Fred Sasakamoose, one of the first Indigenous players in the NHL, died Tuesday. The former Chicago Black Hawks forward was 86 and had been hospitalized with COVID-19.
Sasakamoose, who had lived on the Ahathkakoop Cree Nation reserve in Saskatchewan, was tested for COVID-19 on Nov. 19 and the test came back positive two days later.
Sasakamoose, with treaty status, was scoreless in 11 games with the Black Hawks in 1953-54.
“Only 125 hockey players and six teams, and I was one of them,” he told Global News in 2018.
Sasakamoose was informed on the night of his final game with Moose Jaw of the Western Canadian Junior Hockey League that the Black Hawks wanted him to report to Toronto for a game against the Maple Leafs on Feb. 27, 1954.
“That night. I was on that train,” he told the Edmonton Sun in March 2014. “Going to Toronto. Going to play. Three days on a train. I don’t know how the word got out that fast that there was an Indian going to play.
“I was warming up on the ice. And somebody skated up to me and said, ‘Somebody wants to talk to you over there.’ I’d never seen (broadcaster) Foster Hewitt in my life. He was just on the radio. He said, ‘How do you pronounce your name?’ … It was big news. It was a big deal. I was an Indian with an Indian on my sweater.”
Sasakamoose went to training camp with the Black Hawks in the fall of 1954 but was sent to the minors. He played minor and senior hockey until retiring in 1960.
After hanging up his skates, Sasakamoose returned home to the Ahathkakoop First Nation to help give others the same kind of opportunities he received. He worked to build and develop minor hockey and other sports in the community. Tournaments, leagues and sports days followed as a result of these initiatives, as well as the Saskatchewan Indian Summer and Winter Games. Sasakamoose also served on the NHL Diversity Task Force, as well as the Aboriginal Healing Foundation.
Sasakamoose had a long, difficult path to the NHL, which included being taken from his family’s home and shipped to the St. Michael’s Indian Residential School in Duck Lake, Saskatchewan. The school was part of a government-sponsored, religious education system designed to assimilate the country’s Indigenous children. The schools that began in the 1880s and closed in 1996 were rife with abuse.
But Sasakamoose never abandoned his language, cultural beliefs or way of life. He testified before Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2012 about his experiences at the residential school.
He was inducted into the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame in 2007. The Blackhawks honored him in November 2002, and the Edmonton Oilers did the same in 2014 as part of their Celebration of First Nations Hockey, with Sasakamoose performing the ceremonial puck drop before a game against the New York Rangers. In 2017, Sasakamoose was invested in the Order of Canada, an honor that recognizes Canadian citizens for outstanding achievement, dedication to community or service to the nation.
NHL.com staff writer William Douglas contributed to this report