Father Leboutilier was my ally. When the nuns and priests got too hard on me, he was there to mediate and defend me. By the second winter, when I was nine, I’d become braver. I took to stashing skates along with the stick. Father put me in charge of the equipment locker and it was my job now to keep things clean, to launder the sweaters, air out the gloves and pants and pads. I still rose before anyone else and made my way to the rink. There was always the ritual of shovelling the snow and clearing the ice, that solitary work of preparing to open the doors to a magical kingdom.

All of the skates were too big for me. So I stuffed the toes of a pair with newspaper to make them fit. Once they were laced tightly onto my feet I would grasp the edge of the boards and wobble along the length of the rink, then turn and wobble back the other way. Once I could travel the entire perimeter of the ice that way, I switched to a chair I took from the barn. I’d set it in front of me and lean on the back of it and push myself along. I always paid particular attention to the skating during Hockey Night in Canada, and I wanted to copy those motions. It was hard work, but I eventually got so I could push my way around the ice with that chair.

Then came the morning I let go of the chair.

I became a bird. An ungainly bird at first, but a creature of the air nonetheless. I leaned too far forward and had to save myself from falling, but I managed to propel myself along. In my mind I could see the way that I wanted my body to behave on skates and I worked toward that. For a week I practiced. Step and glide. Step. Glide. Step. Glide. I positioned my arms and concentrated on maintaining a stable posture. I’d picture the players I’d seen on TV, lock my gaze on the end boards and push myself toward them, gradually picking up speed.

I saw myself making the turn at the far end. Saw myself crossing my feet, one over the other, leaning to the inside, dropping the inside shoulder some, lifting my elbows higher and inscribing a perfect arc around the curve of the boards. Saw it as though I’d done it a hundred times. And then I did it. I cut around the net and followed the line of the boards and broke out of that long curve and lifted my hands straight up in the air as I glided into the open flare of the ice. Then I taught myself to go the other way.

I worked harder at clearing the ice to give myself more time to skate each day. I tore at that chore. I ran the width of the ice, pushing the snow into a pile along the boards. The labour made me wiry and tough. It gave my lungs a workout and cleared my mind of everything but the ice. As I laced on the skates my fingers actually trembled. Not from the cold but from the knowledge that freedom was imminent, that flight was at hand. I floated out onto a snow-white stage in a soliloquy of grace and motion. I loved it. Every time I skated I felt as though I had created the act. It was pure and new and startling.

The way I began was always the same. I would lean forward with my hands on my knees and stare at the ice, picking a spot on its surface. Then I would picture myself skating to that spot. I’d see myself making a wide circle that I’d bring in tighter and tighter before turning abruptly and skating out of the circle the other way. Then I would actually go and do it. My blades never made a sound. I couldn’t let anyone discover what I was doing, so I learned how to skate soundlessly without the chunk-chunk of steel on ice the other boys made when they played the game. I learned to envision myself making moves before I tried them. If I could see myself doing it, then I could do it. It worked for any move. There was no explanation for how I could do what I did. I knew it as a mystery and I honoured it that way.

My grandmother had always referred to the universe as the Great Mystery.

“What does it mean?” I asked her once.

“It means all things.”

“I don’t understand.”

She took my hand and sat me down on a rock at the water’s edge. “We need mystery,” she said. “Creator in her wisdom knew this. Mystery fills us with awe and wonder. They are the foundations of humility, and humility, grandson, is the foundation of all learning. So we do not seek to unravel this. We honour it by letting it be that way forever.”

When I released myself to the mystery of the ice I became a different creature. I could slow down time, choose the tempo I needed whenever I launched myself into learning a new skill. I could hurtle down the ice at full speed and then bend time in upon itself to slow the turn, every muscle, every tendon, every sinew in my body remembering the movement, learning it, making it a part of me.

I learned to stop quickly on one skate. I learned to skate backwards, switching back and forth instantly, shifting my weight from foot to foot, making dazzling changes in direction. I set up horse turds in random patterns and learned to cut in around them from all sides. Every time, I would envision the move and then make it happen. I reached out with all the love in my heart and let it carry me deeper into the mystery.

Then I picked up the stick, using all of the skills I’d developed the winter before to stickhandle the horse turds around the ice. The turds were precious and I worked at not breaking them. I turned circles, first one way and then the other until I could make them faster and smaller. I practiced driving off one skate into high speed using as few strides as possible, balancing the turd on the blade of my stick. I shifted, I feinted, I faked. I raced across the ice with the silent swish of blades and cleared it of evidence as the turds broke with a short, sharp snap of my wrists.

I kept my discoveries to myself and I always made sure that I left the surface of the rink pristine. For the rest of the day, I’d walk through the dim hallways of the school warmed by my secret. I no longer felt the hopeless, chill air around me because I had Father Leboutilier, the ice, the mornings and the promise of a game that I would soon be old enough to play.