Until then, coach Clark does not want any more distractions. He fears that his players will buckle under the pressure of Winkler, whose rich soil produces more than an abundance of grain. The farming town is home to a big new Mennonite church, pleasant subdivisions and a sprawling recreation park with its own water slide. Winkler and The Pas could be in different provinces.
Clark jokes again about the prosperous Mennonites as the bus turns into the hotel, but then turns serious. The game "has nothing to do with race," he says. "It has everything to do with who you are. I look at it as I'm trying to coach hockey, not coach colour. There's only one way to pass a puck. There isn't a white way of passing."
He is an outsider, but this view seems to be gaining acceptance in the two communities his hockey team has brought together. Once angry and segregated, they are carefully seeking out new ways to work together. For example, in summer, OCN dancers demonstrate their prowess at the rodeo put on by Kelsey, the rural municipality that surrounds the reserve and The Pas. Kelsey's residents are mostly non-native farmers, but they have hired the reserve to provide firefighting services, while the reserve has provided half the funding for a new homeless program in The Pas run by the Anglican church.
Together, the town, reserve and Kelsey also put together a successful bid for the 2002 Manitoba winter games, and are now lobbying for a bigger regional health centre. Almost without fail, the mayor, the chief and the reeve show up at each other's events. The chief refers to Hopper as "our mayor," and Hopper gives visitors lapel pins both for his town and OCN.
The co-operation goes beyond public relations. When rural teens mugged some natives in The Pas and declared themselves to be a gang called "White Power," the heads of the three communities met the kids (who had been tracked down by the RCMP) and their parents to discuss what had happened. No charges were laid. White Power has not been heard from since.
This once-improbable racial unity appears in Winkler when the Blizzard arrive for the game. Half of the spacious new arena, with its orderly stands and well-stocked snack bar, is filled with well-dressed local people. But on the other side, behind the visiting team's bench, there must be 700 raucous OCN fans, with their obnoxious air horns and vulgar chants.
Against the crisply painted white stands, their dark and light faces resemble a northern patchwork; their denim jackets and cowboy hats an alien costume in the pristine south; their melding of Cree and English insults a bizarre dialect. By contrast, the most radical offering from the Winkler side comes before the game, with an electric guitar version of O Canada.
The action begins and Winkler takes the lead, but the Blizzard fans do not let up. "Legace: You're a LOSER!" they shout at the goalie, whose standing-room-only hometown crowd can muster only a few prep-school cheers in return.
"Go white go!" the Winkler crowd shouts, referring to the colour of their players' jerseys, not their skin, as one by one the fleet-footed Flyers are hammered into the boards.
By the third period, the Blizzard's awesome hitting power has filed down the Flyers like a jagged piece of metal. OCN ties the game, and then, a few minutes into overtime, Jamie Muswagon, the star scorer from Cross Lake, puts it away.
The home crowd turns silent and leaves, trying not to notice the many hues on the other side blowing horns and waving OCN banners.