BY DAN ROBSON IN WHALE COVE, NUNAVUT, AND GREENSTONE, ONT. PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOHN KEALEY
It began with a rink carved from a frozen sea, with white sheets of ice stacked side-by-side, giving shape to the game. It was played in a bay that was filled with white belugas every summer and traversed by polar bears through the long winters. They cleared the surface with shovels and flooded it with the truck used to bring water to the handful of nearby houses. They played almost every day, five to a side with no substitutions, in temperatures that regularly fell to -50 degrees Celsius—so cold that the plastic on a skate could be shattered by a slapshot. In the dark months, they’d pull their trucks up on a bank and skate by the glow of headlights. It mattered little if they could see the puck. Sometimes their feet froze or their cheeks turned brown with frostbite. But they didn’t care, because it was hockey.
This was where and how the game was played nearly five decades ago when it first came to Whale Cove, a community on the northwest edge of Hudson Bay created by the government of Canada to bring services and taxes to the nomadic Inuit families who lived off the arctic land. And this is where the kids of Whale Cove still trace out their hockey dreams today. It’s where Tyson becomes Toews, Simon turns into Kane and Joe morphs into Sid. David stops pucks like Price, and Steven snipes like Kessel. Those stars piled out of Gordon Panika’s blue pickup truck on a frigid October day and launched into a game just metres from a new face, with a dishevelled beard and red cheeks, sitting next to a rod in a dark hole in the ice. It was Andy McFarlane’s first fall in the hamlet of 350 people. The boys invited the new Grade 8 homeroom teacher at the Inuglak School to play, and he ran home to grab his skates and stick to join their game. He lasted just 10 minutes before tapping out, faking a leg injury. His feet were just too cold to play, but he didn’t want to tell them. The boys stayed on the ice for hours.
The temperature is one thing, but hockey is also played differently in Whale Cove. It’s full-time shinny, a finesse game built on speed and goal scoring and remarkable goaltending. Here the local rink up the hill from the bay is the central hub of town. It was built in 1996 with natural ice that sets by late November. Once it was ready this past year, McFarlane watched his students drag their equipment up the hill to play together every day after school without coaches or parents telling them how. Self-taught and self-governed, they played until the buzzer went and the older kids took the ice—a perfect utopia of puck. In the kids’ love for the game, however, there was also an unfulfilled pride. McFarlane first saw it in the pen-pal letters he arranged for his class to send to his old students back at Geraldton Composite High in Greenstone, Ont., a small community itself, about four hours north of Thunder Bay. The students in the two schools—especially the boys—bonded over the timeless art of chirping each other about their hockey skills. The Whale Cove side made a declaration that “We would destroy you” and 10 days later a reply would come back: “Not a chance.” Empty words, of course, because Whale Cove faced a seemingly unsolvable dilemma: How do you know how good you are if you never get the chance to prove it?
There are two questions a stranger is asked upon arriving in Whale Cove: “What’s your name?” and “Who do you help?” They were the first questions McFarlane faced when he showed up last fall, ready for a new adventure after nearly a decade of teaching in northern Ontario. He’d studied aboriginal cultures and specialized in educational theories for native communities. He’d taught for several years on a reserve. But no pedagogical model or practical experience prepared him for a question like this, so bold and direct, and so existential. “Who do you cheer for?” they said, to clarify, and this time he finally got it. “The Red Wings,” he said. But the other part stuck, too. Who could he help? And how?
Some of the boys had played on regional teams, collecting players from the hamlets and towns scattered across the Keewatin Region to play in tournaments in Nunavut. But a group of young players from Whale Cove playing as one distinct hometown team—that had never happened. McFarlane knew his students had the speed and skill to skate with any of the kids at Geraldton High. They just lacked the opportunity and resources to prove it. He wanted to give his players a chance to experience life outside of Whale Cove, to go on a journey, the high-school sports road trip—that essential experience of adolescent hockey. But it seemed like an impossible idea. The money just didn’t exist. The team’s flight to Winnipeg alone would run north of $8,000. Then there was the matter of the 16-hour train ride to Greenstone. The team didn’t have jerseys. Several of the players desperately needed new gear. They needed accommodations. They needed food. They had nothing to begin with; it was just a hockey fantasy.
