Toronto was a chimera, I thought as soon as I saw it. I’d learned about that monster in a book on mythology that I’d borrowed from the school library in Manitouwadge. The chimera was a fire-breathing beast with a lion’s head, a goat’s body and a serpent’s tail. I liked mythology. The stories reminded me of the stories my grandmother would tell around the fires late at night. Reading them made me feel good. I read a lot while I was with the Kellys. Books had been my safe place all the time I’d been in the school and they still represented security, and whatever corner I huddled in to read was a safe one to me. But Toronto was like the chimera—a gross combination of mismatched parts. It was a mad jumble of speed, noise, and people. It dried up my eyes, and I could taste soot and oil and gas all the time. There were trees, but none of the big pines or spruce or fir I was used to. There were no rocks. There was nothing wild. The one time that I stepped out late in the evening and surprised a raccoon in the trash pile we stared at each other in amazement. Him to see an Indian in that jumble of glass and steel and concrete, me to see a creature meant for hinterlands where the wind carried animal sign instead of rot and decay.

I was billeted with an old couple called the Sheehans. The Irish were a tribe too, I supposed, because it was Lanahan who’d made the arrangement. The Sheehans were hockey people. Patrick had played until a knee injury ended things when he was thirty-nine, and Elissa, his high school sweetheart, had also grown up with the game. They were Leaf fans, and their home was decorated with the memorabilia of adoration. The room they put me in had a Toronto Maple Leafs pennant on the wall, and a huge Leafs bedspread and foot mat. The hallways were lined with pictures of every player they had billeted who made it to the NHL.

They were good to me. Elissa cooked magnificent suppers, and the refrigerator was open territory at any time of day. Patrick was a voluble raconteur about all things hockey. He regaled me with stories about George Armstrong, Jim Neilson, and an up-and-coming Indian kid named Reggie Leach, who people said would set the record books afire.

“So there’s been a trail blazed for you, Saul. Native players aren’t unfamiliar in the NHL.”

We were just unfamiliar to the world around the NHL, I guess. When I showed up for rookie camp I was the only brown face in the room. Once the scrimmages began, none of the other players would call to me or send the puck my way. They weren’t rough or violent. They just ignored me. I skated around the perimeter of the play like I didn’t exist. But god, they were fast. They were all great skaters, and the precision with which they made plays was jaw-dropping. These were elite players culled from elite teams, so they were a joy to watch. I didn’t mind much being shunted out of the flow. It gave me time to read them.

The second day of practice we were split into red and blue squads. I got a red jersey and lined up at the bench to be given my line assignment. I nodded to my new linemates, though they didn’t return my greeting. This was the first skate where players would be cut, and there was a high tension in the air. The Marlboros had room for three rookies that year, and there were thirty of us at camp. Forwards came through the neutral zone like rockets. Defensemen made passes like they were shots on goal, hard and accurate as rifle shots. Goalies were limber and quick as cats. I was stunned by what I saw. I was on the right wing when our line hit the ice, and I skated back and forth marvelling at the speed and dexterity of the players. When we got back to the bench, my centre elbowed me hard in the ribs.

“Skate,” he hissed. “You make me look bad, I’ll punch your lights out.”

“All right,” I said. I pushed my helmet down hard on my head.

On the next shift I kept my word. I was borne up on the crackle of energy around me, and when I cut into the play the first time I felt fleeter and more nimble than I ever had. These were some of the best players from across the country. They made me work just to get clear. But the muscle Virgil had built onto me served me well. When the bigger players leaned on me I managed to push them off. When they tried to pin me along the boards, my legs were strong enough to skate out of the jam. The occasional slashes and cross-checks didn’t even register. These players were so fast, so disciplined, so precise that it made me reach deeper, fight harder, skate more deliberately. Finally, on my fifth shift, I took the puck from end to end. I circled the opposition net, spun in a loop-the-loop through the faceoff circle and wristed a pass onto the stick of our left-winger, who tapped it into the open net. I glided back to the bench and slumped down beside our centre and elbowed him lightly in the ribs.

“Skate?” I asked. “Like that, you mean?”

He stared straight ahead.