Fred Sasakamoose: Survivor, trailblazer, leader, hero
He made it out of a notorious residential school to become the first indigenous player in the NHL. He played 11 games for the Chicago Blackhawks in the 1950s and never scored a point. But he hadn't wanted to be a ground-breaking athlete. He just wanted to be home. Marty Klinkenberg tells his story
Photography by Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail
A bitter gale whips snow across canola fields that turn gold each summer. It is a cold impossible to brace against, nearly -40C.
Fred Sasakamoose drives slowly along a road on the Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation in central Saskatchewan. He pulls into a driveway, passing a bungalow where relatives live, and stops beside the ruins of the 24-by-24-foot log home where he was born in 1933 on Christmas Day. A pile of tired boards, pitched haphazardly, is all that remains.
He was one of 11 kids, only five of whom survived childhood. Four of his siblings – two sets of twins – died of smallpox. There was no electricity when he grew up, only blankets made from rabbit skins to warm him, and a lamp fashioned from rags braided together and soaked in moose fat for light.
"The beginning of my life was here," he says, and tears stream down his cheeks. "My mom and dad lived in that house. Oh gosh, I can't believe it. I can still see them."
He presses on, inching his pickup truck down an embankment to the edge of the slough where his grandfather, Alexander, a deaf mute, taught him to skate. He parks, and walks out onto the ice. Wind whistles through spruce trees planted by his parents nearly a century ago.
"My grandpa used to haul me down that trail in a toboggan over there," he says, pointing. "He was the greatest teacher I ever had. He couldn't talk or hear but I understood him very well."
When Fred was a toddler, his grandfather slipped five pairs of socks onto his feet, then moccasins. Then he attached tiny bob skates, and set the little boy down gently onto the ice. They spent hours together here, Freddie skating and the old man sitting on top of a pail smiling and watching and lifting his grandson up each time he fell.
"There are a lot of memories," Sasakamoose says, choking back sobs.
If it wasn't for his grandfather, Fred likely would have never become the first aboriginal person to play in the NHL. Called up from the Moose Jaw Canucks near the end of the 1954 season, he played 11 games for the Chicago Blackhawks.
He was barely out of his teens when he took faceoffs against Maurice Richard and played against Gordie Howe, Jean Béliveau and Tim Horton.
"At the time, there were 125 players on six teams, and I was one of them," Sasakamoose says. "I succeeded to the highest level you could achieve. I played against the best in the game, perhaps the best that ever played.
"It is unbelievable when you face off against Rocket Richard. His eyes looked at you like a tiger."
It was Fred's grandfather who got him started, carving hockey sticks out of red willow branches that the youngster employed to whack pucks fashioned out of frozen horse droppings. It was the beginning of a journey that has always ended with him longing to return to the reserve an hour north of Prince Albert.
"I think people will understand my story and where I am coming from," Sasakamoose says. "I was striving for success in an outside world that was not meant for me. For me to be in the public life, to be in white society, was very difficult.
"It was hard to continue because my life was always away from my parents. I never received a hug or a kiss for 10 years."
'There was nothing my parents could do'
Fred Sasakamoose was 6 when a priest and an agent from the Department of Indian Affairs took him and his eight-year-old brother from his parents. Roderick and Sugil Sasakamoose were poor but loving people, and were threatened with jail if they refused to turn their boys over.
"A big truck pulled up out front," Sasakamoose says, sitting beside a fireplace in his living room. "I could hear kids crying. They took us and loaded us into the back. There were about 30 kids.
"There was nothing my parents could do. My grandfather, the one who couldn't talk, was yelling and grabbing for me, but he got pushed aside. He was not a big man."
After a five-hour drive, they arrived at the St. Michael's Indian Residential School at Duck Lake. It is where Fred spent most of the next 10 years.
"We got to a building that was four or five storeys high," he says. "It was so strange and huge. I couldn't believe what I saw. There was a fence surrounding it about eight feet high, with wire at the top.
"The 30 of us got off. I had beautiful braids and so did my brother. My mom was always so delicate fixing our hair every morning. A priest cut them off. The abuse we received in that school was not human."