Undaunted, McFarlane held tryouts for a 10-player school squad that would travel back to play a tournament in his hometown. The roster was selected on equal parts skill and school attendance. An older group of 17-year-olds: Simon Enuapik Jr., the captain; David Oklaga, the goalie; and Tyson Panika, the finesse dangler. A group of smaller, younger forwards: Joe Panika, the sniper; Hugh Enuapik, the quiet threat; John Voisey, the vocal spirit; Adam Nattar, the talker; and Demitre Alikashuak, the source of all energy. The final two came from Grade 8: Steven Panika, the charmer; and Stanley Adjuk Jr., the wit. Together, they were the Whalers.
McFarlane purchased airline points online with a credit card to cover the flights before a plan was ever really set in place, risking that the expense might not be covered. He started a page on the fundraising site GoFundMe.com and tweeted it out to all the hockey personalities he could think of—Theo Fleury shared it, so did Jordin Tootoo—and soon there was a following. McFarlane’s friends from Greenstone and Thunder Bay started to help chip away at the cost. The story reached Toronto’s Breakfast Television host Kevin Frankish, who arranged for an early morning interview via Skype with McFarlane and some of the boys from the team. Then the money poured in, until all $20,000 needed for their adventure was covered.
That was how their journey began. This is how 10 boys—two forward lines, three defencemen and a goalie—came to travel more than 7,000 kilometres as the Inuglak Whalers.
ext to a window looking over Hudson Bay on a bright March day, the walls of Tyson Panika’s bedroom were lined with action photos, framed hockey cards and posters, surrounding the scattered artifacts of the 17-year-old’s life: a copy of The Hockey News with Steven Stamkos on the cover, an NHL 14 video game box, a Selena Gomez album, Axe deodorant and an empty can of Coke. The posters weren’t just a tribute. They were the goal. “I lay in bed and dream of being them,” he said.
It’s a dream many in Whale Cove share, but few—if any—will ever realize. Jordin Tootoo was the first and so far only player of Inuit descent, and the first from Nunavut, to make it to the NHL. Simply put, there is little money for travel, little money for programs, little money to develop into the kind of player who gets noticed by junior scouts. But the isolation has its advantages. Without constant coaching, hockey players in Nunavut develop instincts for the game that other kids don’t have. There’s also little else to do besides play hockey. There are no bowling alleys, no theatres—the only outlet is the arena. Whether that can translate into becoming the idol on a young kid’s wall, though, that’s where things get tricky. “Realistically, there’s probably a slim chance,” Tootoo says. “But there’s a chance.”
A chance is all Tyson needs. He’d slept little in the past week as his mind swirled with visions of the lights, the goals, the girls—the glory—that awaited him on the Whalers’ first road trip. He packed only one pair of track pants and some T-shirts in his black duffle bag. He planned to buy new clothes in Winnipeg and there was no time to worry about the things he forgot because the plane was leaving soon.
In the kitchen, Tyson’s younger brother, Steven, tried to flip a puck around on the blade of his hockey stick, like he’d seen Phil Kessel—his favourite player, whose name was on his T-shirt—do. Steven is just 12, one of the youngest boys on the team—and easily the smallest. His bag had been packed for hours, with several changes of clothes. “We’re going to be gone for two weeks,” he said, shaking his head at his short-sighted older brother.
