Wednesday marks one year since the passing of an Indigenous hockey legend, Fred Sasakamoose.
He was 86 years old when he passed away from complications of the COVID-19 virus. It’s been a long and emotional year for the Sasakamoose family.
Neil Sasakamoose, son of the late hockey icon, described the year-long journey as “lingering grief.”
“[Grief] lingers and it hangs around you no matter what you do,” Neil said. “I’m a lot stronger now.”
The former NHL player was from the Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation who played for the Chicago Blackhawks in 1953-54. He was a residential school survivor who wrote a book called Call Me Indian: From the Trauma of Residential School based on his experience at St. Michael’s residential school in Duck Lake, Sask.
Fred’s autobiography was released on May 18, the day that was proclaimed as Fred Sasakamoose Day by both the provincial government and the city of Saskatoon.
Fred’s list of accomplishments is lengthy. He was known for his work in establishing the Northern Indian Hockey League in 1962. He also served as a leader for his community and continued to mentor athletes. His accomplishments went unnoticed. He was inducted into the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame, Saskatchewan First Nations Sports Hall of Fame, as well as others. In 2018, Sasakamoose received the Order of Canada.
On Nov. 24, 2020, he died from complications of COVID-19 in the Prince Albert Victoria hospital.
“Thinking he had a cold to six days later, he was gone,” Neil Sasakamoose said. “It’s so fast how COVID hits and takes people.”
The nation grieved the loss of a man who was known as the first Indigenous Treaty NHL hockey player. Messages of support and sympathy flooded in from across the country, offering condolences to the family for the loss of a man who made such a huge impact on people’s lives.
“I didn’t know how important he was, to be honest,” Neil said. “He had such an impact on so many people.”
The loss of his father amped Neil Sasakamoose’s drive to inform the public about the severity of COVID-19 and to take the health precautions seriously. Sasakamoose became one of many voices to stress the importance of people getting the COVID-19 vaccine.
“After he passed, I really got into safety, controls and getting as many people vaccinated as we could,” Neil said. “I just didn’t want anyone to go through what [our family] had to go through.”
Under his leadership as Battlefords Agency Tribal Council’s director, Neil Sasakamoose opened a vaccination clinic in North Battleford. He said it was a challenge when he urged people to protect themselves and others by getting the COVID-19 vaccination. He went under the direction of local Elders to help him encourage more people on getting vaccinated.
“Our Elders became advocates … because they [were] all affected by COVID,” Neil said. “When they started [contracting] COVID, they became advocates. … They were strong supporters of the vaccine program.”
The tribal council teamed up with a local cleaning supply manufacturer and opened up Nîkihk to produce personal care and cleaning supplies.
Neil was in charge of the popular Indigenous hockey tournament named after his late father. The Fred Sasakamoose “Chief Thunderstick” National Hockey Championship is held every year and teams come from all over the country to compete. With the provincial government lifting some restrictions at the time, Neil Sasakamoose thought the coast would be clear to go ahead with this year’s hockey tournament. Unfortunately, he was wrong.
“We were trying to run from grief so much that we wanted to put on this event,” he said. “We sent out the [info of event] out there and we got an outpouring of support. Then the event came.”
A COVID-19 outbreak was reported following the hockey tournament held in Saskatoon. Neil said he felt ashamed and took responsibility for the outbreak. Eight players from a team in Waswanipi, Que., who competed in the tournament, tested positive for COVID-19.
“I made a mistake,” he said. “There’s two choices you have. You can be an event organizer and run from [responsibility] or face up to it [and] admit what you did was wrong. And that’s what I did.”
Neil Sasakamoose personally called to apologize to the community where the hockey players are from. He followed up with other hockey teams from the tournament to ensure everyone was safe. He followed up with people who attended the event to get tested for COVID-19.
“I was so embarrassed that I [held] an event that came out with COVID when my dad passed from it,” Neil said. “Regardless of all the safety we put in place, it doesn’t matter. When you put people to gather, you got to accept what you’re doing. There’s no blaming the province or anyone. You have to accept full responsibility as an event organizer.”
Wednesday, the Sasakamoose family will be commemorating the hockey legend’s life with an Indigenous traditional feast with only close family members.
Paying tribute to Fred Saskamoose
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