The lucky mo

The lucky mo. Deep in Movember.

The lucky mo. Deep in Movember.

It was halfway through November that it occurred to me. Ever since I had shaved off my beard and started growing an unsightly trucker moustache, for Movember, I had scored a point or even points in every hockey game I’d played. A couple of goals and a few assists for the Cherokees, goals or assists in every development league outing on a Tuesday night… I suddenly thought: is this a thing? And the moment I thought that, then, yes, this was now a thing.

A magical moustache.

Hockey, like most sports, lends itself to superstitions. As the feeling took hold that my moustache was a hideous yet potentially lucky charm, I found myself going onto the ice thinking about The Movember Streak and marvelling when I left the ice with yet more points in my pocket.

Pre-training, sitting in the Henke Rink stands, watching a session before ours, I got chatting to Christine Cockerell, of Melbourne Ice and Australian team fame. Do you have any superstitions, I asked? What’s your version of the Lucky Mo? Chris said, while dressing for a game, she must always touch her left shin guard first. ‘If I can’t see what leg it is in my bag, I move my bag around, or I move it with another item till I can see the left shin pad,’ she said. Chris also always wears two pairs of socks over her shin guards, which is a whacky superstition.

Christine Cockerill in action for the Ice. Pic: Tania Chalmers Photography.

Christine Cockerell in action for the Ice. Pic: Tania Chalmers Photography.

I put a call out on the Book of Faces. Hockey players came back with some beauties, like Justin Young who claims kissing his stick on the way to the bench isn’t a superstition, uh uh, no way; or there was the goalie who doesn’t let his skates touch the blue or centre lines, and who kisses the crossbar (Gary Agular). Dan ‘Yoda’ Byrne doesn’t drink liquid during a game, which is pretty strange, but chews gum, while Daniel Tofters insists on smoking a cigarette before donning his gear. ‘100 per cent success rate this season,’ he wrote.

Emma Rogers also made me laugh with: ‘During my first playoffs I would have half a caramel slice about 5 minutes before the game Every game. We made finals and won . I also have a habit of putting a mint in my mouth at the start of every period. And drink next to no water during a game.’ What is it with these superstitious freaks who actively dehydrate during games?

Will Ong said he carries a potato around in his pocket while coaching the Jets but I’m not sure if that’s a superstition or just a desperate cry for help (I love you, Will!) and Trent Stokes’ answer was hilarious: ‘Not very superstitious but there’s a couple things I do to get into the mindset for a game. Always eat the same meal 2 hours out from a game. Always pack my gear in the same order and put my gear on in the same order. Listen to the same music on the way to the game. Always re-tape and wax my stick on game day whether it needs it or not. Try and sit in the same spot in the locker room. Always get to the game 1 hour early. Always start getting dressed 45mins before the game. Always lace my skates, walk and then re-lace. Always touch the goal once during warm ups. Finally, always look at the scoreboard during warm ups and take a second to envision winning and scoring.’

Other than all that, he’s not superstitious at all.

It’s important to note that a true superstition demands that some illogical part of your brain actually believes this will have an effect on whether you’ll be successful or not. Habits, rituals or systems don’t really count. For example, Will Ong and I both apparently share the exact same socks/skates routine: Socks on first, left skate, right skate, left shin pad, right shin pad, left sock tape, right sock tape. I do that every game, including a complicated over-taping routine that Lee Ampfea taught me years ago and I’ve stuck with. But I don’t think it would ruin my game if I didn’t follow the routine, so that’s not a superstition.

Instead, think of the classics: carrying a rabbit’s foot, throwing salt over your shoulder, seeing a black cat … all pretty whacky. The French have a fantastic one where if you give somebody a knife as a gift (and an Opinel always makes for an awesome gift, btw, if you’re still hunting for Christmas), the recipient MUST give the knife-giver some money in return. It can be five cents, that’s fine. But the friendship will be cut unless money changes hands as a gesture of good will, as the knife passes ownership the other way. I’ve been involved in several knife gifts, because of my French extended family, and trust me, that superstition is taken very seriously. I like it.

