Back to work …

So, I have a hockey game on Saturday.

This is something of a shock, as it always is after the Christmas break.

It was December 19 when I last strapped on the skates, to play the ice Wolves at Icy O’Briens Arena. Of course, my unprecedented two-game scoring streak came to an end that day, but we Cherokees actually had a great game against the top team, pushing them all the way, and headed into Christmas feeling good.

Showing amazing stick-holding technique v the Icebreakers in December. Pic: Eyal Bernard

Showing amazing stick-holding technique v the Ice Wolves in December. Pic: Eyal Bernard

Now, almost a month later, who knows?

I remember coach Lliam Webster saying, in one of my earliest skating lessons five years ago this week (no, really), that ice-skating is a completely unnatural action. That we humans are designed to walk or run, but not skate – where there is a need to push our feet counter-intuitively to the side – so it has to be totally learned.

A month off takes you inevitably not back to square one, but certainly back quite a few levels of skating comfort. Another of my respected coaches along the way, Joey Hughes, once told me that before the official training starts for an AIHL season, he always books private ice time at his home rink in Oakleigh and

The view from my parents' house on Christmas Day. Lorne was lucky. Poor Wye River and Separation Creek weren't. Pic: Amanda Place

The view from my parents’ house on Christmas Day. Lorne was lucky. Poor Wye River and Separation Creek weren’t. Pic: Amanda Place

then puts himself through several hours of back-to-basics skating drills; the same ones he sets for Next Level newbies or intermediate classes, just refining and recalling the muscle memory for everything from basic crossovers to pivots and fancier hockey moves. It’s only once he’s done several sessions of that and feels like he has his edges back that he picks up his stick and begins genuine hockey training.

Which doesn’t bode well for me on Saturday. I am not now and never will be a Joey Hughes.

The flipside of all this is that having a break from any sport can be a wonderful thing. I fully utilised the break, from helping my elderly parents get the Hell out of Dodge when a bushfire threatened Lorne on Christmas day, to hanging out with friends

French Billy Eliott done well: Is that Lliam Webster playing the dad?

French Billy Elliot done well. But wait, is that Lliam Webster playing the dad?

and amazing fauna at North Stradbroke Island, to watching the aforementioned Lliam Webster unexpectedly play the deaf father in a French film, La Famille Bélier, to missing the Cherokees’ first training skate of the year on Sunday because I was getting sunburnt at a French music festival, digging the sexy and talented duo, Brigitte, or jumping up and down to a bizarre but fun Baltic-French hip-hop crew, Soviet Suprem.

But now party time is over, even if it slated to be 41 degrees Celsius tomorrow.

Just another quiet gig for Soviet Suprem, at So Frenchy So Chic.

Just another quiet gig for Soviet Suprem, at So Frenchy So Chic.

Saturday looms, and the need to be able to stand upright on skates while chasing a small, hard rubber puck, and hopefully not giving away penalties by careering uncontrollably into opponents. Looks like I’ll be the one wobbling around at as many stick ‘n’ puck sessions as I can get to between now and the weekend. Starting at 4.30 pm today.

Off-season distraction: French duo Brigette.

Off-season distraction: French duo Brigette.

See you there?

 

 

One more Soviet Suprem clip, for fun. Trust me, live, they are amazing!

 

The pelican

Yes, we segwayed Washington. Not even sorry.

Yes, we segwayed Washington. Not even sorry.

Four years ago, on this day, I was sitting up on an all-night train from South Carolina to Washington DC. I adore long train rides, always have, but on this ride, I was sad, having waved goodbye, for who knows how long, to one of my best friends in the world. Trent is a Horsham boy and an old journo brother-in-arms who married an American woman and now has to live over there, meaning I hardly ever get to spend time with him. On a big US trip, my boys and I had dropped into his world. We’d attended soccer training with his daughters. We’d gone past a freeway sign to a town called Batcave. I’d driven a left-hand-drive car for the first time. We’d drunk local beer in a folky bar in Asheville. We’d talked deep philosophy until late in the night. We’d talked shit until late into the night. We’d gone white water rafting, accepting a dare from the guide to go overboard, gasping and laughing in freezing river water, and I’d spotted a bald eagle lazily flapping ahead of us. We’d gone camping in bear country where Trent had told me that you didn’t really need to worry about bears unless you were stupid enough to have food in your tent. One guy got mauled because he had a chocolate bar in his pack, for example. I tried to sleep, knowing my two boys were in a tent just on the other side of the dying fire; sleeping soundly but at the mercy of bears that almost certainly would never come. At about 4 am, I became convinced I had a chocolate bar in my bag. I gave myself a lecture about paranoia and finally slept. In the early morning, the sun just rising, Trent and I creaked to our feet, straight-shot local authentic moonshine to jolt ourselves awake, and grinned at one another. I checked my bag and found a chocolate bar.

Camping by the South Toe River, North Carolina. Bear country. 2011.

Camping by the South Toe River, North Carolina. Bear country. 2011.

Now I was aware that Trent was fading with every mile as American countryside rolled by. This train’s seats were annoyingly about 10 centimetres too close together, just short enough in leg room so there was no way to get comfortable. My youngest son, Macklin, trying to sleep, stirred and shifted and then lay in my lap. I put my arm across his shoulders and it occurred to me that this moment may never come again. When kids are young, you get used to them flailing all over you, sleeping in your bed, or slumping asleep on top of you when they hit that moment kids get when they just can’t stay awake. But Mack was 15 now and at an age where he was starting to want his own space. He had outgrown holding hands as you walk along the street, or overt displays of affection. Was midway through that awkward teenage stage of growing and separating. So it was a rare thing to have him curl up in my lap.

And so we rolled into Washington, a city I had never particularly cared to visit but this time had a reason. As our endless train ride came to an end at Union Station (Paul Kelly: ‘He came in on a Sunday, every muscle aching, walking in slow motion, like he’d just been hit’) a private plane, the Red Wing 1, the Detroit hockey team’s plane, was getting ready to fly from Motor City.

And we had tickets to our first ever NHL game, Detroit @ Washington at the Verizon Centre.

We had a day and a half to fill and hit Washington hard. Peered through the fence at the White House, toured the Smithsonian museums – highly recommend the space museum and the pop culture one – ate at the spy museum café, bought the t-shirt, took a Segway tour of the monuments. Visited Abe Lincoln in his big chair. Stood where Martin Luther-King stood, looking not at a million people by the reflection pond but instead at a work site; an uprooted, drained pond-full of pipes and mud. The boys headed to the Washington zoo while I grabbed a public rent-a-bike and pedalled my way around town, seeing the monuments, the Newseum and other treasures.

