Goodbye to the Joe

Oh man, what a day.

First, Sergio Garcia finally wins the Masters, at his 73rd attempt at winning a major. Then comes news that John Clarke, one of the greatest comedians ever produced by New Zealand/Australia and a local of my hood, passed away while hiking in the Grampians on the weekend. And all this while I was watching the last ever Detroit Red Wings game at the Joe Louis Arena.

This last one was going to be enough to unravel me on its own, even without Clarke’s unexpected passing, or feeling happy for the Spanish golfer who burst onto the scene years ago as a wunderkind who was going to dominate the sport but sadly emerged at the exact same moment Tiger Woods appeared through another door and actually did dominate the sport.

Unfortunately, this was as close as I got to the Red Wings season-ending last game at the Joe today. I cried anyway, from half a world away.

‘The Joe’ was the Red Wings’ home for the last 38 years. It was an old barn of a building; one of the least attractive in a shiny new millennium NHL world, but of course the fans adored it and, until recently, other teams dreaded the lair of the all-conquering Wings. The Joe made its debut just as the infamous Dead Wings period of the club’s history was coming to an end. Within three years of its opening, Detroit pizza magnate Mike Ilitch would buy the team, start spending money, the recruiters would get a lot right and suddenly the team went on a roll that included four Stanley Cups and a record 25 straight years in the playoffs. Until this year, when the team finally fell off a cliff and missed the post-season.

Which is why today happened: the final game at the Joe, in early April instead of a month or so later during playoffs. But you know what? It was kind of perfect. Knowing it was the final game meant the Wings could do it properly, without the uncertainty of playoff success, home and away. The date could be penciled in and man, did they do it right.

For starters, by sheer luck, it was captain Hank Zetterberg’s 1000th game and the pre-game ceremony for that had me misty eyed. He’s always been a favourite of mine since I first tuned into the team and he was an absolute star. Then Riley ‘Tinky Winky’ Sheahan, a guy who had inexplicably not scored a goal all season, at last found the net for the Red Wings’ opening goal. Of course, Zetterberg scored because he’s Zetterberg, and then Tatar goaled and finally Sheahan again (to score his own tiny piece of hockey immortality: last goal ever at the Joe). Meanwhile, the Devils played the straight-men to this Detroit lovefest, a crammed-to-the-rafters Joe in a sea of red. Meanwhile, the TV coverage was keeping an octopi count, to note how many poor deceased octopi were hurled onto the ice (it’s a Red Wing thing), and the last tally I noticed was 27.

Rally Al the octopus’s only appearance this season: as part of the final game’s octocount.

At the very end, at the finale of a long ceremony where Red Wing greats spoke about the old building and the fans and how much they love this hockey team, the organisers showed they knew exactly how to play the heart strings of the fans one more time. The unofficial Red Wings victory anthem, Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’, filled the Joe as the fade out. Born and raised in SOUTH DETROIT.

And to the exits for the final time.

Of course the franchise will move on and the fans will be more comfortable, the ice will probably be better, life will be generally more pleasant in the shiny new Ilitch family stadium, Little Caesar’s Arena, when it opens in September. When the Wings left the creaky but historic Olympia stadium for the brand new Joe in 1979, I’m sure there was just as much sadness and nostalgia.

But today, it was good bye Joe and tears in all directions.

I’ve written before about how being a sports fan is about the journey, not the silverware, because the vast majority of fans are disappointed every year in terms of premierships, cups, whatever the prize.

Flashback to 2011: The Podium Line of Place boys on the glass at the Joe. A life highlight.

