Finding meaning on the radio

So I found myself on the wireless yesterday. Richard Stubbs, on 774, was having Lliam Webster (currently in the role of Australian men’s team captain) as a guest and asked if I’d come in as his ‘hockey expert’, which is a pretty loose definition of that job description.

Great moments of Australian radio: Richard Stubbs, Lliam Webster and Nicko Place, in the 774 studio.

Great moments of Australian radio: Richard Stubbs, Lliam Webster and Nicko Place, in the 774 studio.

Richard and I have been mates since we worked together on some TV shows at Channel Seven a long time ago, and in fact he is responsible for this blog. When I mentioned over coffee more than three years ago that I was intending to take up hockey, it was he who asked: ‘Can you skate?’

‘Never been on skates,’ I said.

We quietly sipped our coffee. His partner used to play and so he has some idea of the realities of hockey, and knowing Kim, she would have been a bad-ass player, desperate to play checking league only. In the silence, Richard must have been mentally framing what I can only imagine he saw as his last words of advice before the inevitable visit to my hospital bed.

‘You simply have to blog this,’ he finally said, and I almost gasped. It hadn’t occurred to me at all to chart the journey, but within a month I had not only started my first skating lessons, but had registered the name, nickdoeshockey, and started this whole thing up. (See blog post No. 1: Setting the scene’, Jan 2011* where I honestly wonder if the entire adventure will last days or weeks?)

The rest, as they say, is:

a)             history?

b)             a giant time waste?

c)              madness?

d)             all of the above?

So, anyway, Richard has not unreasonably derived a great deal of enjoyment ever since in following my injuries, my inability to skate, my occasional successes, and so on.

Yesterday, I found myself hustled into my headphones and thrown on air before Lliam had even turned up, and it was to discuss parenthood. Richard didn’t want to talk hockey at all, really. Instead, he was running a conversation about how to stay in touch with your kids after they leave school and start to naturally kick away from you, into their own independent lives. He was asking how people retain meaningful relationships with these 20-something no-longer-children, aside from the occasional dinner together? Some idiot non-skater taking up hockey in his mid-40s, along with a teenage son, illustrated either how to do it or not to do it, depending on your survival instincts.

It was a great discussion and really brought me back to the point of my whole hockey adventure – well, a big part of it. (Let’s be honest: I do, selfishly, play for the sheer fucking fun of it, as well. As I should. Because it’s the most enjoyable sport I’ve ever participated in.)

Not a Warhol: MRI cross-sections of my car crash neck.

Not a Warhol: MRI cross-sections of my car crash neck.

But lately I’ve been dealing with a nasty neck injury, which I have barely mentioned on the blog because I was so sick of whingeing about my busted knee for months. I went and saw the osteo, Magic Enzo, yesterday, armed with some MRI results, and he said the good news was that I didn’t have a tumor messing things up in the nerves around my spine, but it did look a lot like I’d hurt my neck in a car crash. Except I don’t think I’ve been in a car crash severe enough to cause that damage, or a hockey collision huge enough to compare. But apparently, somewhere along the way, I have hurt myself that badly without noticing.

Either way, the neck has been nasty painful, and so it’s been easy to lose sight of the bigger picture: that my eldest son, Will (aka Big Cat or Kittens), and I have now spent years mutually savouring and sharing our love of hockey; be it the Red Wings plugging away in Detroit (and breathtakingly still in the playoff race right now for a 23rd straight year, despite EVERYTHING that has happened to them this season), or watching the Melbourne Ice’s three-peat, or all the endless shared general skates, training sessions, dev league games, summer league games and other on-ice shenanigans, and off-ice adventures, like visiting the Joe Louis Arena. Amen.

Darren Helm shows standard Red Wing desperation, crashing the Tampa Bay net. Pic: Detroit News

Darren Helm shows standard Red Wing desperation, crashing the Tampa Bay net on Sunday. The Wings got the points. Pic: Detroit News

People comment all the time about how well Kittens and I work together on the ice, with that tuned knowledge of where the other will be. His broken ankle meant we barely skated together for the Cherokees over summer, and I loved that he was just as keen as I was to play again next summer and have at least one last season of tearing up the ice as teammates. … before he heads off to be a real player in winter or whatever, and I find out if I’m like the Bluesmobile when Jake and Elwood finally get to Chicago. (This clip, 53 seconds in.)

Yesterday’s radio discussion got me thinking about how much Kittens’ off-ice life has shifted in that time. He’s started to shift emotionally and physically since we huddled around pre-NHL Gamecenter online feeds of Wings games six years or more ago. Back then, he was a school kid. Now, he’s at uni, and doesn’t live at my house much anymore, and has different groups of friends, and is listening to different music to me (not always – happily, our tastes still cross) and is struggling to balance all the demands of uni, work for money, work for passion, hockey, hockey, hockey, friends, etc.

This is also true of my younger son, Mackquist, who finished school last year and is now 18 and therefore discovering establishments that will serve you beer and other wickedness. Mack is thrashing his way into the real world, into life beyond school; learning to swim in the waters of job-finding, and job-keeping, and tax file numbers, and so on. I think we have lost him to the world of playing hockey, meaning the famous Podium Line of Places will most likely never again leap over the boards to terrify an opposition defence, but that’s ok. He and I love scuba diving together, among other things, and can hang out together in that world, as well as the more day-to-day.

One of so many face-offs with Kittens and I working together. Circa 2012.

One of so many face-offs with Kittens (left) and I working together. Circa 2012.

My life has shifted too. When we all started watching the Wings, I was living alone, but now I’m not, and there’s a crazy, intense five-year-old boy in my life, as well as a beautiful partner who rocks my world, and a cat we rescued and, of course, beautiful, ageing Fly Dog The Magnificent who struggles to walk sometimes in a mirror of my struggle to skate. Away from the ice, I’m under the pressure to follow up my novel, ‘Roll With It’, with a sequel that isn’t a pale imitation and my actual work life remains stressful, and there are all the other adult things that occupy your mind and energy, like the welfare of my parents, struggling or soaring friends, and so on. I celebrate all of this: it’s living. It’s the adventure. But it would be easy to realize the boys and I haven’t gotten around to actually crossing paths much, all unconsciously running wide of one another.

I’m so grateful to Richard for bringing me back to a deliberate consideration of Will and my relationship, through hockey. I haven’t physically seen Will since mid-last week, but there have been endless texts, celebrating the Wings and the continuing hot streak of Gus Nyquist, and discussion of video games, and other matters. It occurred to me that we have been in tune despite physical distance. And usually are.

I’m incredibly lucky that we, and Macka, retain such a close link, despite all our individual waters of life that don’t necessarily run in the same direction from here. Or maybe it’s not luck. Maybe this is what the whole hockey adventure has been about, away from the sheer fun and frustration of trying to sprint on thin blades of steel, reaching with an elongated piece of taped-carbon fibre for that small circle of rubber scooting, bouncing and gliding across the ice.

My sons and I are more than just occasional dinner companions, struggling to find conversation. Richard Stubbs was right: that is a major gift at this stage of things.

A creaky knee, a car crash neck and a continuing inability to find a reliable outside edge are but a small price to pay.

 

PS: Richard Stubbs’ main guest on yesterday’s show, the bearded wonder, Lliam Webster, is an even better example of what I’m talking about, with both his parents deeply involved in hockey and the Melbourne Ice teams. Lliam is playing for Australia in exhibition games against the Mustangs on Thursday night at the Icehouse, and then against his own team, the Ice (which will be kind of weird) on Saturday. If you’re kicking around, try to get down there to lend support.

