Hope

My mother’s middle name is Hope. It was my Nan’s doing. She told me many times that she gave it to Mum because, ‘If nothing else, she’ll always have hope.’

hope

As The Beatles never sang: All you need is hope.

I’m currently doing a major clean out of endless boxes of memorabilia and sometimes junk at my office and on Friday I found a Tattslotto ticket. Well, actually, it was the master ticket, that you hand over each week so you can play the same numbers. I don’t know what the technical name for it is; I gave up on Tattslotto long ago, working on my old maths teacher’s theory that lotto is just a gambling tax for people who don’t understand probability factors.

But here, in a box of old newspaper articles I’d written, souvenirs from overseas trips, photos, letters from when people wrote letters, and other stuff, was a ticket, for two ‘games’ of numbers.

And it got into my head: imagine if I played those numbers this week AND THEY WON. This would be a story of fate and coincidence for the ages.

And then, of course, it also got into my head: imagine if, having thought that, I now DON’T play those numbers AND THEY WON. What if I had to spend the rest of my miserable life knowing that I had turned my back on this random, glorious, romantic chance to be a multi-millionaire and Fate had, therefore, duly and rightfully shat on my face while my back was turned, which isn’t physically possible but symbolically might be.

After work, I went to the lotto counter, like one of those clueless non-gamblers at the TAB on Melbourne Cup Day, trying to work out how to lay a two-dollar bet.

Michael 'Disco' Roach (#8) taking his greatest mark ever, with Kevin 'Hungry' Bartlett (#29) roving the pack. Once Tiger champions, now Lotto numbers.

Michael ‘Disco’ Roach (#8) taking his greatest mark ever, with Kevin ‘Hungry’ Bartlett (#29) roving the pack. Once Tiger champions, now Lotto numbers.

It took a while before I even worked out the tickets I had weren’t a couple of crazy-expensive System Nines, but cheaper System Eights. I looked at the numbers, trying to remember when I’d come up with them and why. One is definitely a collection of my favourite guernsey numbers at Richmond: Jack Dyer/Maurice Rioli’s 17, Richo’s 12, Disco Roach/Jack Riewoldt’s number 8. The other game looks like it’s birthdays …

I shrugged and handed over money. I bought the tickets for Saturday night’s draw and dreamed of millions.

And my long-passed Nan smiled in my imagination, eyes twinkling. America appears to be Trump-screwed, Australia’s politicians continue to be heartless bastards without a plan. People around me are struggling with illness and despair. But Nan’s ghost lingers. If nothing else, you always have hope.

Unfortunately, as far as IHV competition, summer season Div 3, is concerned for me, hope is snuffed. My team, the Cherokees, are winding down to a sad end this season, having somehow tumbled down the standings as the finals loom. The Detroit Red Wings, likewise, have staggered and will finally lose their quarter-century play-off streak. The Wings’ unofficial anthem is ‘Don’t Stop Believin’‘ but already they’ve sold off a young player I always liked so much that I purchased what is probably the only Tomas Jurco Wings jersey in the Southern Hemisphere. He’s now a Blackhawk and will have skipped out of town, after sketchy playing time and bad usage in Motorcity, with a lot of hope in his heart, that in Chicago he can finally bloom.

So long, Jurco. Have a great career (but not too great: you are now a Blackhawk)

So long, Jurco. Have a great career (but not too great: you are now a Blackhawk)

All that’s left is for the mighty Tigers to march into the 2017 AFL season, their coach saying nothing less than finals will do, and the players talking endlessly of the new spirit and purpose to be found at Punt Road. What could possibly, possibly go wrong? Last season, it took about three weeks for any hope to die, as the team stalled at the gate. This season? Of course I live in hope, endless hope. Richmond supporters are the Hall of Fame Fans of irrationally and against all evidence never letting go of hope.

The NHL trade deadline is in a couple of days and I expect several other favourite Wings to ship out of town as Detroit becomes a seller. The Cherokees have one more game, next weekend, before we go our separate ways until Spring, and I know from every year I’ve played that players will head for winter comp, or retire, or go back to footy, or not be there next year for whatever reason. I’ve really loved this year’s Cherokee line-up, started out with lots of hope, which was gradually dashed, and still wish we’d had more success.

But hey, I got an email from Richmond FC last week, saying my membership pack was on its way. Then the Tigers won on Friday night and looked decent. February pre-season form: it’s the best.

