The Moose travelled to games in a pair of broken-down vans that Virgil worked his mechanical magic on to keep running. Fred’s shifts at work made it almost impossible for him to go with us as our coach so Virgil did that as well as captain the team. Our gear was stacked on the roof. We were crushed together, except for Virgil, who did the driving, and the front-seat passenger. We’d doze off to the smell of feet and sour breath and the sounds of snoring on those long, pitch-black northern drives, some of them three hundred miles or more. We existed on fruit, chocolate bars and sandwiches prepared for us by someone’s mother or girlfriend. It was my job as the rookie to clear out the van at every stop. We’d leave on Friday night, right after the work whistles blew at the mills or the mines. In the fading light of the sun we’d follow the dim, humped white of the snowdrifts at the road’s shoulder into the northern bush.

Because I was the smallest one on the team, I always found myself scrunched between two larger players. They’d cut cards to see who got to sit beside me: I took up less space, so there was more room for those on either side to get comfortable. Often, while the others were sleeping, I’d look out the window and watch the land flow by. Some nights there would be a moon, and the shadows it created were spectacular. Trees became many-armed creatures looming across the road. Lakes were shining phosphorescent platters. Ridges and scarps were fortresses capped with snow. Rivers were serpentine swaths of a deeper black. I loved every inch of it. I’d largely given up mourning the loss of my early life, those days on the land with my family. But the sadness filled me at times as we drove through the night.

Whether our destination was Gull River, Longlac, Red Rock, Whitesand or Ginoogaming, we were welcomed into the community and billeted with families who took good care of us. Sometimes five or six players would hunker in with a family of twelve in a small clapboard reserve house, bodies sprawled around the woodstove or laid out in rows across the main room. They served us rabbit, beaver and moose. When the time came to play, we’d all tramp through the snow to the rinks. Sometimes we played on rivers, or lakes or ponds. More often the rinks had been set up behind the band office or community centre. There would always be a wooden shack that both teams shared to suit up in. Those shacks were incredible. Lit by the brightest of light bulbs and warmed by stoves with a chimney pipe that stuck up through a hole in the roof, they had gouged plywood floors that you could see the ground through. The benches had to be replaced every year, because someone always made off with the benches from the year prior to use for firewood. When we clomped down the plywood ramps onto the ice, our skates sounded like thunder rolling across the vast whiteness. The rinks were much the same wherever we went. Wooden boards braced by two-by-fours. Chicken wire stretched across each end behind the nets. Three or four strings of light bulbs draped across the blue lines and centre ice, with maybe another yard light mounted on a hydro pole. Sometimes there were bleachers, but for the most part the crowds stood shoulder to shoulder around the perimeter, ducking when the puck flew over the boards. But the ice was always smooth and well tended. Each host community took great care to prepare it. People loved the game. It might be thirty below with a wind whipping across the surface of the rink and stinging their eyes, but they would stand there and stamp their feet and lean closer to each other like penguins. They’d stand for the length of the game, then scurry into the community hall or the nearest house to warm before the next game started. They were the hardiest and most devoted fans you could ever wish for. We played our hearts out for them.

Those games were spirited contests and gruelling physical feats. The white people had denied us the privilege of indoor arenas, the comfort of heated dressing rooms, concession stands, glassed rinks, scoreboards and even a players’ bench. We stood behind the boards, stamping our skates in the snow to keep our feet warm. In the coldest weather we took turns heading to the shack for warmth, leaving just six players from each side on the ice. The goalies would take turns too. But we played each game out. No game was ever called because of weather. We skated through blizzards, deep Arctic freezes and sudden thaws that turned the ice to butter. The game brought us together in a way that nothing else could, and players and fans alike huddled against whatever winter threw at us. We celebrated every goal, every hit, every pass. Sometimes there were fights as there are so often in the game, but they were never bitter, never carried on beyond the next faceoff. We came from nations of warriors, and the sudden flinging down of sticks and gloves, the wild punches and wrestling were extensions of that identity. A fight would end and both players would shake hands. The crowd would cheer and clap and stamp their feet, and the game would carry on.

Everywhere we went I was greeted with laughter because I was so young and so small. We played five games at the end of that first winter. At the beginning of each game I hung back as Fred Kelly had asked me to do. But when I had seen enough, I jumped in and the laughter died away. The higher level of play with these bigger and better teams did not stall me. Instead, it pushed me to greater heights. By the end of that first winter, I was an essential part of the Moose.

“Our secret weapon,” Buddy Black Wolf said.

“A bag of antlers,” was how Ervin Ear described me. “But fast.”