That game with the Kapuskasing Chiefs took us out of our shelter. Word got out about the Indian team that had beat the Senior A champions, and everyone wanted to play us. I wasn’t keen and Fred shared my apprehension, but Virgil and the others were determined to take up the challenge.

“They think it’s their game,” I said. “I found that out at the school.”

Virgil frowned. “They play the game for the same reason we do. For the feeling. Far as I know, no one owns that.”

“They think they do.”

“Yeah. Well. We’ll see.”

Instead of our regular northern trips, we began travelling to towns dotted all along the Trans-Canada Highway, places we’d heard of or passed through but never had a reason to stop in before. There were teams everywhere, all of them eager to take on the upstart Indians from Manitouwadge. We lost some games and we won our share, but there was less joy in the trips. A motel in Timmins was less inviting than our regular billets in Batchewana. The air in those arenas didn’t move. You couldn’t feel the wind off the lake cutting across the blue line or follow a honking flock of geese across the sky. There were no Indian kids chasing after the pucks that got flipped over the boards into the snow; no brown fingers clutching the chicken wire behind the net. Zambonis replaced the gangs of people in gumboots and mackinaws hosing down the ice. Now the norm was rows of red seats, electronic scoreboards, junk food in Styrofoam boxes, and the jagged sound of English in the taunts and put-downs from the crowds.

“This ice is crap,” I complained to Virgil. “On outdoor ice you really gotta know how to skate.”

“It’s arena ice,” he said. “Same everywhere.”

“That’s what I mean. The ice in Heron Bay was rough where the wind cut through the black spruce and made ripples and ridges. It was uneven in Ginoogaming because the ground slanted up from one end. We had to know that. Had to use it in our game.”

“This makes it easier.”

“Easier ain’t better. It’s just easier.”

We played almost every week in another town. The games were always events, mostly because people were curious to see if Indians could really skate, if we could play the game right. Although I didn’t want to be there, I took it as my personal responsibility to show them. The white players tried to rough me up but I used my speed to leave them behind me. They speared me, elbowed me, slashed me, head-butted me, but I always found the open ice I needed to make another play, to create magic out of mayhem. The rest of the Moose fought for me. I could shrug off a cheap hit in favour of a better opportunity, but my teammates resented the way I was treated. They resented the cold, inhospitable way we were all treated. For them, the game had always been gentlemanly; rough and hard for certain, but clean, and the reserve teams and the communities that spawned them had been like family. Now there were out-and-out brawls. Once, when I got laid out after a crushing hit from behind, they streamed off our bench and the fight that ensued was horrific. It took the referees a full twenty minutes to get things calmed down. Once the penalties were sorted out, both teams were left with four forwards, a pair of defensemen and a goalie. The crowd was rabid. Garbage rained down on us. A group of them pissed and shat in our dressing room. The tires were slashed on the vans. No one spoke after that game, which we lost by two goals. My teammates carried that resentment with them, and the games we played after were tougher and harder, more bitterly fought, and once, in Hearst, when things again got out of control and blood spewed in an epic team fight in the third period, they refused to line up for the handshakes at the end of the game. They grew vengeful and no cheap shot went unpaid with fists. It saddened me. The Moose went from jubilant boys to hard, taciturn men in no time at all. But as long as we kept winning our share, none of them ventured a suggestion that we return to the way it had been.

It drove me to even deeper focus. I worked deliberately at getting that keen sense of vision to alight on me faster. I wanted to spare my team the indignity of a brawl. I wanted to keep the spirit of the game instilled in them and let them play with the freedom and abandon they once had. So I worked hard at learning to connect to that vision. It started to take me less and less time to read those teams. The players had all grown up the same way, with the same kind of coaching, the same perceptions of the game. Their ideas of flow and movement were restricted by the predictable nature of their coaching, and they seldom took the risk of breaking out of the standard mode of play. I saw that and took advantage of it. Soon we’d left the bush circuit behind altogether and we were invited to play in big-money tournaments everywhere. We earned enough our first winter out to buy new uniforms. Everyone was excited.

Then we ran into the black heart of northern Ontario in the 1960s and we were hated. Hated. There’s no other word for it. The Moose came out of the bush as a team that wanted to prove itself against the best competition around. We arrived in those towns as hockey players expecting to play a square game, stick to stick, end to end, fair and equal. But they only ever saw us as Indians. They only ever saw brown faces where white ones should have been. We were an unwelcome entity in their midst. And when we won it only made things worse.

Chapleau was a mill town east of Wawa, and the tournament there drew teams from as far away as Timmins and Sudbury. A lot of pride was on the line. The games were scrappy and tough and it took everything we had to wrest the championship game from the Sault Ste. Marie team. But we did it. It was a long drive back to Manitouwadge and the boys all had to work the next day, so we decided to spend some of our winnings on a meal in Devon, a small town outside of Chapleau. There wasn’t much to the place, but the café in a hotel looked okay. When we walked through the door, we could see another door that led to a bar. Whenever the door swung open, we could hear the sound of a jukebox and the laughter of men. We were the only ones in the café. We took four tables by the window overlooking the street. The waitress took our orders and we were recounting the game highlights and laughing when a man entered. He took a long look at us before retreating into the bar. None of us gave it a thought.

