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:

 

Each to their own

I went to the soccer last Friday. A much-hyped A-League semi-final and a Melbourne derby for flourish, between the Victory and City.

Soccer fans getting passionate.

Soccer fans getting passionate.

Soccer makes such a minimal impact on me as a sport that I literally can’t remember if it was my first A-League game or not. I have a dull feeling that I might have gone to one once before, but if I did, I couldn’t tell you who played, let alone who won.

Yep, it may be The World Game but not in my world.

But that’s okay, because it was a fun event. On a classic Melbourne night, the sort of night where there were 50,000 at the MCG to watch Collingwood-Geelong and who knows how many thousands watching a rugby union game at AAMI Park, and who knows how many more thousands watching the Backstreet Boys at the tennis centre, I was among the 50,000 people gathered at Etihad Stadium on a freezing but clear night. Victory started favourite, got a goal after 18 minutes (I know this because by some random chance I had selected the correct player as opening goal scorer in the sweep, but got the scoring minute wrong by 6; thereby totally bluffing the people around me that I had some kind of clue about the game, and almost winning a decent cash prize) and Victory controlled things from there.

Victory fans having fun. Pic: Getty.

Victory fans having fun. Pic: Getty.

I sat, not really caring, but happy to let the occasion flow over me; even chatting to an ex-Socceroo who happened to sit next to me. (My bluff of knowledge came to a crashing end when I had to confess I had no idea his son currently played in the EPL or for the Socceroos.)

Mostly, I watched the fans. Because they were seriously into it. My biggest immediate take-out was that it was a larger male crowd. I’m used to AFL crowds and AIHL crowds, and they are both heavily mixed gender. I feel like I can’t confidently say whether a Melbourne Ice or Mustangs crowd would be skewed more male than female. Likewise, AFL is probably not 50-50 but there are many women there, and passionate about the game.

On a casual observation, the soccer crowd felt male – between 20 and 50 years old. And it was an occasion for these men to go nuts. There were the usual flares and horns and chants. As Victory took the ascendancy, an entire stand to my left was heaving with people dancing and chanting and waving. The atmosphere was fantastic, yet I felt totally removed, like I was at the zoo, watching from behind glass.

Soccer fans having fun.

Soccer fans doing their thing. I’m not judgmental: Red Wings fans like to throw octopi on the ice.

It got me thinking it’s so strange how some sports can grab your soul and others leave you totally cold. Like, cricket is polarizing in a love it or hate it manner, and so is American football.

I have watched and reported on and experienced and studied many sports over my 30 year journalistic career, aside from being an enthusiast, and I can say with certainty that I am resolutely unmoved by basketball, soccer and baseball. I never had much time for NRL and still don’t really, except that a couple of people who understand the game have explained subtleties to me that made it more interesting as I watched. I can stomach it now but I still wouldn’t pay for a ticket.

Rugby union, when it’s flowing and it’s an important game, like Australia in a World Cup, can be exciting. The characters and sheer danger of boxing, as well as the strategy and fitness, has always gripped me. Tennis lost me, largely, after I had to spend too much time around certain Australian prima donna tennis players, and after I had to watch too much of it as a reporter, and in places where the matches simply didn’t matter: a second round loss for a player just meant an earlier plane to the next city. When the stakes were Grand Slam high and somebody as good as Sampras, Graf or Federer was at their peak: then it got good.

But that’s just me. Whatever you’re into is fine. In fact, English Premier League soccer (and yes, I use the word soccer as an abbreviation of ‘Association Football’, especially because the Melbourne Football Club was formed before any of the English clubs, so screw you ‘world football’; okay, that’s another story) but EPL soccer is kind of like seafood for me. I don’t enjoy eating fish. Some of it I really dislike, while certain flavours of seafood I can tolerate. But when everybody around you is having a mouth orgasm because the food is so amazing, and you’re just ‘tolerating’ it, you feel guilty and wonder what is wrong with you? What are you missing, and why? I’m like that with the EPL competition. So many of my friends have EPL teams, follow it in the middle of the night, start work conversations with a quick discussion of last night’s results or pending big money transfers … and I have nothing to add.

It doesn’t mean I’m against it; not at all. A really great game of soccer can be fun to watch, especially if it’s attacking and end-to-end and the crowd is at fever pitch, but you know, shrug. The World Cup can be fun.

One of my mobs. Go Tigers!!! (you hopeless, underachieving bastards)

One of my mobs. Go Tigers!!! (you hopeless, underachieving bastards)

By contrast, Australian Rules has held me from before I can remember to now, when Richmond continues to be remorselessly shit, no matter what, and when I still run around, feeling the leather with a bunch of men old enough to know better who gather once or twice a week for the pure joy of landing a pass in the outstretched hands of a fellow player on the lead.

Hockey? Well, hockey grabbed me from the moment I turned on my television years ago now and saw my first Stanley Cup final game between Detroit and Pittsburgh and something in me stirred. Immediately. Grabbed me! Made my heart beat. Has seen me holding my head in my hands, screaming at Gamecenter as the Wings performed miracles or screwed up, soaring as the Ice achieved the three-peat of cups, slumping as the Ice lost last year’s grand final; even physically taking on such a crazy sport as an activity, having never skated.

All of that. All. Of. That.

Blood pumping. Passion burning. Feeling alive.

One of my other mobs: The Cup-winning Red Wings that captured my heart.

One of my other mobs: The Cup-winning Red Wings that captured my heart.

Which is why I found it so strange, so abstract, that I could watch those Victory fans last Friday night, screaming and yelling and jumping up and down and foaming at the mouth, and realised that I was just staring at them, completely unable to bridge the gap between us. The bridge of caring.

