While the passing of Argentine football legend Diego Maradona dominates international headlines, we also, sadly, lost another great athlete this week. Although he may have had less of an impact on the world of international sport, Frederick Sasakamoose broke barriers and made history as one of the first indigenous Canadians to play in the National Hockey League.
Sasakamoose died Tuesday in Prince Albert, British Columbia, after contracting covid-19. He was 86.
His son, Neil Sasakamoose, in a heart-breaking video posted on social media, described his father’s last days. “This COVID virus just did so much damage into his lungs, he just couldn’t keep responding, his body just couldn’t keep up […] When I talked to him, I asked him how he was feeling, if he was scared. He said, ‘I’m not scared, I’m ready to go, if I got to go, I’m going to go.’”
Sasakamoose was born on Christmas day, 1933, in central Saskatchewan. One of 11 children, only five of his siblings survived childhood. He was forcibly taken from his family and placed in a residential school as a child. According to the Toronto Star, in 2012 Sasakamoose testified in a Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing that: “he had been sexually abused by other students and recalled being whipped and having coal oil poured over his head.”
Sasakamoose made his professional debut with the Chicago Blackhawks at age 18, on November 20th, 1953, going on to play 11 NHL games during 1953-54.
During the 1950s Sasakamoose also played for the Moose Jaw Canucks in the Western Canada Junior Hockey League, Chicoutimi in the Quebec Hockey League, and New Westminster and later Calgary in the Western Hockey League.
Following his professional career, Sasakamoose returned to Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation north of Saskatoon. He became a band councillor and eventually Chief, while working to develop and promote minor hockey and athletics in general across Saskatchewan.
According to the Toronto Star, in 2017 Sasakamoose was named to the Order of Canada. Earlier this year he was given an honorary doctorate of law by the University of Saskatchewan.
Sasakamoose died one week after completing his memoir, Call Me Indian: From the Trauma of Residential School to Becoming the NHL’s First Treaty Indigenous Player. The book is scheduled to be released on April 6th, 2021.