In the Cariboo country of British Columbia, another young man had fallen in love with the sport, too, and while the Alkali Lake Ranch where he worked was relatively insulated from the hardships of the Depression, Alec Antoine was both a cowboy and an Indian, and as such, knew all about deprivation. Whenever Antoine’s Alkali Lake hockey team made the twelve-hour sled journey in sub-zero temperatures into the town of Williams Lake, fifty-six kilometres away, to play hockey against white teams, their welcome was even colder than the weather. The Alkali Lake team, who were all members of the Shuswap nation, were barred from staying in a hotel, or eating in a restaurant, by the colour barrier. So, after watering their horses at the creek, they would make their way up a hill to the outdoor rink on Third Avenue, where they shovelled snow to clear a place to pitch their tents, build a fire, cook a supper of deer meat and boiled potatoes, and then sleep next to the campfire for warmth.
The next day they would suit up in their much-patched green and white uniforms, a gift from the Woodward Department Store owner, who was married to the daughter of the Alkali Lake rancher, and they would play hockey so beautifully that it moved a young English immigrant, Hilary Place, to write about them. “The Indians loved the game. It gave them an opportunity to prove they were the best at a highly demanding sport. But winning the game was not the only thing that counted. For them, the sheer joy of the contest of skills was important: a quick turn around the opposing player; skating, turning, stickhandling, all the skills that made hockey the fastest, toughest, and most elegant game ever devised by man were their delight. They played the game not only with grace and power and skill, but with their souls as well.”
The Alkali Lake Braves, led by the stocky, powerful Antoine at centre, were such a fine, clean team that they won the Northern B.C. amateur league title in 1930—31. At a time when aboriginal children were being forcibly removed from their homes and placed into white-run residential schools, the Braves received an invitation to come, of their own free will, to Vancouver, where their hockey success had been noted by Andy Paull, chief of the Squamish nation. Paull arranged for them to play two matches against a team of all-stars selected from the semi-professional Commercial League (the Commercks). For Paull, the game was about much more than hockey, as he was also president of the North American Indian Brotherhood — the first effort to group aboriginals into a political force. The Brotherhood had organized the tournament to get a little good ink for the Alkali Lake Braves, and in so doing, to get a little good ink for all aboriginals. It wasn’t quite the same as Joe Boyle’s Dawson City Nuggets heading to Ottawa to prospect for Stanley Cup silver, but the curiosity in Vancouver was high, stoked by a little good-natured taunting from Chief Paull, reported in the Vancouver Sun
“Squamish Indians are making preparations for the entertainment of the boys from the frigid Cariboo and will house them at the North Shore reservation,” the newspaper read on January 9, 1932. “‘It will be the Indians’ night to howl, we hope’ said Andy ‘and we of the Squamish will have a 40-piece band at the game. We hope to play our boys off the ice to the strains of “See the Conquering Heroes.”’ One of the Alkali players is 50, and a grandfather. Yet, Mr. Paul [sic] says he has the meticulous word of Harry Taylor, Northern Indian agent, that it takes a darn fast skater to even catch pieces of this hardy ancient of the north as he flits hither and yon on the steel blades.”
The Braves, who played on average only eight games per season on outdoor rinks, found themselves face to face with a star team three times their size — and in an artificial ice rink holding four thousand fans. The series was highly anticipated back in the Cariboo, where people turned on their radios to listen to the matches, though the mountainous landscape was no friend to radio waves. “Reception was terrible and the station kept fading in and out,” recalled Hilary Place. “Just when you heard that Alkali was starting down the ice, the radio faded out and the results of the rush were lost in the statics. The last big fade-out happened at the very end of the game. When we heard the final score, Alkali had been beaten by one goal. Vancouver sportswriters had predicted a walkover, with scores of 15 to 1 for the Vancouver team, so we Cariboo people were more satisfied with the showing.”
The Vancouver press were harder to please, and typical of the attitudes of the time, assessed the Braves’ performance by making it racial: “The Alkalis of today start in pursuit of the puck when the whistle goes off and they never cease until the period ends” reported the Sun
. “There is little system to their attack. Just dogged pursuit. They are still a primitive people, these silent, shadowy folk of the northland and they take their sport in the same way.” By the time the second match also ended with the Braves losing by a goal to the pros, more than eight thousand Vancouverites had seen for themselves that the Braves were playing the game as it was meant to be played, including the Vancouver Sun reporter. “They did teach Vancouver one lesson. Hockey can be played absolutely without malice. . . . They were beaten last night and they took it with a smile and three lusty cheers. The crowd seemed to like that. Don’t you?”
No less an authority than Lester Patrick, now the general manager of the New York Rangers, liked what he saw so much that he tried to convince Antoine to come to Manhattan, where he would make him the toast of Broadway. But Alec Antoine said no thanks to NHL stardom. He already had a sure thing at fifteen dollars a week and went home to his life as a cowboy on the Alkali Lake Ranch.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Hockey by Michael McKinley. Copyright © 2006 by Michael McKinley. Excerpted by permission of McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.