And I found myself wondering how many pieces of silverware are fought for across the globe, in how many individual sports and individual competitions within those sports, and by how many teams and cheered for by how many millions, whether from NFL to Brunswick trugo? Somebody everywhere willing to bulge at the jugular, to ride that scoreboard or that goal or that umpire’s decision; that bounce of a ball or a puck or a footy or a punch or a shot; the fans’ sporting existence living or dying on the fortunes of that moment in their chosen passion.

Ice v Mustangs at the Icehouse. Now we're talking ...

Ice v Mustangs at the Icehouse. Now we’re talking …

There’s no deep meaning to any of these observations. It’s totally okay. Those Melbourne Victory and City fans would probably stand on the glass, politely observing, when the Ice and Mustangs were going at one another’s throats, and be wistful that nobody is throwing flares.

Each to their own, I say, and go the winner in this weekend’s A-League grand final.

I wish those chanting, excitable hordes well.

I’ll just be watching the hockey and the Tigers. It’s what I do.

 

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.

Surviving the hockey hangover

I’m glad my legs can’t talk, at least this morning.

‘You’re kidding, right?’

‘No f***ing way.’

I click my cleats into the pedals and the bike begins to roll, aching muscles protesting hard as they pull and push the pedals and I gain momentum. It’s only eight hours since I walked through the door of my apartment, post intermediate class and development league. Six hours, maybe, of fitful sleep. And now I’m riding across the inner city, which is mercifully flat, to work.

Suffering what we all know as the Hockey Hangover.

Thursday survival strategy: coffee.

Thursday survival strategy: coffee.

You know what I’m talking about.

This is a phenomenon familiar to pretty much anybody playing hockey, at least here in Melbourne. If you’re reading this in America, or Canada, or even Sydney with its handful of rinks, feel blessed.

We have two rinks for our city of 4.25 million people. Two.

In case you’re calculating, it works out at one rink per 2,125,000 residents.

There’s the palatial Icehouse at Docklands, and the slightly sub-palatial Olympic rink at Oakleigh.

The IHV summer comp has 25 teams across four divisions.

Plus the Melbourne Ice women’s team in mid-season.

Plus the Ice Academy, developing rookies and elite players..

Plus hockey school at the Icehouse.

Plus Nite Owls on Sundays.

Plus all the Next Level stuff and scrimmages at Oakleigh.

Plus winter players wanting ice time to keep their eye in.

Plus team training sessions.

This all equals a lot of teams and a lot of players. All wanting ice time. All wanting those two rinks. There are only so many hours in a day …

… you can see that some hockey players somewhere are having a late night. Every night.

My guaranteed late night is Wednesday, when development league steps off the ice at the not-so-bad hour of 11 pm. But it means at least a 1 am sleep time and on Thursday, that hurts.

I actually kind of like the late night cruise home from dev. It takes me back to my mis-spent youth as a police reporter for The Herald newspaper. A photographer and I would start work at 2 am, and sit in police headquarters, getting the nods, or cruise the empty streets, heading to murder scenes or fatal car accidents. Maybe a fire. Sometimes just driving to stay awake, police scanner static and rego checks in our ears. The whole city asleep, apart from this undercurrent, these ripples of evil, ripples of good, and somewhere the insomniacs staring into the dark.

Late night in the hood. Empty streets, apart from shiftworkers, emergency workers, desperadoes and hockey players.

Late night in the hood. Empty streets, apart from shiftworkers, emergency workers, desperadoes and hockey players.

We’d cruise Lygon Street, grabbing 4 am coffees at all night cafes that I now know had illegal gambling happening upstairs; the downstairs wait staff eyeing us warily in case we were cops, not bleary-eyed journos.

Sometimes, post-crazy hour hockey feels like that. Last night, at 11.30 pm, Big Cat and I driving home, with music playing, discussing the game we’d just played (a 7-0 loss: ugly, yet four-on-four hockey all night: fun!)

As we turn into Brunswick Street, police blue and red lights are flashing towards the city. The street otherwise winding down with a few stragglers walking home or waving for taxis. In the open doors of a few cafes and bars, chairs are on tables, music playing as staff toil to clean up and get out of there.

Having dropped Big Cat off, I turn the car towards Fitzroy North, and click my iTunes over to ‘Breakfast at Sweethearts’, Cold Chisel’s mighty effort to capture that feeling of the end of a long, long night of work and/or play.

When I get home, the house is silent. My cat, Lady Byng, greets me with bumps. The dog is on a sleepover and so is not there tonight, no thumping wag of the tail from the top of the stairs to wake up Chloé, as I creep towards bed. But I’m wide awake, still wired. I spend an hour surfing the net, catching up on the Red Wings news, the Age, Guardian, New York Times, LA Times, and however many other reads I can manage before the adrenalin finally sags and my eyelids close.

And then, before I know it, there’s an alarm blaring and Oh God, seriously? Already?

I haven’t had nearly enough sleep, and my eyes look like baggy, bleary crap, but this is Thursday, every Thursday, and so I reach for caffeine and try to giddyup. My bike finds its way to work. My tired legs find their way to my office. My brain tries to kick in, and I drink more and more coffee and just want to curl up and sleep on the floor under my desk.

Like I said, we all know this feeling.

And it’s going to happen again next week. It’s going to happen the week after that.

Because what’s the alternative? Not play hockey?

Yeah, right.

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.

Blow the horn … at last.

Scored a goal last night. In dev league.

It was a dirty goal, as I saw it. But it went in.

And let me say right from the get-go, this blog is NOT to skite. Ohhhhhhh, no. I have no intention of puffing on a cigar, saying to the wider world, ‘Hey, look at me. Goal scorer!’

