“Hockey’s grace and poetry make men beautiful.” – Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese

I have read exactly two books about hockey.

The first, the Hockey Sweater by Roch Carrier, is now a celebrated story, so quintessentially CanCon that it counts among its adaptations both a National Film Board animated short and the five-dollar bill. There are those who may find it ironic that the iconic work—translated from the original French Le chandail de hockey—is undeniably more Québécois than Canadian but after all the sport is our nation’s game, and indeed, part of the very fabric of our identity.

It is the second book, Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse – titled after the English-language surname imposed by the Zhaunagush (white colonizers) on an Ojibway family – that calls into question these very assumptions.

For Saul Indian Horse, the central character and narrator of the story, hockey is an escape, at first metaphorically and then literally, from life at St. Jerome’s Indian Residential School (the word ‘life’ here being hyperbolic; for Saul and the other Aboriginal children at the residential school, existence has been reduced to the singular act of surviving).

St. Jerome’s is described as “hell on earth” but despite the torment and many abuses suffered by students at the school and documented by Saul, for the reader the pain is less of a vivid, visceral experience as it is a dulled registering and then repressing of emotion. There is a distance to Saul’s descriptions of his time spent at the school; a fog, the same greyness of the tasteless gruel fed to the students, and produced by a reluctance to reflect on the ordeal of the situation, envelopes all of St. Jerome’s.

It is only when Saul is playing hockey that the fog lifts and he can see clearly again. Saul is first introduced to the game by Father Leboutilier, the young priest at St. Jerome’s who loves hockey so much that he coaches a handful of boys and puts together a team for the school.  Saul is enraptured by the stop-and-starts of gameplay and the scramble of the scrimmage but soon enough, he can read the game, slow the rhythms behind the movements of both puck and players, and anticipate the flow of play. In other words, he has a God-given talent for the game, and it is this divine framing of both sport and skillset by Father Leboutilier that convinces the school to allow Saul to leave St. Jerome’s in order to pursue hockey, join a reserve team, and play Native tournaments.

But once outside the residential school system and even with the promise of all the hockey he could ever want to play, it is still not a world without its darkness for Saul. Hockey elevates him, lifts him up and takes him above and beyond being a victim. It serves as a buffer for the anger and the grievance he feels for what has been taken from him, his family, and his community by the Zhaunagush, but this is gradually worn down as his team encounters widespread, systemic discrimination and profoundly personal harassment when they begin to play off-reserve and against white teams. Saul continues evolving as a player, advancing through the ranks of elite athletes until he’s vying for a spot on the Leafs feeder team. His efforts to hold onto both his dignity and his integrity for the sport, however, do not move forward. Eventually, even the electric intensity of hockey cuts outs for Saul and the world goes dark again, the “great game” revealed as only a Wizard of Oz sleight of hand for hiding his hurt, not a total transition into Technicolor.

In Indian Horse, Ojibway author Wagamese has created a rich and nuanced portrayal of a grief that is hard to give voice to: because the pain had seemed immemorial—an intergenerational inheritance—or was, consciously, deemed immemorable—a threat to one’s very survival. Like Saul, and for many in the Indian Residential School System, there were no words for the pain because the words themselves had also been taken away. Whether unintended or done deliberately in acknowledgement of this, a quiet lyricism permeates much of Wagamese’s work; the effect makes for storytelling that is surprisingly visual, be it the haunting bleakness of St. Jerome’s or the multidimensional plane of the ice rink where energies, movements, and intentions can all be seen and read by Saul during gameplay.

Those who don’t know much about the sport and worry that the story would be lost on them should know that Indian Horse is not a hockey book, not really, but one about the human capacity for hurting, and healing, ourselves. For those who don’t know much about the Indian Residential School System, its legacy, and the process of reconciliation, the story is thus a good starting point—Wagamese’s free talk on Thursday, October 31st at 2 pm in the Lillooet Room in Irving K. Barber Learning Centre is another.

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