The flow of the ice …

Another summer season starts tonight. The plucky Cherokees, full of old and new faces, take on an apparently highly-rated Demons team in a grading game.

It got me to thinking about the summers past, and all the people I’ve played with, as I prepare to step out for my fifth summer of competitive hockey.

A new season begins ...

A new season begins …

Life flows, within and beyond hockey. Years and years now of development league, classes at Icy O’Briens and, briefly, Next Level, of playing for the Nite Owls, Friday night social games, and official IHV comp for the Interceptors and then the Cherokees. All those bench partners, and line partners, and changing room banter partners, and coaches.

I haven’t been writing much on this blog because really it’s been the same story as years past and I haven’t wanted to write for the sake of writing … I’ve been playing dev league, attending occasional team trainings, plus kicking a footy once or twice a week, as well as hitting the gym, boxing, and oh yeah, work and family. In the AFL, Richmond sucked again, while in the about-to-start NHL, the Red Wings are again skating under a question mark, with a bunch of new faces, but the fading Datsyuk gone.

On Monday, I returned to work after a week at Heron Island, doing the Queensland tropical sun-and-beach thing with Chloe and Cassius, as well as scuba diving with one of my French brother-in-laws, Brendan, and a lot of turtles and nudibranchs.

A nudibranch, somewhere underwater just off Heron Island, Qld. (about two centimetres long, for context). Pic: Nicko

A nudibranch, somewhere underwater just off Heron Island, Qld. (about two centimetres long, for context). Pic: Nicko

The first thing I did when I got back to work was grab a coffee with Pete Savvides, one of my Interceptor teammates five years ago. We talked about all sorts of stuff, only a fraction of which was hockey. Pete married now, with a baby, and a senior job and a new summer team as he tries to help enthusiastic rookies get into the sport.

Some of the other Interceptors aren’t even in hockey any more, as far as I know. Others have scattered to different teams or clubs. It’s the way of the hockey world; not many teams are able to stay together, season to season.

Last year’s Cherokees were different to the ‘Kees before that. This year’s team is different again. Players head to the winter draft, or push up to new grades. I still consider my watermark to be solidly Division 3, meaning Cherokee life suits me fine, but others are more ambitious or have actual skills that demand an upgrade in standard.

My first summer team, the Interceptors (missing: Alex McNab)

My first summer team, the Interceptors (missing: Alex McNab). Damn, I look younger.

It’s okay. There are members of the about-to-launch 2016/17 Cherokees team that I barely know yet, but I know we’ll be friends by March, when we hopefully play finals, or wet our disappointment at not making the four. I’ve met all kind of people through hockey and it’s one of the parts of the crazy adventure that I love. Doctors and political analysts, fellow journalists, and plumbers, dog groomers, IT consultants, building workers and yoga instructors … every team is a wild mix of personalities, skills and interests. Coming together for the grand adventure of a 10.30 pm IHV-scheduled game, or a more casual Oakleigh training session.

One of the Cherokee incarnations. I just noticed that I seem to always kneel in the same spot for team photos. Weird.

One of the Cherokee incarnations. I just noticed that I seem to always kneel in the same spot for team photos. Weird.

Tonight, we suit up for real; Big Cat Place and I slated for second-line duties, skating together as the only constant in five years of competition; still the reason I do it. The new look Cherokees beginning our summer journey against a mysterious opponent, but with several of my long-time friends now added to the team as an unexpected bonus.

People rise in your life, people fall out of your life. Friends, lovers, workmates, clients, family. People you wish you’d spent more time with, others you’re pretty happy to see the back of. Hockey is a microcosm of the wider universe, and I embrace the new, while remembering the old.

So, here’s a pre-game toast to teammates past and present.

See you somewhere along the icy way. For the Cherokees, that means 8 pm tonight. Bring it.

Wednesday, I’m in love

A hockey player announced his retirement yesterday. Posted on Facebook that he was planning to hang up the skates. The reaction was predictable: everybody saying noooooooo, what are you thinking? (Except for one guy who said he quit nine years ago and has never looked back, which was interesting.) Seems my Facebook friend has decided the other priorities in life, starting with his heart, take precedence over chasing pucks, which is hard to argue with.

What did Gretsky famously say? Skate to where the puck will be, not where the puck is. Andy’s doing that, as far as I can tell. So good luck, amigo.

