Introducing ‘The Podium Line’

The Podium Line: Big Cat, Nicko and Mackqvist.

You know you’re having a good week of hockey when scoring the Game Winning Goal (GWG) isn’t the highlight of your week.

That rare and unlikely event – me scoring a GWG – happened on Wednesday night; my first goal in 10 pm dev league. This will sound strange but as rapt as I was to see my shot from the slot beat a totally-screened goalie, I was most satisfied because the goal came as the result of a classic barely-noticed one-percenter. The opposition defence controlled the puck at our goal line and instead of hanging back, I skated hard to put pressure on the puck-carrier. As a result, his attempt to clear it down the boards was angled too sharply, to get around me, and rebounded to one of our defenders, inside the blue, instead of making it out of the zone. A fight for the puck from there saw it suddenly spill into open ice and onto my stick as I turned, nicely on my forehand. Somehow all the heavy traffic in front of me didn’t get in the way of my shot which went like a slow exocet into the bottom right corner. Remember Luke Skywalker using the Force to shoot a missile into the Death Star’s air conditioning duct? It was pretty much exactly the same thing but at the Icehouse.

Opposition coach Webster wandered into the change rooms after the game and said: “Was that you? I was looking down at the whiteboard and missed it.”

“Yep,” I replied. “It was beautiful. It was like the legs just parted and it went straight in.”

Lliam, Wunders, Kittens and I stopped to reflect briefly on how that statement would sound in any context other than hockey, and then thankfully moved on.

As we changed back into street clothes, Lliam picked up a few pieces of paper that had been left in the room and discovered it was a list of “great lines of NHL” and not-NHL. For non-hockey folk reading, groups of forwards hit the ice during games in lines of three players (Left Wing, Centre and Right Wing), and defenders two at a time (Left Dee, Right Dee). So you have linemates. Sometimes these can shuffle during a season, or even during a game, but all going well, the same three forwards work as a line for a long period of time, to get to know each other’s games and develop understanding and set plays.

In hockey history, there have been occasionally great lines which earn their own nicknames, such as the Red Wings’ famed “Production Line” of Gordie Howe (“Mr Hockey”), Sid Abel and Ted Lindsay. This line was so productive in the late Forties that it dominated the entire competition. Amazingly, in 1950, the three Red Wings finished first, second and third in scoring for the NHL. One line providing the league’s top three scorers. Holy crap. It will stun you to know that the Wings won the Stanley Cup that year.

Detroit’s most famous line: The Production Line of G. Howe, Lindsay and Abel.

So Lliam kicked through the pages of famous lines and I mentioned that Friday night promised history as my younger son, Macklin, joined Will (aka Big Cat) and I in a social match against an IBM team. The first and maybe only time that the three Places would form a line.

We all went to work, throwing names around for the looming Place line. Facebook had been running hot with what would make an appropriate collective noun for a group of Places. I had opted for “a clusterfuck of Places”, but other suggestions had included “a map of Places”, a “postcode of Places”, and a “pose of Places”.

Finally, we arrived on The Podium Line – first Place, second Place and third Place. Bow.

And so it happened. Macka suited up, we posed for photos – Will looking surly because he had ‘game face’ on – and got our arses handed to us by an IBM team that decided the best way to approach a social match was to draft in some Canadians and some guy who allegedly played international junior hockey for Sweden. Turns out he was better than me. And everybody.

Between shifts. Pic: Anna Heywood

But I didn’t care about the lopsided scoreline. The game was played in the usual good spirit, and shit, I got to skate with my boys – even if I didn’t skate particularly well. Macka abused Will for having a shot instead of passing it to him, gave me advice about positioning and then took a hard shot to the ankle in the second game, a friendly fundraiser for the Melbourne Ice, to end up on crutches. Solid night’s work. There’s no need here, in this public forum, to go into who hammered a puck into my young son’s ankle – managing to find the only unprotected spot and seriously injure him. This isn’t about blame, Hodson. Not at all.

The man WHO TRIED TO KILL MY SON!                  Pic: Tarcha Lou

Anyway, Mac was up until well after midnight, texting everybody he’d ever met to boast that he’d suffered the nastiest injury of any Place on a hockey arena – a compliment/observation from Big Cat – and then the next day attempted crutches for as long as it took to realize they are more uncomfortable than just trying to walk on a nasty bruise. He had a top weekend. As did Big Cat, who scored a sublime goal with a shot across the goalie to the top corner in the second game, to make his night.