Because actually, if I’m honest, this is about pure relief. The fact is it had been a long time since I had put a puck between the posts, in the back of the net.

For a forward, a person in vertical black and white stripes making this signal is the most beautiful thing in the world (unless you're in the defensive zone. Then it sucks.)

The signal you want to see a ref or linesman make immediately after you shoot at goal.

A goal drought is a funny thing, in any sport. You don’t realise you’re in it, until you really undeniably are. And then it becomes extremely hard to ignore.

I guess it’s why the word ‘drought’ is well chosen as a metaphor. It hasn’t rained for a while. Then you begin to realise it has been an unfeasibly long time since there was precipitation of any volume. Then you notice the dryness of the soil, the wilting leaves on the vegetation. The percentage-full stat for the dams has been creeping while you weren’t watching, but now you are and the drop is alarming. That figure keeps creeping in the wrong direction and suddenly, you’re worried and the people with fancy cars are being told they can’t wash their cars, even using buckets, and you start seeing scenarios where it never rains again and Australia finally meets its post-Apocalyptic harsh dry Mad Max future that has always seemed a likely end game in this extreme country and never more so than when a douchecanoe of a Prime Minister waves off all science, declares climate change doesn’t exist and tells reporters how much he loves coal and thinks coal mining is a great thing for our future.

But I digress. Hockey.

A hockey friend of mine logged a Facebook post one day, which read something like: ‘643 days.’

This puzzled me for a while. After all, there was that outside chance he was discussing something unrelated to hockey. 643 days what? Since he last had a drink? Until his best gal arrives home? Until a movie he’s looking forward to is released?

But no, sure enough, fellow hockey players turned up on the thread, gently nudging and ribbing him in the comments, and it became clear he was actually counting, carefully, how much time had passed since his last goal.

This horrified me. That is not a stat I would ever want to voluntarily track. There was a time a while ago when I ran briefly at a goal a game for one short glorious spell. But then, more recently, any dev league or IHV goalscorers could have been forgiven for forgetting the number 17 existed when I was on the ice.

My goal drought had certainly lasted a while before last night’s dev league goal (and I know it’s only dev league but there are lots of very good players going around on Wednesday nights at the Icehouse, so I’m counting it as a genuine competition goal, so there).

It had never, at any point, occurred to me to count the individual days between horns blaring. I do know that after scoring three goals in my debut summer season of 2012/13 (and I can sort of remember them all, even if the sometimes sketchy recording mechanisms of hockey mean only one was officially recorded), I didn’t score at all in the 2013/14 season.

There were reasons for this, including the much-chronicled Lost Year of the Knee, which affected my mobility throughout the season and my sheer, basic ability to be able to get to the puck, or not, which clearly affects your scoring potential.

But whatever the excuses, I hadn’t hit the scoreboard for a long time. And that bothers anybody. Definitely, it bothers me. It just eats into your belief, shift after shift, easily blocked shot after missed net.

There are many kinds of forwards in hockey. It’s a fascinating part of a sport with usually a maximum of 12 forwards in a game, taking the ice in waves of three players at a time. Some forwards, even whole lines, are almost purely defensive, some are grinders, some – in the olden days of the NHL and pro leagues – are dedicated enforcers, only on the team to go beat up an opponent threatening the team’s more skilled goal scorers.

My boy, Big Cat, is mobbed by Cherokees after scoring. He got a hat-trick last night and is a pure goal-scorer when fit and firing. Pic: Luke Milkovic.

My boy, Big Cat, is mobbed by Cherokees after scoring. He got a hat-trick last night and is a pure goal-scorer when fit and firing. Pic: Luke Milkovic.

And there are the pure goal scorers – forwards who can dart and weave on their skates, can fly, and have cannon shots to targeted corners of the net, or have deft flecks to flip a puck past a bedazzled, helpless goalie. Have their heads up and their eyes open to spot a goalie moving ever so slightly in one direction, and the skill to plant the puck where he or she isn’t.

I am not one of those players. And yet nor am I a purely defensive forward. I’m old fashioned, I guess, and see some sort of responsibility as a usually Left Wing, in a decent team, to put my share of shots on net, to be able to get myself to that dangerous, buffeted slot in front of the goalie, looking for the rebound, or a deflection, while being elbowed and yanked, buffeted and stick-chopped by opposition defenders. I think, after playing for about four years, I need to be able to do something, something, on a breakaway, and I definitely should at least see the number 17 on some assists for my team, the Cherokees, or for my dev league teammates, even if I’m not scoring genuine goals myself.

But it had been a while since these things had happened and that starts to erode at your confidence and your belief, there’s no denying it. It’s amazing what one goal can do to spark you up, to make you feel like you might just maybe actually belong on the ice. As opposed to sucking, night after night.

As I said at the start, I’m not strutting; I’m breathing out, with relief. A bobbling, strategic, not too powerful shot somehow tumbling over the goalie’s stick, to sneak through the five hole. That moment when you realise it has actually disappeared behind the goalie, like Luke Skywalker watching the missile vanish into the air conditioning unit. And in the most unlikely setting of a single shift where all three of us scored, The Milkman and Big Cat bookending my goal with well crafted shots that found the mark.

I have no idea when my next goal will be, or where it will come from, but at least I now know it can happen; that I haven’t completely lost my ability to score after all. Lots of core strength work, lots of skating technique toil to eek out some speed, any possible speed, and re-enrolled in Intermediate classes, which has been fantastic because there are so many puck-handling drills, to feel the puck. Plus a change of gloves, and a new stick. Plus six drops of essence of terror, five drops of sinister sauce. All these little things plus a stroke of luck and a slice of confidence.

