When I was eight my heroes were Lassie and The Lone Ranger. That was before I met Joe Bonikowski.
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, 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, some activities earned me the "wait until you are older" thing.
The local undersized hockey team bore the oversized name of The Temagami Timber Wolves. Dad and I went to just about every practice and all the games. Archrivals, Latchford and Haileybury, killed us on the ice, but nobody beat us at cheering.
I first met Mr. Bonikowski at the rink. He was an old man then. Of course. everyone is old when you are eight. He'd worked in the bush for most of his life, cutting trees and hauling logs. Now he did odd jobs at the arena; changing light bulbs, repairing the wooden benches we warmed, and picking up Juicy Fruit wrappers and empty Coke cans.
When Dad couldn't come with me to watch my brothers play, Mr. B. would often come and sit down beside me. Neither of us said much, but somehow he seemed to know how much I wanted to be on the ice playing, not just watching and cheering.
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 team's right-winger took a check into the boards and broke his wrist, Neither the coach nor the rest of the kids were too happy about letting me try out. However, faced with the possibility of losing the entire season and the long-awaited chance at revenge on the teams from the neighbouring towns, they swallowed their objections. Mom imagined my broken body carried out of the arena on a stretcher. Even Dad was doubtful.
But I made it. All those street hockey games with my brothers were paying off.
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. Mr. Bonikowski was there. He was throwing sand around the front entrance. The snow had melted and then frozen again, and it was slippery.
"Gonna play tomorrow, eh?"
Was it that obvious? I had grabbed my star and now didn't know exactly what to do with it.
"Everyone thinks I'll mess up."
"How do you know?"
"Gotta have faith."
I went to Sunday School, but God's interest in hockey had never been mentioned. I figured he was more concerned with Saturday night baths—you know, "cleanliness is next to godliness"—than he was in Hockey Night in Canada on TV.
"Sure. Faith in God is good. Faith in you, too."
"Do you have faith in me?"
He sensed my doubts, so he added: "You'll see tomorrow."
The next night I waddled to the rink behind my brothers. I'd put my gear on at home. The boards thumped underneath my skates as I made my way past the 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 behind a wooden bench and a peg nailed to the wall. The sign Cleaning Supplies was gone. In its place, carefully carved on a piece of two-by-four, was Helen's Dressing Room.
Joe had proven his faith in me and had planted the seeds of mine. The first girl to play juvenile hockey was here to stay, and I had a real-life, heaven-sent hero.