When I hit the ice I left all of that behind me. I stepped onto the ice and Saul Indian Horse, the abandoned Ojibway kid, clutched in the frozen arms of his dead grandmother, ceased to exist.

Father Leboutilier loved the game more than anybody. When he coached us or watched the televised games, he lost the solemn priestly facade and became a boy again, licking his lips in anticipation. His relish was infectious.

So it didn’t surprise me when he began to show up at my early morning solo practices. He’d wait until I had scraped the ice clear and done my warm-ups, then lace up his own skates and join me. During those sessions I learned how to transfer what I could see in my head into my feet and my hands. Father Leboutilier taught me how to take a pass on my backhand without looking then switch it to my forehand to take a shot. He taught me how to snap off wrist shots like rockets with fast passes he fed me from behind the net. I learned how to fire accurately off either foot while still in motion and he showed me how my skates could help me handle the puck on the attack. As I demonstrated each new technique, each step up in understanding, the delight on his face was my reward.

“Hockey is like the universe, Saul,” he said one day. “When you stand in the dark and look up at it, you see the placid fire of stars. But if we were right in the heart of it, we’d see chaos. Comets churning by. Meteorites. Star explosions. Things being born, things dying. Chaos, Saul. But that chaos is organized. It’s harnessed. It’s controlled. What you can’t see under all the action, the speed, the mayhem, is the great spirit of this game. That’s what makes you so extraordinary. You have that spirit within you.”

I took his words to heart and I practiced diligently.

Our school team played the town team a few more times that winter, and we won handily. Word had gotten around how well we played, and even Father Quinney attended a few games. My vision grew even sharper the more I played. There would always come a moment when the game would swing to me and I would find the puck on my stick. I came to expect that, relied on it.

Winter ended and the rink melted back into the furrows of the field. But I kept getting up early. I began to run. I’d run down the curving gravel road to the bottom of the ridge and then up its harsh slope. When I got to the top I would turn and face the school while I caught my breath, and then I would turn and head through the bush to the lowland, where there was a beaver lodge. I’d watch the vee of swimming beavers, listen to ducks and mergansers, and think about what Father Leboutilier had said about my underlying spirit.

When I told him what I was doing, he joined me. We ran every morning. He told me how important it was for a player to have strong thighs. He’d been to the Montreal Forum and met the astonishingly fast junior star Yvan Cournoyer in the Junior Canadiens’ dressing room.

“His thighs were like loaves of bread. Huge. He even had to have his pants tailored for him. He is the fastest player I have ever seen, Saul.”

We started to do wind sprints up the face of the ridge. Once I could do a dozen in a row, he took me along the ridge to where boulders were thrown in a mad jumble at its base. I ran that talus every day. Leaping and bounding between the rocks was exhilarating, and we made a game of it. I tapped into the spirit of hockey in those tough training runs.

One day when I was working in the barn, I discovered a sheet of linoleum stuffed in the back of the loft. As I wiped the chaff away, it felt like ice on my palm. I carried it out to the area where the hockey nets were stored and placed it about twenty feet in front of one of them. Then I took a stick and a puck and began snapping wrist shots at the net. Father Leboutilier ran interference for me with Sister Ignacia and got me free time to practice in the hour before the evening meal. It was a joy to find the game in the heat of summer, and when I saw a workman cutting off sections of three-inch pipe with a welding torch one afternoon, I asked if he could cut me a couple. Those rings weighed far more than a regular puck and I stickhandled with them and worked on my wrist shot until my wrists and forearms were rock hard. When I showed Father Leboutilier, he laughed.

“Marvellous,” he said and roughed my hair.

The Father got some boys in the wood shop to cut six holes in a sheet of plywood, one at each corner, right and left, top and bottom, one square in the middle at the bottom, and one in the centre top. I practiced shooting the heavy rounds of pipe at each of those holes. I worked hard at that. I practiced until I could feather the steel through each of those gaps. Then Father Leboutilier started calling out the holes to me.

“Top right!”

I’d sail a ring of pipe through that hole. He’d roll it back, then call out another hole. My shots grew pinpoint accurate and fast off the stick. When we switched back to regular pucks, the rubber was a blur.

The other boys got wind of what I was doing and showed up to watch. Eventually they joined in and we held tournaments. Each hole had a point value and we each took twenty shots. The one with the highest points won. I went through the end of that summer and the fall undefeated. And in the gathering gloom of those evenings we all grew closer. I ceased to be the Zhaunagush. I became Saul Indian Horse, Ojibway kid and hockey player. I became a brother. I basked in the glow of this regard. In our laughter, teasing and rough camaraderie, I found another expression of the spirit of the game. We’d head back to the main building for the evening meal, jockeying, nudging, poking each other. Wrapped in the aura of freedom that the game offered us, we’d grin at each other over the hash and skimpy stews. Brothers. Joined by the promise of steel blades forming swirls in snow and ice.