Gordon, the boys’ father and the team’s assistant coach, pushed them out the door. They piled into his truck, parked across from the endless ice of Hudson Bay. The snow-covered road winds up from the bay, past a small graveyard on a hill marked with dozens of the same white crosses, and a row of blue, red and green houses, each covered in snow from a recent blizzard that shut down everything in the town except for the rink. The homes range in size and quality—two-thirds are government housing and many are overcrowded. In the summers, there are ships that come on Hudson Bay and bring goods to the one Co-op store in town. Everything else comes by plane and is priced like it flew first class. A bottle of Powerade runs eight dollars. The median income in Whale Cove is a little less than $19,000 a year and 21 percent of the population is unemployed.
They bobbled past neighbours waving from their porches, picked up teammates and hockey bags at the school, and headed for the small airstrip several kilometres away. There, they were joined by more than two dozen family members sitting in the terminal that comfortably seats maybe 10, the walls behind them plastered with glued-together jigsaw puzzles of wildlife and landscapes from around the globe—zebras, hot-air balloons, a Swiss castle. The doors to Whale Cove Airport are never locked in case a hunter gets lost on the tundra and stumbles upon it for shelter. If the phone rings, you answer it—”Airport”—regardless of who you are. It has one check-in, and it was unclear who behind it belonged to the airline and who was just offering their advice on what do with the excess baggage as the total weight was tallied on a calculator.
It wasn’t a typical kiss-and-run for the families. Several of the boys had never made the trip south of Nunavut before. Parents were excited but apprehensive. “I’m going to miss him. Two weeks is too long,” said Irene Oklaga, whose son David is the team’s goalie, and one of five adopted boys on the team. A tear pooled in her eye and slipped slowly down her cheek. “I wish I could follow him.”
Martha Panika expected constant phone calls from her son Joe, who was born in Winnipeg but hadn’t been back since he was four. “It makes me want to cry,” Martha said before she kissed him goodbye. “I’ve hardly been away from him.”
The plane finally took off as the sun set, casting an orange glow across a seemingly endless stretch of white, spotted with edges of black rock. After a stop in nearby Arviat and refuelling in Churchill, Man., the scattered patches of light below slowly grew more frequent. “Is that Winnipeg?” Demitre Alikashuak asked, his nose pushed up against the small round window in his seat. “Is that…?”
McFarlane sat across the aisle. “No, Demitre. Not yet.”
He turned back to search for more lights below. Usually the 14-year-old’s hyperactive motor has him constantly distracted. He has a massive full-toothed grin that growls mischief and usually holds a clump of citrus-flavoured Skoal whenever he’s not chugging Pepsi. But the idea of Winnipeg had captured all his attention now. With his Jets cap turned backwards, he searched and searched in the darkness, until eventually it gave way to a wide field of light.
“Is that it?” he asked again, his voice rising. “Is it?”
“Yes,” McFarlane said.
“Oh my God,” Demitre said. “Ho… lee… cow. Woah.”
He pulled up his iPod and started to film. “Wooo!” he shouted.
“Do you like what you see?” McFarlane asked him. “That’s a lot of lights, eh?”
“Andy, I can’t believe it.”
cFarlane stood at the top of the section behind the net at the MTS Centre, looking down as the Whalers pushed up against the glass trying to get the attention of Dustin Byfuglien and Evander Kane during the Winnipeg Jets’ pre-game skate. The team had invited the Whalers to watch the practice as part of their day in the city before hopping a train to northern Ontario. The glass was so clear, it looked liked the boys could touch the ice.
Back in Whale Cove, McFarlane ran practices in the town’s old barn of a rink where frost covers the exit doors like the white crystals on the back of an old freezer. The glass is frosted over, too, and fans can see the action only by standing on the top row of the bleachers. The rink is used every day except Sundays, when it’s closed and the games move outdoors. After McFarlane’s practices the team would go home for dinner and be back at the rink within the hour, playing pickup until they were kicked off the ice or the puck dropped in the Leafs game. Passion for the pro game is nothing new in Whale Cove. Back in the late ’60s, fans supported—or “helped”—their favourite teams by ordering sweaters by mail and wearing them over top of however many layers it took to stave off hypothermia. On weekends, they travelled more than 70 kilometres to Rankin Inlet, a town with access to television, to watch Hockey Night in Canada on the only station available. It didn’t matter how fast the snow was blowing across the tundra. If they could barely see in front of them, they still climbed on their snowmobiles and went.
