The Chicago Black Hawks played their second game at the new-built Chicago Stadium on the night of Sunday, December 29, 1929. The team had just returned from a middling (2-3) five-game road trip. Up against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Hawks ended up on the losing end of a 4-3 decision, with the Leafs’ Charlie Conacher scoring the winning goal. The Chicago Tribune’s man on the scene opened his dispatch by noting a “prophetic” pre-game anthem “faux pas” by the Stadium organist, who played “The Maple Leaf Forever” before “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Harold Rohm doesn’t name him, but I think the man at the keys must have been Al Melgard who, so far as I can tell, was on the job at the Stadium’s enormous instrument right from the start. He continued at it for 45 years, retiring in 1974.
On the Thursday night that mid-December, the Chicago Black Hawks beat the Montreal Maroons 4-3 at the Coliseum on Wabash Avenue, their fourth victory in a row. They ran their streak to five games that Sunday — December 15, 89 years ago tomorrow — when they inaugurated the brand-new Chicago Stadium, on West Madison, with a 3-1 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates. The crowd of 14, 212 that watched the proceedings was the largest — by 6,000 — ever to have seen a hockey game in Chicago. The baseball player and sometime boxer Art Shires was on hand to drop a ceremonial puck, though for some reason he did so at the start of the third period. The new rink was an improvement on the old one, the local Tribune was pleased to report, including in its temperature: “It was cold enough to see your breath,” which meant that the ice was hard, and “far keener” that at the Coliseum. Ty Arbour and Cy Wentworth stood out for the Hawks, who got all their goals in the second period. Vic Ripley scored the first goal in Stadium history, then added a second for good measure. Frank Ingram added Chicago’s third goal, with Tex White eventually replying for Pittsburgh. The Tribune’s Harland Rohm lauded the referees, Cooper Smeaton and Bert Corbeau, for not making any terrible calls. The fans appreciated this, too, he said: “They even got the equivalent of a cheer from the crowd,” he wrote, “which was an absence of booing.”
Earl Siebert’s name will ever be grimly associated with Howie Morenz’s: he was, of course, the Chicago defenceman who tangled or collided with — maybe bumped? — Montreal’s speedy star one January night in 1937, with the two players ending up in a heap on the ice. Morenz ended up in hospital with a badly broken ankle; a month later he’d died of a coronary embolism. Born on this date in 1910, a Wednesday, in what was then Berlin, Ontario (now it’s Kitchener), Seibert had a distinguished NHL career that lasted 15 years and saw him named to the league’s First All-Star team four times. He started as a Ranger in New York, and won a Stanley Cup there in 1933 before a trade took him to Chicago in 1936. He helped the Black Hawks win the Cup in 1938 and went on to captain the team in the 1940s. His final stop in the NHL was in Detroit. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1963, joining his father, Oliver, in hockey’s pantheon. Seibert died in 1990 at the age of 78.
The Chicago Black Hawks lost the first five games they played to open the 1947-48 NHL season. When, in early November, they lost a sixth, 4-2 at home to Montreal, Hawks’ president Bill Tobin decided it was time for a change. The one he had in mind turned out to be the biggest trade in NHL history, with the Black Hawks’ Max Bentley, the league’s incumbent leading scorer, heading to Toronto with Cy Thomas in exchange for Gus Bodnar, Gaye Stewart, Bud Poile, Bob Goldham, and Ernie Dickens. For the Black Hawks, it didn’t change much: they lost their next game, against Boston, and finished the season in the NHL’s basement.
Their November opponents from Montreal didn’t fare a whole lot better that year: they ended up just ahead of Chicago, out of the playoffs. But on the night of Sunday, November 2, in Bentley’s last game as a Black Hawk, Canadiens managed to come out on top. The chaos that’s depicted here, above, came about in the last minute of the third period. When the wrestling was finished, there were major penalties for Montreal’s Bob Carse and Jimmy Peters as well as for the two Hawks they battled, Ralph Nattrass and goaltender Emile Francis, respectively. (It was, the Chicago Tribune noted, Francis’ second fight in as many games; against Detroit, on October 29, he messed with Ted Lindsay, and vice-versa.) On this night, Canadiens’ defenceman Butch Bouchard earned himself a match penalty for the crime of (the Tribune) “assaulting referee George Hayes while Hayes was trying to act as peacemaker.” The Globe and Mail told pretty much the same tale, but amped up the headline: “Free-for-All Climaxes Chicago Tilt; Bouchard Punches Ref; Canucks Win.”
