The pelican

Yes, we segwayed Washington. Not even sorry.

Yes, we segwayed Washington. Not even sorry.

Four years ago, on this day, I was sitting up on an all-night train from South Carolina to Washington DC. I adore long train rides, always have, but on this ride, I was sad, having waved goodbye, for who knows how long, to one of my best friends in the world. Trent is a Horsham boy and an old journo brother-in-arms who married an American woman and now has to live over there, meaning I hardly ever get to spend time with him. On a big US trip, my boys and I had dropped into his world. We’d attended soccer training with his daughters. We’d gone past a freeway sign to a town called Batcave. I’d driven a left-hand-drive car for the first time. We’d drunk local beer in a folky bar in Asheville. We’d talked deep philosophy until late in the night. We’d talked shit until late into the night. We’d gone white water rafting, accepting a dare from the guide to go overboard, gasping and laughing in freezing river water, and I’d spotted a bald eagle lazily flapping ahead of us. We’d gone camping in bear country where Trent had told me that you didn’t really need to worry about bears unless you were stupid enough to have food in your tent. One guy got mauled because he had a chocolate bar in his pack, for example. I tried to sleep, knowing my two boys were in a tent just on the other side of the dying fire; sleeping soundly but at the mercy of bears that almost certainly would never come. At about 4 am, I became convinced I had a chocolate bar in my bag. I gave myself a lecture about paranoia and finally slept. In the early morning, the sun just rising, Trent and I creaked to our feet, straight-shot local authentic moonshine to jolt ourselves awake, and grinned at one another. I checked my bag and found a chocolate bar.

Camping by the South Toe River, North Carolina. Bear country. 2011.

Camping by the South Toe River, North Carolina. Bear country. 2011.

Now I was aware that Trent was fading with every mile as American countryside rolled by. This train’s seats were annoyingly about 10 centimetres too close together, just short enough in leg room so there was no way to get comfortable. My youngest son, Macklin, trying to sleep, stirred and shifted and then lay in my lap. I put my arm across his shoulders and it occurred to me that this moment may never come again. When kids are young, you get used to them flailing all over you, sleeping in your bed, or slumping asleep on top of you when they hit that moment kids get when they just can’t stay awake. But Mack was 15 now and at an age where he was starting to want his own space. He had outgrown holding hands as you walk along the street, or overt displays of affection. Was midway through that awkward teenage stage of growing and separating. So it was a rare thing to have him curl up in my lap.

And so we rolled into Washington, a city I had never particularly cared to visit but this time had a reason. As our endless train ride came to an end at Union Station (Paul Kelly: ‘He came in on a Sunday, every muscle aching, walking in slow motion, like he’d just been hit’) a private plane, the Red Wing 1, the Detroit hockey team’s plane, was getting ready to fly from Motor City.

And we had tickets to our first ever NHL game, Detroit @ Washington at the Verizon Centre.

We had a day and a half to fill and hit Washington hard. Peered through the fence at the White House, toured the Smithsonian museums – highly recommend the space museum and the pop culture one – ate at the spy museum café, bought the t-shirt, took a Segway tour of the monuments. Visited Abe Lincoln in his big chair. Stood where Martin Luther-King stood, looking not at a million people by the reflection pond but instead at a work site; an uprooted, drained pond-full of pipes and mud. The boys headed to the Washington zoo while I grabbed a public rent-a-bike and pedalled my way around town, seeing the monuments, the Newseum and other treasures.

And then, finally, it was game time.

Something I had waited years to see. Pic: Nicko

Something I had waited years to see. Pic: Nicko

I can still remember walking into the building; worrying that my first-ever Stubhub ticket purchase would be declared invalid at the door. Relieved as they bleeped us through. So many hockey jerseys, including enough Detroit red and white that I relaxed about us being targeted as the enemy in the building. Americans so friendly, Caps fans or Wings; mostly so happy to meet three crazy Australians who had travelled half a world to be there. I remember watching warm-ups; marvelling at seeing Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Nick Lidstrom in the flesh. Other favourite players like Helm, Bertuzzi and Howard. Taking photos of everything from a pyramid of pucks on the bench to the crowd filling the venue.See the video below: this is my film of my heroes emerging onto the bench and then to the ice (plus a baby-faced assistant coach, Jeff Blashill, making his way onto the bench alongside Babs).

