Indigenous NHL pioneer Sasakamoose dies at 86


Sasakamoose, who lived on the Ahathkakoop Cree Nation reserve in Saskatchewan, was tested for COVID-19 on November 19 and the test came back positive two days later, according to his son, Neil Sasakamoose.He was given intravenous antibiotics and was placed on oxygen, but his lungs could not recover, his son said.

“This COVID virus did so much damage to his lungs, he just couldn’t keep responding, his body just couldn’t keep up,” Neil said in a video posted to Facebook. “When I spoke to him, I asked him how he was feeling, if he was afraid. He said: ‘I’m not scared I’m ready to go, if I have to go, I’ll go.’ I said, “You know what, daddy? If you’re tired, go for it. Go ahead and don’t worry about us here. “”

Family, friends and the hockey world mourned the loss of a man who overcame Canada’s abusive residential school system to become the first Indigenous player to receive treaty status in the NHL.

Sasakamoose went scoreless in 11 games for the Black Hawks in 1953-54.

“Only 125 hockey players and six teams, and I was one of them,” he told Global News in 2018.

His NHL career was brief, but he paved the way for players and coaches of Indigenous descent, including Prix ​​Carey, Jordin Tootoo, Bryan Trottier, Reggie Leach, George Armstrong, Ted Nolan, Craig Berube, Sheldon Souray, Gino Odjick et Theo Fleury.

Trottier, a Hockey Hall of Fame center who scored 1,425 points (524 goals, 901 assists) for the New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins and who won six Stanley Cup championships, said Sasakamoose ” from a pioneer, someone watched with First Nations blood who was a director, broke the barriers.

“He didn’t realize how inspiring he was, which makes him a humble man who to me looks a lot like Jean Béliveau and Gordie Howe and all those guys we hold in such high regard. ”

Leach, who scored 666 points (381 goals, 285 assists) in 934 games with the Boston Bruins, California Golden Seals, Philadelphia Flyers and Detroit Red Wings and won the Conn Smythe Trophy as a player most valuable of the 1976 Stanley Cup playoffs, said he didn’t know Sasakamoose until he was 16 and played junior hockey in Flin Flon, Man.

When he said he learned that Sasakamoose was a First Nation, he was instilled with pride.

“He was one of the players that we wanted to be like him and play in the National Hockey League,” Leach said. “He achieved his goal and it was a great achievement back then in the 1950s, being a First Nations member and playing in the NHL. If you think about it, it’s amazing what he had to go through and what he went through going to residential school. and to accomplish what he did is just amazing. ”

Sasakamoose made his NHL debut on Nov. 20 against the Boston Bruins and played against the Toronto Maple Leafs two days later. He was then sent off to the juniors, but was informed the night of his last game with Moose Jaw of the Western Canada Junior Hockey League that the Black Hawks wanted him to show up in Toronto for a game against the Maple Leafs February 27, 1954..

“This night. I was on that train, ”he told the Edmonton Sun in March 2014.“ I’m going to Toronto. I will play. Three days in a train. I don’t know how the word got out as quickly as there was. an Indian is going to play.

“I was warming up on the ice. And someone skated towards me and said, ‘Someone wants to talk to you over there.’ I had never seen (the broadcaster) Foster Hewitt in my life. He was just on the radio. He said, “How do you pronounce your name? “… It was great news. It was a big deal. I was an Indian with an Indian on my sweater. ”

Sasakamoose went to training camp with the Black Hawks in 1954 but was sent to the miners. He played minor and senior hockey until his retirement in 1960.

After his playing career ended, Sasakamoose returned home to the Ahathkakoop First Nation to help give others the same kinds of opportunities he received. He worked to build and develop minor hockey and other sports in the community. Tournaments, leagues and sports days followed as a result of these initiatives, as well as the Saskatchewan Indian Summer and Winter Games. Sasakamoose has also served on the NHL Diversity Task Force, as well as the Aboriginal Healing Foundation.

Sasakamoose had a long and difficult road to the NHL which included being taken from his family’s home and sent to St. Michael’s Indian Residential School in Duck Lake, Saskatchewan. The school was part of a government-sponsored religious education system designed to assimilate the country’s indigenous children. Schools that started in the 1880s and closed in 1996 were rife with abuse.

But Sasakamoose never gave up on his language, his cultural beliefs or his way of life. He testified before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada in 2012 about his experiences at residential school.

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 puck drop ceremony before a game. against the New York Rangers. In 2017, Sasakamoose was invested into the Order of Canada, an honor that recognizes Canadian citizens for their outstanding achievement, dedication to the community, or service to the nation.

Sasakamoose’s death comes a week after completing the final edits to his memoir. “Call Me Indian: From Residential School Trauma to Becoming the First Aboriginal NHL Treaty Player” is scheduled for release on April 6, 2021.

“At least his story is documented and now it’s over,” his son said.


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