These little aches and pains

These little aches and pains.
I’ve got them always now,
Sunshine or rain.’

Paul Kelly

I remember Paul Kelly once saying at a concert that he has a large family, and they’re getting older. (PK himself is pushing 60, although you wouldn’t know it if you’ve ever seen him playing footy. He’s like a greyhound, always moving, kicking off both feet, running, running running.)

But when the Kelly family gets together now, he said, every member is allowed five minutes only to discuss their ailments. The years are taking tolls in all directions and so it has been agreed that five minutes is the maximum whinge/outlining of physical woes.

Careering towards the boards probably doesn't help my injury list get shorter. Pic: Luke Milković

Careering towards the boards probably doesn’t help my injury list get shorter. Pic: Luke Milković

At the moment, this is resonating strongly for Nicko Place, hockey player. Only a few rounds into the summer season and my poor old body is groaning. I’ve had a sore wrist for weeks now – maybe a tiny chip on a bone; I don’t know – and my neck yelps if I look to the right, while my left upper hammie has been troubling me for a couple of months. Now my lower back is kicking in, to the point that I pulled out of dev league last night because my back was hurting, instead of warmed up and functioning, after Intermediate class.

I hate pulling out of a game, any game, and sure enough my red team went on to win 4-3 in a thriller, as I showered and drove home to an earlier night than usual.

This morning, the back is aching and the wrist is hurting and I’m feeling like the old man that I am.

Almost without exception, when you tell anybody you play hockey, their immediate response is: ‘That’s a wild game, isn’t it? You must get physically smashed.’

I always go into explanations about how at our level of ‘non-checking’ play, there may be collisions, rather than deliberate impact. No punches thrown – well, hardly any. But honestly, it’s not as physical as you’d think.

But lately, all those collisions seem to be catching up with me. Is it my advanced hockey age? Or am I just in the middle of a bad run? If I was to read back through all the blog posts about The Year of the Knee, I’d be reminded that as banged up as I feel today, I’m totally fine: I can skate and I can stick-handle and I can bend, even if my back isn’t thrilled about it. Or I could think of my days among the Nite Owls, where 70-year-olds still wheel and skate and shoot, if at a slightly gentler pace than when they were in their pomp half a century ago.

One of my fellow Cherokees and a Demon player demonstrating what I mean by 'collision' during a recent summer league battle. Pic: Luke Milković

One of my fellow Cherokees and a Demon player demonstrating what I mean by ‘collision’ during a recent summer league battle. Pic: Luke Milković

It’s all a matter of context and attitude, I guess. I plan to hit the gym today or tonight, to do the lower back strengthening exercises that I’ve been slack about since returning from France. Tonight, I have team training and then a game on Saturday. If I can wrangle it, I might even try to kick a footy at the Bang on Sunday.

The body moans and complains but it keeps going, which is all that matters, I suppose. Usually, I wouldn’t write a post about this because it’s such a constant and such a low-level irritant that it doesn’t seem blog worthy. The pains niggle and worry but don’t add up to more than that. And even then, I’m sure most players going around have something niggling away. A former teammate posted today on facebook about how a miniscus tear is bothering him and I wrote back saying, oh yeah, been carrying that one for more than a year … turns out he has too. I guess it’s standard that the hockey community is keeping stocks high in companies specialising in pain relief drugs. It’s just that, this morning, I have to keep standing up from my desk to move around.

I hope it’s a bad run of impact, and not the physical decline of Old Man Place. Time will tell.

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.

The end of summer

Interceptors get ready, before our final game.

Interceptors get ready, before our final game.

Well, somebody had to say it. And, of course, guess who it was.

It was last night, Sunday evening, in the middle of a long weekend. About 6.30 pm, in the Ghetto, which is what we fondly call the Oakleigh ice rink. Yet again, the mighty Interceptors had been handed the tiny, claustrophobic changing room 4, where our bags end up on top of one another because it’s so crowded and we have to take turns sitting on the tiny wooden benches to lace our skates. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

I looked around the room at my team and felt a wave of emotion. “Aw, Nicko’s getting all mushy,” said Alex, true to form, and I shrugged and laughed but said, yeah. Actually. I am.

“I just want us all to take a moment to consider that this team will never play together again,” I said to the ‘Ceptors. And it was true. Whatever future is to unfold, it will never see that group of players combine again.

Given how close we have become as a team, as a little band of warriors, this was no small thing.

