I started to notice things after that. I started to see a line in every arena we played in. It showed itself as a stretch of empty seats that separated the Indian fans from the white ones. Police were stationed at the separate entrance they shunted our people through. I saw that a lot of players on the opposing teams would not remove their hockey gloves to shake our hands after a game. Some of them didn’t even leave the bench. When I mentioned it to Virgil, he scowled. “White ice, white players,” he said. “Honky Night in Canada.”

The Moose were invited to play in a town called Espanola. It was a long drive, but their team, the Lumber Kings, were repeat champions. Several former members had graduated to Major Junior A and a handful had even gone on to play in the National Hockey League. They were a team with a pedigree, and only the best teams got invited to Espanola’s annual tournament. The tournament had never had a Native team before, and despite some misgivings Virgil convinced us to make the trip.

“We win this thing and we’ve got enough for a down payment on a team bus,” he said. “Let’s show them that we can do it.”

The Moose were a known team by then, and when we piled out of our vans at the arena in Espanola, I could feel the eyes on us.

“Which one’s the whiz kid?” I heard someone ask.

“Gotta be the big guy.”

“Nah. I bet he’s the tall one, with the big hands.”

As we skated onto the ice for our game against the North Bay Nuggets, the crowd booed us. When our lineup was introduced, they knew suddenly where to direct their energy.

“Hey, Indian Horse! Thirteen’s gonna be real unlucky for you!”

“You guys are gonna need an Indian hearse to get outta here!”

“We’re taking your scalps, Chief!”

Once we settled on our bench, Virgil looked at me and grinned, trying to keep his spirits up. “They warmed up to you real fast,” he said. “The Indian hearse thing was pretty good.”

The North Bay team was exciting to watch. You could tell that they were well coached by the disciplined way they moved the puck. Fred Kelly seldom made a road trip because of his work schedule, and I found myself wishing for his presence right then. No one on the North Bay team took unnecessary chances. They played the game efficiently, and nobody held on to the puck for long. I was impressed as I studied their game. They weren’t afraid to halt the flow and turn their rush back when it wasn’t shaping up. Their defense was solid, if unspectacular. They were the stay-at-home variety who kept their heads and passed cleanly. The Nuggets could really skate too. Our guys looked awkward compared to them. Not long into the game they scored a pair of goals on us.

Virgil slumped down beside me on the bench and elbowed me in the ribs.

“You scared of these guys or what?” he asked.

“They’re good.”

“Yeah, well, anytime you feel like helping out.”

I nodded. I watched a few minutes longer, and when one of their rushes broke down at our blue line and they turned the puck back to their trailing defenseman, I had the knowledge I needed. I raised my stick as Virgil skated by. He turned to the bench immediately and I leaped over the boards.

I burst in across our blue line to a tangle along the boards and tapped the puck loose. It skimmed out to one of their players, and I was on him in a flash. There was no sound from my skates so I surprised him. He flipped a hurried pass into the middle. Our defense ate it up and we started up ice. When they assembled to stave off our attack, I turned and skated as fast as I could along the right wing, ignoring the puck. I saw their defense tighten nervously as I flew across centre ice. They moved toward me but I cut hard back toward the play, passing our rushing left-winger in a blur. He left the puck for me, and I scooped it and flew across our blue line in a long sweeping turn. I could feel the air whip by my face, and my jersey flapped. The crowd was on their feet. I’d never skated so fast. When I met their forwards coming back toward me, I did a crazy loop-the-loop around their centre and another one in the opposite direction by their left-winger. I pulled the defense to me again as I crossed the blue line and made a nifty drop pass between my legs. Joe Eagle Chief, our right-winger, picked it up all alone and scored on a wrist shot. I’d never heard such noise—cheers mixed with boos and a crazed stomping of feet. A flurry of empty cups landed on the ice as I skated to the bench.

“They play clean, but high speed disrupts them,” I huffed to Virgil.

He thumped me on the back, then whispered to our guys along the bench. From then on, we picked up the intensity on every shift. I played forty minutes of that game. I was drenched in sweat. My gear felt like it weighed a thousand pounds. I scored four times and we won it going away, seven to four. Half of their team refused to come out for the handshake.

When we returned the next morning to play the Owen Sound Clippers, the arena was packed. Like before, the crowd was noisy. The Clippers were a hard-skating, workmanlike team, known for their toughness. They were the biggest team we’d ever faced too, and when I lined up for the faceoff against their number one centre he loomed over me.

“Watch your head, squirt,” he said.

