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The rarely updated blog of Joel Dixon

Viewing blogs posted in April, 2017

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 3 (Outdoor Game, Injury, Dinner and Drinks)

# Posted by Joel Dixon at 25/04/2017 10:54:23

The timing for the 2017 Lemieux Fantasy Camp was perfect as not only was the Stanley Cup in the house for our contract signing, the 2017 Stadium Series consisted of an outdoor game at Heinz Field against our most-hated rival the Philadelphia Flyers. Watching the outdoor game was a pretty incredible experience - but day 3 of camp gave campers the chance to actually play our own games on the outdoor ice sheet. As if I hadn't already had enough excitement.

We left in the early morning to depart for Heinz Field, and from the moment we got there it was a strange experience. We got changed in the visitor's locker rooms - an NFL locker room is much different to the NHL equivalent. With twice the number of players dressing for an NFL game than an NHL game the locker room seemed cavernous even with all four camper teams in there. Walking out onto the ice was weirder still, and as we crossed the rubber-covered football ground towards the makeshift ice arena I started to feel the cold. Obviously ice hockey is a sport that can get chilly - but being outdoors during a Pittsburgh Winter was something else entirely. They turned on the heated benches but this just made me feel like the majority of my cooking (burnt on the outside and frozen in the middle). On top of all this, we were in the middle of a football arena and whenever my gaze drew upwards I was captivated by an incredible view (of empty seats). The one aspect that wasn't strange for me was the quality of the ice. The ice conditions were a little bit choppy by the end of our game, something I'm very used to back home. That the temporary, outdoor ice rink built during unseasonably warm weather was just as good as the purpose built ice arenas back home says a lot about the state of ice hockey in Victoria.

Walking Out
This felt exactly as strange as it looks, but also a little bit badass

Nothing Odd
This shot captures both the incredulity of me playing on a team with Mario Lemieux, but also the zero people that were watching in the 65,000+ seats available for viewing

There were also no surprises when it came to my performance in the second game - I was below average in most aspects of the game. There was, however, one thing that I was pretty happy with. I've always played centre throughout my inline and ice hockey career - which means I've taken a lot of faceoffs. I quite enjoy the game within a game that faceoffs provide and I take them quite seriously (as exhibited by the number of sticks I have that were crushed at the end of the blade). Learning the way different refs drop the puck, how each opponent will take a draw, knowing whether to go forehand / backhand, going for a clean win or tie up are all going through my head when I line up after each stoppage. Somehow, I won most of the faceoffs cleanly during the outdoor game - including 2 out of 3 against Pierre Turgeon, an ex-NHL centre and personal favourite of mine for many years.

FTW
Finally, something I didn't completely suck at. Turgeon's grin makes me think this was the first faceoff I won against him

The first draw against Turgeon was won pretty easily to my backhand, I suspect Pierre wasn't trying all that hard. He gave me a "well done" in congratulation but his tone suggested he would actually try harder when we faced off next. The next draw I won cleanly to the forehand side, and I heard an immediate noise of displeasure from Turgeon that had me feeling pretty good. The final time we lined up was a win to Turgeon but I would hazard to say it was not a clean win - it required a second effort from Pierre before the puck was directed to his side. At the handshake line after the game he recognised me and congratulated me for the minor victory. It sounds silly (and insignificant when evaluating my entire contribution to the tournament), but this was another highlight of the camp that I will never forget - no matter how many faceoffs I will later lose for my Victorian team.

Shakes
Pao managed to capture my grin during the handshake line while chatting to Turgeon about my faceoff prowess

Each of the four camper teams would have one chance to play with Mario Lemieux joining the lines, and the outdoor game was our opportunity. He would join a different line each period and float through the positions - but as I was on the fourth line I didn't have a chance to skate with him this time. I did have a chance to watch him from up close - and that was an experience in itself. Lemieux is still such a smooth skater and capable of making incredible passes with his head up. It was clear he wasn't trying at 100% for this game and even so he was very impressive to watch. I was so happy for my new mate Bryan as he received a pass from Lemieux, and then setup their third linemate for a goal. I can't imagine how amazing the resultant fist-bump with Lemieux would have felt!