 

PPS: * Post 5 of nickdoeshockey featured a current pic, back then, of a clean-shaven Lliam Webster. Time has certainly passed since I dived into this crazy world.

Whale sharks, wounded Wings and Arnold, the Estonian.

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

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

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

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

Mixing hockey and diving underwater off Thailand.

Mixing hockey and diving underwater off Thailand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A heatwave, the Winter Classic and question marks

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive. The world needs more people who have come alive.”

–       Jonathan Harris

It’s been an unusual summer. Of course, in Melbourne, there’s the weather, which did its perverse trick of being cold, grey and mostly un-beachy through the two weeks or so that almost everybody is on holidays and sitting in traffic jams along the coast, dreaming of sitting on a beach, so they can fret about how they look semi-naked in swimwear, and, all going well, just bask. Now most people are back at work, it’s hitting 40 degrees Celsius. Every. Day. And they say God, that complex woman in the sky, doesn’t have a sense of humour …

I had all kinds of plans for my Christmas-New Year break. Six days clear? Let’s hit LA!!!! Hmmm, timezone issues, and we’d lose an entire day (literally – that fun/crazy phenom where you leave LA near midnight on, say, a Friday, and arrive back in Melbourne on Sunday, Saturday having somehow evaporated in space or science or something). So, not LA. Then, hey, Tokyo!!! No? Lombok!! Umm, Byron! Err, shit, another few days at my parents’ place at Lorne?

In the end, Chloe and I mostly hung around Melbourne., enjoying how awesome the city is when there aren’t any actual people living in its canyons, the crowd absent from its streets. Riding bikes along mostly empty roads and bike trails, and watching films in sparcely populated cinemas.

More and more, as is my brain’s way, I fell into introspection and wondering where I’m heading next? Off the ice for almost a month, I found myself with no real desire to attempt a general skate at the Icehouse. Part of this was practical: Facebook told me that the Henke Rink was being relaid, so I knew general skates and any other on-ice activities would be crammed onto the Bradbury Rink, and general skates on half or two thirds of a rink are remorselessly crap. You need some room to move.

But I also started to worry that I had so little desire to skate, to be on the ice.

A panorama of the Big House: the largest hockey crowd ever, and in snow and 12 degrees F.

A panorama of the Big House: the largest hockey crowd ever, and in snow and 12 degrees F.

I watched a lot of hockey. On my Apple TV and iPad, the NHL continued, and my Red Wings were lurching along, as they have this season; suffering injury after injury, patchy results building as a play-off spot becomes less certain. The Wings suffering from star goalie Jimmy Howard losing form, confidence and health, plus an ongoing inability to score goals, and a bunch of Grand Rapid Griffins kids filling holes (although one of my absolute favourite prospects, Tomas Jurco, debuted, scored, looked great in a Wings jersey!)

Nevertheless, we believe. Big Cat Place turned up at my house for a 5 am alarm so we could watch Detroit play Toronto in the outdoor Winter Classic. Man. Two Melburnians in Winter Classic merchandise huddled in the dark in an Australian summer, watching 105,000 people brave sub-zero temperatures at the Big House, in Ann Arbor (and receiving gloating snapchats from Ice stars Tommy Powell and Shona Green, in head-to-toe Toronto gear, a few suburbs away). Snow on the seats, snow on fans’ heads. The weather so cold as the polar vortex approached the mid-west of America that the goalie waterbottles had to be constantly replaced because the water was freezing inside.

Cold, cold seats at the Winter Classic, half a world away from a Melbourne summer.

Cold, cold seats at the Winter Classic, half a world away from a Melbourne summer. Pic: Detroit Free Press.

It looked awesome, and fun, and freezing. The Wings, of course, lost in a shoot-out, looking ineffectual when it mattered most.

But then, in their next start, smashed the Dallas Stars, 5-1, with Tomas Tatar, ever-growing in confidence, scoring a fantastic lone-drive goal. Then had a few days off and got belted by the Sharks. And so it goes.

Between Wings angst, I read an amazing book, by Bill Bryson. It’s called ‘One Summer’ and is about America in the summer of 1927. Charles Lindbergh became the first aviator to fly the Atlantic, and became a national hero, before turning into a Nazi enthusiast. The crazy art project of Mount Rushmore began. Sacco and Vanzetti were tried and executed, rightly or wrongly. The Jazz Singer was released, making talking pictures a mainstream reality. Baseballer Babe Ruth was hitting home runs at unprecedented levels, and living an impressively sordid lifestyle to go with it. The entire mid-west was flooded to unbelievable levels. Pre-Nazi America First ‘pure race’ theories were so extreme the Klu Klux Klan looked tame (tens of thousands of Americans regarded as being of ‘lower race’ or ‘lower intelligence’ or ‘lower morals’ were sterilized against their will. No, seriously.) Even as I read of these horrors, in this much more enlightened world, almost 100 years later, Liberal Senator dipshit Cory Bernardi was declaring to Australia that ‘non-traditional’ families with a single parent are more likely to have higher criminality among boys and promiscuity among girls.

Tomas Jurco celebrates knowing he's pretty much NHL ready. Pic: Ducks website.

Tomas Jurco celebrates knowing he’s pretty much NHL ready. Pic: Ducks website.

Where Australia is headed worries me more and more.

And then the holiday was over, work was back and my usual world started to return to its normal rhythms. I belted out 4000 words of my new novel in one day, showing that, as I’d suspected, my brain had really needed some time off by the end of 2013. But then found myself staring at the screen once more. Hey ho. Do the work.

And I wondered what 2014 will hold, should hold? An American philosopher/artist Jonathan Harris wrote a heartfelt essay on being ‘stuck’ and assessing why he’d been stuck at various points in his life and how he’d moved past those moments. (Thanks Kayt Edwards, for finding it and posting it.)

I’d fully recommend reading it, but ultimately Harris argues that you have a very limited time on Earth and you need to spend it doing things that move you, inspire you, fully engage your creativity and energy.  It’s a nice theory for the wealthy: he’s the kind of guy who apparently can afford to go and sit in a cabin in Oregon for months at a time without having to worry about paying for groceries. People with mortgage headaches and medical bills and whatnot might not have his free-thinking luxury. Nevertheless, there is merit in what he says.

Squinting at 2014 from the top of the ride, I find myself wondering whether I’m stuck? What most moves me, what most excites me? Is it still working in media? Is it still hockey? Is it still writing novels? Is it Little Big Shots, the kids film festival I work on? Is it still living in Melbourne?

Is it still being, well, Me?

These are questions I ask myself a lot and I think it’s mostly healthy, if it doesn’t paralyze you. According to Harris, being ‘stuck’ precedes a fundamental shift of some sort, but I don’t think I’m at that point. Am I? I can see friends who definitely are, whether in their relationships, or work, or other aspects of their life. It’s always easier to see clearly looking in, as against looking out. But where am I at?

A highlight of summer: Big Cat Place back on two legs and back in skates, at the Charlie Srour game.

A highlight of summer: Big Cat Place back on two legs and back in skates, at the Charlie Srour game. Pic: Nicko.

One definite way to avoid paralysis and to keep the brain process moving is to retain context. On Sunday evening, I picked up Big Cat and made the long trek to the (freshly-painted and spruiced up!) Oakleigh Ghetto. Tried to remember the order my armour goes on, and strapped on skates for the first time since mid-December. Nobody in the rooms but close friends from the hockey world, all united for a game in  honour of Charlie Srour, a treasured member of our little gang who died a year ago on New Year’s Day, to eternal regret. We toasted Charlie with Russian vodka, Big Cat spent the warm-up managing to stand in skates and move around on the ice for the first time since breaking his leg, and then we had a very informal scrimmage for the sheer joy of being back on the ice.