Now I just need it to happen in official Div 3 competition.

Fingers crossed. Which is not easy when wearing hockey gloves. Try it some time.

Going under in Paris.

Catacombs art. Picture: Nicko

Catacombs art. Picture: Nicko

The tunnel is maybe 600 years old. At times I can walk upright; at times I have to crouch. There are parts of it where crawling on your stomach is the only option. And slightly higher parts where you can sort of crawl on your hands and knees.

Which is when I start laughing, startling my much younger ‘cataphile’ companions, who are also grunting, sweating and struggling forward.

I start laughing because I realize that to get through this part of the illegal catacombs, deep under the city of Paris, I need to do what my personal trainer, Lliam Webster, and I call ‘Spider-man-ing.’ Knees out, core strong, hips low, moving forward, one hand then the other.

It’s training I’ve been doing for a year or so, week in week out, and it becomes apparent in this bizarre underground world that while I thought I was training for ice hockey, I was actually doing the perfect training for catacombs adventuring.

'Spider-man' training kicking in. Picture: 'Twist'.

‘Spider-man’ training kicking in. Picture: ‘Twist’.

My training at Fluid with Lliam kicks in everywhere. Sliding on my stomach, I use my hands to push a backpack ahead of me across the muddy clay. Isolating upper body strength and movement from my legs. In parts of the tunnels where you can’t stand upright, classic hockey stance is the perfect way to keep moving; knees bent, back straight, headtorch shining ahead.

I am with three Frenchmen, all around 30 years of age. They are true cataphiles, as they call themselves. They have nicknames so that if we are caught by the French cops, no real names are used. One is known as Syphilis, and I’m not sure I even want to know the origins of that name. Apparently, by day, he’s a doctor so maybe it’s less sordid than it seems. Another is Twist, or the Philistine. One is so stoned so quickly that I don’t bother with his name much because every time we stop, he either lights up or dozes off. He offers me drags of whatever he’s smoking but I politely decline because the illegal catacombs are NOT a place I want to be out of my head, even one per cent. I want my wits about me. We headed into this place at dusk, from a hole in a wall of a disused rail line, keeping an eye out for the gendarmes, and now it’s closing in on midnight and we are deep deep deep within the rambling catacombs tunnels. If I didn’t have a head torch, I would literally not be able to see a thing. I turn it off occasionally, just to get a sense of how dark darkness can be, when you’re 20 metres below Paris in 15th or 16th century tunnels with zero natural light.

Edging along a particularly narrow part of the illegal catacombs, below Paris. Picture: 'Twist'.

Edging along a particularly narrow part of the illegal catacombs, below Paris. Picture: ‘Twist’.

Apart from the locals, who are showing me around, there are three other guys, Israelis in their twenties. Two are trainee Rabbis, about to be ordained or however you officially become a Rabbi, when they return home to Jerusalem in a couple of days’ time. The other guy runs an abseiling business but is heading home to be commandeered into the Israeli army, for compulsory military service. We stumbled across them in the catacombs, without a map, hoping that they’d find their way back out using a compass and taking notes on when they turn right or left. To my mind, they might have died if we hadn’t happened to be down there on the same Monday night. On a weekend, a hundred people or more might sneak into these catacombs; parties are held most Saturday nights for those in the know. But this is a Monday and once your torch battery runs out, there is nothing. And the concept of turn right/turn left gets fluid as the tunnels veer and fall and rise and curve and do their medieval thing. These three had tried to abseil in earlier in the day and roped straight onto a beehive, being stung hundreds of times each. But came back and somehow did find their way in.

A shallow part of the water-logged section of the tunnels. Picture: Nicko

A shallow part of the water-logged section of the tunnels. Picture: Nicko

‘Can we come with you?’ they asked Syphilis and he said, ‘Well, you need to stay with us the whole way. We’re in here for six hours or more.’

By the end of the night, when we stumbled up a ladder and out a manhole into the middle of a major St Germaine street at 3 am, they were starting to realize how lucky they were to find him.

Me too, as we wander through a big party room called The Beach, with all kinds of street art on the walls, or the Santa Claus room, or past what is occasionally a cinema, or past a sobering tunnel where the roof fell in. There is a part of the catacombs elsewhere in the city that has been cleaned up, made safe and opened for tourists, but we’re in the other part – the catacombs that are officially blocked off and supposed to be out of bounds. There’s no guarantee that the exit we aim for won’t have been locked by council workers, or blocked by cops. At least, now we’re in, we know we can always hike all the way back to where we arrived, if necessary, but that would see us emerge around 7 am and I’m hoping that is not the case.

The catacombs are closed for a reason. They can be dangerous and, among other things, are apparently part of the Paris reserve water supply, so that even as we walk through parts where the water is up to our mid-thigh, it feels clean and fresh. But of course, people find their way in, and I love that there are always those who will find cracks in the city, other dimensions beyond the ordinary. Once inside, the place doesn’t feel overly dangerous, especially with a map (hello, Israel) and the right equipment. There are no rats, no spiders; there is no life at all. We walk past graffiti from the 18th and 19th century, we walk past skulls and bones. We crawl through a tiny hole into a circular room loaded with a mountain of human bones from the Cimetière des Innocents, a large cemetery that was in the heart of Paris in the 1700s and 1800s. Twist tells me that there was a plague, maybe 500 years ago, and it was blamed on the cemetery, so the bodies were dug up and dumped down here. I work hard not to step on a single bone. One of the Israeli dudes laughs, grabs a skull and pretends to be eating lunch.

Five hundred years ago, there was a plague ...