Caufield Bomb
I think we're a victim of a Jay Caufield photobomb here

After I got changed one of the camp organisers took me to the side and let me know that my partner Pao had sprained her ankle quite seriously. As my personal camp photographer, Pao was running around the outside of the arena taking photos with our phones and camera. She was doing such a great job but perhaps not paying enough attention to the terrain under her feet. When our itinerary begun with the camp being the first thing we did in the U.S., I was worried that any injury I sustained would then make the rest of our travels annoyingly difficult or even impossible. We had no expectation that it would actually be Pao suffering an injury during the hockey camp. Thankfully there were 2 doctors taking part in the camp - both super great guys and happy to help us out with an initial investigation of the injury. The camp organisers were also awesome and really took care of Pao - we ended up in a local Pittsburgh hospital where Paola's ankle was x-rayed and no fracture was detected. The aircast she limped away with was a great help for the rest of our trip and Pao was even able to climb a certain statue a week later.

The second game for the day was cancelled due to poor weather (more fortuitous timing, considering we spent most of that time at the hospital) so we headed back to the hotel for some well-deserved rest. After an appropriate nap (essential for hockey players I think you'll find) we had dinner at the nearby Morton's Steakhouse. Great food and excellent conversation was then followed up with some surprising, heartfelt and hilarious speeches from the pros. Tie Domi was pretty amusing the first few days of camp (and the butt of the other pros jokes at times) but I was really impressed by the impassioned speech he gave when talking about the opportunity we all have to help the Mario Lemieux Foundation. Some of the other speeches were pretty funny, but certainly nothing that I could or should be repeating here.

When we got back to the hotel I wanted an early night in hope of performing a little better in the following games - but I'm so glad I didn't. We stayed up a bit and had a few drinks with various campers, and I ended up standing next to Larry Murphy at the bar for over an hour. He regaled us with stories from the Penguins heydays during the 91 / 92 cups - Scotty Bowman taking over as coach after Badger Bob's tragic early death, the Penguins rally from a 3-1 series deficit in 1992 against Washington, how it felt to be hit by Ulfie Samuelsson or how it felt to go into Philadelphia and get beaten by the Flyers. Larry was particularly interested in how a video game led to me following hockey and the Penguins - he was actually one of the five starters that specifically caused me to choose the Penguins. I know I had far too many beers, and I felt pretty crap the next day - but I will treasure those conversations for a long time to come.


This is the 4th in the Joel Goes To Camp series
Game 1 - Pittsburgh Arrival - Border Security Magic, 2017Game 2 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 1 (Registration and Penguins Stadium Series)Game 3 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 2 (Contract Signing, Training and Game)Game 4 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 3 (Outdoor Game, Injury, Dinner and Drinks)Game 5 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 4 and 5 (Final Games)Game 6 - Chicago - Blackhawks, Bulls and a bean, 2017
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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Marc-André Fleury still giving high fives to his injured buddy

# Posted by Joel Dixon at 19/04/2017 04:08:48
Updated by Joel Dixon at 19/04/2017 04:11:38


There's so much to love about the 2016 Stanley Cup Champion Penguins, not least of which is our goaltender Marc-André Fleury - by all reports an awesome dude.

I noticed he is still doing his high five routine - even with Letang out injured.






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Saturday, April 08, 2017

Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 2 (Contract Signing, Training and Game)

# Posted by Joel Dixon at 08/04/2017 08:56:14

The "fantasy" aspect of the Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp approached warp speed on Day 2 with the contract signing and jersey presentation. I knew that Mario Lemieux himself would be signing my 5-day "skilled hockey player" contract and presenting me with my #53 jersey - but as I entered the contract signing room I was met with a surprise. As the Penguins had defeated all challengers in the most recent NHL season, the Stanley Cup served as an incredible backdrop to the jersey presentation photograph. I'm sure some of the camp goers would have been in awe of one of sport's most storied trophies, but I almost ignored the Cup with my attention fixed on the fact that Mario Lemieux was signing a contract specifically for me (the fact I had visited the cup previously in my travels was also a factor). I had a quick chat to Mario about my travel plans after leaving Pittsburgh (at least I think I did, it was a bit of a blur) before Pao and I got a photo with Lemieux (and that Cup). Sure, it was all fantasy and contrived - but what took no longer than 5 minutes will remain a fond memory as long as I live.