It was one of those games where nobody cared about the score. In fact, I honestly can’t recall what it was, three days later. We played four-on-four and laughed a lot. Melbourne Ice women players attempted figure skating moves between face-offs, the standard good-natured sledging hit astronomical levels, and I felt fantastic for about three shifts before my rusty legs started to run out of steam. Man, that happened fast. In the photos that Big Cat took, I can see myself return to my bad-old legs-wide flat-foot skating, as I get tired. God, another year of trying to move my legs, to become more mobile on the ice. That’s where one of my 2014 challenges lies – not to listen to the voice inside that says I don’t seem to be getting any better, that I’m only ever going to be mediocre; that after three years, I remain so so-so.

I have to banish those thoughts. The fact was, it was fun to be back out there. I did love playing again. I still have chapters of this hockey journey left, I think. I just have to keep doing the work.

Wayne McBride does his best Frank the Tank post-brawl celebration, after 'fighting' Apollo Patrick in the Charlie game. Pic: Big Cat.

Wayne McBride does his best Frank the Tank post-brawl celebration, after ‘fighting’ Apollo Patrick in the Charlie game. Pic: Big Cat.

And so yesterday, in 43 degree heat, I made my way to Port Melbourne and survived a training session with Lliam Webster at Fluid; remorselessly working my stomach and core and every skating muscle in my legs and butt. I’d only wished I was wearing a Stetson so I could have tugged it meaningfully over my eyes, showing I mean business as I face down a new year.

Because I am going to train like a mothertrucker now my knee is troubling me less.

I am going to get generally super-fit, using the functional movement training ideas, to hit the end of 2014 in better, different shape to now.

I am going to return to the Bang, able to run once more, and kick a footy with that bunch of guys.

I am going to improve my skating on the ice, so that I can play one more summer at least, and really smoke it.

I am going to watch the Red Wings somehow pull themselves together, get healthy when it matters, and storm the 2014 play-offs.

I am going to have non-hockey adventures to add diversity, adventure and different angles to my existence.

I am going to adore every member of my complicated, non-traditional family, and I’m going to fully believe in my two boys and my step-son, even if a misguided Liberal whacko Senator doesn’t.

And I am going to let my brain free, to write fiction and explore new paths for my company and to fully engage in my working life.

Mostly, I’m going to laugh, and have fun. Because in hockey and life, it’s amazing how easy it is to forget that we’re supposed to be enjoying the journey. When I shake off expectations and fretting, and just enjoy, everything is simpler.

These are not New Years resolutions. These are just the wanderings of life, now closing alarmingly on a half century within two years.

‘The world needs more people who have come alive,’ writes Jonathan Harris.

In 2014, on the ice and off, I plan for that to continue to be me.

My first ice-time of 2014: facing Brendan Parssons in a face-off with his girlfriend, Lex, dropping the puck. Life's a loaded deck, folks, but that doesn't mean it can't be fun. Pic: Big Cat.

My first ice-time of 2014: facing Brendan Parsons (right) in a face-off with his girlfriend, Lex, dropping the puck. Life’s a loaded deck, folks, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. Pic: Big Cat.

Playing like a girl

On Saturday, I rolled into the Icehouse and went straight to the penalty box.

My view from the home team penalty box. Pic: Nicko

My view from the home team penalty box. Pic: Nicko

Those who like to push the idea that I’m a goon wouldn’t have been surprised, but in fact I was dressed in street clothes and there to help.

Ice hockey in Victoria still largely runs on volunteer efforts, from club presidents to scoreboard attendants, from coaches to Rookie admins* trying to fund-raise to help AIHL players pay their way. I feel guilty that I don’t do more, so volunteered to assist at a Melbourne Ice women’s game and was offered the challenging and powerful role of penalty box attendant. This included the thrilling moment where I carried a tiny Esky full of the game pucks (chilled on ice – what’s that about? I forgot to ask) to the scoreboard attendants, and then drank coffee in the home team box, watching the game from a pane of glass away. It was awesome.

Melbourne was up against the Brisbane Goannas, who were challenged for playing numbers, had one member wearing full rental gear, which hinted at some sort of pre-game drama, and should, imho, have had a team penalty for their jersey, which was largely green, blue and orange and featured what appeared to be a Seventies drawing of a lizard on the front in what could only have been some kind of crazy, ill-thought-out tribute to the Goanna Band and Solid Rock?

Shona Green in action. Pic MIW Facebook page

Shona Green in action. Her outside edges are ever so slightly more impressive than mine. Pic MIW Facebook page

My main take-out from watching Melbourne Ice and Goanna women at work was that it was a blast to finally see skaters like captain Shona Green and my Cherokees coach Georgia Carson playing flat out. Shona is one of the coaches at the Icehouse and so is usually sledging me from behind the opposition bench on a Wednesday night. I’ve had classes with her over the years and always loved her coaching style and been seriously challenged by her drills, but of course the flipside of seeing somebody like Shona only as a coach is that she never gets to more than first-gear, thinking about changing into second gear, on the ice. The same with Georgia, who occasionally joins in a scrimmage at our team training, but is hardly pushing into her red levels at any point.

On Saturday, leading her team to another win (they’re unbeaten in this season), Shona wasn’t in social mode or teacher mode or polite mode. She was in hockey player mode, and I loved seeing it up close. Given she has captained Australia, it shouldn’t surprise that she played at a different level to a lot of the women out there, on either side. Both teams, being in the national competition, had many players who were sublime skaters and had great shots. The defences were solid; as in hard and tenacious and disciplined. The Ice has a few new players this year and I noticed how the veteran defenders (and I’m cautiously calling Georgia one of those, although I think she’s yet to hit 22 years old (wince)), would direct traffic and provide cover and just be there to help at every turn.

Shona was everywhere, scoring at least one goal, but also getting a penalty, which meant she had the joy of being escorted to the gate to be met by none other than Nicko Place, closing the door and wondering what the etiquette is as Attendant. Do you chat? Do you sigh and shake your head? Do you land any of the lines that some friends and I had thrown around as ‘the most inappropriate thing to say to a Melbourne Ice player sitting a minor penalty’? (Random selection: ‘I guess if you were better at hockey that wouldn’t have happened…?’ or: ‘I’ve written some notes that might help once you’re back on the ice’) … btw, for the removal of doubt, the answer to that last question: do you land them? is NO.

My coach, Georgia, on the move v the Goannas. Pic: facebook

My coach, Georgia, on the move v the Goannas. Pic: facebook

In fact, Shona was bemused as she arrived, which made conversation easy because I’ve had the same feeling as I’ve arrived in the box. Genuinely trying to work out what the penalty was for, and whether you did it. This is not to bag the referees, by the way, or to breach the hardcore IHV social media rules … I’m just saying that I know I’ve been called for things in the hurly burly of summer league that I’m genuinely unaware I’ve done. It’s always ineptitude with me, not vicious intent. And so I’ve headed to the box, wondering out loud, why I’m being called. Not complaining; just curious. (As I’ve written before, I secretly kind of like being sent to the box. It feels bad-ass to have a referee or linesman have to personally escort you all the way to the gate, as though you’ve got the potential to explode on the way.) The refs are cool too; they can tell if you’re just confused, as against having a go.