I’ve found myself wondering more and more this year how long I’ll stay in my sport. I mean, let’s face it: I took the sport up at 45 years old. I’m still pretty ordinary, at the age of 48. How far can I reasonably expect to go, while the rookies I started with aim for winter competition, then checking hockey, then a jersey with the Melbourne Ice, then the NHL draft … Hampered by a lack of time to train, a lack of skill improvement and a lack of functioning body parts, the frustration of watching others improving, training, getting better, while I flatline, has been overwhelming at times.

But then a Wednesday night like last night comes along and I feel the love for playing just flooding back into my veins.

The awesome Williamsburg cowboy boot shop. New York, 2008.

The awesome Williamsburg cowboy boot shop. New York, 2008.

I headed to the Icehouse for double dev league without my usual partner in icy crime, Big Cat, who had had what could only be described as ‘An Incident’, involving potentially unsteady legs, a spilled drink and a pair of my cowboy boots with slippery soles late on Saturday night. The result was a broken ankle and off the ice for more than a month, at least.

They have a history those cowboy boots. I bought them in a spectacular shop in Williamsburg, just over the Willy B Bridge from Manhattan, quite a few years ago, coincidentally just before Halloween. Two pairs of very authentic, shipped up from Texas or somewhere boots for $150, total. Bargain. They’re not super comfortable and it would now appear they have very little support if you go sideways on them, as Big Cat found out the hard way, but Hell, they have stories.

So last night, I showed up alone, which was strange, and got changed, wondering, as always, if my knee would behave or not, once I started skating? In my last game for the Cherokees, a Halloween special, it started hurting midway through the first shift and I lost all power.

But last night, the knee decided to work and suddenly, bam, I could play again! Two hours of belting up and down the ice, without worrying about whether I had any drive. It was glorious. We were 0-4 down in minutes in the first game, but worked our way back for a 6-4 win. Too much fun. Best of all, I wasn’t muttering or wincing or worrying. I was able to concentrate on other things, like hitting teammates with passes or driving to The Slot. Sometimes, just driving my legs as hard as I could on a chase or a breakaway and feeling the wind through my grill.

The only guy who could have felt happier than me at this point was Darren Helm, the much maligned, injury-prone #43 for the Wings. He finally actually really truly made it back into the line-up for Detroit last weekend, among many speeches from coaches and team staff about how fans couldn’t expect too much, how it would take months for Helm to find his old dangerous speed and  zing, as he returned from a year of back and groin issues. Yeah, yeah, we get it. First shift? Helm gets on a breakaway, burns a D-man in his wake and scores. Oh yeah. Wings win 5-0. Inspiration right there.

Darren Helm, finally back for the Red Wings, shows that he remembers how to skate. Oh, to move like him. Pic: Detroit News.

Darren Helm, finally back for the Red Wings, shows that he remembers how to skate. Oh, to move like him. Pic: Detroit Free Press.

The second hour of Wednesday dev, starting at 10 pm, is more or less a winter player drop-in session now. Numbers are still happily really low, so we were shift-on, shift-off, as we’d been for the 8.45 pm game, which is a thrashing, but the standard is fantastic. It’s one of those hours of hockey where you know half the people on the ice could just tear you a new one if they decided to break a sweat, but they’re nice enough to let you live.

But they play with such skill and flair. The passes are so sharp, and I have to skate like a motherfucker to keep up at times, which is fantastic when I can. Tommy Powell, as ref, helpfully whispering: ‘Get in there, Nicko. Hit someone!’ whenever I skate past, making me laugh. I can’t believe how much I still love Wednesday night dev after several years of turning up. It’s just fun. Coaches like Army, Tommy, Shona and Lliam cracking jokes and enjoying themselves, while we play our hearts out but with no actual stakes. I spent a couple of days beating myself up for a bad mistake in last week’s Cherokees game that cost us a goal. In Dev, you screw up, learn from it, shrug and keep skating.

By the end, as 11 pm clicked over, and my teams had won both games, my broken toe was moving from numb to very sore. My legs were jelly. The tape on my stick was fraying off. I felt destroyed in all the good ways. Damn, it was a great feeling. I couldn’t stop smiling.

