This story was first published in the Jan. 24, 2018 print edition of the P.A. Daily Herald.
First Indigenous NHL player shares his experiences
I’m convinced that Fred Sasakamoose isn’t just a skilled hockey player.
My god, he can tell a story.
He had me spellbound for 30 minutes this past weekend at the Beardy’s and Okemasis’ Cree Nation, 70 kilometres south of Prince Albert.
I went to Beardy’s to cover Hockey Day in Beardy’s, which the First Nation hosted as part of Canada-wide Hockey Day events happening throughout the country.
Beardy’s hosted Sasakamoose as part of the day’s event at the Willow Cree Memorial Sports Centre.
The 84-year-old was born and now resides on the Ahtahkakoop First Nation. He was the first Indigenous hockey player to make it to the NHL.
On Sept. 15, 1953 at 10:43 a.m., he signed a one-year contract with the Chicago Black Hawks (then spelled as two separate words).
I went to Beardy’s with the intention of talking with Sasakamoose to write a story about his life as an Indigenous boy and man making his way to the NHL.
I soon realized that my words, as a reporter, would betray and fail to capture the nuances and the details of Sasakamoose’s life and his experience.
What follows is a partially edited transcript of the stories that Sasakamoose told to me and my colleague Jeff D’Andrea, the sports reporter at the broadcaster CKBI, on Saturday afternoon at Beardy’s.
JD: What does it mean to you to be a part of Hockey Day in Beardy’s here today?
FS: I think it’s one of the key things that today is. Starting at a program where minor hockey has been one of the biggest parts in our communities to develop, especially in Beardy’s.
They have the Minor hockey system, which is great from (Midget) AAA, AA and A.
It is wonderful to see that. I wish some of the communities in my area would have a program like this.
I think it helps a lot of people, the younger people generation with issues of drugs and gangs and what not.
I think this is the key place that we could be able to help along the healing situation where it meets the needs.
ER: When you were a younger boy, growing up in rural Saskatchewan, what did hockey mean to you, and did you ever think it would take you this far?
FS: No. I didn’t think so. I was born in 1933 and it was a difficult situation at a time when I was born; depression time in 1933.
We didn’t have no power; we didn’t have no electricity; we didn’t have no running water. It was a very difficult time.
We really never thought about being affiliated with what you call white society in life.
That was a great challenge. It was one of the greatest I think a young boy and a dreamer could come to accomplish, something like that. It was a challenge that I always wanted.
I think of my grandfather, who could never talk; he was deaf, but he put skates on me – these bob skates and moccasins and about five pairs of socks.
He’d drive me down and pull me by toboggan in cold weather. I’d skate on the slough.
A hockey stick he made out of willow – he’d sit there in the chair and he’d take a pocket knife and he whittled a little hockey stick. I remember that. My puck was frozen horse droppings.
Grandpa would be settin’ there, and he’d never talk. But when I fell down, he’d come up and put me back on my feet very gently. I think it was one of the greatest things.
That’s where the hockey started at the residential school (St. Michael’s School, near Duck Lake, Sask.), when I was six years old, beginning at a time in 1940.
They had a priest that was named Father Roussel who was a great trainer. He couldn’t skate, but yet he had knowledge about hockey, because he was French … with the Montreal Canadiens, you know how French people are, they’re really hockey people.
It was rough and tough when you go to residential school. I think I gained a lot of knowledge, I gained discipline and it created discipline and it created a hockey player out of me.
One of the dreams and the reality of a dream of a hockey player was to go down at 15 years old to the Moose Jaw Canucks in the WHL. So I really think (it was) the fulfilment of a young man, an Indian, an Indian kid to dream to be a big-time.
A white man who came and picked me up; it took him about three or four days to find me, because there was no communication; we didn’t have no telephone. And so it was.
I didn’t want to go, and yet my mother said (Sasakamoose first speaks in Cree) “go may son, go my son.”
And I don’t want to go, a 15-year-old boy. But I think mom knew, mom knew that there was a future. There was something there for me.
She never did see me play hockey, when I was young. I think it was one of the greatest a mom ever dreamed – to have a son to be a hockey player in the WHL for four years.
(There were) 130 kids, white kids, and one Indian boy. I think it is what you call a great challenge.
When I looked around the dressing room, and all I see are these white kids, and then two weeks came along and I had some friends.
I knew there was room for me in this world; it was not only for what you call, white people, because I was scared, because of the outside world – I never was used to it you know.
I was lonesome, 500 miles away from home, in Moose Jaw.
I used to go on top of that hill for Moose Jaw, on the north side. And I’d look towards north; I’d look like that. My life, my culture. My young people. Indian people; I wanted to be with them. But I was mistaken.
George Vogan (General Manager of the Moose Jaw Canucks) was a great believer and made a hockey player out of me. He was a white man that took me; he took my hand, just like a father, and a mother.
I think he knew that there was something in me that I could be able to play the game, to challenge the hurdles that I had to go through as an Indian boy.
I never looked back. I always wanted to go after that, four years, four years of junior hockey.
ER: Can you share what’s important to you now?