Many superstitions have a basis in fact, or at least a good story behind them, if you bother to dig, such as walking under a ladder. Back in the day, before fancy gallows were invented, it was common to execute somebody by tying a noose to the top of a ladder, putting the rope around their neck, having the condemned person climb the ladder and then swing the ladder the other way so they were now underneath instead of on top of the ladder. They’d be hanged in that space now between the wall and the ladder; hence that space developing a reputation as a place of bad energy.

Army's Movember style.

Melbourne Ice player and dev league coach Matt Armstrong’s strong Movember style.

The Geelong footy club is known as the Cats (instead of its previous nickname The Pivotonians) because, decades ago, a cat ran onto the ground midway through a home game where Geelong was being badly beaten by Collingwood. After the delay, while somebody caught the cat, Geelong roared back and won. The next week, a kid walked into the local hardware shop where the Geelong captain worked, and handed him a pile of homemade badges in the shape of a cat, one for each player. The Geelong team wore the badges that week and won again … the nickname stuck.

Hockey is full of characters, at every level, from Melbourne summer hackers to the NHL, so it shouldn’t surprise that superstitious thinking is ever-present. In fact, goaltender Ben Scrivens wrote a fantastic piece for the Players Tribune on the topic (thanks to Stephen Maroney for pointing me to it). It’s a fun read. As in, Patrick Roy really chatted to his goalposts? Then again, I shouldn’t be surprised: I once wrote a novel where a character had conversations with his own mouth, so all bets are off, really.

My superstitious Mo Streak made it through the entire month. Every time I stepped onto the ice with that bad boy on my top lip, I got points. It was miraculous, really. Plus I raised a thousand bucks for men’s health, which was amazing. (Thanks to everybody who donated.)

And then December arrived, and I shaved. And the mo was gone.

And I had dev league on December 6.

And – rookie error – I told Tommy Powell and Matt Armstrong about the streak, and about this being my first time out there without the mo.

And the entire game, the three of us, and Big Cat, became consumed on whether I’d go pointless and the superstition would be confirmed.

In the first period I had looks but couldn’t score. In the second period, I screwed up a strong chance, losing the handle on the puck while skating with space through the blue line. Tommy was going nuts. ‘No points, Place! Still no points!’

Then late in the second, I flicked a pass off the boards to Malks, who is a Div 2 forward who attacks like a maniac and has a good shot. He’s a good guy to carry you to points, deserved or not, when you’re trying to shake clear of a superstition.

He flew off down the ice, taking on the defence. I shuffled along behind, on my ageing legs, trying to keep up so I could be there for a potential rebound if his shot was blocked. But it wasn’t. He sank it, inside the post, top left corner. Nothing but net.

Primary assist: N. Place.

So long, mo. It was fun while it lasted.

So long, mo. It was fun while it lasted.

On the opposition bench, Army went nuts. On our bench, Tommy exploded with excitement and laughter. I dove to the ice in a joyous Superman, sliding all the way to the red line.
Malks tentatively approached and tapped me on the helmet, saying, ‘Um, nice pass.’
(Later I asked him if he had any idea why this meaningless dev league goal had a response worthy of a Stanley Cup overtime goal? He said no, he had no clue. So that must have been surreal for him.)

And just like that, my superstition bit the dust. It turns out I can still play hockey without the Mo from Hell.

Although, sure enough, with my beard growing back, I was held pointless against a strong Demons team on Sunday, so normality has truly returned, dammnit.

I had better try not to walk under any ladders between now and Sunday’s last game of the year.

Happy Christmas, everybody.




Power Skating: where pain meets purpose

So, Wednesday night has a new routine. Big Cat, Alex McGoon, Big Dan Mellios, Willie Ong and my other usual on-ice partners, all dress in the red and white Icehouse jerseys for 10 pm development league. I walk out of the change rooms wearing something else, like my black Red Wings training jersey, or maybe my blue Grand Rapid Griffins jersey.

And I go seek out Icehouse coaches Army or Tommy who, six weeks in, I’m pretty sure see me coming.

‘How are you for numbers tonight?’ I ask every week.

‘I think we’re okay.’

‘Someone in the change rooms was saying that it looks like the teams might be short,’ I say. ‘I’m supposed to be doing power skating, but I don’t mind switching if you need more players.’

By now, they’ve totally clocked me. ‘Listen Place, if you want to skip out of power skating and play dev league, we don’t care. Just play.’

