OK, You can look at this two ways: I’ve been slack, or I’ve stayed heroically on message. This is allegedly a hockey blog and the vast majority of our American adventure has not involved pucks or ice, so I was right not to blog about it. The reality is also that I’ve loved having a month of not being in front of computer screens, so for a while there the idea of trying to write anything, even about hockey, wasn’t appealing.
Sometimes you just need to live life. I always want to slap people who look at their entire vacation through a viewfinder (“Here’s the Eiffel Tower, although I didn’t see it in the flesh, because I was filming every second.”) and tell them that.
I’m as guilty as anybody of wanting to record moments, to immortalise them through an iPhone camera. But you can’t always. And you don’t need to. And so it is with this trip, despite the literally thousands of photos and short videos we have shot along the way (Will aka Kittens has got the camera bug big time).
And yet … White water rafting in Carolina, a bald eagle flapping majestically above the Fall leaves ahead of us. The Chrysler Building in the sunshine. Mack asleep, with his head on my legs, like a kid, as he hasn’t for five years or so, and may never again, thanks to a brutal early start for the train to Chicago, where I’m typing this. A crazy knife-scarred taxi driver’s wildly inappropriate stories of nightclub adventures and women, while hammering through Chicago lakeside streets at 60 miles per hour, all of us laughing our heads off. The eery emptiness of Detroit’s downtown. The sheer rush of the start of the 0-40 mph in 2 seconds Hulk rollecoaster in Orlando. Gotta live all these things.
Hockey was nowhere for the first few weeks. In LA, we drove past a few Kings billboards but nothing to get excited about. In New York, apart from one small flock of Rangers fans, gathered in a bar next to Madison Square Garden to watch their team’s early season game in Sweden (they lost), we barely sighted the sport. The NHL store on Sixth Avenue was our only fix ( and potential source of financial ruin).
In Washington DC, we saw the Red Wings play live for the first time. A capacity crowd of Caps fans, with plenty of Wings sprinkled. Us among 20,000 hockey fans. The sheer joy of diving into the energy of a NHL game and seeing the Wings for real, in the flesh. Even if they did stink things up and lose 7-1. Watching Ovechkin as well. I still can’t believe how hard his shot is. A wrist flick that could put a puck through a wall.
But even then, DC doesn’t live and breathe hockey. It was in Chicago that we finally found what we were looking for. There’s no way I can write it but hockey is in the fabric of the city. Johnny’s Icehouse rinks, one of which is the Blackhawks’ training venue, in dubious western suburbs of the city; Will and I wandering like tourists with neon signs around our neck. making pilgramages to Gunzo’s and then Total Hockey, massive stores devoted to the sport. (Will and I loading up on new gear, so much cheaper than Australia, and with so much quality and choice.)
But even more than hockey retail, it’s the outdoor rinks, the players everywhere; talking to guys who have played their whole lives. Winter approaching with lakes and rivers freezing so that people like us can play pond hockey or skate for fitness. A sense of hockey being central, of being important.
Of course, we were glittering novelty items: Australian hockey players?? But accepted unquestioningly into the tribe. John, a slick-haired Chicago futures trader just finished a drop-in game at Johnny’s, who possibly saved our lives by offering to drive us to Gunzo’s – quite a distance west and through some parts of Madison Street we really were best not to walk – sympathized about learning hockey stops and pivots, even though, for him, that struggle was as a kid. A guy in his 50s, on the train back from Total Hockey, telling about his life of hockey, up to playing street hockey as well as winter hockey. Players who made it to college level; something to be respected by everybody’s tone.
In Detroit, we stood at the shrine of the Red Wings, at the base of the steep stairs leading into the aging Joe Louis Arena. Inside, I found myself meeting Gordie Howe, THE Gordie Howe. Feeling like such a fraud; a rookie Australian chatting with this whispering-voiced, white-haired man only metres from his statue celebrating the greatest Detroit career ever. But his eyes watching me as I explained how honoured I was to meet him, that this was my very first time at the Joe, being an Australian. Becoming genuinely interesting to him at that point, instead of just another book signing. Howe ditching the polite photo opp to start actually taking to me, telling me he wasn’t allowed into Australia although I couldn’t understand why, his soft soft voice swallowed by a buzzing crowd, pre Wings-Sharks. Me joking that he must have been seen as a dodgy character – hanging shit on Gordon Howe, for fuck’s sake – and him getting a gleam in those old eyes; his minders’ beaming, slightly startled faces as I said goodbye telling me how rare that moment had been. how I should appreciate what had just magically happened. Aussie rookie has genuine chat with Hockey Royalty. Give me that brief volume-challenged connection with The Red Wings’ immortal No 9 any day over tea with the Queen or, Hell, somebody who matters.
I’ll have to write a whole different blog about watching the Wings live. Right now, we’re en route to Chicago. The Blackhawks lost 3-0 last night, so there will be talk of that. I won’t wear my brand new, signed Lidstrom jersey while in the Windy City. Wings fans aren’t liked in that town. On Tuesday, we head back to Detroit for three days, and two games. I think I have a tour of the Joe, by the Wings, lined up for Tuesday afternoon. Hockey adventures await. And then a plane home.
It’s been a trip. I can’t begin to do it justice in brief words. So much for me being a writer.