The boys carried the same unbridled passion as they sat in the first row at the MTS Centre watching the Jets practise. A puck was deflected up into the mesh above them and fell down behind the glass, nearly hitting Adam Nattar in the head. Demitre leapt down beneath the seats and grabbed it triumphantly. He paraded through the seats, holding the puck high in the air. “Andy, Andy, look!” he yelled—and his teacher shook his head and smiled.
Hours later, sometime after midnight, Demitre was hooting loudly up into the vaulted ceiling at Winnipeg’s Union Station. “Woot! Woot!” he shouted and “woot-woot” his echo replied. The team was scattered across the station, curling up to nap through the boredom of waiting to board a train that was already two hours delayed by a snowstorm. “This is the second day we’ve missed hockey,” Simon Enuapik complained to McFarlane. “We can’t miss hockey tomorrow.”
The Whalers’ captain never went a day without playing and always had the attention of every player on the team—when he spoke, they listened. To Simon, the two things the boys did most—hunt and play hockey—weren’t all that different. Each was a tradition and a necessity. Each was about precision and work and respect. Along with the Inuglak School team, he played on the local senior men’s team, which practised every night and played in tournaments around Nunavut. “To play on the senior team is the highest honour,” Simon said.
All together, Simon was at the rink for eight organized practices a week—not including the times he played pickup—and in the old empty train station he went through hockey withdrawal with no end in sight. The night inched on as each new departure time was wiped off the board to make sure the weary knew: 11:15… 12:15… 1:15… 2:15…
“Woot! Woot!” Demitre hooted again, spinning around in a borrowed wheelchair after downing a two-litre bottle of Pepsi, as the team tossed and turned on the floor and chairs they’d made their beds: 3:15…
Five a.m.—that’s when the train finally pulled out, on a blustery Winnipeg day. From there it was a 16-hour trek through the bushes of northern Ontario, with nothing but snow-covered trees blurring in the windows, and the occasional frozen lake, river or stretch of white fields. The boys’ jackets and backpacks were scattered on the seats around McFarlane. The boys themselves were everywhere. A couple of them sleeping in their seats. Several were in the upstairs lookout cab, watching through glass walls as the trees passed by and the day faded away. Some played a card game called “Hockey,” naturally, while others tested the patience of a VIA Rail service manager who wanted to inform everyone that this was a “dinner car” not a “restaurant” and you required a reservation, thank you very much. McFarlane sat alone, unshaven with untameable bedhead and near sleepless in two days. He thought about the adventure they were on—how unexpected and unreal it had been. And he thought about the people of Whale Cove who had welcomed him into their community. This was his chance to welcome them to his. Now, halfway to the place he considered his home, where his family and friends and a recently sparked relationship were waiting, he worried about how it would all come together.
ozens of people were waiting when they pulled into Longlac station—nearly seven hours after the train was supposed to arrive. They missed the spaghetti dinner held in their honour. They missed their first game. But the fans cheered and whistled and waved banners as the Inuglak Whalers walked off the train. The welcome roars stretched into the following day, when the Whalers arrived at Longlac Sportsplex Arena to find the Whale Cove logo and all of their names painted on the ice. It took Victor Loisel-who paints the ice at the Air Canada Centre—20 hours to put it together.
“Oh, they’re big,” said Stanley Adjuk Jr., the eighth grader, as he stood outside the dressing room, staring up at the mountainous chain of 12th graders from Geraldton Composite High. Some of the Whale Cove boys looked nervous. They’d seen the crowd—each row of seats was filled and more fans stood several deep along the glass—and knew all of Whale Cove was listening. Cecile Panika, mother of Tyson and Steven, was giving a live play-by-play for the radio station back home. Before the game she went around the room, letting all the players greet their families, who gathered to listen to their boys play.
