When I was eight my heroes were Lassie and The Lone Ranger. That was before I met Joe Bonikowsky.
There wasn’t much to do in our little town. During the summer, I tagged along with my brothers doing whatever they did. That usually amounted to hanging around the drug store or the A & W, playing baseball or swimming in the river. In the winter, we donned skates or snowshoes. I tried to imitate Dave, Danny, Frank and Jimmy, but since I was the youngest, there were some activities which earned me the, “wait until you’re older” thing — including joining the local hockey team.
The undersized team bore the oversized name of: “The Temagami Timber Wolves.” Dad and I went to every practice and to all the games to cheer the boys on. Archrivals, Latchford and Haileybury killed us on the ice, but nobody in the crowd yelled as loudly as we did.
I first met Mr. Bonikowsky at the rink. He was an old man then. Of course, everyone is old when you are nine. He’d worked in the bush for most of his life, cutting trees and hauling logs. Now, he did odd jobs at the rink. He must have slept there because no matter what time of the day or night, Joe Bonikowsky was always around; changing light bulbs, repairing the wooden benches we warmed during the practices and games, or picking up Juicy Fruit wrappers and empty root beer cans.
Sometimes Dad couldn’t get away to watch my brothers play. I’d go to the rink by myself, and Mr. B would often come and sit beside me. He never said much. I didn’t either, but he seemed to know how much I wanted to be on the ice playing hockey, not just watching it, or cheering on my team.
Then when I turned ten, I got my big break. The Temagami Timber Wolves ran out of players. Like I said, Temagami is a REALLY small town. The season had just begun and the right-winger recruited from the Reserve took a check into the boards and broke his wrist. The coach didn’t have any choice but to let me try out. He wasn’t happy about it; neither were the rest of the kids, including my brothers. However, faced with the possibility of losing an entire season and the long-awaited chance at revenge against the other teams from the neighbouring towns, they swallowed their objections. Mom was in shock, imagining my broken body carried out on a stretcher. Even Dad was a little worried.
But I made it. All those winters playing street hockey with my brothers was paying off.
Coach called the house with the news. I was to start in Saturday’s game against the Haileybury Hurricanes. I was thrilled — and suddenly terrified.
On Friday afternoon, I walked over to the rink. No one was there except Mr. Bonikowsky. He was throwing sand around the front entrance. The snow there had melted and then frozen and it was slippery.
“Gonna play tomorrow, eh?”
Was it that obvious? I had grabbed a star, didn’t know exactly what to do with it, and hoped it wouldn’t show.
“Everyone thinks I’ll fail.”
“How do you know?”
“Gotta have faith.”
I went to Sunday School, but we never talked in class about God’s interest in hockey. I figured He was more concerned with Saturday night baths — you know, “cleanliness is next to godliness” — than Saturday’s Hockey Night In Canada game on television.
“Wouldn’t hurt none. But you gotta have faith in you too.”
“Do you have faith in me?”
He seemed to sense my doubts so he added:
“You’ll see tomorrow.”
The next night I waddled to the rink behind my brothers. I’d put all my gear on at home. The boards thumped underneath my skates as I made my way down the hall past the home team’s dressing room. Then I saw it. To the left of the dressing room there had been a broom closet. The buckets, brooms, and cleaning cloths were gone, leaving a wooden bench and a peg nailed to the wall. The sign “Cleaning Supplies” was missing from the door. Replacing it, written in crude but large letters was: “Helen’s Dressing Room.”
Mr. B. had proven his faith in me. The first girl to play in the area’s juvenile hockey league was here to stay, and I had a champion.
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