Father Gaston Leboutilier came to St. Jerome’s the same year that I did. He was a young priest with a sense of humour that angered his fellow priests and the nuns, and a kindness and sense of adventure that drew the boys to him. He led hikes in the spring and summer. He took us camping for days at a time and when winter came he brought us hockey. He convinced Father Quinney to let him build a rink, outfit the older boys and start a team. Things changed at St. Jerome’s after that, for one season of the year at least.

“Have you ever heard of hockey?” That was the first thing he said to me. I was sitting on the steps behind the kitchen as the other kids played in the fresh fallen snow.

“No. What is it?” I asked.

“It’s a game,” he said. “Maybe the greatest game. It’s played on ice with skates and it’s very fast, very exciting.”

“Are there books about it?”

“A lot of books. I have some I could lend you. If you like what you read maybe you’ll want to come and watch. We’ve built a rink and it’s almost ready.”

“I don’t like games much.”

He reached out and rubbed my hair. “So serious,” he said. “We need to get you outside to watch. I guarantee you’ll love it.”

He smiled at me and I smiled back.

Father Leboutilier brought me hockey books and answered all my questions. His passion for the game was contagious. I read about heroes like Dit Clapper, Turk Broda, Black Cat Gagnon, “Sudden Death” Mel Hill and Ulcers McCool. Then there were more recent hockey gods, like Beliveau, Mahovlich and Rocket Richard. From the pages of those books I got the idea that hockey had an alchemy that could transform ordinary men into great ones. I will never forget the first time I watched the older boys play. The white glory of the rink. The sun was shining and the sky was pale blue. There wasn’t a hint of wind. The air hung cold and crystalline as the boys pushed themselves around that oval to warm up, the huffing of their breath wreathing their heads. It reminded me of a locomotive, a steam-driven train bracing itself for release from the station.

The game started in a mad scramble. Reserve and bush boys made sudden crazy turns and spins as they chased the puck back and forth, and only the blast of Father Lebou-tilier’s whistle returned things to a momentary calm. The players leaned forward on their sticks, eyes charcoal glints in the sunshine. The excitement in the air was so thick you could smell it. When the priest turned them loose to scrimmage, they broke with the abandon of mustangs. I never once looked at the puck. I kept my eyes glued to the boys, their sheer energy as they hurtled like comets. Father Leboutilier skated loosely along the edges, pointing with his heavy hockey gloves or the blade of his stick. When he skated over to me, rubbing at his nose with the blunt thumb of a glove, his eyes were afire.

“There’s an order to the game, Saul, though it might not be readily visible yet. There’s a genuine rhythm under all this mayhem. When they grasp the rules you’ll start to see it,” he said.

“I see it already,” I said.

“You do?”

“The lines,” I said. “They create space. The space you have to move into to make it happen.”

“You see that?”


And I did. I can’t explain how it came to me, but I could see not just the physical properties of the game and the action but the intent. If a player could control a measure of space, he could control the game. The boys on the ice lurched and skimmed, oblivious to anything but the rubber sliding between their sticks. But I could see how a skater might move, where he might go to gain the advantage of space, how he might move the puck along to get it down ice and into the nest of twine that was the net.

There are stories of teachers among our people who could determine where a particular moose was, a bear, the exact time the fish would make their spawning runs. My great-grandfather Shabogeesick, the original Indian Horse, had that gift. The world spoke to him. It told him where to look. Shabogeesick’s gift had been passed on to me. There’s no other explanation for how I was able to see this foreign game so completely right away.

Father Leboutilier invited a small group of boys to his quarters, where he had a television. Few of us had seen one and we were thunderstruck. It was a box filled with apparitions, but once the game started we were too intent to pay attention to anything else. Hockey Night in Canada was the personification of magic. Ten men hurtling around a fenced perimeter with glorious speed. Cuts, switches, abrupt stops and misdirections. Hits, bumps, a focused grit and then the sweeping ballet of the open ice, the action funnelling down to a point where it became just the stick, the puck, the pads, the net, the red light and the klaxon sound of the buzzer that sent thousands erupting into glee. It thrilled me.

I begged to play after that. I begged to be taught to skate. But Father Quinney allowed only the older boys to play. I was eight and small. I asked again and again, and finally Father Leboutilier put his hand between my shoulder blades and leaned down to speak with me. His warm hand made me think of my grandmother’s touch.

“There’s nothing I can do, Saul,” he said, quietly. “The rules are the rules. If I were to break them for you, it might prevent everyone from playing.”

“But I want to learn it.”

He smiled and pulled me forward into a hug. I closed my eyes and I almost cried for the memory of my father. He held me a long moment, then let me go.

“Can I look after the ice then?”

“You want to shovel snow?”

“Yes. Anything.”

He looked out at the scramble of boys on the ice. “As long as you can keep up with your studies and your chores, I think I could arrange that.”