And then, finally, it was game time.

Something I had waited years to see. Pic: Nicko

Something I had waited years to see. Pic: Nicko

I can still remember walking into the building; worrying that my first-ever Stubhub ticket purchase would be declared invalid at the door. Relieved as they bleeped us through. So many hockey jerseys, including enough Detroit red and white that I relaxed about us being targeted as the enemy in the building. Americans so friendly, Caps fans or Wings; mostly so happy to meet three crazy Australians who had travelled half a world to be there. I remember watching warm-ups; marvelling at seeing Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Nick Lidstrom in the flesh. Other favourite players like Helm, Bertuzzi and Howard. Taking photos of everything from a pyramid of pucks on the bench to the crowd filling the venue.See the video below: this is my film of my heroes emerging onto the bench and then to the ice (plus a baby-faced assistant coach, Jeff Blashill, making his way onto the bench alongside Babs).

After decades as a journalist, including covering world title fights, grand slam tennis and many other major events, I was like a kid; a fan again. It wasn’t just seeing the Wings either. Our seats were close to the Washington bench and we were only metres from Alexander Ovechkin, the huge Russian with the Bond-villain face, and the hardest shot I have ever seen. He flicked his wrist like every other player but somehow the puck that came off his stick looked like it would blast clean through a brick wall. No wonder he scores so many goals.

It was Nick Lidstrom’s 1500th NHL game. During a break in play, the achievement was written on the four way big screen above the ice and the entire building gave him an ovation. Lidstrom glancing up to the screen, realising the applause was for him and graciously raising his stick, in his under-stated Perfect Human kind of way.

Good seats at my first ever NHL game. Shame about the scoreline. Pic: Nicko

Good seats at my first ever NHL game. Shame about the scoreline. Pic: Nicko

The Wings lost 7-1. Got jumped 3-0 early and never got it back, Ty Conklin having a less than stellar game in net. No matter, we thought. We have three looming games in Detroit, at the Joe, to console us. We’ll watch the Wings win at home and sing ‘Don’t stop believing’ with our people. We flew off to Chicago, then to Motor City, and Detroit lost every game. We flew back to Australia and Detroit proceeded to set a NHL record for winning the most consecutive games at home.

But do I care? Not at all. At the time, I thought I’d be back in a year or two to watch more NHL games. In fact, when the Wings were announced as a Winter Classic team, Big Cat and I started trying to measure up a trip.

But four years is a lot of sand through the hourglass. Life has changed. My boys have grown, become more independent, as they should. Are planning overseas trips that don’t include me – and on their own coin. Meanwhile, I returned to Australia, felt my heart lurch one or two more times and then met a French woman who turned out to be the unlikely piece of the puzzle I needed for my life to make sense. All my overseas travel since has been aimed at Bretagne instead of Detroit, but believe me, I am okay with that. If you’d seen Chloe’s home town of Rennes, you’d understand.

But exactly four years since I saw the Wings first hand, I find myself wondering when or even if I’ll ever see them again in the flesh? Lidstrom’s No. 5 is now in the rafters of the Joe, which itself is on borrowed time as a new stadium starts to take shape in Detroit’s midtown. Zetterberg and Datsyuk are in deep, deep hockey middle age – although I have them covered on that front, even if I am only two games into my fourth competitive summer.

I was among a group of backpackers in Greece a long time ago, who gathered for a communal meal in Delphi. I got talking to a bloke from Yorkshire who had cycled to Delphi in the hope of seeing a pelican. He was a twitcher and pelican was high on his never-seen bucket list. An unimaginably exotic bird if you were from Yorkshire; something he couldn’t quite believe he might actually see, if he was lucky in the next day or so at a nearby lake. I thought of all the pelicans I’d seen in Australia. Even on the wastelands of the Geelong Road, you see flocks of them flapping overhead. Once, between waves while I was surfing alone around the coast from Lorne, a pelican flew up and landed right next to me, in the water. It hung out for 20 minutes or so and, high on nature and surfing and the beauty of life, I talked and sang to this enormous bird. Not unreasonably, it left soon after. Yet for this Yorkshire cyclist, he’d worked so hard to try even to glimpse one. Such a rare jewel.

Maybe live NHL hockey will be that for me? Both my boys are studying careers that could easily see them end up living overseas, including Toronto and LA so perhaps that’s how I will cross paths with the Winged Wheel once more; on a visit to my sons as they take on the world?

Or maybe I never will. Maybe money will tighten or health will change or circumstances will dictate that my days of jetsetting are done? I t took me until I was 24 years of age to manage to leave Australia and I’ve always felt it is a privilege to fly, to see other countries. I’ve never taken it for granted. And one day it will be over.

Maybe Washington and Detroit in 2011 was my one shot. Maybe I’m destined to be huddled in front of NHL Gamecenter for however many years I have left on the planet, riding a televised puck and Detroit’s fortunes, but with the blessing that in my memory bank is the additional colour and flavour of what it was like to Be There. Of having walked into the Verizon Centre and the Joe Louis Arena; of having seen the numbers and the pennants in the rafters; of having lived NHL hockey live and in the flesh.

How blessed am I to have done that? For that experience, and the wider trip with my sons, four years ago. I saw my pelican. And it was amazing.

The responsibility of the sports fan

I can tell you, without prompting, what was my worst moment of the 2014 AIHL season.

It was during the grand final, and it wasn’t the fact that my team, the Melbourne Ice, was looking unnaturally lethargic against the uppity Mustangs, to the extent that the Ice eventually fell 6-1 without firing a shot.

It wasn’t even the increasingly rapt and raucous cheering of the Mustangs fans as they realised their Goodall Cup dream was coming true. (Actually, it was hard to begrudge them their joy and, let’s face it, I would have been yelling louder if the Ice was on top, so good for you, Clippyclops.)

No, my worst moment of the season, my least favourite memory of that afternoon, was the moment when former Ice star Joey Hughes, now a Mustang, was on the wrong end of a heavy collision in front of the Mustangs’ bench, and didn’t immediately get up. He stayed down, and we couldn’t see from the stand how badly hurt he was. And he remained down. And a small chunk of the Melbourne Ice fans found their voice; booing him, and goading him, and basically cheering his pain.

Joey Hughes, vertical and pain-free, for the Mustangs. Pic: Hewitt Sports.

Joey Hughes, vertical and pain-free, for the Mustangs. Pic: Hewitt Sports.

How shithouse is that?

Love him or hate him, and Joey is a guy who inspires both emotions in fans, especially having retired from the Ice and then reemerged as a Mustang, but he is all heart. He gives and gives, on the ice and off, and in this collision he had gone down hard. (Happily, he did eventually get back up.)

