So long, and thanks for all the pucks

Let’s start with the pain.

Where it all began. Literally trying to stand upright on skates. January, 2011. (Some would say nothing has really changed)

That was the first line of my first ever nickdoeshockey blog, way back in January, 2011. So it’s right that it be the first line of this, Blog no. 257, and the last.

Of course, the line remains true.

Tonight I’m going to attempt to play hockey for the first time in months, wondering if a sore knee and a sore shoulder will cope. Read it before? Me too, which is why I’m calling time on the blog.

I set out to chart my unlikely adventure from having never skated at 45 years old, to trying to become a hockey player. Six and a half years later, that journey has pretty much happened, regardless of how long I continue to struggle along on the ice. I backed off regular posts a while ago, because there’s only so much you can say about another training session, another dev league scrimmage, another summer league battle against this team or that. I only ever wanted to record the key details, the elements that mattered, to chronicle the crazy adventure as it happened. (Each post now archived by the National Library as a record of significance, incidentally, so there.)

So I’m going to keep showing up but probably not write about it.

I think I’ll try and saddle up again for the Cherokees next summer, bringing my very average left wing skills to my ever-accommodating team, even if I am a little unnerved by how seriously a lot of people and teams now seem to take ‘social’ summer hockey these days.

I definitely plan to continue banging on the glass of Icy O’Briens’ Henke Rink, in support of Melbourne Ice; men’s and women’s teams. It’s unlikely but I’d still love to play pond hockey in Canada, and see games in Detroit’s new arena. I still want to sing ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ out of tune and proud, after a Wings’ game.

Will that all happen? Dunno. As far as the blog goes, I don’t want to repeat myself any more than I already have, so let’s put it to rest. I’m putting a lot of energy right now into a new blog, called GiantsAmongMen.com.au, where I plan to explore what it is to be a man in today’s society, to try and be a leader in a difficult world, to keep pushing yourself to have adventures beyond what is regarded as your prime. I want to inspire people with stories of heroes. I want to unflinchingly dig into the hard stuff, and hopefully, if I really get it right, save lives, as men aged 45-60 facing the darkest of times realise that other men have survived it, and they can too.

My happy place. Hanging with the Cherokees.

It is going to take a lot of my energy, and feels more important than my hockey career, whatever that is from here; no offence to hockey.

Plus, there are so many passionate, much more committed people in the Melbourne hockey community who deserve your attention. I float in and out. Yes, I am passionate, yes, I adore our sport, but I don’t live and breathe it. I am not one of the coaches or volunteers or others striving to keep the sport advancing, progressing, thriving. Those people should have the spotlight. Not the occasional rantings of a Div 3 plodder with fading legs and no shot to speak of.

Anyway, today feels like the perfect time to finish because, tonight, me and a bunch of my closest hockey friends will indulge in a friendly battle at Icy O’Briens. A few of us like to play a game every year or so to honour our fallen brother, Charlie Srour (RIP, see post: Jan 3, 2013)

And that’s tonight. Wearing the now-retro Rookies jerseys that we hockey-class-crowd-funded back in late 2011 or maybe 2012, when we gained a sense of the wider group of us, of a wave of new hockey blood that we somehow were part of (immediately after the Icehouse opened, I realise now). We became organised. We dived into every level of the sport. We built a strong Facebook presence, welcomed new players and pushed each other to greater heights. A few made it all the way to the AWIHL. Some of us settled for lesser grades. We inspired follow-up gangs of bonded class-mates. Over time, several Rookies left the state or the sport and, of course, Charlie didn’t make it, which gutted us all.

I have no idea if I can skate tonight, or be competitive. To be honest, this is one time it doesn’t really matter, so let’s go out on that note; in the spirit of friendship and chasing pucks while laughing, and skating with a wider sense of everything that matters beyond the ice.

As I have written before, when I started nickdoeshockey, I honestly didn’t know if the adventure, and the blog, would last for a week, or a month or maybe a year.

Jumping the boards. Hopefully, I’m not done yet.

To be sitting here, six and a half years later, 257 blog entries down, is more than I ever could have hoped for.

And the fact that readers stayed with it for all of that time blows me away.

Thank you so much. I hope you’ve been entertained.

I have fucking loved hockey and continue to.

It has been a life highlight to have skated with my sons – so many times with Big Cat, but briefly, memorably and joyously with Mackquist as well, to form The Podium Line. We’ll keep skating, along with other non-icy adventures, from here.