After decades as a journalist, including covering world title fights, grand slam tennis and many other major events, I was like a kid; a fan again. It wasn’t just seeing the Wings either. Our seats were close to the Washington bench and we were only metres from Alexander Ovechkin, the huge Russian with the Bond-villain face, and the hardest shot I have ever seen. He flicked his wrist like every other player but somehow the puck that came off his stick looked like it would blast clean through a brick wall. No wonder he scores so many goals.

It was Nick Lidstrom’s 1500th NHL game. During a break in play, the achievement was written on the four way big screen above the ice and the entire building gave him an ovation. Lidstrom glancing up to the screen, realising the applause was for him and graciously raising his stick, in his under-stated Perfect Human kind of way.

Good seats at my first ever NHL game. Shame about the scoreline. Pic: Nicko

Good seats at my first ever NHL game. Shame about the scoreline. Pic: Nicko

The Wings lost 7-1. Got jumped 3-0 early and never got it back, Ty Conklin having a less than stellar game in net. No matter, we thought. We have three looming games in Detroit, at the Joe, to console us. We’ll watch the Wings win at home and sing ‘Don’t stop believing’ with our people. We flew off to Chicago, then to Motor City, and Detroit lost every game. We flew back to Australia and Detroit proceeded to set a NHL record for winning the most consecutive games at home.

But do I care? Not at all. At the time, I thought I’d be back in a year or two to watch more NHL games. In fact, when the Wings were announced as a Winter Classic team, Big Cat and I started trying to measure up a trip.

But four years is a lot of sand through the hourglass. Life has changed. My boys have grown, become more independent, as they should. Are planning overseas trips that don’t include me – and on their own coin. Meanwhile, I returned to Australia, felt my heart lurch one or two more times and then met a French woman who turned out to be the unlikely piece of the puzzle I needed for my life to make sense. All my overseas travel since has been aimed at Bretagne instead of Detroit, but believe me, I am okay with that. If you’d seen Chloe’s home town of Rennes, you’d understand.

But exactly four years since I saw the Wings first hand, I find myself wondering when or even if I’ll ever see them again in the flesh? Lidstrom’s No. 5 is now in the rafters of the Joe, which itself is on borrowed time as a new stadium starts to take shape in Detroit’s midtown. Zetterberg and Datsyuk are in deep, deep hockey middle age – although I have them covered on that front, even if I am only two games into my fourth competitive summer.

I was among a group of backpackers in Greece a long time ago, who gathered for a communal meal in Delphi. I got talking to a bloke from Yorkshire who had cycled to Delphi in the hope of seeing a pelican. He was a twitcher and pelican was high on his never-seen bucket list. An unimaginably exotic bird if you were from Yorkshire; something he couldn’t quite believe he might actually see, if he was lucky in the next day or so at a nearby lake. I thought of all the pelicans I’d seen in Australia. Even on the wastelands of the Geelong Road, you see flocks of them flapping overhead. Once, between waves while I was surfing alone around the coast from Lorne, a pelican flew up and landed right next to me, in the water. It hung out for 20 minutes or so and, high on nature and surfing and the beauty of life, I talked and sang to this enormous bird. Not unreasonably, it left soon after. Yet for this Yorkshire cyclist, he’d worked so hard to try even to glimpse one. Such a rare jewel.

Maybe live NHL hockey will be that for me? Both my boys are studying careers that could easily see them end up living overseas, including Toronto and LA so perhaps that’s how I will cross paths with the Winged Wheel once more; on a visit to my sons as they take on the world?

Or maybe I never will. Maybe money will tighten or health will change or circumstances will dictate that my days of jetsetting are done? I t took me until I was 24 years of age to manage to leave Australia and I’ve always felt it is a privilege to fly, to see other countries. I’ve never taken it for granted. And one day it will be over.

Maybe Washington and Detroit in 2011 was my one shot. Maybe I’m destined to be huddled in front of NHL Gamecenter for however many years I have left on the planet, riding a televised puck and Detroit’s fortunes, but with the blessing that in my memory bank is the additional colour and flavour of what it was like to Be There. Of having walked into the Verizon Centre and the Joe Louis Arena; of having seen the numbers and the pennants in the rafters; of having lived NHL hockey live and in the flesh.

How blessed am I to have done that? For that experience, and the wider trip with my sons, four years ago. I saw my pelican. And it was amazing.

Can you feel it? A new NHL season begins.

The puck dropped in a new NHL season today and you can feel the energy coursing through the veins of the Australian hockey community. None of last year’s depressing extended lock-out with its owner-player political bullshit. Just a set date for the full season and 30 elite teams ready to go. There’s been no shortage of action on Day One, either, with three games producing 7, 10 and 9 goals.