Dancing on the pain of any hockey player who is down and not necessarily getting up is pretty low, I reckon. As is mindlessly, or maybe not mindlessly booing a man to the point that he contemplates leaving the sport that he loves.

I’m not even going to go into the potential racism or deeper rivers that run under the current furore relating to opposition fans constantly booing Sydney Swans star Adam Goodes in the AFL.

All I have to say is this: I believe that our job as fans, whether watching hockey, footy, cricket, boxing, tennis, bocce, trugo, whatever, is to love our sport. That’s why we’re there, right? I felt all kinds of emotions during that AIHL grand final last year, and mostly sadness that the Ice couldn’t find their usual mojo when it mattered. But I loved being there, I loved being one of more than a thousand hockey fanatics, lifting the roof of the Icehouse and urging on our heroes, whether it was the Mustangs’ O’Kane, Hughes, or that bloody Swedish guy, Viktor, who did all the damage, or Lliam, Tommy, Army, Bacsy, Brown, McKenzie, the Wongs, Graham and the other Ice players.

Adam Goodes: it's time for empathy, not taunting.

Adam Goodes: it’s time for empathy, not taunting.

I believe, generally, that you should work, where you can, to be a force for good in the world. I’m not religious; this is not some sermon from a pulpit. But if you’ve ever travelled, you would know that the reality is that we live blessed lives, here in Australia. Sport is a place for us to have fun in our comparatively awesome lives, to ride the emotional roller coaster, to desperately care about things that actually don’t really matter.

To try and boo a player out of the sport because you consider he’s a ‘sook’ (which is to make the big and, frankly, extremely generous assumption that the fact he’s an outspoken, proud Indigenous man has nothing to do with your booing) is against the contract of being a fan, as I see it.

I can remember once having a word with a Richmond supporter at a Tiger game. Well, he was wearing head-to-toe Richmond gear but did nothing but bag out the Tiger players, screaming that they were useless, that they were hopeless, that they were gutless, etc etc. I finally said to him, mate, you’re giving them a far bigger whack than any of the Brisbane Lions fans also in attendance. Go buy a Lions scarf, go to the Lions’ cheer squad and lead them in the Tiger-hate. He slunk off. The Tigers somehow crawled off the mat and won with the last kick of the day. He was nowhere to be seen as we belted out the song.

I was left thinking: why was he even there? Just to release his wider life frustration into the air? Just to scream abuse at his team, depressing the shit out of all the other Richmond fans around him?

Please understand I am not trying to sound lofty, or like I know how the world works any better than anybody else. Actually, as I get older, I come to realise more and more how little I know. I have no bigger voice than anybody else and recognise that there are a thousand different views on this topic.

But my view is this: when you’re at a sporting event, cheer, don’t boo. Encourage your heroes, don’t kick the shit out of their opponents. Because there’s a difference.

In fact, think about the energy you put into the world, on a daily basis, in the real world as well as the sporting arena.

Are you a positive person? Are you working to make the world better? Or are you just chopping down the Adam Goodes of the world, or a writhing-in-pain Joey Hughes, because you can smell blood and you’re anonymous in a crowd or on social media, and because, well, you can?

This has been an extremely depressing week. Hopefully, it leads somewhere better than where we are now.

A Reality Check, in more ways than one.

This has been a little slow coming because I got distracted by manta rays and sharks, and then by coughing my lungs up for a few weeks. But in the middle of all that, on a remote island way off the coast of Queensland with no WIFI, I had the time and space to finally finish reading Will Brodie’s excellent book, Reality Check.

Will recently wrote for this blog about his two-phase hockey life, and, as you’d probably expect from a long-time mainstream newspaper and online journalist, the guy can really write. His regular AIHL reporting over the past few years was a huge, possibly under-recognised boon for the sport and is sadly missed since he quit Fairfax.

Reality Check, by Will Brodie

Reality Check, by Will Brodie

But his best work was yet to come. Last season, he followed the two Melbourne teams as they navigated their way through the trials, highs and lows of an AIHL season. He lucked out in the sense that the Mustangs came of age, eventually winning the Goodall Cup  over, guess who, the Melbourne Ice (and yes, I realise that is potentially a massive spoiler but then again, if you’re an Australian hockey fan and didn’t know that, then you’ve been off the map in ways I can’t help you with).

So Will got a good yarn, as Melbourne’s fierce-but-sort-of friendly rival teams duked it out all the way to the grand final at the Icehouse, but it’s the wider story and the wider characters of Reality Check that stayed with me. Will’s long history in the sport means he was able to really tap into the people who have kept hockey going in this country for years. Yet he also brought fresh eyes, making him an unlikely and invaluable chronicler. He was able to have detailed, knowledgeable conversations with everybody from new fans to the game, happily getting pissed pre or post-game, through to club presidents and imports, in every hockey-playing city and town in the country. Will sat in team mini-vans, sat up late with coaches and traveled to every AIHL rink and explored the nooks, crannies and idiosyncrasies of those diverse locations. All while throwing in lines like the one about a venue being so cold it offered warnings of future arthritis in his bones.

It all made for a cracking read, and I found myself emerging with three major takeouts:

