Mortality, old dogs and hockey players

By Nicko

Fly Dog The Magnificent just briefly woke. She’s curled up on her bed, to the right of my desk. Waking involved staggering to her feet, blinking at me through a tangle of blonde fur, turning in a 360 or two and then settling back down, with a contented groan. Along the way, I could see her dodgy back leg was a little stiff, slightly favoured on the turns. Now, she’s gently snoring.

Sleepy Fly Dog submits to photo, in return for tummy rub.

I can see her ageing, my beautiful pooch. That’s the thing with pets (apart from maybe a turtle or a cockatoo – which, sadly, I can’t condone because they should be wild); they age even faster than us humans. I’ve long believed the most important function of a good cat or dog is to a) give kids unconditional love without judgement or complaint, and b) to die. Because for most of us, facing the death of a loved one is bewildering and painful and, well, just enormous. I know it sounds grim but pets are pre-season training for children, for all the deaths to come.

Four decades into my journey, death and I are acquainted, more than I would like, but then again, where does that line begin or end? Both my parents remain alive, and my sister, my sons and those I would regard as my closest friends, so I really can’t complain.

The thing is, Fly Dog and I are old dogs together, which is a reality I live with yet have trouble accepting. It’s come to mind a lot lately.

Looking back, there have been so many incarnations of me. There was the son of a TV executive who literally grew up on the rehearsal stage of “CountDown“, getting TV into my blood. There was the schoolkid and the weekend dishpig and the teenager trying to surf, endlessly riding a Repco prototype of a single speed bike around the coast, living in imaginary worlds, which much later would turn into novel-writing. There was the runner (cross-country and 800m/1500 m), the schoolboy footy player (wide-running left-footed wing), there was the casual tennis player and golfer and indoor cricketer, and boxer (not competitive), and triathlete (once – fun, though), and scuba diver, and mountain-biker, and … I’ve probably forgotten others along the way.

There was the teenage journalist, and then the international sports reporter, and then the comedy writer, and the TV producer, and the magazine editor, and the film reviewer, and the short film writer and the wannabe novelist and then, shit, the actual novelist, and the media company director, and the film festival founder, and … well others I’ve probably forgotten.

There were friendships that ruled my world then drifted away, or others that have broken for reasons nobody could control. Other friends who have risen or returned. Ones I still hope will come back. Losses, and gains, through the years.

There is the close-up magician (amateur but wildly enthusiastic) and the unlikely scientific research assistant on Project Manta, and the successful husband, then the unsuccessful husband, and the often unsuccessful boyfriend, and now the French language student, and, of course, the hockey player.

The point of this? Only that I was confronted by a significant birthday on the weekend (not mine) and it made me reflect on how much and varied ground I have covered. People say to me, wow, you’ve done so many things, but it could equally be said that I haven’t been able to do what others do: one or two things extremely well.

The latest incarnation: Old Dog Nicko in something resembling flight.

Right now, my obsession is hockey and I finally feel that I’m reaching a level that is competitive at the range of competition available to me. No, I do not think for a second that the journey is close to the end – video of a game on Friday showed my ponderous, straight-legged, inside-edge-heavy skating yet again, goddamnit. I know that I still have a million things to learn.

But mostly, there is the realisation that I can only go so far in hockey. I’m deep into my forties.

The fact is I am not my sons, and I’m jealous as hell.

I am not The Artist Formerly Known as Kittens Place, now known as Big Cat, or his brother, Mackquist von Wookie. Less than two decades each on Earth, barely shaving, and therefore with years, decades, to push themselves, to improve, to see how far up the hockey divisions they can climb.

I do not have their youth and balance and natural energy and strength, to improve and to push and to be fast and to pick up difficult balancing acts on skates, such as transitions. To look back at 35 and laugh about how crap they briefly were as a teenage skater …

Yes, I have some old dog tricks, learned over many years and many sports and many life lessons, and happily I don’t think I’m in bad shape for somebody of my vintage. In fact, I feel better than ever, physically, and bless that fitness and energy every day.

And best of all, the idea of playing Dev League or maybe Summer League forever appeals to me. I don’t need to be a Premier A player to feel good about myself. Being a hard-working, decent player in a Summer League team, playing with my mates? Heaven. Give me that, please, for as long as my legs can stand it.

I just hope I have enough juice in my old dog body to keep learning, to keep improving, to be the best that I can be. Until I’m not. And I can’t anymore.