I’ve made so many great friendships out of hockey; had so many adventures, and laughs and car-park beers and late-night post-training Big Ms, and locker-room banter sessions. I’ve had an opponent drop the gloves at me, scored some unlikely goals and learned a lot about sport, life and myself. I’ve been so lucky to have the coaches I’ve had, including (and apologies to anybody I’ve missed) Lliam Webster, Matt Armstrong, Tommy Powell, Shona Powell, Georgia Carson, Michael Best, Joey Hughes, Martin Kutek, Jason Baclig, Scuba (!), Rob Clark and more. Thank you for your endless patience, enthusiasm, humour and friendship.

The bad news is that you’re not rid of me yet.

The Podium Line: Big Cat, Nicko and Mackquist.

It’s funny. I had always assumed this blog would end in catastrophe, with a photo of a limb in a plaster cast, either a week in, or three years in, I didn’t know.

So it feels kind of wonderful that I am signing off, a few hours before strapping on my skates and heading onto the best hockey rink in the country with friends, to honour Charlie Srour and to see if I can still stand up after 10 weeks away from skating. Same as it ever was.

And so that’s it. See you out there, skaters, or by the glass on Ice game day, or just roaming the universe we all share.

Gretsky said: Skate to where the puck will be, not to where the puck is.

It’s time for me to skate towards new adventures.

Nicko, out.

 

Splattered

Driving to hockey training on Wednesday, it crossed my mind: is this a good idea?

On Tuesday, I head to one of my favourite places in the world, Lady Elliot Island, a tiny speck off the coast of Queensland at the southern base of the Barrier Reef. Mackquist and I are going to dive for a week with the manta rays, and hopefully a whale or two if one passes while we’re underwater (which can happen at this time of year).

Lady Elliot Island - so small that the strip across the middle is the runway.

Lady Elliot Island – so small that the strip across the middle is the runway.

It’s peak manta season and I can’t wait to get on the plane, to see if you can really leave Victorian winter and be in the warm Queensland waters with up to 30 or more mantas at a time.

So, driving to training, the thought strayed into my brain that this would not be a good night to hurt myself. But just as quickly, I dismissed it, thinking: you can’t live like that. I’ve skated constantly now for more than four years and have mostly been okay. Why should a standard Wednesday Intermediate class be any different?

And so yes, you know what happened. About ten minutes in, Tommy Powell calls for two quick laps and off I go, skating as fast as I can. I actually love those fast laps: they kill your legs and lungs, but in a good way. It’s the best cardio workout I get all week. And so I throw myself at them. If I’m not the fastest skater out there, and invariably I’m not, at least I’m working hard.

Right up until a goalie was stretching near where I had to turn left, to pass behind the goals, and that made my turn a little sharper than I had planned, especially at speed, and before I could process it, I’d lost an edge on my skate and I was down, bouncing off the ice and careering, completely out of control towards the boards, less than two metres away and closing fast.

This is NOT how you want to hit the boards. Somehow, Ranger Brad Richards came out of this okay.  Pic: Getty.

This is NOT how you want to hit the boards. Somehow, New York Ranger Brad Richards came out of this okay. Pic: Getty.

Without trying I can think of five cases where I’ve witnessed a hockey player in this situation end up with a broken leg or collar bone. I can think of other lesser injuries, but still significant ones from uncontrolled slides into the wall.

I’ve had it happen a couple of times and had a badly hurt shoulder/upper neck from one of them.

All of this somehow had time to pass through my mind in the micro-seconds before I hit the boards.

I’m sure I’ve written in this blog before about once doing laps with Bathurst-winning racing car driver Jim Richards. I asked him: what’s it like when you go sideways and you know you’re going to hit the wall? What passes through your mind?

He stopped, squinted, thought about it and said, surprisingly, that he’d never been in that situation.

I said: you’ve never hit a wall?

And, to paraphrase, he said: no, I’ve hit plenty of walls, but here’s the thing … a racing car is an incredible piece of machinery. It can do things that a normal car simply can’t do. And I am a highly trained, expert driver, so I can drive that car in a way people normally can’t. So, if things have gone pear-shaped, I am doing everything I possibly can not to hit the wall … right up until the actual moment that I hit the wall. If I think about it, it’s always a bit of a surprise to hit the wall, because I was concentrating, working so hard not to, and then oh wow, I hit the wall.

Another nasty board collision. You do not want to lose an edge while heading towards the wall.

