Finding meaning on the radio

So I found myself on the wireless yesterday. Richard Stubbs, on 774, was having Lliam Webster (currently in the role of Australian men’s team captain) as a guest and asked if I’d come in as his ‘hockey expert’, which is a pretty loose definition of that job description.

Great moments of Australian radio: Richard Stubbs, Lliam Webster and Nicko Place, in the 774 studio.

Great moments of Australian radio: Richard Stubbs, Lliam Webster and Nicko Place, in the 774 studio.

Richard and I have been mates since we worked together on some TV shows at Channel Seven a long time ago, and in fact he is responsible for this blog. When I mentioned over coffee more than three years ago that I was intending to take up hockey, it was he who asked: ‘Can you skate?’

‘Never been on skates,’ I said.

We quietly sipped our coffee. His partner used to play and so he has some idea of the realities of hockey, and knowing Kim, she would have been a bad-ass player, desperate to play checking league only. In the silence, Richard must have been mentally framing what I can only imagine he saw as his last words of advice before the inevitable visit to my hospital bed.

‘You simply have to blog this,’ he finally said, and I almost gasped. It hadn’t occurred to me at all to chart the journey, but within a month I had not only started my first skating lessons, but had registered the name, nickdoeshockey, and started this whole thing up. (See blog post No. 1: Setting the scene’, Jan 2011* where I honestly wonder if the entire adventure will last days or weeks?)

The rest, as they say, is:

a)             history?

b)             a giant time waste?

c)              madness?

d)             all of the above?

So, anyway, Richard has not unreasonably derived a great deal of enjoyment ever since in following my injuries, my inability to skate, my occasional successes, and so on.

Yesterday, I found myself hustled into my headphones and thrown on air before Lliam had even turned up, and it was to discuss parenthood. Richard didn’t want to talk hockey at all, really. Instead, he was running a conversation about how to stay in touch with your kids after they leave school and start to naturally kick away from you, into their own independent lives. He was asking how people retain meaningful relationships with these 20-something no-longer-children, aside from the occasional dinner together? Some idiot non-skater taking up hockey in his mid-40s, along with a teenage son, illustrated either how to do it or not to do it, depending on your survival instincts.

It was a great discussion and really brought me back to the point of my whole hockey adventure – well, a big part of it. (Let’s be honest: I do, selfishly, play for the sheer fucking fun of it, as well. As I should. Because it’s the most enjoyable sport I’ve ever participated in.)

Not a Warhol: MRI cross-sections of my car crash neck.

Not a Warhol: MRI cross-sections of my car crash neck.

But lately I’ve been dealing with a nasty neck injury, which I have barely mentioned on the blog because I was so sick of whingeing about my busted knee for months. I went and saw the osteo, Magic Enzo, yesterday, armed with some MRI results, and he said the good news was that I didn’t have a tumor messing things up in the nerves around my spine, but it did look a lot like I’d hurt my neck in a car crash. Except I don’t think I’ve been in a car crash severe enough to cause that damage, or a hockey collision huge enough to compare. But apparently, somewhere along the way, I have hurt myself that badly without noticing.

Either way, the neck has been nasty painful, and so it’s been easy to lose sight of the bigger picture: that my eldest son, Will (aka Big Cat or Kittens), and I have now spent years mutually savouring and sharing our love of hockey; be it the Red Wings plugging away in Detroit (and breathtakingly still in the playoff race right now for a 23rd straight year, despite EVERYTHING that has happened to them this season), or watching the Melbourne Ice’s three-peat, or all the endless shared general skates, training sessions, dev league games, summer league games and other on-ice shenanigans, and off-ice adventures, like visiting the Joe Louis Arena. Amen.

Darren Helm shows standard Red Wing desperation, crashing the Tampa Bay net. Pic: Detroit News

Darren Helm shows standard Red Wing desperation, crashing the Tampa Bay net on Sunday. The Wings got the points. Pic: Detroit News

People comment all the time about how well Kittens and I work together on the ice, with that tuned knowledge of where the other will be. His broken ankle meant we barely skated together for the Cherokees over summer, and I loved that he was just as keen as I was to play again next summer and have at least one last season of tearing up the ice as teammates. … before he heads off to be a real player in winter or whatever, and I find out if I’m like the Bluesmobile when Jake and Elwood finally get to Chicago. (This clip, 53 seconds in.)

