Holy Grizzly is the final of the three stories I wrote in a row, trying to get regional dialects down in the first-person. I think it has the same virtues and flaws of The Man Who Robbed Albertans: dialect and characters are ok, but the pace is slow and the plot is slim. I didn’t send this one out. Instead, I took an extended break from short story writing.
A few weeks earlier, I’d listened to my dad—visiting from Victoria—explain adamantly why it was biblical to counsel families against adopting children from “broken homes” and why Jesus Christ and MMA—all blood sports, actually—were a natural fit. He’d recently become a volunteer chaplain for a local hockey team.
I was against it from the get-go, sat down with Coach McCready and wasted precious few seconds making sure he was hearing me: sign that boy, I says, you’re letting a fox in with the chickens, the whole thing’ll up and explode in your face.
Tough love; you see, to me that’s a redundancy, and whenever I hear a man muttering to himself, “tough love, tough love” I want to grab hold of some lapel, the drawstring of a hoodie, and remind a brother what it feels like to give his head a shake. Love isn’t some sort of buffet, where you can choose your tacos hard shell or soft. It’s the mushiness of the do-gooder that puts me in a state, and not because I don’t believe in doing good. Anything precious needs protection and without that nut and that shell, the soft are ticketed to Hell, and I mean that in the most literal way possible for the spiritual world is real, and the Enemy’s sweetest lies are the ones that seep in through our eyes, and that’s why I serve the Victoria Grizzlies as chaplain, to help my boys think, so they can see that the rink is preparation, not for the pros, but the realm yet to come.
God calls men to be strong, to ready ourselves for battle, and until we recall that there is such a thing as right versus wrong, well the blurring only gets worse once the descent picks up steam. McCready laughed: “That’s what I like about you, Ed. Everything’s black and white. But I know Tyler, I scouted him myself. Wait ‘til you meet him, real character guy.”
Coach McCready isn’t soft and if he hadn’t blown that ECL he’d have stayed in the ‘A’ – he’ll tell you as much – but he never skated well enough to make it in the NHL, brawn can only take you so far. Despair pays a visit to each of us, it doesn’t stand much on ceremony, and until it comes, how do you even know who you are? It wasn’t ever a question of rehabilitation. One look at Tom writhing on the ice and everyone knew his career was over, that’s the way he tells it. Like a lot of guys, he hid himself inside a bottle for a few years but it’s like he told the congregation last year, one of the most powerful testimonies you’ll ever hear: “I was 25. What was I going to do, pound hard bar until my liver packed it in in my fifties?”
Character shines through, and Coach McCready came from a good home, you can always tell when a family’s put God over the hearth, that’s a kind of peace you just can’t fake. Tom was on a bad path when he skated for the Syracuse Crunch, and it wasn’t chance that clipped him at centre ice when his head was down, it was the Lord, and it’s like I tell the boys before each game, make sure your heart is clean because God speaks in the sweetest whisper at first, but turn your back on that and, before you know it, here comes the thunder and the roar. Love is tough; if it isn’t, isn’t love. It was the injury that brought Tom back to Victoria, back to the town he was born. Every good thing God wants to give the couple that honours him first, and it’s a joy to see God shower down his blessings on Tom & Laureen, a young woman I had the honour of baptizing last year. It’s a rare home game his folks aren’t in their seats at Bear Mountain Arena, sitting with their daughter-in-law, their presence radiating, three points of light.
Temptation isn’t a battle, it’s a war, and the guises it assumes are meant to surprise us. Take your eyes off the Lord for an instant, that’s all it takes, detach yourself from his grace just that long and, next thing you know, The Great Deceiver is lowering the boom. On the Island it isn’t fashionable to talk about spiritual warfare, that I do know, but – strange, isn’t it? – you can open up any number of stores dedicated to astrology and the Wicca, and the Times Colonist is tripping all over itself to hail this as progress. Oh, there’s a Tsunami coming alright, and that’s the Lord, a mighty Fortress become elemental, twenty storeys of the Divine, churned up and fathomless, and whether or not people listen can’t no one say they didn’t get a warning because that’s all I do, I stand and I say what people like me have always said about the way, the truth, the light. The truth doesn’t change just because we do.
