I made the team as a rookie, and I had a new weapon in my arsenal now. Trust. I trusted that these elite players would go to the right place, make the right moves, put themselves exactly where they needed to be. My passes were the solder that welded our attacks together. I loved the thrill of knowing that I’d sent someone into open ice, left them a gap in the defense, a lane that led to the mouth of the goal and that blinking red light. I scored when I could, but my passing game became electric. I made the Marlboros as a centre. A playmaker. A skater.

If hockey had been the only arena in which I was tested, I would have won in a rout. But it wasn’t. I was still the Indian kid from northern Ontario. During a press interview following the announcement that I had made the team, I mentioned learning the game in broken-down boots with horse turds for hockey pucks. That made me even more of an oddity. No matter what I did, I remained the outsider. My teammates never called me Chief, but they didn’t use my name either. They never called me anything but “thirteen.”

“Thirteen don’t talk much.”

“I heard they’re like that.”

Or, “Thirteen never smiles.”

“None of them do.”

They took my passes, though. They let me fry that ice with my speed and hurtle forward with the puck. They allowed me to carry the game sometimes, waiting until I flipped the rubber to them. But they came out of a system that culled elite kids from the pack and made them special. They’d grown up with hockey moms and dads driving them to practice through sleepy morning streets, coaches they’d known for years pushing them to excel, fans expecting big results from their gifted kids. These guys weren’t mean. They weren’t vicious. They were just indifferent, and that hurt a whole lot more. I’d leave the shelter of the game and walk the streets of the city in something close to desolation. I lived only for the whistle that started the game.

Every team we faced that season was cut from the same cloth as the Marlies. The players were fast, precise, unrelenting and creative. They were warriors. They played at such a tempo that all I had to do was close my eyes on the bench and the vision settled over me right away. I was a whirlwind in those first games, and nobody could miss that. But the press would not let me be. When I hit someone, it wasn’t just a bodycheck; I was counting coup. When I made a dash down the ice and brought the crowd to their feet, I was on a raid. If I inadvertently high-sticked someone during a tussle in the corner, I was taking scalps. When I did not react to getting a penalty, I was the stoic Indian. One reporter described how I looked flying across the opposition blue line with the puck on my stick: I was as bright-eyed as a painted warrior bearing down on a wagon train. This explosively fast, ordered game I was learning to play had set me on fire. I wanted to rise to new heights, be one of the glittering few. But they wouldn’t let me be just a hockey player. I always had to be the Indian.

The fans picked up on it. During one game they broke into a ridiculous war chant whenever I stepped onto the ice. At another, the announcer played a sound clip from a cheap western over the PA. When I scored, the ice was littered with plastic Indian dolls, and once someone threw horse turds on the ice in front of our bench. A cartoon in one of the papers showed me in a hockey helmet festooned with eagle feathers, holding a war lance instead of a hockey stick. The caption read, “Welcome the new Marlboro man.”

Soon, players on other teams were following suit. I was taunted endlessly. They called me Indian Whores, Horse Piss, Stolen Pony. Elbows and knees were constantly flying at me. I couldn’t play a shift that didn’t include some kind of cheap shot, threat or curse. And when I refused to retaliate, my teammates started leaving a space around me on the bench. I sat alone in that territory of emptiness, eight inches on either side of me announcing to everyone that I was different, that I was not welcome even among my own. Finally, it changed the game for me. If they wanted me to be a savage, that’s what I would give them.

I began to skate with the deliberate intention of shoving my skill up the noses of those who belittled me, made me feel ashamed of my skin. One night against the London Knights I made a no-look backhand pass through the legs of one player over the outstretched stick of another, right onto the stick of our right-winger. He scored on a clear-cut breakaway. As we were skating back to our bench the Knights centre slashed me behind the knees and I fell to the ice. There was no whistle. The crowd howled. My teammates even laughed. He was seated on the Knights bench by then and I skated over lazily. They all looked at me and made faces. I flipped my right glove off at the last second and drove my fist right into this face. I fought three of them before they hauled me off the ice. That was the end of any semblance of joy in the game for me. I became a fighter. If an opposing player directed any kind of remark toward me, I dropped the gloves and started swinging. Any questionable hit was sufficient excuse for a tilt, and my bodychecks were hard, vicious and vindictive. I was bitter. I wanted the game to lift me up. To make the world disappear as it always had. But as a Marlboro, I could never shake being the Indian. So I became a puck hog. Instead of making passes to my open teammates, I skated and whirled until I could make the shot myself. One night, after an end-to-end rush that resulted in a goal on a nifty change of direction at the goal mouth, I dropped to one knee at the other team’s blue line and mimed taking a shot at the net with a bow and arrow. It infuriated the crowd. The other team sent their biggest, toughest player after me on the next shift, and the fight that followed was titanic. I drew a game misconduct penalty and marched to the dressing room, bloodied but filled with a roaring pride.

“We didn’t bring you here for this, Saul,” the Marlies coach said to me in his office after the game. “We brought you here to be a player. Not some cheap goon.”

“Hey, I’m just giving them what they want,” I said.


“The crowd, the team. Don’t you read the papers? I’m the Rampaging Redskin.”

“That was an unfortunate bit of cheap writing. I’m sorry you had to go through that,” he said.

“Yeah, well, maybe I’m better suited to a tomahawk than a hockey stick.”

“You and I both know that’s not true.”

“I’m the Indian. That’s all they see.”

He started to bench me for long stretches in games. When I hit the ice I was effective. I scored twenty-three points in nine games. But the taunting from the stands continued, and I fumed and smoldered and racked up one hundred and twenty minutes in the penalty box. I caused the Marlies to play short-handed a lot of the time, and we lost seven of those games. Finally, they benched me completely. After one night of sitting in the stands, I packed my bag and got on a bus back to Manitouwadge.