I spent the rest of that winter skating with the boys from the school. Our games were fast but scrambled. I’d send the puck out to a lagging winger and it would sit there spinning uselessly. Or I’d burst in on goal and I’d see the goaltender give up as soon as I crossed the blue line. Father Leboutilier and I still watched televised games in his quarters, and he continued to point things out to me. Whenever I had the ice to myself I’d practice those things over and over. The Father joined me sometimes. He was the only one who could really challenge me. As winter began to dwindle into spring, I felt defeated.

But one day as the team scrimmaged, I looked up to see a man standing at the boards with Father Leboutilier. He was watching me closely. He was Ojibway. I could tell that from the cut of his features and his thick upper body. I was treating that scrimmage as though it were the last game I would ever play, because I didn’t know what the next winter would bring. So I skated with all of the joy I had in me. I whirled and sped away with the puck. I yelled in jubilation. Near the end I just flew around the perimeter as fast as I could go. When Father Leboutilier whistled us to a stop he motioned me over to the boards.

“Nice game,” the man standing with him said. “Fred Kelly.”

He took off his mitt and we shook hands.

“Mr. Kelly has a tournament team, Saul. In Manitouwadge,” Father Leboutilier said.

“The Moose,” Fred said.

“What’s a tournament team?” I asked.

Fred Kelly leaned toward me. He squinted into the glare of the sun on the ice and pointed at the end boards. The chicken wire had begun to sag from errant slap shots striking it all winter. “We play Native tournaments. Every reserve across our territory has a team, and we play on outside rinks just like this one. Every weekend in the winter, right up to breakup, or to when our forwards start having to wear flippers instead of skates.”

He laughed; a big manly sound that just erupted from him. “Anyway, we love hockey. Trouble is, the mill town teams don’t want anything to do with us. They won’t play us even though we’re good enough. Our kids don’t get to play in their town leagues either.”

“Because they think it’s their game,” I said.

Kelly spat tobacco juice at the ice. He squinted at Father Leboutilier and grimaced. “Yeah,” he said. “That’s pretty much it.”

“I know about that.”

“Father told me. What I seen here, it’s no wonder they’re scared to play you.”

I waited for him to continue. There didn’t seem to be anything for me to say.

“When they’re old enough, and if they’re good enough, our kids can play with the travelling team. The Moose. Most of them are seventeen, eighteen, and they play junior-level hockey. Fast, hard hockey,” he said. “The reserves take a lot of pride in their teams. They take pride in being good hosts, too, so there’s always a warm bed and good food. We bunk with families. Even if it’s fifty below, a crowd turns out to watch. It’s tough to play in the wind and snow, but if you love the game like our guys do, you’ll play through anything. Right now, we’re down a centre on the third line. Wondered if maybe you’d wanna come and play with us?”

I was thunderstruck. All I could manage was to let my mouth hang open.

“Saul, Fred lived here at the school for eight years. So did his wife, Martha,” Father Leboutiler said. “I wrote him after the town barred you from playing. Fred wants you to go and live with his family and play hockey for the Moose, to play with a real team where the game can challenge you. Would you like that?”

I felt as though the world had slipped out of orbit. I could find no words.

“The Kellys would be your legal guardians, Saul. That means you could leave here and go to Manitouwadge, attend a regular school. You’d have a home, Saul. A real home.”

“I could play hockey?” It was all I could squeeze out.

“All you can handle,” Fred said.

“What if I’m not good enough?”

Fred laughed again and slapped me lightly on the back. “I don’t think that’s anything you ever have to worry about.”

SISTER IGNACIA WAS vehement in her disgust with the idea.

“Surrendering him to the influence of a soulless game is not what we were directed to do here,” she said.

“But the game offers him a chance at a better life. He has an amazing natural talent. It could take him far,” Father Leboutilier said.

“The game is savage. We were sent to cleave the savage from them.”

“I thought we were sent to offer counsel, and the means to a better life?”

“You are naive.”

“Perhaps. But he will have the benefit of a good home and good schooling. We will have achieved our mission.”

It was Father Quinney, in the end, who made the whole thing possible. He’d stayed silent while Sister Ignacia and Father Leboutilier sawed back and forth. Then he got up and walked to the window, standing there with his hands clasped behind his back. When he turned to face us he looked pensive.

“Our Lord works His magic in particular ways. Strange to some. Downright odd at times.” He returned to his chair to scan the guardianship papers.

“I don’t know why He chose to grace this boy with the skills he has. But I have witnessed his ability myself. That pass he made on the backhand through three sets of legs and sticks to that open winger in the last White River game? That was a minor miracle.”

He grinned at the recollection. Sister Ignacia scowled. Father Quinney set the papers down in front of him. “The boy has no family that we know of. He has shown himself to be a disciplined student, a devoted reader. To hold him back from nurturing a gift that is divine in nature would be counterproductive to what we set out to achieve. Do you want to go, Saul? Will you pay heed to what the Kellys ask of you? Will you honour their direction as you would honour ours?”

I looked around at all those adult faces, lingering on Father Leboutilier’s. I’d never been offered choice before. “All right,” I said. “I’ll go.”

I WALKED OUT of that room and back to the dormitory one last time to collect the few things I could call possessions. Already I could feel St. Jerome’s losing its hold on me. I was almost fourteen. I was being freed. But I was scared too, and I moved through those dim hallways with something akin to regret. This was the only place I’d known for the past five years. And I’d be leaving Father Leboutilier behind.

Most of the kids were working at that hour. No one was about except for one girl I did not know, wiping down the walls with a sponge. She was nine, maybe ten, but the smock sagging to her knees and her dark stockings and shapeless shoes made her look like an old woman. I coughed, and she looked for a moment. There was no recognition on her face, no expression except surrender. When I made a small wave she raised her chin an inch or so, gazed at me with dark, empty eyes and then reached down to squeeze her sponge again.

I carried my little canvas bag of belongings down the stairs and out to the foyer, where Fred Kelly and Father Leboutilier waited. “I’m ready,” I said. When we reached Fred Kelly’s car, the Father looked off toward the trees at the end of the field. I saw him swallow hard before he turned to me. I didn’t know what else to do so I stuck my hand out. Father Leboutilier gave it a firm shake, then pulled me to him. I felt his hand cradle the back of my head.

“Go with God,” he whispered.