In my entire hockey journey, the joy for me has been in being a Red Wing fan, among all the Red Wing fans, from Hockeytown to Australia and everywhere in between. I am so so so so so so so happy today that my boys and I visited the Joe in 2011 to watch some games there. It didn’t occur to me at the time that I would never be there again. The Wings managed to lose all four games we saw, and so we didn’t get to belt out Don’t Stop Believin’ in the flesh, but it didn’t matter. We sat there, in good seats, in a sea of red jerseys with white winged wheels. We saw our heroes – Lidstrom, Zetterberg, Datsyuk, even Helm and Jimmy Howard. We saw Gus Nyquist’s first game as a Wing and Mackquist bought his jersey – without doubt the first one of those to make its way to Australia. A Wings representative showed us around the back corridors of the stadium, showered us in free merchandise and let us watch warm-up from behind the goal. It was a total and complete lifetime-memory blast.

But it wasn’t the Joe that actually stayed in my head as much as the humanity of Detroit. The people of Motorcity embraced us so warmly, unable to believe three Australians had travelled all that way just to sit in the Joe and watch the team.

I have no doubt if and when we make it to the new arena, with slightly roomier seats with better lighting, fancier corporate boxes and a bigger, sharper jumbotron TV screen, we’ll be embraced just as much.

Captain Hank today: The Perfect Human 2.0.

That’s what it all comes down to in the end. It doesn’t matter where the hockey is played, no matter how much you love the arena and the history seeping out of the walls of the joint – and believe me, I really did with the Joe. But ultimately  it’s the people. It’s the fans.

That’s why I wept when the Bulldogs won last year’s AFL flag. Not for the players, happy though I was for them, and sad though I was for Bob Murphy who was injured. My heart went straight out for the fans who have waited so long, who have stuck through thick and a lot of thin, who finally tasted the ultimate success. My unofficial footy coach at the Bang, Jimmy, flew back from Greece for the finals when he realised something was happening. The phone video of Jimmy and his family celebrating in the stands when they realised they had made the grand final was an all time highlight reel on its own. When they won the whole thing, he painted his house red, white and blue. The joy was so pure.

This year, my team, the Tigers, are 3-0 after three rounds, sitting in unfamiliar atmosphere at second on the ladder. Saturday’s game started in 27 degree sunshine and ended in a wild thunderstorm-battered, rain-drenched tempest. The fans stayed without blinking. We belted out the song in the wind and the rain. The players high-fived the fans on the boundary and we all started to wonder if we can dare to believe this side can do something significant this year.

The weird tradition of octopi on the ice (and Joe manager Al waving them crazily over his head) will no doubt start again in Game 1 at the new stadium.

We’re so lucky that we play at the MCG, the home of football, after a wrench away from the Punt Road Oval many years ago. Some older fans will have been have been there through that entire journey, through the flags of the sixties and the seventies and 1980, and then the dark wasteland years that have followed.

Whether Richmond plays at the G or in Oodnadatta, it doesn’t really matter. It’s those fans, my dedicated Tiger brothers and sisters, who count.

But having said all that, thank you, Joe Louis Arena, for the memories and for being the foundation for all the Wings adventures I have experienced so far. Thank you for honouring ‘The Brown Bomber’, one of the most legendary boxers ever, and for hosting my sons and I when we briefly, happily, took our place among the Wings faithful.

And one more time, rest in peace, John Clarke. Farnarkeling’s finest ever spokesman. You will be missed.

 

 

Hope

My mother’s middle name is Hope. It was my Nan’s doing. She told me many times that she gave it to Mum because, ‘If nothing else, she’ll always have hope.’

hope

As The Beatles never sang: All you need is hope.

I’m currently doing a major clean out of endless boxes of memorabilia and sometimes junk at my office and on Friday I found a Tattslotto ticket. Well, actually, it was the master ticket, that you hand over each week so you can play the same numbers. I don’t know what the technical name for it is; I gave up on Tattslotto long ago, working on my old maths teacher’s theory that lotto is just a gambling tax for people who don’t understand probability factors.

But here, in a box of old newspaper articles I’d written, souvenirs from overseas trips, photos, letters from when people wrote letters, and other stuff, was a ticket, for two ‘games’ of numbers.

