Trailblazing NHLer Fred Sasakamoose dies days after COVID-19 diagnosis

Fred Sasakamoose's son Neil urges residents to obey public health guidelines

Fred Sasakamoose poses with an autographed painting of his likeness and some of his memorabilia at the Willow Cree Memorial Sports Centre on the Beardy’s and Okemasis’ First Nation during Hockey Day in Beardy's celebrations on Jan. 20, 2018. -- Evan Radford/Daily Herald

Fred Sasakamoose, a hockey pioneer and one of the first Indigenous professional hockey players, has died just five days after being hospitalized with COVID-19.

Fred’s son Neil took to Facebook Live just 30 minutes after the passing of his father to deliver the grim news.

Despite preparing himself for this moment, Neil was visibly upset and fighting back tears as he told the world that his dad had passed on.

“Fred passed away at 3 o’clock Saskatchewan time,” Neil said.

“He was able to survive about day five going into the hospital. The COVID virus did so much damage to his lungs. He couldn’t keep responding, his body couldn’t keep up.”

Neil said he spoke to his father at about 1 p.m. and Fred was feeling “great and talkative.” Neil asked Fred if he was scared. Fred said he wasn’t scared.

“If I’m gonna go, I’m gonna go,” Fred told his son.

“I said ‘dad, if you’re tired you go,’” Neil recalled. ”You go and don’t worry about us over here. If you’re getting tired and getting beat up and your body’s fighting, you go.’”

Fred had been receiving support since his hospitalization, which made national news over the weekend. He had viewed video messages that had been sent in from current and former NHLers and a voicemail from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.

“Just want to thank everyone for everything you’ve done,” Neil said in his video message. “(Fred) was able to see most of the videos people sent in.”

Neil talked about who his dad was. He didn’t fit in with bigwigs and executives, Neil said, instead preferring grassroots hockey in his community and with local people in small towns.

“He wasn’t a suit and tie,” Neil said.

He added that his dad didn’t believe in racism or hate. He believed in listening to professionals, and believed in his culture, his language and his people. He believed in different cultures getting along.

“He believed in a lot of good qualities we should be striving for,” Neil said.

Neil implored people to follow public health guidelines for a little while longer as more vaccine candidates pass the final thresholds before production.

“This is what happens with COVID-19,” Neil said. “My mother is in isolation, she is in a lockdown. My sisters are in a lockdown. This is what happens with COVID-19.

“Everyone, just bear down. Listen to your chiefs. Let them do what they have to do. Listen to your mayors, listen to the premiers … just listen and comply for a while. We’re gonna get a vaccine soon. We’re going to go back to normal. I don’t get that chance anymore.”

Neil also had a message for anti-mask protestors.

“I lost a father now,” he said.

“We lose a grandparent and a parent just because of stubbornness and silliness and selfishness. He’s gone anyway. It’s a reality for us now. You guys keep safe. Life changes for us here. I’ll tell you this much. When someone passes as strong as Fred Saskaamoose, it’s a lasting impact.”

Tributes pour in for Sasakamoose

Fred Sasakamoose may have only played 11 career NHL games, but he had a longstanding impact on the game of hockey and has served as an inspiration for many Indigenous players who followed in his footsteps.

Sasakamoose was born in 1933.

In a 2018 interview with the Herald, he said that his grandfather would strap skates, moccasins and about five pairs of socks to his feet and bring him to skate on the slough with a hockey stick made out of willow and a puck out of frozen horse droppings. At home, they would listen to Foster Hewitt on the radio.

Sasakamoose was taken to St. Michael’s residential school near Duck Lake when he was six. That’s where his hockey career started. 

He played in the Western Canada Junior Hockey League, a precursor to the modern-day Western Hockey League, with the Moose Jaw Canucks before being called up to the Chicago Black Hawks as a 19-year-old.

“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.”

He went to training camp the next season but was sent to the minors. He retired in 1960.

After retiring, Sasakamoose returned to his Ahtahkakoop First Nation home and worked to help other kids get a chance to play hockey. His efforts helped to develop minor hockey and other sports in the community, leading to tournaments leagues and sports days, as well as the Saskatchewan Indian Summer and Winter Games.

On a Facebook page dedicated to the Fred Sasakamoose Chief Thunderstick National Championship, it said that Sasakamoose dreamed of creating a national championship for Indigenous hockey athletes in the hope of one day having an Indigenous team at the Olympics.

He testified before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2012 about the abuse he saw and experienced at residential school. He was inducted into the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame in 2007, and has been honoured both by the Blackhawks and Edmonton Oilers. In 2017, he was invested in the Order of Canada.

As news spread of his passing Tuesday, condolences poured in from many who looked to Sasakamoose as an inspiration.

“RIP to my buddy, Freddy Sasakamoose,” wrote Olympian Brigette Lacquette of Cote First Nation in Manitoba.

“He was a trailblazer, a leader and a survivor. He paved the way for so many Indigenous hockey players. My thoughts and prayers to the family. Rest Easy, Legend.”

The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations tweeted that they were “at a loss” and that Sasakamoose was a “legend with humble beginnings” who will be dearly missed.

Former broadcaster Waubgeshig Rice called the news “heartbreaking.”

“Fred Sasakamoose was iconic in so many ways. I just finished reading an advance copy of his book that’s due out next year. He was passionate about his family, community, the Cree language, and the land. My sincerest condolences to his loved ones,” he wrote.

In 2018, the Herald sat down with Sasakamoose in Beardy’s. A transcript of that interview is available here.