Even before I set eyes on Tyler Rempel, I knew I’d seen him before, dozens like him, always the same. Sixteen years my Vivian and I heeded the Lord’s calling in Cochabama, Bolivia and, fair enough, not much hockey to speak of in those parts, but if you want a lesson in broken homes, if you want to see what the spirit world looks like unadorned, if you want to catch a glimpse of where we’re heading, then come on. It’s a funny thing, we noted it often, that the higher you get up there in the altiplano, the thinner the air, it’s like it’s us that’s become ephemeral, the flickering of our flesh, until when your fingers find your skin it’s like nothing you ever felt before, and there you are, literally your head in the clouds, meeting for the first time those things you thought were only stories, a vast and dizzying congruence of planes and you can understood the humbling God saw fit to bring down upon them, upon the Incas, because having reached so high they mistook themselves for the Divine, and I know God’s heart was heavy when he took all that away.
Vivian’s lungs weren’t improving, and I think we both knew God was calling her home so when Evo Morales was elected, we took it as a sign; not a whole lot of good has ever befallen evangelical missionaries when a socialist, or a Catholic, comes to power but two in one shot? Well, it was with a heavy heart that we left our work, but God knows, doesn’t he? Vivian went home to meet her King just two months after we returned, and it was so close, the timing of the whole thing, that you just have to tip your hat to the Lord because if it wasn’t for Morales, Vivian wouldn’t have got a chance to say goodbye to our girls, all the Saints at Westshore Alliance, the Church that sent us out those many years ago. Mysterious ways.
It was back at Westshore Tom McCready introduced himself to me, and that handshake, firm as all get-up, I knew this was a man Called, same as I was, and I knew God wasn’t finished with me, not quite yet. All the sacrifices we made when we felt God calling us to serve, to me the hardest was hockey, you can say what you will, but it was in my blood. True, it was hard leaving our girls – Connie and Ruth – at the boarding school in Quito, but, the truth is, they were so young when we dropped them there – five and seven – that after you got over the initial shock, the whole thing came to seem to us – them too; what can any of us recall before the fifth grade? – natural, and, after awhile, there wasn’t a before to remember, it was how it was and besides: the holidays were always more precious for the absence. Hockey, though – losing that was a humdinger.
Now, I’m not saying that I was ever good as Tyler Rempel. I’m getting older, but I’m a long ways away from senile, and you’d have to be a fool not to see the talent that boy has; I don’t say things like what I’m about to say as lightly as some people, but Tyler Rempel? God-given talent. It wasn’t anything you could teach, the way he made that puck disappear, made you forget even that you were on the ice supposed to be looking for the puck. There’s been a lot of comparisons made – I’ve heard them all – but I don’t want to get into that, enough to say, to me there wasn’t much question about it: talent-wise, he was as good as any made it all the way, which is why, I told Tom, it made no sense: kid that good bouncing around Junior A – seven teams and counting – for the better part of four seasons? Never once finishing the year with the same team he started? Red flags, Tom, it’s so many red flags it’s like this boy pretty near travels with his own Canada Day parade.
Change of air is all he needs, Tom told me, everyone needs a second chance. Besides, it’s only a five-game trial. Worth a look. He’s a bad apple, Tom. And like I explained, that’s not a phrase I use lightly, it’s not some metaphor I’m using I don’t understand. I grew up in Glenmore and apples, now that’s one thing I know. I wasn’t skating, I was picking and pruning and driving a tractor whose clutch I can still feel in my left hip, it’s the Valley inside me, the one I will never leave. I know what happens when you get greedy, when you get sloppy-like, when you take no care with the fruit you pick. I ever so much let a single bad apple into a crate, my Dad gave me his belt, and I took it, because I had it coming. It’s no small thing, Tom. You take that boy onto the team and you see what happens, you mark my word, all the talent in the world, I’m not saying otherwise, but it’s rot Tom, it’s a fester waiting for to spread. Chaplaining young men isn’t too much work, not compared to what we did overseas, but there’s a knack to it, same as everything else, and the nut I had to crack was how is a hockey team different from a church? When it came to me, it came so plain I had to let out a chuckle and a guffaw because, of course it was, how did I miss it? There is no difference! They’re one and the same and when I explained my thinking to Coach McCready he just nodded, said he knew there was a reason the Lord had led him in my direction. The trick about counselling these boys is you got to know how to relate to them. I know, a lot of men, they reach my age, it’s hard for them to reach back and remember; but not me, soon as I got back in a room full of B.C. boys, like I never left. Like a lot of kids – 15, 16 – I made some choices I shouldn’t have, choices that changed my life – boom! just like that – and to get the chance to help some good young men steer the right way, I mean, the truth is, after my Vivian died, I needed the Grizzlies as much as they needed me. And, one thing for sure: none of us needed Tyler Rempel.