On Sunday, after the ‘Kees had lost 6-0 to a really slick and even Wolverines line-up, after my best shot at goal had hit a few legs, beaten the goalie five-hole but then stopped before crossing the line, after I trudged out of Icy O’Briens, I suddenly remembered I had to check my Tattslotto ticket.

In one game, I had exactly one number, not the required six. The other game was worse: a lone supplementary number.

No miracle. No magic. No millions.

Thanks for nothing, Fate, you unromantic bastard.

And in two days’ time, it’s March. Go Tiges.

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday afternoon in Oakleigh

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It’s been raining for two days and it’s cold.

Winter cold; in the heart of spring. For IHV Summer League div 3 hockey.

Wearing four layers and a beanie, you leave it to your travelling companion to play loud music as you navigate the remorseless bottleneck of Chadstone’s road system. Finally, you pull up in the asphalt car park and lug your giant bag and sticks through the door that is slightly too small, then try to jam them and yourself through the even thinner wedge of metal to avoid the public turnstiles. Hockey players don’t pay at the gate.

Pre-game general skaters.

Pre-game general skaters. (Pic: Nicko)

 

Helpful penguin.

Helpful penguin.  (Pic: Nicko)

 

Dormant goals in the stands.

Dormant goals, waiting for us in the stands. (Pic: Nicko)

Inside, everything is that Oakleigh blue, except the dangling nets, like some demented fisherman’s lair, and the glow of the lights on the scoreboard, reading zero-zero. It’s 50 minutes to the puck drop.

Today is an intra-club grading match, Cherokees v Apaches, so you go say hi to Tony, rugged up and cutting edges in the Next Level shop, then head back down to chat with the ‘opposition’ before heading to your respective rooms. Your team shows up in ones and twos, and suddenly dressing room 3 is packed, strangely warm these days now that an effective heating system has somehow been installed.

Welcome to the shop.

The retail hub of Oakleigh. (Pic: Nicko)

 

Everything you need.

Everything you need. (Pic: Nicko)

 

Branding.

Branding. (Pic: Nicko)

The coaches read the lines one more time and bark instructions as you lace your skates, apply whatever idiosyncratic sock tape pattern you have evolved, give your teammates a grin or a nod, hang shit on the goalie, and then finally stalk your way on thin steel blades through the door, past the ever-dodgy men’s toilets and up the incline towards the rink.

Big crowd in for the Cherokees.

Big crowd in for the Cherokees. (Pic: Nicko)

 

The wait for the gate.

The wait for the gate. (Pic: Nicko)

 

Game time.

Game time. (Pic: Kat Pullin’s dad)

All the figure skaters, families, kids and fake penguins have been removed, Oakleigh’s antique Zamboni has chugged around and at last you step onto the ice, being careful because the drop is always slightly more than you expect, as the refs flip the goals from upside down in the grandstand to upright on the rink.

Water bottles to the narrow shelf behind the bench, a couple of fast laps of the narrow, claustrophobic Olympic rink, so much smaller than Icy O’Briens and with almost non-existent lines. Just as you finish shooting pucks at Stoney the goalie and gently tap all 20 pucks back to the bench, the rain starts in earnest and suddenly you can’t hear the final instructions because of the noise on the tin roof. The captain, Big Cat, shouts: ‘Kees on three. One … two … three!‘

‘KEES!

The crowd is tiny, maybe the occasional partner, family member or two, plus a couple of curious general skaters who have stuck around to see genuine hockey in Melbourne’s last remaining 1970s rink, a long half world away from the true hockey nations of the world.

Oakleigh action. Rain outside.

Oakleigh action. Rain outside. (Pic: Kat Pullin’s dad)

The puck drops and we go at it.

The game is fast and played in good spirit, both teams getting chances but with strong defences mostly choking breakaways and keeping attacks wide. Tommi in net for the Apaches, and Stoney standing on his head for us, as the heavy rain continues to drive hard and loud into the tin above, and sometimes through the roof, dripping onto our bench, and you wonder if this is going to turn into a famous Oakleigh pea-souper.

The Apaches seem to have only two or three players on the bench, while we have three full lines as well as five D. They get the first goal but we get one back and then another, and start to edge further in front.

Kees v Apaches.