Yesterday’s radio discussion got me thinking about how much Kittens’ off-ice life has shifted in that time. He’s started to shift emotionally and physically since we huddled around pre-NHL Gamecenter online feeds of Wings games six years or more ago. Back then, he was a school kid. Now, he’s at uni, and doesn’t live at my house much anymore, and has different groups of friends, and is listening to different music to me (not always – happily, our tastes still cross) and is struggling to balance all the demands of uni, work for money, work for passion, hockey, hockey, hockey, friends, etc.

This is also true of my younger son, Mackquist, who finished school last year and is now 18 and therefore discovering establishments that will serve you beer and other wickedness. Mack is thrashing his way into the real world, into life beyond school; learning to swim in the waters of job-finding, and job-keeping, and tax file numbers, and so on. I think we have lost him to the world of playing hockey, meaning the famous Podium Line of Places will most likely never again leap over the boards to terrify an opposition defence, but that’s ok. He and I love scuba diving together, among other things, and can hang out together in that world, as well as the more day-to-day.

One of so many face-offs with Kittens and I working together. Circa 2012.

One of so many face-offs with Kittens (left) and I working together. Circa 2012.

My life has shifted too. When we all started watching the Wings, I was living alone, but now I’m not, and there’s a crazy, intense five-year-old boy in my life, as well as a beautiful partner who rocks my world, and a cat we rescued and, of course, beautiful, ageing Fly Dog The Magnificent who struggles to walk sometimes in a mirror of my struggle to skate. Away from the ice, I’m under the pressure to follow up my novel, ‘Roll With It’, with a sequel that isn’t a pale imitation and my actual work life remains stressful, and there are all the other adult things that occupy your mind and energy, like the welfare of my parents, struggling or soaring friends, and so on. I celebrate all of this: it’s living. It’s the adventure. But it would be easy to realize the boys and I haven’t gotten around to actually crossing paths much, all unconsciously running wide of one another.

I’m so grateful to Richard for bringing me back to a deliberate consideration of Will and my relationship, through hockey. I haven’t physically seen Will since mid-last week, but there have been endless texts, celebrating the Wings and the continuing hot streak of Gus Nyquist, and discussion of video games, and other matters. It occurred to me that we have been in tune despite physical distance. And usually are.

I’m incredibly lucky that we, and Macka, retain such a close link, despite all our individual waters of life that don’t necessarily run in the same direction from here. Or maybe it’s not luck. Maybe this is what the whole hockey adventure has been about, away from the sheer fun and frustration of trying to sprint on thin blades of steel, reaching with an elongated piece of taped-carbon fibre for that small circle of rubber scooting, bouncing and gliding across the ice.

My sons and I are more than just occasional dinner companions, struggling to find conversation. Richard Stubbs was right: that is a major gift at this stage of things.

A creaky knee, a car crash neck and a continuing inability to find a reliable outside edge are but a small price to pay.

 

PS: Richard Stubbs’ main guest on yesterday’s show, the bearded wonder, Lliam Webster, is an even better example of what I’m talking about, with both his parents deeply involved in hockey and the Melbourne Ice teams. Lliam is playing for Australia in exhibition games against the Mustangs on Thursday night at the Icehouse, and then against his own team, the Ice (which will be kind of weird) on Saturday. If you’re kicking around, try to get down there to lend support.

 

PPS: * Post 5 of nickdoeshockey featured a current pic, back then, of a clean-shaven Lliam Webster. Time has certainly passed since I dived into this crazy world.

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.

Vale the octopus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For Red Wings fans, they both resonate today.

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

See you next year, Rally Al.

The Quadrella, Part III

Dev League, Tuesday night, in full flight. Pic: by me, on iPhone, on the bench. Cool or dweeb? Such a fine line.

The Third Leg, Tuesday: 5 pm and we’re in the Icehouse change-rooms and it’s silent. Everybody’s lost in thought, shifting gears from work, uni, relationships and whatever else is swirling in real life, as they strap on armour, tape socks, yank skate laces and move into a hockey head space.

We hit the ice and I snowplough hard on my right leg and my quadriceps in that limb aren’t even close to happy. I have a half-hearted shot at the empty net and skate straight to the centre circle for some serious stretching. Oh, that’s right … it’s less than 24 hours since all that skipping and moving and boxing with Mischa. Something is rebelling deep under my left shoulder blade too. Two legs of the quadrella to go and the pain is rising. But I’m a hockey player, right? And I’m loving being back on the ice after almost a week. It’s time to play hockey. I snarl and grin and head to the bench, resplendent in my Slap Slot “Chiefs” jersey (Hanson 17).

