Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 495
“When We Were Wolves” opens in a Wyoming state prison with the narrator reminiscing about convict life in 1949 and how inmates were forced to wear the Oregon boot, a heavy iron device designed to discourage their escape. This device is turned into a training tool by him and the other men who play on the prison hockey team, the Wolves. To condition themselves for the game, they wear the boot and also don ice skates when walking and running across the exercise yard. They learn to think and act as a team and adopt a pragmatic version of Christianity in the hope of improving their lot in prison, gaining privileges, and perhaps winning quicker release. The Wolves adopt brotherly love out of necessity to avoid fighting among themselves, which is punished by solitary confinement in “the hole,” and so that they can play hockey in the Oil League. They are in pursuit of the Oil Cup, awarded to the best team in the Rocky Mountain Oil League, while Pastor Liverance, their prison chaplain, a former Canadian hockey player, team coach, and a man possessed, is in pursuit of the Holy Grail. By playing hockey, the Wolves believe that they are on their way to improving their lot as prisoners. Pastor Liverance becomes so convinced of the merits of prison hockey that he begins to write a book on the subject.
The context is the oil boom of the 1950’s when Wyoming created oil barons, some of whom supported city hockey teams and leagues, providing uniforms, coaches, and salaries. The Wolves, however, depend on the prison garment shop to make their uniforms out of canvas in the color of “atomic orange,” picked by Warden Gordon. Few of the team members know much about hockey, but they work hard to get in condition and practice hard to execute the fundamentals, only to be defeated by every team they face. Pastor Liverance provides spiritual guidance to team members, teaching them the Bible, including stories about Cain, David, and Goliath. As a result, they become men, a team committed to one another as well as a means by which league team owners profit by scheduling their hockey teams to play against the convict team.
The Wolves play their final game with the Cheyenne Buffalos, a team that Pastor Liverance wants very much to defeat and that has “the Czech,” an unstoppable player of mythic proportions, nine feet tall on skates and weighing five hundred pounds. The Wolves are badly beaten by the Buffalos, but when the Czech brutally body checks and kills Rich Belecki, an embezzler and the Wolves’ best skater, Pastor Liverance leads the Wolves onto the ice, where as a pack, a team, they bring down and kill the giant. The governor then sees to it that the team—including Pastor Liverance—are “buried” in the prison system. That is where the narrator, now nearing seventy, and Liverance reminisce about the Wolves and how they became men.
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