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Fred Sasakamoose: A Triumph of Courage and Grace

The first Treaty Indigenous player in NHL history died Tuesday of complications of COVID-19 at the age of 86. But the rink was not the only place Fred Sasakamoose left his mark.
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From the moment Fred Sasakamoose arrived at the Victoria Union Hospital in Prince Albert last Friday with a suspected case of COVID-19, he was adamant about how he wanted to be treated if things went badly. There would be no ventilators, no resuscitation. With his 87th birthday looming on Christmas Day, he was strong, both physically and in his beliefs, and he was either leaving the hospital on his own or not at all.

“He said, ‘If I don’t walk out of here, I don’t want to be cared for, I don’t want to be looked after,” said his son Neil Sasakamoose. “ ‘I don’t want to suffer and I don’t want to be in a corner just prolonging my pain.’ He said, ‘I’m 86 years old and I’ve lived a full life.’ ”

As Sasakamoose’s condition deteriorated after receiving a positive diagnosis on the weekend, the family was told to prepare for the worst. And when Neil spoke to his father on the phone Tuesday afternoon, he knew the end was near. “He just told me, ‘I’m ready to go,’ ” Neil said. “I asked him if there were people around him. In the Plains Cree culture, when you’re passing people will come to get you. He said, ‘Yes, there are people in my room and there are people who are stopping by. I can see them in the window when I look outside.’ I said, ‘Look, Dad, you go. Don’t worry about anything here. You go.’ ”

Fred Sasakamoose died one hour later. It should surprise no one that Fred Sasakamoose faced death with such courage and stoicism, because those were his hallmarks. Hockey fans would probably assume that Sasakamoose’s most significant accomplishment was becoming the first Treaty Indigenous player in history to play in the NHL when he appeared in 11 games for the Chicago Blackhawks in 1953-54.

Not even close. It was what Sasakamoose did after his playing days that made him such an icon. He returned to the Ahtahkakoop Indian Reserve in Northern Saskatchewan and became a valuable mentor and role model for his people. He overcame his addiction to alcohol in 1980 when he decided to run for chief of the Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation and had not had a drink since. He worked with the young people of Ahtahkakoop, training young native hockey players on the ice surface of the Fred Sasakamoose Rec Centre a couple of times a week. He was a respected Elder in his community and a senator in the First Nations system of governance. He and his wife raised nine children.

But Sasakamoose’s most stunning triumph and his most significant contribution to his people came in 2013 when he summoned all his resolve to speak candidly about the horrors he experienced at the St. Michael’s Indian Residential School in Duck Lake to the Canadian government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. At the age of 79, Sasakamoose told the commission how he and another boy were raped by an older student at the school and how he had coal oil poured over his head when he tried to escape. The residential boarding schools that were funded by the Canadian government and operated by Christian churches marked one of Canada’s darkest times in its history. Hundreds of thousands of Indigenous children were taken from their parents and placed in the schools with the aim of helping them assimilate. But it was actually cultural genocide. Unofficial estimates claim that up to 50,000 children died in residential schools, the last of which was closed in the 1980s. As Sasakamoose told his story, tears streamed down his face. But he said doing it also released an enormous amount of pain he had been carrying around with him and, more importantly, gave him the courage to forgive.

“You cry, you cry,” Sasakamoose told The Hockey News in 2014. “Give me my childhood back. I wanted my Mom and Dad. I wanted someone to hug me. And I never got that.”

He started playing on the outdoor pond at the reserve, where his grandfather would attach bob skates to his moccasins and cut down a willow to form a hockey stick. But it was at Duck Lake where Sasakamoose became a prodigious hockey player, often trading the dessert they got on the weekends in exchange for using a pair of skates for an hour. He got so good that in November of 1953, he was summoned to the Blackhawks from the Moose Jaw Canucks at the age of 19. But the combination of his personal demons and struggles with alcohol and extreme homesickness prevented him from fully exploiting his talents. He once said he could never reconcile playing pro hockey while his wife and children were back on the reserve with no electricity or running water.

“(One) day I was watching a show on (Native American) Jim Thorpe, the greatest athlete who ever lived,” Sasakamoose told THN. “Then I look at myself and say, ‘Where did I end up?’ The God-given talent I had was a waste, a failure to my people. I could have been better. I could have done better.”

Fred Sasakamoose did plenty fine. He played 11 games in the best league in the world when there were only 120 jobs available. He served his people with distinction and he blazed a trail for others to follow along. The day before Sasakamoose was admitted to hospital, the final edits were completed on Call Me Indian, his memoir that will be available in April. Less than a month ago, he received an honorary Doctor of Laws from the University of Saskatchewan. He was inducted into the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame in 2007 and was named to the Order of Canada in 2018.

A week before he died, the prairies received an early winter snowstorm and there is video of Fred Sasakamoose on his quad plowing snow. In his hospital room, he wanted to move the way he did at home, touching both sides of the wall in his room 100 times. “He didn’t want to lay down,” Neil Sasakamoose said. “He laid down at 2 o’clock (on Tuesday) and that was it. Fifteen minutes later, he was gone.”



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