And today my legs are heavy. The stairs are difficult, just because I’m tired, not because there’s Something Wrong. I feel like I had a work-out, a real work-out, which has been a rare treat this year. And now I just want to be back on the ice, trying to fly. I remember wise Yoda Byrne, my Interceptors teammate (currently terrorising Newcastle defences) telling me about how he could feel it when he got his skating stride right and found speed. How it wasn’t technical, it was a sense. I want to keep exploring that, with legs that will work with my brain. But won’t be able to before Sunday afternoon at the Oakleigh Ghetto, when we take on Jets Black, a mutation of my old Jets team from last year. It should be fun. I might even be able to move.

That game is three days away but I can’t wait.

Retirement? What, are you crazy?

The end of summer

Interceptors get ready, before our final game.

Interceptors get ready, before our final game.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ceptors, after one of our games this summer.

The Ceptors, after one of our games this summer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Period break, versus the Fighters last week.

Period break, versus the Fighters last week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only 50 hours to wait.

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

And we’re gone.

A full house of hockey life

Getting ready for the Aussie Ben Laden Cup.

Getting ready for the Aussie Ben Laden Cup.

So here’s something that I love about hockey; this allegedly crazy little cult of a sport in Australia, half a world from the heartland of chasing pucks.

On Saturday night, I went to a poker game being run by a friend from work. His name is Ben Laden, which I, being the sparkling world-renowned wit that I am, couldn’t help but notice was a similar name to a certain terrorist, recently dispatched. Turns out that Ben has a lot of trouble at passport control whenever he enters the USA – or did, pre-Abbottabad. Sometimes the entire passport team would ask to pose for a photo.

He’s embraced his fate and on Saturday night, we played for the Aussie Ben Laden Cup, and a stack of cash from the buy-in stakes. Ben’s a pretty keen player and has regaled me with a lot of stories about long, intense poker nights between him and his mates. Some have played professionally or semi professionally. Intimidating just to hear about. So I went in, knowing I was up against it.

But actually, the jeopardy wasn’t that great because I had all of 50 bucks on the line, the cost of buying in. Two tables of 8 players each. Two rounds of play. Best combined finishes went to the final table.

I fancy myself at cards so into the pot went my Edith Cowan.

Naturally, I was dressed as a cowboy. “Aussie” had convinced me that dodgy poker skills could be minimized by startling dress sense in this company. He was wearing a truly appalling and genuine Hawaiian shirt, so lived his preach. That afternoon, getting ready for the evening ahead, I donned my trusty cowboy shirt from a ramshackle second hand shop in Williamsburg, New York, and cowboy boots from the same store, and headed to the Icehouse to coach one of our rival Summer League teams, the TigerSharks.

Say what? You thought this was about poker. Well, eventually it is but first there was a game to get through, as they were down a bench coach. Kittens and I shared the duties – Kittens bravely donning his favourite poncho so I wouldn’t feel out of place as a cowboy. We were definitely setting new trends in bench coach fashion.

We were coming off a disappointing loss on Thursday night, never quite able to get the Interceptors rolling in the fog that envelopes the Oakleigh rink when 30-degree humidity outside meets a melting iceblock inside. The Blackhawks played really well on a night where the goalies could barely see beyond the red line, so pucks could come out of nowhere. I got an assist and played a decent game without ever feeling like I lit it up, so I wasn’t sure how I’d go trying to tell a Summer League rival team how to play.

Oakleigh brings the summer fog.

Oakleigh brings the summer fog.

It was my first taste of hockey coaching and it turned out that I loved it. As I think I’ve written before, I have a lot of friends in the TigerSharks and have enjoyed games against them, because they have a similar intensity-meets-have-fun attitude to the Interceptors.

Suddenly, here I was, two years into this whacky hockey journey, with a change room full of armoured players listening to my pre-game advice. How did that happen? And what I do know?

Only just enough, apparently, and yet not enough, because the game against the Devils was a 1-1 draw. The TigerSharks had most of the attacking but the Devils’ defence was resolute, with their goalie, Mark Stone, standing on his head to deny them time and again. I tried to observe and advise stuff other than the obvious and battled with not knowing all the players, yet found myself totally caught up in the moment, desperately wanting my team to win; a TigerSharks team that I was thrilled to beat a couple of weeks ago, while wearing my Interceptor #17 jersey. Now I was a cowboy, willing them to find that final goal. Suddenly I could see how much fun coaching would be, if you had a team for a whole season. Maybe, if my knee collapses completely, or I get too old to skate (never!), this could be a hockey path I could explore?

