground as the man was led away, waving to the crowd who had cheered while witnessing the savage beating.

Pretty horrible scenario, huh? But as anybody who was at the Melbourne Ice-Perth Thunder game at the Icehouse on Saturday evening knows, this didn’t happen on King Street. It happened on skates during that game, with Melbourne captain Vinnie Hughes the aggressor who beat the crap out of Perth player Sam Wilson after Wilson had taken out the Ice goalie, Stu Denman.

The ice where Hughes v Wilson happened.

Denman had ventured way out from goal when hit, which leads to questions about whether he was fair game or not, so far from the blue crease. Regardless, it was a hard hit which led to a predictable push and shove between the teams before Hughes made a late decision to “make a statement”, pushing all referees aside until he could get to Wilson and go toe-to-toe.

He was thrown out of the game and Wilson won’t look pretty today.

The whole thing almost made me late for a musical I had tickets for in Elwood – a local production of ‘Avenue Q‘, an adult comedy musical featuring Sesame Street-like puppets and human actors.

Which is where it all gets bizarre, huh? There I was, behind the goals at the South Pole end of the Henke Rink, hollering and hooting and full of blood lust as Hughes beat the shit out of a hockey player metres away. I’d bought a friend along to her first hockey game and my 16-year-old son, Macklin, was there with a friend as well. Mack texted me in the long delay after the fight (as the rattled referees tried to work out how many Melbourne Ice stars they could physically fit in the penalty box for having not left the ice as instructed) to say: “That was awesome”.

Ever the loyal blogger, my main concern at the time was whether my Nikon, battery dying, had managed to get the shots of the blood splattering the ice and then being scooped up by some emo attendant. (It did: as per this post)

It was only the next day, waiting for the ball to come to my wing, in pouring rain, during The Bang footy at Albert Park, that I began to feel uneasy. And then later, at a Mother’s Day pub lunch with my intelligent, caring, gentle ex-wife, where I looked her in the eye and it occurred to me that it was difficult to justify having introduced our two teenage sons to such a violent scene the day before.

I’ve previously written about my uneasy attraction to violence, in boxing and hockey. This Hughes fight felt really savage. On Facebook afterwards, the Rookies were in full flight, crowing about flying the flag for teammates and whether it’s ever okay to hit a goalie, about Vinnie being a legend and a great captain. I posted my blood pics and everybody hit the “like” button, me included. We’re all new to the sport and are like adolescents, flexing our tough-guy hockey muscles that we secretly know won’t actually be tested in the non-fighting leagues we are working up to playing.

Even that is so different to The Bang, which is football unashamedly based around pure skill without bullshit testosterone. I love that we bangers are all too old for that crap. On Sunday, I watched my Bang teammates bring the Sherrin around the flank in the rain, devoted only to clean skills in the wet. It’s well understood that if you feel like a bit of body-on-body and two of you agree, then go for it and we’ll all laugh. I had an exchange like that with a mate, Phil, on Sunday, both of us playfully jostling as the Sherrin approached, then chasing the ball on the deck, with Phil gracefully conceding, stepping back when my head was right there, for his hip or leg to collect had he chosen.

It’s not always like that. One ex-rugby player, Karl, hit me in the jaw with the hardest shots to the head I’ve had in years when I was stupid enough to try and tackle him a year or so ago. But I didn’t complain. I’d bought into the physicality that day.

And then there’s boxing. Tonight I’ll tape my hands and don boxing gloves, to throw an hour’s worth of hopefully hard and fast punches at training partners and heavy bags.

But I understand there are clear boundaries. It’s all pretend violence; controlled aggression with no intent to hurt (unless you’re Karl who can get a little carried away).

Cleaning up after the fight on Saturday.

A truly premeditated hockey fight is something else; planned, vicious punches with the intent to cause harm. Vinnie Hughes went after Wilson with true hatred in his eyes and didn’t stop until the Thunder guy’s face was leaking blood onto the ice in a big way, and the referees managed to tangle his arms to stop more punches.

UPDATE (Tuesday, May 15, 11.30 am): Vinnie Hughes offers formal apology.

With so much debate in the NHL right now about brain damage from hockey, and the after-effects of the game’s traditional enforcers, or “goons”, who are a dying breed, it was an unusual sight, even if Big Cat Place, who goes to most Ice games, shrugged that it was the third or fourth such fight he’s seen.

(And again, as a father, should I be concerned that he was so casual about it? At 19 years old, so unconcerned that he had just watched one guy belt the crap out of another, while officials stood by, in the name of sport? In fact, smiling and loving it.)

I understand that violence is part of hockey, like AFL and other contact sports. I’ve had fights on the footy field in my youth, and even towards the end of my youth. The only time I genuinely, truly saw red and instigated a fight was, of all things, in a Herald newspaper v The Age newspaper “social match” at the Punt Road Oval (my one game ever on the holy home grass of my beloved Tigers).

An Age photographer known to have serious anger management issues dived with both knees into the lower back of a Herald player who had lost his footing and was lying on his stomach, but still reaching for the ball in a pack. It was a cowardly act to an unprotected player that was incredibly dangerous and bad form at any level of footy. But in a fucking social match? Stripling that I was back then, nobody was more surprised than me when I found myself face-to-face with the photographer hard man, his guernsey bunched in my fists and the momentum of righteous anger carrying me through the moment.