And it got into my head: imagine if I played those numbers this week AND THEY WON. This would be a story of fate and coincidence for the ages.

And then, of course, it also got into my head: imagine if, having thought that, I now DON’T play those numbers AND THEY WON. What if I had to spend the rest of my miserable life knowing that I had turned my back on this random, glorious, romantic chance to be a multi-millionaire and Fate had, therefore, duly and rightfully shat on my face while my back was turned, which isn’t physically possible but symbolically might be.

After work, I went to the lotto counter, like one of those clueless non-gamblers at the TAB on Melbourne Cup Day, trying to work out how to lay a two-dollar bet.

Michael 'Disco' Roach (#8) taking his greatest mark ever, with Kevin 'Hungry' Bartlett (#29) roving the pack. Once Tiger champions, now Lotto numbers.

Michael ‘Disco’ Roach (#8) taking his greatest mark ever, with Kevin ‘Hungry’ Bartlett (#29) roving the pack. Once Tiger champions, now Lotto numbers.

It took a while before I even worked out the tickets I had weren’t a couple of crazy-expensive System Nines, but cheaper System Eights. I looked at the numbers, trying to remember when I’d come up with them and why. One is definitely a collection of my favourite guernsey numbers at Richmond: Jack Dyer/Maurice Rioli’s 17, Richo’s 12, Disco Roach/Jack Riewoldt’s number 8. The other game looks like it’s birthdays …

I shrugged and handed over money. I bought the tickets for Saturday night’s draw and dreamed of millions.

And my long-passed Nan smiled in my imagination, eyes twinkling. America appears to be Trump-screwed, Australia’s politicians continue to be heartless bastards without a plan. People around me are struggling with illness and despair. But Nan’s ghost lingers. If nothing else, you always have hope.

Unfortunately, as far as IHV competition, summer season Div 3, is concerned for me, hope is snuffed. My team, the Cherokees, are winding down to a sad end this season, having somehow tumbled down the standings as the finals loom. The Detroit Red Wings, likewise, have staggered and will finally lose their quarter-century play-off streak. The Wings’ unofficial anthem is ‘Don’t Stop Believin’‘ but already they’ve sold off a young player I always liked so much that I purchased what is probably the only Tomas Jurco Wings jersey in the Southern Hemisphere. He’s now a Blackhawk and will have skipped out of town, after sketchy playing time and bad usage in Motorcity, with a lot of hope in his heart, that in Chicago he can finally bloom.

So long, Jurco. Have a great career (but not too great: you are now a Blackhawk)

So long, Jurco. Have a great career (but not too great: you are now a Blackhawk)

All that’s left is for the mighty Tigers to march into the 2017 AFL season, their coach saying nothing less than finals will do, and the players talking endlessly of the new spirit and purpose to be found at Punt Road. What could possibly, possibly go wrong? Last season, it took about three weeks for any hope to die, as the team stalled at the gate. This season? Of course I live in hope, endless hope. Richmond supporters are the Hall of Fame Fans of irrationally and against all evidence never letting go of hope.

The NHL trade deadline is in a couple of days and I expect several other favourite Wings to ship out of town as Detroit becomes a seller. The Cherokees have one more game, next weekend, before we go our separate ways until Spring, and I know from every year I’ve played that players will head for winter comp, or retire, or go back to footy, or not be there next year for whatever reason. I’ve really loved this year’s Cherokee line-up, started out with lots of hope, which was gradually dashed, and still wish we’d had more success.

But hey, I got an email from Richmond FC last week, saying my membership pack was on its way. Then the Tigers won on Friday night and looked decent. February pre-season form: it’s the best.

On Sunday, after the ‘Kees had lost 6-0 to a really slick and even Wolverines line-up, after my best shot at goal had hit a few legs, beaten the goalie five-hole but then stopped before crossing the line, after I trudged out of Icy O’Briens, I suddenly remembered I had to check my Tattslotto ticket.

