Hockey pioneer Fred Sasakamoose passes away at age 86 from COVID-19

Indigenous hockey pioneer Fred Sasakamoose died Tuesday afternoon.

Sasakamoose was long considered the first Indigenous player to suit up for a National Hockey League squad.

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Sasakamoose, from Ahtakakoop Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, played 11 games for the Chicago Blackhawks during the 1953-54 season.

In recent years, information surfaced that several other players, whose Indigenous ancestry was previously not reported, had played in the NHL before Sasakamoose.

Since then Sasakamoose had been listed as the NHL’s first First Nations player from Canada that had treaty status.

Sasakamoose was admitted to a Prince Albert hospital late last week. His son Neil confirmed via a Facebook post that his father, who was 86, was wheezing and feeling shortness of breath. He was presumed to have COVID-19, which was later confirmed by a positive test.

Neil Sasakamoose also announced his father’s death via a live Facebook stream on Tuesday.

“Fred passed away at 3 o’clock Saskatchewan time,” Neil Sasakamoose said. “I just want to thank everyone for everything you’ve done.”

The elder Sasakamoose was sent hundreds and hundreds of messages and videos of support from members of the public while he was in hospital.

Sasakamoose spent the past five days in hospital.

“The COVID virus did so much damage into his lungs,” his son said. “He just couldn’t keep responding. His body just couldn’t keep up.”

The younger Sasakamoose said his father was talkative and told him two hours before his death that he thought he was feeling great but that he was also tired.

At that point Neil Sasakamoose sensed his father’s death was near and offered his own advice.

“If you’re getting tired and you’re getting beat up and your body is fighting you, go ahead and you go,” he said.

Neil Sasakamoose again thanked those who sent inspirational messages to his father.

“He wanted to thank everyone for what they did,” he said. “He was able to see most of the videos that people sent in.”

Neil Sasakamoose said his mother is currently in isolation and his sisters are in lockdown.

He offered his thoughts on what others should be doing.

“We’re two months away from a vaccine,” he said. “Everyone just bear down. Listen to your chiefs. Let them do what they have to do. Listen to your mayors. Listen to your premiers. Listen to the prime minister. Listen to the other party. Just listen and comply for awhile. We’re going to get a vaccine soon and we’re going to get back to normal.”

Neil Sasakamoose was visibly upset with the news he was sharing.

“I don’t get that chance anymore,” he said. “My father is going to miss it by two months.”

Sasakamoose also voiced his displeasure with those who are not taking the virus seriously.

“If you have any sincerity about other people, just keep quiet about the way you talk about anti-masking and all that,” he said. “I lost a father now. We lose a grandparent and a parent just because of stubbornness and silliness and selfishness.”

Sasakamoose said another Indigenous hockey legend from Saskatchewan, Bryan Trottier, a seven-time Stanley Cup champion, called him about an hour before his father’s death looking for him to connect him to the elder Sasakamoose.

Besides being an Indigenous hockey role model, Fred Sasakamoose was also perhaps more importantly an even better person.

“He never believed in racism,” he said. “He never believed in hate. He believed in listening to what professionals have to say. He had some good, good strengths that old guy. 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 in what we should be striving for.”

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