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.

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.

Can you feel it? A new NHL season begins.

The puck dropped in a new NHL season today and you can feel the energy coursing through the veins of the Australian hockey community. None of last year’s depressing extended lock-out with its owner-player political bullshit. Just a set date for the full season and 30 elite teams ready to go. There’s been no shortage of action on Day One, either, with three games producing 7, 10 and 9 goals.

The Wings play tomorrow, against Buffalo, and I can’t wait to set up my trusty iPad on my desk, and see my team go to it, stopping only for a new year’s range of Belle Tyre adverts and occasional cries of ‘Pizza Pizza!’ Hoping captain Zetterberg and genius Datsyuk can brain ’em from the jump.

Pavel Datsyuk: ready to rock the eastern conference.

Pavel Datsyuk: ready to rock the eastern conference.

It works so beautifully that the AFL season finishes on a Saturday and four days later NHL action streams onto my Gamecenter. It’s not just the Big Show, either. We’re all gearing up for Victoria’s summer league, which is looming fast; ordering jerseys, training, wondering about linemates we haven’t played with yet, secretly hoping we win a C or an A on our jersey, finding a new enthusiasm for stick-and-puck sessions or even general skates at the Icehouse. A bunch of the Melbourne Ice players have headed to North America for a wedding, and so are planning to attend NHL games over there, including most of our coaches, which will make the start of dev league next week kind of interesting. But I can’t wait to talk to them about the experience of walking into the Joe Louis Arena for the first time.

And meanwhile, here in Melbourne, half a world away, I find myself surfing far-flung corners of the interweb, devouring anything I can find about all the levels of hockey underneath the NHL. For example, Australia’s Nathan Walker scored a goal for the Washington Capitals in the pre-season, celebrated wildly by all of us Antipodean skaters – the 19-year-old is the first Australian to make it so far – before he was sent down to the Hershey Bears in the AHL.

The magnificent Youngstown Phantoms jersey.

The magnificent Youngstown Phantoms jersey.

Walker’s continued rise got me looking at the team he was with before the Bears, and so I found myself thinking seriously about spending a hundred bucks on a Youngstown Phantoms jersey. And found myself also checking out the home site of a team Youngstown played – the magnificently-named Green Bay Gamblers.

And over coffee, with old Interceptor friends, tried to come up with the perfect team name (Agreed best effort was ’20 Canadians and a Swede’), and pre-dawn, woken by howling wind, read about the Wings’ top draft pick, Anthony Mantha, scoring four goals and adding an assist for the Les Foreurs de Val-d’Or against the Quebec Remparts. Or watching insane goals like this one.

Or revisiting shenanigans like this:

All between sweating on whether Gustav Nyquist will get his deserved chance soon in the winged wheel, after being shunted back to the Wings’ feeder term, Grand Rapids, because of a roster crunch. And debating the Wings’ defence with fellow fans on Facebook. And hoping my broken toe will fit into a skate at training tonight. Looking forward to a practice match against the

It's not often fans can openly cheer a bunch of gamblers.

It’s not often fans can openly cheer a bunch of gamblers.

Tigersharks, featuring plenty of mates, on the weekend. And watching social media ramp up among fellow local players.

Somewhere I read that Michael Clarke, the Australian Test cricket captain, won’t be going on an Indian tour, as he nurses his bad back for the looming return Ashes series in the Australian summer. I got through maybe one paragraph before his plight sort of ‘keyword-connected’ in my brain and I was flicking the browser over to the Detroit Free Press to see if Darren Helm’s back has improved enough to join general training? Put on injured reserve, to help that roster squeeze; but edging closer to health. OK, that’s cool.

How long until that Red Wings-Sabres game starts at the Joe to start the 2013-14 campaign?

Oh man … one more sleep.

Hey, didn’t I used to play hockey?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are we having fun yet?

It’s kind of a strange time at the moment. The fact is that hockey is not front and centre in my life right now; hence the long break between blogs. An unexpected twist is that, as I write, the Detroit Red Wings are waking up on the other side of the world, preparing for a huge play-off game, just like last time I wrote more than a week ago.

The Red Wings' underdog run continues ...

The Red Wings’ underdog run continues …

This time it’s against the Chicago Blackhawks, at the Joe – Detroit having not only seen off the Ducks, as per the moment of truth looming in my last post, but then proceeding to play astonishingly great hockey to snatch an unexpected and spectacular 3-1 lead over the President’s Cup winning Hawks. ‘Detroit is like a rash that just won’t go away, boys,’ said one commentator. ‘The Chicago Blackhawks just can’t get rid of it.’

