A shout-out to the podcast Minute Women. If you grew up in the 1990s in Canada, then you likely saw plenty of Heritage Minutes. The Heritage Minutes touted parts of our heritage, and themselves, became a part of our cultural heritage. Well, this podcast, hosted by Grace and Linnea, they look at the untold stories behind the Canadian Heritage Minutes to uncover the funny, weird and terrifying stories from Canada’s history. You can find their podcast on major podcast platforms, and you can follow them on Instagram @minutewomenpodcast
For centuries, the Indigenous people played lacrosse, something I covered in an episode of the podcast from May. While the game of hockey evolved over time and has many origins in both Europe and North America, it is impossible to deny the influence of the Indigenous game of lacrosse. With that Indigenous influence on our National Winter Sport, it may be surprising that it took until 1954 for an Indigenous player with treaty status to reach the NHL, almost 50 years after the league formed.
That player was Frank Sasakamoose and today on the podcast, I am looking at his life.
Before I go into his life, you may notice I said the first Indigenous player with treaty status in the NHL. While Sasakamoose was the first First Nations player with treaty status to reach the NHL, the first Indigenous hockey player to reach the NHL was Henry Maracle, who was born in Ontario and a member of the Mohawk tribe. He would play 11 games for the New York Rangers in March of 1931, recording four points. He would play in various leagues from 1931 to 1944, before choosing to retire. He would go on to work for a produce company in Texas, where he died in 1958. Another possible first Indigenous player was Paul Jacobs, who played one game for the Toronto Arenas during the 1918-19 season. Jacobs was born in Montreal and had played hockey through various leagues during the 1910s. He would be invited to the Arenas training camp in December 1918 and may have earned an opening-day roster spot but the Toronto Globe reported he was returning to the Montreal area instead. While Jacobs is recorded in referee reports for five games from Dec. 31 to Feb. 4, the newspaper reports do not list him. So it is unclear for sure if he played any games.
While Sasakamoose may not have been the first, he is by far the most well-known among the tree and we are going to focus on his career and accomplishments both on and off the ice.
Sasakamoose was born on Christmas Day in 1933 on the Ahtahkakoop Reserve in Saskatchewan. As a child, he learned to skate on a frozen slough using a willow branch shaped with an axe as a stick and frozen horse manure as a puck.
When he was six, a truck pulled up to his home. A priest, RCMP officer and Indian agent got out and despite his mother caring deeply for her children, and his father working as a logger, they were deemed unfit parents because they were poor. Sasakamoose was taken away from his mother as she cried, along with his nine-year-old brother, to attend a residential school. He would not see or speak to his parents again for two years.
It was at this residential school near Duck Lake in 1944, he would first be noticed for his hockey skills by a priest who was the sports director of the residential school Sasakamoose was attending. The priest, which was characteristic of the harsh nature of the residential schooling program, pushed Sasakamoose to improve his skill.
Sasakamoose would say later say that the priests who ran the residential school were from Quebec and loved hockey and they were extremely harsh when teaching hockey. He would say, “the priests never talked twice. The second time, you got the strap.”
His life at the residential school was not pleasant. He would say in an interview in 2014, “In residential school we lived in fear. That’s why we didn’t learn anything. We suffered from the education that we should have got. We were labourers. We milked 60 cows. Your school came secondary and I suffered a lot of abuse.”
In 1949, the Duck Lake Ducks would win the provincial midget championship with Sasakamoose. That same year, he would finally return home to his parents. While working in the field with his parents in the summer, he would spot Father George Roussel, who was from the residential school, along with another man. Sasakamoose and his brother hid nearby fearing they were going to be taken back to the residential school. Instead, the man with Father Roussel asked Sasakamoose’s parents if their son could attend hockey training camp in Moose Jaw. That man was George Vogan, the coach of the team.
In 1950, he would begin playing for the Moose Jaw Canucks of the WCJHL, staying with the team for three years and living with Vogan and his wife. At first, he didn’t think he was going to make the team. He would say later, “130 kids at training camp. 130 all white. I was shamed, shamed at being Indian. I could never change it. At the end of the two week training camp, he packed up his belongings and began the 300 kilometre walk back home. Almost nine hours into his walk, Vogan pulled up beside him in his car. He then took Sasakamoose for a meal and told him he was making the team. In 1953, Sasakamoose would be named the most valuable player for the Western Canada Junior Hockey League, when he scored 31 goals in 34 games.
In the ceremony to honour him, Sasakamoose was presented with a peace pipe and head dress.
During his time in the WCJHL, he would play in 130 games, recording 75 goals and 147 points.
One year later, he would make his debut in the NHL with the Chicago Black Hawks on Feb. 27, 1954.
He had just come off the ice and entered the dressing room when his coach, George Vogan, opened a telegram and said he had an announcement to make. Vogan opened the telegram and said “Fred Sasakamoose. Please report immediately to the Chicago Black Hawks to play in the NHL in Toronto on Hockey Night in Canada.”
According to Sasakamoose, the room went still and then his teammates exploded in happiness for him. Then two women came in with two suitcases filled with new clothes and told Sasakamoose he had to look like a professional, presenting him with a new suit and overcoat. Sasakamoose would spend three days on the train to get to Toronto. Once there, he was warming up on the ice when he was told someone wanted to talk to him. That person was legendary broadcaster Foster Hewitt who asked him if his last name was pronounced Saskatchewanmoose or Saskatoonmoose.
He would say later, “you step on that ice. You could hear drums, just like that. Big Chicago stadium, three balconies, like that.”
Over the course of his time with the Black Hawks, he would play 11 games, recording six penalty minutes.
That would be his only time in the NHL, but he had cemented himself in the history of hockey by becoming the first Canadian-born Indigenous hockey player to play in the National Hockey League. He would sign a C-Form contract that gave him $6,000 if he played for the Black Hawks the next season, $3,500 if he went to the American Hockey League and $3,000 if he played for a lesser farm team. He would use the money to buy a new car, fill the empty cupboards at his parent’s house, buy his father a buggy and team of horses and a silk cloth for his mother to sew a new dress.
In 1954-55, he would play in the QHL, recording eight points in 22 games, and 21 games in the WHL with the New Westminster Royals recording 11 points. In 1955-56, he played two games in the WHL for the Calgary Stampeders.
In 1955, he would marry Loretta Isbister and then play for the Kamloops Chiefs in the Okanagan Senior Hockey League from 1956 to 1958 and in 1959-60. He would then finish out his hockey career with the North Battleford Beavers in 1960-61.
Sasakamoose eventually become a band councilor on his home reserve for 35 years, and chief from 1980 to 1984. During this time, he began to heal from the trauma of the residential school experience and he would learn to speak Cree again, something that was not allowed in the school. He also became heavily involved in the development of sports programs for Indigenous children. Using his fame as an Indigenous hockey player, he would promote opportunities for youth in sports such as hockey, long-distance running, track and field, soccer and basketball. Sasakamoose also promoted living a positive lifestyle and the importance of volunteering.
In 2002, the Blackhawks would honour him at a home game and in 2007, he was inducted into the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame. He would be inducted into the Prince Albert Sports Hall of Fame, the Meadow Lake Wall of Fame, the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations Circle of Honour and the Canadian Native Hockey Hall of Fame. A founding member of the Northern Indian Hockey League in 1962, he would be made a member of the Order of Canada in 2018.
In his Order of Canada citation, it says:
“Frederick Sasakamoose’s determination and resilience are inspirational. By making it to the NHL in the early 1950s, he cemented his status as an indigenous role model for many aspiring hockey players. He developed minor hockey and other sports programs for youth, initially at the local level and then through an initiative that later expanded across Saskatchewan. In talking openly about his achievements as well as his struggles, he has become a trusted mentor and a sought-after speaker who promotes healthy life choices to a broad audience.”
He also had the opportunity drop the opening faceoff puck between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Edmonton Oilers in 2018. I was actually at that game and it was cool to be part of that history.
Today, there are roughly a dozen Indigenous players in the NHL including Carey Price, TJ Oshie and Ethan Bear. As for Sasakamoose, he still lives on his home reserve with his wife, surrounded by his family.
Information comes from The Canadian Encyclopedia, The Edmonton Sun, Wikipedia, HockeyDB, Legends of Hockey, Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame, Timmins Press, WBUR.org, EdmontonOilers.com, CBC, Global News, University of Regina,