Bring it.

And the game is a cracker. This is Intro Dev League and I’m starting to be able to keep up, even if there is one uy, on the other team, who is about three levels above us. Luckily he is generous and doesn’t totally dominate, looking to pass off, reather than just charge the net every time.

The rest of us scramble and try to hold our positions and work on clean passing, battling for the puck against the boards and finding teammates in space. I feel like I’m skating okay.

In fact, after several shifts, a miracle happens. Brendan is near the boards and we’re in attack. He passes in-board to another teammate who swipes towards goal. It beats everybody but skims across the front of the goal and guess who is right there, miraculously all alone and in the perfect spot to trap and tap the puck through the vacant bottom hole in the imitation goalie’s defence?

Uh huh. You know it. IN YOUR FACE, IMITATION GOALIE!

N. Place scores his first ever genuine matchplay goal in Dev League. Oh yeah.

And while we’re on miracles on ice (good film, btw) … in the very next shift, I’m mid-ice as two or three white team opponents move forward. One loses control of the puck for a moment, I snipe it and suddenly I’m clear on a breakaway.

And I don’t even panic and close to within 6-8 metres and shoot and score! Iin the same slot.

Truth be told, this shot may have grazed the imitation goalie fabric (Big Cat Place, The Artist Formerly Known As Kittens*, ever supportive, remains adamant it wasn’t a goal), but Army as ref signalled goal, and Tommy Powell, the other ref, congratulated me later on the snipe and counter attack goal. I grudgingly admitted I thought it might not have been clean but he said it looked fine to him.

“So you reckon it was good, and Army signalled goal. Good enough for me,” I said. “I’m claiming it.”

Ice star Tommy Powell is all-business, reffing our game.

Two goals in two shifts.Wow.

In Tuesday Dev League, it’s shift on, shift off (1 min, 15 sec each time) so I had more than a minute to patiently explain to my teammates on the bench how brilliant each goal was before the next shift. Which was awesome for them.

In fact, on the shift after my second goal, I was designated for D (defence) and jumped the wall, saying loudly: “Well, I am the premier goalscorer but for the good of the team, I guess I’ll shore up the defence as well.” … all of which I thought was funny until I saw Tommy’s face as he overheard this. “Jokes, Tommy, jokes,” I gasped, hustling to pick up some pace, the puck already in play.

All in all, had a blast. By now, as you can imagine, any aches and pains were a distant memory. I was floating. I went over a couple of times, as you do, but was reasonably solid on my skates and my puck-handling is definitely improving every game.

The best thing about finishing a game at 6.30 pm is that you’re home, with take-away food, at a decent time to watch the highlights of the Red Wings’ 7-2 smashing of Columbus (Oh yeah! Found our mojo right before the play-offs – Mack, Will and I are more in man-love with the rookie, Nyquist, than ever), plus Robot Chicken and Sherlock before bed … still arguing with your oldest son over whether fabric moving matters if two Melbourne Ice stars have agreed it’s a goal.

Bloody kids.

(* Big Cat scored two goals as well. And, because I’m a lot more fucking gracious than he is, it should be recorded that one was a sizzling shot from near the boards. Zetterberg, eat your heart out.)

The Rookies versus IBM, night fevers and other stories

A member of Friday's IBM team.

On Friday, a somewhat bizarre ice hockey match took place at the Icehouse. One of the Rookies, Chris Janson, had asked if anybody wanted to make up the numbers in an IBM social event: a game of scrimmage on the Henke Rink on Friday, after work.

“So, to be clear,” I said to Chris, in the change room on Wednesday night, dripping in sweat, post-dev league, “you’re inviting us to step onto the ice against a bunch of IBM employees in an actual scrimmage, as a social bonding exercise for IBM?”

I had visions of a bunch of weedy computer geeks in Hanson Brother glasses, being boarded by Big Cat Place (the artist formerly known as “Kittens”) and other monsters of the local ice scene.

“That’s right,” said Chris. He reeled off a bunch of hockey player names, some from the higher divisions of local competition, such as the Melbourne Ice Wolves’ Pete Savvides (who has since told me he’s Division 4, not Division 2, and not the old TV show) – very accomplished players. “They’re all IBM guys.”