This Red Wings team of kids in rebuild mode is within a win of pushing out the No. 1 seeds and going to the Western Conference Final. And, shit, if you make it that far, having beaten the No. 1 and 2 ranked teams, why not go all the way?

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

In Game 5, the Hawks came back hard, as you knew they would, in front of a hometown crowd, so now the series is 3-2, and this second chance to put it away at the Joe is fraught. Some of the highly-rated Hawks started to wake up after a shocking series so far. There is still a real chance that Chicago could become the 21st team in something like 220 series to come back with three straight wins to steal it.

But I’m going to be honest: I reckon my Wings will win. Played such brilliant, tough, play-off hockey to take those three wins – especially the last one at the Joe when Chicago threw everything at them. It’s definitely possible to triumph. LGRW, LG! Wish I was in Detroit to be there.  The old Joe will be rocking.

(Tuesday update: Well, the Wings got edged, 4-3 at the Joe, after some rookie errors, which leads to a sudden-death Game 7 on Wednesday, Motown time. See below for Mike Babcock’s take on that.)

And all of this points to my conundrum. The Red Wings are on a prolonged and unlikely and thrilling play-off run. I’m playing hockey for two hours very Wednesday (although the last two have been kind of tense, grumpy sessions, unlike our usual laughfests) and supposedly every Sunday – although I’ve had trouble getting to a few of those nights. The Melbourne Ice men’s season is well underway, but I’ve only seen their first game.

There is hockey everywhere but I’m on the fringes and this is made more noticeable by the foaming-at-the-mouth enthusiasm a lot of my fellow rookies have been displaying, mostly all over Facebook.

‘OMG training tonight!’ is a pretty standard post. Or arranging seats, hours early at the Ice game.  Or heading down for Sunday night general skating at the Icehouse. Or doing boot camp to train hockey muscles. Some seem to be training or playing at least five nights a week. And these aren’t Melbourne Ice players that I’m talking about.

It’s intense and impressive.

And then there’s me. Driving down to Bairnsdale for a weekend, listening to music, watching the amazing light as storm clouds hit the lower alps to the north, staring at the Yallourn power stations, en route to take part in a panel discussion with a bunch of other authors, discussing writing fact and fiction. Then heading to Sydney, wearing my Giants hat (as against a Giant hat, to be clear), to drink too much coffee with clients and friends, and to walk the streets and stare at the view from the 66th floor of a hotel. Then coming back, now carrying the lurgy everybody seems to have had – I blame Chloe, or Mackquist – and sleeping all day Wednesday instead of working. Then playing dev legue that night to ‘sweat it out’ and feeling awesome about that, despite a mediocre night on the ice. Then throwing up maybe 15 times in the six hours after I got off the ice. Maybe ‘sweating it out’ not such a great idea after all. Bed ridden for two days, then staggering back into the world over the weekend, but with no energy and feeling crap. Meanwhile work and family bushfires, or at least spotfires, spark in different directions, and there’s that next novel sitting there, just waiting for some love – or at least some headspace. So much for catching up with friends, or quality time with anybody in particular. I spread thinner and thinner … Nite Owls play suspended because of illness, bad knee stopping running …

In author mode, in deep dark Gippsland. Look how excited fellow writers Anne Crawford and Kate Forster are by my pearls of wisdom.

In author mode, in deep dark Gippsland. Look how excited fellow writers Anne Crawford and Kate Forster are by my pearls of wisdom.

The tension builds.

But you know what? There’s another important life lesson from the Red Wings that I didn’t mention in the last post and it’s one of my favourites.

When under pressure, when facing elimination or a similarly huge game, coach Mike Babcock, captain Henrik Zetterberg and other leading Wings have a habit of saying one thing: “This is fun.”

Such a simple statement, but so powerful.

Take these quotes from Babs last week before the crucial third game against the Blackhawks: “It’s fun, it’s the most fun I’ve had coaching in a couple of years, by far.”

“At the start of the year, we weren’t a good team, but we understand that. We buckled down and we got better. The coaching staff is fun, the players are fun, it’s been a fun year for us.”

It’s something you hear a lot from the Wings. Intimidated? Nope. Season on the brink? Well, that’s what you play for – the fun of those moments.

Sure, it’s sport. Sure, these guys get paid millions, win tomorrow or not. Sure, they’ve already pretty much over-achieved this season so the pressure is off.

But I really like this take on the world. (Tuesday update) In fact, watch his presser after today’s loss. The “fun stuff” kicks in about midway through.

Same as before. The reporters are all gloomy that Detroit didn’t close it out. Babs is already anticipating how awesome Game 7 will be.

