Denis Smith grew up in Alberta, and that’s where he first played hockey, as told here. Later he pursued pucks in Quebec and Ontario, and then (as a member of the Oxford University Ice Hockey Club) in England and Italy and Germany and Switzerland. Otherwise, he’s a professor emeritus of political science and former dean of social science at the University of Western Ontario. His books include the award-winning Rogue Tory: The Life and Legend of John G. Diefenbaker and The Prisoners of Cabrera, as well as the novel General Miranda’s Wars: Turmoil and Revolt in Spanish America, 1750-1816. He lives in Ottawa.
by Denis Smith
Once upon a time (almost a century ago in Alberta), there was a cold, cold autumn when the snow never fell. Winter came and there was still no snow. Every morning the sun came up in the east in a cloudless sky (though it didn’t come up until 11 o’clock in the morning, because this was a place in the far, far north) and shone right across the prairies, a thousand miles from east to west and 600 miles from south to north.
The sun shone through the cold, cold air, past all the clouds of steam that were made by all the people breathing out into the cold, cold air. When you looked down from above, you could see little puffs of white, steamy breath shining in the bright sunlight all the way from Winnipeg to Fort Whoopup on the Belly and beyond.
Down there on the ground, those frozen breaths were made by boys and girls as they walked home from school for lunch, thinking of peanut-butter-and-jam sandwiches. (They made the same frozen clouds of steam when they went to school in the morning, but the sky was still dark and no one could see them.)
Sometimes as they dawdled, the jokey ones would blow steam rings, and steam spirals, and steam skyscrapers, and those would drift high up into the cloudless sky. And since there were no real clouds, those strange shapes became the clouds that could be seen drifting slowly across the prairies: giant doughnut shapes, and curlicues, and spires. The birds flew in and out among them chasing one another from dawn to dusk (that is, from 11 until three, when the sun went down in the far, far north where we lived). And slowly, in the darkness, the shapes all faded away, leaving a clean blue sky to greet the sun when it came up the next morning.
Anyway, the best times came on the weekends in this cold, cold winter on the prairies when there was no snow. We bundled ourselves into our itchy long underwear and our knee breeches and our woolen sweaters, rushed through our breakfasts, and piled into the family automobiles, Fords, Nashes and Chevrolets, two-doors and four-doors and coupes with rumbleseats, and the dogs piled in on top of us, and we all set out for The Lake. The Lake is called Wabamun, or spelled backwards, Numabaw. (Most people didn’t spell it backwards because it was harder to say than Wabamun, and almost as hard to say as “certify.” That’s “yfitrec” and very hard to pronounce.)
Anyway. Here we were in our cars, driving west with the sun as it followed low behind us, on an early Saturday morning, to Lake Wabamun. When we got there what a sight we saw before us! From Kapasiwin in the east to Seba Beach in the west, there was solid ice for 14 miles, all smooth and shiny and bluish-white in the sunlight, without a single bulge or crack or pile of snow because there was no snow anywhere that winter.
At the top of the hill above the lake we scrambled out of the cars with our dogs and our scarves and our skates and our mitts and our toques, and tumbled down the footpath in a great rush to get to the shore. The dogs followed us, ran in and out among us, and sometimes tripped us up because they, too, were excited about what they saw (even though they saw the lake in black and white while we saw it in colour).
We had our hockey sticks too (didn’t I say that?), which the best-trained dogs among us carried down to the lake in their teeth. Continue reading