FS: I think the award itself (the Order of Canada) and the Edmonton Oilers who had awarded me two weeks ago, man oh man. You wouldn’t believe it.
I never knew what the order of Canada was all about. I didn’t.
I kept on thinking about it over the weekend for a couple of days. And Monday morning at 9 o’clock, I phoned to this lady and “I said I want to learn a little more about what is this Order of Canada.”
She said that’s the highest award you could get in Canada.
I said “the highest?”
She said “yes.”
“My gosh” I said. “Do I deserve it to get that award?”
I understood at that time the award itself is what you call only few people get, and then I’m one of them few people.
I’m very so grateful to receive an honour like that, especially in Canada. Yet I couldn’t do it alone. My surroundings have always been so great around me. I think itself you have to look at other people – even the media itself and the television in the past.
My Indian friends who were what you call great helpers in my life in minor hockey. In sports, in anything you do in your community that you develop to make it better for your community.
And I think that’s what it is.
You could never do it alone. You have to have that strong support from your leadership, from also your towns and the white people.
That’s one thing that I am a strong believer in. I believe that it’s what you call, I can’t find that word, but it’s ok. I will find it someday and I hope that I could be able to continue to support the young people.
I’m very pleased and honoured to receive that honour – the Order of Canada.
That’s one of the greatest moments of my life that I will receive and that I will cherish.
I have a letter; you should see that letter from the Governor General’s office.
To read the letter itself; the reading, the sounding of it; the meaning and what it tells you, who you are, where I get it from, the Government of Canada, to represent my Indian people.
I think it’s always nice to put white people. Without them, I wouldn’t be here, where I’m at now today. I’m really thankful. I’m really thankful for them.
JD: Playing hockey at different stages of your life, when did you fall in love with the game of hockey?
FS: I think to fall in love with hockey, to make it to understand the meaning of hockey. I think the hockey itself, sports and all kinds, from the residential school.
Grandpa had a meaning, but he didn’t’ know what was the future that holds upon his grandson. What was there for me?
I think grandpa wanted to give me some love, to be able to skate on that ice. To play a little bit of hockey.
To be serious about hockey, I understood it then.
We used to turn the radio on. We were forced to hear it on Saturday night, on Hockey Night in Canada, and there were a whole bunch of us
Thirty kids would sit down on the cement and we’d listen, Foster Hewitt Hockey Night in Canada every Saturday night.
Everybody wanted to be Gordie Howe and Maurice Richard and all these great hockey players – Johnny Bower who just recently passed on.
It was a dream, I guess, a lot of us kids had. We came to what you call play the Midget provincial championships in 1948-49.
That’s when we realized that there is a place for us; that we could compete in this world at the same level as the white kids, to love the game, to play the game.
The priest was always our guard-line towards a better life.
He used to give us a hockey stick with no blade on it, just a handle. And he threw the puck on the ice.
The heel was only 2.5 inches; there was no blade on it; it was a broken.
We couldn’t afford a hockey stick because it was $3.25, a full blade with a hockey stick.
So he just threw the puck. He said, “you stick handle with that for one week with no blade on.”
A week after, he walked on the open ice, in winter, and he come close, maybe about five or six feet.
He said, “Freddy, you look at me.” He gave me that stick that had a full blade. “You don’t look at the puck.” You look like that. You look at him, you don’t look at the puck. You feel it.
And then that’s how it is.
I think that’s where the beginning of the life of hockey is.
I think we had the right teaching and the right, you know, behaviour of discipline to be able.
(Vogan) said “I’ll make a champion out of you, Freddy.”
“You’re a strong believer. You could do it.” He used to go up there and he used to say, “Freddy, 40 feet up in the there,” up there, there were lights. He said “it’s not impossible to touch that.”
And the white man sometimes, you don’t understand the language that he speaks.
I said, “40 feet, that guy’s crazy.” You know?
I realized when I went to Chicago at the auditorium and stadium … when I opened that telegram (then as a member of the Canucks in Moose Jaw). We got to play in the playoffs against the Regina Pats. I realized, “ah, I’m going home now; I’m going home after four years in the WHL. Four years I’m going home mom and dad. My own kids. My culture.”
I went, opened the telegram.
“Fred Sasakamoose report immediately to the Chicago Black Hawks.”
1953-54, you’re 19 years old. Whoa. The first Indian to paly the game at the biggest, highest level.
When I got to the stadium in Chicago, I went to the dressing room. Gonzo was the trainer; he was the equipment manager.
I went to the dressing room, Chicago Black Hawks dressing room.
On the wall of that dressing room, #21.
Underneath that #21, Sasakamoose. Whoa.
I said, “Gonzo, is that my stall?”
He said, “that’s yours, Freddy.”
They had sticks in there.
He said “they want you to skate.”
I put on my skates. I went out. I looked at the ceiling. The stadium. Three levels; 18,000 people and you could fit up to 22,000.
I looked a little further.
That’s what George was talking about.
The ceiling, you touched it. Your dream. The reality.
That’s what George was talking about.
I touched the ceiling and the lights.
He said it’s not impossible.
And it’s true.
That’s what hockey means to me, and life now.