Oh …

It turned out to be a lot of fun. Several players, like the McNab girls, playing their first-ever real game of scrimmage, several of us, like Jess Hough, Big Cat and I simply enjoying ice time, while others, such as Wayne and Savvides showed us up but no doubt with just enough of a handbrake on their talent and superior skating to not make us look like total muppets.

The best thing, for me, was that one way or another, this game was played at a more gentle pace than Tuesday or Wednesday Dev League, and I was able to actually skate at a pace that kept up. I hadn’t realized how much time I spend on the weeknights, leaning forward too far and almost toppling, because I’m hustling too fast, trying to push myself too fast, just to keep up. I’m not sure how to use this new knowledge yet, but it’s something to ponder.

The miracle was that I was even in the IBM bloodbath, I mean, social event, given how I’d felt less than 48 hours earlier. Arriving home from Wednesday night’s hockey, I shivered uncontrollably in my bed, with what felt like a raging fever. Huddled under my doona, wide awake at 3 am but shaking wildly, in total physical meltdown, it occurred to me: “Oh, this isn’t good.”

A few hours earlier, in full armour, mid-Intermediate class, as my head pounded and my stomach churned, on the brink of something nameless and undefined but potentially nasty, I pondered that I had never before been on the ice, feeling crook. I’ve played hurt, in terms of a few bangs here or there and especially, the very sore neck/shoulder that killed me for a couple of months last year. But I hadn’t felt sick.

Another member of the IBM social hockey team.

This whole experience was a surprise because I’m feeling as fit as I’ve felt for a long time at the moment. This potentially weekly regime of Sunday footy, Monday (boxing), Tuesday (intro dev league), Wed (intermediate class, then harder dev league), Thursday (collapse) has definitely been pushing me physically and I feel great for it.

Well, most of the time. On Wednesday, it, or life, or a combination of both caught up with me big-time and unexpectedly mid-way through Intermediate. Maybe it was lugging office junk downstairs to a skip for four or five hours on the Tuesday that strained my stomach? Who knows? The fact was I felt terrible and it was a different struggle to the week before, where my legs had simply been fried, full of lactic acid build-up or whatever the, you know, science is from backing-up dev league as well as flying to Brisbane and back. This week, I was feeling off-colour, although it’s possible the highly intricate skating skills of this particular Intermediate class could have made me feel sick all on their own.

Transitions, stepping over sticks, inside and outside edge work, more transitions (every bit as big a bastard as the pivot, in my humble opinion); it was Hell. Somehow I survived Dev League, which was even more intense than the week before.

I’d really enjoyed Tuesday’s scrimmage; feeling for the first time that I was genuinely performing to the standard required with some decent puck work, including stealing it off other players, accurate passing and other miracles. I appear to be more willing than most to throw my body on the line, which often means I end up on my knees or arse, still fighting for the puck. Sure, it could be argued that this is also a lack of ability to keep my skates when it matters – which is why other players don’t end up in collisions or life-and-death situations, flying towards the boards. … because they can skate out of such danger zones. I like to think of it as plucky ahead of incompetent.

Wednesday dev league includes several players who, frankly, probably have no right to be there; as in, they’re playing for teams and are clearly several levels above P-Plate skaters like me. But it’s cool to pit yourself against them: to hopefully not get pwned every time you battle for a puck or try to backcheck. Headachy or not, I threw myself into it, and sat on the bench between shifts, smiling at people I now regard as friends, who have been playing against one another, or on the same team on other weeks, went toe-to-toe. Brendan versus Chris, battling hard to the blue line, Lee versus Kevin, Todd versus Kittens, Morgan versus Theresa … these are battles that shift and rotate every week, every session, as we all push ourselves and try to improve.

And then backing up again on the Friday, fever and lack of energy or not. Even playing the gentler IBM scrimmage finished me for the weekend, I decided, despite a very tempting offer to join Joey Hughes’ outfit for a shooting tutorial all weekend at the magnificent Oakleigh rink.

Rest, I decided, Wednesday night shaking session still fresh in my mind and internal batteries on low. A novel needs to be plotted and written, and there are so many more intermediate classes and dev league hours to be skated. With a dive course cancelled, I had a totally free weekend and used it to drink far too much coffee and alcohol with friends.

