Max Olson ’22
For Indigenous people, the story of a residential school survivor playing in the NHL is inspirational. For non-Indigenous people, it is a reminder of this dark chapter in Canadian history.
Many people go through hardships in life, but it’s what you do with that hardship that defines you. Fred Sasakamoose is no stranger to this. As an Indigenous man in Canada, Fred Sasakamoose was discriminated against and experienced trauma early on in his childhood. At a young age, he was separated from his family and brought to a residential school where he was physically, emotionally and mentally abused. However, out of this pain and suffering, he accomplished many great things. Fred Sasakamoose became the first Indigenous NHL player and blazed a trail for many young Indigenous people. As his life story shows, Fred Sasakamoose is a significant part of Canadian history. He has made monumental contributions to Indigenous communities and the development of sports within them.
In 1953, Fred Sasakamoose became the first Indigenous person to play in the NHL and a significant role model for his people. However, as a child who was forcibly taken away from his family and abused in residential school, his hockey success story begins with the same trauma many of his people had to suffer through. Fred Sasakamoose was born in Whitefish Lake, a Cree community in northern Saskatchewan, on December 25, 1933. It was there that he learned to skate and play hockey. In 1940 at the age of seven, Fred Sasakamoose and his siblings were ripped away from their family. They were loaded up on a truck and brought to the St. Michael’s Indian Residential School at Duck Lake. Fred Sasakamoose would not see his parents for two years. And he would never again see his grandfather—the man who had taught him how to play hockey—again. “The last time he saw him, [his grandfather] was crying as Fred and his brother were placed in the back of the truck by a government agent” (Klinkenberg). In an interview, Fred Sasakamoose later remembered that “We didn’t know what the heck was going on—We didn’t know. We were too small” (Lakoff). Fred Sasakamoose lived in a residential school for eight years; it was an experience that left him scarred for life. In 2012, Fred Sasakamoose shared his suffering at St. Michael’s with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He recalled the day when they “Took our clothes off from the waist up and [gave] us a whipping, then poured coal oil on top of us. That coal oil would burn my eyes” (Canadian Press). He added that he felt “Loneliness… I wanted to go back to my parents; Somebody to hug me, to kiss me” (Lakoff). Later in life, Fred Sasakamoose described the traumatic impact the residential school experience had on him, stating “It will hurt forever” (Klinkenberg).
One of the few joys left in Fred Sasakamoose’s life was hockey. One priest, Father Roussel, noticed his immense talent and pushed him to become a hockey player. Father Roussel told him: “Freddie, I’m going to work you hard, but if you work hard, you’re going to be successful” (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada 193). Fred Sasakamoose began to play for the school’s hockey team, the St. Michael’s Indians. As the star player, he led the team to a Provincial midget championship in 1949 (Niessen). After leaving residential school, Fred Sasakamoose was recruited to play hockey for the Moose Jaw Canucks. At first, Sasakamoose viewed the recruitment attempts with skepticism. He did not want to be recruited, remembering what happened previously when he left with a white man. Reflecting on his reluctance to leave, Fred Sasakamoose shared that for him, “Fame was nothing. Money was nothing. I want Mom and Dad. I look at dad, and he said, ‘You go, my son. Two weeks. In two weeks, you come back’” (Lakoff).
When Fred Sasakamoose joined the Moose Jaw Canucks, his talent and skill became apparent, but something felt off. Fred Sasakamoose was the only Indigenous player on the team. He stated later that “It was quite a journey, not only to Moose Jaw, but also to live in [a] white society” (Loyie and Brissenden). Sasakamoose felt out-of-place in the all-white world of hockey. He states, “a hundred thirty kids at training camp. A hundred thirty. All white. I was shamed – shamed at being Indian. I could never change it” (Lakoff). When the two weeks of training camp ended, Fred Sasakamoose left on a 300 km walk to return home like he had promised his family. However, on his way, he was stopped by the coach and urged to come back. He had made the team. In the end, he played with the Canucks for four years. In the last playoff game of his fourth season, news broke that he was invited to play for the Chicago Blackhawks.
On November 20, 1953, Fred Sasakamoose was preparing for his NHL debut with Chicago. He was ready to make history and be the first Indigenous player with treaty status in the NHL. He became known for his speed and his quick reflexes, “better [than] Gordie Howe,” according to one of his teammates (Loyie and Brissenden). In the 1953/54 season, Fred Sasakamoose played eleven games for the Chicago Blackhawks. However, similar to what had happened in Moose Jaw, Fred Sasakamoose felt the urge to go home. He explained that “I wanted to go home all the time… You’re no longer 500 miles away—you are 5,000 miles away. It didn’t matter about money, glory… It didn’t matter. I didn’t want that. I wanted home” (Lakoff). Upon returning home, Fred Sasakamoose once again played for the WHL before retiring and serving as an inspiration for many Indigenous communities.
It was only during his retirement that Fred Sasakamoose started healing from the horrific events he had experienced in his childhood. He focused his life on giving back to the community. Neil Sasakamoose, one of Fred Sasakamoose’s sons, explained that his father was, “A supremely talented player, [but] his true impact to the game and our country came many years after his career was over. Fred Sasakamoose’s love for his community fueled him to relentlessly push for greater access to the game of hockey and equal opportunity for Indigenous children” (Klinkenberg). In 2017, Fred Sasakamoose was honoured with the Order of Canada for his positive impact on Indigenous people across Canada. He served as a trailblazer and an inspiration for many and truly showed that it is what you do that defines you.
Photo Credit: https://www.uwindsor.ca/dailynews