Another nasty board collision. You do not want to lose an edge while heading towards the wall.

Richards’ answer has become one of my central pieces of life philosophy: until you hit a wall, do everything you possibly can not to hit that wall. (Even if you end up crashing into whatever the wall is – and believe me, in life, I have hit my share of walls – you can comfort yourself with the knowledge that you did everything humanely possible not to, despite the fact you failed.)

But on Wednesday night, this all went out the window. Skates off the ice, 85 kilos of full body momentum sliding across the surface, at velocity, with two metres or less to stop, and no way to brake, I had no hope.

Time did helpfully slow down enough for me to think: Oh shit, Lady Elliot! Oh crap, mantas! Oh fuck, Macklin will kill me …

And I also somehow had time to think: do NOT stick out an arm or a leg to take the hit. I was a relaxed ironing board in armour when I collided – and it was a beauty. I hit the boards hard. Helmet took it. Right shoulder took it. Knee took it.

But a miracle. No joint got bent the wrong way; my helmet did its job. Two days later, I’m completely fine; a vague dull ache in my shoulder but nothing to stop me boarding a plane and diving.

Such a relief.

Later in the session, I went for a puck from one direction as a classmate came fast the other way. Again, the collision was a big one. Again, I skated away, intact.

Double sigh of relief.

Today I got an email from one of my brothers at the Bang, our social footy group. He wanted to know if anybody wanted to play in a real game of Aussie Rules, to help a team he knows make up numbers, this Saturday only.

No, I wrote back, as quickly as I could type. No, I will not be putting my body in line to twang a hammie or do a big knee. Not with Tuesday’s flight looming.

For once, just this once, I am letting myself be grateful I survived Wednesday’s big hits and I’m voluntarily putting myself in cotton wool between now and Tuesday. It’s all about Mackquist, the mantas and me.

My final dive, with a manta on the surface, at Lady Elliot, a few years ago:

 

You can’t go back

Police Squad! - In Colour!

Police Squad! – In Colour!

One of the greatest moments of ‘Police Squad!’, one of the greatest (in my humble opinion) American sit-coms – the forerunner to ‘The Naked Gun’* and Leslie Neilsen’s debut as the magnificent Sgt Frank Drebin – is when Drebin and Ed, his offsider, go to Manhattan’s Little Italy district to interview the widow of a recently murdered man. As Ed dutifully interviews her (‘Did your husband have any enemies? ‘Well, the Democrats didn’t like him.’), she wails: ‘Oh, do you know what it’s like to be married to a wonderful man for 14 years?’ and Frank says, no of course not … but I did live with a guy once. He then goes into a long, non-sequitur reminiscence that is just breathtaking scriptwriting, from where I stand. Breaking the fourth wall, he eventually muses that living with the guy’s son just wasn’t the same.

‘You can’t go back,’ he says wistfully, as Ed asks: ‘I know this is a long shot but did he ever eat chop suey? … it was just a hunch’.

Genius. In fact, dammnit, I might have posted this before because I love it so much but what the Hell. Just spend two minutes watching this. Please.

So the hockey relevance of all this? Well, it’s kind of obvious, I would have thought: my stick died recently.

This doesn’t sound like such a big deal. Sticks are plentiful and if you look behind your average NHL bench, there’s a quiver of sticks for each player, to grab if one breaks – which it often does, given how hard those guys are hitting the puck … and each other, and each other’s sticks.

But I loved my stick. I found it in Chicago in 2011, when Big Cat and I travelled to the outer burbs to a huge barn called Total Hockey. (Mackquist being Mackquist, he’d started the day by saying: ‘Oh, I have a friend in Chicago so I’m going to see her today. See ya.’ and caught a train God knows where …) That left Big Cat and I in a dedicated hockey city, and we made it count. For a couple of Australians used to having to choose from a smattering of hockey kit at Bladeworx in Hawthorn, or the tiny shop at Oakleigh’s rink, or the small selection of gear available for purchase at the Icehouse, Total Hockey was basically Gear Porn.

Picture an entire wall of gloves. A. Wall. Picture racks maybe 25 metres long, with sticks, endless sticks, on both sides of the divide. Every curve that had ever been invented, and every flex variation, length, and brand.

The whole store was like that. Basically, if you’re in Australia, imagine a Rebel Sport store, but ALL HOCKEY. Yes, that’s what we were experiencing. Willio and I walked in and just went: ‘ooooooooooooh.’

