Mr. Fred Sasakamoose was an honoured guest at the ground-breaking ceremony for Merlis Belsher Place, where he provided a blessing and inspirational message.

Sasakamoose remembered as a role model who made hockey history

Hockey trailblazer and inspirational community leader Fred Sasakamoose passed away Tuesday afternoon in Saskatoon at the age of 86.

A residential school survivor and the first Indigenous player from Saskatchewan to make it to the National Hockey League, Sasakamoose has been a role model and a passionate supporter of providing opportunities for youth to play sports. Sasakamoose was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Laws by the University of Saskatchewan on Nov. 10.

Born on Christmas Day in 1933, Sasakamoose grew up in a log house in Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation north of Prince Albert, skating on an outdoor pond using a willow stick and frozen horse manure for a puck. He would later go on to play 11 games in the NHL, helping break barriers and opening the door for Indigenous hockey players.

Sasakamoose was inducted into the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame in 2007 and became a member of the Order of Canada in 2018, and has received commendations from the Hockey Hall of Fame, the Assembly of First Nations, and the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations. He served as chief and spent 30 years as a band councillor for the Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation, and served as an Elder who taught youth to hunt, fish and trap, and counselled about drug and alcohol addiction.

At the age of six, Sasakamoose was one of the 359 children from the reserve taken from their parents and sent to residential schools. He recently testified for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada about the abuse that he suffered there. One escape for Sasakamoose was hockey, with skills that would take him all the way to the NHL.

Named the most valuable player in Western Canada while playing in Moose Jaw in 1954, Sasakamoose signed his first NHL contract with the Chicago Blackhawks—for the modest sum of $6,000—and was called up for his NHL debut on Feb. 27, 1954 on Hockey Night in Canada at Maple Leaf Gardens, after a two-day train ride to Toronto. Sasakamoose would go on to play six seasons of professional hockey, but longed to return home to his family and retired in 1960 and became a community leader for Ahtahkakoop.

A passionate advocate for creating opportunities for Indigenous youth to play sports, Sasakamoose spent 60 years establishing hockey programs, leagues and camps. He joined the USask community as an honoured guest at the ground-breaking ceremony for Merlis Belsher Place, where he provided a blessing for the arena and an inspirational message that generations to come will benefit from the facility. In 2018, Sasakamoose was recognized by the College of Kinesiology as one of nine Indigenous athletes inducted into the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame who were honoured in an interactive display in the Physical Activity Complex.

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