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True Winter Tales: Today's pick

Inside Out Under a Winter Sky by Chris Nelson

It seemed a reasonable decision at the time. 

Never having worn skates, joining the company hockey team would be a good way to learn to skate. 

I thought it odd they'd even ask me. But after only a few months I'd discovered Canadians were nice that way - very inclusive. 

Then I learned about our first opponents and understood why any warm body, even mine, would do. 

We would play the inmates at Edmonton Maximum Institution. An away game. 

The convicts had found getting opponents difficult. The police team had baled as had the firemen. Only us, a team of journalists, had taken the challenge. 

I bought my first stick and skates, thinking that's all I needed. That other equipment; elbow pads, shin guards and a helmet? That was stuff for people who could actually play. 
I just wanted to stand up. 

So we made the trek to the Max. Getting in didn't take too long; security tended to work in the reverse direction. 

We found an affable bunch of opponents and a lovely, outdoor, floodlit rink. 

Things didn't go well. Before the game started our goalie had an epileptic seizure. We weren't sure if it was fate, fear or excitement that brought it on. We did know we were already one down so, with nine players left standing, I'd be seeing ice time. 

Not knowing the intricacies of hockey I was happy to start on the bench and absorb the incongruous nature of my surroundings. 

A few months earlier in 1981 I'd been covering riots in rain-swept Liverpool as Northern England came to painful grips with what would become known as Thatcherism. 

Now, under a clear, crisp, Northern Alberta sky I was playing a strange new game against opponents serving life sentences. 

Under a mix of moonlight and floodlight it was blissful. 

Until I took to the ice. 

Or rather the ice took to me as I fell, got up, fell again and finally managed to stay upright with aid of my stick. 

If our goalie's premature exit hadn't tipped them off then my appearance on the ice signaled to the inmates' their opponents were not of the highest caliber. 

I played forward as I couldn't skate back to defend and various inmates chatted about their lives inside and their hopes for the future. We didn't worry about the puck at that end of the ice. 

The game was supposed to be non-contact with no slap shots. But for a man serving 25 years without parole a two minute stint in the penalty box wasn't much of a deterrent. 

We got hammered. In every sense. 

Near the end I lay there on the cool ice, looking up at the wonderful dark, winter sky. 

This was still a long way from being home. 

But I knew now that home was only a matter of time. 

Chris Nelson is from Calgary, AB

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