I played organized hockey for the first time in 1965. I was 10.
My adopted family lived in Orangeville, Ontario, and I was registered for the minor hockey program. When word got out in my Grade 4 class that I was signed up everyone wanted to know who I was playing for. I went from being the Indian kid and the outsider to somebody’s winger in one day.
As it turned out, my first hockey team was ironically named, the TeePees. I was number nineteen and I was a right winger. At our first practice I played tentatively, scared at my first encounter with a team sport.
See, I’d never played hockey before. The foster home where I’d lived from age five to nine couldn’t afford the cost. When I got a pair of hand-me-down skates, I taught myself on a nine-metre round patch of ice behind the saw mill.
They were too big for me and I had to stuff newspaper in the toes, and wear three pairs of socks to make them fit. But they were skates and I wanted to play like the other boys in my school.
The stick I had was broken. It was a Louisville Slugger and the blade was snapped about seven and a half centimetres from the heel. It was way too long for me. But I leaned on that broken stick until I could skate without it and I learned to stick handle with wood chips and stones.
Sometimes, when the winter night is deep and dark and the chill of it sets your face to stone, I remember a small, lonely Indian kid skating around in endless circles, huffing for breath and leaning on a busted old stick.
I used that patch of ice for hours every night. The floodlights from the mill lit the ice dimly and I skated in shadow with the great dark hulk of the northern Ontario landscape around me. It was magical.
But I’d never been in a game. I’d never skated with anyone else. I’d never made or received a pass and I hadn’t experienced the flow of the game. There were classmates on my team. There were parents and families in the stands, cheering and urging their sons on. It suddenly became important to do well, to look good, to appear normal.
But I’d never played and I chased the puck around relentlessly, never playing my position. When I got my stick on it I didn’t know what to do and I skated the wrong way to the jeers and cusses of my team mates. I didn’t know what off-side was. The other kids had been playing organized hockey for a few years and I was a bumbling clod in their midst.
My adopted father had a strict, no-nonsense approach to the game. A winger needed to skate endlessly back and forth from one end of the ice to the other, never straying from the confines of their side. Never carry the puck. Keep it in motion. Pass it. Quickly. Be where you’re supposed to. He made it a lot of work and I longed for the ice behind the mill.
The other thing they were was frugal. My gear was all second hand. I wore my older brother’s skates. But when I went to play in my first real game, they took my eyeglasses away. They didn’t want them to get broken and have to buy another pair. So they sent me out for my first game with severe astigmatism, unable to see beyond the metre immediately in front of me. I was hopeless.
Hockey became a drudge. I seldom made it off the bench and when I did I couldn’t see well enough to get into the game. I squinted so hard my eyes teared and I had headaches after every game. My classmates laughed at me and I was shunned at school. The Indian, they said, doesn’t belong in the TeePee.
One day, when no one from the family was coming to watch and the team needed a win to make the playoffs, I skated with my glasses on. It was amazing. I could see every centimetre of the ice and when I got off the bench for my first shift I made a couple really good passes. Then I scored a goal. Being able to see the play turned hockey back into a game, to fun, and for 60 minutes I was a hockey player.
But one of my brothers arrived for the third period and told my parents that I’d played with my glasses on. I had all my privileges revoked. When we went to the playoffs I sat out the first two games. Amazingly, the TeePees went on to the championship game and I was allowed to play.
It was a big night for minor hockey in Orangeville. All age levels played their championship games on the same night and the stands were filled. Without my glasses I fumbled around and was benched. But when everyone was tired near the end of the third period I was sent out.
I made the pass that resulted in the winning goal and the TeePees were town champions. The coach took us out for pizza after that and my pass was celebrated.
When I got home later, all the lights were out and there was no one up to greet me.
I haven’t played hockey since 1993. I’m 52 now and I’ve played in hundreds of hockey tournaments at all levels. I wore my glasses in all of them. I grew to love the game and I still do even though I seldom watch it anymore. As long as I could see the ice, I could play the game. What a wonderful metaphor that is.
We offer life when we offer vision. We offer life when we allow play, all rambunctious and free. Within me always, the spirit of a young Indian kid, learning a game on outsized skates. Free.
Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He recently won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels.