Fred Sasakamoose was honored by the Edmonton Oilers for being the first aboriginal hockey player to be drafted into the NHL. On March 30, Sasakamoose, along with other hockey greats (Willie Littlechild and Ted Hodgson) dropped the puck at Rexall Palace during the Oliers matchup against the New York Rangers.
Sasakamoose, now 80, was drafted at 19 years old to play for the Chicago Blackhawks at a time when there were only six NHL teams.
His road in life wasn’t easy.
At six years old, Sasakamoose was taken away from his parents to live at the Duck Lake residential school. “That summer I was picked up by the priests, and I could see my mother was crying,” he told CBC. “They were called ‘unfit parents,’ but that wasn’t the case. My mother never drank, my father never drank. He was a logger, mother stayed home, looked after us.”
Sasakamoose told CBC News that growing up, his grandfather would tie bob skates onto his moccasins and “He would go up cut a willow and make a hockey stick out of it and he would shave it off in a blade … my puck was horse manure.”
Before he got his first pair of skates, he’d borrow the “bigger kids’” skates at the residential school to get more time on the ice in exchange for giving them an apple or orange. He finally got his first pair of stakes at 10 years old.
In 1949, when Sasakamoose left the residential school, he immediately went to junior hockey training camp in Moose Jaw; an opportunity he initially did not want to pursue. He was homesick and did not feel welcome at the camp because he was the only Native kid. “I sat in the corner… I was ashamed to be an Indian – nobody talked to me.”
But after going through an initially hellish situation, his dream was still in tact – he wanted to play in the NHL.
“My dream was different,” he told the Edmonton Sun. “When I was 18 years old, I knew I was just as good as the guy who was sitting next to me … and I was down the middle at centre ice and I was a red man.”
But in his final year of junior hockey, his team lost in the post-season and Sasakamoose thought his hockey career was over. “After four years of playing junior hockey with these 20 kids, every one of them who had a dream to be an NHLer, I was just sitting there thinking that I was going home,” Sasakamoose said.
Sitting in the Moose Jaw Canucks dressing room after the game, his coach, George Vogan, told the team that he had an announcement to make. “George opened a telegram. And he said ‘Fred Sasakamoose. Please report immediately to the Chicago Blackhawks to play in the NHL in Toronto on Hockey Night In Canada,’” Sasakamoose told the Sun.
“The room just went still. It was unreal,” Sasakamoose said. ”And it just hits you. Your ceiling. You’ve touched it. And the kids who were sitting beside me … the room just went still. I was thinking ‘Why me? Why me?’”
But why not, Sasakamoose?
“It was a perfect journey. Perfect,” Sasakamoose told the Sun. “I’m glad I came here. My life is getting smaller. And it’s getting weaker. I want our young people today to know what we went through. To unload it I wanted to walk from residential school to Saskatoon. I wanted to share the moments to no longer suffer.”