Five hundred years ago, there was a plague …

We head on to the Oyster Room, and have one of the best pic-niques of my life. Twist pulls out a dozen or so candles and we turn off our headtorches, preserving batteries. By candlelight, we drink beer, eat breadstick and pate, Camembert cheese and the awesome Petit Écolier chocolate biscuits that would be the best thing ever invented in France if it wasn’t for French women and wine. The stoner tokes and dozes, and Twist peers at a map of the catacombs, downloaded off the internet, plotting our next course. I chat about the stark difference between the word ‘normal’ in Israel and Australia with the army-bound abseiler (Him: ‘We had a war last month. Three of my friends died. It’s how it is where I live. It’s normal. You cry for two days and then you move on. My parents both carry guns. I carry a gun sometimes, to move around town. People don’t want peace. They want revenge. They want to fight.’ Me: ‘So let me tell you about Melbourne, where I come from …’)

Spongebob makes an appearance among the catacomb artwork. Picture: Nicko

Spongebob makes an appearance among the catacomb artwork. Picture: Nicko

And again, I am struck by the mysteries and wonder of my blessed life. That I have the means and contacts and spirit and ability to be sitting in a candlelit cave, deep within the bedrock of Paris, somewhere under the Jardin Luxembourg or thereabouts, chatting war and peace with a Jerusalem native while his Rabbi friends softly prays and then sings next to us. I had been genuinely apprehensive, leaving my flat and heading off to this adventure, but I have a policy that if fear is the only thing stopping me doing something, then I have to do it. So I went, and oh man, I am so glad at this moment that I did.

And as we literally crawl through tiny tunnels and I slide into holes so small I am not sure I’ll fit through, being the lead explorer at this point and needing to bend in an L-shape and corkscrew my torso to make it, feet dangling, unsure where the floor is or, shit, even if there is a floor on the other side, I give thanks for Lliam Webster and hockey and the fact that at almost 50 years of age I am fit enough and supple enough (and stupid enough) and have built enough trained core strength to be able to embrace a fucking crazy adventure like this one and come through it in one piece, smiling.

A candlelight dinner in the Oyster Room.

A candlelight dinner in the Oyster Room.

We pass a former font of the Chartreuse monks, who invented that lethal spirit. We decide it’s past 2 am and we haven’t got time to detour to the German war bunker nearby. (Urban legend has it that Hitler pissed in the toilet there.) We also can’t visit the only official underground grave of the catacombs – a gatekeeper who started walking them 200 years ago (possibly hunting Chartreuse) and one day didn’t return, his body found 21 years later in the tunnels. This trip, the cataphiles won’t make it all the way to under the military hospital, where punk concerts have been known to happen.

It takes both Syphilis and Twist to push against the solid metal manhole cover and release us into the early morning air of a deserted Paris street. Covered head to toe in yellow clay, seven men emerge from the ladder and run for the darkness of a nearby sidestreet. No yells. No sirens. No flashing lights. We jump a fence into the deserted jardin, peel off our wading boots and rainjackets, stash headlamps and I try to regain some sense of normal appearance for the 4 am bus ride back to where I’m staying. My hair is caked in yellow clay and dust. Twist and I share one last beer, grinning at one another like maniacs, like brothers who have shared secrets, like friends who have seen things most don’t get to see, like outlaws who have somehow, against all odds, escaped the law.

And the next day, I avoid a trip to the Eiffel Tour with my travelling companions, because I’ve climbed it before and anyway, oh God, I need to sleep. But my body isn’t even that sore, given what I put it through underground. My hockey training has come through again. When I needed it. In the most unlikely circumstances.

Resting in not much peace. Picture: Nicko

Resting in not much peace. Picture: Nicko

Today, I’m back at my desk, more than a little jetlagged, and tomorrow night I’m back at the Icehouse, wobbling around in yet another round of development training. On Friday, the Detroit Red Wings begin another NHL campaign, playing the Bruins, and then that night I dress for a practice match with my summer league team, the Cherokees, to see if all my fitness work will translate into actually being a better competitive player.

In other words, life is back to normal, but I have a whole new batch of memories to carry me along.

Here’s to hockey, and to Lliam Webster, and to keeping fit, and to embracing adventures when you can. This was a good one.

Ah, Paris.

Ah, Paris.

Power Skating: where pain meets purpose

So, Wednesday night has a new routine. Big Cat, Alex McGoon, Big Dan Mellios, Willie Ong and my other usual on-ice partners, all dress in the red and white Icehouse jerseys for 10 pm development league. I walk out of the change rooms wearing something else, like my black Red Wings training jersey, or maybe my blue Grand Rapid Griffins jersey.

And I go seek out Icehouse coaches Army or Tommy who, six weeks in, I’m pretty sure see me coming.

‘How are you for numbers tonight?’ I ask every week.

‘I think we’re okay.’

‘Someone in the change rooms was saying that it looks like the teams might be short,’ I say. ‘I’m supposed to be doing power skating, but I don’t mind switching if you need more players.’

By now, they’ve totally clocked me. ‘Listen Place, if you want to skip out of power skating and play dev league, we don’t care. Just play.’

‘No, no, I’m totally up for power skating,’ I completely lie. ‘I’m only offering to help.’

‘It’s your call, Nicko … totally up to you.’

Knowing eyes and grins. Damn them to Hell.

I trudge off to the Bradbury rink to Power Skating, and an hour of pain.

I tried Power Skating once before, in February last year, but had to stop after about four classes because it was The Year Of The Knee and my injured, then-undiagnosed left knee simply couldn’t handle the work. That, matched with my ineptness on skates when trying some of Zac’s more ambitious manoeuvres, beat me at the time, as I tried to just remain fit enough to play for my summer league team on weekends.

