There weren't many bright moments in the nine years Fred Sasakamoose suffered through residential school, but one came six years in, when he was 12.
Up until then, he had quietly endured the physical, emotional and sexual abuse, pushing aside the thoughts of exacting revenge that so often came to mind. He diligently completed his daily chores, making the beds, scrubbing the floors and doing farm work that included chopping firewood and milking two cows daily.
Then one day, he was told he had "earned" a pair of ice skates. He beamed at the memory.
He and his schoolmates fashioned hockey sticks out of plywood, pucks out of tree branches and tape. For the three more years he spent at St. Michael's Indian Residential School in Duck Lake, Sask., hockey games became his salvation.
"I wanted to be a hockey player," said Mr. Sasakamoose, who turns 80 this year. "I wanted to be a star, better than anybody else. I wanted to be – and I got to be."
He went on to become the first Canadian aboriginal player in the National Hockey League, playing for the Chicago Blackhawks in 1953-1954.
Mr. Sasakamoose flew into Vancouver early Thursday to appear at the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada event, the sixth of seven mandated under the Residential Schools Settlement Agreement between former residential-school students, First Nations groups and the government of Canada.
The Vancouver Giants unveilled a special tribute jersey depicting the logo of the Alkali Lake Ranch in northern B.C., where Alkali Lake Braves hockey players – all members of the Shuswap Nation – worked. Led by Alec Antoine, the Braves earned a B.C. Northern League title in 1931. Mr. Sasakamoose called the jersey "beautiful."
For him, playing hockey cultivated a sense of pride when nothing else did. Before then, the last time he had played was when he was around five years old, when his grandfather bought him a pair of skates. The two would skate on the ice at the Sandy Lake reserve, using a willow tree branch and frozen horse manure as hockey gear.
More than seven decades later, that remains one of Mr. Sasakamoose's fondest memories. His grandfather cried when the boy was taken to residential school.
At 15, shortly after leaving the school, the talented hockey player was scouted by the Western Canada Junior Hockey League's Moose Jaw Canucks. Despite an initial reluctance – "I wanted to go home all the time because the world wasn't made for me, as an Indian," he says – he went on to earn most valuable player honours.
After one game, when Mr. Sasakamoose was 19, the players were told not to get undressed yet: "There's an announcement."
The manager entered, with a telegram: "'Fred Sasakamoose, you report immediately to the Chicago Blackhawks,'" Mr. Sasakamoose recalled with a smile on Thursday. "The dressing room just went quiet. Four years. 'Why me,' I said. 'An Indian?'"
Chief Wilton Littlechild, a Truth and Reconciliation commissioner who spoke at Thursday's event in Vancouver, said sports became a "common thread of positive experience" for many residential school survivors.
"I can tell you I wouldn't be in front of you today … if it hadn't been for sports, and in particular, hockey," said Mr. Littlechild a residential school student of 14 years who went on to become a lawyer. " I owe my whole life to hockey. If it wasn't for that, I probably would have been found dead on some street, in some city, here in Canada. Thanks to hockey, I was able to survive."
The commission, established in 2007 as an independent body to inform all Canadians about what happened in more than 120 years of residential schools in Canada, is expected to develop a full report by 2014. The Vancouver event runs through the weekend.
The Giants will wear the special jerseys when they open the season on Friday.