Five Day Bargain
Joel Dixon of Surrey Hills (I probably should have guessed they didn't want me to be so specific when they asked my "hometown" during the application process)

No Hold Out
The the stuff of dreams is made a reality - I still can't believe the opportunity I've had

Now that the camp had secured my skills (for the week anyway) we piled onto the bus and drove to the Penguins' practice facility in Cranberry. Team Adams (the group I was placed with) had a training session first up, so we headed to our locker rooms to change. Time for another shock to the system, I walked into the locker room and my gear was neatly laid out with my jersey hanging name and numbers facing out. I'm a huge fan of Penguin's equipment manager Dana Heinze and his Twitter account - so I've seen so many pictures of the Penguin's locker room setups. Seeing my gear laid out, my skates freshly sharpened and a table stacked with various snacks and tapes - I really started to get a small insight into the life of a hockey player. It sounds like such a small thing, but the camp's volunteer equipment managers had a huge impact on the feel of the camp for me - I was not expecting how much they would bring to the experience.

More Gear
Love the old school NHL logo on the shoulder

Sharp Work Desk
Jason Binnie was often stuck here - but we all really appreciated having freshly sharpened skates waiting for us at the locker rooms

After all the preamble, it was finally time to throw on my skates - and I was justifiably shitscared. My lead up to camp wasn't ideal as I had fractured my foot three months prior, which ruined my chance for some last minute fitness gains (admittedly I was probably too late for any real fitness - by about 12 years). My doctor was a good sport and we eventually settled on enough anti-inflammatories / painkillers to keep me walking and skating throughout the camp period (and following holiday). Even so, I wasn't sure how the foot would hold up to 5 days of constant skating (when I usually only have a chance to skate once or twice a week). I also had a new pair of sticks (which turned out to be two inches shorter than my normal sticks) and a heap of new gear to break in - all while playing the most important games of my hockey life. Thankfully, when I stepped onto the practice ice, had a few laps and started the simpler drills my foot felt fine and I started to feel a little better. Then Mario Lemieux joined us on the rink and my butt resumed clenching.

Brains Trust
Our coach Pierre Larouche was the youngest player to score 50 goals (until Gretzky) and captain Jay Caufield telestrates for Root Sports (and was part of my favourite bad movie) - yet they still weren't enough as we completely botched most of the drills they drew up

Mario Tries
Mario tried to catch me...

And Fails
... but had to give up (*cough*)

I wasn't expecting Mario Lemieux and Mark Recchi to be joining us for training, but it was really cool seeing them skating around the ice. Sure enough - I found myself in line for a pair drill - and Mario was lined up next to me. A few turns later and it was Recchi standing there. I passed a puck to both (and received one) so as far as I was concerned at that point - the camp would have ended a success if my foot didn't hold up and I had to go home. To add to the good-time feelings, I scored a goal in the end-of-training shootout and seemed to catch the attention of my coach and Mario - can't ask for more than that.

Dont Fail
I think I was pleading with the puck and my stick to be nice for this drill


Yes, I stuffed up the second pass, but things went better after that. I should point out that the dude that defended far too hard on the drill was Bryan, the guy I enjoyed hanging out with for the week - he felt terrible he didn't just let Mario's pass go through. I gave him a hard time about it (of course), but I was just happy to be there!


I was having trouble puck-handling with my new stick - but at least I managed to hold it together long enough for this one!

Getting changed in the locker room I was still feeling pretty good (even though we stuffed pretty much every drill). Our coach told us not to worry - as bad trainings lead to good games and good trainings lead to poor games - little did I know how right he was.

Before that ominous game, we had a tour of the Penguins locker rooms - and it completely blew me away. The extensive weights room had very few weights - most machines operating via hydraulics with the program and results being saved on individual FOB tokens for each player. The player's kitchen and social area was pretty cool too - I would love to sit in the corner and just see how all the players interact during downtime. Most impressive was the team's change room at the practice facility - an (almost) exact replica of the facilities at PPG Paints home arena. Everyone's gear was hanging up ready for the team's return from Dallas (except for Crosby, of course, as he only uses one set of gear that comes with him for every game / training). We had a meal cooked by the team's chef (pretty damn delicious, considering it was all healthy) and started to get ready for our first game of camp.

Chill Zone
This is where the players can chill before training. Kitchen in the back, Xbox One and PS4 in front of these comfy chairs. I tried to hide out in here until the next training days later - but they were onto me

No Crosby
This is just the locker rooms in the training facility - but still look amazing. Crosby's gear travels with him, of course

The first thing I noticed when the game started was Paul Coffey's incredible skating. It was unlike anything I've seen before, he took a few smooth strides and he was already up to top speed. I suspect he may have lost a step or two since his Pittsburgh days - but you couldn't tell from ice level. Watching him swing around the net and fly around the opposition like they were pylons was such a joy - I couldn't have asked for a better team captain.

