Cleaning the rink became my assigned chore and I would rise to do it before anyone else in the school was up. Before the nuns, before the priests, before the cooks even got to the kitchen to start the oatmeal mush and dry toast that was our regular breakfast. I needed no alarm clock. I’d just wake and dress carefully in the dimness and creep downstairs in my stocking feet to the back door, where I kept my thin rubbers. I’d pull on a pair of extra wool socks Father Leboutilier had found for me and clamber into my winter coat and scarf and mitts and step out onto the back stairs. The edge of those mornings always caught at my lungs. The air was so cold and so pure it was hard to breathe. But I’d huff a breath or two and stamp my feet to get the blood moving and then walk slowly around the school and beyond the barn to where the rink stood. It was a purple world with only the varying degrees of light from the moon that allowed me to see. I’d get my shovel from where I’d stashed it in the snow, and I’d begin. I’d start at one side and push the snow to the foot of the boards that faced out to the field. Once the rink was scraped clear, I’d work my way along the length of the boards, pitching the snow piles over. I loved the feeling of my heaving breath and the clouds of fog that swirled around my head. I’d sweat. When I was done I would lean against the boards and examine my handiwork; the smooth grey plate of ice in the dim morning light. The idea of the game hanging in the frost. I was out on that rink every morning, even when the snow fell faster than I could shovel it.

At first I was simply grateful for my proximity to the game. But then I began to stash a hockey stick in the snow beside the boards. Once I’d made sure no one was around, I’d dig it out and run to the barn for a handful of the frozen horse turds I’d buried beside the door. I’d carry them back to the rink and drop them at one end. Then I’d take the stick and nudge one turd out of the heap and practice moving it back and forth, stickhandling, like I’d seen the players on Hockey Night in Canada do.

I moved it carefully so I wouldn’t break the turd. I wanted to develop a soft touch, a deft weaving like the player Jean Beliveau, streaming up ice with the puck dangling on the blade of his stick like it was tied there on invisible twine. I made sure my stick made no sound against the ice, lest somebody discover me there. When the first turd eventually broke apart, I’d take another and I’d march up ice again with my substitute puck. I moved my feet as though I were skating, working the turd from side to side, making wider and wider sweeps. I got so I could slip it between my feet when I reached the end boards, spin around, cradle it in the middle of the blade and start back down the ice again. When all the turds were broken I’d flick the pieces over the boards with the wrist-shot motion I’d seen Dave Balon of the New York Rangers use. Then I’d stash my stick in the snow, shovel clear the evidence of my practice and head back to the building for breakfast and school.

At night in the dormitory, when all the other boys were asleep, I would get out of bed and stand in the aisle between the rows of cots, where the moonlight made the linoleum look like ice, and mimic the motion of stickhandling. I pictured myself barrelling across the blue line with the puck tucked neatly on the blade of my stick. I would throw a broad feint at the final defender and race in alone toward the goalie, who would begin to retreat slowly into the crease. I would shift my weight from foot to foot as I skated, dancing, wriggling, faking, the puck still nestled in the cradle of my blade. The space between the goalie and me would shrink and when I got about ten feet away I would draw the puck back behind my right leg. Then I would drive my weight forward onto my left leg and allow the momentum to bring the stick and puck forward. When the weight transfer was right, I’d snap my wrists and send the puck in a blur high into the right-hand corner, bulging the twine behind the helpless goaltender. Naturally, the force of my shot would take me to one knee. I would raise my arms in the hushed light of the dorm. My mouth would be open with glee and I would face the picture of Jesus hung there on the wall, my salvation coming instead through wood and rubber and ice and the dream of a game. I’d stand there, arms held high in triumph, and I would not feel lonely or afraid, deserted or abandoned, but connected to something far bigger than myself. Then I’d climb back into bed and sleep until the dawn woke me and I could walk back out to the rink again.