Great to see Fred Sasakamoose honoured yesterday as one of 124 appointees to the Order of Canada. The pride of Saskatchewan’s Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation started the week with a birthday — he turned 84 on Christmas Day — and yesterday he joined 85 distinguished others in being named a Member of Canada’s highest civilian honour. Best known as a pioneering hockey player, Sasakamoose has also worked tirelessly over the years with youth in his community as well as counselling young people with addictions. It’s high time he was recognized. Hours after the Order of Canada was announced by Governor-General Julie Payette in Ottawa, Sasakamoose was on the ice at Edmonton’s Rogers Place to preside over a ceremonial face-off featuring Oilers’ captain Connor McDavid and Chicago’s Jonathan Toews. It was the Blackhawks for whom Sasakamoose played his 11 NHL games, debuting as a 19-year-old in November of 1953.
As we credit Fred Sasakamoose’s entirely deserving work and experience and achievement, today might also be the day to point out a historical oversight that yesterday’s news from Rideau Hall only served to solidify.
Sasakamoose’s Order of Canada citation goes like this:
For his trailblazing contributions as the first Indigenous player in the NHL and for his work in seeking the betterment of his community through sports.
Reports in the press yesterday and today have steered the same way. “First Indigenous NHL player,” reported the CBC, The Edmonton Sun, the NHL.com, et al. “The first Indian player for an NHL team,” Simona Choise wrote in this morning’s Globe and Mail, with a nod from Sasakamoose himself. “Your white man called me Indian 100 or 200 years ago,” he’s quoted as saying; “I don’t mind that, I like it the way it is.”
Here’s the thing: at least one Indigenous player made it to NHL ice ahead of Sasakamoose’s debut in 1953.
Twenty-two years earlier, in early 1931, 26-year-old Henry Maracle suited up for the New York Rangers. But while the Society for International Hockey Research recognizes him as the league’s first Indigenous player, word doesn’t seem to have filtered out into the wider world. It’s time he was recognized, for that and more. Like Sasakamoose, Maracle played 11 NHL games before he was returned to the minor-league career he’d been pursuing at the time of his call-up. For all his efforts, Sasakamoose’s NHL numbers include no goals or assists to go with his six minutes of penalty time. Maracle made a bit more of a statistical mark, serving four minutes in the penalty box while also aiding teammates with three assists. And he scored a goal of his own.
Details of Henry Maracle’s life and career are scanty at best. He was Mohawk, born (very probably) in 1904, in (pretty sure) the town of Ayr in southwestern Ontario. That makes it entirely possible that he skated and maybe even hockeyed on the ice of the Nith River, which is also where, many winters later, Wayne did some of his earliest Gretzkying, in Brantford, just to the south.
At some point he got to North Bay, Ontario, where he played his junior hockey for the local Trappers alongside future Leafs Gerry Lowrey and Shorty Horne. When Maracle got married in 1924 at the age of 19, he put his pen to an affidavit to get a license, giving his profession as “riveter.” (His wife, 20-year-old Irene Marshall, was a stenographer.) If on official paperwork he remained Henry, he was mostly called otherwise throughout his hockey career: Bud or more often Buddy was his nom-de-glace, though sometimes, inevitably, the papers tagged him Chief Maracle.
By 1926 he’d gone professional, graduating to the newborn Can-Am League, where he signed with the team in Springfield, Massachusetts. Maybe Maracle’s background was lost on some who saw him play in those years, but for many it provoked a cascade of cultural stereotyping. For some others, it triggered racist comment that’s no less searing for being so long-ago or casually or smirkingly cast. I’m only going on newspaper clippings; I can only imagine the grotesqueries that Maracle would have faced in person, on the ice and from the stands.
The fact that the Springfield franchise was nicknamed the Indians licensed all kinds of winking nastiness among the headline writers and beat reporters. The Indians won the Can-Am championship in 1927 and repeated in ’28, with Maracle playing a major scoring role, and so he featured as the “Giant Redskin” and “Springfield Injun.”
Here’s a newspaperman named Stan Baumgartner accounting for a dominant performance in early 1928 by “miracle Maracle,” “a mighty, marvellous Indian,” when “the Red poison” scored a pair of goals in a come-from-behind victory Springfield engineered over the Philadelphia Arrows:
Alone this great Indian had snatched the game from the ignominy of defeat to the glories of victory. And when he left the ice, a few seconds later, the entire throng arose and gave one mighty cheer for the original American, first in the forests, first on the trails, and first in the hockey ring tonight.
It was Conn Smythe, apparently, who first rated Maracle as potential NHL material. This was in 1926, when the future Leaf panjandrum was (briefly) in charge of assembling the expansion New York Rangers. When Lester Patrick replaced Smythe, he farmed Maracle to New York’s team in Springfield.
Five years passed before Patrick found a place for Maracle in his big-league line-up. This was February of 1931. He was 27 now, and “veteran” was a regular adjective attending his name in the papers along with the inescapable “Indian.” Bert Perry of Toronto’s Globe noted that Maracle had been playing as effectively “two and three years ago” as he was in ’31, “but it probably required five years for Lester Patrick to see possibilities in him.” Perry’s potted biography vaguely told of Maracle’s background as “an Indian reservation in northern Ontario near North Bay” before cruising, unfortunately, to this finish:
If nothing else, his presence on [sic] the Rangers’ line-up ought to inspire New York sport writers to write some curdling stories about him. He will probably make his first appearance at Madison Square Gardens all decked out in feathers and a tomahawk or two just to provide a little atmosphere.
Maracle joined the Rangers in Detroit, making his NHL debut in a 1-1 tie with the local (pre-Red Wings) Falcons. He made no impression on the scoresheet that night, nor in New York’s next two games, a 2-1 win in Chicago and a 5-4 loss at home to the Ottawa Senators. A headline from a dispatch detailing the former: “Apples Are Thrown At Referee By Fans.”
It was in New York next game, Maracle’s fourth, that he made the biggest impression he’d make in his short NHL career. Hosting the Philadelphia Quakers before a not-very crowded crowd of 8,000 at Madison Square Garden, the Rangers won handily, 6-1. When Cecil Dillon scored New York’s fifth goal in the second period, Maracle was the man who set him up to beat Quaker goaltender Wilf Cude. In the third, Dillon returned the favour, assisting on Maracle’s lone NHL goal. Low or high? Shovelled in from the crease or sizzled from afar? I’m afraid the papers don’t yield much in the way of further description of how it happened. To go with the scoring, Maracle did, on this night, take all the penalties he’d take in his NHL career, which is to say, both of them.
Buddy Maracle skated in all four of the Rangers’ playoff games in the spring of 1931 before they were eliminated by Chicago. He registered no points and took no penalties. the following fall, Lester Patrick did what he’d done back in ’26, cutting Maracle again, consigning him back to Springfield.
There’s not much more to add, at this point, to Maracle’s biography. He played another nine minor-league seasons after his NHL stint, skating on in the Can-Am League for Springfield before moving over the New Haven Eagles. He played for Tulsa’s Oilers in the American Hockey Association before ending up with a series of senior-league teams, including the Detroit Pontiac Chiefs and the San Diego Skyhawks. He died in Dallas in 1958 at the age of 53.
Five years had passed since Fred Sasakamoose had taken his turn with Chicago. By 1953, Buddy Maracle’s trailblazing time in the NHL was already all but forgotten, even as the stereotypes renewed themselves for the debut of the league’s second Indigenous player. Informing its readers that Sasakamoose was “the first full-blooded Indian ever to play” in the NHL, The Chicago Tribune added that he was known “to his tribesmen as Chief Running Deer.”