I was actually pretty happy at the time with the gloves and the stick I was using back home in Australia. It’s funny, now, three years later, to think how unformed I was then as a player. I guess I still am now, but the Nicko Place who used to wobble around the ice in 2011 would (I’m reasonably sure) get mostly smoked by the Nicko Place who wobbles slightly more efficiently around the ice now. Definitely, my passing and shot were nowhere near what they are now, so it didn’t matter as much which stick I was using.

But as Big Cat held and weighed and considered every right hand stick in the barn, I wandered the leftie sticks and poked around. And then happened to pick up a Reebok, 85 flex, Crosby curve.

My beloved 2011 Reebok stick.

My beloved 2011 Reebok stick.

There’s a scene in the first Harry Potter book/film where Harry goes to the wand shop and is told that the wand chooses the wizard, not the other way around. This felt like the hockey equivalent. For some reason, the moment I held this stick, it felt ‘right’. I just knew this was my stick. It had chosen me.

(I then wandered over to the glove wall and tried on a pair of gloves that sucked onto my hand and form-fitted to the degree that I had the same feeling, that I simply couldn’t not buy them. They died recently as well, so I bought some really decent Easton gloves, had hands of stone for a few weeks, then sucked it up and went and bought the new version of those Chicago gloves. (Vapor A2’s, if you’re wondering.) Now my hands are happy once more.)

But back to the stick. I – or it – was totally right. As my hockey improved and I began actually playing competition, my trusty Reebok stick was a constant companion on the journey. We scored goals together. We learned to saucer pass and cross-ice pass to a moving target. We even flirted with lifting shots to the top corner of a goal. It was with this stick that I scored my first-ever official IHV goal, basically golf-shotting a face-off drop straight between the goalie and the left post at Oakleigh. And where I managed to not score a goal through the most unlikely manner of striking a shot too high at the same end of Oakleigh, so that the shot pinged off the top bar and stayed out. That would have been my first goal for the Cherokees, so it still hurts that I somehow overcooked it.

But time and use caught up with my old Reebok. The toe of the stick started to crumble and became jagged. I began taping the end but finally Army, at the Icehouse, ruled that it was pretty dangerous; that you wouldn’t want to catch somebody with this now ragged fiberglass. I knew he was right.

So Big Cat and I headed to Oakleigh and I tried a dozen or more sticks and none of them had that Chicago moment, of the hockey angels singing as I hoisted My Stick. I bought a Nexus which is a perfectly fine stick, and have spent a couple of months getting the hang of it, to the point that I can now trap pucks, shoot, do all my usual things with it, but it’s never felt the same.

And then last week, I was early for a meeting in Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn, and wandering the strip, happened to cruise into Bladeworx.

Everything old is new again ... the 2014 Reebok.

Everything old is new again … the 2014 Reebok.

There, sandwiched between a bunch of sticks, was a left-handed Reebok, 85 flex, Crosby curve.

Ermergerd!

It’s not exactly my old stick: I think it’s actually a level or two below the technology in the original, but I bought it – $79 off the listed price: thank you, Bladeworx – and used it last night in dev league and it felt great.

I still like the Nexus and it’s cool that I have a couple of sticks to use now, if one breaks. But I suspect I’m going to find myself more and more using the Reebok.

There’s just something about that stick. Sorry Frank Drebin, but you were wrong: when the stars align, you actually can go back.

* NOTE: Police Squad’ is available on DVD and, I think, on AppleTV. It only ran for six episodes in 1982 (two years after ‘Airplane / Flying High’ had hit movie screens) because the American audience simply didn’t get it. Six years later, the Zucker brothers revived Neilsen as Drebin for ‘The Naked Gun’ on the big screen and the concept clicked. The movies are good, but this TV series was amazing. Now I think of it, you can probably watch the whole thing, or close to it, on Youtube… enjoy.

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.

Pick a card, any card

I got asked to do some card tricks on the weekend. We’d gone to lunch at a friend’s place and he revealed that he’d pumped me up as a ‘magician’, which is almost as big a lie as telling people I’m an NHL player.

The thing is, I used to be pretty decent at some illusions. I have a close friend, Simon Coronel, who is world class, performs at the Magic Castle in LA, basically rocks after a lifetime, well, half-lifetime of training. I was his first student at his debut CAE close-up magic course years ago, and so we bonded. Worked on moves out of hours and learned that we both like drinking alcohol and talking about women and other subjects. I started carrying at least one deck of Bicycle cards (the magician’s air-cushioned card of choice) around all the time. I worked super hard at lots of complicated and difficult card manoeuvres, and would like to think I definitely rose abovethe standard of  ‘sad uncle at kid party’.

