Day 6·Q&A

'He is an icon': Writer Waubgeshig Rice reflects on Fred Sasakamoose's legacy for Indigenous hockey players

Tributes have been pouring in for former Chicago Blackhawks player Fred Sasakamoose, one of the first Indigenous athletes to play in the NHL. Sasakamoose died Tuesday after being hospitalized with COVID-19. Waubgeshig Rice spoke with Day 6 about what the hockey legend means to Indigenous players today.

'He really broke down barriers throughout the course of his life,' said Rice

Former Chicago Blackhawks player, and one of the first Indigenous pro hockey players, Fred Sasakamoose, died Tuesday after he was hospitalized with COVID-19. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

For Anishinaabe writer Waubgeshig Rice, the late hockey legend Fred Sasakamoose is an "icon" and a "legend".

Tributes have been pouring in for the former Chicago Blackhawks player, one of the first Indigenous athletes to play in the NHL. 

Sasakamoose died Tuesday after being hospitalized with COVID-19. He had just finished writing his autobiography entitled: Call Me Indian: From the Trauma of Residential School to Becoming the NHL's First Treaty Indigenous Player

The book isn't set to hit the shelves until next year, but Rice got a sneak peek of the memoir. He spoke with Day 6 host Brent Bambury about Sasakamoose's impact on Indigenous hockey fans and players, and how upholding his Cree culture was important to him.

Here is part of that conversation.

If you were speaking to a group of Canadian kids about Fred Sasakamoose, what would you say? How would you describe him? 

I would definitely describe him as a trailblazer, and I think those of us who play the game of hockey — especially those of us who are Indigenous — very much follow in the strides of his skates. 

He really broke down barriers throughout the course of his life from his childhood all the way up through his professional career and beyond. And I think he is an icon. He is a legend in many ways. 

Kids, especially growing up now [and] learning about the game of hockey, they can really look to his example as really a microcosm of the Canadian experience in many ways — both good and bad because of what he endured throughout his childhood, having gone to residential schoo, and then playing the game of hockey and experiencing racism on and off the ice. 

He spoke about his residential school experience at a Truth and Reconciliation Commission community hearing. What does his autobiography tell you about that time in his life? 

That's probably the most heartbreaking part of the book. It opens with his birth and his upbringing pretty much on the land in Saskatchewan amongst his people, learning the language and learning about ceremonies and the importance of community and so on. 

And he was very much, essentially a Cree person from the beginning, and he was very proud of it. But then he was ripped from his family, ripped from his community. And he explains in the book how he just couldn't understand why. So it's heartbreaking to read in detail the horrors he experienced in the residential school system. 

Writer Waubgeshig Rice says that the late Fred Sasakamoose remains a role model for Indigenous hockey players today. (Yvon Theriault/CBC)

But while he experiences this inhuman stuff ... he finds an outlet. Residential school was where he learnt to play hockey. How good was the team that came out of that school? 

That was one of the really compelling things that I took away from his experience there in that it changed his life — for the negative and for the very positive at the same time. 

He talks about how he learnt through one of the fathers, one of the ministers at the school, who whittled down a stick for him. And he eventually started slapping a cow patty around the ice. That's his first memory of playing hockey. 

For him, it was an outlet, a way to escape the horrors. And he was very much encouraged to do that. So they eventually got more of the kids to play the game and started playing a more formalized version of shinny and then eventually had a team together. And then this St. Michael's residential school team that they were part of started travelling around Saskatchewan, and [became] well known as a good team and eventually winning tournaments. 

How well were they received in the larger hockey community and the province at that time? 

They came in as outsiders a lot at the time and they were looked down upon in many ways, but he mentions that it encourages them to play harder and get the respect of the people who maybe didn't really necessarily take them seriously at all. 

Fred Sasakamoose was named a Member of the Order of Canada in 2018. (David Kawai/The Canadian Press)

He has this one story about how they finally won the big provincial tournaments and they travelled back to the residential school and there was a big celebration for them. It was the only time in residential school where they got to drink pop and eat the good food like the roast turkey and so on. 

So [there's] this kind of brutal paradox that it took them going out and succeeding in the outside world, playing this sort of white man's game, essentially, to get respect internally in the residential school but also within the broader external society. And they also gave up so much at the same time, you know, they lost their culture and their language in the process. 

What do you think Fred Sasakamoose means for Indigenous hockey fans today? 

He means so much. Growing up, I was well aware of the Indigenous icons in hockey. People like George Armstrong who is Anishinaabe from Sudbury, where I live now. Reggie Leach, also Anishinaabe. Craig Berube, Chris Simon and so on.

I think of Bridget Lacquette, who represented Canada at the same time on the women's side.

So more and more younger generations, I think, are turning to hockey as this proud outlet for themselves and for their people, and people like Fred are the role models who really set the tone in being themselves on the ice as Indigenous people.

Written by Celeste Decaire. Produced by Pedro Sanchez.