In one game, I had exactly one number, not the required six. The other game was worse: a lone supplementary number.

No miracle. No magic. No millions.

Thanks for nothing, Fate, you unromantic bastard.

And in two days’ time, it’s March. Go Tiges.

 

 

 

 

 

The flow of the ice …

Another summer season starts tonight. The plucky Cherokees, full of old and new faces, take on an apparently highly-rated Demons team in a grading game.

It got me to thinking about the summers past, and all the people I’ve played with, as I prepare to step out for my fifth summer of competitive hockey.

A new season begins ...

A new season begins …

Life flows, within and beyond hockey. Years and years now of development league, classes at Icy O’Briens and, briefly, Next Level, of playing for the Nite Owls, Friday night social games, and official IHV comp for the Interceptors and then the Cherokees. All those bench partners, and line partners, and changing room banter partners, and coaches.

I haven’t been writing much on this blog because really it’s been the same story as years past and I haven’t wanted to write for the sake of writing … I’ve been playing dev league, attending occasional team trainings, plus kicking a footy once or twice a week, as well as hitting the gym, boxing, and oh yeah, work and family. In the AFL, Richmond sucked again, while in the about-to-start NHL, the Red Wings are again skating under a question mark, with a bunch of new faces, but the fading Datsyuk gone.

On Monday, I returned to work after a week at Heron Island, doing the Queensland tropical sun-and-beach thing with Chloe and Cassius, as well as scuba diving with one of my French brother-in-laws, Brendan, and a lot of turtles and nudibranchs.

A nudibranch, somewhere underwater just off Heron Island, Qld. (about two centimetres long, for context). Pic: Nicko

A nudibranch, somewhere underwater just off Heron Island, Qld. (about two centimetres long, for context). Pic: Nicko

The first thing I did when I got back to work was grab a coffee with Pete Savvides, one of my Interceptor teammates five years ago. We talked about all sorts of stuff, only a fraction of which was hockey. Pete married now, with a baby, and a senior job and a new summer team as he tries to help enthusiastic rookies get into the sport.

Some of the other Interceptors aren’t even in hockey any more, as far as I know. Others have scattered to different teams or clubs. It’s the way of the hockey world; not many teams are able to stay together, season to season.

Last year’s Cherokees were different to the ‘Kees before that. This year’s team is different again. Players head to the winter draft, or push up to new grades. I still consider my watermark to be solidly Division 3, meaning Cherokee life suits me fine, but others are more ambitious or have actual skills that demand an upgrade in standard.

My first summer team, the Interceptors (missing: Alex McNab)

My first summer team, the Interceptors (missing: Alex McNab). Damn, I look younger.

It’s okay. There are members of the about-to-launch 2016/17 Cherokees team that I barely know yet, but I know we’ll be friends by March, when we hopefully play finals, or wet our disappointment at not making the four. I’ve met all kind of people through hockey and it’s one of the parts of the crazy adventure that I love. Doctors and political analysts, fellow journalists, and plumbers, dog groomers, IT consultants, building workers and yoga instructors … every team is a wild mix of personalities, skills and interests. Coming together for the grand adventure of a 10.30 pm IHV-scheduled game, or a more casual Oakleigh training session.

One of the Cherokee incarnations. I just noticed that I seem to always kneel in the same spot for team photos. Weird.

One of the Cherokee incarnations. I just noticed that I seem to always kneel in the same spot for team photos. Weird.

Tonight, we suit up for real; Big Cat Place and I slated for second-line duties, skating together as the only constant in five years of competition; still the reason I do it. The new look Cherokees beginning our summer journey against a mysterious opponent, but with several of my long-time friends now added to the team as an unexpected bonus.

People rise in your life, people fall out of your life. Friends, lovers, workmates, clients, family. People you wish you’d spent more time with, others you’re pretty happy to see the back of. Hockey is a microcosm of the wider universe, and I embrace the new, while remembering the old.

