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.




Wednesday, I’m in love

A hockey player announced his retirement yesterday. Posted on Facebook that he was planning to hang up the skates. The reaction was predictable: everybody saying noooooooo, what are you thinking? (Except for one guy who said he quit nine years ago and has never looked back, which was interesting.) Seems my Facebook friend has decided the other priorities in life, starting with his heart, take precedence over chasing pucks, which is hard to argue with.

What did Gretsky famously say? Skate to where the puck will be, not where the puck is. Andy’s doing that, as far as I can tell. So good luck, amigo.

I’ve found myself wondering more and more this year how long I’ll stay in my sport. I mean, let’s face it: I took the sport up at 45 years old. I’m still pretty ordinary, at the age of 48. How far can I reasonably expect to go, while the rookies I started with aim for winter competition, then checking hockey, then a jersey with the Melbourne Ice, then the NHL draft … Hampered by a lack of time to train, a lack of skill improvement and a lack of functioning body parts, the frustration of watching others improving, training, getting better, while I flatline, has been overwhelming at times.

But then a Wednesday night like last night comes along and I feel the love for playing just flooding back into my veins.

The awesome Williamsburg cowboy boot shop. New York, 2008.

The awesome Williamsburg cowboy boot shop. New York, 2008.

I headed to the Icehouse for double dev league without my usual partner in icy crime, Big Cat, who had had what could only be described as ‘An Incident’, involving potentially unsteady legs, a spilled drink and a pair of my cowboy boots with slippery soles late on Saturday night. The result was a broken ankle and off the ice for more than a month, at least.

They have a history those cowboy boots. I bought them in a spectacular shop in Williamsburg, just over the Willy B Bridge from Manhattan, quite a few years ago, coincidentally just before Halloween. Two pairs of very authentic, shipped up from Texas or somewhere boots for $150, total. Bargain. They’re not super comfortable and it would now appear they have very little support if you go sideways on them, as Big Cat found out the hard way, but Hell, they have stories.

So last night, I showed up alone, which was strange, and got changed, wondering, as always, if my knee would behave or not, once I started skating? In my last game for the Cherokees, a Halloween special, it started hurting midway through the first shift and I lost all power.

But last night, the knee decided to work and suddenly, bam, I could play again! Two hours of belting up and down the ice, without worrying about whether I had any drive. It was glorious. We were 0-4 down in minutes in the first game, but worked our way back for a 6-4 win. Too much fun. Best of all, I wasn’t muttering or wincing or worrying. I was able to concentrate on other things, like hitting teammates with passes or driving to The Slot. Sometimes, just driving my legs as hard as I could on a chase or a breakaway and feeling the wind through my grill.

The only guy who could have felt happier than me at this point was Darren Helm, the much maligned, injury-prone #43 for the Wings. He finally actually really truly made it back into the line-up for Detroit last weekend, among many speeches from coaches and team staff about how fans couldn’t expect too much, how it would take months for Helm to find his old dangerous speed and  zing, as he returned from a year of back and groin issues. Yeah, yeah, we get it. First shift? Helm gets on a breakaway, burns a D-man in his wake and scores. Oh yeah. Wings win 5-0. Inspiration right there.

Darren Helm, finally back for the Red Wings, shows that he remembers how to skate. Oh, to move like him. Pic: Detroit News.

Darren Helm, finally back for the Red Wings, shows that he remembers how to skate. Oh, to move like him. Pic: Detroit Free Press.

The second hour of Wednesday dev, starting at 10 pm, is more or less a winter player drop-in session now. Numbers are still happily really low, so we were shift-on, shift-off, as we’d been for the 8.45 pm game, which is a thrashing, but the standard is fantastic. It’s one of those hours of hockey where you know half the people on the ice could just tear you a new one if they decided to break a sweat, but they’re nice enough to let you live.

But they play with such skill and flair. The passes are so sharp, and I have to skate like a motherfucker to keep up at times, which is fantastic when I can. Tommy Powell, as ref, helpfully whispering: ‘Get in there, Nicko. Hit someone!’ whenever I skate past, making me laugh. I can’t believe how much I still love Wednesday night dev after several years of turning up. It’s just fun. Coaches like Army, Tommy, Shona and Lliam cracking jokes and enjoying themselves, while we play our hearts out but with no actual stakes. I spent a couple of days beating myself up for a bad mistake in last week’s Cherokees game that cost us a goal. In Dev, you screw up, learn from it, shrug and keep skating.

By the end, as 11 pm clicked over, and my teams had won both games, my broken toe was moving from numb to very sore. My legs were jelly. The tape on my stick was fraying off. I felt destroyed in all the good ways. Damn, it was a great feeling. I couldn’t stop smiling.

And today my legs are heavy. The stairs are difficult, just because I’m tired, not because there’s Something Wrong. I feel like I had a work-out, a real work-out, which has been a rare treat this year. And now I just want to be back on the ice, trying to fly. I remember wise Yoda Byrne, my Interceptors teammate (currently terrorising Newcastle defences) telling me about how he could feel it when he got his skating stride right and found speed. How it wasn’t technical, it was a sense. I want to keep exploring that, with legs that will work with my brain. But won’t be able to before Sunday afternoon at the Oakleigh Ghetto, when we take on Jets Black, a mutation of my old Jets team from last year. It should be fun. I might even be able to move.

That game is three days away but I can’t wait.

Retirement? What, are you crazy?