The Wings play tomorrow, against Buffalo, and I can’t wait to set up my trusty iPad on my desk, and see my team go to it, stopping only for a new year’s range of Belle Tyre adverts and occasional cries of ‘Pizza Pizza!’ Hoping captain Zetterberg and genius Datsyuk can brain ’em from the jump.

Pavel Datsyuk: ready to rock the eastern conference.

Pavel Datsyuk: ready to rock the eastern conference.

It works so beautifully that the AFL season finishes on a Saturday and four days later NHL action streams onto my Gamecenter. It’s not just the Big Show, either. We’re all gearing up for Victoria’s summer league, which is looming fast; ordering jerseys, training, wondering about linemates we haven’t played with yet, secretly hoping we win a C or an A on our jersey, finding a new enthusiasm for stick-and-puck sessions or even general skates at the Icehouse. A bunch of the Melbourne Ice players have headed to North America for a wedding, and so are planning to attend NHL games over there, including most of our coaches, which will make the start of dev league next week kind of interesting. But I can’t wait to talk to them about the experience of walking into the Joe Louis Arena for the first time.

And meanwhile, here in Melbourne, half a world away, I find myself surfing far-flung corners of the interweb, devouring anything I can find about all the levels of hockey underneath the NHL. For example, Australia’s Nathan Walker scored a goal for the Washington Capitals in the pre-season, celebrated wildly by all of us Antipodean skaters – the 19-year-old is the first Australian to make it so far – before he was sent down to the Hershey Bears in the AHL.

The magnificent Youngstown Phantoms jersey.

The magnificent Youngstown Phantoms jersey.

Walker’s continued rise got me looking at the team he was with before the Bears, and so I found myself thinking seriously about spending a hundred bucks on a Youngstown Phantoms jersey. And found myself also checking out the home site of a team Youngstown played – the magnificently-named Green Bay Gamblers.

And over coffee, with old Interceptor friends, tried to come up with the perfect team name (Agreed best effort was ’20 Canadians and a Swede’), and pre-dawn, woken by howling wind, read about the Wings’ top draft pick, Anthony Mantha, scoring four goals and adding an assist for the Les Foreurs de Val-d’Or against the Quebec Remparts. Or watching insane goals like this one.

Or revisiting shenanigans like this:

All between sweating on whether Gustav Nyquist will get his deserved chance soon in the winged wheel, after being shunted back to the Wings’ feeder term, Grand Rapids, because of a roster crunch. And debating the Wings’ defence with fellow fans on Facebook. And hoping my broken toe will fit into a skate at training tonight. Looking forward to a practice match against the

It's not often fans can openly cheer a bunch of gamblers.

It’s not often fans can openly cheer a bunch of gamblers.

Tigersharks, featuring plenty of mates, on the weekend. And watching social media ramp up among fellow local players.

Somewhere I read that Michael Clarke, the Australian Test cricket captain, won’t be going on an Indian tour, as he nurses his bad back for the looming return Ashes series in the Australian summer. I got through maybe one paragraph before his plight sort of ‘keyword-connected’ in my brain and I was flicking the browser over to the Detroit Free Press to see if Darren Helm’s back has improved enough to join general training? Put on injured reserve, to help that roster squeeze; but edging closer to health. OK, that’s cool.

How long until that Red Wings-Sabres game starts at the Joe to start the 2013-14 campaign?

Oh man … one more sleep.

Doppelganger unchained

Big Cat Place and I trucked along to Hoyts on a hockey-night off to finally see the new Tarantino movie, Django Unchained. I liked it a lot, from the usual kick-ass Tarantino soundtrack and visuals to some humour and nice buddy movie moments.

But mostly, I couldn’t take my eyes of Christoph Waltz. That beard, those mannerisms. Even, kind of, that accent.

What Quentin Tarantino has managed to capture on film is a flawless glimpse into the future. Because what I was looking at was Detroit Red Wings captain, super-Swede Henrik “Hank” Zetterberg, as an older man. Am I wrong? (He certainly did a better job of capturing older Henrik than he did of capturing an Australian accent, in a cameo.)

Oh, and while we’re on Zee, if you don’t think Zetterberg is doing a good job in his first year as Wings captain, just ask his country’s media and they’ll set you straight:

(Thanks to Red Wings blog Winging It In Motown for that link.)

Christoph Waltz or Hank Zetterberg once he's hung up the skates?

Christoph Waltz or Hank Zetterberg once he’s hung up the skates?

