It is another cold winter evening in Attawapiskat and my friends and I are gathered outside passing the time. I am 10 years old and my buddies and I are considering our options on another quiet, unexciting evening in our community. Actually, there really is only one choice and that’s the open-air hockey rink behind the elementary school in the centre of town.
The glow of the high-powered flood lights from the rink light up the night. You can see the shimmering light illuminating the frosty air from just about any point in town. Everyone waits for the lights to come on after dark. The power is controlled by two or three individuals from the town’s maintenance department. Some nights they are forgetful or preoccupied and the town buzzes with questions about their punctuality. People go searching for them and the lights ultimately are turned on. Fortunately, on most nights the light guys are mindful of their responsibilities to the community’s only night time meeting place. Once the lights are on many in the community hit the streets and head for the rink.
Once or twice a week, the adults take over the rink for their regular games of organized hockey, but, for the rest of the time, the evenings are free to anyone. During these free nights, the ice rink is a meeting point for everyone in town. People of all ages arrive at the rink with skates and a hockey stick to practice in evening temperatures that dip to minus 30 and 40. We brave the temperatures for as long as we can. We have brought our winter boots and as soon as the chill begins to freeze through our layers of socks and leather skates, we change to warmer footwear and continue playing.
Youngsters from nearby homes run around on the 10-foot-high snow banks that surround the rink. The steep banks of white snow are held back by four-foot plywood walls and a four-foot high chain link fence that sits on top of the boards. The white paint on the boards is marked and dented with the pounding of hundreds of black rubber pucks. The chain-link fence has openings for the two opposing teams and access to two penalty box areas.
The visitors to this evening scene are a mix of people from the community. Young boys like myself stick close to friends and we try to protect our own little corner of the rink. We are leery of losing our puck to older teenagers that can skate from one end of the ice to another in a flash and dance circles around us. These teenagers play quick one-on-ones with their friends and they dart in and out of the sidelines in search of a loose puck.
Some players who are not the strongest or fastest instead develop quick hands and stick handling skills that provide more of a show for the rest of us. There are also players that have fashioned strange looking, customized sticks that have been melted over a fire to provide outrageous curves that send pucks flying high in the air. Older teenagers and young men swoosh through the crowds and occupy centre ice as they pound the walls with heavy slap shots, wrist shots and back hands. They compete amongst each other for the title of hardest shot, the most accurate or the highest flying puck. It is like a circus ring full of dazzling acts, little clowns, freaks and strong men.
All these characters dance around in a chaotic frenzy of skating players, flying pucks and boys running around in heavy boots. Once in a while everything stops as a flying puck hits a player or there is an accidental collision of skaters. No matter what happens the flow on the ice does not stop for long. The activity here is continuous and we all lose ourselves inside the confines of the boards under the glow of bright white flood lights that are suspended on poles high above the rink. We are multiplied in shadows that follow us on the hard white surface.
The chain link fence is lined with onlookers bundled in parkas and heavy boots. They are mindful of the flying pucks that regularly launch past the eight-foot height of the fence and boards. The onlookers keep track of these loose missiles and they help in locating the wayward pucks in the deep snow. Snowmobiles regularly pull up on the high snow banks and their riders take a moment to overlook the scene and then continue their journey through the community.
At one point in the evening, I stop playing and climb over the boards to walk up one of the high banks. I savour the moment and hover over the scene. I feel a sense of excitement at the spectacle below me. I am exhausted from hours of skating, running and stick handling. The night ends here for me as I sit trying to capture the moment, the characters and the feeling while frost pumps out of my lungs. On my walk home I feel as though I have put in a good night. At the front door of my house I turn to hear the final sounds from the rink. The laughter, hoots and chatter are punctuated by the sharp crack and thud of pucks bouncing off the boards. In a sea of uncertainty and chaos I am thankful for the oasis at the hockey rink.