And my weekend was fun, even if I lacked respect for the first strong sunshine of the season at the famed Bang Superkick on Sunday, suffering a nasty sunburn while finishing decidedly mid-field among hot competition in every sense.

The boys’ mum, Anna, had been on hand on Friday night, armed with a camera, and dropped by with the pics shown on this blog. In almost every action shot, I’m flat-footed, camped on both skates, looking as proppy as I felt on the night. Both boys are moving their feet, moving well – even Mac who has only just started Intermediate. Dammnit. Yet again, I’m battling realistic expectations versus frustrations. But not now, not here.

For now, I’m just saluting the night that Will, Mac and I formed the Podium Line for hockey history. It may happen 1000 times, or never again. But it happened – and that rocks.

History: Mack and I jump the boards together in a game.

The 100th post. Blow the horn.

A recent highlight from 100 posts-worth of hockey life: Aimee Hough’s brilliant shortbread version of Rookie Nicko, number 17. (She made them of all the Rookies. It wasn’t creepy)

Well, holy crap. The century. Nickdoeshockey‘s 100th post.

I’m not sure it’s strictly good hockey form to wave your stick in the air like a cricket bat; to point it at your teammates in the dressing room.

But I’m going to do it anyway. Because I want to share this moment with you, and thank you for reading and celebrating this crazy ride.

It was on January 19, last year, that I logged my first post on this sketchy attempt at writing a personal diary of my looming hockey adventure.

“Let’s start with the pain,” I wrote.

With me landing badly in my first ever skating class, then being accidentally taken out by a Columbus fan and feeling proud that I’d taken one for the Red Wings.

Genuinely not sure if this blog would last more than two or three weeks if I copped a really bad injury.

And yet, here we are. Me still major-injury-free (touch a lot of wood), still chasing the puck and adventure, and my little project now recently clicked past 20,000 individual users, enjoying upwards of 150 individual readers every day, sometimes over 300, from Australia, the USA, Canada but also from Turkey, Brazil, Taiwan and three today so far from Albania.

I often wonder if these people have stumbled here, looking for “hockey player eaten by shark” or some other bizarre Google search? Or maybe hockey’s reach is as great as it should be, and somewhere in the United Arab Emirates (10 readers in the last seven days), a loyal Red Wings/Melbourne Ice fan is settling over coffee and a screen?

The biggest day so far was 1,126 readers – spookily on January 19, 2012 – even I didn’t realise that was the one-year anniversary until now, writing this – which was the day I had an article published in the Detroit News (no longer online) and the Motor City’ online community came calling. That entire episode remains the highlight of the 100 blogs, with a brilliant exchange of messages between my little Melbourne outpost and Hockeytown, as the Red Wings enjoyed a fools’ gold home-winning streak and we all celebrated everything great about Detroit, which is a spectacular city, no matter how faded and desperate outside of the creaky Joe Louis Arena.

The jury is very much out on whether I can get back to Detroit for the Winter Classic, scheduled for New Year’s Day, 2013, so the blog has mostly since been about everyday life and hockey. Intro classes have turned into Intermediate and then into Dev League and now the adventure creeps ever closer to joining an actual Summer League team and playing for real. I’m excited, really excited. Hopefully that comes through in these posts.

A guy called Patrick, taking umbrage at my “Violence of Vinnie Hughes” post a week ago, mentioned that this site was self-indulgent and well, yes, guilty as charged. Strangely, as the readership has increased, I’ve worked hard to hold onto that personal angle. It’s not only rampant ego as much as I don’t want nickdoeshockey to become just another online news or opinion site for the Melbourne Ice or the Red Wings. God knows, there are enough of those around and some spectacularly good ones (a big shout out to The Production Line, Winging It In Motown and Nightmare on Helm Street, for example).

I prefer to just keep doing what I started: a diary of my hockey adventure, with strands of life outside the rink creeping in. The whole thing came from two colliding moments: my friend, Richard laughing when I told him that I was planning to take up hockey, looking raised-eyebrow at my then-45-year-frame across a coffee table at Lorne and saying, with no room for argument: “You simply have to blog this.” Which hadn’t occurred to me, so thank you, Richard.

