Fred Sasakamoose, an Indigenous pioneer in the NHL who played 11 games of professional hockey in the 1950s, has died. The former Chicago Blackhawks player died after being hospitalized with COVID-19. He was 86 years old.
"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," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said.
"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."
Sasakamoose was living on the Ahathkakoop Cree Nation reserve in Saskatchewan. He tested positive for COVID-19 on Nov. 21, according to his son, Neil Sasakamoose.
"This COVID virus just did so much damage into his lungs, he just couldn't keep responding, his body just couldn't keep up," Neil said in a video posted on Facebook, per NHL.com. "When I talked to him, I asked him how he was feeling, if he was scared. He said, 'I'm not scared, I'm ready to go, if I gotta go, I'm going to go.' I said, 'You know what, Dad? If you're tired, you go. You go and don't worry about us over here.'"
Sasakamoose played 11 games with the Black Hawks in 1953-54. While his career was brief, his presence on a professional roster paved the way for players and coaches of Indigenous heritage, such as Carey Price, Jordin Tootoo, Bryan Trottier, Reggie Leach, George Armstrong, Ted Nolan, Craig Berube, Sheldon Souray, Gino Odjick and Theo Fleury.
"Only 125 hockey players and six teams, and I was one of them," he told Global News in 2018.
He was inducted into the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame in 2007.