Maybe I should have registered those words as ominous. Maybe I should have been able to read what was coming, discerned intent from the vicious way he slapped my stick before the puck was dropped. But I didn’t. What tipped me off first was the hard cross-check I took across the back when I went into the corner after the puck. It was so hard I lost my footing and tumbled into the boards. I heard laughter from the seats. My helmet had slipped down over my eyes, and when I stood up and raised my glove to lift it, someone slashed my skates out from under me and I fell again. I heard more laughter and people were slapping the glass above me. The play had moved down ice by the time I got up, and I had to chase it.

The hits came regular after that. Every player on the Clippers slammed into me whenever they could. I was slashed repeatedly from behind. I was cross-checked, tripped, held and elbowed. When someone pushed my face into the glass with his forearm, I spun on my skates. My helmet fell off, and I was standing toe to toe with the tall centre. He flipped his gloves off, spread his skates wide, raised his fists and scowled at me.

“Whatta ya gonna do, squaw hopper?” he asked.

I looked over at our bench. Virgil was standing there looking at me. As I bent to retrieve my helmet, the boos rained down from the stands. There was clutter strewn all over the ice. The crowd was rabid. Back on the bench I slumped down and took a long swig from the water bottle. I could feel my teammates all looking at me. I stared at my feet.

“You don’t gotta take the cheap stuff, Saul,” Eagle Chief said. “Hit the fuckers back.”

“That’s not my game,” I said.

“Starting to look like it better be.”

When I went out for my next shift, the crowd was on me right away.

“Hey, it’s Chief Chicken!”

“Injuns are s’posed to wear war paint, not make-up!”

“Hit ’em with your purse, Indian Horse!”

As I leaned in for the faceoff, their centre blew me a kiss. “Pussy,” he sneered. He slashed the stick out of my hands when the puck was dropped. When I skated away he raised his hands to the crowd and they roared.

They kept at me all through the game, and when it was over I was covered in welts and bruises. And we lost. That hurt far more. I sat in the dressing room holding ice to the most painful areas.

“Tough guys,” Virgil said.

“We could have won,” I said.

“Hard when they won’t let you skate.”

“Where the hell were the refs?”

“You sound like a whiner.”

“Hey, you saw how they played me.”

“Yeah. I saw. I saw how you reacted, too.”

“You think I’m chicken?”

“I think you’re scared, yeah. I would be if I was your size. There’s some big boys in this tournament. It ain’t gonna get any easier now that they know how to slow you down.”

Virgil was right. It didn’t get any easier. It got worse. Every team we faced after that sent their biggest and toughest out against me. They sent their finesse players out against our other lines, so that when my teammates tried to hand out a measure of punishment they were penalized and played short-handed a lot of the time. The Moose struggled. My body was sore. My thighs had been slashed so many times I could feel the beginnings of a charley horse. When we came out for our last game, a game we had to win to stay in the tournament, I didn’t know if I had it in me. For the very first time that I could remember, I couldn’t find the vision. I couldn’t seem to read the play and I felt hopeless. I felt like a loser. On my first shift in that game I was skated hard into the boards by both opposing defensemen and had my head rubbed into the glass for extra measure. When I turned, the biggest of them pushed me in the chest and I fell back into the boards. He waited, as I gathered myself, settled my helmet square on my head and skated away. He spat at my feet as the crowd booed lustily.

When I finished that shift I came back to our bench and tilted my head up to squirt water from the bottle onto my face. That’s when I felt it. Spittle. It rained down from the seats behind us, and I heard them calling me names and beating against the glass. When I turned around I came face to face with a boy who must have been about nine. He spit against the glass. “Fuckin’ chicken,” he mouthed. The man standing beside him squeezed his shoulder.

By now, the whole crowd was on its feet and gesturing toward our bench. When the ref had whistled the game down, he skated to the PA announcer. It took a full five minutes for the crowd to settle down. While they cleaned the garbage off the ice we went to our dressing room. I sat with my head down, and no one said a word. When I looked around, nobody would meet my eye.

There are times in this world when you have to look hard at yourself. The challenge you feel is the one that burns in your gut. I knew my team wanted me to buckle. They wanted me to bare my fists and fight. But I would not do that. I would not surrender my vision of the game. I would not let go of my dream of it, the freedom, the release it gave me, the joy the game gave me. It wasn’t anybody else’s game to take away from me. Father Leboutilier had said that it was God’s game. I had no head for that idea. But I knew for a fact that the game was my life. I sat there in that horrible silence and I smouldered. I raged, and when the referee knocked on the door I stood up with the others to head back to the ice. I clomped with them down the hallway, and when I got to the bench I turned and looked at the crowd. I raised my stick to them and stepped out onto the ice and reclaimed the game.

There wasn’t one of those players who could skate with me.