So, here’s a pre-game toast to teammates past and present.

See you somewhere along the icy way. For the Cherokees, that means 8 pm tonight. Bring it.

Losing with a capital L

To be a fan is to be a loser.

I staggered back into Melbourne from overseas late last week, just in time for my beloved Richmond Tigers to get smashed by West Coast. The next day, the Detroit Red Wings got beaten by Tampa Bay, to go 2-0 down in a playoff series that they somehow fell into despite an underwhelming season.

By the weekend, I needed to shake off jetlag so I attempted to go for a run. As I plodded through Edinburgh Gardens, I heard an unmistakable roar from the Brunswick Street Oval on the other side of the tennis courts. Feeling excited, I made my way to the top of the small rise overlooking the oval to see that the mighty Reds (what’s left of the Fitzroy club that used to be a VFL/AFL side) had goaled to edge to within a straight kick of their opponents with minutes to go. Of course, as I watched, the opposition booted two to put the game away. I ran sadly on.

A big crowd in for the 'Roys at home on a perfect autumn afternoon. Shame they lost. Pic: Nicko

A big crowd in for the ‘Roys at home on a perfect autumn afternoon. Shame they lost. Pic: Nicko

It all got me reflecting on how the life of a sports fan, or player for that matter, is almost completely one of ultimate loss, apart from the occasional miraculous occasion.

At the most elite level, I have seen exactly one championship win by a team I support in my half century on the planet. Granted, Richmond won flags in 1967 and 1969, as well as 1973/74, but I was really young and only just tuning in by those Seventies flags, so they didn’t really resonate. By the time I was a foaming at the mouth, dedicated Tiger, we won the premiership in 1980 – my first live grand final at the MCG; the most epic of days, with my lifetime friend and fellow Tiger, Shaun.

I had no idea that by the age of 51, that would remain my only flag.

The Red Wings? I saw them lift the Stanley Cup in 2007/2008, when I fell in love with the team. But I can’t claim it. I only tuned in, as a flu-ridden, bored total hockey novice, for the Stanley Cup finals, and became engrossed over the course of the Wings victory over the Penguins. So I don’t feel that I can claim that as a cup that I ‘earned’ as a fan. Now, eight years later? Yes, I sweat blood for the Wings and can absolutely claim to be among the Motown army, even from half a world away.

Thank God for the Melbourne Ice with a quiver of men’s and women’s titles, and the Lorne Dolphins’ several flags over the years, in coastal footy, because as far as Richmond and now the Red Wings go, every single year except for once when I was 15, the season has ultimately ended badly.

Detroit's 2008 Cup: I was lucky to see it.

Detroit’s 2008 Cup: I was lucky to see it.

Which is pretty standard, unless you happen to be a Hawthorn fan in the AFL, winning life’s lottery over the past three decades. For the vast majority of sports fans, barracking life is destined to end, year-in, year-out, at some stage in failure. Look at the Collingwood Football Club with its vast, ever-cocky army – and exactly one more premiership in my lifetime than the bedraggled Tigers. Meanwhile, my more recent love, the Wings, have made the play-offs now for an unbelievable 25 years straight – through salary cap introduction, through Hall of Famers’ retirements (God, I miss The Perfect Human, in defence), through everything, but it’s eight years since they actually won the Cup and could be a while yet.

The Tigers? God, don’t even start me.

And trust me, in footy I know that I’m doing better than fans of the Bulldogs, Saints and Demons, all without a flag in my half century on the planet, or, in the NHL, fans of the Blues, Canucks, Capitals, Sabres and Sharks: teams that have NEVER won the Stanley Cup.

The Tigers triumph in 1980. My one and only premiership. Back before the world was in colour.

The Tigers triumph in 1980. My one and only premiership. Back before the world was in colour.