So anyway, Shona and I discussed the many reasons a player might be sent to the box, until the scoreboard attendant yelled from further down what the penalty was actually for. (Slashing, from memory.) Being the captain, Shona also used her two minutes to note that the usual towel and water bottle weren’t in the box, and then she was gone, skating like a fury from the moment I opened the door.

In the third period, as Sarah Teed arrived, gently fuming as everybody always is, I asked if she would like a drink of water from the newly-arrived bottle (Val Webster being omnipresent, having heard Shona’s query and answering every need in every direction, as usual)? ‘Oh, no thank you,’ Sarah said, sweetly, as though I’d offered her a cucumber sandwich. Then got back out there, to throw her weight around as Goannas dared to attack the net.

Quite a few Ice women were called by the refs, and it shouldn’t surprise that they were just like any other team I’ve been part of or witnessed, cursing and swearing slightly under their breath but keeping a lid on it, hoping hard that the other team doesn’t score while on the power play, and engaging in a wildly complicated series of hand gestures with coach Tommy Powell (yes, at the rink again, as he and Army and Shona and Bacsy are pretty much every single day as far as I can tell) to decide whether to rejoin play or just get to the bench as fast as they can skate.

Ice president Emma Poynton turned up and had a chat, including thanking me profusely for volunteering to help at the game. I had to fight the urge to yell: ‘Stop being president! You’re mid-game! Go score a goal or hit somebody!’

Nic Cliff in action on saturday. Pic: Matt Wragg Photography

Nic Cliff in action on Saturday. Pic: Matt Wragg Photography

The Ice won pretty easily and it was fascinating to see the mix of skill levels, and the intensity, as compared to when the Melbourne Ice men play. The women wear full face cages (by international hockey law, I believe) and don’t ‘board’ opponents the way the men do. The hockey was fast, furious and committed, as you’d expect, and I felt a little ashamed I hadn’t made it down to a MIW match before now. One of my hockey friends, Nicole Cliff, was making her home debut for the Ice (the second ‘Rookie’ after Georgia Giblin to make it all the way to the national league) and it was cool to be there to see her play. She looked like she belonged too.

I’ve always loved that – at my admittedly low level – hockey is mixed gender, and that I have been able to play with and against quite a few of the women competing for Melbourne Ice on the weekend; even occasionally winning a face-off or a puck battle along the way. It’s exciting to think that you can actually take the ice against a potential national league or Australian team player, to keep pushing yourself and working on your skills. Watching Saturday’s game, when the Melbourne Ice women took off the handbrake and skated to capacity, left no illusions as to how high the standard is at that level. They rocked.

* (shout out to Matt Wragg, Theresa Neate, Brendan Parsons and Chris Janson.)

Watching my garden grow

Gardening and I have never been friends. A dozen years ago, I was living in an awesome house in Fairfield, surrounded by a rich, dense garden. It was a cool house with unofficially renovated windows letting light and unexpected views of the garden into most rooms. The bathroom was even built around the garden, so that the shower was embedded among actual dirt and ferns.

This is pretty much what will happen any time I'm left in charge of a garden. Pic: Flickr

This is pretty much what will happen any time I’m left in charge of a garden. Pic: Flickr

All of which was fantastic except that such a lush garden meant there were also a lot of weeds, and pruning, and all the other stuff that gardens require to look neat and beautiful and enticing, rather than impenetrable jungle.

This was bad news for my then-wife, Anna, who found herself gardening a lot, while I sat in front of my computer. ‘Come help?’ she would not unreasonably demand.

‘Can’t. Sorry. Working on a novel,’ I would reply.

A novel. Sure you are.

You can’t believe how relieved I was when ‘The Kazillion Wish was accepted to be published, giving me a gardening ‘Get Out Of Jail Free’ card that I could never have hoped for. ‘See,’ I told poor, long-suffering Anna, ‘I WASN’T being self-indulgent/wasting my time.’

Which was a total lie.

Like I said, lucky.

Taking a face-off for The Braves. Pic Luke Milkovic.

Taking a face-off for The Braves. Pic Luke Milkovic.

A few years later, I was living in Fern Cottage, Freeman Street, Fitzroy North, which fast became an ironically-named house as the backyard became nothing but weeds. Some were literally higher than my head. I’m not sure when the word ‘weed’ becomes ‘tree’, but this must have been close.

Occasionally I’d hire someone to nuke the entire backyard, ripping out everything but the few battered, half-strangled bushes that were clearly meant to be there. Pleasingly now mostly concrete, the backyard would immediately start to mutate again as I put my Jedi Non-Gardening Powers to use, writing or watching hockey on TV.

All of this meant my partner now, Chloe, was quite reasonably nervous at raising the idea of installing planter boxes on the deck of our new house. I did my bit by swearing a lot and sweating, while lugging two huge wooden boxes up the steep stairs to the rooftop deck, dodgy knee and all. I helped lug soil up the same stairs and then poured it all into the boxes.

But it was clear that I was not burning to nurture the plants, to be at one with this boxed nature.

Yet here they now sat, little fledgling strawberry plants, lettuce, passionfruit, zucchini, herbs and tomatoes. Being liberally bombed with random water attacks from Melbourne’s weather or maybe an enthusiastic five-year-old, who also considered it necessary to water the dog, the sky (look out below, walkers) and anything else within reach of the hose. And most mornings, the five-year-old would charge to the window and sigh, because giant plants hadn’t magically bloomed overnight. Things grow by increments, which can be a hard concept when you are five, or even when you’re a lot more than five, like me.

I got on with life.

Especially training, where I am finally dangerously close to full health. I’ve been doing Fluid workouts with Lliam, and it rocks. Crazy, diverse training like cracking giant ropes, or throwing sandbag balls to the ground as hard as I can, and endless lunges and squats, hoping my knee will hold (it mostly has). Explosive, intense workouts unlike training I’ve done before and leaving my legs, glutes and guts heavy with exhaustion. You don’t even want to know what The Torsonator is. But believe me, it’s nasty.

The dodgy left knee occasionally yelps when I climb stairs or once during a hockey game, but mostly it’s coping. Every session I complete makes everything around the meniscal tear stronger, and hopefully moves me further away from this injury. Wednesday nights at Dev League, another Lliam client, Jimmy Oliver, and I creak onto the ice, groaning with aching legs and exchanging knowing grimaces and grins before we even start. I love it.

And my back and upper body are getting a whole new workout, along with my skating muscles, which I’m really enjoying. I can feel it all helping my skating, as I gain more and more power in my stride. Not to say I’m not still proppy compared to the dream skaters in summer league’s midst, but at least I’m not hobbled like I was a couple of months ago. Touch wood.

Unfortunately, I'm still not striding like Alfy for the Wings.

Unfortunately, I’m still not striding like Alfy for the Wings.

My broken toe still can’t kick a footy, which sucks re The Bang, but it’s also definitely on the mend. Closer, ever closer to full health.

Summer league continues and my team, the Cherokees, has strong spirit and a lot of laughter, even if our on-ice results have been less than spectacular. We’re competitive but can’t score enough, and have faced a welter of shots going the other way. As with my skating, I’ve felt my form returning with my health. From barely getting near the puck a few games ago, I’m starting to be competitive – ripped a high shot into the top bar and over (what are the odds of that?) and almost scored on a screened drive from a post-faceoff scramble last weekend. Almost, almost.

Poor Big Cat leans on his crutches, nursing his broken ankle, hating watching his team lose and being unable to help. At least I’m on the ice, even if the results aren’t what we’d all like.

