Whale sharks, wounded Wings and Arnold, the Estonian.

Life’s been pretty exciting lately, even if this blog has been quiet.

I’m head down on lots of work, and deep in the first draft of the ‘Roll With It’ sequel, which is why I’ve been slack about writing hockey stuff down. But I have been living it. For example, tonight, one of my old Interceptor teammates, Dan ‘Yoda’ Byrne, is in town and so we’re getting the band back together, to play the IBM Business machines at the Icehouse. Should be fun. With summer comp over, all of my current hockey is in this vein of playing for fun, or development on Wednesday nights. I’ve found my intensity has slipped a little, but I’m ok with that. Next summer feels a long way away.

I might also be affected by the fact Tony Abbott is probably hunting me as I type, determined to dump my arse on Nauru or, worse (if that’s possible) Manus Island. You see, I am now an officially rejected boat person – turned back from a country’s border and refused entry. I was on a dive boat a few weeks ago, headed for Burma, to look for manta rays as a scientific project for the Marine Megafauna Foundation, when the Burmese officials decided not to let us through.

It didn’t ruin my week too much, given I had already hung out with manta rays, a whale shark (only a baby at five metres long) and an octopus, doing the whole try-to-turn-into-coral routine. We turned back into Thailand and visited amazing islands for the remainder of the week, even if the mantas deserted us.

Mixing hockey and diving underwater off Thailand.

Mixing hockey and diving underwater off Thailand.

It wasn’t until I was back at Patong that hockey made its inevitable, inexplicable appearance, as it always does no matter how remote or bizarre the location. It started when I walked past a bar in the seedy, dodgy, dubious quarter of Patong, in the middle of the day for safety from bouncers and spruikers, and saw one TV was featuring a replay of the USA v Canada hockey semi-final at the Sochi Olympics. The other TV had Richmond v Collingwood, live and pre-season from Wangaratta, as a Thailand bar would. I took a photo because all of this was so unlikely and the bar owner pounced, screeching at me: ‘100 baht for photo! 100 baht for photo!’

‘Yeah, that’s not going to happen,’ I said, walking away.

I walked and walked and walked, wearing myself out before the plane home, and eventually made it back to where I was staying and plunged into the pool. There I was joined by a European guy with bold shoulder tribal tattoos and Abbott-worthy budgie smugglers. His name was Arnold, we got talking about Estonia versus Australia and the inevitable weather comparisons and I laughed about playing ice hockey when it was sometimes 38 degrees outside the Icehouse.

‘You play hockey?’ Arnold said. ‘I also play hockey!’

Turns out Arnold is in his early 40s and plays for an Estonian team called Total, based in the Estonian capital, Tallinn.

Estonia's Total hockey team. Arnold on the right, middle row.

Estonia’s Total hockey team. Arnold on the right, middle row.

This is the team, along with their coach (who I call Chuckles), and that’s Arnold on the far right of the middle row.

Turns out it’s more expensive to play hockey in Estonia, with Arnold forking out something like 800 Euros a season (compared with about $500-600, including PointStreak, here) but sounds similar otherwise. Arnold was super-keen that my team, the Cherokees, should travel to Estonia to play his. I gently pointed out that we’re all amateur hockey players, like he is, and therefore don’t really have the kind of team funds to travel half way around the world for a friendly social match. … Unless one of my teammates has been holding out on us about hidden riches. Doc? Wolverine? Milkman? We have another plan to swap jerseys, which I should make happen, just for the Hell of it.

As we parted, Arnold said to me, ‘Now we are Facebook friends, we are friends forever!’ Hard to argue with that.

Hockey BFF: Arnold and Nicko. (Pic: Arnold's wife)

Hockey BFF: Arnold and Nicko. (Pic: Arnold’s wife)

Once I got back to Melbourne, I had my usual couple of sessions of shaking off being underwater and instead reacclimatizing to the ice. Had a brilliant stick-n-puck session with a teammate, Wolverine, where my legs screamed, and then a Dev League to get in shape for the Cherokees’ final match of summer, on the Friday night. We were beaten, again, but felt like we were right in it, for long periods. Most of us are planning to stay together for next summer and hopefully we’ll see improvement from a second year together. It was inspiring watching the Tigersharks this year, playing such a beautiful team game after three solid seasons together, even if they were pipped in the Grand Final by Jets Black, with the Blacks’ Swede just edging the Tigershark’s Canadian, two goals to one.

We were definitely playing a better team game towards the end of the season, and that gives us hope.

Nicko v The Wolverines. What happens when Kittens and Chris Hodson peel off for a line change without me realising I'm now all alone ... (Pic: Luke Milkovic)

Nicko v The Wolverines. What happens when Kittens and Chris Hodson peel off for a line change without me realising I’m now all alone … (Pic: Luke Milkovic)

Only this morning, I saw yet another brilliant quote from the Red Wings’ coach, Mike Babcock, who I really think is one of the world’s great coaches. The Wings are still somehow in the playoff race despite suiting up a line-up that has been smashed by injuries all season, and no more than now where Dats, Zetterberg, Ericsson, Helm, Abdelkader and Weiss lead something like 10 first-team absences, meaning the Wings are a defacto Grand Rapids Griffins as they face up to the might of the Crosby-led Penguins today.