‘Kees v Apaches. (Pic: Kat Pullin’s dad)

 

Kat defending. (Pic: her dad)

Kat defending. (Pic: her dad)

 

Some hack heads up ice.

Some hack heads up ice. (Pic: Kat Pullin’s dad)

In the end, we win, and we’re NHL happy but actually it’s a grading game and the start of summer and the Apaches have beaten us too many times for us to get cocky about managing to snag a win.

We do the handshakes, thank the refs, circle around to thank the coaches. We leave the ice, thank the hockey Gods that you’re allowed to have a beer in the change-rooms at good old Oakleigh, take advantage of that miracle as we get changed, then finish the beers outside, four or five Cherokees huddled in the doorway as the rain continues to fall but less so than during the game. We nod or yell goodbyes to various Braves players from both teams as they scuttle through the puddles to their vehicles, the few of us who are left shooting the shit about nothing in particular before we finally drift to our cars.

The post-game glow.

The post-game glow. (Pic: Nicko)

The long drive back to town has good music, and play-by-play breakdowns of the action, as we dissect the game and our form.

Next weekend, we’re back in the glamour of Icy O’Briens, Australia’s shiny and well-appointed official Winter Olympic training facility at Docklands, skating out no doubt to the disappointment of the remaining crowd after an women’s Australian Ice Hockey League game featuring Melbourne Ice has finished.

That’s Sunday afternoon.

But this one was classic Oakleigh. Who would have it any other way?

 

UPDATE: It looks like the crazy weather finally took a toll on Oakleigh’s ice sheet. This was from Facebook, apparently taken tonight, as I was finishing this. No idea how you fix something like this but one thing I do know: the resourceful Victorian hockey community will find a way.

Pic: Bron Bird, Monday.

Pic: Bron Bird, Monday.

Cracked ice on Monday night.

Cracked ice on Monday night.

Preparing for a vintage summer

Summer hockey is serious business these days. With so many players flowing into the local sport and so few rinks (see several hundred previous posts on that topic) getting your first taste of competitive hockey is tricky.

My club, the Braves, had grading skates over the past two weekends. They weren’t so much try-out skates as working out in which division new Braves should play, with the idea that the teams should be evenly spread with talent and, most importantly, new skaters shouldn’t be blown away by experienced, more accomplished hockey players. As any reader of this blog will know, that remains one of my biggest issues in Ice Hockey Victoria competition – that too often there has been one or two players on a team in say Div 4 or Div 3 who simply shouldn’t be there, who should be playing several grades higher. Watching an opponent skate effortlessly around your entire team and then score top shelf, backhand, over their shoulder, while waving to the crowd, gets old after a while.

But it’s pretty much an honour system. These players are always there because they reportedly ‘want to play with their mates’, and I suppose I get that. I want to skate with my son, Big Cat Place, and then work things out from there. Happily I think we both fit the Div 3 profile without terrorising the opposition. In fact, I wish.

Being the dedicated professional hockey player that I am, I missed both the grading skates. I felt like Kevin Costner’s greatest ever character, ‘Crash’ Davis, in the Hall of Fame baseball film, Bull Durham, explaining that he doesn’t ‘try out’. (One of my favourite movie monologues ever.)

Actually, I had non-hockey alibis. In week one, I was at the world premiere of a friend’s film (Sucker, by one of my magic crowd mates, Lawrence Leung – I heartily recommend it: coming to cinemas soon) and then this weekend I was in Sydney, watching a legendary French dancer, Sylvie Guillem, take her final bows in Australia at the end of a glorious career.

Sylvie Guillem in flight. Amazing. I feel honoured that I got to witness her dancing, live, before she bows out.

Sylvie Guillem in flight. Amazing. I feel honoured that I got to witness her dancing, live, before she bows out.

Guillem is about six weeks older than me and has decided to call her career while she’s still on top of her game and, oh man, she is. Her dancing was unbelievable, especially her final solo piece, ‘Bye’. Astonishing.

Even better, her goodbye tour is titled: ‘A life in progress’. No ‘best of’ dancing for her; instead she’s still pushing herself, exploring, until the moment she steps off the stage. Even then, Guillem’s mantra is that she will no longer be starring in international productions, as she has been since Rudolf Nureyev strode onto the stage after her debut in Swan Lake, and announced she was now the French company’s étiole (top dancer) when she was at the absurdly young age of 19. But she’s not disappearing either. Her take is that it’s time for the next thing, whatever that is, and her life in arts will continue somehow.

