Residential school survivor and hockey legend Fred Sasakamoose will drop the puck at the Edmonton Oilers versus New York Rangers game tonight.

The honour is being held to coincide with the end of the final national Truth and Reconciliation Commission event, which wraps up Sunday after four emotional days at the Shaw Conference Centre.

“The Edmonton Oilers have a special connection with our many fans and supporters throughout First Nations communities in Oil Country,” said Patrick LaForge, president and chief operating officer of the Oilers.

“In acknowledging this terrible chapter in our country’s history, we’re also proud to celebrate hockey as a beacon of light and hope for many First Nations people.”

A hockey stick made of willow

Sasakamoose was 19 years old when he was drafted to the Chicago Blackhawks, becoming the first aboriginal player to compete in the NHL.

At the time, there were only six teams and 125 players in the league.

However, his journey began many years earlier on the Ataakahkoop Indian Reserve in Saskatchewan.

Sasakamoose recalled how his grandfather would, “tie these bob skates, tie ‘em on my moccasins … He would go up cut a willow and make a hockey stick out of it and he would shave it off in a blade … my puck was horse manure.”

When he was six, Sasakamoose and his older brother were taken away to residential school in Duck Lake.  

“That summer I was picked up by the priests, and I could see my mother was crying. They were called ‘unfit parents,’ but that wasn’t the case. My mother never drank, my father never drank. He was a logger, mother stayed home, looked after us.”

It would be two years before Sasakamoose would see his parents again.

Trading fruit for ice time

Hockey was a sport of refuge for boys in residential school, and Sasakamoose excelled, doing anything he could to get more ice time.

“Every Sunday we’d have an apple, maybe an orange,” he recalls, saying he would trade the fruit with the “bigger kids” to borrow skates “for maybe an hour”.  

'I was ashamed to be an Indian – nobody talked to me.'- Fred Sasakamoose describes his experience arriving at hockey training camp in Moose Jaw, S.K.

“They [skates] were big, but you stuff them up in front.”  

When Fred turned 10, he finally got his first pair of skates. Three years later, he met Father Roussale –​ a hockey coach and priest from Montreal.  

“He said ‘Freddy, you’re going to hate my guts, I’m going to make you skate and I’m going to make you sweat,’ ... [at the] end of the year, he said ‘I’m going to make a champ out of you.’”  

In his last year of school, Sasakamoose’s team won the midget championship, but he was more excited about going home for good. “Oh boy I was happy,” he remembers.  

Path to the NHL

Shortly after Sasakamoose returned home in 1949, Father Roussale spoke with his parents about sending him to hockey training camp in Moose Jaw.

“That’s when I started crying,” he remembers. “I said ‘mom, I’m not going to leave you again' … [but she] wanted me to be somebody.”

Sasakamoose reluctantly agreed, moving in with George Bogon, the general manager of the Moose Jaw Canucks. He remembers being the only non-white kid at the training camp.

“I sat in the corner... I was ashamed to be an Indian nobody talked to me.”

After two weeks, Sasakamoose decided to return home, going so far as to pack his bag and start walking.

“I knew I was going north, but how far? A car pulled up, it was George [Bogon]. ‘Where were you going Freddy?’... I said ‘two weeks is here, I gotta go back home.’ He said ‘Freddy you’re going to make that team.’”

Four years later and in his final year of junior hockey, 19-year-old Sasakamoose’s team made it to post-season but lost in the playoffs.

“I still had that dream that i wanted to play in the big times,” he said, “and then we we got taken out in the playoffs in Moose Jaw. I walked into my room I knew that my career in hockey was over.”

Moments later, though, the team’s manager walked in with a telegraph in hand.

“Fred Sasakamoose, please report immediately to the Chicago Blackhawks. You’ll be playing in Toronto Maple Leaf Gardens Saturday in Hockey Night in Canada,” Sasakamoose recalls. “And then the room just went still. Quiet.”

“I looked at my teammates and kind of just shed a tear. And I said ‘why me?’”

  

A dream fulfilled

Speaking Sunday, Sasakamoose – who has been inspiring younger aboriginal players dreaming of the NHL for decades – said he still questions the great luck he had to reach his dream.

While he says being separated from his family was “very, very difficult,” he thinks the time he spent there taught him the determination that would eventually see him though to the NHL.

“Where I went to the residential school … it is bad enough, but I learned a great deal from the residential school discipline, behaviour,” he said. “But [there was] never a moment at the time that I thought that I could be able to spend time with the white kids. White society was never made for me. I was scared in 1949. All I knew was difficult.”

Today, the 80-year-old is looking forward to dropping the puck at Rexall Place in celebration of the game he says gave him access to the outside world.

“Tonight will be very special because of the residential schools, and what happened,” he said. “I think it was one of the great honours ... in my life to be able to be part of this celebration.”

With files from CBC's Lisa Macgregor