Fred Sasakamoose thought this day would never come.
Sasakamoose, the NHL’s first Indigenous player when he skated in 11 games with the Chicago Black Hawks during the 1953-54 season, watched from Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation in northern Saskatchewan on Sunday night as the Montreal Canadiens battled the Carolina Hurricanes — and heard his own language.
It was the first NHL broadcast in Plains Cree, the Algonquian language he grew up speaking.
“It makes me so proud that they’re going to broadcast the game in my language,” he said in a telephone interview before the game.
“I heard people broadcast local tournaments, the Indian Stanley Cup they call them. This evening I am going to listen to the game and understand, because I’m a Cree Indian.”
Sunday’s production was born out of discussions between Sportsnet, the league’s Canadian national TV rights holder, and the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, a Canadian cable channel dedicated to promoting the country’s Indigenous heritage.
Community leaders approached Sportsnet last year, wanting to continue the work done at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, where APTN aired 10 hours a day of coverage in a mix of Indigenous, French and English languages.
“As a group, we discussed how to use hockey and tie it in with the Cree language,” said Rob Corte, Sportsnet’s vice president of NHL production. “It was a very informative, interesting and emotional meeting, and we left there thinking that we wanted to do something.”
Broadcasters Clarence Iron, Earl Wood, Jason Chamakese and John Chabot, an eight-year NHL veteran and former assistant coach with the Islanders, called the game from the APTN studios in Winnipeg via live feed provided by Sportsnet.
“It’s very monumental in that a lot of our people struggle on an everyday basis because of their disconnection from their everyday self,” said Wood, who hosted the studio show. “A lot of our young people are shy about speaking the language. If they hear it on the mainstream media, we can use this to our advantage for the retention of our language.”
One of the biggest challenges for the broadcast team was finding words in Plains Cree that describe the in-game hockey events and projecting them quickly enough during the real-time action.
The commentators built their vocabulary during the 2010 Olympics, when APTN covered hockey in Cree. They developed words by talking with community elders and Plains Cree speakers.
“The puck itself, we call it napakiwānis, which is something that is pressed down,” Iron said.
Other terms such as kocīw (he shoots), osīhēw pīhtokwahēw (he scores), kipahwāw (penalty), and tako (overtime) translate more directly from English.
The game also served as a showcase for the league’s most prominent Indigenous player, Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price, whose mother is a former chief of the Ulkatcho First Nation in northern British Columbia. During a stellar career that has seen him become the Canadiens’ franchise leader in wins, Price has supported Indigenous youth by hosting them at games.
“I feel like this game is meant for everybody,” Price said this month after winning his 315th career game to pass Jacques Plante for first place in franchise history. “It’s obviously a league motto, but I definitely have seen that first hand. I think it’s important that you need to be proud of where you come from and enjoy the game for what it is.”
Lining up opposite Price on Sunday was Hurricanes forward Micheal Ferland, who is Cree. The Hurricanes won, 2-1, in overtime.
The trailblazing Sasakamoose acknowledged the hardships that Indigenous Canadians still face, including significantly higher rates of suicide and alcoholism. Nights such as Sunday, with Indigenous ice hockey stars showcased on national television in their own language, have the potential to inspire youths and make them proud of the heritage, he added.
Sasakamoose spent years at one of Canada’s notorious residential schools, a government-supported program that for a century sought to assimilate Indigenous children by separating them from their families and often forbidding them from speaking their Native languages.
“This is going to create opportunities for young people,” he said. “They’re going to change the world for our young people by giving them that chance, that someday they too could be the same as the Micheal Ferlands on TV.”