Except that it’s now lunchtime on Sunday … and I have a free afternoon … and General Skating might not be crowded, given the Grand Prix is on and all.

…. Hmmm. Tempting.

Amen. Class warfare starts again.

Me (in red) winning a breakaway in my Dev League debut. A very rare photo. Pic: Ben Weisser

OK, I need you to imagine drinking three straight litres of water without a break. Then sitting in a locked room for nine hours. A room with no, um, facilities. Now you’re allowed out of the room but only to jog up and down on the spot for one hour, all while continuing to sip water at regular intervals.

You are then placed in a car and sit in the back seat for four hours as the car travels over bumpy roads, all while listening to a CD: “The magnificent sounds of a trickling stream”.

Finally the car stops at the world’s largest waterfall and you watch the water cascading, streaming down the rocks. You are made to drink another three large glasses of soda water.

Your fingers and toes are placed in warm water.

Get the idea …

Well, now replace the need for a toilet at this time with the need to play ice hockey, and that was me last night. Intermediate, Week One, could not come around quickly enough and there was nothing I could do to fast forward the day leading to 8.45 pm. Sure, Will (aka Kittens) and I got a little excited and turned up at the Icehouse at 6 pm, but it turned out that didn’t make 8.45 pm come any faster. We played pool at the Harbourside (modesty prevents me offering the scoreline [I kicked his arse]) and I ate pizza and drank dry ginger ale because the ice was beckoning, beating out even the desire for alcohol.

Kittens, in classic pose. Of course, he scored a goal. Uppity kid. Pic: Ben Weisser

And finally it was time. Greeting the other rookies, meeting a few I only knew by facebook profile; strapping into full armour and looking like a sumo on skates as my Grand Rapids Griffins jersey, on Australian debut, ballooned over my gear. And, ready!

Of course, our coaches Army, Lliam and Michael welcomed us back with hardcore skating tests and obligingly sent my group of skaters to outside edge drills as the opening gambit. One of my worst skills. And of course the other three guys I was bracketed with are in the running for Outside Edge Rookies of the Year while I managed not to fall.

Until the second drill when Michael had us attempting to transition at speed from forwards to backwards skating, around a cone. And I found out fast that my new helmet, bought in Chicago, has excellent impact-absorption in the back of the lid when your head smacks hard against the ice during a backward plank.

Then we were doing crossovers and I didn’t suffer any mortal injuries – Army even raised an eyebrow at my improvement – before Lliam gave me some tips at inside edge skating that worked all the way until the fourth cone at which point I tested the ice impact capabilities of my new gloves and my ageing elbow pads, falling heavily while fully committed to one foot inside edge around a cone. At least I was fully committed, right?

All that was left to start the term was a game of two-on-two where my partner and I played the Washington Generals to the other pair’s Harlem Globetrotters, and a bizarre tapdancing crossover drill where the miracle was I didn’t fall.

It was actually an awesome class, finished with four rounds of straight-up tearaway fast sprints up and down the ice. That’s when I’m at my happiest, even if I’m not the fastest rookie out there. I just love seeing how fast I can go, getting that cardio-hit, and then morbidly wondering if I can stop in time as the boards approach. The answer was universally yes last night, which shows my summer of toil wasn’t totally wasted.

This was always going to happen in my Dev League debut. Pic: Ben Weisser

But the best was yet to come, because a quick Zamboni run later, I was back on the ice, now in my Zetterberg Wings jersey, as part of the red team in my Development League debut.

I’m not sure I can hope to convey how awesome Dev League was. I could try poetry but after rhyming “ice” with “nice” I start to struggle. “Dice”? “Mice”? “Concise”? “Condoleezza Rice”?

One thing I know: I’m glad I didn’t do Dev League last term, as Will did. I wouldn’t have been ready. But with a summer of skating practice under my belt, and so many supportive, friendly rookie classmates urging me on, it was brilliant, truly brilliant.

For the first time, I felt like a real hockey player, playing an hour of scrimmage, deciding when to end my shifts, powering up and down the ice (mown down on two attempted breakaways, first to the puck on one – shot went wide, dammnit) and just generally deciding that ok, I won’t suck embarrassingly among these players, even if there are clearly superior skaters out there.

Condoleezza Rice: not relevant here.

