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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No miracle. No magic. No millions.

Thanks for nothing, Fate, you unromantic bastard.

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






Ho Ho Ho Homiliation!

The player skates fast, flying on edges, behind my net and I move to block the space where he has to come out. He flicks the puck straight over my stick, catches it and then taps it between my legs. As I try to process this, which has happened inside less than a second, he’s gone, like smoke into a flame, and by the time I turn around he’s skating through the blue line.

‘Goddamn it, Army,’ I call when I’ve skated to a point where I can yell at him. ‘You could at least try to pretend like that was difficult.’

Lliam Webster moving at maybe 50 per cent capacity during the coach scrimmage. Pic: Nicko

Lliam Webster moving at maybe 50 per cent capacity during the coach scrimmage. Pic: Nicko

Matt Armstrong, Melbourne Ice star, Canadian and former European pro, just laughs and apes my habitual legs-too-far-apart stance and cruises effortlessly away, faster than my fastest skating. I cuss quietly to myself and go chase the puck, because now Shona, captain of Melbourne Ice and Australia, is streaming through the middle and I know a pass will be coming if I can get to the right spot.

The final night of Hockey Academy at the Icehouse is always a lot of fun. Our coaches throw away any pretense of teaching – apart from schooling us in real time on the ice – and jump onto the ice for a scrimmage.

It’s actually not humiliating at all – I just really wanted to use that headline. It’s a night of miracles and wonder, although not in the Paul Simon kind of way. It’s a night where you can battle your way to the far goalpost and pretty much know that Tommy Powell (Australia and Melbourne Ice) will somehow weave the puck through eight legs and four sticks and a goalie, to land it right on your tape for the tap-in goal. It’s a night where Lliam Webster (captain, Melbourne Ice and Australia) will calmly stick-handle for what seems like an eternity, all within half a metre of his body, as hockey students flail and fail to steal the puck. It’s a night where goalies have nightmares, watching giant Melbourne Ice defender Todd Graham wind up from the blue line or watching Matt Armstrong come swinging in, deeking and curving, all angles and power, winding up and then last-second passing off to a player they hadn’t noticed to their left who has an open net. Or where Shona will just skate alongside a player, gently separating him or her from the puck without them quite realising until it’s too late.

It’s so much fun. And it reminds you how good the best actually are.

I’ve been really lucky to experience this moment across several sports, from my time as a sports writer. I once drove laps of a raceway with Bathurst veteran Jim Richards in his Targa Rally 4WD Porsche. It had rained – real Queensland rain – for an entire day beforehand and the track, on the outskirts of Brisbane, was underwater. Richards drove at roughly 200 kph around wide corners and faster down the straight, hurtling past smaller, hard-revving cars before jamming the brakes, screw the weather, to take a sharp right hander. Then flooring it, going through gears back to 200 or so. While doing this, casually chatting with me – I was surprised how easily we could hold a conversation given the screaming engine and the fact we were both wearing race helmets.

shona coach scrimmage‘So, what do you think?’ he asked me, looking across to the passenger seat and grinning as the car sliced impossibly fast through water and revs and blurred landscape.

‘You’ve got the best fucking job in the world,’ I said, meaning it, and he laughed, shoulders shaking, even as his hands and legs worked the car down through gears and brakes for a corner coming up, like, NOW.

People asked me later if I was scared but I wasn’t at all. In fact, what struck me more than anything was that this was Richards driving at a sponsor open day, giving supporters (and one feature writer) laps in the car. He was probably driving at 70 per cent of capacity, not about to push the car anywhere near its limits with passengers alongside. The speed and torque and thrill weren’t even at maximum revs, which had me wondering what it must be like when he really turns it on.

I had the same thought once in my tennis writing days. I can’t remember if I’ve written about this before but I used to play a lot of tennis and I hit possibly the best serve I can ever remember hitting in my life to Jason Stoltenberg, then a top player, at a Tennis Australia media open day. I decided, on a big point in a friendly doubles match, that there was no point playing for percentages. Stolts had been chirping me mercilessly as I bounced the balls at the baseline, preparing to serve, and so I wound up, swung from the ankles and somehow, against all the odds, absolutely creamed it. I swear I could not hit a tennis ball any better than that and my serve was the best part of my game. This one was aimed at the sideline of the backhand court and it hit the outside edge of that tramline, skidded off the paint and was gone, man, gone.

I barely had time to register the extent of how legendary I was, before a green blur passed my feet as it landed just inside the baseline and disappeared. Stolts had taken maybe half a step to his left and effortlessly backhanded the return past me before I finished my follow-through.

Lliam at full capacity during the coach scrimmage. Pic: Nicko

Lliam at full capacity during the coach scrimmage. Pic: Nicko

I couldn’t disguise how absolutely gutted I was (yes, my partner and I lost the set), and he almost died laughing, but later I told him it was instructive. Hanging out on the tennis tour, and hitting a few balls here and there, reporters would start to think it doesn’t look so hard, maybe with the right practice I could get out there and aim for Wimbledon … some even entered qualifying for the satellite tour, the lowest rung, and got found out quickly.