The end of another hour of Power Skating with Zac. Dig deep, peoples. Dig deep. Photo: Macklin Place

The end of another hour of Power Skating with Zac. Dig deep, peoples. Dig deep. Photo: Macklin Place

Since my knee recovered, I’ve done all my usual tricks of playing endless dev league and off-ice work, but I hadn’t had the stomach to return to Power Skating. One move that killed my knee (skating backward on one foot, landing sideways, on the outside edge, of the other foot, spinning 360 degrees on that edge and landing back on the original foot, ready to go again) still haunted me. And yet … in games, I know deep down that it’s my skating ability that holds me back and that others are skating better and better every week, while my improvement has been slower.

It was time to take action, to shake things up. And so this term I resolved to miss the fun and competitiveness of dev league, and go work on my moves.

But man, it’s hard. After almost four years of this hockey adventure, Power Skating is still able to just poke every single element of my game that I haven’t mastered. That’s the entire point, I suppose, but it doesn’t make it an enjoyable hour. Put it this way, I’ve found myself reading articles on negative thinking and how to ward off ‘I can’t do that’ negativity that gets in your way in life. And skating.

Crossover, crossover, crossover. Perfect it, Place. Photo: Macklin

Crossover, crossover, crossover. Perfect it, Place. Photo: Macklin

Every class starts with intense forward C-cuts, and then crossovers. Then the same thing, going backwards. Backward C-cuts. Backward crossovers. Occasionally raising a leg in the air, to glide on one outside edge for a while until Zac tells us to resume skating.

This is the opening ten minutes … a stark reminder of how dubious I remain at backward skating, at crossovers on my lesser side, at performing a genuine C-cut. On the plus side, there are elements of these that most skaters cheat on, and I’m trying really hard not to cheat on technique in this class. Pulling off a genuine toe-to-heel, never-let-your-skate-leave-the-ice C-cut back to heel-meeting-heel is bloody difficult, forward or backward. I know lots of really fast, really nimble skaters who I bet couldn’t do it, if Zac forensically made them show the technique. Of course, it doesn’t matter in a game. See the puck, get the puck. How you scramble down the ice on a breakaway doesn’t actually matter as long as you’re fast enough or nimble enough to outskate and outwit the opposition players. The Shots On Goal stat is ultimately more important than the Flawless Skating Technique stat, even if everybody knows the latter will always help the former.

Power Skating has no scoreboard, gets rid of the excuses and shortcuts of game play, and that’s why I struggle so much. It makes you concentrate intensely on exactly what your feet are doing, and how your weight is balanced, and whether your knees are bent (they never are: never enough) and everything else that, as Melbourne Ice import Sean Hamilton put it to me recently, falls under the essential skater learning category of: ‘Ass to ankles.’

On the adjacent Henke Rink last night I heard the horn blow as one side or another scored a goal (turns out two of them were Big Cat Place, showing some pre-summer form) but I was lost in puck control while high-stepping backward down the ice, or performing double fast-start crossovers in gut-busting races across the ice, or those bastard backward crossovers, or – mercifully – learning saucer passes and flip-passes where, finally, my slightly more presentable puck-handling skills got some airtime.

Despite what my teammates might say, this is not how I would normally skate. Power Skating with Zac takes you to strange places. Photo: Macklin

Despite what my teammates might say, this is not how I would normally skate. Power Skating with Zac takes you to strange places. Photo: Macklin

Zac as a teacher is endlessly patient and supportive. He skates like nobody you’ve ever seen, teaching this stuff since he was a teenager back in Canada. It’s always fun to watch the entire class sag as he shows how a move should be done and casually pulls out some one-foot, crazy-angle snow-flying hockey stop at the end without thinking about it.

Everybody has been telling me that this Power Skating class will be good for my skating. That I will emerge a little faster or with better outside edges or just more complete as a skater. God, I hope so. It’s a truly difficult and challenging class. But I want to hit summer in the best shape I possibly can and I want to make breakaways count and not falter mid-turn when it matters in a game.

As they used to say in one of my favourite ever TV shows, The Wire: ‘All the pieces matter.’

(In fact, the full quote suits my purposes even better: ‘We’re building something here, detective. We’re building it from scratch. Alllll the pieces matter.’)

A few more Wednesday nights of pain won’t kill me and might even do a lot of good. Hell, if I have gained even one kph of extra speed, I might sign up again for next term. Don’t quote me on that.

Kettlebells, rubber bands, Icelandic horse sex and me.

I’ve been going to a lot of Melbourne International Film Festival screenings over the past week. French films about relationships, relationships or, maybe, relationships. A strange Icelandic film about horse sex and people who are slightly mad. A beautiful but strangely emotionless Japanese animation. Robert Connolly’s fantastic new live-action kids film, Paper Planes. Between sessions, we walk from the Forum to the Capitol or maybe Hoyts at Melbourne Central, rugged up in puffy jackets and beanies, huddled against the biting breeze.

The Podium Line does the red carpet, at the world premiere of 'Paper Planes'.

The Podium Line does the red carpet, at the world premiere of ‘Paper Planes’.

But then, on Facebook yesterday, somebody posted: ‘Only six weeks until daylight savings.’ I blinked. Really?

Meanwhile, in the AFL, it’s coming down to the wire with less than a month to the finals, which means two things: Richmond will finish ninth and the sun will start to shine and the grounds will become less muddy.

At the Bang, my footy brothers and I will stop and sniff the Spring in the air and start to lairize even more than we do now, with one handed marks, drop-kick attempts and other shenanigans we’re too old and only occasionally skilled enough to attempt.

And, most importantly of all, Ice Hockey Victoria’s summer season will loom and my team, the Cherokees, will again continue our quest to be competitive in Division 3.