Simon stared straight ahead in the dressing room, unmoving as the banter buzzed around him. There was pride in his eyes. Quiet and serious—focused on proving that this trip was more than just a gimmick. The Whalers weren’t a travelling act. They were a team. A family. And family was everything, especially in Whale Cove. “I feel good,” he said. “I’m confident.”
David Oklaga sat with his goalie pads on and eyes closed, leaning forward as he listened to Eminem’s “Legacy” on his iPod. The 17-year-old had only been a goalie for two years, but did a decent impression of his idol, Carey Price. He has a sheepish grin and an observant demeanour. In two years, while working every afternoon stocking shelves at the Co-op to help his family, he still made it to the rink in time for every practice. School waited, of course, and he slipped back a couple of grades. “Food is expensive,” he said. And if something needed to be sacrificed, it wasn’t going to be his time at the rink.
Tyson, the dreamer, had a huge smile and eyes the size of toonies. “Did you see the girls out there?” He’d toured around the lobby, half dressed in his gear, with his brand-new Blackhawks cap on backwards and his carefully placed brown hair sticking out the sides. He knew of two things this opportunity afforded: the meeting of new girls, and a chance to finally be discovered on the ice. The NHL, he thought, was just a step away. All he needed was an opportunity. “You’re going to see me get a hat trick tonight,” he said.
Two periods later, he and his team slunk back into the dressing room trailing 7 — 2. David stared down at his feet, shaking his head, dripping with sweat. “I’m not playing my game,” he said. He’d made several spectacular saves, but there was no stopping the onslaught.
“David, you’re doing good,” said John.
“We’re not even trying,” said Stanley, shaking his head.
“They’re not even trying, ” said Steven, resting his enormous white gloves on the bench beside him.
Simon glared forward, his eyes on fire. He’d played more than anyone, with shifts lasting up to three minutes. He got up and called Tyson and Joe outside. It was too hot in the room. It was too hot in the arena—which was cold by arena standards—so they went outside the rink entrance and stood in the smoker’s pit, leaning against the wall, steam rising from them as they commiserated over things gone wrong.
The cool-off worked. Simon scored a hat trick in the third period, leading his team on a crowd-rousing comeback—but the Whalers fell short 9 — 7. In the room afterwards, Tyson sat on the bench looking like he might cry. He’d scored a single goal—not enough to be a superstar. His favourite stick broke, and he was left using a spare.
There was an undeniable anxiety that the Whalers just couldn’t match up with kids from northern Ontario. That for all the ceremony, the inevitable truth was that they were just too small and too unstructured to stand a chance. Still, the fans packed in for the second game and screamed as wildly as they had the night before, particularly for Steven, whose small stature and outsized charm made him a big hit at the cultural fair in the Composite High gymnasium earlier in the day. He scored twice, but the Whale Cove boys lost 4 — 3.
Later that evening, one of the Geraldton players, Lawson Yatkowski, came over to the Whalers’ bed and breakfast to play Xbox. He was one of the original pen pals whose cross-country trash talk sparked the idea for the summit series. He brought over an extra hockey stick and gave it to Tyson, and the small gesture went a long way. In the third game of the series, Tyson scored four goals and the Whalers won 8 — 6 in front of a still-packed rink. Maybe it was the pre-game meal of moose meat they had, or the trees they climbed before heading to the rink—some of them had never touched branches before. Or maybe it was the pre-game promise of post-game doughnuts. Even though another live-feed was delivered to Whale Cove via cellphone, the Whalers played like they were back in their barn. After the game, they poured into the change room like they’d captured the Stanley Cup. “Wooo! Let’s celebrate!” said Demitre.
“We get doughnuts!” said Steven.