Looking back, I have no problem with that encounter. Somebody had to make a point that his act was low and had no place in a social match. I’d like to think more than any physical damage I may have caused, what I said to him about his character and behaviour (and maybe his mother, his penis size and anything hopefully more creative I came up with in that moment) humiliated him in front of a bunch of workmates and journalistic colleagues. And yes, it all occurred right on the wing, in front of the crowd – oops.

Perhaps that’s how Vinnie Hughes feels today? Righteous in that he protected his goalie as a captain should in the accepted violent parameters of hockey culture?

Whenever I tell people outside the sport that I’m a hockey player, their almost-universal reaction is to say: isn’t that an ultra-violent slugfest? I’ve always enjoyed the faux hard-man reputation this reaction offers me.

Of course, at my development league level – and any level I’m ever likely to play – it isn’t a thug sport at all. Even at the Melbourne Ice level, fights are banned and I’m expecting Hughes will miss a few matches as a result of his exploits.

But occasionally, like Saturday, you’re reminded of the savagery that is in the DNA of hockey over the past century or so, and that such primitive violence is not as far below the surface as modern officialdom would like to think. In the NHL, there remain times where to not fight would be regarded as wrong. (Such as Bertuzzi shaping up to Weber in the game after Weber slammed Zetterberg’s head into the boards during the recent play-offs – I applauded Bert for that.)

Like boxing, it’s a sport where people can be hurt, and by deliberate, expertly-delivered punches.

And I stand and cheer. Against every value I hold in the world outside that bubble.

I’m still not sure what that means. I guess the obvious answer is to skate hard on Wednesday night and play the puck, not the man. And probably be laughed at by my Rookies peer group for genuinely hoping Sam Wilson is okay.

As another violent man, Ned Kelly, once said: “Such is life”.


The Avengers: a hockey team waiting to happen

My hockey team: Ironman takes Centre. Hulk. you're in goal, big guy.

Well, damn. Having Wednesdays off is something I could get used to. Crawled out of bed at midday, went to a movie, snoozed on the couch then wandered down to Docklands for the usual game of pool at the Harbourside followed by two hours of hockey. That’s my kind of day.

I took a few moments to consider the sacrifice of the ANZACs and to savour Australia’s freedom, but mostly I spent the day thinking that The Avengers would make a damn good hockey combo. Watching the new movie (which rocks) had taken all afternoon, 3D glasses on, and I emerged, blinking, already trying to work out positions for the super-heroes in my new Avengers hockey team.

I’m assuming Hawkeye and Black Widow would take the wings. Hawkeye’s whole thing is that he cannot miss, at least with a bow and arrow, so he’s a handy guy to have in attack. Black Widow is a Russian spy with ninja moves and acrobatic flair, so she’s definitely going to be an asset causing chaos as we head through our blue line. Plus, you know … Scarlett Johanssen. I mean, what? I need to draw you a map?

Centre is a key role but again, it’s an easy fit. Ironman. The guy is the ultimate forward-and-back player, with agility, lightning moves, the ability to fly, strength, great hockey armour built in … he rivals Datsyuk as the perfect centre man, depending on whether Tony Stark can deke. Getting skates on Ironman’s feet might be tricky, given the jetpacks and all, but I’m sure Stark industries, or Bauer, can come up with something.

Plus, Stark is equally famous as a billionaire playboy, so he can be the money behind the team as well. Nice to have you aboard, Tony.

Defence? Captain America picks himself as Right D. Nowhere near enough creativity for a forward role and a possibly too rigid team-first player but solid, always making the right decisions, a big body and shining with leadership. He’s the Lidstrom of the team. And I’d definitely pair him with Thor on the Left D. Not only does the Norse God come from Sweden, a renowned source of hockey talent (just look at my Red Wings) but he can bring lightning to the defence, which will scare the crap out of other teams. It might be tricky to get Thor to part with his hammer so that he can hold a hockey stick, but maybe we can just extend the handle on the hammer and kill two birds with one stone?

Which only leaves a goalie …yes, the big green guy. Hulk.

Hulk as Goalie: penalty-minute concerns ...

One, he’s enormous, completely filling the goalface, two, he’s finally awesome in the new film (after a couple of dubious movie attempts beforehand) and three, nobody’s about to rush the crease while he’s in goal. True, there’s a chance, the big green giant will give up a lot of penalty minutes for over-aggression on the ice, but I think the intimidation factor is high enough to counteract that.

Team assembled, with Big Cat Place, me and the other Icehouse Rookies on the bench and ready to sub in, as required.

Oh yeah, Nick Fury giving the Babcock Glare as coach/GM from the bench, with SHIELD agent Maria Hill as his assistant, just because she’s played by that hot chick from “How I Met Your Mother”. (see Scarlett Johanssen logic, above.)

Who’s up for playing us?

Speaking of playing, we had class/dev league last night.