The second element was one of my favourite sayings: “Find the thing you like most in life and then let it kill you.” I kid you not, I silently repeat that line to myself often as I stalk towards the Henke Rink, in my armour and skates, wielding my stick. The Australian bushrangers had another way of saying it, in the 19th century: “Die with your boots on.” R.I.P. Ben Hall and Flash Johnny Gilbert, who lived, and died, under that banner.

Celebrating an Ice goal against the Mustangs last Thursday night. Pic: Alex McNab.

I am very aware that hockey has come to symbolise this as my wider approach to life. At my wake, whether it’s next week or in 40 years, I want everybody laughing, shaking their heads and toasting that Nicko Place had a genuine fucking crack at life. And yes, with columns for wins and losses.

Hockey does symbolise so much.

Like life, hockey is action, fear, philosophy, learning, “you know, science”, teamwork, camaraderie, set-backs, heart-break, pure joy, community and so much more.

I can’t believe that 16 months ago, the concept of me as a hockey player had such wet paint on it. How much I didn’t know. Reading that first post feels so long ago and yet, it really isn’t.

What does astonish me is how much has been packed into my life over that 16 months, on and off the ice. As well as my development as a player – from being literally unable to skate, to now playing dev league and feeling like a genuine, if still very green, potential Right Wing – life off the rink has been a rollercoaster.

In the time of the blog, I have travelled to the US (with my boys for the first time) to see Datsyuk. Lidstrom, Zetterberg, Helm and the rest of the Red Wings play live, even if they lost; been to Hogwarts in Florida; had my heart broken, bounce, stumble and soar; achieved a life dream by diving (twice) with the magnificent manta rays off Lady Elliot Island; kept my company afloat after dastardly treacherous bastardy by a major client; had a novel I’d been working on for many years accepted, and to be the first of a series, and moving me out of one genre with four published into a whole new crime-writing field; had friendships rise and fade; watched my beloved Tigers gradually but distinctly get better as a football team; seen Macklin, my youngest son, join Will (aka Kittens, aka Big Cat) and I on the ice as a player; met a French girl I’m trying to impress who laughs instead of sighs when I let hockey take over my life and return, creaking and sore. And God, so much more. That’s not even close to covering the dramas and emotion. Is every 16-month period like this in my life? I’d never tried to chart it before.

And then there’s life within the walls of the Icehouse. The world I’ve stumbled into and the people within that sphere.

Where do I even start? I’m not going to get all mushy. You can do that for me by indulging me in a simple test. Take a deep breath and think of all the fucking amazing people you have met through your involvement in hockey.

You might be in Minnesota or Melbourne. It doesn’t matter.

I’m not just talking about the Rookies, our self-titled band of ragged, diverse, wildly enthusiastic students who started at the Icehouse, under Lliam and Army’s tutelage last year and have soldiered on, through triumph, disaster, injuries, frustration and elation. I’m talking about Melbourne Ice fans, Red Wings fans, fans of every other team, my work-street-hockey puck-lunch partner, Alex, the amateur Chicago player who saved Will and I in a dodgy section of that town, the wise-cracking crew at the South Pole end of the Henke Rink on Ice match days, the friendly staff of the Harbourside Hotel, the ever-patient partners of the Rookies, and the Rookies crew who turned out in dodgy weather at Albert Park on Saturday to hit pucks together, off-ice. The list goes on and on. Even an inspired fan who riffs at an NHL game on my random thought: “Hockey Player eaten by shark.” (Click on the clip below. Trust me. You really want to.)

What a brilliant community and what an amazing sport.

Will this blog last another 100 posts? Who knows and who cares. Skate to where the puck will be, not to where the puck is, as Wayne Gretsky once said.

The 16-month journey just gone stands alone as one of the greatest times of my life. Thanks for sharing it with me; especially you, Big Cat.

And now let’s hit the ice for wherever this thing goes next.


(Update: All of this made me think of the final Calvin & Hobbes cartoon when Bill Watterson retired. Dunno why but any time you get a chance to salute Calvin & Hobbes is a good moment. The boy and the tiger’s final stand, their philosophy, feels right for this moment …)

Calvin & Hobbes: the final cartoon. By Bill Watterson.