In Detroit, roads are starting to lead to the Winter Classic. Apparently the 24/7 cameras have arrived and I can’t wait for that weekly doco to begin. The Wings hit an incredibly mediocre patch (they seem to have one every year) where they couldn’t score goals and couldn’t close out matches. Finally, Gus Nyquist was brought up from Grand Rapids, along with lectures from everybody involved that he was a kid and not the savior.

Gus Nuyquist, finally where he belongs: wearing the winged wheel and tearing it up at the Joe. Pic Detroit Free Press.

Gus Nyquist, finally where he belongs: wearing the winged wheel and tearing it up at the Joe. Pic Detroit Free Press.

He scored 17 seconds into his first game. And again later, to put the Wings back in front. Hasn’t looked back.

Meanwhile, Pavel Datsyuk got elbowed blatantly in the head during a game and hasn’t played since. No penalty because not a single official saw it. Hmm. Hope 24/7 quietly recorded that hit.

Meanwhile, Darren Helm has gone from strength to strength on his return, but star goaltender Jimmy Howard has hit a strange slump of confidence, replaced for games by The Monster, Jonas Gustavsson, who couldn’t stop a goal at times last year but this season is blitzing. Coach Babs says it’s not a thing, that Jimmy will be fine, that’s there’s nothing to see here. It’s not a thing.

It’s totally a thing. Or maybe he’s right? Babs is about most things. Maybe Jimmy’s struggle is just another of the ups and downs of hockey, and of life.

The flow of action

and moments

and news stories

and highlights

and lowlights,

and injuries,

and comebacks,

and weeds, and snails,

and fresh buds and growing leaves,

and wins,

and losses,

from Detroit

to the Icehouse

to Oakleigh

to a training room in Port Melbourne

to a deck on an old fire station in Fitzroy North,

where two boxes of plants are sprouting and shooting and growing and thriving. Now thick with health and growing fruit, and with just a bit of gardening required, here and there.

We ate lettuce for the first time from our planter boxes last night and I was genuinely excited. I’ve found a form of contained gardening that I can actually enjoy.

Stranger and stranger. Life just keeps evolving. I just keep evolving. There’s your proof.

What to wear?

The Falcon: if he wasn't so well loved, he'd be worth serious money in America.

The Falcon: if he wasn’t so well loved, he’d be worth serious money in America.

I have been accused of being a hoarder. I prefer the word ‘collector’. I definitely get interested in something and start gathering. It all started when I was very young and somebody gave me a Superman figurine. It turns out you could also get Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Spider-man … I got them all. And Davy Crockett, Dracula, even The Falcon (pictured, who turned out to be the first black super hero and is now highly collectable). I still have them all. In a suitcase, stashed under the stairs at my house, but still there. Bashed to within an inch of their lives, through endless play in my pre-teen years. (The hilarious thing is that the made-up stories, my imagination roaming, with those figurines playing out the storylines? Years later, I’d write The OK Team and OK Team 2, and get that same imaginary roaming published.)

Later came my Mr Potato Head obsession, which started in a church hall in Hawthorn, accompanying my future business partner, Michael, to a

My Sixties Potato Head collection: now showing in my office. How do you like them apples of the earth, MisterSpud?

My Sixties Potato Head collection: now showing in my office. How do you like them apples of the earth, MisterSpud?

collectables auction where he was chasing Collingwood memorabilia. I wandered along the stalls and found Oscar the Orange, a Mr Potato Head character who took me straight back to my childhood. Bidding sensibly stopped for Oscar at $100 or so. I realised my hand was in the air. Now I owned Oscar, it seemed crazy not to start hunting all the other 1960s potato people: Katie Carrot, Cookie Cucumber, Pete Pepper … and wow, in America, there were ones I’d never heard of: Willy Burger, Frenchy Fry. And English ones: Mr Egg Bod and Katie Pear. This was when eBay was just finding its feet and suddenly it was possible to bid furiously for a potato-based character in Cincinnati or Seattle. I had some epic duels with my nemesis, a collector called MisterSpud. I finally got the entire set of Sixties spuds and retired from competition.

Then came magic and treasures like first editions of Robert-Houdin‘s landmark ‘autobiography’ (this French magician was a father of the Golden Age of magic and remains, as far as I know, the only magician to single-handedly use magic to stop an African revolution), or Howard Thurston magic coins. That cost me a lot of money.

And then came hockey. And more specifically, hockey jerseys.

My first one was a Zetterberg #40. Detroit Red Wings, of course. When I first started seriously following the Wings. But then I started playing and my jersey fetish blossomed, grew and mutated, to incorporate the Icehouse Rookies, the Wings’ AHL affiliate Grand Rapids Griffins, and even an obscure Canadian team, the Medicine Hat Tigers, where Wings stars like Darren Helm and Chris Osgood had started out (and it turned out, a team that my coach, Lliam Webster, played against. He got a decent shock when Big Cat and I wandered into the Icehouse wearing Medicine Hat jerseys one day). With many training sessions, dev league (before the dedicated jerseys), skating sessions and just walking around, there has been no shortage of opportunity to strut my many jerseys.

Here’s where the collection stands, three years in:

My first hockey jersey: Hank Zetterberg, 2009.

My first hockey jersey: Hank Zetterberg, 2009. When we went to Detroit in 2011, I didn’t take it, because I KNEW I’d be buying another one, and I did: a signed Nick Lidstrom jersey, which I occasionally wear around, like to a Melbourne Ice game, horrifying potential collectors. I’m, like, what? Lidstrom never signed another jersey? I prefer enjoying it, to framing it. I still love my Zetterberg first-ever, and sometimes still wear it on the ice.

The signed Lidstrom No. 5, bought at the Joe Louis Arena. It went 'straight to the Pool Room.' But occasionally gets broken out for everyday wear, to the horror of collectors.

The signed Lidstrom No. 5, bought at the Joe Louis Arena. It went ‘straight to the Pool Room.’ But occasionally gets broken out for everyday wear, to the horror of collectors. (And, by the way, it cost me $125 or something … a Kyle Quincey jersey at that USA v Canada extravaganza in Melbourne earlier this year, went for upwards of $400 … sacrilege. )

This is the jersey I was wearing in the first ever wobbly-skating shot on this blog. Medicine hat white: a cool early Richmond Tigers-hockey-obscure Wings crossover. Big Cat shamelessly stole the black version, which is cooler, damn him.

This is the jersey I was wearing in the first ever wobbly-skating shot on this blog. Medicine hat white: a cool early Richmond Tigers-hockey-obscure Wings crossover. Big Cat shamelessly stole the black version, which is cooler, damn him.

Our Icehouse class of 2011 became the self-titled Rookies, with Aimee Hough, Theresa Neate, Jay Hellis, Big Cat and a few others as founders. Big Cat designed the first Rookies jersey: a simple, classic design.

Our Icehouse class of 2011 became the self-titled Rookies, with Aimee Hough, Theresa Neate, Jay Hellis, Big Cat and a few others as founders. Big Cat designed the first Rookies jersey: a simple, classic design.

About to jump the boards in the Rookies white.

About to jump the boards in the Rookies white.

Second generation Rookies jersey: as the Rookies started playing games, against teams like an IBM line-up, we needed different coloured jerseys. This black one was a beauty. I captained my first ever hockey win - and I think the first official Rookies victory of any description - wearing this jersey; an epic comeback. A meaningless social match on a Friday night but we were floating in victory.

