Fred Sasakamoose was barely out his teens when he took face-offs against Maurice Richard and played against Gordie Howe as a centre for the Chicago Blackhawks in 1954.
His path to becoming one of the first Indigenous players in the National Hockey League was all the more remarkable for having survived the trauma and abuse of a residential school.
While his career in the NHL lasted only 11 games, he blazed a trail for future generations of Indigenous players.
Mr. Sasakamoose would later go on to become chief of his First Nation and served his community for decades.
“Years after he played hockey, people slowly resurrected him and propped him up on stage,” said his son, Neil. “He had a story to tell. He could move you through words. That was his gift.”
Mr. Sasakamoose died Tuesday afternoon in a Saskatchewan hospital from complications of COVID-19. He was 86.
One of 11 children, Mr. Sasakamoose was born on Christmas Day in 1933. He grew up in Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation in central Saskatchewan, where his grandfather taught him to skate on a frozen lake and carved hockey sticks for him out of willow branches.
At six years old, he was taken from his family and loaded into a truck with other Indigenous children and was driven five hours to the St. Michael’s Indian Residential School in Duck Lake. He spent most of the next 10 years there, and at a 2012 hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recounted being raped by a group of boys when he was 9.
Established in the 1880s, Canada’s residential school system was in existence for more than 100 years and resulted in a form of cultural genocide of Indigenous peoples, weakened family ties, and led to the loss of their pride and respect.
“It doesn’t matter how many times you talk about the residential schools,” Mr. Sasakamoose said during an interview in 2016 with The Globe and Mail. “It will hurt forever.”
In 1944, Mr. Sasakamoose was invited to join the Duck Lake school’s hockey team and became its star player, eventually leading it to a provincial midget championship. At 16, he was recruited to play for the Moose Jaw Canucks in the Western Canada Junior Hockey League and in 1953-54, his final season for that league, was voted the most valuable player in Western Canada.
He was initially called up by the Blackhawks and made his debut on Nov. 20, 1953, against the Boston Bruins, and played against the Maple Leafs two days later. After being sent back to complete the season in Moose Jaw, he was called up again by Chicago for a Hockey Night in Canada broadcast against Toronto at Maple Leaf Gardens on Feb. 27, 1954.
After hockey, he returned to Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation and went on to serve as its chief and a member of the band council for 30 years. The initiatives he undertook included setting up addiction services and a program to prevent family violence.
“I hope people don’t forget him,” his son, Neil, said by phone from Saskatoon on Tuesday night. “He was kind of an uncovered jewel.”
Neil said his father was taken to a local hospital on Friday because of breathing difficulties. He was later taken by ambulance to a medical centre in Prince Albert. A COVID-19 test came back positive.
“He knew the dangers of COVID-19,” Neil said. “He told people how important it was to keep their elders safe. He wanted them to listen to doctors and not to be stubborn.”
Tributes to Mr. Sasakamoose poured in over social media upon news of his death.
He blazed a trail for future NHL players such as Theo Fleury, Carey Price, Wade Redden, Sheldon Souray, Jordin Tootoo and Bryan Trottier.
“Thank you for being a leader and paving the way for all of us Indigenous hockey players and helping us dream big,” Mr. Fleury wrote on Twitter.
“You will be greatly missed by our Indigenous communities,” Mr. Tootoo tweeted.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said Mr. Sasakamoose was a “Canadian original” who not only was the first Cree player in the NHL but “then dedicated the rest of his long life to serving the First Nations community – by using hockey and other sports to provide opportunities for Indigenous youth.”
In 2016, Mr. Sasakamoose was honoured in pregame ceremonies at Air Canada Centre in Toronto and at Rogers Place in Edmonton.
“[He] was a true legend and a Canadian icon,” Tim Shipton, the senior vice-president of communications and government affairs for the Oilers Entertainment Group, said on Tuesday. “His path to the NHL – from Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation, through the horrors of residential schools, to the NHL, is a story of perseverance through adversity.
“A supremely talented player, his true impact to the game and our country came many years after his career was over. Fred’s love for his community fuelled him to relentlessly push for greater access to the game of hockey and equal opportunity for Indigenous children. He was a role model to so many, and a trailblazer.”
Neil Sasakamoose said his father wrote a book Call Me Indian that will go on sale on April 6, 2021.
“He was a remarkable man,” his son said. “He was into the salt of the earth of the people. He was a pillar.”