At least one player, Savv, is trying his luck in the winter league draft (if you play winter, you can’t play summer) and he’s so good there’s no way he won’t be snapped up. Dan ‘Yoda’ Byrne, a spiritual leader and my fellow alternate captain, is moving to Newcastle with his family in a month. So that’s two. I have no doubt that by the time we have to start actually committing to teams for next summer’s competition, other players will have been injured, or drifted away from the sport, or decided to play with friends in other teams or want more ice time than you get in our over-crowded line-up, or any of the other many reasons why they might not don the Interceptor jersey for the 2013-14 campaign. As Big Cat and I drove out to Oakleigh, through Melbourne’s endless summer heat, I pondered if we would even ever play as teammates again, beyond social matches and scrimmages?

The Ceptors, after one of our games this summer.

The Ceptors, after one of our games this summer.

I have no idea if Big Cat or the rest of the team was as aware of this as I was last night. My long career as a journo, covering team sports, had seen me observe this moment over and over again. Every AFL season, I watch Richmond’s last game and feel that slight sadness, that this team of young men, mates playing in front of 80,000 people at the MCG, having the time of their fucking lives, will never form as a unit again. Last year, the point was tragically underlined when John McCarthy, a player from that last Richmond v Port Adelaide game – a scrappy, unlikely draw at the MCG – died in mysterious circumstances on the Power’s end-of-season trip to Las Vegas a couple of weeks later.

Even away from a freak accident like that, players come and go. The Melbourne Ice team that won the famous three-peat grand final last year has lost several players (imports Matt Korthuis and Doug Wilson Jnr, for starters) and will gain new faces this season. The Sydney Swans team that won the flag in that classic against Hawthorn is already changed for a new season. With the Red Wings, I don’t have this same sense of ownership of a team as a whole because players can be and are traded in and out even mid-season. It’s a different vibe, when players are thrown out of and onto the bus as it rolls along. In football and local hockey, this is not the case, and I prefer our sporting model to the NHL. Each year, I find myself watching Round 22, aware that Tiger rookies and players I have invested in, urged on and despaired over, wanted to be great and wondered if they’ll make it, will receive that dreaded call into the footy manager’s office a few days after the last game, to be told they’re out. Or will retire. Or, their body just can’t go again. Something like a quarter of the listed 700 AFL players across all clubs fall out of the sport and are replaced each year.

Will it be the same in ice hockey, Summer League Rec D? With the Ceptors, the reality is that we will move in directions over the next six months, and it was important to acknowledge it before we hit the ice. Just enjoy this moment where our team – such a close, happy, enthusiastic, bonded team – would strap on our armour for one last tilt.

Against the league’s top side, and with the Fighters’ Nate Pedretti, one of the better goalies in the league, filling in. What could go wrong?

Actually, for our formidable opponents, the Wolverines, pretty much everything. A bunch of their players didn’t show up (far too much room to spread out in their palatial changing room, I’d imagine) and eventually they were forced to forfeit because they couldn’t come up with the bare minimum number of players to compete, under IHV rules. The Interceptors won on a forfeit, giving us a final 8-7 win-loss record for the season and solidifying us in seventh place in the league; almost exactly where I reckon we should sit and a very decent effort for our first season. Hardly any of us had played truly competitive hockey before this summer, so we held up well, I reckon. Especially for a team that barely got to train together because of scheduling gremlins.

This sounds selfish but the forfeit turned out to be a nice way to end the season. If it had been an official match, I think the Wolverines would have dismantled us – even without refs and playing a friendly scrimmage (because, shit, we were all there and armoured up and on the ice, so why not?) they scored freely and probably beat us about 10-3, but nobody really kept count. I didn’t anyway. Maybe Jay, our goalie, knows how many times he faced down their rampaging No. 5 on a solo breakaway and with our defence trailing behind him. Sorry, Jay.

Period break, versus the Fighters last week.

Period break, versus the Fighters last week.

On the whole, the unofficial nature of the match took all the competitive pressure off. We could just play as a team one last time for fun, and enjoying the ice time. A trademark Oakleigh fog began to settle over the third period as the heat outside the shed battled the coldness of the slushy ice.

I managed to score our third goal and it was a classic example of how an unofficial scrimmage differs from a genuine match.

