Every reserve in the North had a team. Indian boys grew up in those communities knowing that when they got old enough and good enough they could wear the sweaters of their home reserve. Whenever I saw younger kids racing around in decrepit skates with broken sticks, chasing a ball or a sawed-off tin can filled with dirt, I remembered horse turds and hockey sticks stuffed in a snowbank and I smiled. The teams were their communities’ pride and joy. We paid about ten dollars each to play those tournaments and the winner team took home a small purse. Mostly you won enough to cover the gas to get you home and people were happy with that. The first game was held late Friday night as soon as the first teams arrived, and games ran all day Saturday. The championship game was early enough on the Sunday morning to allow everyone time to get home and be ready for work the next day. Everybody stayed to watch the final outcome. Everyone wanted to be a part of the celebration at the end. We lived for the crush of bodies and the yelling and the clapping and the tumult that greeted the champions regardless of who won.

The first part of our journey home was raucous. We replayed every shift, every pass, goal and rush. We teased each other over losing the puck or taking a hit. We laughed at lapses in thinking or sudden misadventures. We praised each other for things well done. When we finally fell asleep it was to dreams of hockey. It was the same for every team, I believe. We came together every weekend with the same anticipation, waiting for the release that happened when our skate blades hit the ice. The rink was the place where our dreams came to life.

It couldn’t really be called a league. But there was a network of reserve communities flung across the North and each team captain took it as his responsibility to get the word out before freeze-up about when his community would host its tournament. The news travelled by moccasin telegraph. The spring, summer and fall were the times for players to train, to run, to lift weights and get their bodies ready for the new season to come.

We were hockey gypsies, heading down another gravel road every weekend, plowing into the heart of that magnificent northern landscape. We never gave a thought to being deprived as we travelled, to being shut out of the regular league system. We never gave a thought to being Indian. Different. We only thought of the game and the brotherhood that bound us together off the ice, in the van, on the plank floors of reservation houses, in the truck stop diners where if we’d won we had a little to splurge on a burger and soup before we hit the road again. Small joys. All of them tied together, entwined to form an experience we would not have traded for any other. We were a league of nomads, mad for the game, mad for the road, mad for ice and snow, an Arctic wind on our faces and a frozen puck on the blade of our sticks.

Fred and Martha Kelly were good to me. They didn’t try to be parents. They settled for being friends, and Virgil and I grew close. He was my greatest ally. I’d never done homework before or had teachers pay any attention to me. The idea of school as a process of grades and expectations was new and frightening. Virgil sat up late with me and helped me with my lessons. He taught me how to understand school, how to present myself in class, how to fit in with the other kids, and tips and tricks to help me learn faster. School became a pleasure with his help. At home I was asked to help out with household chores. I’d been trained to work at St. Jerome’s. Anything the Kellys asked me to do, I did smartly and well. The first time they thanked me for my efforts I had no words. Because of their own experience with St. Germ’s, they understood. Home life became an easy thing and I got comfortable quickly.

My second winter in Manitouwadge, I took to rising early just as I did at St. Jerome’s, clearing the ice and then practicing until it was time to leave for school. I was almost fifteen. Virgil would join me on the ice when he had a later shift at the mine. I would practice escaping his clutches and holds and the snare of his stick as he leaned into me, using his size and girth to slow me down. He was fast for a big man. By that second winter I had almost reached my full height and size, five-foot-nine and one hundred and forty pounds. So I was still small. Virgil had showed me how to work with weights the summer before, and I was lean and wiry. Still, he outweighed me by almost seventy pounds.

“Don’t get caught along the boards. Use the ice. Use as much as they give you,” he’d say. “Use your speed to give yourself more.”

During our team practices Fred would sometimes send me out against three of the other players. They would chase me, hit me, grab me. Every time I touched the puck in those sessions, a body was there. Every time I turned, someone was right up against me. It took a lot of work to find my rhythm under this kind of pressure, but I did it. Those three-on-ones taught me to activate my vision as if it had a switch. When the bumping and the holding impeded me, I’d coast, let the game go, watch it flow around me, just breathing until the vision descended like a cloud of light again. I would see the ice, the players, the destination of the puck as clearly as if the action were on a movie screen. But I had to call my vision forward with emotion; with longing for that purity of motion, the freedom that the game gave me.

“You go somewhere when you’re on the ice,” Virgil said to me after one practice. “It’s like watching you walk into a secret place that no one else knows how to get to.”