But Stolts’ almost-yawning return of my absolutely best ‘100 per cent can’t hit it better’ serve ensured I never had those delusions. (My dad was a genuinely competitive Australian tennis player and thought about going on the world tour when it was ‘shamateur’, but then one day he had to return serve to Neale Fraser at training and Fraser broke 13 strings on dad’s racquet. Dad became an engineer.)

It runs through all sports: think how bloody good at football all those kids who don‘t get drafted into the AFL are. Think how impossibly good Test batsmen are, or bowlers.

So last night, I was there again, being reminded of just how impossibly vast the gap is between those at the top and us everyday mortals. And this is with Tommy, Lliam, Army, Todd and Shone operating at maybe 50 per cent capacity if we students were lucky. And without taking anything away from our coaches, it needs to be remembered that there are then clear levels above them before you get to the rarified air of the AHL and elite Canadian or European leagues, not to mention the NHL. Just how fucking good must Pavel Datsyuk be? Or a younger Wings lesser light like, say, Tomas Jurco, for that matter? Not that either of them are scoring any goals just now, but that’s another story.

Dev League has had a very high standard this term. It’s full of winter players keeping sharp and summer Div 2 players, which means they can play. But the coaches last night made everybody look like P-platers without really breaking a sweat. Not bothering with much armour, getting a puck back if they lost it, just having fun as we worked as hard as we could.

At one point in Dev, Tommy drifted past me as we all set up for a face-off in our defensive end. He said: ‘When the puck drops, just go.’

He nodded towards our goal at the other end. ‘Go.’

As left wing, I huddled over my stick as usual and as Lliam, as ref, dropped the puck, I did as instructed and took off. Didn’t even see who won the face-off. Just skated.

Sure enough, out of the sky comes a puck. Tommy had got it, as he knew he would, and lobbed it high into the air from deep in defence to the red line, the puck landing about a metre in front of me and dying as it bounced so that I could scoop it with my stick and charge the goalie. I have no idea how far behind me the White team opponents were but it felt like I had three quarters of the ice to myself. Of course, I overthought it and tried to go high and the goalie got a glove on it to stop the goal. Dammit. But what a move by Tommy.

Imagine being able to do that. Imagine being able to be like Army who tossed the puck from behind the net over the goal frame and into the goalie’s back and then the goal. Imagine being able to be Shona, not bothering with armour, as she sweeps the puck even off the Melbourne Ice men, turns on the burners and then stick-handles for as long as she needs to before one of us eventually arrives for a pass and maybe even a shot.

Or Lliam who seems to love the crazy stick-handling as mentioned and then the blind pass or the skate-kick pass.

We all struggle to keep up, occasionally feel our hearts soar if we actually manage to poke-check a puck away from one of the coaches, and enjoy receiving their silky passes.

It always means it’s the end of term when we have these games. This time, it’s the end of another hockey year. Every year ticking over gets closer to when playing competitive hockey will get beyond me and so I tend to get melancholy as I drive home through the night. Big Cat wasn’t there tonight either, which felt weird, but I love the hockey community so much that there were endless people to chat with and laugh with and commiserate with after another coach had skated around them, barely breaking a sweat.

After such a shitty week for everybody, with the Sydney siege by that mentally ill crackpot, it was beautiful to be out on the ice, eyes and mind for nothing but the puck. I missed a lot of sweet coach-delivered chances, but I also buried a couple, so it was a good night for me.

Now the skates are drying and my gear is hanging for the final time this year, I’d imagine.

Roll on 2015 and whatever the next hockey adventures are going to be. I can’t wait.

Have a great Christmas and see you all in new year. Let’s Go Red Wings.

I heart hockey because …

By Nicko

From the past few weeks, in no particular order:

1. Tonight (Thursday night) at the Icehouse. Mustangs v Ice (Mustangs home game). A few rookies somehow get hold of the “Spotlight Room”, AKA the VIP Balcony. Hilarity ensues.

The Four Horsemen of the Mustang Apocalypse. Full respect.

Mostly, we’re in awe when we look down and see four Mustangs fans wearing their jersey with the names: “War”, “Death”, “Pestilence” and “Famine”.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Rookies unite in a gasp of Whoaaaaaaaa!

A little later, I wander into the bar and chat with a Mustangs fan who is also a Red Wing. He’s impressed by my prized signed Lidstrom jersey. It’s only when I go down for a coffee later in the second period that I see him again, glass-side,and realise I had been chatting with Death.

So I chat with Death some more. He explains that they’d wanted to get “Ice Suck” as their names on the back of the jerseys but the Mustangs president had frowned and shifted in his seat and said no, we don’t want to offend the Ice. Death and I agree, in hockey parlance, that’s kind of soft.

Anyway, there were four of them wanting jerseys, somebody had the brilliant idea … the Mustangs president frowned, shifted in his seat … “I’m not sure we can put ‘Death’ as the name on a Mustangs jersey …”

Thankfully, he lost the argument and the horsemen ride. Respect.

Just then, a Mustang rush happens right in front of us, the puck beating Denman and finding the top corner.

The orange fans go wild and I learn another valuable life lesson: Never chat to Death mid-game. It can only go badly for your team.