Although I would run out of cowboy shirts pretty quickly.

And so finally through the heat to the top of Sydney Road (I still can’t help but think of that area as Jill Meagher country) and on to the poker game. Battling 15 other players, 14 of whom I had never met and had no connection with. And as I said at the start, this I where I found yet another thing I love about hockey. Sitting outside on the deck playing for hours on a hot night, a couple of strange smelling cigarettes and light beers down, I finally took off my cowboy shirt to reveal a Zetterberg #40 Red Wings T-shirt underneath.

Immediately, one guy on my table, with a Canadian drawl, said: “You’re a Wings fan?”

Turns out he grew up in Quebec and played as a kid.

Inevitably, my stack dwindled, I had not much left to lose, went all in on a couple of picture cards that turned out not to be enough and was out of Round One, appropriately losing to Wild Bill Hickok’s “dead man’s hand”.

The most stylish coaches in Summer League Rec D. Pic: Rachael Hands

The most stylish coaches in Summer League Rec D. Pic: Rachael Hands

At which point, a tall guy from the other table, also out, wandered over and said: “Did I hear that you play hockey? I used to play for Queensland in goals, inline and on ice, in juniors. I’ve been in England for the last eight years but I’m looking to get back into it.”

And so we spent Round Two yarning about Datsyuk’s genius, and Thomas Jurco coming up behind, and inline hockey in London, and the standard of the local scene, and how he can join the Icehouse rookie family.

Do the maths. Sixteen players in a card game: three, including me, with a hockey connection. At the northern Brunswick end of Sydney Road, on a Saturday night. There are allegedly a thousand or so registered players in Australia, plus a few thousand keen fans, and yet here were three of us, out of 16. What are the odds?

If I could work out ratios like that in my head, I might have made the final table.

So long, 50 bucks.

The walking wounded

A huge Oakleigh crowd watches the dying seconds of the Ceptors' win; Jay Hellis in perfect pose, mid shut-out. (Pic: Elizabeth Vine)

A huge Oakleigh crowd watches the last seconds of the Ceptors’ win; Jay Hellis in perfect pose, mid shut-out. (Pic: Elizabeth Vine)

“So, let’s get this straight,” I said, looking around the purple haze of Interceptor jerseys in the Oakleigh rink’s tiniest change-room. Pointing, and ticking off our players.

Two bad knees: one for the season, the other almost certainly for the season.

Next player: a suspected broken toe.

Next along: a badly swollen puck-hammered thumb.

Next along: separated shoulder, now strapped up and on a prayer to survive the game about to start.

Next to me, on the right: painful back that hurts badly after every game.

Me: dubious knee that is refusing to heal.

Next to me, on the left: another strained and painful lower back.

And so it went. Around the room.

“You know what?” I said, thinking aloud. “We’re a real hockey team now.”

Mid-season, winning some, losing some. Just about everybody carrying something; maybe major, maybe not. At the bare minimum number of players without forfeiting, because Interceptors were away or on hens’ nights or sick or elsewhere.

And about to face a bunch of our friends in the TigerSharks, who had played the night before and were also only just able to scrape a healthy team together on a Saturday evening for this clash.

It’s 30 degree C-plus almost every day outside at the moment in Melbourne, but in the magnificently dilapidated surrounds of the Olympic Ice Rink, sliding and scrapping across a block of freshly-laid ice, or at the Icehouse, the war of attrition between Summer Rec D teams continues.

Maybe this is not mid-season as much as just hockey. After the endless NHL lockout, the Red Wings returned to find they were alrady in disarray with a bunch of injuries that have stopped coach Babcock fielding what he would regard as his best team at any stage so far, a quarter of the way into the season. Heroically, my winged wheel team keeps finding ways to win, more than they lose, although there have been a few meek days. This photo from the game against the Oilers on the weekend is one of the best hockey shots I’ve seen (and well found, James Smith).

Red Wings v Oilers. Pic: NHL (I think) via Facebook.

Red Wings v Oilers. Pic: NHL (I think) via Facebook.

