Fred Sasakamoose, one of the first indigenous players in NHL history, died at age 86. Accounts, including from his son Neil, indicate that Sasakamoose recently tested positive for COVID-19.
As the New York Times noted, it’s difficult to be certain if Sasakamoose was the first indigenous player in NHL history. Whether he was first or not, Fred Sasakamoose was a trailblazer. He played in 11 games with the Chicago Blackhawks during the 1953-54 season.
In paying tribute to Sasakamoose, the Oilers referred to him as the first Canadian indigenous player in NHL history.
The #Oilers are deeply saddened by the loss of our dear friend & hockey icon Fred Sasakamoose.
Fred was the first Canadian Indigenous @NHL player, he participated in our Celebration of First Nations Hockey & often travelled from Sask to bring kids from his community to games. pic.twitter.com/2zr9VLhqLV
— Edmonton Oilers (@EdmontonOilers) November 24, 2020
Theo Fleury ranked among those who paid tribute to Sasakamoose following news of his passing.
So sorry to hear about @FredSasakamoose today. Thank you for being a leader and paving the way for all of us indigenous hockey players and helping us dream big. You will be missed. pic.twitter.com/SYAYozKDEs
— Theo Fleury (@TheoFleury14) November 24, 2020
Sasakamoose recalled being interviewed by Canadian broadcaster Foster Hewitt during his stint in the NHL.
“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 Foster Hewitt in my life. He was just on the radio. He said ‘How do you pronounce your name? Is it Saskatchewanmoose or Saskatoonmoose?’” Sasakamoose told the Edmonton Sun in 2014.
“It was big news. It was a big deal. I was an Indian with an Indian on my sweater.”
“But it suited me! “Everything was all Indian on that sweater. It was made for me.”
Before making it to the NHL, Sasakamoose endured much of his childhood at St. Michael’s Indian Residential School, part of Canada’s residential school system. Sasakamoose would later share painful memories of abuse, and being forced to assimilate.
” … I wanted to stay back on the reserve where my bloodline was and to be with the kids I knew,” Sasakamoose said, via that Edmonton Sun interview. “I’d hardly known them. They took us away when I was six and I hardly knew them and I’d left behind everything. My language was taken away. My pride. My long hair. My braids.”
“Somebody had a dream. I didn’t.”
Hockey served as a respite for Sasakamoose, and he eventually became an inspiration for others.
As NHL.com notes, Sasakamoose received many honors following his hockey career, including the Order of Canada.
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.