I go back to the balcony and the Ice dominate from that moment. Lliam scores a couple of scorching goals. Army drives home a bullet. Jason Baclig is back from injury and firing. 6-1 to my team.

Death and I shake hands after the buzzer. War stops by to say hello. We head our separate ways into the night. I love Thursday evening AIHL games.


2.    Oakleigh rink. A Friday night. Freezing, foggy, dilapidated, wonderful. Intermediate class in full swing, apart from me, still on the Ice from intro. Alongside me, Martin Kutek, Melbourne Ice defender, is sliding across the Oakleigh ice with both arms outstretched, pretending he’s an aeroplane … the idea being to lean your body and find an outside edge. This is my homework … I’m four years old again. I love it.

 3. A Wednesday at the Icehouse. I’m skating along, in the Intermediate warm-up, tapping a puck along.

Rookies invade the balcony for the Mustangs game.

Suddenly, my puck is gone. Ice star Lliam Webster has magically appeared to my right, controlling a puck.

The following exchange takes place:
Lliam: “What happened to your puck, huh? What happened to your puck?”
Me: “What happened to your face?”

Do AFL stars coach midweek and have exchanges like that? I doubt it. I’m five years old again. I love it.

4. Dev League and I’m gliding through the defensive blue line, concentrating hard, past the opposition bench. My legs are splayed apart, camped on my inside edges: my bloody annoying bad habit when gliding.

On the opposition bench, a player who shall remain nameless goes to yell: “Hey Place, my girlfriend can’t spread her legs that wide!”

But then decides such a sledge would be uncouth, and not befitting the noble, fine game of hockey where nobody ever cusses or cracks an inappropriate joke.

Plus his girlfriend, Tamara Bird, would kill him if she found out.

We’re teenagers again. I love it.

5. Watching the film, “Goon”. Crazy violent but funny.

Goon: crude but funny.

One scene:

Film’s hero gets called into the manager’s office.
The manager: “My brother has a team up in Halifax …”

(Jump cut to:)
A hockey locker-room, post game, with a bunch of bedraggled looking hockey players sitting around. In the middle of the floor stands a manager, hands on hips. Angry.
Halifax manager: “You know why you’re losing? BECAUSE YOU’RE SHIT!”

(Jump cut back to the manager’s office.)
The manager (still talking): “…Anyway, he has this player …”

“You now why you’re losing …?” becomes an instant catchcry in the Place household, right alongside “I’m so sorry I broke your rule, giant bat.

6. Dev League. A backhand shot of mine finds its way through a forest of sticks and legs and skates, pings off the inside of the goalpost, Nate the keeper unsighted and beaten. Stays out. So close.

Later, the puck is at my feet and the goal is half a metre away but there’s no way through the sticks and Nate’s padding. So close.

Later, Big Cat pings a hard shot at a gap, it rebounds, I’m there but my shot catches a deflection and ends in the side netting of the goal. So close.

We lose by a goal.

7. The Red Wings yet again prove themselves a team to love by officially signing draft pick Tomas Jurco to an entry level three-year contract, which means he will play in the feeder team, Grand Rapids, this season, and is a strong chance to make his debut for Detroit.

Big Cat and I have been following Jurco since he was a kid and his mad skills showed up on youTube way before he was drafted by Detroit. Big Cat was slightly deflated when he discovered there is only one day in age difference between them. Jurco, having been playing for a little longer than my boy, can do things like this:

8. A puck spills loose down the boards. Miraculously I am closest to it, defenders all going the wrong way. I turn, I skate hard, I almost get the shot at goal in before I’m mown down by faster skaters, back-checking.

How not to skate: Flatfoot Place strikes again – this is an extreme example of the bad habit I am working desperately to break. (Slowly getting there. Slowly)

I curse. It sits with me. In the rooms, a teammate says breezily: “You need to learn to skate faster.”

I take deep breaths. This is something I am aware of.

I get home by midnight and, as usual, can’t sleep before about 2 am. Something is gnawing at me but won’t quite come to front of lobe.

In the morning, I wake and it is there: In starting that breakaway, chasing the loose puck, I didn’t crossover or attempt a tight turn. No, I  turned, slowly, creakily, on both feet. I didn’t put a foot forward for a fast outside edge turn, or crossover to grab speed as I turned and chased the puck. I lost metres in that lack of manoeuvring, right at the start of my attack.

In class, or general skates, I can now mostly do crossovers, and tight turns, especially anti-clockwise.

But they’re still not instinctive, and that’s a problem.

Eyes only for an escaped puck and a free run to the goalie, these moves do not happen, are not my muscle-memory way to grab the speed I need. Or short steps, or whatever else would have helped.

A good realisation. Something I can work on. Interesting. Notes to self …

9. It’s now late on a Thursday night and the hockey week isn’t even close to over. Tomorrow night is NLHA training at Oakleigh; direct, meaningful drills and maybe a little philosophy with Joey Hughes. Then an Ice game on Saturday. (And one on Sunday, but I have footy.)

And so my hockey world continues to spin in its orbit. What’s not to like?