But then I realized that, while I adore magic and the paradigm shift that a truly great trick gives the audience, I was mostly working so hard on my card handling to avoid the deeper issue of a novel that I didn’t know how to finish. And so, regretfully, I put my Bicycle decks away, and swore that I couldn’t work on magic until I’d finished the manuscript. Once I finally did (‘The OK Team‘), I broke out the cards but finally realized that I simply didn’t have the time or dedication to put in the Gladwell 10,000 hours required to become a Jedi.

And so I sank to the level of amateur enthusiast (a group that, to be fair, has included names like Cary Grant and Johnny Carson, and still includes Steve Martin, Neil Patrick Harris and Jason Alexander – all active members of the Magic Castle), collected some cool old magic artifacts and then took up ice hockey, and became obsessed.

But I stay in touch with the magic crowd and they make me laugh as well as teach me things. In fact, I think the biggest lesson I learned out of my time as a wannabe purveyor of truly kick-arse card tricks was that you have to really, really want it, and you have to work at it. Magic is the ultimate example of 1 per cent inspiration, 99 per cent perspiration.

Performing a trick for friends on Sunset Strip, LA, in 2011. Oh yeah.

Performing a trick for friends on Sunset Strip, LA, in 2011. Oh yeah. (Note: brand new Jimmy Hendricks recreation shirt)

I am endlessly impressed by the sheer dedication of my magician friends. The untold hours of experimenting, practising, sessioning, building, wondering, and then repeating and repeating and repeating the moves or the entire trick, to a bedroom mirror or an empty room or, occasionally, to a confederate, until it is ready to go public. And even then, working on it endlessly, to improve it, sharpen it, refine it.

If you can’t commit to that level, then you become like me; a keen enthusiast. With enough cool card tricks to please a Sunday lunch (yes, I survived) but that’s all. The deeper waters of illusion are too hard to swim.

But that’s okay. In life, sometimes, something has to give. Lately for me, hockey has edged into that territory. I worked out recently that I now have five main streams of work happening, three of which could pretty easily be full time employment if I let them, and two of which are unpaid for not-for-profits – actually, three, if you include the pissy money you get from writing a novel, which I’ve included in the first three paid gigs. Plus I have the happy job of building my relationship with Chloe, and melding my old family and my new family. And seeing wider family and friends. And getting stuff done, whether housework or shopping or just … stuff. Walking the dog. Checking my new cat is surviving. The list is a long one. Throw in Tuesday early morning pilates, and Lliam Webster work-out sessions at Fluid, both of which are finally enabling me to skate pain-free in my left knee (Oh, Thank God, less whinging! yells the crowd) and life is pretty busy. As I’m sure yours is. I’m not claiming special status here; just actually did an inventory.

Summer League threw a whole new level of hockey onto the hockey that was already there. For example, team training is on tonight, at 9 pm, but then there’s the usual Wednesday night dev league to think about – I signed for 8.45 pm and 10 pm to get skating miles into my knee, and then low player numbers meant awesome winter players have been allowed to drop into the 10 pm, which raises the standard hugely, and makes me skate like a motherfucker: it’s great – and then my team, the Cherokees, has a game on Thursday night this week. You can see the logjam already, huh? If I go to all three of those nights, when do I catch up with my son, Mackquist, who is deep in the Hell that is the end of Year 12? Or hang out with my partner and a crazy fun five-year-old?

I’d love to make some stick-n-puck or drop-in sessions to work on my skating which, as ever, needs a lot of work, but it’s just impossible.

So I’ve been forced to let go of some of the potential stress. Because I think I’m okay with stepping back a little. It’s social fucking hockey, right, at one of the lowest competitive levels you can play, even if we do all try our hardest. Happily, most weeks, team training isn’t bookending Wednesday night dev, so that eases the pressure straight away. If i make team training or dev,  I’m hitting the ice at least twice a week, which is realistically enough to not be trying to remember which end to hold the stick each time I step into my skates. My broken toe almost fell off after two hours of intense skating last Wednesday, so I need to nurse that too, to ensure I even make it to Cherokee games in one piece.

That’s about as much as I can hope for right now. Maybe when I finish the new manuscript I’ll have more elbow room? Maybe my NFP committees will go into summer recess and I’ll have breathing space? Maybe once Mack and Big Cat finish school and uni, we can more easily find time to mooch around together?