Plus she’s a massive supporter of the Sea Shepherd and had Shepherd supporters selling merchandise at the Opera House, which was an unlikely scene. I bought a beanie I didn’t need, just because. She rocks.

Sylvie Guillem. This, peoples, is elite fitness. Pic: Balletoman.

Sylvie Guillem. This, peoples, is elite fitness. Pic: Balletoman.

Over cocktails at Palmer & Co, post-performance, Chloé and I chatted about Life After. I wondered how Guillem will eventually cope with not being so outrageously fit, flexible and just physically incredible, once she retires and drops at least a level or two in training and physical commitment. I think anybody who has worked hard enough to be elite fit, as in really fit, understands what it’s like to drop back to ‘pretty fit’ or even ‘very fit’. Let alone, ‘yeah, kind of fit’.

Guillem has been training remorselessly since she was 11. Thirty-nine years of being at the top of her game. It will take an adjustment, when she realises she can’t just do a vertical split without thinking about it.

The Large No. 12s, at the Labour In Vain, with Tiger Mick on guitar (in the back, far right) and a lead singer with a working back.

The Large No. 12s, at the Labour In Vain, with Tiger Mick on guitar (in the back, far right) and a lead singer with a working back.

But all manner of levels of fitness after 50 can be done and there are many inspirations around me. Tiger Mick is one of my Bang footy brothers. He’s well over 60 (I’m too polite to ask exactly how far) and recently lost a year of Bang action to an infected toe. There are infected toes and infected toes and my understanding is Mick almost lost his, the big toe on his right foot (kicking foot). He’s finally back, running and racing around like a maniac, as always, even tackling much bigger guys, against the Bang rules, and mostly kicking left foot. I watch him and think: if I was 60+ and lost a year of muscle in my legs (i.e. most of the muscle mass) I can’t see myself just jumping straight back in and running running running once given a half-all clear by a doctor. On weekends, Tiger Mick and a bunch of his mates play music in pubs across the town. We went and saw them recently at the Standard in Fitzroy and the lead singer was playing guitar and singing, while sitting down, with his back against the back-wall of the stage. ‘Is that some kind of rockstar affectation?’ I asked Tiger Mick. “Nah, he’s done his back but if he didn’t turn up, we don’t get paid,’ Mick shrugged. These guys are unstoppable.

Magnificently vintage Shonko battles the red dust of central Australia last week.

Magnificently vintage Shonko battles the red dust of central Australia last week.

Likewise, my friend Shonko has just got back from racing mountain bikes at Alice Springs. He finished about 30th overall and second in his division, which was, hilariously, titled: ‘Vintage’. Shonko a few years ago was riding in the age group 24-hour off-road mountain bike titles in Banff, Canada, where you ride and ride and ride for 24-hours around a 13 kilometre course, and he was so fit it was just ridiculous. We actually stopped going bush together because I felt bad that all super-rider Shonko did was wait for huffing puffing me to catch up. He always said that didn’t bother him. These days, he’s stepped it back to shorter races and to more fun challenges and doesn’t seem the worse for it. In fact, he has a better life balance while still being fitter than most 50-year-olds could dream of.

Giddyup. Pic: Luke Milkovic

Giddyup. Pic: Luke Milkovic

Me? I’m a few steps behind him, feeling my way back towards the level of fitness I want, which enables me to compete at hockey and to live my life. My problem/joy has always been that I have too many irons in my far too many fires. It’s impossible to be super-crazy-fit while also running a company, raising kids, writing novels, being social, embracing art and culture, writing for TV, and all the other stuff I do. But after a much-needed break after last summer’s season, I’m starting to build my lungs, legs and momentum towards this season, and it feels good. I’m nowhere near my version of peak fitness yet but I can feel it getting closer. Footy on Sundays, Inter and maybe Dev League on a Wednesday night (even though I was straight-out appalling last Wednesday: one of those nights. Yeesh) as well as occasional gym, running sessions, 50 push-ups and 100 sit-ups (minimum) per day, and riding my new mountain bike. This morning, spring in the air, I rode this incredible machine through the streets of inner Melbourne, past the MCG and Punt Road Oval (Go Tigers!) and then wound through the back streets of Cremorne to the Giants HQ. My hands were freezing in the morning wind but my legs felt good, pumping the pedals towards another summer and another Cherokee adventure. It’s going to be a different season: several of the old Cherokees have moved up to Division 2, pushing onward, higher, but enough of the old ‘Kees still around to make our changeroom the fun, slander-filled space that I love. Can’t wait to pull No. 17 over my head, clip my battered red helmet to my head and go chase the puck.