Second generation Rookies jersey: as the Rookies started playing games, against teams like an IBM line-up, we needed different coloured jerseys. This black one was a beauty, and is probably the jersey I have worn the most on-ice. I captained my first ever hockey win – and I think the first official Rookies victory of any description – wearing this jersey; an epic comeback. A meaningless social match on a Friday night but we were floating in victory.

Wearing the Rookies black, in action against IBM at the Icehouse.

Wearing the Rookies black, in action against IBM at the Icehouse.

The red version of the Rookie jersey. Recently a new group, formed by the following wave of skaters, has formed with a kcikarse jersey. I love how the sport is growing and evolving in Melbourne.

The red version of the Rookie jersey. Recently a new group, formed by the following wave of skaters, has formed with a kickarse jersey. I love how the sport is growing and evolving in Melbourne.

Grand Rapids is Detroit's feeder team, in the AHL. We follow it closely, watching guys like Nyquist, Tatar, Jurco, and more, get better and closer to Red Wings action. I decided it would be a cool, obscure jersey to wear to training ...

Grand Rapids is Detroit’s feeder team, in the AHL. We follow it closely, watching guys like Nyquist, Tatar, Jurco, and more, get better and closer to Red Wings action. I decided it would be a cool, obscure jersey to wear to training …

... and it was, right up until the Griffins produced this more modern red alternate strip.

… and it was, right up until the Griffins produced this even more awesome red alternate strip.

Maybe my favourite jersey of all time, because it was my first official jersey as a member of an actual team, in IHV competition. As part of the Jets, I played with the Interceptors, as logged in the blog, and even got to put a big white A on my breast, which was one of the best moments of the crazy hockey adventure so far. Loved, and continued, to love  the Ceptors.

Maybe my favourite jersey of all time, because it was my first official jersey as a member of an actual team, in IHV competition. As part of the Jets, I played with the Interceptors, as logged in the blog, and even got to put a big white A on my breast, which was one of the best moments of the crazy hockey adventure so far. Loved, and continued, to love the Ceptors.

The back of the Jets jersey, with the crazy numbering font.

The back of the Jets jersey, with the crazy numbering font.

Working hard for the Ceptors, in my beloved Jets purple  (in an IBM practice match) last summer.

Working hard for the ‘Ceptors, in my beloved Jets purple (in an IBM practice match) last summer.

The Interceptors jersey that caused all the trouble ... the Jets told us, before last summer's comp, that the white alternate jersey might not be available in time for a game where we needed it, so could we come up with another white option? Zac, one of the Ceptors, is a graphic designer and drew up this baby, and we had them made, fast. Weonly wore them a coupleof times in official comp but Jets officials went nuts, saying we were disloyal, not part of the club etc. Was awkward. I scored my only official summer league goal, swinging from a faceoff drop, straight into the net, wearing this (I scored three, but the other two weren't officially tallied). Pre-season I had toyed with being No. 4 instead of No. 17, which is why this pre-order had that number.

The Interceptors jersey that caused all the trouble … the Jets told us, before last summer’s comp, that the white alternate jersey might not be available in time for a game where we needed it, so could we come up with another white option? I guess they meant whatever white jerseys we could all find … but the Interceptors were motivated and committed. One of our team, Zac, is a graphic designer and drew up this baby, and we loved them, got approval and had them made, fast. We only wore them a couple of times in official comp but a couple of  Jets officials went nuts, saying we were disloyal, not part of the club etc, because we weren’t wearing the usual jersey. It was awkward. I scored my only official summer league goal, swinging from a face-off drop, straight into the net, wearing this (I scored three, but the other two weren’t officially tallied). Pre-season I had toyed with being No. 4 instead of No. 17, which is why this pre-order had that number.

This is a recreation jersey of an early Detroit on-ice fashion statement, from when the team was the Cougars in the late 1920s/early 30s. It's so old skool. I love it.

This is a recreation jersey of an early Detroit on-ice fashion statement, from when the team was the Cougars in the late 1920s/early 30s. It’s so old skool. I love it.

If you've seen 'Slap Shot', you know this jersey. If you haven't, go watch 'Slap Shot'.

If you’ve seen ‘Slap Shot’, you know this jersey. If you haven’t, go watch ‘Slap Shot’.

Or Hell, just watch this:

And for the record, of course I'm Hanson brother, no. 17. Big Cat and Macquist have the other two Hanson jerseys, so we can form the entire line if required.

And for the record, of course I’m Hanson brother, no. 17, who was definitely the best, as that clip showed. Big Cat and Macquist have the other two Hanson jerseys, so we can form the entire line if required.

A recent pick-up: a genuine Red Wings practice jersey, as worn by the players at pre-season training camp. Got my name and #17 on the back. I rock this one out for Braves training and it has a lot of movement, lightness, which is good to skate in. I like it a lot.

A recent pick-up: a genuine Red Wings practice jersey, as worn by the players at pre-season training camp. Got my name and #17 on the back. I rock this one out for Braves training and it has a lot of movement, lightness, which is good to skate in. I like it a lot.

My new world: I'm playing for the Cherokees, part of the Braves, in Div 3 this summer and I frickin' love the jersey. Not just because it's Richmond colours. But that helps. I'm loving life as a Brave.

My new world: I’m playing for the Cherokees, part of the Braves, in Div 3 this summer and I frickin’ love the jersey. Not just because it’s Richmond colours. But that helps. I’m loving life as a Brave.

Whoever made the Braves jerseys didn't know about punctuation, so I've become kind of Czechoslovakian. The N in Place is silent.

Whoever made the Braves jerseys didn’t know about punctuation, so I’ve become kind of Czechoslovakian. The N in Place is silent.

Doing my best to look bad-ass in my Braves jersey. Summer 2013-14 season. Go Braves!

Doing my best to look bad-ass in my Braves jersey. Summer 2013-14 season. Go Braves!

Big Cat and I before our first (and only, so far) game together. He then fell over on cowboy boots and broke his anhkle, so who knows if and when we'll get to suit up together once more.

Big Cat and I before our first (and only, so far) game together in the Braves colours. He then fell over on cowboy boots and broke his ankle, so who knows if and when we’ll get to suit up together once more.

The ruthless bastard.

One thing you have to understand if you’re going to play or even follow sport: it’s a prick.  It’s a heartless bastard. It’s ruthless and it’s probably going to break you, without conscience or regret.

For all the glorious moments, for all the wins, for all the friendships made and other highlights, you are going to be smashed. More than once.

Of course, this is also true of life – illnesses like cancer are random, and this morning I saw a cyclist get hit by a car outside my new house. That guy’s life just changed dramatically in a fraction of a second. But things like that are not to be dwelt on. You’d never leave your bedroom. All we can do is live life assuming we’ve got lots of life to live.

Shattered: Ice stars like Jason Baclig couldn't stop a semi turning to shit.

Shattered: Ice stars like Jason Baclig couldn’t stop a semi turning to shit.

Sport shines a light on this brutality of life, but thankfully in a way that isn’t often truly life and death. Yet the brutality remains: Melbourne Ice watching the fourpeat disappear in the puff of smoke that was a needless five minute major penalty, blowing an otherwise tight semi-final; Richmond being run over by Carlton the next day at the MCG, freezing as the nightmare unfolded in front of 94,000 people; all the AFL list players who will be called into a footy manager’s office over the next few days and told their dream is over, full stop. Or the failure can be a slow, frustrating, helpless fall. As a player gets a 50-50 chance ahead of you, and never looks back. Or you suffer a hamstring twinge in a crucial final. A puck or ball bounces this way, not that, changing everything. Or a thousand other things.