For now, it is what it is, as the entire AFL world took to saying this year for no apparent reason.

Yes, life is crazy busy, but almost universally in awesome ways. I’m flying in as many if not more directions than normal, and things like boxing and scuba have floated into the background for now, like magic, and like hockey could so easily if I chose to let it go.

Fly Girl gives my new #17 Braves jersey plenty of respect.

Fly Girl gives my new #17 Braves jersey plenty of respect.

But I’m not. I can’t wait for tonight. I can’t wait, even more, to don my own personal Braves jersey for the first time on Thursday and partner Big Cat, my son, for our first official outing as Cherokees. That’s going to rock. I can’t wait to score my first summer league goal of the season (this could take months, if ever) and I can’t wait for that unbeatable feeling of keeping your head in the frenzy of an opposition attack to angle the puck off the boards and safely outside the blue or, better, skating with the puck and managing to pass sweetly to a teammate’s stick, as they charge through our blue line and opposition defenders scramble and the goalie crouches, getting ready, and you charge for The Slot, searching rebounds.

Hockey rocks as much as it ever has. My love remains pure.

I just need to understand that it is one beautiful part of a large, complex jigsaw.

And I need to get back to carrying a deck of Bicycle cards around. Pulling off those tricks on Sunday felt good.

Hey, didn’t I used to play hockey?

So, not much hockey being reported on here at nickdoeshockey. I’m thinking of changing the title to nickusedtodohockey.

Actually, things aren’t quite that bad. Yes, we’re between terms at Icehouse dev league, so that’s Wednesday nights briefly cleared out. And summer league is still a long way away and I’m not even sure which team I’m lining up with, so training feels remote.

Mostly, I’m trying to get my body back together. The long-suffering knee has been an issue. At the last night of dev league for the previous term, a couple of weeks ago, I finally had to pull out of playing because the knee was so sore. “You ain’t gonna be playing no more, til you fix me some, bitch” said the knee, midway through the first hour of scrimmage. Actually pretty much in warm-up. Why my knee talks like a poor man’s version of the Gimp’s owner in Pulp Fiction remains unclear, but this is how things are.

I had to sit out the second hour, which hurt a lot because the teams were playing for the Charles Srour Cup, a little dev league tribute to our mate Charlie, who had passed away almost exactly six months before.

The teams for the Charles Srour Cup. 10 pm Dev League, Icehouse. Red team won.

The teams for the Charles Srour Cup. 10 pm Dev League, Icehouse. Red team won.

Knee throbbing, I played music and worked the scoreboard and missed out on being in the teams photo at the end, because my theory is that if you don’t play, you don’t pose. Kind of like those poor bastards I always feel for, who don’t quite make the premiership team each year in the AFL. A nightmare of hollow emptiness among jubilation. OK, my night wasn’t quite that bad. If nothing else, I laughed at Lliam Webster holding off dropping the puck at face offs because he was digging the music blaring from the Henke Rink sound system. Dev leaguers twitching over their sticks.

I’d been to see an osteo the day before (not Magic Enzo, who was away) and I think the new guy did good things by unlocking problems in my knee, but the side effect was 10 days or so of struggling to climb steps or do pretty much anything. My knee felt unstable and just ‘weak’ for the first time in this whole debacle. Mackquist and I headed to Byron for a winter break to be greeted by murky water at Julian Rocks where we peered at grey nurse sharks in the gloom and then returned to the surface to watch horizontal sheet rain drown the town. Even drowned Byron is still good, though. Our Superman 3-D glasses at the local cinema came with their own caped-pouch, which pretty much made the entire trip.

And so I’m back in freezing, sunny Melbourne, not quite hobbling the way I was, but sick to death of this knee. Having to miss Nite Owls hockey on Sunday night because I couldn’t trust the knee and basically tilting my hat and deciding it’s time to beat this bastard and get healthy, even if it means some time off the ice.

In America, the Red Wings did well in free agency and the draft, so the team is coming together well for next season. The camp for rookies and try-outs is happening tomorrow, so already the Detroit machine is winding back up, seemingly moments after the last season finished. I’m hoping Darren Helm is having more luck getting over his nagging back injury than I am this knee, so he can regain his rightful place in the thick of the Wings action from Game One. He’s taking part in this week’s camp to start the long road back. Fingers crossed, Helmster.