  1. We need more rinks. A lot of people have been saying this for a long time but Reality Check emphasises the point over and over again. Hockey has enjoyed a huge surge in popularity over the past five years or so, in terms of AIHL fan numbers but maybe even more so in terms of newbies taking up the sport (like the guy typing these words, for example). Already, there is a crush of new players on waiting lists to play the looming IHV summer season that starts in September or so. Winter lists in Melbourne are pretty much full. Throw in training times, for clubs from the lowest social hockey levels to AIHL sessions, Next Level classes at Oakleigh, and Hockey Academy classes at the Icehouse (both at or near capacity), drop-in, and stick-n-pucks or skating sessions, and Melbourne’s two hockey rinks are loaded beyond capacity. I haven’t even mentioned speed skaters, figure skaters or other groups who also want the ice.
    Everybody knows the lack of rinks is an issue – and across Australia, not just Melbourne. There are endless plans, endless rumours of new rinks being developed, waiting for council approval, waiting for finance … but I remain worried that by the time new ice actually happens, if it does, all those wildly enthusiastic new players currently flooding the sport will have drifted away, frustrated by their inability to join a team and play. (Or by the secondary, related problem: that because two rinks can only host so many teams and therefore so many levels of competition, wildly varied levels of skill end up in the same divisions, leading to less-accomplished players feeling overwhelmed by playing hockey against skaters who should really be a division or two higher, if only there was room.)
  2. God, there’s a lot of love behind the momentum of an amateur sport like ice hockey. Time and again, through Will’s book, I was struck by the sheer commitment and dedication and hours of work being poured into the sport by people who have kids, real jobs, need sleep, have other things they could be doing. Again, just by kicking around Victorian hockey at the low level I do, I’m aware of how much work is required and is done by friends who are on committees, or within club management teams, or chasing sponsors, or scoring games, or doing the million other jobs. It’s really humbling and those of us who are not devoting themselves to helping hockey grow in such a grassroots, practical, time-consuming way, should at the very least take a moment to respect those who are. I know I do, and even more so after reading Will’s book, with his eye for those toiling glory-free behind the scenes. In fact, next time there’s a petty squabble about whatever the tempest of the moment is, wouldn’t it be cool if everybody could step back and consider how many unpaid hours the person they’re attacking, or who is attacking them, has put in? Breathe, respect one another, sort out whatever the issue of the moment is. And move on, brothers and sisters in hockey
    … (I know, I know: us idealists have no clue.)
  3. Us Newbies should remember we are Newbies. I’ve been around local hockey since 2010, having ‘discovered’ hockey, through somehow tuning into the Detroit Red Wings, in 2008. It feels like a long time, but it really isn’t. I feel like I know a lot of people in the community now and feel blessed that I happened to start this blog, on January 19, 2011, by chance at the exact moment a whole bunch of others were also discovering AIHL competition and the then fairly new Icehouse facility. Just as the early classes run by Army, Lliam, Tommy and co were taking off. And just as the Ice went on its three-peat run, the grandstands swelling, and the Mustangs arrived. And just as Next Level Hockey was gaining momentum at about the same time. Watching some of the rookies I started with kick on, even now making it to the AIHL rosters.

    The Melbourne Ice players salute the fans after a recent win at the Icehouse. Pic: Nicko

    The Melbourne Ice players salute the fans after a recent win at the Icehouse. Pic: Nicko

I feel like I’ve seen it all but reading Reality Check, I was struck by how people like me are still newcomers to the ranks. There are many people in Australian hockey who have invested decades into the sport they love. In Nite Owls competition, I once had the joy of skating with a bloke who captained Australia’s hockey team 50 years ago, and is still out there, on a Sunday night, effortlessly gliding past a flailing hack like me. But there are also so many others, such as, in my immediate orbit, the Webster family, driving the Ice team and club, on the ice and off, and the Hughes brothers, with their Oakleigh dream and Joey’s intensity and passion that inspires so many rising players, from L-platers to accomplished skaters. Next Level has evolved to the point of having its ‘Next Generation’ program, with a lot of thought and structure behind it. Meanwhile, at the Icehouse, the classes have become more and more sophisticated so that academy students can work specifically on high level skating skills or puck-handling, or game play, or pure shooting. It’s really exciting and it’s impressive, and it all happens because of the long-term and tireless commitment of actually only a few people. Will’s book did a brilliant job of shaking so many of these decades-of-service servants of the game into the spotlight for a brief moment, while never also losing sight of the fact that the sport needs to embrace the new arrivals, the fresh-thinkers, the left-field recent converts who might just take the sport to places it hasn’t been.
This has been a rambling piece. The only point of this particular blog is to add my voice to Will Brodie’s and salute the people who have made our sport rise in Australia and are now working equally hard to accommodate the growing numbers and logistical nightmares of its popularity.
And to say to Will, congrats: he has written one of the best hockey books you or I will ever read, and tied up in a bow everything that is great and worrying and awesome and frustrating about chasing a puck across a block of ice half a world away from the hockey heartlands.
If you haven’t bought Reality Check and read it, I really recommend that you do.

 

 

 

Becoming what you might have been.

‘It’s never too late to be what you might have been.’

I love that truism, even if it works better in some contexts than others. This week, for example, has been a pretty stern test for George Eliot’s quote, and also a stark example of the difference between sport and life.

Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran used their entire 10 years in a Bali prison to try to become the men they might have been, had they not been dickhead enough to try and smuggle heroin in their early 20s. They seem to have succeeded, except for the fact that a dick-swinging Indonesian president, elected on a hardline agenda when it comes to his country’s drug problem, decided the two Australians’ lives were better used as collateral that could deliver popularity, instead of recognising their work to become better people.

As has been endlessly reported, Chan used his time in jail to explore Faith, and devoted himself to making other prisoners’ lives better in his finite time left on Earth. Sukumaran painted, expressed himself, laughed a lot, and reportedly evolved into an intelligent, gentle giant, to the point that the act of shooting him in the heart most definitely felt like murder rather than justice.

In the end, Eliot was wrong: they could not out-run that one massive mistake of their youth but, by the time it fatally caught up with them, they at least were able to stand tall, somehow seen by the wider community as more inspirational than dirty drug mules. (And none of this is to suggest that their original crime was okay: I am vehemently anti hard drugs and the people who would bring them into Australia. I just acknowledge the criminals’ rehabilitation.)

Of course, there’s not much of a link between that whole sorry business and hockey, and especially this now-half-century-old Melbourne struggler.

Except that those horrific events underline, strongly, how much easier sport is, even when it goes badly, compared to real life. Context can be useful sometimes, when we think the sporting Gods are against us. Hockey and other sports are not actually life-and-death, no matter how energetically some commentators may try to put that spin on it. I was encouraged to see several AFL footballers actively dismissing all the ANZAC Day bullshit that likes to make out that football is war. A couple of players went out of their way, in interviews, to underline that they understand and appreciate the difference; that they’re only playing sport, not facing the unimaginable horrors that soldiers, Turk or Australian, New Zealander or British, did at Gallipoli.

Tiger Nathan Drummond buckles his knee in his first game. Pic AFL Media

Tiger Nathan Drummond buckles his knee in his first game. Pic AFL Media

Yes, a promising young Tiger, Nathan Drummond, made his debut for the club last Friday night against Melbourne only to collapse, in agony, clutching his knee, and duly needed season-ending surgery. That sucks dog balls, as an ex-girlfriend of mine liked to say, but Drummond can come back and try again. He gets to do rehab, and sweat and grit his teeth, and overcome this hurdle.

Even as I watched my ever-frustrating Tigers fail to turn up against a young and committed Demon team that night, falling with depressing meekness in the rain, I could be comfortable in the knowledge that Richmond would get another shot at being the finals-bound team it was resolutely failing to be, this weekend at the MCG versus Geelong. That morning, I had already watched my beloved Red Wings, in the first-round of the NHL play-offs, against Tampa Bay, carry a 2-0 lead deep into the third period, all set to go 3-1 up in the series, only to drop three goals in eight minutes to lose and re-earn their underdog status.