Zetterberg, today.

Zetterberg, today.

Hanging out with the Griffins

The AHL’s Grand Rapid Griffins were hauled in to help their parent club, the Detroit Red Wings, tune up this week, as the hurried preparations for this shortened post-lock-out NHL season heat up.

Someone was smart enough to bring along a GoPro and make a video of being behind the scenes at the Wings-Griffins practice scrimmage. It includes the first footage of Henrik Zetterberg in the C, on the ice, and has a great angle on Bertuzzi’s ludicrous shoot-out goal.

Tingles. Bring on the weekend and the return of NHL.

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.

Giddyup.

(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.

Rookies on film …

So, on Wednesday night, one of the Icehouse Rookies, Daniel Mellios (looking resplendent in a black Red Wings hoodie), turned up with a camera, and quietly shot the lights out of our entire Dev League session. Then produced a music clip the next day.

In the interests of as many eyeballs as possible seeing his excellent work, I thought I’d link to it here.

It really captures arriving at the Icehouse, getting ready, camaraderie, and where we’re at in terms of game play and skills of various levels We remain such a small cult of hockey diehards, within a larger, mostly-disinterested city, so far from the NHL action … I love this video for celebrating our world.

Kittens and I were both on the Red team and therefore got to wear our Wings jerseys. I’m in the #40 Zetterberg with a red helmet and red socks. Will aka Kittens, who features more in this clip, including landing on his butt, is in the #44 Bertuzzi jersey, with black helmet and white socks.

Nice work, Mr Mellios. Nice work …

Unsightly upper lips

Ty Conklin showing how to rock a mo.

It goes without saying that hockey players need no encouragement to grow ridiculous facial hair. I have discussed the tradition of the play-off beard elsewhere in this blog and many NHL stars consider the art of shaving to be reasonably optional and certainly a long way behind taping your stick (not an euphemism) as a priority.

So Movember is a popular month among the icy set, with even Red Wing Henrik Zetterberg shaving back his now standard beard into a moustache that makes you pray that Zee either goes straight back to beard, do not pass Go, or shaves completely to look like he did as a fresh-faced rookie, as soon as December 1 ticks over.

Having said that, I was quietly disappointed that not a single Red Wing made a Puck Daddy list of the best Movember moustaches so far in 2011. Even Ty Conklin, the Wings’ second goalie, didn’t make it with his fabulous mo, pictured above. A travesty. As we Wings fans like to say: “Conk-blocked” again.

This also seemed like a good time to post a link to a list of the greatest hockey player moustaches of all time.

Just another hockey player ... Dennis Maruk

I have spent this month raising a small amount of money for charity with my own upper lip horror (donate here: it is for a good cause, including me shaving the bloody thing asap, having attempted to save male lives and proven my point). I have been truly shocked by how terrible I look with a mo. I never thought I’d look good but, man, this is one fashion statement that should be banned permanently, unless your name is Inigo Montoya (who I was recently likened to, in my one bright moment of an otherwise embarrassing month).

The good news is that on Sunday, when I skated, I was wearing my new helmet from Chicago, including a face mask, to somewhat hide the growth. Had such a good time, despite making a return to the Bang! footy that same morning so my legs were heavy before I even strapped on my new skates.

I hadn’t worn full armour since my last game, at the end of Intermediate, back in September, so it was fun to feel padded up and ready to rock. I spent a lot of the Stick & Puck session practicing passing with Will, watching rookies land hard on their butt, or having ineffectual shots on goal as the goalies eventually took pity and gave me some helpful hints. (“Hold the stick lower with your left hand, for extra flex and power.” … the next shot hit him in the throat. Thanks, mate!) and then an hour of General Skate, just zooming around. I really feel like The Bastard That Is The Pivot is edging closer to reliability, at least when turning left. I’ve stopped trying to step through it, and just twist on my left skate, like an inliner. Even at something above the slowest skating speed possible, my balance is holding up. Mostly.

The hockey stop remains elusive but I’m even starting to feel that. Of course, Will screeches around, stopping on one foot, winking to pretty girls. pen ever-ready for autograph signing, as I blunder around. Can’t wait until we’re allowed to officially “board” people in games, even if we’re on the same team.

Anyway, this is a long game and I’m still skating, and smiling, even if you can’t see the smile because of the curtain of fur. Once I shave this caterpillar below my nose for better aerodynamic windflow, I’ll be unstoppable. Just you see. (Eight days, and counting.)

The Horror. Day 22.