The fourth game was a write-off, the Whalers still drunk off the highs of winning and distracted by the school dance set for afterwards. No one really seemed to mind as they dropped it 7 — 6. They signed autographs after the game before rushing home to shower and change and have Andy tie their ties, taken from a collection of his own that he brought for them. They decked themselves out, using combs and pomade, and covering themselves in Axe body spray. They entered the school together and strolled into the low-lit gym where two-dozen-odd students shifted awkwardly to a beat. The team sat down on a row of chairs by the wall and watched the dance floor, coolly. Too shy to invite any girls to dance, they drifted around in small packs, occasionally stopping to coalesce with other packs, while avoiding the middle of the too-huge floor. Almost the full hour into the festivities a girl came over and sat next to Joe, asking him to dance. He stared straight ahead, frozen. She asked again. He smiled. “This is the last song of the night,” the DJ said over the speakers. “Let’s dance,” she said again. He breathed deep. “OK.” They stood up and walked to the floor as the viral hit “The Fox (What Does the Fox Say?)” played, ending the evening with music’s version of a cold shower. They shifted in the clusters of shifters until the overhead lights blazed on and the romance ended.
The excitement of the dance seemed to have exhausted the Whalers for the fifth and final game of the series the next day against the local French high-school team, the Château-Jeunesse Huskies, who scored three quick goals to open the first period. The Huskies’ 13-year-old goalie, Coal Clark, shut down the Whalers’ attack until Simon was able to get one back on a rocket one-timer—but the Huskies added another with just 10 seconds left in the first. Endings are supposed to be tidy, and a sports story should close with a game-winning goal with 0.7 seconds left on the clock. But that’s not always how it turns out. Sometimes you travel 2,400 kilometres and lose. Sometimes you play a game every single day—outside on the frozen sea in -30, or inside under the glow of lights on a wooden rink with natural ice. Sometimes the game is your life, the core of who you are, but in the end, it will always be just that: a game. You post pictures of heroes on your walls as part of a goal that inevitably falls aside, because it has to. Sometimes the first hockey road trip of your life ends with little success on the ice, but you go back to the place you came from and you realize how small that part of it was anyway.
But then, sometimes, Joe scores and Tyson scores, and then Tyson scores again—and suddenly it’s 4 — 4 and your captain is leaning over the boards yelling at the ref because “That’s not even f–king offside!”—and nothing matters more to you, to your team, to the hours on the ice and those frozen toes and fingers—nothing matters more to everything about you than winning this damn hockey game. You skate over the Toronto Maple Leafs logo at centre ice, on a small rink in Longlac, a perfect copy of the real thing, and you might as well be there playing out your dreams.
The Huskies went ahead 5 — 4 before the end of the second and added another early in the third on a power play. Clark kicked out several remarkable saves in the Huskies’ end to preserve the lead, and things began to feel desperate until Tyson tipped in a shot for his second hat trick of the series. It was 6 — 5, Huskies. Minutes later, Simon fired in a wrist shot from the slot, and on the bench Demitre howled: “Let’s go!”
And the clock ticked down to the buzzer—6 — 6, overtime. It was a back-and-forth affair with chances at both ends as the 10-minute period ticked on. With two minutes remaining, David made a sprawling pad save on a two-on-one. Time ticked away, until the final minute… 30 seconds… 20 seconds… 10 seconds. Then Tyson picked up the puck at the Whalers’ hashmarks and cut up the left side, around a Huskies winger, around a collapsing centreman, past the Huskies’ blueline and deking past their defence—just a goalie and less than a second. And then…
Shelf. Short side. 0.7 seconds left. Final score: 7— 6. Whalers win. And the team rushed the ice and the fans roared, and it all ended as it sometimes does, as it sometimes should.
But what did it all mean, really? What was it about and who did it help? Stanley Adjuk Sr., the mayor of Whale Cove who came along to watch his son play, thought about that question after that final win. “After this trip I’m sure many of them will think twice about what they want to do,” he said. “If they have that chance to go south, for education or something—take it. That’s my advice.”