Closer to home, Melbourne Ice has been having all kinds of shenanigans, with Joey Hughes and Vinnie Hughes retiring unexpectedly mid-season. There must be a story there – it’s a big thing to walk away from your team-mates mid-campaign in any sport. You’d want to have a bloody good reason. But I haven’t been around hockey people much so I don’t know what’s what and maybe I don’t want to.

I’ll just bunker in, huddle against the cold winter and try to get my legs moving again. Summer will be here and I need to be ready.

Miracle-free on ice, at Hisense Arena

USA v Canada from the cheap seats, at Hisense Arena. ... Meh.

USA v Canada from the cheap seats, at Hisense Arena. … Meh. Pic: Nicko

So, Melbourne just hosted its long-awaited two-night extravaganza of USA v Canada playing hockey for something called the Douglas Webber Cup, at Hisense Arena.

Big Cat got along to both games – Friday night’s 11-9 win to Canada, and tonight’s 10-9 (OT) victory to America.

Mackquist and I joined him and a bunch of our hockey friends for the Saturday night game and I think it’s fair to say we were as underwhelmed by a shoot-out victory, after a 9-9 full-time score, no less, as it’s possible for hockey fans to be.

Don’t get me wrong. This blog is not about to kick the shit out of the USA v Canada concept, or the organisers. We got pretty much what I’d expected for the $88 per ticket or whatever it was. The temporary rink was dubious but held together. It was a game featuring a handful of NHL players (including Canadian captain Kyle Quincey, a genuine Red Wing) and there was some pretty skating, and beautiful passes, and lots of goals with little puffs of artificial fire behind the goals after each score.

But as a stage to show Melbourne just how awesome my sport is, I think it fell short, although for a reason that it couldn’t really help: the game was an exhibition, played like an exhibition. And usually, in any sport, that means it’s going to suck for people who actually know and love the real thing.

I’d spent the afternoon at the MCG, watching my beloved Tigers put in a solid four quarters to see off the dangerous Adelaide Crows by more than six goals. Chloe heroically came along, and it cost me $31 for her ticket, less than half a ticket for USA v Canada. We watched more than 100 minutes of hard, tough, relentless football. Fully committed teams throwing themselves at the ball, and into one another, in pursuit of four premiership points that really mattered for each side. In the last term, with the game pretty much safe, several Tigers were clearly hobbling, carrying ankles or calf injuries, but they refused to come off, chasing and harassing and tackling and pushing, pushing, pushing until the siren mercifully blew and Richmond was in the Eight.

We sang the song long and loud.

Richmond's captain Trent Cotchin leads his team down the race. Pic: Nicko

Richmond’s captain Trent Cotchin leads his team down the race. Pic: Nicko

A quick change of Tiger scarf for signed Lidstrom Red Wings jersey later, I was on my pushbike, riding to the London Tavern where a truly surreal scene greeted me. Awash with happy Richmond fans, in their traditional post-match haunt, the Tavern also found itself home to a large number of hockey jerseys. Winnipeg Jets, Red Wings, Calgary Flames, Boston Bruins, Penguins, Melbourne Jets, Rookies, and so many more. A rainbow splash of hockey colour among the more traditional Saturday evening yellow and black.

We walked in an ever-growing tide of different jerseys past Richmond station, across Punt Road and on to Hisense Arena, with every NHL team and many teams not at that level represented in the largest hockey crowd I’ve seen in Australia.

So things looked promising, right up until the players took the ice.

I’ve long held a theory that you know how good a sporting event is going to be by how desperate the organisers are, and whether anybody talks over the actual event. Tonight’s event failed both my tests. The on-site commentators were annoying and shrill and increasingly, obviously concerned by the lack of crowd atmosphere. It reminded me a lot of some boxing and mixed martial arts event I covered as a journo, with ramped-up hoopla trying to artificially raise the roof because nobody watching a mediocre event from the bleachers was about to. Interviewing some TV actor mid-game, only mercifully ended by the crowd – gasp – cheering a goal, was a major mis-step and told me that the people behind tonight’s event didn’t trust their own product. If the hockey was excellent, just let the paying customers enjoy it … right?

There is nothing better than the intense silence of a major sporting event being contested: the opening minutes of an AFL grand final when everybody is watching, desperately, for a sign of strength or weakness between the combatants. The opening salvos of a Test match in cricket. The moment in a tennis match when you know a few crucial points are going to decide a Grand Slam title and history. It can be strangely quiet but it’s because it is so gripping, so focused.