The staggering Ceptors managed a win, with my boy, Big Cat, scoring a hat-trick and his old man, camped in the slot at the moment that counted, managing to swipe a rebound through the goalie’s five-hole for our other goal. Unfortunately the refs didn’t see it like that, giving one of Big Cat’s goals to somebody else, and mine to the assist before it. But gave me the assist. Weird. If I had one take-out of my first summer league competition, it would be to politely suggest to Ice Hockey Victoria that the official scorers consult the coach and captain of each team before officially signing off on the score sheet. Nobody is about to deliberately steal somebody else’s goal, and it would be nice to have them right when they’re lodged. Every time I talk to players from other teams, they have stories of wrongly-attributed goals but I don’t blame the refs at all – they have a million other things to think about mid-game. We should just be able to correct mistakes before we leave the rooms. Then again, Pete Sav got the goal for his shot, which deflected off Big Cat’s leg. Does it change anything? All that really matters is that the goal went in. It counted.

So we had a win – goalie Jay having a kick-arse shut-out that I was crazy-excited about, for him, after all his hard work, over the last couple of years – and we shared our post-game beer with the TigerSharks, before I limped off into the dusk, my stupid knee still giving me grief. Don’t know right now if it’s going to last the season or not. Strangely, it is least troublesome when skating, but I pulled out of Powerskating with Zac, at the Icehouse last Wednesday (it is an intense class – everything I hate, but NEED to do, from intensive crossover work to outside edge work) because I wanted to make sure I made it safely to Saturday’s game where we were so short of numbers. The injury feels like a timebomb, yet hasn’t collapsed yet.

Nicko, v Champs at the Icehouse. Lots to work on, including not looking at the puck while skating, apparently. (Pic Elizabeth Vine)

Nicko, v Champs at the Icehouse. Lots to work on to improve, including not looking at the puck while skating, apparently. (Pic Elizabeth Vine)

I think this week I’ll play Dev League. And power-skating. No tomorrow; suffering in the interests of improving my ever-not-good-enough skating. If my knee folds, it folds.

It was strange to score a goal but leave the game feeling unsatisfied, knowing that I hadn’t skated well enough and feeling like I hadn’t put skating skills I know I have into practice during the actual games. Why don’t I do crossovers when carrying the puck? Why don’t I carry the puck more? Things to work on this Wednesday at Dev. If I can walk.

I don’t mean to sound like I’m whinging by the way. I loved our win and had an awesome weekend on and off the ice, even if painful when I walk or ride my bike. Then again, when I show up on Wednesday night and look around the change room, the chances are that everybody else at Dev League will  also be carrying a wound or strain or bruise or knee or back or something at this stage of things.

So giddyup, Nicko.

We’re hockey players. We need to go play hockey now.

Guest writer: Clayton Powell

Summer League is a week from resuming and so my team, the Interceptors, is tuning up; getting the band back together, as it were.

One of my Interceptor teammates, Clayton Powell, felt moved to write about what being part of a team means to him. This piece really spoke to me and I wish I’d written it. Over to you, Clayton…

Transformation

By Clayton Powell

A little while ago a friend of mine had a chance to do a ‘come and try’ ice hockey session with her family. She decided to watch while the rest of them skated. I asked her why she passed up the opportunity. She said it looked scary. She thought she would fall over and hurt herself on the hard ice. And to be honest, I had the same thoughts at the start of my ice hockey journey.

The massive bags that fill your typical hockey change room. Pic: Nicko

The massive bags that fill your typical hockey change room. Pic: Nicko

This got me thinking about why I go out there each week and play hockey. How do I make that transition from an ordinary father of two to an ice hockey player each week? For me, it all starts in the change rooms.

Everybody files in with massive bags of gear. Having travelled from all corners of Melbourne. Then it is time to gear up. Everybody has their own routine. Their own order of putting things on. Variations in gear manufacturers and styles. It is amazing the transformation the gear makes to you mentally and physically. You feel like a warrior suiting up for battle. It gives you the confidence to do things you would never even attempt without it.

When you put on the gear you become a hockey player.

I must admit to not being the youngest player out there. And to carrying a growing number of nagging injuries. I’ve found that the gear can help to compensate for some of the injuries. It helps to support and protect joints and limbs that would otherwise hamper me. I actually feel more capable on the ice than off it.