Then the music from the jukebox stopped.

I looked up to see a line of men entering the café from the bar. They were working men, big and strong-looking with stern faces. Several of them sat on stools and spun around on them to face us. The rest stood around our tables. There were eight of them.

“You boys got kinda big for the britches,” a swarthy, tall man said and leaned one hand on the table where Virgil and I sat.

“No idea what you mean,” Virgil said. He kept his face neutral.

“Well, you win a little hockey tournament and then you think you got the right to come in here and eat like white people,” the man said.

“We’re only here to eat. We didn’t set out to copy anybody,” Virgil said.

“Don’t get cute with me boy.”

Virgil pushed his chair back and stood up. “Boy?” he asked. “How big do they grow men where you come from?”

The man sneered. “Plenty bigger’n you.”

“Just what the hell do you want?”

“Well, the thing is, you gotta earn the right to eat here.”

“We pay just like everybody else.”

“We don’t eat with Indians.”

“I don’t recall asking you to join us,” Virgil said.

The man smiled. Then he reached out and clamped a hand on Virgil’s shoulder. “It’s not your place to ask us anything. You wanna eat here you gotta fight for it.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Well, whenever we get Indians uppity enough to wanna eat here we take them outside to a little place in the alley out back we call Moccasin Square Garden. You walk back in here from the Garden and you can eat all you want. So we’re gonna march you out there one at a time. See who’s man enough to make it back.”

“Sounds fun.” Virgil reached down and took a drink of water, then placed the glass back on the table.

“You first,” the man said to him.

“Save my spot, Saul. I’ll be right back.”

The line of men walked Virgil out and three more stepped from the door of the bar to block our passage. They had axe handles in their hands. We sat there in shock, not knowing what to do. The waitress and the cook stood together in the kitchen, murmuring to each other. There was the sound of slushy traffic from the street. A police car slid by and we flicked looks at each other. The team sat ramrod straight in our chairs.

They walked Virgil back in. He was bloody around the mouth and there was a cut on his temple. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand as he sat down and stared at his hands, which he’d folded on the table. Then they walked another of us out. For the next twenty minutes they came in and took one member of the Moose after another. Each time they brought someone back the smell of urine got stronger. When only I was left, the tall man leaned on our table.

“You play a hell of game, little star,” he said. “That and the fact that you’re a kid gives you a pass. But remember your place. Next time, somewheres else, you might not get so lucky.”

He blew a kiss to everyone at our table and then turned and walked away. The other men strode out behind him. As they entered the bar the jukebox jumped back to life we heard a lot of laughter and the clinking of glasses. I sat there looking around at my teammates’ faces. None of them moved. They were all staring at the table in front of them. They’d been beaten. Not severely. They weren’t injured enough to require a hospital but they were cut and hurt, and I could feel their brokenness. Virgil cleared his throat and stood up.

“Let’s go,” he said.

We filed out silently and climbed into the van. Virgil motioned for me to join him in the front seat. We pulled out into the street and found the highway again. No one said a word. The smell of urine and spit was high in the air. Someone lit a cigarette and the acrid bite of the smoke was a relief. Virgil drove steadily, west along the road that would take us home. Darkness fell. We drove in silence. There was no sound for miles except the hum of the wheels beneath us. We’d driven for hours before Virgil spoke. When he did it was only five words. Five words that scared me and angered me at the same time.

“They pissed on us, Saul.”

The miles flew by and now and then we could hear a cough from the back of the van and the rustle of bodies trying to sleep. As we passed White River around midnight, he told me what had happened.

“When I got out back they circled me. The first one came at me and we got into it. But all he did was push me back and someone else grabbed me and spun me around and I got punched in the face. Then someone else grabbed me and gave me another shot. They pushed me all around that circle, punching and kicking and when I fell to the ground, dizzy, one of them stood over me and pissed on me. It was the same for all of us.”

I sat there without a clue about what to say. After a few more miles he spoke again.

“But you know what the scariest thing was, Saul? There was no yelling, no cussing, no nothing. They did it silently. Like it was an everyday thing. I never knew people could be that cold.”

“They hate us because we won?” I asked finally.

“They hate us because we’re skins.”

“We didn’t do anything.”

“We crossed a line. Their line. They figure they got the right to make us pay for that.”

“Do they?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “Sometimes I think so.”



“I won’t say nothing.”

“Good,” he said. “None of us will.”

And we never did. But there were moments when you’d catch another boy’s eye and know that you were both thinking about it. Everything was contained in that glance. All the hurt. All the shame. All the rage. The white people thought it was their game. They thought it was their world.