Just like all the other summer players, we’re busy getting ready, doing the training, hoping we’re better than last season.

I can hardly wait for the competition to start. Last summer was pretty much blown out for me by the much-chronicled Year of the Knee, as I could hardly skate or, when the knee finally repaired, didn’t have enough legs to feel like I was at my best.

Even, so, I unfortunately did better than Big Cat Place who broke his ankle before the season had found full stride and barely played from that point until the last few games months later.

Big Cat and I committed there and then to play at least one more summer together, both fit, both able to be true teammates, before the inevitable happens and he gets too good to play on the same team as me, and so the summer of 2014/15 is shaping as a critical time of my hockey life.

I haven’t written much here lately because, as always, I don’t want the blog to just repeat the same old stuff and I would get as bored writing it as you would reading about every development league game or Red Wings playoff blowout.

Plus I had a manuscript to finish, which I just have, and so all my writing hours were taken up with that 135,000 word-mountain.

But between my real job and the novel draft, I have been training hard, getting ready for summer. I’m currently heavier on the scales than I have been for a while but feel fitter than I have been for a long time, which either means I’m delusional or I’ve gained extra (heavier than fat) muscle where I need it. Maybe those two things aren’t mutually exclusive.

Fluid Health: just a few of the tools of happy torture.

Fluid Health: just a few of the tools of happy torture.

All I can do is the work. Twice a week I trek to Port Melbourne to meet with the bearded one, Melbourne Ice and Australian captain Lliam Webster, to toil on improving my functional body movement, core strength and explosive power. This training remains the best and most entertaining I have done after years in gyms, lugging weights. It involves everything from Spiderman crawling along the floor to carrying barbells as far and as fast as I can while a giant rubber band threatens to twang me through the opposite wall. Some days I’m pushing a sled loaded with weights across the room, or deadlifting a barbell, other days I’m sliding on the slide board while Lliam has fun frisbeeing plastic cones at me to swat away as I glide.

The muscles being worked are all core hockey muscles and I can feel the extra balance and strength through my deep stomach muscles, glutes and hamstrings. As a happy aside, my dodgy lower back is better than it’s ever been, I have shaken off a shoulder that was hurting me for months and The Knee is now strong enough that I’m hopping onto platforms or over distances and landing on the same left leg.

In other words, for the first time in at least 18 months, I am pain free. Amen.

This has all been a long process involving Fluid Health, acupuncture needles, Enzo the magic osteo and a lot of damage to my credit card, but it feels fine to sit here and be able to write that I am pain free and feeling fit, with a couple of months to go before I skate out in the Braves jersey for a new season.

On days I’m not at Fluid, I hit the gym near my work in Richmond, lifting weights and building upper body strength.

The weights room at my local gym. Every now and then, I actually turn up there.

The weights room at my local gym. Every now and then, I actually turn up there.

On Wednesday nights, I have signed up for power skating, which is an hour of pure Hell – well, actually, that’s not strictly true: the bag skating and explosive speed stuff I quite like. The outside edge work, not so much, because I remain so shit at it.

But I made a conscious decision – with much support from hockey friends: ‘Do power skating. You need to. You NEED to.’ – to spend at least one term of Wednesday nights working specifically on my still dubious skating, instead of playing dev league.

Getting better on skates is such a slow, gradual thing that it is difficult to chart progression. Some games, friends/opponents vow that they were astonished at how much faster I have become. Other times I know that I sucked dogs balls, as an old girlfriend used to say. Wobbling around like an Intro Class rookie.

One thing, though: I’ve actually reached a significant point in my skating, where I don’t mostly think about it during games. I see the puck and go to get the puck, or make position. I don’t have to think abut my legs or where my feet are moving.

It’s like learning a language where they say you have truly made progress when you think in that language. At some point, skating stopped being something I had to concentrate on and became something happening while I was playing hockey, so that’s an improvement.

But then come those moments where I get run down from behind on a breakaway because I’m not fast enough, or I have to turn fast, clockwise (my “bad side”) and I curse that I’m less nimble. Or I just watch others who I started with, several years ago, who now skate like a dream. Or I realize that there are entire moves, like backward crossovers, that I simply don’t ever attempt under pressure in a game.

The beauty and balance of an Icehouse power-skating class. (Ten bucks says one of us, probably me, was on his arse within 30 seconds of this being taken.) Pic: Macklin Place

The beauty and balance of an Icehouse power-skating class. (Ten bucks says one of us, probably me, was on his arse within 30 seconds of this being taken.) Pic: Macklin Place

And so I trudge off to the Bradbury Rink for skating lessons with Zac, not the Henke Rink for the fun of playing actual games.

Today, I’m hitting the gym at lunchtime for some weights. Tonight I have power skating. Tomorrow, Fluid with Lliam. Friday? Maybe the gym again, if I don’t have a social game of hockey with or against the IBM team. Sunday: the Bang.

This is not to brag. I need to do this to even attempt to keep up with those young’uns I’ll be skating with and against this summer.

I need to do this anyway. I long ago realised how important regular exercise is to maintaining my potentially fragile mental health. I also long ago realised how draining on my emotional and mental health writing fiction can be. So it’s no coincidence that I’m on a big fitness campaign while driving a draft to the line.

Anyway you look at it, I believe that’s known as win-win. My body is coping. I have miles in my legs. Spring is in the air. My book first draft is done. The Cherokees are starting to get excited.

Bring on the summer.

Playing the arenas …

Seeing how it feels to skate like a USA-Canada star, just, you know, without the talent.

Seeing how it feels to skate like a USA-Canada star, just, you know, without the talent.