‘No, no, I’m totally up for power skating,’ I completely lie. ‘I’m only offering to help.’

‘It’s your call, Nicko … totally up to you.’

Knowing eyes and grins. Damn them to Hell.

I trudge off to the Bradbury rink to Power Skating, and an hour of pain.

I tried Power Skating once before, in February last year, but had to stop after about four classes because it was The Year Of The Knee and my injured, then-undiagnosed left knee simply couldn’t handle the work. That, matched with my ineptness on skates when trying some of Zac’s more ambitious manoeuvres, beat me at the time, as I tried to just remain fit enough to play for my summer league team on weekends.

The end of another hour of Power Skating with Zac. Dig deep, peoples. Dig deep. Photo: Macklin Place

The end of another hour of Power Skating with Zac. Dig deep, peoples. Dig deep. Photo: Macklin Place

Since my knee recovered, I’ve done all my usual tricks of playing endless dev league and off-ice work, but I hadn’t had the stomach to return to Power Skating. One move that killed my knee (skating backward on one foot, landing sideways, on the outside edge, of the other foot, spinning 360 degrees on that edge and landing back on the original foot, ready to go again) still haunted me. And yet … in games, I know deep down that it’s my skating ability that holds me back and that others are skating better and better every week, while my improvement has been slower.

It was time to take action, to shake things up. And so this term I resolved to miss the fun and competitiveness of dev league, and go work on my moves.

But man, it’s hard. After almost four years of this hockey adventure, Power Skating is still able to just poke every single element of my game that I haven’t mastered. That’s the entire point, I suppose, but it doesn’t make it an enjoyable hour. Put it this way, I’ve found myself reading articles on negative thinking and how to ward off ‘I can’t do that’ negativity that gets in your way in life. And skating.

Crossover, crossover, crossover. Perfect it, Place. Photo: Macklin

Crossover, crossover, crossover. Perfect it, Place. Photo: Macklin

Every class starts with intense forward C-cuts, and then crossovers. Then the same thing, going backwards. Backward C-cuts. Backward crossovers. Occasionally raising a leg in the air, to glide on one outside edge for a while until Zac tells us to resume skating.

This is the opening ten minutes … a stark reminder of how dubious I remain at backward skating, at crossovers on my lesser side, at performing a genuine C-cut. On the plus side, there are elements of these that most skaters cheat on, and I’m trying really hard not to cheat on technique in this class. Pulling off a genuine toe-to-heel, never-let-your-skate-leave-the-ice C-cut back to heel-meeting-heel is bloody difficult, forward or backward. I know lots of really fast, really nimble skaters who I bet couldn’t do it, if Zac forensically made them show the technique. Of course, it doesn’t matter in a game. See the puck, get the puck. How you scramble down the ice on a breakaway doesn’t actually matter as long as you’re fast enough or nimble enough to outskate and outwit the opposition players. The Shots On Goal stat is ultimately more important than the Flawless Skating Technique stat, even if everybody knows the latter will always help the former.

Power Skating has no scoreboard, gets rid of the excuses and shortcuts of game play, and that’s why I struggle so much. It makes you concentrate intensely on exactly what your feet are doing, and how your weight is balanced, and whether your knees are bent (they never are: never enough) and everything else that, as Melbourne Ice import Sean Hamilton put it to me recently, falls under the essential skater learning category of: ‘Ass to ankles.’

On the adjacent Henke Rink last night I heard the horn blow as one side or another scored a goal (turns out two of them were Big Cat Place, showing some pre-summer form) but I was lost in puck control while high-stepping backward down the ice, or performing double fast-start crossovers in gut-busting races across the ice, or those bastard backward crossovers, or – mercifully – learning saucer passes and flip-passes where, finally, my slightly more presentable puck-handling skills got some airtime.

Despite what my teammates might say, this is not how I would normally skate. Power Skating with Zac takes you to strange places. Photo: Macklin

Despite what my teammates might say, this is not how I would normally skate. Power Skating with Zac takes you to strange places. Photo: Macklin

Zac as a teacher is endlessly patient and supportive. He skates like nobody you’ve ever seen, teaching this stuff since he was a teenager back in Canada. It’s always fun to watch the entire class sag as he shows how a move should be done and casually pulls out some one-foot, crazy-angle snow-flying hockey stop at the end without thinking about it.