Sylvie Guillem might feel it’s the right time to go, but I sure don’t. I’m sticking with Tiger Mick and Shonko, in the Old Enough To Know Better division, also known as Vintage.

Bring it.

 

 

The end of another summer?

Tonight, I potentially play my last game of the IHV Div 3 2014/15 summer season. My team, the Cherokees, has a game next weekend to finish the regular season but I have a wedding I can’t miss and so tonight, at 10.30 pm at the Icehouse against the Champs, is it for me. Except that we’re going to win tonight and therefore play finals in a couple of weeks, but that’s for another blog.

As always, as the end of the official season approaches, I feel melancholy. There are aspects of being in a team, of sharing adventures with the same group of people, that are impossible to capture elsewhere. It’s something I cherish because I only watched it from the outside for so many years as a sports journalist while, as a kid, I was more of a surfer than a footy player and only played indoor cricket with some mates for fun. The Bang, my winter footy world with a bunch of similarly creaky Sherrin-chasers, goes close but we don’t have actual matches, we don’t skate onto the Henke Rink needing to win to make the finals. That sort of adrenalin is hard to bottle.

I haven’t written the blog since returning from Christmas because there hasn’t been much to write about, in a hockey sense. I’ve been training on Wednesdays, very much as per the final blog of last year, where Tommy, Lliam, Army and Shona own our arses in dev league after we complete drills in Inter class. We’ve played some Cherokee games and continue to get more cohesive and dangerous as a team, just as we’re going to have to stop.

In my happy place (pun intended): playing the goon for the Cherokees.

In my happy place (pun intended): playing the goon for the Cherokees.

Away from the rink, I’ve been on an intense fitness campaign – including a non-negotiable minimum of 50 push-ups and 100 sit-ups per day, over and above hockey training, gym workouts and other fitness – and feel great for it. It’s kind of annoying that I feel like I’m hitting peak fitness at the exact moment I’m about to stop playing competitive hockey.

On Monday, I even walked to work, and therefore found myself wandering past the Punt Road Oval just as my beloved Richmond footy team was warming up for training. Somebody had left a gate open and that’s all a former journo needs to sneak in and take a seat … I eventually made myself useful by collecting the balls that were kicked too high for the epic netting behind the goals (about one in five shots), so that I felt like a little kid again, scurrying around behind the goals at the school end of Lorne’s Stribling Reserve to get the footy as the Lorne Dolphins took on their Otway opponents, surf booming from down the hill.

But I digress. It was fascinating watching the Tigers go through their routines. It’s a long time since I’ve been to an AFL training session. As a journo, I hung out at training all the time and mostly took it for granted but now I saw it all through fresh eyes. The Tigers warm up using many of the time-honoured techniques all footy teams do, such as two players sharing one ball, playing kick-to-kick from 20 metres apart. Even us Bangers do that before starting to run around, but Richmond puts a little spin on it: instead of standing, flat footed, to mark the ball, then kick it back, the Tigers mark it, turn, take four or five steps backwards, then pivot and deliver the pass back to their mate. It’s recreating the movement of taking a grab, and then retreating from somebody standing on the mark, to turn and bullet a pass to a teammate. Kicking with one foot and then the other. Even before their hammies are vaguely warmed up, they’re recreating match conditions.

They weren’t finished. After a while, the players took to marking the ball, then dropping it and letting it bounce on the ground a couple of times before they bent, picked it up and kicked before straightening. Again, in a match, you don’t have time to scoop up the ball, stand straight, balance, look around and then kick. So at training, they’re kicking from a half-crouch, having snared the ball on a half volley.

Jack Riewoldt shows his style at training.

Jack Riewoldt shows his style at training.

Everything had a meaning; everything had purpose. When a coach called ‘drink break’, the Tigers ran back to their drink bottles as fast as they possibly could. I mean: sprinted! It was like there was a thousand bucks cash on the boundary near their bottles. In a game, you don’t jog back to the bench, you get the fuck off the playing surface so your replacement can get on. One player yelled: ‘This is not a drill, peoples. This is not a footy drill!’ just to be a goose, but that’s where I started to see the correlations between what they were doing and hockey training. Sprinting to the boundary, for example, has direct application for hockey. If you’ve ever played in a team with somebody who dawdles back to the bench, stick in the air, because that’s how they’ve seen the NHL players do it … while you’re watching your team now a man down on an opposition breakaway, you’ll know what I mean. If you’re going to end your shift, skate hard to the boards, peoples.

At our training, the coaches endless ask us to skate fast over to the whiteboard so they can explain the next drill, but people saunter back, grab a drink, gradually tune in. The Tigers, professional athletes, are there, drinking, in a flash, and then on their way to the next activity with intent. Impressive intent.

The other drill that caught my eye was when they started doing run-throughs. Six or seven Tigers would leave one end of the ground at a time, running at maybe 60-70 per cent. As they approached the cones 150 metres away, a coach would be standing with a Sherrin in his hands. He would fire a handball to one of the running players, but they didn’t know which until he suddenly rocketed the ball to them. Lightning fast hands snared the ball in one grab every time. In hockey, a lot of our drills are choreographed, as in ‘Man A leaves this corner, skates around this cone, looks for a pass from Man B who then skates to here to receive the pass back before the blue line’. The Tigers add a little matchday randomness to everything, because in a game, you don’t have the choreographed puck arrive just as you’re ready for it after rounding a cone. In fact, hockey games and AFL games are very much about making snap decisions and of having the puck or ball arrive sometimes unexpectedly.

This is not to say footy training is better/smarter than what we do at the Icehouse. I fully get that hockey skill drills are a different beast to the Tigers’ match day recreation stuff and that we hockey rookies need to have drilled into us over and over again how to break-out, how to form a three man rush, how to pass in front of a skater, not to their feet … these are basics that we need to keep working on but the Tigers don’t exactly have to worry about. And anyway, at the Bang, one of our elders, a well-known singer songwriter, is forever trying to get us to do a three-man handball weave as we run warm-up laps, but it’s laughable how incompetent we all are at such a basic move. It drives him insane. Sometimes, hockey players and footy players are better when acting by instinct, instead of trying to handball to here, move from point A to point B, receive the ball there, move from Point B to Point C.

And then, anyway, the Tigers surprised me and made me laugh, by doing a drill that was so robotic and synchronized that it looked like a line-dance.

The whole thing was fun to watch, and scamper around, collecting footys. I walked the rest of the way to work and back to my real life, looking forward to the AFL season starting, so that the Tigers can prove they’re finally the real thing. The calendar clicking ever closer to footy mode also means the Melbourne Ice women will have secured the title by then, which means the Melbourne Ice men will be ready to show the Giddyup Clippy Clop Orange crowd that last year’s final was just a bad day on the wrong day.

Me? I’ll be spending Wednesday nights on the ice with Big Cat, and Sundays at the Bang with my footy brothers, occasionally, hopefully, scuba diving with Mackquist, and all the time wondering if my creaky old body has another summer of competitive hockey left in it? As I do every year. Before I inevitably sign up and pull the Cherokees No. 17 jersey over my shoulder pads, chasing that locker-room brother-and-sisterhood that I adore and the sheer thrill of the battle. I love it all. There’s life in the old dog yet.

These little aches and pains

These little aches and pains.
I’ve got them always now,
Sunshine or rain.’

Paul Kelly

I remember Paul Kelly once saying at a concert that he has a large family, and they’re getting older. (PK himself is pushing 60, although you wouldn’t know it if you’ve ever seen him playing footy. He’s like a greyhound, always moving, kicking off both feet, running, running running.)

But when the Kelly family gets together now, he said, every member is allowed five minutes only to discuss their ailments. The years are taking tolls in all directions and so it has been agreed that five minutes is the maximum whinge/outlining of physical woes.

Careering towards the boards probably doesn't help my injury list get shorter. Pic: Luke Milković

Careering towards the boards probably doesn’t help my injury list get shorter. Pic: Luke Milković

At the moment, this is resonating strongly for Nicko Place, hockey player. Only a few rounds into the summer season and my poor old body is groaning. I’ve had a sore wrist for weeks now – maybe a tiny chip on a bone; I don’t know – and my neck yelps if I look to the right, while my left upper hammie has been troubling me for a couple of months. Now my lower back is kicking in, to the point that I pulled out of dev league last night because my back was hurting, instead of warmed up and functioning, after Intermediate class.