Canada's residential school system was established in the 1880s and in existence for more than 100 years. Over that period, more than 150,000 children were removed from their families and placed in more than 130 schools. The acts committed led to the largest class-action lawsuit in Canadian history and the formation in 2008 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
Hearings were conducted across Canada over five years, during which thousands of victims detailed horrendous abuse. In a final report released on Dec. 15, the commission said the residential school system had resulted in a form of cultural genocide. It weakened family ties and led to the loss of pride and respect for aboriginal people.
In 2008, the federal government apologized for its actions, and since then more than $2-billion in reparations have been made. But no amount of money can undo the damage done. Lives were stolen and families were torn apart.
At night, Fred Sasakamoose heard his classmates crying. In 2012, at a hearing in Prince Albert conducted by the TRC, he recounted being raped by a group of older boys. He believes a priest saw what was happening, but chose not to stop the assault. Fred was 9.
"I got dragged into the bush," he told the TRC. "When I got up, I had no clothes on. I was sore. I put my clothes on and started walking. At that moment, I didn't care if I died."
It was an awful truth he hid for 70 years, until that day he testified. He demurs when he is asked about it today. He has mixed feelings about truth and reconciliation.
"Wounds were re-opened," he says. "A lot of times, I think perhaps things should have been left alone. It doesn't matter how many times you talk about the residential school. It will hurt forever."
A painting of Sasakamoose by Saskatchewan native artist Cory Carter, taken from his 1953-54 Blackhawks hockey card, hangs in one corner of the basement of his home at Sandy Lake. Mementoes from his career – jerseys he wore when he played on the team at the residential school and for the Moose Jaw Canucks of the Western Junior Hockey League spill out of a suitcase on the floor.
He took them with him the preceding week when he spoke to an assembly of students on a reserve at Sturgeon Lake, Alta. He also brought his old Blackhawks sweater and some of the many awards he has received: a National Aboriginal Achievement Award, commendations from the Saskatchewan Sports and Hockey Halls of Fame, and a Saskatchewan First Nations Circle of Honour Award.
"It is unbelievable that all of these things happened in my life," he says. "I didn't achieve great wealth, but the riches I received was the life that was given to me. That is what hockey did for me."
A copy of a $6,000 contract from the Blackhawks, dated Sept. 15, 1953, sits on top of a mantle.
"I bought a '54 DeSoto for $3,900," he says with a chuckle. "It was huge. Twenty Indians could have fit inside of it."
'I was the only Indian. I felt small, and embarrassed'
After he was sexually assaulted, Fred Sasakamoose fled the residential school at Duck Lake. Over several days, he and a friend made it 29 kilometres, as far as the North Saskatchewan River. Upon reaching it, they were turned in by a ferry operator.
As punishment, the boys were forced to walk back to school in their bare feet on a gravel road. Then they were beaten with a strap in front of other students, and made to eat meals off the floor in the centre of the dining hall.
"I wanted to be home with my mom and dad," Fred says.
In 1944, Father Georges Roussel arrived from Quebec and took over as the school's athletic director and hockey coach. He recognized talent in Fred, invited him to play on the school team and had him do skating drills for three and four hours a day.
In 1947-48, the Duck Lake team reached the provincial midget championships but lost in the finals. The next year, with Fred as the star player, they won the Saskatchewan midget title.
None of that mattered much to him.
"I was 15 years old, and I finally was going home to my parents," he says.
He had been home for three months and was gathering grain for a farmer in a neighbouring community with his mother, father and older brother when a car stopped a few hundred yards away.
As the two men who got out drew closer, Fred recognized one as Father Roussel. Fearing that he was going to be returned to the residential school, Fred hid until his mother called to him in Cree.
"I walked very slowly toward my mom and dad and the two people," Sasakamoose says. He speaks slowly, pausing occasionally. "I put my head down and had tears rolling down my cheeks. My mom said, 'They came for you', and I asked where I was going."
Unbeknown to him, the teenager had been scouted during the provincial tournament. The tall stranger accompanying the priest was George Vogan, the general manager of the Moose Jaw Canucks. He wanted Fred to play hockey for him in the Western Canada Hockey League.
"I did not want to go, but my mother said, 'The door is open for you, my son. You go,'" Sasakamoose says.
After a 10-hour drive, he and Vogan were in Moose Jaw. The following day tryouts began.