A puck spilled to the left hand side of Nate, their goalie. I was the first player there (I know, right!) and actually had time to think of how I would usually handle this situation. I think my backhand is serviceable and so I would normally use it to sweep the puck back behind my left leg to the slot, hoping an Interceptor was crashing the net to slot home the blind pass.

This is awesome if it works, but it does also mean you’re passing blind to centre ice, which is a no-no, if the defence can then sweep away up the centre lane.

This time, I had that fraction of a second to devise a different plan. I braked hard, stopping the puck, and sliding my body past it as I hockey-stopped to finish with the puck on my forehand. No real gap between the near goalpost and Nate’s left pad, but what the Hell. I shot, and somehow found that zone of uncertainty. I’m not even sure if it was that first shot that went in, squeezing into that fragment of a gap. I followed the puck and it was lying between Nate’s legs as he looked for it. I poked it into the net, to make sure of the goal.

Like I said, in a genuine game, with high stakes and refs and the Wolverines fielding a less tired, more complete team, maybe I wouldn’t have had the window for all of that to occur? Maybe I would have arrived at that puck under intense defensive pressure and swiped at it, backhand and blind, while I could? Who can say.

As it is, I finished the season with one officially recorded goal, but actually three goals in summer league play, which I’m happy with, given I started the season genuinely wondering if I would score even once. I got a few assists, I improved a lot in my game play, my positioning and my sheer skating. I loved being an AC of my team and I loved feeling part of a genuine team, something I haven’t experienced – apart from the ragtag brotherhood that is The Bang footy – for a long time. Deep in my forties, I had every right to think I would never feel that team spirit again.

High-fiving the bench: we Interceptors have always been good at celebrating goals.

High-fiving the bench: we Interceptors have always been good at celebrating goals.

On Facebook, after the game, Interceptors poured out their emotion at the season being over, at the reality that we won’t assemble as a team, apart from at the presentation night in a few weeks. A bunch of us are carrying knees or other ailments. Big Cat and I hung our black bowties, celebrating Charlie Srour, in safe places until next season.Then went out drinking with the hockey crowd.

I woke late, on a public holiday Monday, watched the fitful Red Wings lurch to a shoot-out loss against the Blue jackets, cursed some, staggered out of bed, hung out my armour in the heat and rode my bike down to Brunswick Street cafes for coffee and over-priced eggs.

In what’s left of this afternoon, I’ll go to the gym, maybe hit the Fitzroy Back Beach (pool), catch a movie, think again about how I organize that MRI for my knee, and then start to tune in on Wednesday night. That’s dev league at the Icehouse or, as I like to call it, the Happy Scrimmage Club, with Army, Tommy and Lliam.

A few ‘Ceptors will be out there, wearing red or black, happily beating each other up. Maybe there’ll be a Wolverine, maybe some Ice Wolves, Fighters, TigerSharks, Braves, Sharks, Demons, Devils and Jets. Possibly even a Nite Owl. I can’t keep exact track of who played for which teams in summer league. And now, apart from those who made the play-offs, it really doesn’t matter.

We’re all the one band of brothers and sisters.

We’ll laugh and collide and skate and shoot and curse and whinge and chase that puck all over the Henke Rink, like we do every Wednesday.

Only 50 hours to wait.

After the game: The original Interceptors team members have left the building, forever.

And we’re gone.

Sunday on my mind

So, on Sunday, at 4.15 pm, I officially become a hockey player. I know I’ve argued for 20 months or so that I’m a player but I’ve been a student until now.

On Sunday, I pull on a purple Jets jersey, as Alternate Captain of the Interceptors team, against an Ice Wolves team of mostly strangers at Oakleigh, in Melbourne’s Summer Recreation League, Div 4; the lowest level of competitive hockey for championship points in town.

On Tuesday night, I hung laps at the Icehouse in a happily not-very-crowded general skate. As usual, my skating was so-so. I was gliding gentle outside edge to gentle outside edge, just feeling them. Occasionally I’d head into the centre circle and work on my backward crossovers, batting away other skaters who came to offer the inevitable and necessary advice. Not up for a barrage of well-meaning advice this night. Feeling the same frustrations that have been brewing to the surface over the past few weeks. Noticing the distinct lack of other 40-something rookies wobbling around this ice, instead of being at home with loved ones, nestled in front of a television, on a week night. Heroic or delusional, Place? Such a fine line.

The Power-Hough gals model the new Jets jersey.

