Manitouwadge means “Cave of the Great Spirit” in Ojibway. That was funny, because it was mining that gave the town its life. Everyone in Manitouwadge worked in the mines or the sawmills, and Fred Kelly had brought his family there from the Pic River reservation to join the thirty other Ojibway families who lived in a neighbourhood on the outskirts called Indian Town by the locals. Its residents called it the Rez. I’d learn fast enough that an invisible line was drawn across the intersection of Sanderson Road and Township Road Eleven that everyone regarded as part of the local geography. The town proper was populated by tough, narrow-minded men and their loyal women and their callow kids, all rough-and-tumble and rude. It was a place of Saturday night fights in the parking lot outside Merle’s Old Time Saloon, wild country dances at the Legion Hall, bass boats, snowmobiles, motorcycles and random games of Broom-a-Buck, the redneck game of leaning out the window of a car or truck to swat Indians on the sidewalk or the road. Fifty points for a head shot. Twenty for any other part of the body. I’d learn all of this later. That first day, in the late winter of 1966, all I saw was a town drenched in the seeping grey of spring breakup.

The outdoor rink behind Fred Kelly’s house was almost gone, but he showed it to me first thing. His back yard was huge, ending at an outcropping of pink granite, and the rink was full-sized. Seeing it eased the ache in my chest a little.

A tall, spare woman wearing a big smile opened the back door and stood with her arms wrapped around herself, shifting from foot to foot in the icy breeze. “Fred, for Pete’s sake. The boy needs food before he needs hockey. Bring him in and let’s meet him proper.”

Fred laughed and pushed me lightly in the direction of the house. “Ma’s first rule is food. She cooks up a storm too.”

The house was full of people. The Kellys had three sons. Garrett and Howard were married, and they were there with their wives and children. The youngest, Virgil, was a hulking seventeen year old. When Fred introduced me, Virgil squinted in a friendly way and looked me up and down.

“Kinda small,” he said as he shook my hand.

“He plays bigger,” Fred said.

“He’ll wanna.”

Virgil was the captain of the Moose. “It’s kinda like being a chief,” he said. “It’s all about family and who you know. Garrett was captain before me. Kind of went down the line. The guys? They’re not gonna take to you right away.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Couple reasons,” he said. By now we were sitting at the kitchen table with our soup and bannock, real food that I ate hungrily. “First is you’re not from here and you’re taking a spot away from someone else. Second is you’re a sawed-off little runt and they’re gonna think they have to protect you, stand up for you.”

“They won’t.” I said.

“You’ll have to prove that. My dad says you got a hell of a game, but they’ll make you prove that too. It won’t be easy.”

We ate in silence after that. When we were finished, Martha showed me to my room, and we went shopping for clothing. I’d never had anyone spend money on me, and it felt odd standing in front of mirrors with the cardboard feel of new pants against my legs, and crisp new shirts around my throat. Fred took me to the sporting goods store next and bought me my first gear. Now I had skates that fit properly. I had a stick right for my size and equipment that didn’t drape over me. I couldn’t wait to hit the ice and see how it felt to be suitably attired.

Our first scrimmage was that night. I sat in the Kellys’ kitchen and watched my new teammates, all of them huge, arrive and troop through one by one. They were boys still, but they had the air of men. Serious. Grave. Intent. Nobody looked at me. They just said their hellos to the family and moved on out the back door into the small shed that Fred had equipped with a woodstove. I walked out there with Virgil.

The rink was lit by strings of bare light bulbs. The ice ended abruptly in shadow, and the humped rocks and spindly trees created an eerie kind of backdrop. The shed was roasting inside with a wild fire in the stove. Beneath the smell of sweat and leather was the sting of liniment and a potent mix of farts, tobacco and chewing gum. The floor was covered with a thick rubber pad and gear was strewn everywhere. The players were in varying states of undress. Long johns, hockey socks, jocks, shoulder pads. I watched as they prepared. The whipping motion of hands taping knee pads to shins. Fists pounding pads into place. Grimaces as skate laces were drawn taut. The goalies prone on the floor, lying on their bellies while other players latched the pads to the backs of their legs. The Moose were like soldiers arming themselves for battle, and I stood there holding my new gear bag in my hand, unable to move at first. The feel of their energy in that tiny shack like ordnance built to explode.

“Who’s got tape?”

“Fuckin’ elbow pads. Need new ones. These won’t stay in place.”

“Nail ’em in. You’re a defenseman.”

“Five bucks first goal.”

“Easy money.”

As I pushed into a spot on a bench beside Virgil, I could see some players glancing my way. No one said a word to me, though. Instead, they spoke among themselves. Murmurs. Grumbles. Cusses. Whenever a player was ready he’d clomp across the rubber and out the door into the chill night air. When I had drawn the laces of my new skates as tight as they would go, I wrapped a few rounds of tape around the blade of my stick and then stood to test it, leaning my weight on it and bending the shaft. Fred Kelly walked in and tossed me a jersey.

“It’s mine,” he said. “Wore it when I was first with the Moose.”

He helped me pull it on over my shoulder pads. “Thanks,” I said.

“When you get out there, Saul, I want you to take it easy. Don’t jump into the play right away. Study what’s going on. Learn what you can about how these guys move, what they like to do with the puck, how they work with each other, where they’re weakest, most prone to being beat. They’ll tease you at first. They’ll make fun of you. Some of them might even make a run at you. But take the time you need. Then, when you feel ready, join in. You got it?”

“Yeah,” I said.



“Good. Let’s go.”