The USA-Canada game instead had huge explosive fireworks as a kind of defribulator to try and get hearts pumping. If in doubt, more flames behind the goals, and talking over the action, including increasingly desperate pleas to ‘Let’s hear some noise!’

Flames behind the goalie can only mean one thing. Canada scores at Hisense. Pic: Nicko

Flames behind the goalie can only mean one thing. Canada scores at Hisense. Pic: Nicko

The reason there wasn’t any noise was because the game was mildly interesting, and nothing more. Yes there were a lot of goals. Wowee. Yes, there were some fights – tellingly between the same two fighters as at the Friday night game. Melbourne fans know their sport. Even more so, Melbourne hockey fans – or Canadian Melburnians coming along out of a sense of homesickness – know their hockey.

Nineteen goals each game tells you something about the standard, at least of the defence. Plus, the refs appeared to be under orders not to call off-side or icing, which helped the attacking players no end. Sitting where we were, up in the nosebleeds, I was really struck by how claustrophobically small a NHL-sized rink is. With a genuine NHL-standard defence guarding the goal, plus an elite goalie, the miracle is that anybody can score at all.

In fact, you know what? Earlier this week, the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins went at it in Game One of the Stanley Cup finals. This was a match that mattered, big time. This was when hockey players cared.

After the teams were 3-3 at the final buzzer, they went for the best part of three overtime periods without managing to score a goal. Almost an entire game, on top of the game already played; exhausted, out on their feet, and out of fresh attacking ideas. Yet never conceding, not giving anything up. The winner, when it came, was a cruel deflection of several legs, to beat the keeper.

It would be fair to say that at Hisense Arena, we saw nothing like that.

Which is fine. It’s an exhibition. Guys like Quincey would be under stern orders from head office not to risk their multi-million contracts with a genuine injury playing such a novelty event in Melbourne, Australia. I get that.

Watching a golf-cart or something dragging a wet net impersonating a Zamboni, I would have been nervous about my players too, if I was a NHL or AHL manager. As it was, former Melbourne Ice coach ‘Jaffa’ Wilson was among the American coaches, urging on players who were probably more interested in how the overpriced merchandise was selling than whether the Canadians had gotten one back. Plus, you know, one player handed a female friend of mine a puck with his name, jersey number and mobile number on it. Which impressed her a lot until she realised he had a box of the pucks and was using them for some kind of shotgun pellet pick-up-chicks approach. While applauding such brazen chutzpah, it would suggest to me that the Australian trip is a lot closer to an end-of-season trip for such players than a driven quest for Douglas Webber glory.

In the end, feeling extremely unmoved by the whole spectacle, I came to a realization that actually pleased me. I realized that what makes great sport is not just the rules of a game, or the location, or the shape of the ball or puck or bat or stick or mallet or whatever. Whether tennis or boxing or footy or cricket or rugby or European handball or hockey, there is one truth: what makes great sport is passion. It’s the participants’ commitment and courage and complete dedication to the task at hand. That is what can elevate sport to something magical and worthy. This is what I love.

Moreso, when that is missing, it cannot be faked. In a game like tonight’s – ostensibly, on paper, a rematch of the last Olympic gold medal match (LOL) – when it is an exhibition, and nothing more, it cannot rise to great heights. Defenders will hold off, sometimes very deliberately and at some effort, on finishing their checks. Players who in a NHL game would find depths of effort to skate when exhausted, to reach a puck that they really shouldn’t be able to fight for, won’t.

And so the level drops, and becomes pedestrian.

It’s okay. It is what it is.

But nothing more.

No amount of shrieking commentators demanding we yell and scream and stand up or get wildly fakely excited about a shoot-out (that they didn’t actually know how to run, and then couldn’t count to realize that America had won) … none of this will make an exhibition game find heights.

And so our money was spent on exactly that, and we wandered into the night, having enjoyed seeing some actual NHL stars, even if they were just doodling around. And enjoying seeing so many hockey fans and Canadians and Americans and Australian hockey fans in the one place, even if we were tepidly excited for the evening. And so we decided against spending $30 for a souvenir puck. And so we headed off, wishing Melbourne Ice was in town so we could drift to the Icehouse tomorrow and watch some real hockey. Watch players who cared.

Luckily I’m on the ice at 10 pm tomorrow, in Night Owl action. And that’s a good thing.

It’s just like porn versus sex: why watch people faking it, when you can do it for real? Amen.