The Kapuskasing arena was new. The town had spent a lot of money on it and when we walked into the lobby the first thing we saw were glass cabinets along the walls filled with trophies and photographs. It was like a shrine to their home team. We stood there with our gear bags in our hands, studying the display. There were no awards in our bush league. The winners were celebrated with feasts and parties but there was no money for trophies. It was Virgil who finally broke off our reverie and led us to the dressing room.

“Shiny things,” he said. “You guys are like a bunch of crows.”

The dressing room was warm and well lit. Each player had a small cubicle and we all had room to sprawl out and stretch on the floor while we dressed. I could see the nerves working on the Moose. These were Indian boys. They may have been lumberjacks and mine workers when they weren’t playing the game, but concrete arenas and carpeted dressing rooms intimidated them. Fred Kelly hadn’t been able to make the trip. That unnerved them even more. Because of the Chiefs’ regular league schedule, the game could only be booked in mid-week and no one could pick up Fred’s shifts at the mine. We’d made the nearly three-hundred-mile trip in a strange, nervous quiet. Virgil did his best to assure the team that he had Fred’s game plan memorized, but my teammates were still anxious. None of them said a thing, and the quiet of our preparations was unnerving. We could hear the noisy crowd wending its way along the corridor and up into the seats. It sounded like a few thousand people. Their voices were shrill and excited. There was a knock at the door, and Virgil stumped over to answer it.

“Need your lineup card,” someone said.

“Our what?” Virgil asked.

“Your lineup card. For the refs and the announcer.”

“We don’t got one.”

“You need one.”

I took a few minutes to write our names and numbers on a card. When I handed it to the older man who stood waiting, the man looked at it and smiled. “You got some pretty weird names here,” he said. “Indian Horse. Black Wolf. Ear. You’re kidding, right?”

Virgil just looked at him steadily.

When we were ready, we stood up, waiting for someone to make the first move. “It’s just an exhibition game,” Virgil said. “It’s just another game so don’t make it bigger in your heads. Play it like you always do. Be Moose. Be Indians.”

He led us to the ice. The building was like a great cavern. Flags and pennants hung from the rafters. The bright lights gave the ice the look of cotton. The red and blue lines were stark against it. The goalposts glared from each end and behind them the sparkling glass reached tall above the boards. The seats stretched back to form a shallow bowl around the rink, and the place was packed. As soon as we pushed out onto the ice the crowd began to shout at us. People laughed when they saw me, and I could hear them heckle as I skated around to loosen up.

“Thirteen must be the mascot!”

“No, no. That’s papoose. Thirteen’s their papoose!”

“Hey, thirteen! You got a note from your mom to play?”

The announcer cut in to introduce our lineup. We’d never heard our names over a loudspeaker before, and our guys raised their heads to listen. The crowd reacted whenever he read out a particularly Indian-sounding name, shouting out jibes and taunts. When the Chiefs skated out onto the ice, the people in the stands rose and erupted in foot stomping, hand clapping, whistles and cheers. The Chiefs circled in their end. They skated really well in their flashy uniforms and gear. We went through our warm-ups and gathered on our bench to prepare.

“Just like we always do,” Virgil said. “If my dad was here, he’d be telling you the same thing. We just need to play our game. Our game. No matter what.”

I was astonished at the skill and precision of the Chiefs. They were awesome to watch. I’d never seen a team that good play in person. Everybody knew exactly where the others were at all times, and passes that seemed aimed for open ice were gobbled up by their players streaking into it. They seemed programmed to aim for our net and they worked the puck effortlessly back and forth. They potted four goals against us in the first eight minutes. I hung back and watched them as I usually did. The score was five to nothing before I got that feeling of space behind my eyes, the clarity I was so familiar with. I signalled to Virgil, who was taking a breather near the gate to our bench, and he nodded.

“Little Chief,” he yelled and pounded on the boards. On his next pass Stu Little Chief headed for the bench. When he was three feet away I hurtled over the boards and into the game.

As soon as my skates hit the ice I knew exactly what to do. I burst down the right side and followed the puck deep into their end. Their defenseman scooped the puck off the boards and cut behind their net. The rest of them banked like fighter planes. That’s what I was counting on. I could see that the Chiefs’ first pass would be a hard flat one to their other defender halfway to the blue line. From there it was supposed to go across ice behind our retreating forwards, to their left-winger, who would tap it directly into open ice. Their centre would pick it up at full speed and head up ice. But they never got that chance. I was out of the defenseman’s range of vision, and when he sent out the first pass I cut in off the wing, where I coasted. I was blazing when the cross-ice pass was made and I snared it at their blue line. I heard the defenders yelp and they both jumped up to counter. I turned hard on the outside edge of my blades, pulled the puck around on my backhand and cut straight across in front of them. Fast. They had to come together, and when they did I cut the other way and swept into clear ice near the far faceoff circle. They couldn’t catch me. I straightened up fifteen feet in front of the net, dipped my shoulders, wriggled my hips and changed direction three times before lifting the puck over the sprawled goalie. Five to one.