I stood at the rink’s open gate, awed by the size and speed of my teammates. I could feel the breeze they created push against my face as they whirled around the rink in warm-up. I glided out, too intimidated to move further. One of them clipped me as he passed and I twirled and spun and fell to one knee. Everybody laughed. I could feel the redness in my cheeks as I stood and began to skate on the inside, away from the boards. Virgil passed close to me.

“Skate,” he hissed.

I pushed off and worked my speed up gradually, watching the team like Fred suggested. The players were powerful, but it was their sheer strength that gave most of them thrust, not their ability to skate. Their blades made that tell-tale bash against the ice when they stepped up the pace. Still, they were the fastest, most fluid players I had seen. I could see who turned better to his left, who to his right. I could see who leaned too far over his knees, to make puck-handling easy. Eventually I moved to the outside and skated with the others. But I still didn’t let my speed out.

When the scrimmage started I again stood beside the boards and watched. The others shot me curious glances. I was too intent on the game to care. The team moved the puck a lot faster and harder than I’d seen before. Their organization was tight and the game flowed up ice and down with a measured, calculated crispness. But soon I was able to read the flow, to see where the play would go and how a particular player would react to it. When I finally coasted along the right wing past Fred Kelly, he smiled at me and nodded. I turned and skated into the game.

They came at me right away. My head was at chest level for most players and they pushed me out of their way. When I tried to move ahead they held me back with their sticks. They hooked my sweater. They were unbelievably strong. They tripped me and laughed when I sprawled spread eagle on the ice. They knocked me into the boards, and pinned me there with their bulk. But there was teaching in all of it. They showed me what to expect, and I let the game flow through me. I skated loosely and waited.

Nobody would pass to me, so when the puck went into the corner and three players battled along the boards for it, I skated in and poked the puck loose with the toe of my stick. I spun on one blade, pushed off and was suddenly in open ice in front of my own goal. I stepped into my stride, crossed to the far boards and headed up ice. Virgil, on the far right wing banged his stick on the ice for a pass. I waited. When I crossed centre and approached the blue line, the biggest Moose defenseman committed. As he moved to try to check the puck from my stick, I saw Virgil angle for the hole he’d created. I snapped the puck under the defenseman’s outstretched stick. Virgil had open ice. He put the puck into the low stick-side corner.

I skated to the bench and took a seat.

“Nice pass,” Virgil said.

“Try that shit again, kid,” the defenseman said bitterly when he cruised by. Fred Kelly grinned behind the boards.

After a whistle, I took centre for the faceoff. I lost that draw but the puck had little momentum and I snatched it and was gone in three strides. I knew the defense would try to pinch me off in the middle, so I drove straight at them. When they’d committed I leaned onto my blades and made a sharp, veering turn, the puck cradled on my stick. Our other forward poured full-steam into open ice on the other side. I hit him on the button with a drilled pass and he was away and in the clear. He failed to score, but I gobbled up the rebound from his slap shot. I was twelve feet out, and as I closed the distance to the net I deked to the right, then quickly back to the left, and lofted the puck up under the crossbar. The defense banged their sticks on the ice in frustration.

As I skated back to the bench again, the whole team was staring at me. Virgil slapped my shin pads with his stick. The rest stayed where they were and as I slumped down on the bench there were some low mutters of appreciation.

It got harder after that. Every time I touched the puck, someone was on me. They used their size to take the ice away from me. They forced me to the boards and held me there with their weight and bulk. They slammed their sticks on the shaft of mine or they just reached in with their strength and lifted the blade of my stick off the ice. They made me work harder than I had ever had to work. For a while they completely restricted my movement and I grew frustrated and angry. They gave catcalls when I sat on the bench and hooted when my progress was stalled anywhere on the ice. My body hurt. But my pride hurt more.

Eventually, it made me better. Instead of following the play, where I could be bashed and bothered, I moved into open ice, and they would not follow me away from the flow. From there I could ratchet up my speed. I dashed into the play and they couldn’t hit me or hold me because they couldn’t catch me. I whirled and danced and darted with the puck. I didn’t score another goal but I made three or four pinpoint passes that resulted in goals. I also didn’t take another hit. There was no fear in me. There was no anxiety. There was only the magic of the game.

When the whistle blew the team gathered at the boards nearest the shack. They leaned on their sticks and heaved great clouds of breath into the bitter cold. Fred Kelly tapped a clipboard against his thigh and looked over to where I stood by the net, uncertain about what to do or where to go. Finally, Virgil banged his stick on the ice and stepped aside to make room for me. Everyone else shunted over. I skated slowly to them and stepped into that empty space and Fred began to talk. He highlighted things he wanted us all to pay attention to. He spoke to specific players about specific plays. When he got to me he just smiled.

“Welcome to the Moose,” he said.

Virgil thumped me on the back and they all rattled the blades of their sticks on the ice and we thumped across the snow to the shack.

We sat in the blistering heat created by that woodstove, towels wrapped around our necks, drops of sweat making a marsh on the thick rubber mat. My teammates sucked greedily at pop and water. Here and there someone fired up a cigarette. Skates and other gear dropped to the floor. They sat in varying degrees of undress. Boys, almost men, the feel of them languid, loose and easy now. Virgil handed me a soda and I lifted the bottle and took a long draught. It felt and tasted magnificent. When I set it down under the bench and sat up to peel my jersey off, they raised their own bottles to me silently and drank. No one said a word. They didn’t have to. I stripped off my jersey and sat there breathing in the atmosphere of that small wooden shack. I was a Moose.