Line One
You know, just lining up for a faceoff with Coffey as one of my D-men

Crouching Wolverine
One of the professional photos taken during our first game - it looks like I just checked someone but I assure you I did not

During training I was thinking I wasn't so much slower than my teammates, but when we started the game I realised that I was just slow enough to matter. I was always a step or two away from where I wanted to be. I was beaten in most puck battles and felt like I was constantly chasing my opposition player. I had a few good shifts (even stole the puck from Tie Domi at one point), but was certainly on the poor side of average.

Just Tie To Stop Me
After stealing the puck from Domi (more luck than anything really). At one point Domi stood in front of our bench and welcomed anyone to drop the mitts. Huge regret that I didn't take him up on the offer!

Not wanting to be a defensive liability, I didn't want to change while the puck was in our zone - unfortunately my line didn't get the puck deep into their zone at all the first period - which meant my first few shifts were longer than I wanted. This upset the center that was coming on when I was going off.

Now I have been on the receiving end of this before - especially during pick-up games back home - so he was justified in his annoyance. What I don't feel he was justified in was how he choose to deal with that annoyance. Instead of telling me personally to watch my shift lengths - he choose to yell his concerns at me in front of the whole team, following this up with a threat to take a slapshot to my ankles so I would have to go home. Not exactly in the spirit of a charity camp as far as I was concerned.

While it felt like shit to be treated like this in front of my short-term team (especially since I admittedly caused the problem) - I actually think it helped in a small way. The other members of the team seemed to agree that the reaction wasn't proportional to my crime - and most of them told me to "ignore that guy" and had a quick chat with me to see how I was going. I was so happy to be a part of the camp - I wasn't about to let that one guy ruin it for me. So while I did take shorter shifts (without caring too much where the puck was while doing so) I kept a positive attitude and I think it helped me bond better with a few of the other players on the team.

After the game the short-shifted angry man did seek me out to apologise, and did so again in-front of the whole team before a later game, which I do appreciate - especially as I could see he felt bad about the way he reacted. I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a bit of a dampener on the camp for me - but it was no worse than the self-inflicted dampener that was the general lack of skill and fitness I had compared to the rest of the participants. At least I've got something to improve on for next year!


This is the 3rd in the Joel Goes To Camp series
Game 1 - Pittsburgh Arrival - Border Security Magic, 2017Game 2 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 1 (Registration and Penguins Stadium Series)Game 3 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 2 (Contract Signing, Training and Game)Game 4 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 3 (Outdoor Game, Injury, Dinner and Drinks)Game 5 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 4 and 5 (Final Games)Game 6 - Chicago - Blackhawks, Bulls and a bean, 2017
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Monday, April 03, 2017

Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 1 (Registration and Penguins Stadium Series)

# Posted by Joel Dixon at 03/04/2017 09:45:29
Updated by Joel Dixon at 08/04/2017 05:11:37


Three years ago, while listening to a Pens game on the radio, I heard a tantalising ad - come and watch Mario Lemieux play hockey at the CONSOL Energy Center - scheduled for my birthday no less! I was lucky enough to see a few of Mario's final games way back in 2005, but that was a long time ago. Having another chance to watch 66 flying around the ice had me momentarily consider taking a week off work and take a quick trip to Pittsburgh.

It didn't take too long to realise that a week-long trip to Pittsburgh to watch a few exhibition games wasn't the most financially prudent decision I could make, even if it offers a chance to watch my all-time hockey hero playing again. As my disappointment gradually dissipated I looked into the event that brought Lemieux out from seclusion and back on the ice, perhaps it would happen again next year so I could plan a proper hockey holiday. When I discovered it was part of a yearly Mario Lemieux Fantasy Hockey Camp I was struck with an unbelievable possibility. As I'm sure is the case for most Australians, the sum of my fantasy camp knowledge comes from a particularly memorable Seinfeld episode, but as I understood it, this camp could allow me to play hockey with Mario Lemieux (but, you know, not punch him). I looked into it further, the Mario Lemieux Foundation was actually offering regular people the chance to experience the life of an NHL player while meeting a bunch of ex-NHL stars. While I had only started playing ice hockey a few months prior, I put my name down on the waiting list and dreamt about the camp a few nights each week. The invite took longer than I had expected, but once I finally received that magical acceptance email - Pao and I immediately started planning our trip!

