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:

 

So, how was your week?

The difficult one-finger hand-stand push-up. What you - well, I - do when no mantas turn up mid-dive.

Me? Finally had a story I’d written about taking up hockey published in the Sunday Age (thanks, fellow rookie Michael Coulter) but had flown north and landed on a remote Barrier Reef piece of sand with some trees and eight-billion noisy birds, Lady Elliot island, so I didn’t have any phone or web access.

Seems like it got a decent response. The headline: “Puck life”. An f for a p and my reputation as a sunny optimist is gone forever. (Even if, in reading back this blog, I spend far too much time in the f life mode, given how 90 per cent of my life rocks.)

On Lady Elliot, I did my second tour of duty as an Earthwatch volunteer. Not as many manta rays as in September, but I had one face-to-face beautiful encounter, which made the week worthwhile all on its own – plus, it was a never-seen-before very large (read: five metre wingspan) female so I got to name it. Introducing Lana Del Ray (see what I did there? Ray and Rey? Working on so many levels … well, two). I cut together a highlights video of her, but Youtube chopped out the music (Lana Del Rey: “Blue Jeans”) because it suspected copyright breach. Those spiders don’t miss a thing.

So I’ve cut together a broader highlights video of the week underwater, if you feel like a break from hockey. It only goes for six minutes. You’ll drool with envy. Lana Del Ray is the manta in the close-ups. The sharks kick in at about 3.49, if you can’t bear to watch six minutes of fish and other critters.

So that’s been my week. Now back in civilization and happily exhausted.

In other news, my footy team, Richmond, apparently looked good in the pre-season competition. The Red Wings’ astonishing home-winning streak is now at 22 wins and has broken all NHL records. Physically spent from the north, I lay on my couch today and watched a replay of the historic 21st straight home win on Gamecenter on my Apple TV. It was brilliant. The crowd at the Joe in the final minute was out-of-control loud and excited. I got emotional listening to the fans, now able to imagine being there. And of course they played “Don’t Stop Believin’“. One day I will hear that song in that stadium. (But no, Detroiters, I’m not coming anywhere near the city or the Joe while the streak remains! You can relax.)

Closer to home, the world junior speed skating championships will retain a hold on my home rink, the Henke, for another week or so, so I plan to go to Sydney for work and then non-work shenanigans before classes start again.

For now, I need to sleep and will hopefully ditch my usual yearnings for happy dreams of manta rays and Stanley Cups. Let’s go Red Wings, let’s go.

Polishing a turd

I’ve always loved the expression “You can’t polish a turd”. I’m assuming any Detroit hockey people reading this get what it means … I have no idea if it’s an Australianism or not. The bottom line is that no matter how hard you try, you can’t turn, umm, human excrement into gold.

Some golden poo today. Pic: deviantart.com

So last night’s second attempt at Dev League was always going to be tricky. Looking vaguely back into the middle-distance of my life, I have a habit of second-time-blues when it comes to fitness and competition. That nasty second run, or that even worse second hit of tennis after a long break … things like that. I’ve always put it down to expectations. When you haven’t hit a tennis ball for months or haven’t played pool, or whatever, you don’t expect much of yourself, are therefore reasonably relaxed and just happy to be back doing something you love, and promptly play like a champ.

Second time out, you’re thinking ‘Man, I was hitting it really well last time … this should be even better now I’ve got my eye back in.’ The words “This should be…” being one of life’s more common but surprisingly effective traps. And you duly stink up the court, or felt, or bowling lane, or Royal Tennis court, or footy oval, or … well, you get the idea. In this case, let’s go with “rink”.

Last night I was slightly off from the start. Sore back, tired, uncertain on my skates. In Intermediate class, I actually felt pretty serviceable, given these things that I couldn’t shake off. At one stage, I said aloud: “C’mon, Nicko, fucking skate!” which drew a look from the chick in front of me. But eve after that eloquent and stirring pep talk, I was only okay.

In Dev League I battled hard, won some pucks, managed to have about five full body collisions (and kept my feet in all but one, which surprised me) but cannot in any reasonable hockey universe be considered to have had a great game. I was slow, not getting to where the puck would be enough … just hacking, basically.

But that’s cool. It was only my second attempt and I have all year to get better, to find the pace, to grow into this. We get a couple of weeks off now because of the world junior skating championships being held at our rink (no, really – the Icehouse techos are even removing all the glass from around the Henke Rink for the event. “That’s why every pane of glass has a number on it,” explained Lliam. “See, you even get some science.”)

I’d love to watch genuine speed skating but don’t know if I’ll get the chance. I’m heading to the Barrier Reef for a second stint of joining Earthwatch to save the manta ray. I did it last September, pre-America, and it totally rocked my world. No phone reception, no wifi … just me, three dives a day, turtles, sharks, rays, fish, corals, a great bunch of scientists and volunteers, fun resort staff at Lady Elliot Island and me, struggling to turn off all my day-to-day issues and live truly in the moment.