Life gets difficult, stakes get high, shit gets real … it’s okay. That’s fun. That’s the fun of living. To perform under pressure. Or at least have a crack. We’re not here for all the boring moments where nothing much is happening, are we?

Mambo's magnificent 'Not With That Clown (great songs of sexual jealousy)'

Mambo’s magnificent ‘Not With That Clown (great songs of sexual jealousy)’

And so hockey can float for me, for a while, while I have fun dealing with the things that need dealing with right now. Yes, I’ll probably embarrass myself in my office tomorrow, screeching if the Wings get a big goal, as I sneakily watch Gamecenter on my iPad. Then I’ll be off to see the physio yet again tomorrow afternoon, about my knee and maybe my shoulder. I’ll wade through mud professionally. I’ll battle sinus pain.

But I’ll smile because life is about the challenges, and those changes of gear.

I just rediscovered one of my favourite CDs: Mambo Surfwear’s “Not with that clown. (Great songs of sexual jealousy)” (circa 1997, when Mambo was cool) and so ‘I was checkin’ out, she was checkin’ in’ by Don Covay can once again become my soundtrack as I travel around Melbourne, doing what needs to be done. Maybe occasionally even managing to tune back into my hockey world.

I’ll just try not to think about the future games where I’m going to find myself hunkering over my stick to face all the rookies who are currently training five nights a week to get better, better, better, while I’m not.

That’s going to be a tough game when that happens. It will be fun.

Learning from the Wings: never surrender

The Red Wings: down but not beaten. Pic: Detroit Free Press

The Red Wings: down but not beaten. Pic: Detroit Free Press

With an Over Time loss yesterday, Detroit suddenly sits in a 2-3 series hole in the first round of play-offs against Anaheim, facing a sudden-death potential exit game at the Joe on Friday, American time.

With such jeopardy facing the Wings, I want to say right now that I’m very proud of my team.

All season, coach Mike Babcock has been trying to find the magic; putting this player with that, introducing defenders (one who literally arrived at the club on the morning of an early-season game, a guy Babs admitted he barely knew anything about), just holding things together. Helm’s been out all shortened season with his mysterious back, Bertuzzi for almost the entire season … it’s just been one of those seasons of pure struggle.

I was really pleased that the team found cohesion and form to roar into the play-offs for the 22nd straight year, when that could so easily not have happened. And now, against the more highly-rated Ducks, they’ve been dogged and determined and about a goal-a-game short of where they need to be.

In Game 4, it was the Wings that kept falling behind; somehow hanging on by their fingernails to take the game to OT, where Brunner and the rookies combined to steal it. But today was the other way. The Wings got the first goal, then allowed the Ducks one. Detroit got the go-ahead goal but couldn’t hang on to the advantage. The third OT of the series, and it was Anaheim that scored.

Another day, another desperate struggle. Which is how it’s been since the lock-out ended.

I’m not giving up on this Western Conference quarter-final. Game 6 is at the Joe and the Wings have shown that on their day, they can score and score heavily. Which is what they need to do to make Game 7. But they could just as easily be strangled; not be able to find the net. Hank Zetterberg, who has been brilliant all season as our new captain, has yet to score in the play-offs, and Filp has gone cold again. We’re pushing it, to rack up enough goals to overwhelm the experienced, confident Ducks.

This absorbing battle has mostly been what’s kept me going over the past week or so. My life has been a rollercoaster (although it’s actually fine: all minor bushfires, not major scares).

Like Detroit, I just don’t seem to be able to find the goal often enough; can’t score wins lately in many areas of my life. I’ve taken the Wings’ lesson and kept pushing and persevering, but it can be hard. You want life to be one way and it’s another; you have ambitions and dreams and they drift tantalizingly out of reach. All you can do is breathe, and tell yourself that the buzzer hasn’t gone. Keep your head up. Chase the puck.

On Sunday night, I played for the Nite Owls, where I can feel out of my depth. Many of my teammates have played for 40 years or more and skate without effort or thought. My skating has come along in the last few months – no longer endlessly camped on my inside edges… yes! – but I’m pretty wobbly compared to these old gliders. They notice every hole in my game, in a good way; telling me to skate with both hands on my stick (a bad habit) and to stay high on the blue line in D, things like that. I don’t mind. I respect their experience and game sense and I’m still up for learning everything I can. Even better, I managed to find my way to my usual place in the slot, to jam home the first goal of the night, which gave me a feeling of belonging. I even almost managed to Holmstrom-deflect another goal, which hopefully made my teammates realize the 48-year-old they call “lad” isn’t a total muppet.

