Hours after Fred Sasakamoose was officially appointed to the Order of Canada, the National Hockey League’s first Indigenous player was honoured at a special ceremony in Edmonton on Friday.
Sasakamoose, who played 11 games with the Chicago Blackhawks in the 1953-1954 season, had his Order of Canada honour celebrated by the Edmonton Oilers and Chicago Blackhawks before the two teams faced off against one another Friday night.
Sasakamoose, a residential school survivor who was born in Whitefish Lake, Sask. (now Big River First Nation) just turned 84 on Christmas Day. He smiled widely while speaking to reporters in front of the Oilers dressing room, expressing his gratitude for being named a member of the Order of Canada.
“I was just amazed to get this kind of recognition for my life and I think it made me truly a Canadian to receive this award,” he said. “[There are] people, out there in the communities that helped me out so much in the white society… I had always figured the world was not made for me [on] the outside, it was only in the reservation where I belong but I was wrong.
“It’s a great thing for my native people.”
On Feb. 27, 1954, Sasakamoose made hockey history when he laced up his skates in Maple Leaf Gardens for his NHL debut with the Blackhawks. The team called him up from the Moose Jaw Canucks and he then took a three-day train ride from Moose Jaw to Toronto for the game.
After his run with the Blackhawks, Sasakamoose said he opted to leave the game but doesn’t regret it.
“I had to make a choice and the choice that I made… at that time [was]: ‘I want to go back home. I want to go back to my wife,'” he said. “The choice that I made was a good choice.”
Since his hockey playing days came to an end, Sasakamoose has devoted time to working with Indigenous youth and trying to help improve his community through sports.
According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, Sasakamoose grew up in a in a tiny log house, 72 kilometres northwest of Prince Albert, Sask.
His grandfather taught Sasakamoose how to skate when he was six. While his grandfather couldn’t talk or hear, he could see, and he would put three pairs of socks on Sasakamoose’s feet, then moccasins and strap on a pair of bob skates.
At the age of seven, he and his older brother were taken away from their family to attend St. Michael’s Indian Residential School in Duck Lake, Sask.
When Sasakamoose was 10, a priest visiting the school encouraged him to develop his hockey skills. A few years later, the school’s team went on to win a provincial midget championship.
“[I] spent 10 years in residential school and my gosh, the priest came along and said, ‘Some day I’m going to make a champion out of you Freddy,’ and he was right.
“From there I never looked back.”
Sasakamoose and his wife Loretta have nine children and several grandchildren.
Saskamoose has been inducted into the Saskatchewan First Nations Sports Hall of Fame, the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame, the Saskatchewan Hockey Hall of Fame, the Prince Albert Hall of Fame and the Canadian Native Hockey Hall of Fame. In 2011, he received a National Aboriginal Achievement Award and has been the recipient of a number of other prestigious honours over the years.
Just before the game, Sasakamoose dropped the puck for a ceremonial faceoof between Oilers’ captain Connor McDavid and Blackhawks’ captain Jonathan Toews.
Watch below: Some Global News videos featuring Fred Sasakamoose.
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