It only took them two days to rediscover the team they might have been, winning big in Tampa Bay, before returning to the Joe and losing again. And so, as I type this, it’s 0-0 at the end of the first period of Game 7 at Tampa Bay, and the Wings may or may not be going through to the second round.

Which will lead to whether Mike Babcock will or won’t remain as head coach next year, as he comes off contract and fields huge offers from a range of teams desperate for him to take over their franchises.

Detroit and Tampa Bay battle it out in the NHL play-offs.

Detroit and Tampa Bay battle it out in the NHL play-offs.

And, if the team has lost today, players will come and go and the team will seek to improve beyond the once-mighty power that hasn’t made it past the first couple of rounds of play-offs for years now. The longest active play-off streak in American sport – 24 years and counting – doesn’t mean much when you get KOed straight away every time.

But, to emphasise, Eliot’s point, they get another shot. Every season. And if Babcock does leave, somebody else will take that chair and the team will evolve in a new direction.

Me? Right now, I feel a long way from the hockey player I might have been, or even am. I’m carrying a nasty head cold and I haven’t written any blogs because I’ve had a month off the ice, getting busy with swapping rings, working hard in two jobs, turning 50, entertaining family from France, doing pretty much anything except regular fitness work. Like everybody, I feel in my head that I am much younger than my chronological age, but I think the one part of hitting my half-century that I’m aware of is that if I stop moving, my body starts to immediately lose its edge. Like a shark that must swim to not drown, I simply can’t take a month off any more without noticing it, and so I’m resting only for as long as it takes to see off this virus and then I simply have to get back on the ice, get back in the gym, ride my awesome new mountain bike and do all the things I usually do to be fit and ready for next summer’s Div 3 action.

The good news is that I have that chance, I have the blessed life that I have, to evolve and explore and see what I can still be in the second half of my life. Hopefully better than I am and I have been.

Chan and Sukumaran, and the six men executed with them, don’t have that chance. But if you’re reading this, you do. Live large, people. Take a moment to breathe, to enjoy the feeling of simply being alive. And then get on with things.

 

The end of another summer?

Tonight, I potentially play my last game of the IHV Div 3 2014/15 summer season. My team, the Cherokees, has a game next weekend to finish the regular season but I have a wedding I can’t miss and so tonight, at 10.30 pm at the Icehouse against the Champs, is it for me. Except that we’re going to win tonight and therefore play finals in a couple of weeks, but that’s for another blog.

As always, as the end of the official season approaches, I feel melancholy. There are aspects of being in a team, of sharing adventures with the same group of people, that are impossible to capture elsewhere. It’s something I cherish because I only watched it from the outside for so many years as a sports journalist while, as a kid, I was more of a surfer than a footy player and only played indoor cricket with some mates for fun. The Bang, my winter footy world with a bunch of similarly creaky Sherrin-chasers, goes close but we don’t have actual matches, we don’t skate onto the Henke Rink needing to win to make the finals. That sort of adrenalin is hard to bottle.

I haven’t written the blog since returning from Christmas because there hasn’t been much to write about, in a hockey sense. I’ve been training on Wednesdays, very much as per the final blog of last year, where Tommy, Lliam, Army and Shona own our arses in dev league after we complete drills in Inter class. We’ve played some Cherokee games and continue to get more cohesive and dangerous as a team, just as we’re going to have to stop.

In my happy place (pun intended): playing the goon for the Cherokees.

In my happy place (pun intended): playing the goon for the Cherokees.

Away from the rink, I’ve been on an intense fitness campaign – including a non-negotiable minimum of 50 push-ups and 100 sit-ups per day, over and above hockey training, gym workouts and other fitness – and feel great for it. It’s kind of annoying that I feel like I’m hitting peak fitness at the exact moment I’m about to stop playing competitive hockey.

On Monday, I even walked to work, and therefore found myself wandering past the Punt Road Oval just as my beloved Richmond footy team was warming up for training. Somebody had left a gate open and that’s all a former journo needs to sneak in and take a seat … I eventually made myself useful by collecting the balls that were kicked too high for the epic netting behind the goals (about one in five shots), so that I felt like a little kid again, scurrying around behind the goals at the school end of Lorne’s Stribling Reserve to get the footy as the Lorne Dolphins took on their Otway opponents, surf booming from down the hill.

But I digress. It was fascinating watching the Tigers go through their routines. It’s a long time since I’ve been to an AFL training session. As a journo, I hung out at training all the time and mostly took it for granted but now I saw it all through fresh eyes. The Tigers warm up using many of the time-honoured techniques all footy teams do, such as two players sharing one ball, playing kick-to-kick from 20 metres apart. Even us Bangers do that before starting to run around, but Richmond puts a little spin on it: instead of standing, flat footed, to mark the ball, then kick it back, the Tigers mark it, turn, take four or five steps backwards, then pivot and deliver the pass back to their mate. It’s recreating the movement of taking a grab, and then retreating from somebody standing on the mark, to turn and bullet a pass to a teammate. Kicking with one foot and then the other. Even before their hammies are vaguely warmed up, they’re recreating match conditions.

They weren’t finished. After a while, the players took to marking the ball, then dropping it and letting it bounce on the ground a couple of times before they bent, picked it up and kicked before straightening. Again, in a match, you don’t have time to scoop up the ball, stand straight, balance, look around and then kick. So at training, they’re kicking from a half-crouch, having snared the ball on a half volley.

Jack Riewoldt shows his style at training.

Jack Riewoldt shows his style at training.

Everything had a meaning; everything had purpose. When a coach called ‘drink break’, the Tigers ran back to their drink bottles as fast as they possibly could. I mean: sprinted! It was like there was a thousand bucks cash on the boundary near their bottles. In a game, you don’t jog back to the bench, you get the fuck off the playing surface so your replacement can get on. One player yelled: ‘This is not a drill, peoples. This is not a footy drill!’ just to be a goose, but that’s where I started to see the correlations between what they were doing and hockey training. Sprinting to the boundary, for example, has direct application for hockey. If you’ve ever played in a team with somebody who dawdles back to the bench, stick in the air, because that’s how they’ve seen the NHL players do it … while you’re watching your team now a man down on an opposition breakaway, you’ll know what I mean. If you’re going to end your shift, skate hard to the boards, peoples.

At our training, the coaches endless ask us to skate fast over to the whiteboard so they can explain the next drill, but people saunter back, grab a drink, gradually tune in. The Tigers, professional athletes, are there, drinking, in a flash, and then on their way to the next activity with intent. Impressive intent.