"I walked into the dressing room and sat in the far corner, away from everyone else," Fred says. "I was ashamed. There were 25 boys there and I was the only Indian. I felt small, and embarrassed.
"The other kids were looking at me. There were scars. The world was never made for me, because of residential school. I felt all alone. I wanted to go home."
After two weeks, Sasakamoose was so homesick that he packed his belongings and began walking back to the Ahtahkakoop Indian Reserve, 400 kilometres away. He walked for two or three hours and ate dry Saskatoon berries and dry chokeberries when he became hungry. To quench his thirst, he drank water from a slough.
After eight hours he sat down to rest. In the distance, about six kilometres away, he could see grain elevators.
At 5 p.m., a car pulled up. It was Vogan searching for him.
"Freddy where are you going?" he asked.
"I am going home," Sasakamoose told him.
"Freddy," Vogan replied, "You are going to make the team. You are that good. You are going to make it in this world."
Vogan drove him to a diner in Chamberlain, Sask., near the grain elevators. In eight hours, the youth had walked 45 kilometres. He and Vogan ate dinner, and had a long talk.
"That's when everything in my life turned around," Sasakamoose says. "George said to me, 'Freddie, to be the best you have to beat the best.' Those words echoed through my life."
Sasakamoose made the team and moved in with Vogan and his wife and two children. He lived with them for four years.
"A white man took me as his son," Sasakamoose says.
In 1953-54, his final season in Moose Jaw, Sasakamoose was voted the most valuable player in Western Canada. The 5-foot-8, 165-pound centre with a booming slap shot was called up to the NHL following the Canucks' last game.
"There were 21 of us in the dressing room, and everyone but me shared the same dream," he says. "Everyone else wanted to go the NHL. I just wanted to go home because I had been away at residential school for so long."
Vogan entered the room and read a telegram: "Fred Sasakamoose is to report immediately to the Chicago Blackhawks. He will be playing at Maple Leaf Gardens on Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday night."
"The room went quiet and they all looked at me," he says. "Then one of my teammates hugged me with tears in his eyes. I asked why he was crying and he said, 'I'm so happy for you.'"
Sasakamoose spent two days on a train from Regina to Toronto, and arrived at Maple Leaf Gardens on Saturday afternoon. During pregame warmups, the Blackhawks captain, Bill Gadsby, skated over and told him someone was waiting in the penalty box to speak to him.
When Fred went over, he discovered it was Foster Hewitt, Canada's premier hockey broadcaster. Years earlier, when he was at residential school, Fred had listened to Hewitt on Saturday nights with his classmates and Father Roussel. The broadcaster introduced himself and asked Fred to say his last name. He wanted to make certain he pronounced it right.
"Whoever thought I would meet that man?" Sasakamoose asks. "He was a legend."
Sasakamoose played 11 games for the Blackhawks that season and never scored a point. He earned a place in history as the NHL's first indigenous player, blazing a trail for a lengthy list of native hockey players, George Armstrong, Theo Fleury, Gino Odjick, Carey Price, Wade Redden, Sheldon Souray, Jordin Tootoo and Bryan Trottier among them.
"It was only 11 games and I wish I had played more, but I will always be the first," Sasakamoose says. "I could skate and I could shoot. I was not as good a skater as Paul Coffey, but I was damn close."
The following season the Blackhawks assigned him to their AHL affiliate in Buffalo. He refused to report, and asked instead to be sent to a team closer to home.
He played briefly for minor-league teams in Chicoutimi, Que., New Westminster, B.C., and Calgary, and then returned to the reserve in Saskatchewan where his wife, Loretta, was waiting for him. Loretta was 14 when her mother died during childbirth, and she helped raise six younger brothers and sisters. She was 16 and lived in a neighbouring community when she and Fred met, but they didn't become a couple until his NHL career ended.
"He didn't have time before that," she says later on the phone. "It was hockey all the way through. That was his bread and butter. I'm not a traveller, and never was."
This day, she has made herself scarce so Fred can tell his story alone.
"People ask me if I would do things differently if I had it to do over again and I say no," he says. "The choice I made to come back to my wife was the right one. I am a lucky man today to have a great wife. We have been married for 61 years, and have 128 grandkids and great-grandkids.
"That is 128 riches in life. Not many people can say that."