The Red Wings’ Dan Cleary rejected a pay rise offer from Detroit several weeks ago, and the Wings made a call that they couldn’t afford to pay him more. So they instead chased and won the services of a couple of other A-list players, Stephen Weiss and Daniel Alfredsson, eating up the cash set aside for Cleary. His agent got to work and Cleary pretty much had a handshake deal for $8 million over three seasons with the Flyers, much better than the Wings had offered, assuming he brained them at the Flyers’ training camp. But he never got there. Cleary loved being a Wing so much, he couldn’t go. He headed instead to where the Wings were gathering, at Traverse City, and begged the Wings management for a deal, any deal. He’s signed on less than $2 million, a hefty pay cut, just to be a Wing. He’s even going to have to wear No. 71 instead of his old No. 11, just to be a Wing.

Dan Cleary: battling fate, to be a Wing.

Dan Cleary: battling to be a Wing.

Which is great news for him* but bad news for the other forwards also trying to make the team. The Wings now have 17 players jostling for 14 forward spots, including sublime young talents like Gustav Nyquist and role-players like Jordin Tootoo and three won’t make it. They all deserve to, for different reasons. But three won’t be there.

Because, see, sport doesn’t believe in the word ‘deserve’.

I was talking to a guy at the Icehouse who has been on the border of making AIHL teams for several seasons. He’s so close, so so close, but hasn’t yet made it. He totally deserves a chance, but he might not get one. Because, if you remember, sport doesn’t believe in the world ‘deserve’. Unexpectedly, given my lowly standing in my chosen sport, I found myself turning into Old Father Time and pulled on my old sports journo hat while we were chatting. Because I’d seen it before in lots of team sports (AFL, cricket, field hockey, for starters). Some make it. Others don’t. It’s up to you, I said. Nobody cares if you make a team, apart from you. It’s harsh but it’s true: you’re the only one who truly, desperately cares.

So do the work to make a team. Or don’t.

This is something I know a bit about: it’s something that is also true in my novelist life. The one piece of advice I have repeatedly given aspiring novelists is this: the world doesn’t give a shit if they write a novel. Including me.

I don’t care.

I know … inspiring, huh?

But it’s true, and I am not immune from it. The world does not care if I write another novel.

Or if JK Rowling never writes again.

Or (insert the name of any author, or wannabe author, anywhere).

Plenty of people are writing manuscripts. Books will emerge. Will one of them be a Nick Place novel? Shit, I hope so but really, who cares apart from me? If I wasn’t writing novels, I’d have more social time, more time for my partner and kids, more time to concentrate on the job that actually pays me, more time for hockey training … I’ve had five novels published in 10 years. That’s pretty good going. The world owes me nothing.

But if I hadn’t had any books published in the last decade, so what? The world doesn’t care about that either. I have good friends who have written fantastic manuscripts that never found a publisher. I’ve read them and they absolutely deserved to get published. But didn’t.

That’s the way it is, and I’m ok with that.

Here’s the fact: I’m the only person in the world who truly cares if I write a sequel to ‘Roll With It’ – currently available in all good bookshops and online 😉

My publishers no doubt have many writers throwing crime manuscripts at them and I’m sure many are decent. They’ll be fine. People who read my book and liked it are not exactly lying awake at night, sweating on whether book two of ‘Rocket’ Laver’s adventures will ever show up. If it doesn’t, the world keeps turning.

Gustav Nyquist: deserves to be a Red Wing. Absolutely. But will he be?

Gustav Nyquist: deserves to be a Red Wing. Absolutely. But will he be?

As I said, my kids and partner know how much I love being published, but it’s only me who truly cares, bone-deep, to my soul, whether I can keep writing novels. And even when I finish the latest manuscript, it might not get published. No guarantees.

All I can do is write. Write the best manuscript I possibly can and then present it to the publishers or to the world. Do very single thing I can to make it a book worthy of seeing a bookshelf.

And so it is for the guy on the brink of an AIHL team. It’s entirely in his hands what happens from here, until he can’t control it, if that makes sense.

He can sit and wonder if a club will take a chance on him in 2014, even though they didn’t in 2013. Or he can work his arse off, and make it bloody hard for them not to pick him, just because he has gotten that much better.

It’s very pure, when you look at success or failure like this. Your job is extremely straightforward: do whatever you can to rock the world.

Way way way down the hockey food chain, a bunch of us are sweating and straining and trying to get better as summer season looms. Are you going to be competitive? Do you want to play? Do you want to earn a spot on the first line?

(To repeat: nobody actually cares whether you’re on the team, or on the first line. Except you.)

Personally, I’m loving being back in a team environment, this time as a Brave.

I had, before heading to France, been strangely flat about the looming season. I put it down to being depressed about the way things went down at the Jets, but I think that was only part of it. I finished last summer believing absolutely that I would skate like a maniac all winter, do power skating classes, get better, much better. Really learn to skate. And hit the 13-14  summer as a more lethal, genuinely competitive player.

Instead, my stupid knee flatlined me, as endlessly documented on this blog (which should be called nickdoeskneepain.com), so that I only now feel like I’m even vaguely getting back to being able to skate at full pace. I lost my window, while I nursed and nursed this left knee joint, which nobody can diagnose, let alone fix.

But does sport care? No, no, it doesn’t.

Did I deserve a better winter? By now, you know the answer.

I’m getting on with it. I’m skating. I even played footy for the first time in nine months on Sunday, welcomed back by my Bang brothers, and surviving my first kicks.

I’m going to be ready for summer and I’m going to enjoy my hockey again, with a fun team and the right attitude for a social competition.

And I’m going to finish a manuscript that simply cannot not be published.

Do the literary gods care if that happens? Nope.

Do the sporting gods care if that happens? Nope.

Do I care? Oh Hells, yeah.

So watch me go.

( * btw, I’m happy Dan Cleary is still at Detroit, in case it read differently. He was a really solid player last season, especially in the playoffs, and how can you not love a player who wants to play for the jersey like that?)

Maybe, just maybe …

I think maybe, just maybe, my genuine recovery has begun.

Of course, I’m talking about The Saga of the Knee and, trust me, I can’t wait for this blog to stop being about my knee either. But there’s potentially good news: especially when compared to three weeks ago, when I was hobbling as much as ever, barely able to climb all the steep stairs of my new house, and I was wondering if I would ever play hockey again? I think I went for three runs, as per a previous post, before things went horribly, horribly wrong again.

And so I spent weeks off the ice, not running, not doing anything. Hating it. Until my knee felt vaguely decent and I decided that was good enough.

But then I did play hockey, last Wednesday, and was mostly pain free. I went to Sydney, for work, and found myself confronted by endless staircases, everywhere I went. Each time, I would wince, bracing for the pain as my left leg pushed off a step, but the pain didn’t come. Even after Wednesday dev league, where I actually moved my legs, skated, for the first time in a few weeks and pushed my legs hard: no pain.

Still, this has happened before: a few days of reprieve and then wham. Back home, I climbed all the steps (50 from the front door to my bedroom) and the knee twinged. Uh oh, I thought, and then stood all night at a party at the Forum, until 3 am. The next morning? Agony? Nope. Felt ok.

And through all this, I had begun a secret training course; totally fed up with being inactive, of reading all the Facebook posts about how awesome hockey training was, how boxing was going over at Mischa’s, how Next Level Training Institute and Friday game day was fantastic and everybody was hurting and feeling fitter and feeling smashed but in a good way. I was only feeling old and fat.