I’d planned to skate all week but hadn’t actually made it, so I was scratchy in Intermediate; never quite having my skates under me (although, thankfully, I landed several crossovers while all the coaches were looking at me and barracking/sledging, so I dodged a bullet there).

Dev League was okay but again not amazing, for me.

Big Cat Place scored a goal with the most clinical opposite-corner finish I’ve seen from him, which was cool (plus I was on the ice, so technically went to +1 on that play).

My campaign to become known as “Huge Cat Place” failed to gain traction

I was involved in a huge collision with James, which saw him end up on his back and me standing over him yelling: “Mother-fucker! … You ok?” (Yes, I’ve learned to do it in that order, as against earlier hits.)

I attempted and failed a wrap-around goal, which was fun.

But I caught myself being a total spectator a couple of times, was sluggish in my skating and only managed a few genuinely nice plays, so I scored myself harshly on the night, especially after playing my best game last week. Hey ho. Onward to next Wednesday.

… assuming I’m not required by the Avengers team.

Vale the octopus

The legend of the octopus. Every April, at the Joe Louis Arena.

Last Sunday was the anniversary of a quirky piece of Red Wings’ history. It was exactly 60 years ago that a Detroit fan, and the owner of a local fish market, Pete Cusimano, in cahoots with his brother, Jerry, tossed an octopus onto the ice of the Olympia stadium, at the start of the 1952 play-offs. At that time, a team needed to win eight games to lift the Stanley Cup so the Cusimano’s symbolic gesture was that the Wings needed one win for each cephalopod leg*.

The Wings didn’t lose a game from that moment, sweeping the semi-finals and final to lift the Cup. The legend of the octopus was born and Red Wings games have been routinely interrupted by octopi landing on the ice ever since, especially during the play-offs. It remains perfectly acceptable, come April and the play-offs, for Detroit fans to declare: “Respect the octopus!” without anybody looking sideways.

Of course, the real losers in his tradition are the poor sacrificed octopi, and the sourpusses at NHL headquarters who have tried repeatedly to stop the tradition, to the amusement of Wings fans. The Wings’ Zamboni driver, Al Sobotka, is the one who usually gets handed the octo-remains by a linesman and he has the endearing habit of waving the octopus above his head as he leaves the ice, which doesn’t exactly discourage fans.

Al Sobotka does his best to discourage Wings fans from their favourite prank.

In fact, the Wings’ play-off mascot since 1995, Rally Al, a giant purple and ferocious-looking octopus that hangs from the rafters of the Joe Louis Arena, is named after Sobotka.

Anyway, anniversary or not, none of this helped the Red Wings in this year’s play-offs. As of this morning, Melbourne time, they’re already out. First-round losers to the Nashville Predators, having won only one game and having failed to score anywhere near enough goals to threaten to progress. Even with all our alleged forward firepower.

It’s the earliest exit since 2006 and follows two pretty limp efforts in second round exits in the previous two seasons.

I’m gutted but not surprised. We started this season strangely and slowly, then hit a golden mid-season run of form. But lately, with a badly-timed rash of injuries and a complete, inexplicable lack of mojo when it mattered, we’ve looked off the pace.

You get the sense that the Wings’ owner, pizza czar Mike Ilitch, general manager Ken Holland and coach Mike Babcock are going to be having some serious discussions in the wake of this one. I’m even nervous for Babcock’s job, and I generally like him a lot as a coach. The fact is, our wildly-talented team – good enough to set an all-time NHL record for consecutive home-wins (starting the day Big Cat, Mack and I left town, as you may recall) and briefly top the entire competition, barely gave a yelp against the Preds.

Nik Lidstrom, post today's loss. I so hope this isn't the last shot of him in the No. 5.

We need new blood, new tactics or new energy, from somewhere. And we’re no longer talking a few tweaks here or there.

Depressing, but the good news is that the Melbourne Ice team starts a new season next Saturday, and the Richmond Tigers are showing definite signs of finally becoming a team worth barracking for in the footy (he wrote nervously – I have said that before and been proven wrong, and Richmond plays Geelong on the rebound, at Geelong, tomorrow. Gulp).

But one thing about sport, in your moment of disappointment, you can take comfort in the fact a new season will bring fresh hope and memories. The Wings will rest, players will go, players will be hired, our veteran defender, captain and inspiration, Niklas Lidstrom (nickname: The Perfect Human), will hopefully decide to play again, and maybe the cards will be reshuffled into a better team than the one that just lost.

From my point of view, it was the most memorable Red Wings season ever, simply because Will, Mack and I made our live NHL debut and actually saw the team live, four times, in Washington DC and then at the fabled Joe – an absolute life highlight, regardless of the play-off fizzle. I’m still eyeing the idea of trying to get back to Motor City for the Winter Classic.

The city of Detroit’s official flag features not one but two Latin quotes: Speramus Meliora and Resurget Cineribus. Written after the great Detroit fire of 1805, when the entire city, apart from one building and one chimney, burnt to the ground, they translate as: “We hope for better things” and “It will rise from the ashes”.

For Red Wings fans, they both resonate today.

(* See, and you thought you didn’t learn stuff on this blog).

See you next year, Rally Al.