'I never was a quitter. I am never going to lay down'
The winds are swirling and pushing clouds of snow across Sandy Lake, where Fred Sasakamoose has lived in a beautiful log home at the water's edge for more than 30 years. He cut the lumber and built the two-storey house himself.
He is about to turn 83, and looks 20 years younger. Already this morning, he has lifted weights for two hours and walked for 90 minutes. He chopped the cord of wood that is frosted with snow just outside the door.
He enjoys setting a net for pickerel and whitefish, still hunts deer, and sets traps for beavers, coyotes, foxes and wolves.
"I want a little joy in my life," he says. "I think we all deserve it."
A dream catcher with intricate beading hangs in one corner of the living room, and there is a drum on the wall in the mud room. Both were crafted for him by inmates at the federal penitentiary in Prince Albert. He visits there occasionally, talking to prisoners and trying to inspire them to lead more meaningful lives.
"They have so much talent, yet some of them are there for a lifetime," he says sadly.
He once served as a chief of the Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation, and was a band councillor for more than 30 years. He is an elder now, and teaches youths to hunt and fish and trap, and counsels them about drug and alcohol addiction. The band hockey rink where kids skate each night has his name painted on its side. More than 60 per cent of the reserve's 1,100 residents are 30 years old or younger.
"It is nice for me to be in public and to be recognized, but with honesty I am more concerned about the kids here," he says. "I can take the gift I received, the gift of life, and maybe that will lead to a better future for Indian kids.
"Trying to help kids hurting themselves in northern communities is my life now."
He stopped drinking in 1980, when he became chief. His predecessor, Allan Ahenakew, called him to his deathbed and chose him to be the new leader.
"He told me you lead people with honesty and discipline yourself," he says. "I worked hard for the people, and still work hard for the young people. I never was a quitter. I am never going to lay down."
This afternoon, he bows his head and leads a prayer before a Christmas celebration. The band hall is jammed with more than 400 kids. A turkey and ham dinner is served and presents are handed out. Around him, friends talk about Sasakamoose with great reverence.
"He was my hero growing up," Russell Ahenakew, a band councillor, says. "He was a tremendous leader in sports and the community, and has a passion for kids. He is one in a million."
Sasakamoose climbs into his truck and drives up a steep, icy hill on the reserve. At the top, there is a monument to 359 people who were taken from their parents and sent to residential schools.
"For the child taken, and the parents and grandparents left behind," the words on the monument begin.
Instead of learning to read, write and do math, Fred and so many others were made to milk cows, chop wood and clean toilets. After 10 years, he had a seventh-grade education. The St. Michael's school was one of the last to close, in 1996.
"I was an employee, a slave," he says.
As a hockey player, he endured catcalls from fans. They called him a "squaw humper," which he ignored, but it deeply hurt his wife.
On Nov. 1, he was recognized by the Maple Leafs during a ceremony that honoured residential school victims and missing and murdered indigenous women. In 2014, the Oilers invited him to Rexall Place for a pregame ceremony held during the final hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. One of the stories in Wayne Gretzky's new book, 99: Stories of the Game, is about Fred. As a player, he met Louie Armstrong and Jack Dempsey. At home, he has a picture of himself smiling in a golf cart, beside Gordie Howe.
"I look at myself sometimes and wonder how the hell I ever got here," he says. "I didn't want to be an athlete. I didn't want to be a hockey player. All I wanted was my parents.
"When I look back, I think I challenged the world. I knew I could beat the residential school."
'I fulfilled his dreams'
Fred Sasakamoose was at the residential school in Duck Lake for two years before he was allowed to come home for a visit. By the time he returned, his grandfather had died. The last time he saw him, Alexander was crying as Fred and his brother were placed in the back of the truck by a government agent.
Fred stands on the slough where his grandfather taught him to skate all those years ago. He wipes tears from his eyes.
"I don't know if the old man ever saw a hockey game, but I wonder if he somehow visualized the future of my life to become a performer in the outside world," he says. "I don't know if he had a dream for me. Did he know that I would become somebody?"
He walks back to his truck in the nearly -40C temperatures and then stares out at the ice.
"I fulfilled his dreams," he says. "I think you could bury me now. Grandpa is waiting for me. And now I am sure he could talk. It's beautiful."
Follow Marty Klinkenberg on Twitter: @globemartyk
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