Dan Cleary hits the deck, versus the Ducks. You know he's getting up. Pic: Detroit News.

Dan Cleary hits the deck, versus the Ducks. You know he’s getting up. Pic: Detroit News.

But by Wednesday, another few life kicks had me really struggling to ward off a general feeling of emotional flatness. Mackquist was sick with a cold and I thought about missing hockey, mostly to look after him, but also because I just didn’t know if I had it in me to compete in the occasionally wild and willing dev league games.

How sad sack are you to baulk at the idea of playing hockey? Even I couldn’t stomach that … I’m definitely unable to make Sunday’s Nite Owls play, so decided I really wanted to get in some skating this week, and should go. I checked Mack was alive enough for me to head to the Icehouse after all.

Of course, it was a brilliant night. The hockey was fast, furious and good-natured.

Before the game, I’d joked to another player, Todd Harbour, that I was going to kill someone. ‘And if I kill early, I plan to hunt again.’ I was deadpan and he looked worried but then smiled. Minutes in, battling for a loose puck on the blue line, I met an opponent head-on and they went flying backward, landing flat. Yes, it was Todd. I swear, Mr Harbour, I didn’t know it was you. And I was joking beforehand.

Later in that game, Big Cat and I combined for one of my favourite goals ever; me winning a battle on the defensive blue line and sneaking a short pass to his stick, then following his charge down the ice to be there when his shot rebounded off the top crossbar and between goalie Chris Lourey’s pads. I poked home the goal, for an epic one-two-one-two Place combination. Sometimes you have to remember why you got into something in the first place, and playing alongside my boy(s) was a prime motivation for my dive into this crazy world. Playing alongside Big Cat and having that kind of understanding on the ice remains awesome.

Usually I’m pretty buggered by the end of the 10 pm game, staggering into the night, knowing I won’t sleep before 1 am or more and have to wake to a 6.30 am alarm. Last night, I just wanted to keep skating, to keep chasing the puck; all the worries and annoyances of the real world blown away as I felt my legs burn and my chest gasp for air, and laughed with my hockey mates, bantered and sledged the coaches Lliam, Army and Tommy, and couldn’t wait for my next shift, and then the next shift, and then the next shift.

Damn, I love hockey when it’s like that.

And now, that hockey momentum has carried into the real world so that a few of the disappointments dogging me all week seem to be not quite so black. Maybe I’m not out of the game after all? Just like the Wings, I’m definitely 2-3 down in a seven-game series, but that just means I need to keep winning, right?

I have no idea, after watching yesterday’s game, which way the Wings-Duck series will go, but I’m proud of my Detroit team either way.

They just never ever stop trying, pushing forward, believing. It’s the Red Wing mantra, a non-negotiable, and I wish I could explain it to my AFL team, Richmond, which is building and building but does not yet believe. Something I can be guilty of as well.

I need to hang on to the Red Wings’ sense of self-confidence and excellence, no matter the scoreline; refusing to concede until the buzzer says it’s over …

And it ain’t, Anaheim Ducks. It ain’t over at all.

Yo, Ranger! Ever heard of a cage?

Marc Staal wonders if he still has an eye, on Monday.

Marc Staal wonders if he still has an eye, on Monday.

This picture (right) was attached to a story on blueshirtbanter.com, a New York Rangers fan blog. Thankfully, the article explains that Ranger Marc Staal is expected to eventually make a full recovery after copping a full-blooded puck to the eye two days ago, against the Flyers.

My favourite part of the photo is the ref in the background. Because he’s thinking what I was thinking, watching Staal writhe around in severe pain and then staggering off the bloodied ice. Arms folded, head on an angle, the ref is clearly thinking: ‘What a dick.’

Readers of this blog know what a sensitive, new age hockey player I am, usually full of compassion and love for my fellow skaters. But sorry, Staal, I have only one thing to say to you when you can eventually see out of what’s left of your right eye if and when the elephant-man swelling subsides: go buy a fucking face cage.

Staal was lurking in front of his own goal when a Flyers defender did what defenders do on the blue line and drove a hard shot through traffic. All it took was a deflection and suddenly Staal was copping a piece of hard rubber travelling extremely fast to an completely unprotected face. If this description is not graphic enough for you, click here. Watch the injury in all its animated gif gory. It’s way nasty.