The other drill that caught my eye was when they started doing run-throughs. Six or seven Tigers would leave one end of the ground at a time, running at maybe 60-70 per cent. As they approached the cones 150 metres away, a coach would be standing with a Sherrin in his hands. He would fire a handball to one of the running players, but they didn’t know which until he suddenly rocketed the ball to them. Lightning fast hands snared the ball in one grab every time. In hockey, a lot of our drills are choreographed, as in ‘Man A leaves this corner, skates around this cone, looks for a pass from Man B who then skates to here to receive the pass back before the blue line’. The Tigers add a little matchday randomness to everything, because in a game, you don’t have the choreographed puck arrive just as you’re ready for it after rounding a cone. In fact, hockey games and AFL games are very much about making snap decisions and of having the puck or ball arrive sometimes unexpectedly.

This is not to say footy training is better/smarter than what we do at the Icehouse. I fully get that hockey skill drills are a different beast to the Tigers’ match day recreation stuff and that we hockey rookies need to have drilled into us over and over again how to break-out, how to form a three man rush, how to pass in front of a skater, not to their feet … these are basics that we need to keep working on but the Tigers don’t exactly have to worry about. And anyway, at the Bang, one of our elders, a well-known singer songwriter, is forever trying to get us to do a three-man handball weave as we run warm-up laps, but it’s laughable how incompetent we all are at such a basic move. It drives him insane. Sometimes, hockey players and footy players are better when acting by instinct, instead of trying to handball to here, move from point A to point B, receive the ball there, move from Point B to Point C.

And then, anyway, the Tigers surprised me and made me laugh, by doing a drill that was so robotic and synchronized that it looked like a line-dance.

The whole thing was fun to watch, and scamper around, collecting footys. I walked the rest of the way to work and back to my real life, looking forward to the AFL season starting, so that the Tigers can prove they’re finally the real thing. The calendar clicking ever closer to footy mode also means the Melbourne Ice women will have secured the title by then, which means the Melbourne Ice men will be ready to show the Giddyup Clippy Clop Orange crowd that last year’s final was just a bad day on the wrong day.

Me? I’ll be spending Wednesday nights on the ice with Big Cat, and Sundays at the Bang with my footy brothers, occasionally, hopefully, scuba diving with Mackquist, and all the time wondering if my creaky old body has another summer of competitive hockey left in it? As I do every year. Before I inevitably sign up and pull the Cherokees No. 17 jersey over my shoulder pads, chasing that locker-room brother-and-sisterhood that I adore and the sheer thrill of the battle. I love it all. There’s life in the old dog yet.

Ho Ho Ho Homiliation!

The player skates fast, flying on edges, behind my net and I move to block the space where he has to come out. He flicks the puck straight over my stick, catches it and then taps it between my legs. As I try to process this, which has happened inside less than a second, he’s gone, like smoke into a flame, and by the time I turn around he’s skating through the blue line.

‘Goddamn it, Army,’ I call when I’ve skated to a point where I can yell at him. ‘You could at least try to pretend like that was difficult.’

Lliam Webster moving at maybe 50 per cent capacity during the coach scrimmage. Pic: Nicko

Lliam Webster moving at maybe 50 per cent capacity during the coach scrimmage. Pic: Nicko

Matt Armstrong, Melbourne Ice star, Canadian and former European pro, just laughs and apes my habitual legs-too-far-apart stance and cruises effortlessly away, faster than my fastest skating. I cuss quietly to myself and go chase the puck, because now Shona, captain of Melbourne Ice and Australia, is streaming through the middle and I know a pass will be coming if I can get to the right spot.

The final night of Hockey Academy at the Icehouse is always a lot of fun. Our coaches throw away any pretense of teaching – apart from schooling us in real time on the ice – and jump onto the ice for a scrimmage.

It’s actually not humiliating at all – I just really wanted to use that headline. It’s a night of miracles and wonder, although not in the Paul Simon kind of way. It’s a night where you can battle your way to the far goalpost and pretty much know that Tommy Powell (Australia and Melbourne Ice) will somehow weave the puck through eight legs and four sticks and a goalie, to land it right on your tape for the tap-in goal. It’s a night where Lliam Webster (captain, Melbourne Ice and Australia) will calmly stick-handle for what seems like an eternity, all within half a metre of his body, as hockey students flail and fail to steal the puck. It’s a night where goalies have nightmares, watching giant Melbourne Ice defender Todd Graham wind up from the blue line or watching Matt Armstrong come swinging in, deeking and curving, all angles and power, winding up and then last-second passing off to a player they hadn’t noticed to their left who has an open net. Or where Shona will just skate alongside a player, gently separating him or her from the puck without them quite realising until it’s too late.

It’s so much fun. And it reminds you how good the best actually are.

I’ve been really lucky to experience this moment across several sports, from my time as a sports writer. I once drove laps of a raceway with Bathurst veteran Jim Richards in his Targa Rally 4WD Porsche. It had rained – real Queensland rain – for an entire day beforehand and the track, on the outskirts of Brisbane, was underwater. Richards drove at roughly 200 kph around wide corners and faster down the straight, hurtling past smaller, hard-revving cars before jamming the brakes, screw the weather, to take a sharp right hander. Then flooring it, going through gears back to 200 or so. While doing this, casually chatting with me – I was surprised how easily we could hold a conversation given the screaming engine and the fact we were both wearing race helmets.

shona coach scrimmage‘So, what do you think?’ he asked me, looking across to the passenger seat and grinning as the car sliced impossibly fast through water and revs and blurred landscape.

‘You’ve got the best fucking job in the world,’ I said, meaning it, and he laughed, shoulders shaking, even as his hands and legs worked the car down through gears and brakes for a corner coming up, like, NOW.

People asked me later if I was scared but I wasn’t at all. In fact, what struck me more than anything was that this was Richards driving at a sponsor open day, giving supporters (and one feature writer) laps in the car. He was probably driving at 70 per cent of capacity, not about to push the car anywhere near its limits with passengers alongside. The speed and torque and thrill weren’t even at maximum revs, which had me wondering what it must be like when he really turns it on.

I had the same thought once in my tennis writing days. I can’t remember if I’ve written about this before but I used to play a lot of tennis and I hit possibly the best serve I can ever remember hitting in my life to Jason Stoltenberg, then a top player, at a Tennis Australia media open day. I decided, on a big point in a friendly doubles match, that there was no point playing for percentages. Stolts had been chirping me mercilessly as I bounced the balls at the baseline, preparing to serve, and so I wound up, swung from the ankles and somehow, against all the odds, absolutely creamed it. I swear I could not hit a tennis ball any better than that and my serve was the best part of my game. This one was aimed at the sideline of the backhand court and it hit the outside edge of that tramline, skidded off the paint and was gone, man, gone.