Babs’ take on all this? ‘We know tonight … the other team is gonna have more skill than us. So what? Skill doesn’t win, teams win.’

So true. I quote another of Babs’ lines: ‘Choose your attitude,’ all the time. He and the Wings could sigh that the injury Gods hate them, it’s all too hard and fold, or embrace the crazy challenge of this season, skate hard and see what they can do. Choose your attitude.

I’m not convinced the streak can stay alive this year but it’s truly astonishing that it’s not over yet. Go Babs. Go Wings.

A matter of life & death

RIP Ruslan Salei

I hadn’t planned on posting anything before taking off tomorrow for the great manta ray adventure, but news has come through of the Russian plane crash that has killed 44 people, including many hockey stars, from Swedish Olympic champions and ex-NHL players to several ex-Red Wings, most notably Ruslan Salei, who only left the team at the end of last season, and coach Brad McCrimmon.

Bam. Just like that. A faulty 18-year-old Russian plane and an entire team of hockey players in their prime, or not far off it, are gone.

Pavel Datsyuk broke the news to the Wings as they were about to go onto the ice for an informal training session and the team closed the locker-room to the media. Coach Mike Babcock and his wife headed for the home of McCrimmon’s wife and kids, to offer support.

Just like that, hockey and sport and so much everyday life is put into perspective.

There’s not much to say, except for this: live your lives, people.

Embrace life. Smell the air. Look at the sky. Take a moment to be aware of the fact that you’re alive and the world is full of potential.

I’ve had a few deaths, and other losses, in my circles over the past couple of years and they’ve hit me deeply. This one is on a grander scale, we’ve already watched the Japanese earthquake in horror, and tomorrow you can guarantee every news service will carry the images of those planes slamming into the twin towers exactly 10 years ago over and over again.

In one month, my boys and I will be standing at Ground Zero, in downtown Manhattan, site of those fallen towers, looking at the reflecting pools they have built as a memorial. The first time I went there, less than a year after the terrorist act, I stood contemplating that twisted metal, the carnage visible from Church Street, the financial district only a block or so away. I can remember the smell of decay and death that hung over the mountains of rubble, and drifted through the subway system. And I became aware of the people around me, many crying, many holding photos, many silent. They were the family members of those lost in the towers, paying painful homage.

I walked away from that site thinking about the thousands of people who went to work that day, not realising they weren’t coming home. That such a random vicious act would snatch their lives.

My cousin, an oncologist, has told me many times how cancer is so random; it takes whoever it wants, and he treats so many “gunna” people – those who were “gunna do this or gunna do that” but now they won’t have that chance. I determined early that I would not be one of those people.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a long fucking way from perfect. I continue to hurt people and I fail at things and I stumble in fog and have no idea where I’m going; more or less than most? I have no idea.

But I try. To be a good person. To do the right thing. To take my seat on a small plane flying precariously from Hervey Bay to Lady Elliot Island on Saturday morning with the knowledge that those around me hopefully know they are loved and I have tried my absolute hardest, for them and for me. Win or lose.

I spend possibly too much time wondering about this stuff; what do I need to wrestle, to ensure is right, rather than just letting life unfold. I just got a large tattoo of a yellow-tailed black cockatoo feather on my upper left arm to remind myself every single day that we are all in the Wings of Fate.

And we are. If I broke my leg last week at hockey, that adventure would be over and my trip to Project Manta and America a week or so later would be scuppered. Do I stop skating in fear of that? Or trust those flapping wings?

And that’s not the least of it. If I had happened to be a member of an elite Russian hockey team attempting to take off from Yaroslavl Airport yesterday, could I say I’ve lived a life? Could I say I have left the world a better place? Could I say that I took the bites out of existence that justifies time on Earth?

Rest in peace, Ruslan Salei, Brad McCrimmon and everybody else on that plane.

For the rest of us? None of us know how long we’ve got so live life as though you mean it. I intend to, starting with manta ray face time.

After that? Who knows.

Take care, hockey fans.

Triumph & travel

The biggest congratulations to Lliam, Army, and all the Melbourne Ice players for going back-to-back and winning the Goodall Cup for 2011, dominating the semi-final against Adelaide and then edging Newcastle in the grand final, all at the Icehouse on the weekend. Army, Lliam and Joey Hughes scored in the big one, so it was a brilliant result on every front. Congrats, too, to Jason Baclig, for winning the AIHL MVP. Well earned. Jason is amazing.

I can’t make it to class tonight because of work commitments, which is a bummer because I was genuinely interested to see what shape our coaches would turn up in, three days later.
The Facebook photos were getting more and more impressive as Sunday night unfolded.

But shit, if you’re not going to party over that, when are you going to party?

Me? I’m leaving town. Sea, sand, sky, and the sanctuary of my other underwater world, on this occasion at the Barrier Reef. Project Manta: An entire week of diving with manta rays for Earthwatch.

Life list: tick.

Here’s a taste:

(Well found, Katey Slater)

See you all on the other side of the ice.