Tuesday didn’t solve anything and on Wednesday, back on the Bradbury Rink but now in full hockey gear, warming up for 10 pm development league, I started to think about Sunday. My first official match as a player. A working scoreboard, a league ladder, official hockey rules, everybody needing matching socks, genuine referees who weren’t Melbourne Ice players laughing: Lliam in dev league later that night, after calling a big guy, Charles, for elbowing a little guy, Geoff, in the head: “(Laughter) I’m sorry. I know you didn’t mean it, but I have to call it. You’re just so big and he’s so small. That’s hilarious. I’m sorry … Penalty. Hahahaha.” This is the sort of ref call that’s unlikely on Sunday, where a player actually gets sent to the box instead of awarding a penalty shot for goalie practice in a game where the score is irrelevant.

Plus, we Spitfires face the unknown of whether we’re going to be competitive against other teams, like the Ice Wolves, Demons and Champs.

A lot to think about but then on Wednesday, pre-Dev League, in my gear, on the Bradbury ice, everything suddenly became clear to me; all anxiety dissolved. Just like that.

I thought: You know what, Nicko? Your skating is what it is. It’s actually not terrible (despite all the angst on this blog); you just can’t pull off moves that would make you better. But you’re not going to master transitions or Kutek-level outside edge C-cuts before Sunday. It’s done. And you are a 47-year-old rookie with only limited time to master this sport, among (in no particular order) running a business, falling in love, raising kids, writing novels, scuba diving, having a social life, enjoying street art, books, films, footy, art, waves, sky, whisky. You can only be so good, giving hockey the windows you do, which is as much as you can. And you are giving away 20 or more years to most of these teammates and opponents, but screw that, who cares? You have other strengths.

As I cruised, outside edge to outside edge, my mind travelled back to Lliam Webster’s sage advice when I was in that performance funk, months ago. “When you’re in a funk, concentrate on what you do well. Don’t worry about all the things you can’t do, or think you suck at. Just do the things you do well and the rest will follow.”

Not even realizing at the time, not until I saw the Ice 3-Peat doco, which talked about Lliam’s early season scoring drought, just how much he was also living that reality when he spoke to me.

And finally, as 10 pm ticked closer, as Big Cat Place and the rest of the preceding Intermediate class cleared the Henke Rink and the goalies shoved the goals to the side so the Zamboni could chug its way onto the surface, I felt strangely calm. Shit, I’m going to play recreational  league. We’re all going to go as hard as we can; try our guts out; hurt if we lose; go nuts if we win, but it’s Division 4, it’s the lowest rung of being a competitive player. Just do what you do well, love being in a team, equally share the ice time between the guns and the strugglers, and let the rest happen.

TigerShark and 11.15 pm dev league mate Brendan Parsons seems less stressed about the looming Summer League comp than some.

10 pm arrived and I stepped onto the ice with a clear mind and had my best game in a long time. Didn’t try to skate at warp 10 speeds, instead slowed slightly and moved better, all while controlling and using the puck, doing the slice-through-traffic passes that seem to be my specialty. Was unlucky not to score a few times. Had so much fun that Big Cat and I thought ‘To Hell with Thursday and real world commitments” and stayed around for the 11.15 game, finally getting off the ice at 12.15 am, in bed an hour later, wide awake. I played defence, alongside Wunders, which was a learning experience but just as enjoyable. Even if I did give away a penalty by tangling my stick in Aimee Hough’s legs and headbutting her into the boards. Turns out that’s a penalty …

My teammates good-naturedly gave it to me as I skated sheepishly back to the bench to watch her penalty shot (she missed). I shrugged. Sorry, all … just clumsy.

An NHL player wouldn’t have given away that penalty.

I did.

… Expectations versus Realities.

All leading into Sunday …

This player, this ever-improving, ever-striving rookie will continue to make mistakes. But will also occasionally position himself well, use hand-eye and innate hockey sense to steal pucks and even stone-cold his more talented son, playing for the other team in the 11.15 game, every now and then on a forward rush; will no doubt be part of an Interceptors team that comes up against a more seasoned, experienced unit this season and gets belted, or has that moment when everything clicks as a team and we win large and feel like world beaters.

Play-offs? Maybe. Or not.

It’s all to come and I’m in for the ride; warts and all, age and all, faults and all, strengths and learnings and wisdoms and laughter and friends and all.

Can’t wait. Roll on, Sunday. I’m good to go.