I barely had time to register the extent of how legendary I was, before a green blur passed my feet as it landed just inside the baseline and disappeared. Stolts had taken maybe half a step to his left and effortlessly backhanded the return past me before I finished my follow-through.

Lliam at full capacity during the coach scrimmage. Pic: Nicko

Lliam at full capacity during the coach scrimmage. Pic: Nicko

I couldn’t disguise how absolutely gutted I was (yes, my partner and I lost the set), and he almost died laughing, but later I told him it was instructive. Hanging out on the tennis tour, and hitting a few balls here and there, reporters would start to think it doesn’t look so hard, maybe with the right practice I could get out there and aim for Wimbledon … some even entered qualifying for the satellite tour, the lowest rung, and got found out quickly.

But Stolts’ almost-yawning return of my absolutely best ‘100 per cent can’t hit it better’ serve ensured I never had those delusions. (My dad was a genuinely competitive Australian tennis player and thought about going on the world tour when it was ‘shamateur’, but then one day he had to return serve to Neale Fraser at training and Fraser broke 13 strings on dad’s racquet. Dad became an engineer.)

It runs through all sports: think how bloody good at football all those kids who don‘t get drafted into the AFL are. Think how impossibly good Test batsmen are, or bowlers.

So last night, I was there again, being reminded of just how impossibly vast the gap is between those at the top and us everyday mortals. And this is with Tommy, Lliam, Army, Todd and Shone operating at maybe 50 per cent capacity if we students were lucky. And without taking anything away from our coaches, it needs to be remembered that there are then clear levels above them before you get to the rarified air of the AHL and elite Canadian or European leagues, not to mention the NHL. Just how fucking good must Pavel Datsyuk be? Or a younger Wings lesser light like, say, Tomas Jurco, for that matter? Not that either of them are scoring any goals just now, but that’s another story.

Dev League has had a very high standard this term. It’s full of winter players keeping sharp and summer Div 2 players, which means they can play. But the coaches last night made everybody look like P-platers without really breaking a sweat. Not bothering with much armour, getting a puck back if they lost it, just having fun as we worked as hard as we could.

At one point in Dev, Tommy drifted past me as we all set up for a face-off in our defensive end. He said: ‘When the puck drops, just go.’

He nodded towards our goal at the other end. ‘Go.’

As left wing, I huddled over my stick as usual and as Lliam, as ref, dropped the puck, I did as instructed and took off. Didn’t even see who won the face-off. Just skated.

Sure enough, out of the sky comes a puck. Tommy had got it, as he knew he would, and lobbed it high into the air from deep in defence to the red line, the puck landing about a metre in front of me and dying as it bounced so that I could scoop it with my stick and charge the goalie. I have no idea how far behind me the White team opponents were but it felt like I had three quarters of the ice to myself. Of course, I overthought it and tried to go high and the goalie got a glove on it to stop the goal. Dammit. But what a move by Tommy.

Imagine being able to do that. Imagine being able to be like Army who tossed the puck from behind the net over the goal frame and into the goalie’s back and then the goal. Imagine being able to be Shona, not bothering with armour, as she sweeps the puck even off the Melbourne Ice men, turns on the burners and then stick-handles for as long as she needs to before one of us eventually arrives for a pass and maybe even a shot.

Or Lliam who seems to love the crazy stick-handling as mentioned and then the blind pass or the skate-kick pass.

We all struggle to keep up, occasionally feel our hearts soar if we actually manage to poke-check a puck away from one of the coaches, and enjoy receiving their silky passes.

It always means it’s the end of term when we have these games. This time, it’s the end of another hockey year. Every year ticking over gets closer to when playing competitive hockey will get beyond me and so I tend to get melancholy as I drive home through the night. Big Cat wasn’t there tonight either, which felt weird, but I love the hockey community so much that there were endless people to chat with and laugh with and commiserate with after another coach had skated around them, barely breaking a sweat.

After such a shitty week for everybody, with the Sydney siege by that mentally ill crackpot, it was beautiful to be out on the ice, eyes and mind for nothing but the puck. I missed a lot of sweet coach-delivered chances, but I also buried a couple, so it was a good night for me.

Now the skates are drying and my gear is hanging for the final time this year, I’d imagine.

Roll on 2015 and whatever the next hockey adventures are going to be. I can’t wait.

Have a great Christmas and see you all in new year. Let’s Go Red Wings.

Alter egos.

I turned up for work today in what Cassius, our six-year-old, calls ‘a handsome dress’, which is Cassius-speak for a suit and tie.

Less than 12 hours ago, I was wearing my hockey armour, flailing around on the Henke Rink as my dev league team got smashed in the second last go-around of the year.

Next Wednesday will be an even more dramatic change-of-gear (literally) as I have to somehow not drink (much) at a State Library Christmas party before heading to the Icehouse rink for the final Intermediate and Dev classes of 2014. Straight from Christmas formal wear to armour and skates. Can’t wait. I might even see if I can leave my smelly giant hockey bag in the foyer to really make people do double-takes.

One way by day ...

One way by day …

Of course, we’re all living this crazy double life. One thing by day, another by night (or wait, was that Princess Fiona in Shrek? Yes, I think it was).

In my time in hockey (coming up on five years), I’ve played on teams with political advisers, rocket scientists, musicians, an air conditioning repairman, cops, surveyers, lawyers, a doctor (well, he actually never turns up for my team, so I’m not sure I should count him), a video game architect, an editor, nurses, teachers, an alcohol salesman (clearly one of my better friends), engineers, a crazy R&D genius, computer programmers, developers, a landscape gardener, a mad chef, a priest and so many more.

In fact, to write this blog, I asked a Facebook hockey group what people did for jobs away from hockey? In no particular order, hockey players replied:
Electrician, surveyer, project manager, warehouse manager (alcohol – another friend!), engineer, IT managing director, events and communications for a not-for-profit, client relations – finance, NHL professional (sure, Will Ong, sure – I actually have that on my LinkedIn profile. Not much sense of humour on LinkedIn, I’ve since discovered), chief executive officer, IT guy, IT architect, IT analyst, techer/musician/retail manager, admin officer, mechanic (in fact, wind tunnel technician) (!!), myotherapist, sales, senior systems admin, teacher, occupational health and safety manager, IT network engineer, arborist, builder, graphic designer, landscape designer, another electrician, financial planner, logistics manager, unemployed, haematology clinical trial corordinator, hospitality, financial planner, AV technical director, media and journalism student/dental nurse, political and economic researcher/analyst for the Japanese Government (I can verify this – legit), cabinet maker, window cleaner, furniture upholsterer/cabinet maker, computer science student (with ambitions to be a pool boy in ‘one of those movies’), builder, documentation control officer working to be a sports therapist, pharmacy assistant, and finance and operations manager.