In dev league and summer league, the ferociously competitive forms of hockey in which my on-ice adventures exist, many players wear the plastic visors that barely cover your eyes. Not many don’t wear anything but that’s because Ice Hockey Victoria dictates an age range for when you have to wear a cage, or a visor or nothing at all. I’m not kidding: it is clearly stated, in fine print, that while my 17-year-old and 20-year-old sons must wear face cages, hacks my age are not legally required to wear any facial protection, presumably on the basis that if we haven’t picked up a life partner with our looks by now, it really doesn’t matter if they’re ruined at this point.

That was my reading of it anyway.

I wore a full face plastic visor for a few months but found the constant fogging, no matter what demisting potions I attempted to use, to be incredibly distracting. It was actually when I was sitting on the bench, breathing hard but not moving, that I couldn’t see a thing. I’d jump the boards pretty much blind, lost behind a pea-soup fog on the plastic in front of my face, and require quite a few strides for the breeze to clear things up.

Early on in summer league, I switched back to a full face wire cage and have never regretted it, even if yes, it clearly does impair your overall vision somewhat.

That’s a trade-off I’m prepared to make. As I say to anybody when this subject comes up in locker-room discussion: “I’m far too pretty not to wear a cage.”

Or to put it another way, this is one extreme, nasty, potentially dangerous injury that I can avoid with the right equipment, so why the Hell wouldn’t I?

A hard puck to the helmet can give you concussion. So will bumping your head hard against the ice, or into the boards. … basically, if your brain bounces hard enough against your skull, a concussion will happen. There’s no real way to protect that.

"Is he dead?" That's what Drew Miller appears to be wondering after Red Wing Patrick Eaves'  face met a puck. Eaves was out for a year. Would a face cage have helped?

“Is he dead?” That’s what Drew Miller appears to be wondering after Red Wing Patrick Eaves’ ear met a puck. Eaves was out for a year. Would a face cage have helped?

But a face cage can stop a puck or, in my experience, a more frequent errant high stick to the face.

Two weeks ago, we finished a game at Oakleigh and were preparing to leave when a guy staggered off the ice, from a team training scrimmage, with blood pouring from his mouth and a big tooth, one of his bottom fangs, in his hand. “What do I do?” he asked us.

I resisted the urge to say: “Well, five minutes ago, I would have said buy a face cage but it’s too late for that.”

Instead, desperately trying to remember the St John’s first aid part of my scuba diving Stress & Rescue training, I suggested he put the tooth back in his mouth and suck it like a lolly. Saliva is actually the best warm, sterile holding material there is. Happily other even more medically qualified people were there and so he was hauled off to the Monash Medical Centre for treatment. I doubt they would have been able to put the tooth back in.

A cage would have stopped that injury ever happening and the case list goes on and on and on, at every level of hockey.

I do recognise that some head injuries are going to happen, no matter what, in a game where bodies, sticks and pucks hurtle around a confined space. The Red Wings’ Patrick Eaves is only just back on the ice after more than a year of “concussion type symptoms” as they call it, having worn a puck to the ear in front of goal. This one was really nasty but actually I’m not sure a cage would have helped him. The puck struck him near the ear as he turned away from it, so I suspect the brain-rattle was unavoidable.

All a cage can do is protect your eyes, nose, teeth and cheekbones. But that’s no small thing. It’s strange that no hockey player would think of heading into a game without elbow and knee protection, yet many skate into battle with unprotected faces.

I firmly believe that most amateur players only wear visors or nothing at all because they watch the NHL and see their heroes manning up in no visor, or a minimal visor. Visors look way cooler, no doubt. Right up until you get hit. I accept that the vision is worse in a cage but I’d counter that all the knee-to-ankle padding impedes your natural skating ability. Yet nobody ventures into a game without leg padding. Imagine the looks we’d give somebody, being helped off the ice with a broken leg, if they said: “I chose not to wear knee padding because it affects my crossovers.”

In two and a bit years of chasing pucks around, I can easily think of seven or eight times where my face cage has been rattled hard ether by a flying or deflected puck, or somebody’s stick waving around, way off the ice, or even an elbow, and I’ve actively thought: “Amen for the cage.”

Now I just need to work out how to protect my inner thigh, having copped a hard drive to that unprotected flesh against the Fighters on Sunday. Between that and my boringly endless troubled left knee, my skating is not at a career peak right now. On Sunday, we Interceptors play our last game of the summer league season, and I think my legs need the rest. Well, actually not rest: I’m getting too much rest, not able to run or ride my bike hard or do any of the usual things that put off-ice miles into my legs. They’re getting sluggish because of this undiagnosed knee. Time to get it sorted, but I wanted to survive the end of the season.

At last, next week, I’ll be able to see the doctors, as they do an MRI. Which puts me ahead of Marc Staal. He’s listed today as out of action indefinitely.