There’s heartbreak in that, too. The boys will always come home, he hopes—but the further they drift away, the further tradition slips along with them. “We’re just going to continue to lose it,” he said. That’s the reality of a generation that is closer to the world outside the hamlet than any has been before. “These kids today, I know they can survive out there,” he says.
he journey to Toronto came next, after the series—a two-day bus ride with players from the Geraldton High team into a new world. None of the 10 from Whale Cove had ever been to a city so large—it was a place they saw only on TV, watching the Leafs play. As the yellow bus wobbled along the single-lane highways of northern Ontario, the boys leaned on each other, resting in the tiny seats as they watched the trees blur by. Sixteen hours and 1,200 kilometres later those trees gave way to concrete buildings, the single roads morphing into an eight-lane highway and a mountain of a rising city. They stared at the cars and the people that passed—so many anonymous faces. They passed people lying on the streets, cold and alone, and anonymous, too. And Demitre stopped to give one some food. And David and Simon stopped to give another some of the cash they’d saved to buy new clothes. And so the Whalers did as Whale Covers do—”You would never see someone without a place to go in Whale Cove,” says David.
They went to their first Leafs game, sat up high in the purples as the Buds lost to the Blues. Two off-duty officers sat a few rows ahead and learned of their stories. One called Joe down and gave him the jersey off his back. The other called to Simon and gave him his.
And when the owner of a small sports store heard about them over the Leafs broadcast, he thought maybe he could help, too. He sent a bag of brand-new skates for the team to take back for the kids there who had none. Sometimes the game itself has a way of doing that. Of asking “Who do you help?” and waiting for an answer.
McFarlane closed his eyes as the school bus rumbled back toward Greenstone, retracing the team’s 3,600-kilometre journey across the country. It was quiet. The boys napped two to a seat, several cuddling into each other. Their hockey bags were piled high in the back, and there were chip bags and pop bottles scattered on the floor, along with a few of the blue tuques McFarlane’s mother had knit them. The teacher couldn’t know where their thoughts were drifting, but his mind was going home.
There was a letter inside his mailbox back in the office at the Inuglak School. He wrote it before he left. It was addressed to his principal. The deadline for deciding whether he’d return to Whale Cove for another year fell on the long trip back. If he stayed on, his leave from Geraldton would expire and he’d lose his seniority. If he went home, he’d leave behind the Whalers—a team of students he’d come to love and a community that had embraced him. They’d opened up their lives and welcomed him in. But his own life was waiting to move forward—his closest friends, a new girlfriend and a family back in northern Ontario. He could see a real life there, and a 31-year-old man hits a point when the future begs to become the now. Of all the new things he’d gained in Whale Cove, McFarlane’s journey north taught him most about the things he’d left behind. “I can’t stay,” he said, tears welling. “It’s not my home. It never could be.”
The bus pulled back into the arena in Greenstone to drop off the players from the Geraldton High team. It shook the boys from their dreams and they staggered into the rink. McFarlane walked away from the bus, pulled out his phone and dialed. The principal answered. McFarlane told him about the letter sitting in his mailbox—and in a moment, it was done.
He climbed back on the bus, where the team was alive and loud and clamouring for his attention. “Andy, do you want some chips?… Andy, how much further?… Andy, where’s Demitre?… Andy!… Andy!… Andy!”
He thought back to that first day in October, when he arrived as another stranger drifting into their world. “What’s your name?” he was asked. “And who do you help?” They skated on a frozen bay, playing for hours in the cold when he could only stay out there for minutes. And so they would continue on in Whale Cove, without him. Playing as they always have—with and for each other, regardless of where the game might take them, even if it leaves them right where they began. The Whalers rolled on to the last stretch of their journey—back toward the cold beginning—heading north, heading home.