by Kelly Many Guns
His favourite memories of playing hockey was not during his days as a professional or a junior hockey player, not at all. Rather, it was of his times heading to the lake with his grandpa and playing with his makeshift hockey stick and horse manure as his puck.
Fred “Chief Running Deer” Sasakamoose, 83-years young and born on the Ahtahkakoop First Nation in Saskatchewan, became the first Indian to play in the National Hockey League (NHL) in 1954. Sasakamoose had just finished playing a game with his team the Moose Jaw Canucks, when he got the call and travelled to suit-up with the Blackhawks to play at the Toronto Maple Leaf Gardens on the night of February 27, 1954. He would spend another year with the Blackhawks before spending many years with other professional teams, and the minor leagues.
Sasakamoose’s story is so intriguing that a movie about his life is in discussion. As of yet, he has made no definite decision to go through with it, but he will be meeting with movie directors and producers, or as he would put it, “people with them camera’s.” This is planned for mid-March when he travels to Montreal. But first, he wants to attend the opening of the ‘Little Native Hockey League 2017’ in Mississauga, Ontario, where he and other native hockey greats like, Ted Nolan, Reggie Leach, Gino Odjick, Johnathan Cheechoo, and many more will be there to salute the young hockey players of the future.
Before I get into his illustrious career, let’s get back to the story of Sasakamoose’s favourite hockey memory he shared with First Nations Drum.
“The best memory was the beginning of my life – learning to play hockey with my grandpa. We’d walk down to the lake with my toboggan, and he’d put box skates on me. He’d then dig a hole in the ice and fish while I skated around with my hockey stick, shooting around a horse manure puck,” Sasakamoose recalls. “My grandpa would cut off a willow branch to carve out a hockey stick. I cannot imagine beginning my life without my grandpa, he was the start of my life.”
Sasakamoose says he spent 10 years in a residential school. At the age of six-years-old, the Department of Indian Affairs took him and his eight-year-old brother from his parents.
“I remember a big truck pulling in front of our house and they took me and my brother in the back, which was filled with about 30 other kids who were all crying,” he said. “There really was nothing my parents could do, and I remember my grandfather yelling and trying to grab me, but he was not a big man and was pushed away by the two big men.”
His parents, Roderick and Sugil Sasakamoose, like thousands of Indian parents across the country, were forced to give up their children to the residential school. This was an order by the Canadian government, and if they refused, they were sent to jail.
Sasakamoose would spend the next 10 years, as he would put it, “it was like a jail system,” at the St. Micheal’s Indian Residential School at Duck Lake. Soon after arriving to the school, the priest then proceeded to cut off his and all the other children’s braids, and years of abuse ensued. Sasakamoose said it was inhuman what he went through, but that if there is something positive to talk about, he became a strong, young man by the age of 12 because of the heavy chores he did all those years.
“They could not break me, even sexual abuse, being beaten by the nuns and priests; I did learn a hard work ethic with doing chores every day and working in the barns. By the age of 12, I was a pretty strong little man, and not a bad hockey player, too.”
He would play hockey with the other boys at residential school with a 3-inch hockey blade stick. He thinks that’s how he became a good hockey player, because when he played with a regular sized hockey stick it was so much easier, and everything felt natural about hockey.
In 1953, he was selected as the most valuable player in the Western Canada Junior Hockey League when he played for the Moose Jaw Canucks. Sasakamoose said that when he was a kid, like many boys across the country, all he remembers was listening to Hockey Night in Canada on the radio and dreaming of playing in the NHL.
“You know, turning on the radio was like turning on the TV today, it was that good listening to Hockey Night in Canada every Saturday. We all got excited listening to the radio, and seeing the players though our imagination by listening to the announcers on the radio. We all wanted to be there one day, and for me, I knew it would happen!”
Sasakamoose said the game was played differently back then. “We had less equipment, no helmets, and we respected each other as players, that’s why we didn’t have too many injuries. You still had the tough guys making themselves known on the ice, but generally, it was a great game.”
He said playing with the Chicago Blackhawks got him $6000 a year, but the money has never been what was important. It was the game that he lived for.
“I asked Gordie Howe one time how much money he made, and he said, ‘Oh not that much,’ it was just that he really wanted to wear the Detroit Red Wings Jersey,” said Sasakamoose. “I agreed with Gordie, nothing beats wearing that Chicago Blackhawks jersey, no money could buy what it felt like skating into the Chicago Stadium with that jersey.”
Sasakamoose played against the best in hockey like Maurice Richard, Jean Beliveau, Tim Horton, and Gordie Howe. During his playing days, it was the ‘original six’ era of the NHL with: Boston Bruins, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs, and the Blackhawks. He once told the Globe and Mail that when he played in the NHL, there were only 125 players allowed in the league.
“At the time, there were 125 players on six teams, and I was one of them,” Sasakamoose says. “I succeeded to the highest level you could achieve. I played against the best in the game, perhaps the best that ever played. It is unbelievable when you face off against Rocket Richard. His eyes looked at you like a tiger.”
After retiring from hockey, he became a band councillor on his home reserve, and later chief for six years. He has also been extensively involved in the development of sports programs for aboriginal children. In 2002, he was honoured by the Blackhawks organization.
Adam Rogowin, the Chicago Blackhawks senior executive director for communications, says that they’re proud to call Fred a member of the Chicago Blackhawks alumni group.
“He’s another example of a former Blackhawks player that has made so many positive contributions both on-and-off the ice.”
Sasakamoose is so well respected, even the ‘great one,’ Wayne Gretzky talked about him in his book ‘99’ on how Sasakamoose has influenced hockey. Sasakamoose was inducted into the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame in the builder’s category. He was also a founding member of the Northern Indian Hockey League.
Today, he still lives a healthy life, walking an hour each morning and doing his weightlifting. He says he loves life, and if there were a movie made of his story, he’d like money made to go to the health of his community for causes like drug addiction and HIV prevention centres.