Everybody has been telling me that this Power Skating class will be good for my skating. That I will emerge a little faster or with better outside edges or just more complete as a skater. God, I hope so. It’s a truly difficult and challenging class. But I want to hit summer in the best shape I possibly can and I want to make breakaways count and not falter mid-turn when it matters in a game.

As they used to say in one of my favourite ever TV shows, The Wire: ‘All the pieces matter.’

(In fact, the full quote suits my purposes even better: ‘We’re building something here, detective. We’re building it from scratch. Alllll the pieces matter.’)

A few more Wednesday nights of pain won’t kill me and might even do a lot of good. Hell, if I have gained even one kph of extra speed, I might sign up again for next term. Don’t quote me on that.

Getting edgy

Since I got back from the Gold Coast, I’ve managed to hit the ice a few times. I had a morning skate, which I always love because a) the ice is practically empty and b) those who are there are usually interesting.

On Tuesday, there were a few figure skaters doing their thing and one older dude speed skating, but in third gear. As in, sort of lazily doing laps but in full speed-skate position, one arm behind back, crouched, long strides.

I was down on the goal line at the far end of the rink, entertaining the hockey Gods with my attempts

Cossack dancing: Not so good on the ice, or on new edges.

to skate only on my outside edges along the line, or doing the tight-turn drill Army had us doing a few weeks ago, stepping over the line and trying to turn as tightly as possible on one foot, either inside or outside edge.

Like I said, the key word here is attempting.

While I was getting up off the deck from one such attempt, another hockey player hit the ice. Tall, dark, dashing. Name of Tom, once we’d introduced ourselves. He skated like a dream, with powerful confident strides, broken only by the occasional flawless one-foot hockey stop, snow flying. Or to pivot effortlessly, to either side. Or to skate backwards, with the occasional backward crossover to mix things up.

“Wow,” I said. “What level are you at? Dev league?”

“Intro,” he said.


But one thing I liked about him: he fell over a lot. As in, I’d be doing my thing on that far goal line and I’d hear the crash as Tom bodily hit the boards at speed at the other end (figure skaters, not so happy). Tom was fully prepared to push himself and his ability beyond comfortable, which I liked him for. It was apparently his first time in armour, so he figured he may as well as crash and get used to it.

Falling is the only way to get better, as they keep telling us in class, and as I keep proving … but without getting better. (Ok, maybe a bit, at glacier pace.) Another friend was skating last night as we finished class and was proud and/or relieved to get through the skate with a dry butt, which is reasonable. I looked down at my hockey kit, covered in snow from repeated falls. Maybe that’s the key: to know that by wearing the kit, you’re padded and able to get wet and icy without worrying?

At class last night, Melbourne Ice player Tommy Powell joined Shona and Scuba in putting us through lots of drills. Heaps of skating, which was good, involving puck handling, one-on-two, attack-and-defence. Fun.

Well, eventually fun. To start things off, they had us doing all sorts of skating drills, such as skating and crouching while trying to put one leg forward and then the other, like a Russian Cossack dancer jogging. Nuts. In fact, here’s video of our class trying it. (I’m the one in the traditional Red Wings colours). See for yourself.

I had just had my skates re-edged and to a different, deeper cut. Having new edges always makes me skate like a drunkard (ok, even more so), and I was not loving these drills to push your skating ability. My feet felt wrong all night and I was wobbly, but not so badly that I didn’t enjoy the class.

Talking to Josh, a classmate, between drills, he said that it usually takes him three skates before new edges feel okay. So I had better try to somehow skate between now and Saturday’s next official Intermediate outing. Or maybe I should just wear the skates to the supermarket, or for a day at work … that should blunt the edge, huh?

In other news: Our big USA trip is close to booked and looks like including four Red Wings games. One in Washington (four rows back from the glass: booked!), three at the Joe Louis Arena, plus a tour of the facility by the Wings, who seem genuinely pleased we’re making the trip from Melbourne. And, for a change-up, we are also ticketed for Harry Potter World in Florida.

Life is about diversity. Write that down.