I barely went to the bench after that. The only rest I got was between periods, and by the time we came out for the final frame it was five to four for the Chiefs. By then they were keying on me, which opened up the ice for the rest of our guys. But they were a strong and disciplined team. Even when two of them took me out against the boards the other three skaters maintained control of their territory. My teammates played hard, but the experience of the Kapuskasing kept us at bay. They knew how to play puck control and they iced the puck a lot to force faceoffs. Time was wearing down. My energy began to flag. I signalled to Virgil with seven minutes left and took a seat on the bench. I squirted water over my head from a plastic bottle and wiped it off with a towel. The Chiefs and their crowd could smell victory, and the noise was tremendous. None of us had ever been in such a raucous atmosphere. When our players came to the bench I could see fear on their faces. The tension was huge. This loss would be enormous and I closed my eyes and breathed, drawing all my energy to a sharp point of focus. I felt lifted suddenly, borne upward and out of my tired body, and the air was suddenly clearer in my lungs. I waved a glove at a passing player and he whirled to the bench and I was back into the flow of the game. I stole the puck off a Chief player’s stick at their blue line and whirled and snapped a bullet of a pass right onto Virgil’s stick. The goalie slid across the crease with his pads stacked together. Virgil calmly lifted the puck over him. Tie game.

Five minutes left, and I was flying now. Every time the Chiefs tried a rush I broke it up. Every time they worked to organize themselves I would rag the puck in a wild game of keep-away until their attack fizzled. The crowd shouted at them to hit me but I was too fast. I spun and danced and looped-the-loop like a daredevil. I skated like I had never skated before. I made seemingly impossible passes. I made moves that made the crowd roar. Then, with less than a minute remaining, I poke-checked the puck off a Chief defenseman’s stick. It squirted out into the open and I flashed past him and scooped it up with one hand on my stick. I pumped hard with the other and sped across centre ice. The crowd stood and yelled at their team to stop me. I raised my eyes to look ahead. Their goalie was backing slowly toward the net. The Moose were all yelling from our bench, and that’s when time slowed. I could hear the slice of my blades. I could hear my own breathing. I zoomed across the blue line but everything was all cottony and slow. The puck was pushed out ahead of me on the toe of the blade of my stick.

My shoulders rolled as I sped in on goal. I could see the goalie squinting through the cage of his mask. When I was a dozen feet away I dropped one shoulder in a broad feint. He didn’t move. I faked a wrist shot. At the last second I turned my stick and pulled the puck back in, at the same time turning sharply so I faced back up ice. The goalie had moved across the net with me. I saw Stu Little Chief skating in all alone on the opposite side of the net and I hit him on the button with a hard pass. All he had to do was tap it into the empty side of the goal. I didn’t see the Chiefs defenseman coming. He hit me hard and I crashed into the boards. When I clambered to one knee the Moose piled on top of me. I was pummelled and punched in joy and by the time we got untangled the ice was littered with debris. The crowd was standing and cheering, and as I skated to our bench with thirty seconds left in the game they cheered even louder. The ice crew cleared up the mess and I sat on the bench as our guys controlled the puck after the faceoff. The players on the bench stood as the time clicked away and then erupted over the boards when the klaxon sounded. I was too tired to move.

Finally, the Chiefs lined up to shake our hands and I made my way off the bench to join the ceremony. One by one they gripped my hand and nodded. The crowd kept up their applause. We skated to our bench and were headed towards the dressing room when someone stopped me at the exit and told me I was the game’s first star. I didn’t understand.

“The first star,” Virgil said. “You know? Three stars like Hockey Night in Canada?”

“I’m not going back out there.”

“Have to. It’s tradition.”

“I don’t know if I like that tradition,” I said.

“Guess you better start to if you’re gonna play like that.”

Then the announcer’s voice boomed out across the arena. “Introducing the game’s three stars. Your first star, from the Manitouwadge Moose, number thirteen, Saul Indian Horse. Indian Horse.”

I expected boos to rain down. But when I coasted out to take a turn around centre ice, the applause and stamping feet sounded like thunder rolling around the arena. I looked up and everybody was standing and when I raised my stick in appreciation they cheered even louder. I skated to the bench and Virgil was grinning at me.

“Better’n a fricking trophy any time, eh?” he said.

“It’ll do,” I said and grinned. “Can we go home now?”