'A First Nation pioneer': Indigenous hockey trailblazer Fred Sasakamoose remembered
REGINA -- A funeral for Indigenous hockey icon Fred Sasakamoose was held on Saturday at the Fred Sasakamoose Community Arena, which he helped build almost 50 years ago.
A handful of speakers paid tribute to Sasakamoose at his funeral, including his son, Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) Chief Bobby Cameron and a community elder.
“This is a man who was a First Nation pioneer for NHL hockey players,” Cameron said.
Sasakamoose was the first Indigenous Canadian player to play in the NHL, however, his achievements extend far beyond what he accomplished on the ice.
Following his playing career, Sasakamoose became a band councillor and eventual chief of Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation. He also developed sports programs for Indigenous children, most notably the annual Fred Sasakamoose Chief Thunderstick National Hockey Championship in Saskatoon.
Sasakamoose is a member of the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame and was named to the Order of Canada in 2018.
Those who knew him say none of those achievements compared to the family he built.
“He said time and time again ‘my biggest accomplishment, my biggest reward, is my family,’” Cameron said.
The funeral included messages from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Perry Bellegarde and multiple NHL players.
“In every generation there are people who fight for what is right, who break down barriers and who pave the way for others. Fred Sasakamoose was one of those people,” Trudeau said, in a video submitted for use at the funeral. “He was a survivor, a trailblazer and a leader.”
Fred’s son Neil Sasakamoose asked those listening to wear a mask and take COVID-19 seriously.
"We have to respect this virus. We have to take it serious. It's not long till it'll be gone, but we have to be careful,” Neil said.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, only 30 people were allowed to attend the funeral in person. Hundreds of others watched an online livestream of the ceremony.
“If [COVID-19] wasn’t here, we would have needed a couple of rinks to hold Freddy’s funeral and service,” Larry Ahenakew, chief of Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation, said during his remarks at the funeral.
Sasakamoose grew up on the Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation near Prince Albert and learned to play hockey while attending a residential school in Duck Lake.
In 1953, he was named the most valuable player in the Western Canada Junior Hockey League. Sasakamoose made his NHL debut on February 27, 1954, playing for the Chicago Blackhawks. He suited up for 11 games with the team that season.
Sasakamoose died in hospital on Nov. 24 after testing positive for COVID-19. He was 86 years old.