Tyler came from a broken home, and from what I gather, up in Tisdale, where he played midget, that’s no big surprise. His mom was a drunk and whether or not that’s because she was Metis is not for me to say; all I know is, the sins of the father, if people were still free to speak their minds like it used to be, pretty obvious some blood is weaker than others. I watched the news every night for a month just to watch that whole Idle No More nonsense, and for once, for the first time in a long time, it was regular Canadians who got their voices heard, and what we heard, finally, was a whole lot of shut your mouth. Pretty clear when a whole country is sick up to here with the radical fringe. Don’t believe me? Read the comments section of the National Post: HolyGrizzly, that’s my handle, and if you respond to me – good or bad – I promise you, you’ll hear back whether you want to or not. So, like I was saying: Tyler took his father’s last name, but his father took up and left when Tyler was still a boy and what he was and where he went, when you ask Tyler about it, all you get is a who cares. Single child; his mom on the CC and the welfare – a regular sob story, have no doubt. Any parenting Tyler got, he got at the rink.
So what – Coach McCready asked me this himself – so what if he does come from a broken home, Phil? Not like he had much say in the matter. What about the whatever you do unto the least of my brethren, you do unto me part? Isn’t that why we’re called – to show these boys a better way?
When you go away from a place for as long as Vivian and I did, you see things when you come back that everyone else has missed, even the good ones, even the righteous, even your closest friends. If I had foreseen the wickedness that has now descended over this country before I had left, would I have still gone? It’s not for me to question the leadings of the Lord, but while we heeded the Lord’s call in Cochabamba, the Enemy walked, calm as you like, right through our own front door. It’s not just Idle No More, although that’s bad enough, it’s this whole idea that to see things black and white makes a man simple.
This might seem like a strange question, but it’s one I find myself asking in situations like this, and to tell the truth, I don’t know: does anger have a rhythm?
I think it does because whenever Tom starts in on that soft talk it’s like I can see my heart outside my chest and I can see it as a spirit and I can feel it elude this dimension, and it’s like righteousness knows no time; it stands like eternity outside of all its ticking, scorning it as a concept born of flesh and doomed to expire. And then I watch my heart beat becalm; and I know that this anger is not spleen, but from the Spirit above and it’s like I’ve seen what is to come – just a glimpse – and it’s like a drum is sounding, four hooves igniting and my blood marches as to war. The foursquare gospel marking three four time.
Our job, Tom, is to protect the faithful from the damned, and some people you can help, and some people you can’t, and if you don’t know the difference, then what the dickens is it that you think you’re doing? Anyone can get their hands on a Gideon ought to know as much. Don’t use a map isn’t too much point carrying one. Some houses are marked and some aren’t and when sins get passed down, those are the wages, Tom; those are prices have to get paid whether you like it or not. God put a man and a woman together because without the one or the other the balance is all thrown off, and you tell me you can take a boy raised far from his own father, and by a lady without the slightest notion of her heavenly father and, just like that, set him on the straight and narrow, you’re kidding yourself, my friend. There’s no way. There’s just no way. Maybe you can save him, and maybe you can’t; but one thing for sure, you take a boy like that, a boy born into no good, and you put him in a room with 20-odd 17-year-olds, that’s the age when destinies get decided and…, well, I guess I went on like that for awhile because Coach McCready interrupted me with a wave of his hand. I know I know, you already told me, a fox with the chickens.
The Grizzlies started the season with a four game road trip. I didn’t travel with the team – no budget for it, but that suited me just as well. When I wasn’t with the team I was down at Our Place Shelter, downtown, and the work there is never going to end. Don’t get me wrong, I believe the Lord’s grace can be discovered by any man, but there are realities and consequences, and if you don’t believe that, come downtown and visit me someday, you’ll see where the wrong path leads. The team lost their season opener, but finished strong with a tie and two wins. Rempel featured in all four. After the win over Langley Rivermen, Coach McCready texted me: how do you like him now?
