Fred Sasakamoose, One of the First Indigenous N.H.L. Players, Dies at 86

Fred Sasakamoose began skating on blades his grandfather had tied to his moccasins. His hockey stick was a willow branch. A disk of cow manure served as the puck. The rink was a frozen lake.

It was a far cry from the National Hockey League. But that is where he landed.

Sasakamoose played only 11 games in the N.H.L. as a member of the Chicago Blackhawks in the 1953-54 season. But his impact was outsized: Sasakamoose was one of the first Indigenous athletes to play Canada’s national pastime at the highest level.

That turned him into a hero for First Nations people in a country that often marginalized them. He later spent decades mentoring and encouraging young Indigenous players across the country; in 2018 he was made a member of the Order of Canada, one of the nation’s highest civilian honors.

“There’ve been many Indigenous players since I started, but it’s good to think I inspired Indian kids way back then,” Sasakamoose wrote in a memoir, “Call Me Indian,” to be published in April. “Showed them, showed everyone, that we could make it in the white world. That’s more important than any award.”

Sasakamoose died on Nov. 26 in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. He was 86. The N.H.L., which announced the death, said he had been hospitalized with complications of Covid-19.

Reggie Leach, the N.H.L.’s first Indigenous superstar, was among those who paid tribute. “A lot of people say he only played 11 games,” Leach told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. “But those 11 games were everything to our First Nations people.”

Frederick Sasakamoose was born on Christmas Day 1933 in the Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation, in central Saskatchewan. He was one of 11 children, six of whom did not survive childhood.

When he was 6, agents from the Canadian government came to the reservation and threw him and his brother Frank into a truck. They were among the many Native children in Canada who were forcibly removed from their families for schooling.

“We didn’t know what the heck was going on,” he told the journalist Aaron Lakoff for a 2018 episode of the Boston public radio station WBUR’s podcast “Only a Game.” “We were too small.”

Sasakamoose would spend years at St. Michael’s, one of Canada’s notorious residential schools, in Duck Lake, about 60 miles from the Sasakamoose home. The schools, financed by the government but run largely by churches, were in operation from 1883 until 1998, when the last one closed. The government has apologized for the practice and compensated survivors, and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission report in 2015 called the system “cultural genocide.”

Life at St. Michael’s was grim. “I never heard words of encouragement,” Sasakamoose wrote in his memoir. “Orders and corrections. That’s all we ever got.” But he found joy there playing hockey.

A mentor from St. Michael’s, the Rev. Georges Roussel, a Roman Catholic priest, later took him to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, to play junior hockey — a feeder to the professional leagues. After four seasons, Sasakamoose received word that he had been selected by the Chicago Blackhawks of the N.H.L.

He made his league debut on Nov. 20, 1953, against the Boston Bruins. Over his 11 games, he played against legends like Gordie Howe and Maurice Richard.

At one game in Chicago, the organist played the old Broadway show tune “Indian Love Call” after Sasakamoose’s name was announced. He was later asked if that had offended him.

“The fact that the white audience didn’t really understand who I was or where I came from, the fact that they didn’t understand the significance of the symbols they were using, well, that didn’t diminish my pride one damn bit,” he later wrote.

“And oh, man, was I proud.”

Sasakamoose, a center, was nimble on the ice, but he failed to score in the N.H.L. and spent the rest of his career in the minor leagues.

Still, those 11 games would be enough to feed the dreams of a new generation of Indigenous players. A handful now play in the N.H.L. and on the Canadian women’s Olympic hockey team.

In later years, Sasakamoose served a term as the chief of the Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation. He also developed sports programs for Indigenous youth, including a tournament for First Nations teams, the Fred Sasakamoose “Chief Thunderstick” Championship.

Information on survivors was not immediately available.

Last year, more than 300 people turned up at the Roxy Theater in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, to watch a video of one of Sasakamoose’s N.H.L. games. When he watched his younger self — wavy black hair, No. 21 on his dark jersey — take the ice, he leapt to his feet.

“I had gone back in time,” Sasakamoose wrote in his memoir. “I was young again for over 60 minutes. Young and old at the same moment. Full of ambition and energy, yet with the wisdom to know what a rare and wonderful experience it was to have played at all.”

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