Day 1 of camp started with registration and gear distribution. I knew that I was going to receive a playing uniform with my name and number on it (based on the vintage 1986 All-Star game designs) including a helmet and gloves - but that was just the start! I was given a large hockey bag (with my name and number on it - I'll never get sick of that) and we were whisked through 4 rooms as the bag was filled with Lemieux Camp-themed sports attire. Tracksuit, puffy jacket, hats, skate guards and jumpers were all piled into my bag - and as a camp guest Pao also received all of the non-uniform items as well. At the end of the experience we headed up to the hotel room to catch our breath and evaluate all the awesome swag that I will now wear until the last thread fades.

On The Gear
It's hard to pick a favourite, but I absolutely love the "Lemieux Camp Hockey" authentic-style logo on the sweatshirt

We didn't have much time to appreciate our goodies, as Pao and I had signed up to participate in a tour of Pittsburgh's UPMC Children's Hospital - to understand exactly what our donations go towards. I'm glad that we decided to squeeze in the hospital visit, it gave us a great feeling knowing that we were contributing towards such an amazing program. Going through serious health issues during his NHL career (chronic back pain, bone infection and Hodgkin's lymphoma) Mario Lemieux created his foundation to help in the fight against cancer. In 1996 Mario's son Austin was born profoundly premature requiring months of intensive care. Mario and his wife Nathalie wanted to spend as much time as possible in hospital with their newborn - but there was nothing to keep their other two toddlers occupied. In 2000 Nathalie started a program to build Austin's Playrooms - providing families a chance to get away from everything medical while still being able to visit their sick loved ones. Pao and I were able to tour the playrooms and are happy to be part of such an important project.

Staff Announcement
I'm going to have to check out our own Children's Hospital at some point and see how it measures up

We came back to the hotel after the tour and sat around waiting for the welcome dinner to start. It was at this time that Paul Coffey, one of the NHL's 100 greatest players and a personal favourite, arrived and sat down at the table I was sitting at. I was more than a little starstruck but like all the pros at the camp, as I would later find out, he was more than happy to chat and was even interested in why an Australian would learn to love hockey. Being the first camp participant from outside of North America was a great way to meet people (not just the Hockey Hall of Fame members) as most people seemed interested in why an Aussie would follow hockey. I also used that opportunity to explain to everyone why I would be so much worse on skates than they are!

As luck would have it, the year I was selected to join the camp coincided with the Penguins being selected to host the NHL Stadium Series, playing a game against our bitter rivals the Philadelphia Flyers outdoors at Heinz Field. So on the first night of camp we all went to watch the game as a group, with Mario Lemieux joining us on the bus. As further luck would have it - I sat across from Mario on the bus and had a quick discussion with him (again, about hockey in Australia) to which he seemed interested (and I probably seemed like a huge fanboy). Someone ended up sitting between us which gave me a chance to realise that there was a police car with sirens blazing and our bus wasn't getting out of the way. A few minutes after that I realised that we were actually enjoying a police escort - which certainly cut down on travel time to the stadium.

While the view of a hockey game from a football stadium wasn't the best - the outdoor game was pretty awesome with all was considered. There were real-life penguins on a side rink playing around with Iceburgh (the first real penguins at a game for quite some time now), the 67,000-strong crowd was thunderous and in the second period snow started to fall. The picturesque environment, and the fact that this was my first live hockey game in over 10 years, meant I was glued to my seat even though there was a warm bar area available to us.

Beaner
It was pretty cool to see the players have a chance to play in an outdoor game - cooler still that I would be doing the same in a few days!

Penguins In Water
One of the penguins kicked a puck, I nearly died!

Le Tits Now
Let down by my lack of photography skill as usual, but I hope this photo can almost convey the awesome spectacle

Crosby scored (always happy to see that), Malkin was dominating and the good guys won - I was never in danger of complaining! We took the bus home (no escort this time) and went to bed. Day one at camp was amazing - but I was pretty sure that day two was going to be even better!


This is the 2nd in the Joel Goes To Camp series
Game 1 - Pittsburgh Arrival - Border Security Magic, 2017Game 2 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 1 (Registration and Penguins Stadium Series)Game 3 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 2 (Contract Signing, Training and Game)Game 4 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 3 (Outdoor Game, Injury, Dinner and Drinks)Game 5 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 4 and 5 (Final Games)Game 6 - Chicago - Blackhawks, Bulls and a bean, 2017
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Chicago - Blackhawks, Bulls and a bean, 2017
Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 4 and 5 (Final Games)
Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 3 (Outdoor Game, Injury, Dinner and Drinks)
Marc-André Fleury still giving high fives to his injured buddy
Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 2 (Contract Signing, Training and Game)
Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 1 (Registration and Penguins Stadium Series)
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