By February of that year, the Northern winter was at its deepest. The Moose kept winning and news of our success travelled beyond the confines of the reservation circuit. We were playing at a tournament in Longlac when Virgil poked me in the ribs with his stick as we stood by the boards.

“White guys,” he said. They stood behind the chicken wire at the end of the rink, far away from the regular crowd. Six of them. They wore identical team jackets and they were big, but clearly nervous to be on the reserve.

“What are they doing here?” I asked.

“Gonna find out,” Virgil said.

After the game, I left the shack to find Virgil talking to them, his arms crossed over his chest. When he saw me he waved me over.

“These guys wanna play us,” he said. “Exhibition game. In Kapuskasing.”

“You play a hell of a game,” the tallest one said. “Your team’s too good for these other guys here.”

“We do okay,” I said.

“The thing is, we wonder if you can win at another level. Against us. We want to challenge you.”

Virgil hooked a thumb at me and the two of us moved off to the side.

They were from the Kapuskasing Chiefs, a Senior A team comprised of mill and mine workers. They played in the Northern Hockey Association against teams from Schreiber, Terrace, Geraldton, Marathon and Hearst. They were good—more than good—and the town of Kapuskasing was proud of them.

“One game,” Virgil said. “They were league champions last year. I figure, why not?”

“We never played in town before,” I said.

“Rink’s a rink.”

“Maybe,” I said, remembering White River.

“These Kapuskasing guys would give us a good game,” Virgil said

“We already play good games.”

“Yeah. We do. But these other teams aren’t exactly pushing us. Maybe we could be even better. There’s only one way to find out.”

We stared at each other. I could see the hunger in him. He wanted this game.

“We’ll pay your gas. Give you food money,” the tall player called over to us. “It’d be worth it to us.”

“Hear that, Saul? Can’t get a better deal than that.”

“I don’t want to play in town. I did that. It was no good.”

“You weren’t a Moose then.” Virgil looked at me hard. “If the other guys on the team want to do it, we’re going. That’s how it’s gonna be.”

They’d decided before we went on the ice for our next game. The idea of the challenge excited my teammates and nothing I said could curb their enthusiasm. All they could think about was an indoor arena with manufactured ice and a dressing room we wouldn’t need to share and showers and toilets. So the game was booked and we began to practice harder than ever before. Fred Kelly was determined to ice a competitive squad and he drove us to excel. We did the same passing drills over and over again. He worked us on clearing the puck from our own end, freeing it in the corner for faceoffs and using the sixty feet between blue lines to gather momentum and arrange ourselves for attack. The players changed. Our practices, usually marked by good-natured yelps and shouts, became solemn, with everyone bearing down. The silence was disturbing.

“We’re not the same team,” I said to Virgil one night.

“What’s the problem with that? We’re better.”

“It doesn’t feel better.”

“You’re just scared.”

“I’m not scared. I just want it back the way it used to be.”

“We’ve never had a chance to be great before.”

“We were great.”

“Against teams that couldn’t push us.”

“Great’s great.”

“Easy enough for you to say, Saul. But none of us have your gift. Think about us guys. Think about how much we’d like a shot at playing at a higher level. Think about that.”

So I did. In the end that was the only reason I decided to skate against Kapuskasing. I didn’t want the Moose to fail. I didn’t want them coming back defeated, bearing the memory of a battle they’d never had a chance to win. If there was anything that I could do to prevent that I would. I’d bring my best game. I would bring my entire focus. I’d bring every ounce of my will. My team needed me to play my best and that’s the only reason I decided to play that game.