Long ago, one of my favourite escapes during cold February days was to the outdoor ice rink next to our old school in Attawapiskat. After winter blizzards, the ice surface would be covered in drifting snow three to four feet deep.
As a teenager the challenge of clearing all that snow drew me out the door early in the morning. Few people would be up and about. Other than the sound of a snowmobile engine here and there, it was a quiet, frozen landscape of white. At the rink I would sometimes find a small path shovelled by someone who had found the energy only to start the job. The local maintenance team that looked after the ice always left several shovels spread about the rink perimeter in case someone decided to tackle the job.
I would arrive bundled in several layers of clothes: a moose-hide hat lined with beaver fur, a pair of thin work gloves covered over in heavier moose-hide mitts and a scarf to break the freezing wind from my face. I knew through experience not to work fast or hard because sweating under my clothes could be dangerous. Even though I was within the community surrounded by people tucked into their cozy homes, I knew that getting chilled or even frost bitten was a real danger at minus 30 and 40 degrees. Staying dry was a must.
I recall the steady rhythm of slowly moving one shovel load at a time. I would cut one single path along a blue line to clear one quarter of the surface. I always felt a sense of accomplishment in seeing the single path emerge in the deep snow to expand and uncover the precious ice surface.
I never cleared the entire rink by myself. Others showed up during the day to lend a hand. A few would watch me work as some found that much effort made by one person to be entertaining. Others would just stop in to see if the ice was clear so that they could play some hockey.
I didn’t expect any help but it helped when many young boys would pick up a shovel. I remember being happy to see the arrival of cousins my own age, especially boys like Antoine Wheesk. He was a huge kid and very powerful so he made a big contribution. Thomas Kataquapit could be counted on because he loved hockey and just wanted to hit the ice. Joey Okimaw was another gifted hockey player who didn’t mind hoisting a shovel. As the ice surface revealed itself these hockey enthusiasts would take breaks and show off some of their new moves and shots.
Younger boys came and went as we worked eager to be able to play. They waited for a large patch of ice to appear out of the deep drifts. As soon as one end of the ice was cleared, the two nets were moved to make a miniature ice rink and the first game of the day was played out. A group of 10 to 15 boys would get together to form two opposing teams and the game was started without rules or form. Everyone was a forward and the players moved in a chaotic mass as the gang chased the puck.
I often took a break from my work to join the game. There were always enough sticks and pucks around and willing players once the ice was cleared. We played in haphazard ways with some of us on skates and others stomping about on our heavy winter boots. The only thing on our minds was to pass the puck and edge it towards the opponent’s net.
After hours of work and some play, I would head home to eat. After several hot cups of tea, a bite and a chat with my mom, I was fuelled up for a few more hours of shovelling.
When I returned I was happy to find other hockey lovers clearing snow. As we shovelled, more and more local players came along to help out. The closer we got to uncovering the entire rink, somehow news would spread in town and that drew out more players in anticipation. As more ice showed up the playing surface increased and the hockey boys and girls grew in a hodgepodge dance in skates and boots while moving pucks all over the place.
It would be dark by the time we finished and the rink would come alive with flood lighting. By that time I was exhausted and satisfied to stand with some of my cousins and friends along the rink side on top of the huge snow piles we had created to watch a real game of hockey appear before us. At that time, the adults and older kids would have arrived to claim the ice and thrill us with their skill, skating like pros in their equipment and slapping the puck off the boards.
In the remote north, where we felt like we didn’t have much, there was a sense of pride in maintaining our own rink. No one was there to guide us or tell us what to do, we just did it and it felt great. I miss that old rink and sometimes when I am shovelling snow in February, I enjoy recalling how wonderful it felt to be out there in the winter sun on the ice rink in Attawapiskat and dealing with life one shovel at a time.