I hate pulling out of a game, any game, and sure enough my red team went on to win 4-3 in a thriller, as I showered and drove home to an earlier night than usual.

This morning, the back is aching and the wrist is hurting and I’m feeling like the old man that I am.

Almost without exception, when you tell anybody you play hockey, their immediate response is: ‘That’s a wild game, isn’t it? You must get physically smashed.’

I always go into explanations about how at our level of ‘non-checking’ play, there may be collisions, rather than deliberate impact. No punches thrown – well, hardly any. But honestly, it’s not as physical as you’d think.

But lately, all those collisions seem to be catching up with me. Is it my advanced hockey age? Or am I just in the middle of a bad run? If I was to read back through all the blog posts about The Year of the Knee, I’d be reminded that as banged up as I feel today, I’m totally fine: I can skate and I can stick-handle and I can bend, even if my back isn’t thrilled about it. Or I could think of my days among the Nite Owls, where 70-year-olds still wheel and skate and shoot, if at a slightly gentler pace than when they were in their pomp half a century ago.

One of my fellow Cherokees and a Demon player demonstrating what I mean by 'collision' during a recent summer league battle. Pic: Luke Milković

One of my fellow Cherokees and a Demon player demonstrating what I mean by ‘collision’ during a recent summer league battle. Pic: Luke Milković

It’s all a matter of context and attitude, I guess. I plan to hit the gym today or tonight, to do the lower back strengthening exercises that I’ve been slack about since returning from France. Tonight, I have team training and then a game on Saturday. If I can wrangle it, I might even try to kick a footy at the Bang on Sunday.

The body moans and complains but it keeps going, which is all that matters, I suppose. Usually, I wouldn’t write a post about this because it’s such a constant and such a low-level irritant that it doesn’t seem blog worthy. The pains niggle and worry but don’t add up to more than that. And even then, I’m sure most players going around have something niggling away. A former teammate posted today on facebook about how a miniscus tear is bothering him and I wrote back saying, oh yeah, been carrying that one for more than a year … turns out he has too. I guess it’s standard that the hockey community is keeping stocks high in companies specialising in pain relief drugs. It’s just that, this morning, I have to keep standing up from my desk to move around.

I hope it’s a bad run of impact, and not the physical decline of Old Man Place. Time will tell.

Blow the horn … at last.

Scored a goal last night. In dev league.

It was a dirty goal, as I saw it. But it went in.

And let me say right from the get-go, this blog is NOT to skite. Ohhhhhhh, no. I have no intention of puffing on a cigar, saying to the wider world, ‘Hey, look at me. Goal scorer!’

Because actually, if I’m honest, this is about pure relief. The fact is it had been a long time since I had put a puck between the posts, in the back of the net.

For a forward, a person in vertical black and white stripes making this signal is the most beautiful thing in the world (unless you're in the defensive zone. Then it sucks.)

The signal you want to see a ref or linesman make immediately after you shoot at goal.

A goal drought is a funny thing, in any sport. You don’t realise you’re in it, until you really undeniably are. And then it becomes extremely hard to ignore.

I guess it’s why the word ‘drought’ is well chosen as a metaphor. It hasn’t rained for a while. Then you begin to realise it has been an unfeasibly long time since there was precipitation of any volume. Then you notice the dryness of the soil, the wilting leaves on the vegetation. The percentage-full stat for the dams has been creeping while you weren’t watching, but now you are and the drop is alarming. That figure keeps creeping in the wrong direction and suddenly, you’re worried and the people with fancy cars are being told they can’t wash their cars, even using buckets, and you start seeing scenarios where it never rains again and Australia finally meets its post-Apocalyptic harsh dry Mad Max future that has always seemed a likely end game in this extreme country and never more so than when a douchecanoe of a Prime Minister waves off all science, declares climate change doesn’t exist and tells reporters how much he loves coal and thinks coal mining is a great thing for our future.

But I digress. Hockey.

A hockey friend of mine logged a Facebook post one day, which read something like: ‘643 days.’