As I’ve written before, I’d love to be part of the Next Level thing. Oakleigh, in terms of geography, is a bastard of a place for me to get to, and the key nights, Monday and Friday, don’t work for me. So I had to shrug and let Joey Hughes’ on-ice training and Martin Kutek’s off-ice training go. A bunch of my closest hockey friends are Next Level devotees and I have no reason to doubt their enthusiasm, plus I can see the improvement in muscle tone and skating.

I needed an alternative, especially while I couldn’t skate, and it turned up in the form of a big bearded bloke who wears #2 for the Melbourne Ice. Yes, one of my Wednesday coaches, Lliam Webster, mentioned that he was now qualified as a personal trainer but with a different training method, which is preached at Fluid, in Port Melbourne; one of the Melbourne Ice major sponsors.

Fluid is run by a bloke called James who apparently was a decent soccer goalkeeper in his day. It is based on a concept called Functional Movement Systems. In my first outing, James put me through a series of bizarre balance and flexibility tests. None of them hurt. Most just felt clumsy and stupid. I knelt on my bad knee, wincing, and tried to put my right arm in front of my head and my right leg out behind me, seeing how long I could balance for. Not long. James and Lliam squinting and taking notes.

The body is divided into quadrants, with one limb in each, and Fluid scores your achievement on the various tests. At the end, James noted that my left leg wasn’t doing its job and that my left shoulder seemed out of whack. Both direct hits on my ailments. He and Lliam worked out a bunch of “corrective’ exercises to get my body working in ways it has forgotten, hunched over keyboards or taking shortcuts to cover for hamstrings that don’t want to stretch and other such bad habits.

This is one of the whackier parts of FMS training: an idea that when you think you have a tight hamstring, one that won’t stretch beyond a certain point, they can prove that wrong in one session (and did, with me). In fact, you have to get other parts of your body working as well, which releases the hamstring to stretch further. It’s wild when it works and you see instant results.

But the long game is what I’m interested in. After my second session, the pinched nerve in my shoulder stopped hurting and hasn’t really bothered me since.

I’m three sessions in now and the training has intensified. Yesterday, Lliam produced the most fun, most hockey-specific apparatus early. It’s a slippery piece of Perspex (as per the Youtube clip above) with wooden blocks at each end, either 8 feet, 9 feet or 10 feet apart. (Yes, it’s from America.) You put little slippery booties over your runners and it’s just like skating, but completely side-to-side. The trick is to trust your stride, pushing hard with the skating leg and then catching the stride on the wooden block, before pushing off hard for the other end. Bum low, knees bent, chest up … every bad habit on the ice instantly being addressed on this slippery board in Port Melbourne. A few sessions in, I’m up to wearing a weighted vest while skating as hard as I can and then doing cowbell dead lifts between sets. Every skating muscle is killing me today in a good way. My gluts are sore, my hamstrings complaining, my stomach tight.

Apparently Martin at Next Level has one as well, so get on it, peoples. It’s a lot of fun and really works you over. In fact, it’s fantastic. Dev league is tonight and I’m actually sore from an intense workout. Like I haven’t been for a few months.

And guess what? Despite such an intense session, my knee feels fine. All the muscles surrounding it did their job during the dead lifts, worked hard without screaming. Just like the physio wanted a few months ago before things derailed again.

I shouldn’t get too cocky. I might step onto the ice tonight and feel the same pain as two dev league sessions ago.

But then again, I might not.

Next Wednesday, I head overseas for three weeks. When I get back, all roads lead to summer comp, with my new team, the Braves. I want to be fit and able to push it as hard as I can, to prove that I can match it in what looks like a far-too-serious summer recreational league. Mostly, I just want to be active without this now eight-month-old pain.

I think I’m finally on the road to that happening. It feels great. Bring on the night.

Hey, didn’t I used to play hockey?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Stavro Mueller edition

Mostly Harmless. Book five of the trilogy.

Mostly Harmless. Book five of the trilogy.

* Warning: there are blatant Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy spoilers in this post. But really, if you haven’t read it by now, then you only have yourself to blame. I mean, seriously? That includes you, Geoff Carstairs.

In that most brilliant collection of books, Douglas Adams’ ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – well, specifically, in book five of the trilogy, ‘Mostly Harmless’, Arthur Dent finds himself on a random moon or whatever and comes across a shrine to himself. This is a strange development among the books’ many, many strange developments, and is made even stranger because this is not a nice shrine. The enormous idol at the centre of the shrine is a particularly hideous rendering of Arthur. It turns out that the shrine has been created by a creature called Agrajag, who, over the course of many, many reincarnations, had come to the enlightenment that every single time it was killed, Arthur Dent was somehow involved, either directly or indirectly.

We first met Agrajag as a bowl of petunia flowers who, when killed, have a last thought: ‘Oh no, not again,’ which doesn’t resonate at the time but only now, in the shrine, makes sense.

Other ways Arthur manages to kill Agrajag over the course of Agrajag’s many lives include swatting flies (including Agrajag); a newt Arthur stepped on; ants Arthur stepped on (included Agrajag); fleas Arthur picked out of his hair (including Agrajag); a fish Arthur caught but then decided he wasn’t really hungry for so left on the side of his plate; (possibly my personal favourite) as Arthur Philip Deodat, a man who had a heart attack at a cricket match when Arthur and Ford Prefect materialised on the pitch with a sofa; an oyster that Arthur ate live … and so on.

Oh, and as Stavro Mueller, the owner of the Beta nightclub who, as a brooding lurking now-aware version of Agrajag, tries to kill Arthur but gets accidentally fatally shot by somebody else also shooting at Arthur and missing.

Have I become Arthur Dent to Charlie Jiang's Agrajag?

Have I become Arthur Dent to Charlie Jiang’s Agrajag?

The point of all this is because I’m worried.

Charlie Jiang might, even now, be fashioning a horrible Nick Place shrine in his garage, only waiting for me to turn up so he can attempt to revenge many lifetimes of wrongs.

Well, two weeks’ worth.

You might remember that last Sunday night, in Nite Owls play, I had an Everyday Ninja moment, but only after giving away a blatantly obvious penalty by taking out an opponent’s legs with my sticks. He went down like a sack of spuds, hit the ice hard, face first, and I apologized and served my two minutes.

Turns out he was Charlie Jiang, the brother of one of my teammates, DeCheng (Johnny) Jiang. We all had a laugh. Charlie was good about it. These things happen.

So last night, in the crowd-pleasing 11.15 pm time slot at the Icehouse (running, inevitably 15 minutes late so that we hit the ice around 11.30 pm), the same Nite Owls teams went at it again.

Given the hour, numbers were down, and so the other side had loaded up with some C-grade players from the game before and so we got duly smashed, 9-1 or 10-1, I lost count. But with three minutes to go, just like last week … on the wrong side of 12.25 am Monday morning, having skated hard, shift-on, shift-off,  for an hour, I stuck a weary stick out, hoping to steal a puck and instead completely hooked the legs of an opponent charging out of defence.

Down he went, like two sacks of spuds. Yes, you guessed it. Charlie Jiang.

Sensible advice for galactic hitchhikers.

Sensible advice for galactic hitchhikers.

And so, for all I know, Charlie starts to join the dots. Over lifetimes. When he was a bee. Or a huntsman spider. Or that guy that time, in that incident we don’t talk about. The shrine begins to take shape.

I’m leaving the state for next week’s third meeting between the teams. No, really. You don’t mess with Douglas Adams’ universe.