Hayes was working the game as a linesman, along with Mush March; the game’s (sole) referee was George Gravel. Still, for Bouchard to be attacking any of the game’s officials would seem to spell trouble for the big Montreal defenceman. None of the newspapers reporting on the incident had much in the way of detail to offer, including Montreal’s Gazette, which reported that NHL President Clarence Campbell was waiting to get Gravel’s report on the game. The Gazette’s synopsis, in the interim: the game was “hard-fought;” Hayes hailed from Ingersoll, Ontario; Bouchard, weighing in at 200 pounds, was banished “after landing blows” on the linesman.
Except that — just maybe — did no blows land? By mid-week, the Canadian Press was reporting that “after a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding,” L’Affaire Bouchard was closed. The Montreal defenceman was fined $50 for his part in the upset in Chicago, but Campbell found him innocent of the charge of punching, and levelled no suspension. According to referee Gravel’s report, Bouchard merely pushed Hayes during the melee at the end of the game. “Bouchard,” CP said, “did not poke or hit anybody.”
He was free to play, therefore, in Montreal’s next game, and did so, later on that same week, when Max Bentley and the Toronto Maple Leafs visited the Forum. “It was a typical battle between these two teams,” the Gazette’s Dink Carroll enthused, “full of fast and furious play, with no quarter asked and none given.” Canadiens prevailed, 3-0, with goaltender Bill Durnan featuring prominently, with Bouchard’s help. The latter (Carroll decided) “was just about the best man on the ice.” He made not a mistake, and “won all his jousts with Wild Willie Ezinicki, the Leafs’ well-known catalytic agent.”
Alongside Butch Keeling, George Hayes was back on the lines, and while he and Bouchard seem to have managed to steer clear of one another, referee Bill Chadwick found himself featured in the paper next day for what seems like an eccentric call:
(A version of this post appeared on page SP4 of The New York Times on July 1, 2018, under the headline “Writing the Twisting History of Indigenous Players.”)
At some point during Fred Sasakamoose’s first visit to New York in the fall of 1953, he found himself in a radio station studio. At 19, Sasakamoose was a junior hockey star from Saskatchewan. Speedy and ambidextrous, he was about to make his NHL debut at center for the Chicago Black Hawks. He was also a novelty: one of the first Indigenous players in the league.
He remembers the gifts he was given at the studio, cigars and a transistor radio. And he remembers being asked, for broadcast, to say something in Cree.
“They wanted me to talk Indian,” he said.
He obliged, thanking the interviewer and saying he had never been to New York before.
It was just a few simple sentences, but Sasakamoose struggled, on air, to summon his own language. Home, then and now, was Ahtahkakoop First Nation, in Saskatchewan, but in 1953 it had been years since he had lived there.
Hockey had planted him in Moose Jaw, and before that he’d spent a decade 60 miles from home at St. Michael’s in Duck Lake. one of Canada’s notorious residential schools where the mandate was to erase Indigenous language and culture.
“They don’t allow you to talk your language,” Sasakamoose, now 84, recalled earlier this year from Ahtahkakoop. “Either you talk French or English — and then you go to church, and you’ve got to talk Latin.”
In May, Governor-General Julie Payette inducted Sasakamoose as a Member of the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Revered as a hockey trailblazer, he has worked tirelessly over the years with youth in his community and across the country. Sasakamoose said he was humbled by the honor.
“There’s so much pride,” he added. “It’s just marvelous.”
Proud as the moment is, it is impossible to consider Sasakamoose’s life and career without reflecting on the historical scarcity of Indigenous players at the top levels of the game that Canadians so fervently claim as their own. First Nations peoples, Métis and Inuit make up 4.9 percent of Canada’s population. But of the more than 7,600 players, some 5,100 from Canada, to have skated in the NHL in the 100 years of its history, only about 80 have been of Indigenous heritage.
Canada’s reckoning with its history with Indigenous peoples has been underway for years, reaching not just into the justice system and the resource sector, but across society.
Within hockey, this has been both a season for celebrating the achievements of Indigenous players and one filled with reminders of the ongoing struggles they face — against racism, and for opportunity and recognition.
Recent NHL success stories include Ethan Bear, 20, from Saskatchewan’s Ochapowace Cree Nation, who made his debut with the Edmonton Oilers in March. At the Winter Olympics in February in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Canada’s women’s hockey team featured two Indigenous players, Jocelyne Larocque, who’s Métis from Manitoba, and Brigette Lacquette, a member of the Cote Saulteaux First Nation in Saskatchewan.