That was the response within an hour and, as was debated hotly on the thread, didn’t take into account all the ‘tradies’ who probably aren’t on Facebook at 10 am because they’re actually busy working and stuff … so we can safely throw a bunch of tradies onto that list, guaranteed.

FRIDAY UPDATE: Add to that list: IT, developer, sparkie, sparkie, metal tradie, baker, software engineer, arbourist, air traffic control (Pushing Tin – one of my favourite movies) , brain surgeon, student, lollishop worker, home duties (aka looking after kids), logistics, ‘pro gamer and porn star’ (AKA: the goalie is unemployed, mostly), accountant, public servant, clinical researcher making sure drugs are safe for use (assuming legal drugs here but this is Renee, so…), sparkie, teacher, forklift operator/storeman/shitkicker, cabinet making DJ, concreter, draftsman, physiotherapist, retail therapist, environmental engineer, financial controller, illegitimate businessman (by which Ray means: painter – finest ute in hockey by the way), more IT, business banker, more sparkies, nurse, hand model (made me laugh, Matthew – Seinfeld reference, or Zoolander, or both?),  ‘Build live size animatronic creatures like dinosaurs and dragons. For real(Nerissa Box may win the whole enchilada for that job), mental health worker and IT software developer. Phew.

AAAAAAND, BACK TO THE BLOG:
How cool is that list? I’m sure all hockey players know the moment where you tell people about your sport/passion and get the response: ‘Oh, isn’t that a violent sport for meatheads?’

... another by night.

… another by night.

It’s so not the case. Personally, I think nothing looks hotter than a woman dressed in full executive kit and high heels, carrying a giant hockey bag and sticks along Pearl River Road to the Icehouse. And it’s always entertaining when a player shows up in suit and tie, then yanks all that off to drag chest and elbow guards on. The list of occupations is so wildly diverse and interesting. And it explains why a hockey change-room is such a vibrant, fun place to hang out (except for after a 6-1 loss).

It also means that no matter what your need, from better wiring at your house to requiring an international spy to steal secrets from Luxembourg, you can probably tap into that skill set somewhere among the small but tight hockey community. I was talking to Lliam Webster who said he broke his arm badly, during a game at Oakleigh, as a 14-year-old and ended up at a local medical centre where they did a dubious job of fixing it, and so he ended up at the Royal Childrens where, lo and behold, a senior member of the Nite Owls (Sunday night and social comp ‘veterans’ hockey – see previous blogs) happened to be the main bone guy. Problem solved. Once in the hands of a hockey guy, all due care and consideration was taken and the teenager with the crooked mended bone is now captain of Melbourne Ice and Australia.

To me, this is part of the joy of hockey – that we come from all directions for the one love. Whether in the stands, cheering, or on the ice, skating, it’s a very multi-cultural, multi-class, multi-everything group of people.

I have my usual hockey hangover today, despite the unlikely suit and tie, and a big networking lunch this afternoon. But I know that all over town, others wearing whatever their daytime ‘alter ego’ disguise happens to be, are nursing similar hockey bags under their eyes. That rocks.

Let’s keep it as our little secret, here in this hockey outpost. The non-skaters never need to know.

These little aches and pains

These little aches and pains.
I’ve got them always now,
Sunshine or rain.’

Paul Kelly

I remember Paul Kelly once saying at a concert that he has a large family, and they’re getting older. (PK himself is pushing 60, although you wouldn’t know it if you’ve ever seen him playing footy. He’s like a greyhound, always moving, kicking off both feet, running, running running.)

But when the Kelly family gets together now, he said, every member is allowed five minutes only to discuss their ailments. The years are taking tolls in all directions and so it has been agreed that five minutes is the maximum whinge/outlining of physical woes.

Careering towards the boards probably doesn't help my injury list get shorter. Pic: Luke Milković

Careering towards the boards probably doesn’t help my injury list get shorter. Pic: Luke Milković

At the moment, this is resonating strongly for Nicko Place, hockey player. Only a few rounds into the summer season and my poor old body is groaning. I’ve had a sore wrist for weeks now – maybe a tiny chip on a bone; I don’t know – and my neck yelps if I look to the right, while my left upper hammie has been troubling me for a couple of months. Now my lower back is kicking in, to the point that I pulled out of dev league last night because my back was hurting, instead of warmed up and functioning, after Intermediate class.

I hate pulling out of a game, any game, and sure enough my red team went on to win 4-3 in a thriller, as I showered and drove home to an earlier night than usual.

This morning, the back is aching and the wrist is hurting and I’m feeling like the old man that I am.

Almost without exception, when you tell anybody you play hockey, their immediate response is: ‘That’s a wild game, isn’t it? You must get physically smashed.’

I always go into explanations about how at our level of ‘non-checking’ play, there may be collisions, rather than deliberate impact. No punches thrown – well, hardly any. But honestly, it’s not as physical as you’d think.

But lately, all those collisions seem to be catching up with me. Is it my advanced hockey age? Or am I just in the middle of a bad run? If I was to read back through all the blog posts about The Year of the Knee, I’d be reminded that as banged up as I feel today, I’m totally fine: I can skate and I can stick-handle and I can bend, even if my back isn’t thrilled about it. Or I could think of my days among the Nite Owls, where 70-year-olds still wheel and skate and shoot, if at a slightly gentler pace than when they were in their pomp half a century ago.

One of my fellow Cherokees and a Demon player demonstrating what I mean by 'collision' during a recent summer league battle. Pic: Luke Milković

One of my fellow Cherokees and a Demon player demonstrating what I mean by ‘collision’ during a recent summer league battle. Pic: Luke Milković

It’s all a matter of context and attitude, I guess. I plan to hit the gym today or tonight, to do the lower back strengthening exercises that I’ve been slack about since returning from France. Tonight, I have team training and then a game on Saturday. If I can wrangle it, I might even try to kick a footy at the Bang on Sunday.

The body moans and complains but it keeps going, which is all that matters, I suppose. Usually, I wouldn’t write a post about this because it’s such a constant and such a low-level irritant that it doesn’t seem blog worthy. The pains niggle and worry but don’t add up to more than that. And even then, I’m sure most players going around have something niggling away. A former teammate posted today on facebook about how a miniscus tear is bothering him and I wrote back saying, oh yeah, been carrying that one for more than a year … turns out he has too. I guess it’s standard that the hockey community is keeping stocks high in companies specialising in pain relief drugs. It’s just that, this morning, I have to keep standing up from my desk to move around.

I hope it’s a bad run of impact, and not the physical decline of Old Man Place. Time will tell.

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.