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.

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.

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?

 

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.