Imagine being a player. Matty Richardson for the Tigers, maybe Bob Murphy for the Dogs; playing your guts out for almost two decades and never raising that cup … watching other players who maybe manage 50 AFL games for their career luck out to be on the ground when the stars align and it matters. I feel vaguely disappointed that I’ve played four seasons of summer hockey now without any medals to show for it, so how must they feel? But again, in 2016, for 17 AFL teams and 29 NHL teams, and all but one Summer Division Three team, this will be the way it goes.

For some reason, we never look at this big picture, at how we almost always see a season end in despair. Instead, the fans, and players, get lost in the individual games, even in the individual moments within those sirens or buzzers. Players are touted as genius or idiot, rising star or useless, game to game, or minute to minute. Us fans watch it all, riding every bump, pouring with emotions, sweating on the next puck or goal or wicket or farnarkle or whatever happens to be your poison. I read Winging It in Motown, a very enthusiastic and well-populated Wings blog, and the screen seethes with rage and frustration and elation and sorrow and anger and happiness and wistfulness and … well, you get the picture. Sometimes all during a single game feed.

My cluster of Richmond diehard mates are already wincing at another season wobbling alarmingly at the start, with the team down 1-3 and not inspiring much hope of a premiership run. Again. All the parts that looked so bright and formidable in the pre-season, a month ago, now looking blunt and harmless compared to the razor-sharp skills, game plans and promising rookies of other teams. But then again, if the Tiges suddenly win five in a row …

And so the road goes, as ever. Up and down, peaks, troughs, but hardly ever reaching the desired destination.

Alex Rance: life is about more than silverware.

Alex Rance: life is about more than silverware.

Which is actually okay. In an excellent interview with The Age’s Emma Quayle during the week, the Tigers’ charismatic full back Alex Rance spoke about caring too much and about how his unstoppable competitiveness and passion for the game can get in his way. Raised a Jehovah’s Witness, Rance thought about leaving the game, leaning back into his beliefs to consider whether he even wanted to play football any more; worried that in the end it was pointless and took him away from his family and true priorities.

Rance said, ‘I’d play a crap game and think, “life sucks”. Then I’d play a good game and everything was awesome. It was like, how can you survive like this? There were peaks and troughs all over the place. It made me think about what faith is, and what I should really be basing my happiness on.”

You don’t have to be of a religious persuasion to see a general wisdom in Rance’s words. Sure, play hard, barrack hard, live or die on a swirling Sherrin in a breeze, or a deflected puck bobbling near a flailing goalie, or a putt curling towards the lip of a golf hole. But see it for what it is, win or lose; an entertaining aside to the real world that is ever travelling alongside, with much higher stakes and greater highs and lows.

In a day or so? Red Wings v Lightning, Game 4.
On the weekend? Richmond v Melbourne at the MCG.
Down at Lorne? Hopefully the Dolphins will be in action, so I can drink a beer on the muddy step grandstand and cheer the locals.
At the Icehouse? The Melbourne Ice men’s team begins another campaign, searching for a Goodall Cup, something has been tantalisingly out of reach for a few years now, but here we all go again.

I’m excited. As usual.

Giddyup.

Just remember it’s all in the journey.

 

 

 

The pelican

Yes, we segwayed Washington. Not even sorry.

Yes, we segwayed Washington. Not even sorry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then, finally, it was game time.

Something I had waited years to see. Pic: Nicko

Something I had waited years to see. Pic: Nicko

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Becoming what you might have been.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Going under in Paris.

Catacombs art. Picture: Nicko

Catacombs art. Picture: Nicko

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five hundred years ago, there was a plague …

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

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

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

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

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

A candlelight dinner in the Oyster Room.

A candlelight dinner in the Oyster Room.

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

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

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

Resting in not much peace. Picture: Nicko

Resting in not much peace. Picture: Nicko

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

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

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

Ah, Paris.

Ah, Paris.