I didn’t like him, that’s a fact. But it wasn’t just my gut; it was the dislike of a man for a mountain of mud about the slide down on him. All the Grizzlies get billeted out to families, and part of my job was sitting down with Coach McCready and finding the right Christian home for the right young man. I wasn’t prideful but I prayed on each player a great deal and so far we’d got all the pairings just about right. But the more I looked into Tyler Rempel the more I feared what was to come. Estevan Bruins, aged sixteen: Tyler Rempel arrested for brawling in a pub while drinking underage. Released February future considerations to the Flin Flon Bombers. Impregnated 19-year old daughter of Billet; released for future considerations to the then BCHL champions, Vernon Vipers. Led the league in scoring and multiple offers to play NCAA Div I, from the AHL, said to have been scouted by two NHL teams. A car crash, while drunk, in the middle of the Royal Bank Cup finals; two other pregnancies reported. It was a good long list. I told all of this to Tom and he said, stop: I know all of it and more besides, but he’s a good kid, he’s just figuring out his limits is all. I said that may be so, but I wasn’t in good conscience going to be able to recommend him to any family, he was just that risky. I figured on that, Tom said, and sure enough, back from the road trip, Tom and Laureen took him into their own home, the first billet they’d ever taken.
I sat down for dinner in Tom and Laureen’s home, and right off the bat I saw what the problem was: not only could the Rempel kid play, but he was clearly a player; and yes, you need to know the lingo in my line of work, and it’s not like I’m some kind of prude. I know all about the girls they call “pucks” and half of my job is steering kids away from them and the bottle, and if you think that’s an easy job – in any way, shape or form – you haven’t been near a rink. The other half is loneliness, but it’s like I always say: two sides of the same coin, the one begets the other and you take boys away from their families so young, trouble’s bound to follow you’re not watching for it and that’s where I come in, that’s why I’m always on the lookout. I’d seen Tyler play when he was with the Vipers, but underneath all that gear, the helmet, you don’t really get a feel for what a boy’s like. But here, across the dining room table and a beautiful piece of Sockeye, you couldn’t ask for looks any better than that. Clean-shaven, lantern jaw, he kept his hair high and tight around the sides and back, with just enough falling over his eyes to highlight their darkness. When he shook my hand, he held it like a man does, looked me straight in the eye and called me “sir.” Sat upright at the table, his elbows nowhere near it and it was clear the way Tom and Laureen doted on him, the way they listened attentively when he talked candidly about his past trials, that he was working his charms.
It came upon me again, as he sat there that the Lord was moving in me, and that that sort of beauty in a man is more burden than blessing and I wouldn’t wish that sort of life on anyone; I grant you that, sure, you can conquer many deadly sins with determination alone, but not pride, not the self you can’t; at the end of the day vanity’s always there for you, waiting in the mirror, and a boy like Tyler – raised like he was, looking like he did – he was bound to fall, again and again, every time taking all those around him down, a drowning man, his fate foretold, deep at the bottom, and I saw him not with eyes from this world, but on the spiritual plane through which all of us move, doesn’t matter one sweet bit whether you believe it or not, it happens same as what goes up must come down, you bet your sweet bippy. I said a silent prayer as I sat there, but it wasn’t for Tyler it was for the strength for what was next; I get glimpses, like I say, not the whole picture – anyone says they do is a false prophet, the scripture tells us so – and maybe Tyler has hope for Eternity, but not that day and not in this town, not ever; there’s times when people are ready to hear and times when they’re not and Tyler, the more I liked him – liked the crispness of his collar, liked the way he laughed: a kid laughing with, and at, the baritone – the more I knew that it wasn’t Tyler sitting there, it wasn’t him inside, and this was a time for something, but salvation wasn’t it. In Cochabama, no one questions these things. No one. It’s only a fool who doesn’t see spirits, doesn’t have a side picked in the war not yet won. I tread lightly on the subject now, because I’m attuned to the tide turned against me and people like me. I say the word “exorcism” and I know people see the spinning head, the bed; and I watched that movie – watched it on my own because I didn’t want those visions inside Vivian’s head – and if you want to know what a sick culture, what a dying civilization, looks like, what it produces, watch it for that reason, and that reason only. But don’t watch it if you want to know what an exorcism looks like, what it is. I can’t tell you the number of exorcisms I’ve performed and, granted, I’m no Catholic and maybe they do things differently, but waving around a Bible and a cross like some End of Times street corner quack? That’s corn, that’s pure Hollywood.
