The NHL suffered a tremendous loss when Fred Sasakamoose, one of the league’s first indigenous players passed away after being hospitalized with COVID-19.
According to a Facebook video from son Neil Sasakamoose, his father who was 86 years-old, passed away on Tuesday, November 24, five days after entering the hospital.
“The COVID virus did so much damage into his lungs, he just couldn’t keep responding,” Neil Sasakamoose said. “He just couldn’t keep up.”
Reminiscing about the last conversation Neil Sasakamoose had with his father, he stated,
“I talked to him (Fred) about one o’clock in the afternoon… and I asked how he was feeling, and if he was scared. He said, I’m not scared. I’m ready to go. If I’ve got to go, I’m going to go.” Neil Sasakamoose went on to add, “And I said you know what dad? If you’re tired, you go. You go and don’t worry about us over here.”
Fred Sasakamoose, who is from Big River First Nation, and lived on Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation reserve in Saskatchewan made hockey history when during the 1953-54 campaign as a nineteen -year-old, he suited up for 11 games with the Chicago Blackhawks, being credited as the first indigenous player with treaty status to break into the NHL.
“The story of Sasakamoose’s ground breaking, 11-game NHL career with the Chicago Blackhawks in 1953-54 was the culmination of years of dedication to overcoming adversity in pursuit of a dream, and the pivot point at which he turned his focus to helping others pursue their dream,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. “On a personal note, I will always treasure meeting Fred at the 2019 Heritage Classic in his native Saskatchewan, getting to spend some precious time getting to know him and the gift he gave me that day—a statue depicting his NHL rookie card.” Bettman also went on to add, “The National Hockey League mourns the passing of this special man and sends its condolences to his family and the countless young men and women of the First Nations community whose lives he touched.”
Sasakamoose, who went pointless in those 11 games in the NHL, served as a true trailblazer for future generations of indigenous coaches such as Craig Berube and Ted Nolan, along with future indigenous players such as Carey Price, Jordin Tootoo, Sheldon Souray, Gino Odjick, Theo Fleury, Brandon Montour and hockey hall of famers such as George Armstrong, Reggie Leach and Bryan Trottier to name a few.
“He was one of the players that we wanted to be like him and play in the National Hockey League,” Leach said. Leach, who played 934 NHL games with the Boston Bruins, California Golden Seals, Philadelphia Flyers and Detroit Red Wings also added,
“He accomplished his goal and that was a big feat at that time in the 50’s, being First Nation and playing in the NHL. If you think back, it’s unbelievable the things he had to go through and what he went through going to residential school and accomplishing what he did. It’s just amazing.”
Reflecting, Leach, who is Ojibwe ethnicity and from Berens River First Nation doesn’t think he would have had a 13 -year hall of fame career if it hadn’t been for Sasakamoose leading the way.
“A lot of people say, well he only played 11 games, but to me those 11 games were everything to our First Nation people,” Leach said. “He carried that (mantle as a leader) through his whole life, being chief in his community and showing leadership and kindness to all-not just the First Nation people. That’s the way life should be, being kind to everybody.”
In 1940, at the tender age of six years, Sasakamoose and his brother Frank were taken from their home and sent to St. Michael’s Indian Residential School. They didn’t see their parents for the next two years.
“It was just an honor for me to be around him,” Leach said. “Every time I would see him, it made my heart happy.”
Over the years, the two would often see one another and socialize at youth workshops and tournaments such as the Little NHL (LNHL) or the Fred Sasakamoose “Chief Thunderstruck” National Championship for young indigenous players in Saskatchewan. Among the many paying tribute to Sasakamoose was Brigette Lacquette, who was the first First Nations player on Canada’s Women’s hockey team. Lacquette, who played on the 2018 Team Canada team which captures silver wrote on twitter,
“RIP to my buddy Freddy Sasakamoose. 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 Chicago Blackhawks organization, who honored Sasakamoose back in 2002, sent a written tribute on their website which read,
“That lasting impact of his legacy will forever be celebrated and continue to bring people together for generations to come. To the entire Sasakamoose family that includes his wife, Loretta, four children and over 100 grandchildren and great grandchildren, the Chicago Blackhawks organization extends our deepest condolences.”
Back in 2014, the Edmonton Oilers, during their Celebration of First Nations Hockey also honored Sasakamoose. After retiring from hockey in 1961, Sasakamoose went back to Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation where he became a band councilor and chief as he showed that strong passion in dedicating himself to encouraging youth through sports involvement. In what has been a fascinating life dedicated to being a role model and helping the Indigenous youth, Sasakamoose, received many deserved honors including becoming inducted into the Saskatchewan First Nations Sports Hall of Fame, Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame, Saskatchewan Hockey Hall of Fame, Prince Albert Hall of Fame, Canadian Native Hockey Hall of Fame and a Member of the Order of Canada.
Sasakamoose’s book, “Call Me Indian,” is due to be coming out in April.