The game had one casualty – Ken went down with a nasty split lip and was lucky not to lose teeth – and I had a couple of spills but nothing fatal. On my first shift, I failed to trap a puck along the boards which ended up in a goal at the other end, which had me doing some old fashioned cussing, but I got progressively more comfortable with every following shift and didn’t panic, didn’t just flail, kept an eye on staying onside, didn’t lose my position most of the time and generally felt like the beginnings of an idea of a genuine hockey player in a team.

It felt very good.

The other rookies were awesome in welcoming me to the game and this level. Benched between shifts, Jay and I marvelled at how far some of the skaters who started with us a year ago in Intro have come. Morgan Squires was dominating but then (and don’t take this the wrong way, Morgan) it was just as heartening for me to see him and others occasionally screw up. They’re not all bulletproof and error-free as I blunder along. We’re all still in class, training, getting better, striving. And I can see how this term is going to make me blossom, trying to keep up.

A very very very good night, back on the ice, even if I was home at midnight, accidentally drinking off-milk and unable to consider sleep until much later.

Today, my groin, hips and legs were hurting in the second best way they can and I loved every second of feeling the aches. Next Wednesday, please oh please come around without delay.

I wouldn’t have thought it was possible but hockey just became a whole lot more fun.

Jack, a committed Penguins fan, in a Washington jersey, so he could play Dev League in the red team. These are the lengths people will go to. Pic: Ben Weisser

Things you might not know about hockey …

1. Hockey stick tape is a perfect way to strap on a plastic bag to protect plaster on a wounded dog’s leg, when storms sweep into town as you’re about to go to work.

Fly Dog shows off quality stick-tape veterinary work.

Kittens and I travelled bravely to the far outskirts of Chicago to buy hockey gear, back in October, and went nuts on the multi-coloured tape, buying red, green, blue and yellow, because our hockey styling simply can’t be constrained in the Icehouse’s options of black tape, or white (and now pink).

Fly Dog the Wounded But Still Magnificent (snapped Achilles tendon on Christmas day; at least six weeks off the ice) thinks the leg looks cool. Everybody’s happy.

 2. Hockey players are dumb.

As it stands, seven members of the Detroit Red Wings roster have suffered serious facial injuries this year, mostly from pucks hitting them in the unprotected face.

There have been plenty of facial stitches, but also a broken cheekbone to defenceman Ian White and a broken jaw to Patrick Eaves, who, at last report, was still sipping food through a straw, his entire jaw wired shut.

The latest victim is an 18-year-old prospect, Ryan Spoule, who took a deflected puck to the face in an Ontario Hockey League game and has now had plates inserted into his jaw.

And yet pretty much every NHL player, apart from the goalies, continues to play without a Perspex or wire face guard. The most they’ll wear is a small Perspex visor vaguely covering their eyes and there’s even debate about that, because, you know, it’s kind of sissy. (Although at least things have moved on from the bad old – read, fucking crazy – days where even goalies didn’t have face guards, back when the world was in black and white.)

Back in the day: goalies with no face protection.

Hear me say, here and now, that I will not be seen in a game situation without a full face mask. I’m far too pretty to take a rubber puck to the face at speed, and anyway, eating through a straw for weeks would get in the way of my biscuit consumption.

3. The Winter Classic has a precedent

Over the past few years, the NHL’s signature Winter Classic game – where two top teams play an official match outdoors, usually at a baseball stadium (The Wings kicked the Blackhawks at Wrigley Field a few years ago: oh yeah!) is gaining momentum every year, with huge coverage of the Rangers victory over the Flyers yesterday.

But there is a precedent to this whole thing. Apparently, in February, 1954, the Detroit Red Wings played an exhibition match outdoors against inmates from the Marquette Branch prison. I shit you not. Red Wings v Jailbirds.

So how did that go? The Wings led 18-0 at the end of the first period and graciously everybody forgot to keep an ongoing score for the remaining two periods.

Which makes the prisoners luckier than Australia’s first ever team to contest the Winter Olympics, back in 1960. Our heroes scored nine goals in the Olympic tournament, at Squaw Valley. They conceded 83 goals in six games. When five rings are involved, everybody keeps score.

4. The Hockey Gods are bastards

Let it be known that the Red Wings have not lost a single game at home since Will, Mack and I sat through three straight losses at the Joe, in late October/early November. The team has now won 12 straight games at home, raining goals. During the stretch where we watched them stink things up, they averaged one goal per game.