And then you put on the jersey and you become part of a team. You now have other people depending on you. And people to support you. Everyone has the same jersey. All the differences in backgrounds and abilities melt away. You all go out on the ice as one.

Clayton Powell: "When you put on the gear you become a hockey player."

Clayton Powell: “When you put on the gear you become a hockey player.”

The final transformation occurs when you fill the team bench and assemble into your lines. Those two or three people who will spend the next hour watching out for each other, covering each other. This is the tight cadre that will be your backbone throughout the match.

And so, as the game comes to an end, what was it that enabled you to go out on the unforgiving ice and skate hard and fast? What is it that lets you frantically chase a puck through a maze of fast moving bodies? What is it that enables you to put your body on the line week in and week out?

It is the change room transformation. The gear, the camaraderie, the jersey, the team.

You then return to the change rooms to bask in the afterglow of your time on the ice. A time where you were more than individuals. More than the people who walked into the change room 90 minutes earlier. The jersey and gear come off. And as everyone dissolves back into their day to day lives you begin to dream of next week when the transformation begins all over again.

It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine)

So, the world is ending later today, according to the Mayans.

10.11 pm, I think I read, which will come as a real bummer for anybody watching “You Only Live Twice” on Channel Seven, because the film will have about half an hour to run when the Earth implodes. (Bond beats the bad guy, if that helps).

I’m fine with the world ending, by the way, which is a good way to be. I can’t remember if I’ve written about this before (I’m sure I must have), but I have long held the view that we should live our lives hard and for the moment. My cousin, a leading cancer specialist, taught me this, having spent his career treating people who suddenly ran out of time, who suddenly found out life is not an endless resource to be savoured at some point, when they get around to it.

You Only Live Twice: Connery as Bond. Hard not to like.

You Only Live Twice: Connery as Bond. Hard not to like.

The elevator pitch of my life philosophy is this: at your funeral, you don’t want anybody crying and saying, “Oh, poor (insert your name here) … he/she was so young, hadn’t lived yet, had all these things he/she was going to do … what a tragedy.”

You want everybody holding a good old fashioned Irish wake, getting pissed, crying sure but also playing music with a beat, laughing, shaking their heads, telling stories of your escapades. “Well, it’s a shame (insert your name here) got caught up in that bizarre shark versus giant octopus fight but, hell, he/she packed a lot into that life. Here’s to him/her.”

That’s what you want people saying.

I’m aware that age helps, in this situation. I’ve been on Earth for a while now, although not as long as a misunderstood Mayan calendar, and so have had the chance to pack in the adventures. And, oh hells yeah, I have. Not even going to attempt to list them.

But the bottom line is this: if John Cusack runs past my house, looking wild eyed, at 10 pm tonight, and then the buildings inexplicably shake and fall into giant fissures (good word, not often I get to use it, but don’t Google it; Google goes wrong fast on that one) I’ll take one final sip of good whisky, hug my beautiful partner and know that I died after a very satisfying final week of hockey for the year.

Which is all that matters, right?

It all started on Sunday. Big Cat Place and I drove out to Oakleigh, which gave us a lot of time to chat and listen to songs, ad we found ourselves listening to “Thrift Shop” again, by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, and I had a bolt of lightning idea out of the blue that I’m excited about.

And then we played the Nite Owls, which was a particular thrill for me because this team is known as the “old men” of Summer League, or of Victorian hockey for that matter. The team is an Over-35s team, which of course makes them ancient in the wider hockey community. One guy had a snowy white beard but mostly they looked disconcertingly younger than me, mostly because they were.

To be clear, I was almost a teenager when most of them were born.

But on Sunday, I was safely hidden among my mostly younger teammates and my trusty red helmet and face cage. One Nite Owl, midway through the second period, was puffing hard and I was cheeky enough to ask him if he was okay, if he was feeling alright with all this exertion? Poor old guy …

The Interceptors ready for a face-off, versus the Nite Owls. Pic: Elizabeth Vine

The Interceptors ready for a face-off, versus the Nite Owls. Pic: Elizabeth Vine

There’s a good chance I will one day limp into the Nite Owls’ club rooms, or nest or tree branch or wherever owls hang out when off the ice, and plead to be allowed to trundle my mediocre hockey wares in their midst, but for now I pretended I was a rookie, a sapling, and skated like a maniac. It was fun. And the Ceptors played our best game maybe ever, playing smart, fast, skilled team hockey, to win 3-1, The Nite Owls’ only goal deflecting off my stick, as I charged a defender driving a shot from the blue line. Beating our goalie, Jay, with the deflection. (Sorry, Jay)