This puzzled me for a while. After all, there was that outside chance he was discussing something unrelated to hockey. 643 days what? Since he last had a drink? Until his best gal arrives home? Until a movie he’s looking forward to is released?

But no, sure enough, fellow hockey players turned up on the thread, gently nudging and ribbing him in the comments, and it became clear he was actually counting, carefully, how much time had passed since his last goal.

This horrified me. That is not a stat I would ever want to voluntarily track. There was a time a while ago when I ran briefly at a goal a game for one short glorious spell. But then, more recently, any dev league or IHV goalscorers could have been forgiven for forgetting the number 17 existed when I was on the ice.

My goal drought had certainly lasted a while before last night’s dev league goal (and I know it’s only dev league but there are lots of very good players going around on Wednesday nights at the Icehouse, so I’m counting it as a genuine competition goal, so there).

It had never, at any point, occurred to me to count the individual days between horns blaring. I do know that after scoring three goals in my debut summer season of 2012/13 (and I can sort of remember them all, even if the sometimes sketchy recording mechanisms of hockey mean only one was officially recorded), I didn’t score at all in the 2013/14 season.

There were reasons for this, including the much-chronicled Lost Year of the Knee, which affected my mobility throughout the season and my sheer, basic ability to be able to get to the puck, or not, which clearly affects your scoring potential.

But whatever the excuses, I hadn’t hit the scoreboard for a long time. And that bothers anybody. Definitely, it bothers me. It just eats into your belief, shift after shift, easily blocked shot after missed net.

There are many kinds of forwards in hockey. It’s a fascinating part of a sport with usually a maximum of 12 forwards in a game, taking the ice in waves of three players at a time. Some forwards, even whole lines, are almost purely defensive, some are grinders, some – in the olden days of the NHL and pro leagues – are dedicated enforcers, only on the team to go beat up an opponent threatening the team’s more skilled goal scorers.

My boy, Big Cat, is mobbed by Cherokees after scoring. He got a hat-trick last night and is a pure goal-scorer when fit and firing. Pic: Luke Milkovic.

My boy, Big Cat, is mobbed by Cherokees after scoring. He got a hat-trick last night and is a pure goal-scorer when fit and firing. Pic: Luke Milkovic.

And there are the pure goal scorers – forwards who can dart and weave on their skates, can fly, and have cannon shots to targeted corners of the net, or have deft flecks to flip a puck past a bedazzled, helpless goalie. Have their heads up and their eyes open to spot a goalie moving ever so slightly in one direction, and the skill to plant the puck where he or she isn’t.

I am not one of those players. And yet nor am I a purely defensive forward. I’m old fashioned, I guess, and see some sort of responsibility as a usually Left Wing, in a decent team, to put my share of shots on net, to be able to get myself to that dangerous, buffeted slot in front of the goalie, looking for the rebound, or a deflection, while being elbowed and yanked, buffeted and stick-chopped by opposition defenders. I think, after playing for about four years, I need to be able to do something, something, on a breakaway, and I definitely should at least see the number 17 on some assists for my team, the Cherokees, or for my dev league teammates, even if I’m not scoring genuine goals myself.

But it had been a while since these things had happened and that starts to erode at your confidence and your belief, there’s no denying it. It’s amazing what one goal can do to spark you up, to make you feel like you might just maybe actually belong on the ice. As opposed to sucking, night after night.

As I said at the start, I’m not strutting; I’m breathing out, with relief. A bobbling, strategic, not too powerful shot somehow tumbling over the goalie’s stick, to sneak through the five hole. That moment when you realise it has actually disappeared behind the goalie, like Luke Skywalker watching the missile vanish into the air conditioning unit. And in the most unlikely setting of a single shift where all three of us scored, The Milkman and Big Cat bookending my goal with well crafted shots that found the mark.

I have no idea when my next goal will be, or where it will come from, but at least I now know it can happen; that I haven’t completely lost my ability to score after all. Lots of core strength work, lots of skating technique toil to eek out some speed, any possible speed, and re-enrolled in Intermediate classes, which has been fantastic because there are so many puck-handling drills, to feel the puck. Plus a change of gloves, and a new stick. Plus six drops of essence of terror, five drops of sinister sauce. All these little things plus a stroke of luck and a slice of confidence.

Now I just need it to happen in official Div 3 competition.

Fingers crossed. Which is not easy when wearing hockey gloves. Try it some time.

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.