I just got a new Mac and celebrated by cutting together a video of my final dive from the last Earthwatch trip. I was surfacing after my final dive of the trip, heavy at heart because I had to return to the real world. As I completed my three minute safety stop at five metres down, I saw some movement near the surface, saw the giant wings flapping, and started to laugh underwater. I raised my trusty GoPro and began to rise, shooting the video below.

Manta rays are known for being incredibly intelligent (their brain is way out whack in being too big for the sort of prehistoric mutated shark that they are, is the scientific way of putting it. Cue Lliam: “It’s like, you know, science!”) and curious. They have an amazing capacity to tell how comfortable you are with them; whether you’re over-excited, scared, tense, or relaxed.

By this dive, on the last day, I was very relaxed – in fact, feeling about as spiritual as I get (Nature is my God. Let’s leave it there) and embraced this manta’s appearance. With a lot of Nicko-free water to feed in, the manta felt the love and returned it, literally grazing me with its wings for close to 10 minutes. I ran out of air (the last part of the video is me on a snorkel) and eventually ran out of GoPro memory.

As the manta finally cruised under our entire group, found me and rose to pass close before swimming away as we climbed on the boat, I raised a hand and waved goodbye.

I can’t believe I land on that tiny, one-end-of-the-island-to-the-other grass landing strip on Saturday and will be in the water by Saturday afternoon. For all the daily soup I spend far too much time living in, my life fucking rocks. There, I said it.

Later, all. Have a great week, enjoy the Wings playing some games at home and let’s hope Jimmy Howard’s finger heals fast.

See you on the other side, when my hair is wet.

Once more with feeling …

Nicko (right) and a manta friend.

So, I have a game of ice hockey tomorrow night. Turns out I’m in town, back from crazy manta ray adventures, for the final class of Wednesday night lessons. And that means scrimmages.

Having not been on the ice for a couple of weeks, and having been in a different universe (see picture) and now caught in the quicksand of life and labouring under a heavy head cold … well, what could go wrong?

Weirdly, this could be just what I need. I can hit the ice tomorrow with no real expectation of performing at a high standard. I should just get out there, crash into people and have fun. Given that I don’t plan to take formal classes next term (Will and many others are doing Intermediate again, and Dev League, so I’m very worried about being left behind, but I think I need to follow my plan to become a better pure skater) … this could be my last real game for a long time, unless I take the plunge into Drop-In hockey when I’m back from America.

The last scrimmage session I attempted was at the end of my second stint of Intro and it was an absolute shocker. My dodgy shoulder exploded very early in the piece after a nasty fall, confidence ebbed with every shift and I was terrible all night.

I’m pretty sure the whole experience was made worse because I was dumb enough to carry expectations onto the ice. I hadn’t played so badly in my first end-of-Intro scrimmage and it made sense that, 10 weeks of refining and underlining skills later, I should be an infinitely better player, right?

Wrong. When I was clearly fumbling and bumbling like your standard end-of-Intro beginner, I unravelled.

Happily, in Intermediate, I’ve known all term that I’m at the lower end of skills among the class, so I can just embrace that and do what I can. The others have been in hockey mode right through, whereas I blew off to Lady Elliot Island to dive with Project Manta, and you can’t believe what an awesome/foreign headspace that was.

hockey sledging in the Tropics.

If it wasn’t for the fact that the lead scientist, Kathy, is a Canadian who wore her Canadian hockey jersey around between dives, and one of the dive masters, Alesh, was a Czech who gave Kathy anti-Canada hockey shit at every turn, well, hockey would have been another planet.

Canadian Kathy.

Even stranger than spending seven days underwater with giant mantas was having no phone or internet access for a week. You tried that lately? It’s freaky, if you’re as connected as most people who would bother to read a blog. I had no idea Sam Stosur had won the US Open, only sketchy details of the footy finals and missed a whole week of friends’ lives on facebook. Very unusual.

Since I got back to Melbourne, I’ve been absorbing the trusty Detroit Free Press and Detroit News sites, to see what’s been happening at the Red Wings. Informal training has now ended and the team is in Traverse City, holding formal pre-season training. Pavel Datsyuk is wearing No. 24 instead of his usual No. 13 for the entire pre-season, as a tribute to the Wings’ previous 24, the late Ruslan Salei, killed in that plane crash a week or so ago.

Me at Earthwatch's Project Manta.

My last blog stands, about not knowing where life is going to take you; allowing those Wings of Fate to flap. For good and bad, and often at the same time.

Right now, I need to concentrate on the good, because there’s a lot of it if I tune in. I can’t believe last week I was swimming with manta rays, with up to a five-metre wingspan. I can’t believe in two and a half weeks, I’ll be in Manhattan, skating at Central Park. I can’t believe in a month and a bit, we’ll be watching the Wings live, in Washington and then Detroit. I even have tickets, stashed among my luggage. As long as online booking across two countries works, we’re there. Or very unhappy.

But first I need to survive tomorrow night, including coming up with a way to handle mass snot under a glass visor. I never said this hockey adventure would be pretty.