The NHL lost yet another great ambassador of the game on Tuesday, as it was announced that Fred Sasakamoose had fallen victim in his short battle with the rapidly-spreading coronavirus. The 86-year-old had been in hospital for five days, dealing with symptoms of COVID-19 which became apparent last Thursday. He passed away in hospital at 3:00 PM Tuesday afternoon.
“He was able to survive about five days after going into the hospital,” Fred’s son Neil said in a video posted to Facebook Tuesday. “But the COVID virus just did so much damage into his lungs, he just couldn’t keep responding. When I talked to him, I asked him how he is feeling, if he was scared. He said, ‘I’m not scared.’ He said ‘I’m ready to go. If you gotta go, I’m gonna go.’ I said ‘You know what, Dad? If you’re tired, you go. You go and don’t worry about us over here.’”
Sasakamoose – from Big River First Nation – was raised on the Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation in northern Saskatchewan, before being taken some 500 kilometres from his home as a six-year-old child to the Duck Lake Residential School, St. Michael’s. In 1954 he made history as the first Indigenous player to skate in the National Hockey League. He played in 11 games for the Chicago Black Hawks that season as a 20-year-old.
“He had some good, good strengths about that old guy,” Neil added. “He believed in his culture, his language, his people. He believed in us getting along with non-native people, races around the world. He believed in a lot of good qualities of what we should be striving for.”
The Indigenous pioneer reportedly caught COVID-19 through his ‘young’ caretaker, to whom Neil Sasakamoose says should not feel guilty or ashamed, as the virus is “nothing that can be prevented or controlled”. Sasakamoose spent his final days in hospital isolation and on oxygen support as he battled shortness of breath, dizzy spells and wheezing.
Neil, who watched his father deteriorate from a healthy state in just a matter of days, had some thoughts for those who have been reluctant to follow the guidelines and protocol put in place by various health authorities.
“There’s a thousand ways to pass away, but when it’s preventable – and this is preventable – we should do anything we can to prevent anyone from getting this,” the younger Sasakamoose said. “And if you have any sincerity towards other people, just keep quiet about the way you talk about anti-masking and that. I lost a father now too. We lose a grandparent and a parent just because of stubbornness and silliness and selfishness.”
Sasakamoose was invited to the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame in 2007, before being appointed to the Order of Canada in 2017. Since 1960, Sasakamoose has served as chief, elder and band leader within his home community. He has put a high priority on proponents directed towards the success of young Indigenous people and the development of sport within their communities. This past October saw the University of Saskatchewan present Sasakamoose with a degree as an honourary doctor of laws.
Neil went on to explain that his immediate family includes 164 people and all had been deeply concerned with his father’s well-being. Having been close contacts of Sasakamoose, Fred’s wife Loretta, two of his other children and the caretaker have also been in self-isolation since Friday as results of the positive case.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman also offered his condolences to the Sasakamoose family, while providing some insights onto the legacy that the Saskatchewan product left behind.
“Fred Sasakamoose was a Canadian original who attained one of his life goals at the age of 19, by becoming the first Cree player to appear in an NHL game, and then dedicated the rest of his long life to serving the First Nations community — using hockey and other sports to provide opportunities for Indigenous youth,” Bettman said Tuesday. “The story of Sasakamoose’s groundbreaking, 11-game NHL career with the Chicago Black Hawks in 1953-54 was the culmination of years of dedication to overcoming adversity in pursuit of a dream, and the pivot point at which he turned his focus to helping others pursue their dreams.”
Just one week prior to his death, Sasakamoose completed his final proof of “Call Me Indian: From the Trauma of Residential School to Becoming the NHL’s First Treaty Indigenous Player” – an autobiographical memoir. The book will be available for purchase on April 6, 2021.
Sasakamoose was 86.