At which point, I wonder what incarnations are still out there, waiting for me? What, if anything, is my next blog? Nickdoeslawnbowls? Nickdoesarealjob? Nickdoestrugo?

I groan. I lift my weary body, recovering from a weekend of hockey, plus footy on a muddy track and in a stiff breeze, from my chair for a meeting. I need a fourth coffee. But then I think of former Red Wings, like Vladimir Konstantinov, a brilliant defenceman until a limo crash days after the 1997 Stanley Cup win that left him brain-damaged and unable to play again. Or Ruslan Salei, a victim of last year’s Locotomotiv plane crash disaster. RIP. None of us know how long we have got on the ice.

Maybe I’m going okay, after all.

I tickle Fly Dog under her ear and she sleepily lifts a big floppy paw to give greater access to her belly, which I rub. She groans again, an old dog groan, and I smile an old dog smile. She and I have a few trails left to run together, before we’re done.

Worlds await. And deaths. And miracles. And adventures. And friendships. And disappointments. Hopefully lots of hockey.

It’s called living.

I try not to wake Fly Dog as I leave the room.

A matter of life & death

RIP Ruslan Salei

I hadn’t planned on posting anything before taking off tomorrow for the great manta ray adventure, but news has come through of the Russian plane crash that has killed 44 people, including many hockey stars, from Swedish Olympic champions and ex-NHL players to several ex-Red Wings, most notably Ruslan Salei, who only left the team at the end of last season, and coach Brad McCrimmon.

Bam. Just like that. A faulty 18-year-old Russian plane and an entire team of hockey players in their prime, or not far off it, are gone.

Pavel Datsyuk broke the news to the Wings as they were about to go onto the ice for an informal training session and the team closed the locker-room to the media. Coach Mike Babcock and his wife headed for the home of McCrimmon’s wife and kids, to offer support.

Just like that, hockey and sport and so much everyday life is put into perspective.

There’s not much to say, except for this: live your lives, people.

Embrace life. Smell the air. Look at the sky. Take a moment to be aware of the fact that you’re alive and the world is full of potential.

I’ve had a few deaths, and other losses, in my circles over the past couple of years and they’ve hit me deeply. This one is on a grander scale, we’ve already watched the Japanese earthquake in horror, and tomorrow you can guarantee every news service will carry the images of those planes slamming into the twin towers exactly 10 years ago over and over again.

In one month, my boys and I will be standing at Ground Zero, in downtown Manhattan, site of those fallen towers, looking at the reflecting pools they have built as a memorial. The first time I went there, less than a year after the terrorist act, I stood contemplating that twisted metal, the carnage visible from Church Street, the financial district only a block or so away. I can remember the smell of decay and death that hung over the mountains of rubble, and drifted through the subway system. And I became aware of the people around me, many crying, many holding photos, many silent. They were the family members of those lost in the towers, paying painful homage.

I walked away from that site thinking about the thousands of people who went to work that day, not realising they weren’t coming home. That such a random vicious act would snatch their lives.

My cousin, an oncologist, has told me many times how cancer is so random; it takes whoever it wants, and he treats so many “gunna” people – those who were “gunna do this or gunna do that” but now they won’t have that chance. I determined early that I would not be one of those people.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a long fucking way from perfect. I continue to hurt people and I fail at things and I stumble in fog and have no idea where I’m going; more or less than most? I have no idea.

But I try. To be a good person. To do the right thing. To take my seat on a small plane flying precariously from Hervey Bay to Lady Elliot Island on Saturday morning with the knowledge that those around me hopefully know they are loved and I have tried my absolute hardest, for them and for me. Win or lose.

I spend possibly too much time wondering about this stuff; what do I need to wrestle, to ensure is right, rather than just letting life unfold. I just got a large tattoo of a yellow-tailed black cockatoo feather on my upper left arm to remind myself every single day that we are all in the Wings of Fate.

And we are. If I broke my leg last week at hockey, that adventure would be over and my trip to Project Manta and America a week or so later would be scuppered. Do I stop skating in fear of that? Or trust those flapping wings?

And that’s not the least of it. If I had happened to be a member of an elite Russian hockey team attempting to take off from Yaroslavl Airport yesterday, could I say I’ve lived a life? Could I say I have left the world a better place? Could I say that I took the bites out of existence that justifies time on Earth?

Rest in peace, Ruslan Salei, Brad McCrimmon and everybody else on that plane.

For the rest of us? None of us know how long we’ve got so live life as though you mean it. I intend to, starting with manta ray face time.

After that? Who knows.

Take care, hockey fans.