Each morning, Saul wakes up before everyone else and prepares the rink by shoveling the snow off of its frozen surface. After a while, he starts to take advantage of his time alone by practicing hockey, using frozen horse turds as substitute pucks. At night, he waits until the other boys are asleep and mimics the motions of the famous hockey players he watches on television. After a year, he begins storing a pair of skates in his locker and practices in the early mornings, aided by Father Leboutilier. Saul always begins by picturing himself somewhere on the ice. Then he skates, following his imagination.
Saul sees this ability as a mystery, like the mysteries of the universe that his grandmother told him about. It’s not something to understand, but rather a source of joy to which he gives himself over. His time at school loses his sting because he knows he can look forward to the freedom of the ice, and to soon being old enough to join the hockey team. Saul watches from the sidelines as the team practices for their first organized game. Then, one day, a player is injured and has to leave the ice. Saul volunteers to take his place in the scrimmage.
He’s terrified, but once the game begins, he finds that he can see the underlying patterns and movements of the game, like he could when he first watched. Thinking ahead of everyone else, he’s able to score. Impressed, Father Leboutilier invites him to play center. At first, Sister Ignacia and Father Quinney object to such a small and young boy joining the team and breaking the rules, but Quinney changes his mind when he sees Saul play.
Three weeks after Saul joins the team, they have their first organized game. The other team has their own indoor stadium and is made up of wealthier white boys who have been playing since they were six. They heckle the “Indian school,” and especially target Saul for his size. The St. Jerome’s team is clearly outmatched—until Saul joins the game. His ability to see ahead, and his skill in handling the puck, allows him to score three goals and assist the two others his team scores, leading them to a narrow victory.
In the next chapter, Saul returns to describing the hellish experience of “school” at St. Jerome’s. He first describes the torture of regimentation, of constantly being “marched” from one chore to the next, propelled by the grating sounds of Catholic theology taught in Latin. He describes the horrible food, and the lack of any real education—the children spend most of their days working, and only an hour actually studying. Physical abuse is central to the more mundane evils of the school. Along with public whippings and solitary confinement, the dangers of physical labor, especially for children, kill one of Saul’s friends. Perhaps most terrifying are what the children call “nighttime invasions”—routine sexual assault by the priests and nuns.
For Saul, hockey is the place where he leaves behind the hellish school. Leboutilier begins watching his practices, then joins in, training him on technique until his body can manage what his mind sees. St. Jerome’s continues to beat the town, and the team becomes better known, with Saul as its best player. In summer, he continues practicing by going on runs with Leboutilier, and by hitting heavy metal pucks on a makeshift linoleum rink. Eventually the other boys join him, and he begins to enjoy a sense of community, of brotherhood. They stop seeing him as the Zhaunagush and begin calling him by his name, seeing him as Ojibway.
By the next winter, the whole team is stronger from training through the summer. They easily beat the town team. One day, a recruiter sees Saul make a miraculous shot and invites him to join the “midget” team, whose players are usually sixteen and seventeen. Although Saul is only thirteen, he soon becomes a dominant player. But after ten games, the coach, Levi Deiter, tells Leboutilier that Saul has to leave. Regardless of the reasons Leboutilier gives, Saul knows he’s been kicked off because he’s Indian.
For the rest of the winter, Saul goes back to skating with the other boys from the school, but is frustrated by their inability to challenge him, and fears that he will be unable to join another team the next winter. On the last day before the ice melts, he notices that another man has joined Leboutilier to watch his practice. When Saul leaves the ice, the man, who Saul recognizes as Ojibway, introduces himself as Fred Kelly and tells Saul about Native hockey tournaments. Then he offers him a spot on a team called the Moose, and a place in his home, away from the school. Saul decides to accept his offer and leaves St. Jerome for good.
When Saul arrives at Fred’s house, the first thing he notices is his huge backyard and the full-size hockey rink that fills it. Then he heads inside, where he meets Fred’s wife, Martha, and their three boys. The youngest, Virgil, is the Moose’s captain, and he sits Saul down to warn him about his first day—the other players will be hostile because of Saul’s youth and size, and because he’s from out of town. Indeed, in the first scrimmage, once Saul switches from watching from afar to joining the match, his teammates aggressively target him, knocking him onto the ice repeatedly and mocking him when he falls. But Saul adapts, uses his speed and dexterity to his advantage, and by the end of the day is accepted as part of the team.
The eclectic form of the novel, which combines oral storytelling, historical realism, and archetypal sports narratives, comes to the forefront in these chapters. Saul’s discovery of hockey, and its sudden centrality to the plot, can be jarring juxtaposed against the dark tone and themes of Indian Horse, especially when Saul is still at St. Jerome’s. Wagamese uses this tonal discontinuity to draw attention to hockey’s importance for Saul as an escape; as readers, we also experience the sport as an escape from the descriptions of abuse at St. Jerome’s.
For Saul, hockey offers transformation. As he learns more about the professional sport, he sees that it has the power to “transform ordinary men into great ones.” He isn’t just referring to the possibility of becoming a professional athlete and earning celebrity, but also to the temporary transformation that happens to every player when they skate onto the ice. When he watches the St. Jerome’s boys, he marvels at their sudden power and energy when the mayhem of the game begins. Once Saul begins playing the game, he comes to cherish not only the joy of putting on skates and flying across the ice, but his ability to learn new skills, and the capacity of the game to connect him to something “bigger than [himself].”
While Saul’s enjoyment of the game is much like what the other players experience, his skill is unique. Saul’s capacities as a seer, which allowed him to see his ancestors at Gods Lake and on the way to Minaki, end up making him an incredible hockey player. Once Saul is able to see the rhythm of the game, he can intuitively understand what will happen next, where the players and the puck will go. Wagamese repeatedly connects this capacity of Saul's to Ojibway ways of knowing, and to Saul’s ancestors. Not only does Saul use the same abilities to find both his great-grandfather’s voice and the path of the puck, but he understands his ability through the religious framework Naomi shared with him. Although racism in hockey, often articulated as among white players and fans as a belief that they own the game, is a major theme throughout Indian Horse, Saul’s own mastery of the sport is specific to his Indigenous heritage.
Once Saul begins playing with the St. Jerome’s team, he is welcomed into a community from which he had recently been excluded, deemed an outsider. This power of hockey is reiterated when Saul joins the Moose, and again at the end of the novel, when he joins his community on the ice. While the St. Jerome’s team parallels how meaningful the community of the Moose will be for Saul, his experience playing against, and then for, white teams foreshadows the violent impact that racism will have on the joy of the game.
Saul’s relationship with Father Leboutilier is central to his connection to hockey at St. Jerome’s. He repeatedly includes the priest in his recollections of the joy of the game, and recalls their friendship with fondness. Wagamese’s tone, however, is less clear, and there are several moments that suggest that Father Leboutilier isn’t worthy of Saul’s trust, and doesn’t respect his personal autonomy. After Saul is kicked off the white team, the Father tries to avoid attributing his expulsion to racism. When Saul sees through this, and says that the white people believe hockey is their game, he responds, “It’s God’s game.” By referring to the same Christian God that St. Jerome’s abuse is attempting to force on Saul, he fails to take racism seriously, and implies that hockey belongs to Christianity. Not only does this follow the same assimilationist project of the school, it also denies Saul’s own experience of the game, informed by his Ojibway knowledge base.