There’s a great comedy routine by a guy called Bert Kreischer. It’s on YouTube as ‘The Machine’, and it tells the story of how he allegedly, as a college language student, hooked in with the Russian mafia while on a train bound for Moscow. Bloody funny routine (click below). Anyway, at one point, the mafia dudes he’s hanging out with announce they’re going to rob the train. And Kreischer says: ‘I would love to tell you that I stood up and said, ‘Not me”… but sometimes you’ve just got to fucking rob a train, man.’

And that was me today, in the middle of a Thursday.

I would love to tell you that I sat at my desk all day, a picture of diligence and hard work and commitment to the Media Giants cause. Or to finishing the novel draft that has consumed me for the last few months.

… But sometimes you’ve just got to fucking go skating on centre court of Rod Laver Arena, man.

I blame Melbourne Ice president Emma Poynton. She posted on Facebook at around 11 am that the ice had been laid on the drop-in rink for the international USA v Canada match, battling for the Doug Webber trophy, happening at the arena tomorrow night. Apparently, once a rink is frozen, it needs to be skated on a few times to really take hold. So she was looking for members of the local hockey community willing to turn up at about midday and general skate hard on the rink, to shred the ice.

Cut to my car seconds later, as I race to the Icehouse to grab my skates out of my locker. Cut to midday when I’m parked at the Rod Laver Arena, meeting a bunch of hockey friends. We all know each other well enough now that everybody has a nickname: Big Cat, Christmas Angel, Apollo, Alexandra McNab … We headed inside, having our names ticked off at security and walking through the bowels of the tennis centre to the rink.

This was a fun moment for me already. I have a lot of personal history at this place. I covered tennis for years, for newspapers and the Seven Network, and so have hung out at many Australian Opens. I had a stand-up polite argument with Steffi Graf in an underground corridor there. I hit balls ineffectually at some top Australian players at media days. I even once found myself playing tennis in front of maybe 3000 people, on Rod Laver Arena’s centre court. I can sort of hit a tennis ball but was way out of my depth in that kind of spotlight. Plus, it should be mentioned that I was partnering Bijou the French tennis clown, who had some weaknesses in his game like spinning 720 degrees on the spot under a lob before trying to hit a smash. Ex Australian tour star Paul McNamee and a former Australian top junior and then glamorous sports reporter, Dixie Marshall, wiped the court with us. But hey, it was for charity.

Big Cat and Apollo Patrick get a feel for international hockey ice.

Big Cat and Apollo Patrick get a feel for international hockey ice.

I’ve also covered world title fights at the centre court, even fortunate enough to hang out in the rooms with Jeff Fenech before he went out and smashed Georgie ‘Go Go’ Navarro in front of a packed stadium. I walked out of the tunnel and into the arena that night literally at Fenech’s back, and felt the wall of noise that greets a top fighter. It was incredible.

And now I was here again, years later, carrying my much-worn skates of all things and walking past the dressing room Fenech had used to step through the door onto the arena, to discover not a tennis court or a boxing ring but an ice rink.

This Doug Webber Cup thing seems to have gained momentum, which is good for the sport. I actually went on the record last year as saying it was lame first time around, and it was: Melbourne’s hockey community is far to expert to be excited by a bunch of players, whether NHL or the level below, phoning it in, and skating in a distinct gee-I-hope-I-don’t-get-hurt-and-jeopardize-my-large-pro-contract way, which is not unreasonable from their point of view. From what I hear, after several games of the current tour, the international players are putting a much more committed effort into this time and the games are real games now, not like the yawnfest we saw at Hisense Arena last year.

Plus friends of mine in other states who don’t know hockey have ventured along and loved every second, which is probably the point. And Nathan Walker, the first Australian drafted into the NHL, is playing, giving locals a chance to salute his achievement. And it’s at the larger Rod Laver Arena, which can build strong atmosphere.

So, sing it loud: let’s hope tomorrow night is awesome. It could only help the sport.

We’ve already had a huge win from the show. It was fascinating skating on brand new, virgin ice under the watchful eye of thousands of empty green seats. The rink’s surface felt very brittle and was chipping shards instead of snow as we ploughed it up and enjoyed such empty ice. American and Canadian flags are everywhere of course and it was a strange sensation to stand at the centre face-off circle and look up to see one of those giant video cubes above, just like at an NHL venue. None of us were wearing armour but I boarded myself a few times, to see how the glass felt, and it made a pleasing thudding echo around the empty seats. Big Cat did even better, losing an edge and genuinely splattering himself on the ice and into the boards. He got up, laughing. A genuine hockey player.

Happy skaters: Big Cat, Christmas Angel and Apollo on the ice.

Happy skaters: Big Cat, Christmas Angel and Apollo on the ice.

Melbourne Ice import Sean Hamilton cruised around, testing out new blades, along with a few local players from various levels of winter and summer competition – all digging our blades into snow ploughs and hockey stops and carving manoeuvres to give this fresh ice a work out. Given hardly anybody was wearing a helmet, we had been told not to use sticks for health and safety reasons, and that lasted maybe half an hour before somebody produced a puck and it was on, with sticks being shared around. I had fun, using a right-handed stick for the first time in a long time. And hit the puck okay … is it possible I’ve been playing wrong-handed all this time? Sadly I don’t think so. I think I am just that crap at shooting on my preferred side. Hey ho.

It finally occurred that it was the middle of a work day and I’m not The Machine and don’t have the Russian mafia to watch my back. Reluctantly, I left this beautiful prime-time slab of fresh ice – the third rink that Melbourne so desperately needs – and headed back to my desk. The afternoon has been largely lost but man, have I been smiling.

Sometimes, you just have to hang the consequences, no?