When Fred Sasakamoose was a child, he was taken from his home on Ahtahkakoop First Nation which is also known as Sandy Lake First Nation to St. Michael’s Residential School in Duck Lake, Saskatchewan. Like many Indigenous children who were sent to a residential school, Sasakamoose endured abuse. In his book Call Me Indian, Sasakamoose details the atrocious conditions in which all the children of the residential school endured. He talks about how little the children were actually taught and how they were used as free labour. They were abused; which is detailed in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission reports. While Sasakamoose does not go into detail about the actual abuse endured at the school, he does not make it hard to imagine what children at the school were going through.
Sasakamoose found refuge in two places: with a family member who lived close by and could take him and his siblings on the weekend for a visit and in hockey. The connection between residential schools and hockey is an interesting one. It was first brought to light in the book Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese which later became a movie by the same name. Indian Horse is loosely based off of Sasakamoose’s life as Wagamese new friends of Sasakamoose in Kamloops.
Hockey was a key part of Sasakamoose enduring and eventually thriving in life. It started at St. Michael’s where the priests were Montreal Canadians fans. Father Georges Roussel started a hockey team and Sasakamoose eventually earned the right to play on the team when he was old enough. Through hard work and training, along with natural skill, Sasakamoose and the St. Michael’s team became a force in Saskatchewan. This allowed them to travel and experience places that were not their isolated school.
A major underlying factor in the entire book is Sasakamoose’s discomfort in the world he is in. After three years with the Canadians, he is called up by the Chicago Black Hawks, the team he signed a C-Form with. A C-Form commits a player’s professional rights to the team he signs with and this is where the discomfort really starts for Sasakamoose. See, Sasakamoose has been away from home since he was seven. He agreed to play in Moose Jaw because his parents, especially his mother, saw hockey as a way to a better life.
Most people have probably heard Sasakamoose’s NHL story to a degree. Called up from junior to a bad Black Hawks team where he played out the rest of the season. He never played another NHL game after that due to a mix of circumstances. First, he went home after he played in the NHL and did not train that first summer and then his search for home drove him out west instead of to the AHL team in Buffalo. The underlying tension in most of the book is Sasakamoose playing hockey because it is all that he knows how to do and it is what others want him to do. When Sasakamoose decides to just up and leave the team he is with and go back to Sandy Lake where he has a wife and a child, he finally sounds to be at peace outside of the minor detail: St. Michael’s never taught him anything useful outside of hard work which he could have learned anywhere. Sasakamoose continued playing hockey for years after he left his NHL dream, but something happened along the way: he started helping others discover hockey as well.
Sasakamoose writes mostly of a feeling of not belonging, displacement, and isolation. He did not always deal with overt racism, but it was always there in how he was (and was not) included. It was there in how he interacted with people he just met. As was the need to go home or be closer to home. He survived residential school and then he listened to others and continued trying to make it as a professional hockey player instead of listening to his heart and going home. Home. The place he was taken from at age seven and he only truly returned to as an adult.
Fred Sasakamoose’s story is one of many from residential school survivors who detail how hockey helped them survive their experience. The fact Sasakamoose made the NHL does not change the fact that as a child, hockey became a refuge for him when he was in a place where abuse was rampant and children were not allowed to go home. Sasakamoose used hockey and other sports to help people heal and find ways to keep busy and safe while living on a reserve. He saw sport as a helping hand to give people something to live for.
Sasakamoose’s legacy in the surface is the first Treaty Indigenous player in the NHL. His actual legacy is much more full than that. His legacy involves being a visible success story despite all that he went through. His legacy includes helping secure addiction help for people on his reserve including personally building a little cabin for unhoused people to stay for a night or two when needed. His legacy includes sports, especially hockey, on Ahtahkakoop First Nation. His legacy includes showing other Indigenous players that playing in the NHL was possible. Sasakamoose was the first, but he is not the last. The success of Indigenous players, both male and female, despite what was done to them, only makes their success more improbable. Sasakamoose left the NHL because he wanted to be closer to home and eventually return home. He never left hockey and continued to work to make it more accessible to Indigenous people his whole life. Sasakamoose was the NHL’s first Treaty Indigenous player. He became an Indigenous leader and someone who used his place in his community to drive positive change and help people who needed it. Sasakamoose died in 2020, but his work and legacy lives on especially in Northern Saskatchewan where the hockey programs he helped start continue to thrive.