Laureen was in the kitchen when the phone rang and we heard her call to Tom could he get it. Alone for the first time Tyler and I sized each other up. For a boy from a broken home he’d sure managed to pick up some manners somewhere along the way because he knew not to bust his way into the silence, he waited for his Elders to speak.
So I did. I looked straight through Tyler’s eyes and I said: “In the name of Jesus, I command you to identify yourself.”
I imagine Tyler’s face struck a note of puzzlement, but I wasn’t seeing Tyler then, I was staring into him and I’m not the Apostle John – I have the vision but not the words that produced The Book of Revelation – but it was the same terrible world my eyes beheld.
“Tyler,” Tyler said.
“In the name of Jesus Christ, who protects me from all your evil, I command you to come out.”
There was a struggle now, not a physical one – Tyler’s eyes were wide, and his face flushed as inside him the spirits who had claimed him for so long fought against the disturbance – but a churning from within, like waves of sound not yet broken.
“Come out where?” Tyler said.
“Satan, neither you nor your minions have power over this boy. In the name of Jesus Christ who died and was resurrected and sits in heaven with father where he intervenes on my behalf this very minute, I command you to leave.”
There was a sudden scraping, as Tyler’s chair slid back and he stood up from the table. “I’m going to get some air,” he said.
On his way through the kitchen patio he passed Tom who said, as he sat back down, “What was all that about?”
I didn’t answer. I stood up and followed the boy outside.
Tyler held onto both edges of the BBQ, like he was seasick on a swaying ship. He turned to greet me and he was green, and so I knew that in him the spirits were one and the same, that the vessel was engulfed; so, before he could speak, I said:
“Here’s what’s going to happen, son. You are not going to bring this team down like you have every other team you’ve ever played on. I don’t care where you go, and I don’t care what you do. But you’re going to go back in there, you’re going to finish your dessert like a good boy. And in the morning I’m going to get a call from Coach McCready telling me you up and left in the night.”
Tyler told me a bunch of things then. That I couldn’t do this. That Coach McCready had promised him a contract. That hockey was the only thing he knew.
“You’re gone first thing tomorrow morning or bad things are going to start happening so fast…” – here, I admit, I was thinking about The Exorcist – “…your head is going to spin. I can make six or seven phone calls tonight, each one of which will ruin your life in a way from which you will never recover.”
“But I haven’t done anything.”
“And you’re not going to, not while I’m the chaplain.”
It was chocolate mousse for dessert, and you have to give the kid credit. He kept his composure, and even accepted second helpings when they were offered.
Rempel caught on with the Valpellice Bulldogs in the Italian league and – what do you expect? – he lit it up over there same as he has everywhere he’s ever played. The Grizzlies went on a skid, not going to lie, until after the Christmas break, but Tom ought to have known my goals aren’t always going to be the same as his, and if takes losing on the ice to keep my boys out of the fire, well, in my book, that’s one for the Win column.
Civic Arena, Vernon, B.C. Built and inaugurated in 1938 with an exhibition game between the Vancouver Lions and Spokane Clippers. It was hailed as "the only structure of its kind between Vancouver and the Kootenays that is equipped with artificial ice." The Civic Arena was home to whatever the top team in Vernon was called at the time (Vernon Junior Canadians, Vernon Blades, Vernon Essos, Vernon Vikings, Vernon Lakers, Vernon Rockets), until 2001 when the Vernon Vipers moved into a new rink built out by the horse racing track. The City of Vernon demolished it last year. The photo at the top of this page is taken from a game at the Arena, but the source article doesn't say which one. I like to imagine that one of the teams is the Vernon Essos.
The Vernon race track--"Kin"--was established in 1893. It shared with the Fredericton Raceway in New Brunswick a claim as Canada's oldest race track. No longer running races and allowed to fall into a state of disrepair, Kin was destroyed by arson in the summer of 2014.