They were a very good team, though. Perfect positioning, tape-to-tape passing, just as we’d been warned. It was a very solid win by us, a brilliant way for the Interceptors to finish the first half of our season, and our calendar year. We now go to a break for a month or so, which is a good thing given my current injury toll, as noted on facebook:
Right hammie undiagnosed habitual tightness.
Left knee dislocation or maybe chipped bone.
Right elbow tendonitis.
Left bicep undiagnosed cramping and muscle strain.
Stomach bruising (from user-error impalement on stick against boards)

Yes, I could do with a break but the season is already a massive win. I stood in front of the team before we even went onto the ice and felt a need to make a speech. The team no doubt rolled their collective eyes but they knew the risks when they gave me that ‘A’ for my chest. There would be speeches.

But all I had to say was this, and I meant it: Playing for the Interceptors is probably the most fun I have EVER had in sports. I’ve played some schoolboy footy (and, of course, The Bang, my Sunday footy zoo, which is amazing in all different ways, but is not technically competitive sport and therefore doesn’t need to be compared), as well as running, cricket, indoor cricket, surfing, boxing, one triathlon … I don’t know what else.

Nothing compares to ice hockey, and to being part of such a fun, got-it-together, love-playing-for-each-other team.

After midnight in a Footscray car wash ...

After midnight in a Footscray car wash …

After the Nite Owls, all that was left was the final night of Wednesday dev league for the year, which always has a carnival atmosphere. Big Cat played four games of scrimmage in five hours (and then lay prone on the couch all Thursday). I played my usual 10 pm then 11.15 pm games, and scored a goal in both, which was a first – a two goal evening. Decent goals too. Anybody would think I’m improving. God knows there’s a long way to go (backward crossovers, anybody?) but four goals in the last three Wednesdays … sweethouse.

At 1.30 am on Thursday, as Melbourne slept, 15 or so hockey players, still smelly and steaming from the game, stood in the traditional, glamorous post-dev league surrounds of a deserted car wash cubicle at a Footscray BP service station, drinking Big Ms or variations thereof, swapping shit, laughing and celebrating the end of another hockey year. Gentle rain fell outside our car wash and a year and maybe the world ticked to its end.

I went back to my first nickdoeshockey blog post of 2012 to see what I’d written. The key words were these:

I feel confident that the goal a group of us have, of forming a team ready to join summer league next September, is very achievable. And I should be proficient enough to play by then, or something has gone horribly wrong.

Nothing did go horribly wrong. We did it, through the hard backroom work of Theresa Neate, and then the ongoing work of Chris Janson and a bunch of other rookies. We got some teams together and we have proven to be competitive, in summer league Rec D. Who knows where it goes from here, where I go from here? Some or many of our team will go into winter competition, which is harder and has a player draft, while others will aim for next summer, once this competition is over. Mackquist, now 17 and skating better every day, could well be ready to join me in summer in 2013-14. It would rock to play a season with him, or even Big Cat and Mackquist.

Dev league bench shenanigans. Pic: Brendan Parsons

Dev league bench shenanigans. Pic: Brendan Parsons

See, that’s the thing that should never be confused about my life philosophy. Even though you want to rack up the adventures, and the moments, and the achievements, and feeling loved and loving, and the travels, and the sensations of miracles and wonder and enduring sorrow and heartbreak and everything else life has to offer and hit you with … you never want to stop looking ahead, and wondering where next to gallop.

If the Mayans are right and it all ends at 10.11 pm, then so be it. It’s been a turbulent year in many ways, full of disappointment but also revelations (I almost physically died twice, that I can count), and 2013 may be more of the same but, in hockey, I’ve improved more than I ever could have hoped for and am playing at a level I would have shaken my head at in January.

If by some non-Mayan quirk of fate, I happen to wake up tomorrow, my skates will be sharp, my keyboard will be ready, my heart and eyes will be open and my legs are strong.

Have a great Christmas and New Year, hockey fans. Skate to where the puck will be, not where the puck is.

Giddyup.

Nicko