The game is thriving in Indigenous communities across the country, at the pond and pick-up level and through organized events like the annual National Aboriginal Hockey Championships for elite teenage players. In March, about 3,000 Indigenous youth players took part in the Little Native Hockey League in Mississauga, Ontario.
“I think we as First Nations people are probably some of the biggest supporters of hockey across Canada,” said Reggie Leach, the NHL’s first Indigenous superstar who continues to work with young players on hockey and life skills. Leach, who is Ojibwe, spent 13 seasons in the NHL, mostly with the Philadelphia Flyers, winning a Stanley Cup in 1975.
Still, the story of Indigenous hockey in Canada is one that has been shaped by familiar themes of geographical isolation and social marginalization. It also continues to be poisoned by racism. In May, a team of 13- and 14-year-old First Nations boys faced racial slurs at a tournament in Quebec City.
“Reading this story made me sad,” Jody Wilson-Raybould, Canada’s Minister of Justice and a member of the We Wai Kai Nation in British Columbia, wrote on Twitter. “Be proud of who you are and always remember where you come from!”
Residential schools are knotted into the history, too. For more than a century through to 1996, the Canadian government made a policy of separating some 150,000 children from their families with the express purpose of indoctrinating them into a culture not their own — taking “the Indian out of the child,” in one early insidious formulation of what the schools were all about.
The government has apologized and compensated survivors. Between 2008 and 2015, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission crossed Canada to hear their stories and investigate abuses. Among the findings in the commission’s final 2015 report is ample evidence of how sports, including hockey, could be a refuge for many children. But the report also explains how, especially in early years, some in authority looked to sports as an instrument of forced assimilation, just another means of “civilizing” students.
The comfort and freedom that hockey offered only went so far. That’s a story told in Indian Horse, Richard Wagamese’s powerful 2012 novel of hockey and residential-school abuse that director Stephen Campanelli and executive producer Clint Eastwood brought to movie screens in the spring of 2018. The pain and the rage deriving from what the central character, Saul, calls the “scorched earth” of his residential-school boyhood — “it corroded everything, even the game.”
Tracing the history of hockey’s Indigenous players, you can’t help but reflect on the ways in which narratives form, shift and settle, and on the stories that get told or don’t. While Indigenous players are scarcely seen in the annals of early hockey history, it’s also true that those in the business of recording the sport’s history have simply neglected or overlooked some of those who did make it to hockey’s highest levels.
Henry Maracle is one of those whose story has been erased, one way and another. While Fred Sasakamoose is still often described as having been the NHL’s first Indigenous player — including by the league itself and in his Order-of-Canada citation — the evidence seems to increasingly contradict that distinction.
Hockey teams in Canada started vying for the Stanley Cup in 1893, well before the NHL came into being in 1917. In 1901 and again in 1902, the Winnipeg Victorias won the Cup with a roster featuring three Métis stars, Tony Gingras and the brothers Rod and Magnus Flett.
Toronto’s NHL lineup in 1918-19 may have included a Mohawk defenseman, Paul Jacobs. While league records show him playing a game in the league’s second season, it’s unclear whether he actually made it onto the ice. Taffy Abel, who had Chippewa background, was a member of the 1924 United States Olympic team and one of the earliest Americans to flourish in the N.H.L. Could he be counted as the league’s first Indigenous player?
New York got its first N.H.L. team in 1925, the Americans, a year before the Rangers hit the ice. With an idea of adding an exotic accent to the Americans’ lineup, manager Tommy Gorman briefly pretended that a non-Indigenous Montreal-born center, Rene Boileau, was a Mohawk star by the name of Rainy Drinkwater.
While the N.H.L. seems strangely loath to acknowledge him, Maracle is slowly gaining wider recognition as the first Indigenous player in the league. Maracle, who died in 1958, was honoured this past June at a community ceremony in Ayr, Ontario, the small town where he was born.
Midway through the 1930-31 season, the Rangers summoned Maracle, a 27-year-old Mohawk left winger, from their affiliate in Springfield, Mass. That the Springfield team was nicknamed the Indians was not lost on headline writers and reporters narrating the scoring exploits of the “Springfield Injun” and “Redskin Icer.”
Maracle, who went by Buddy, was often, inevitably, called “Chief.” His NHL career lasted 15 games, yielding a goal and three assists. While he would thrive as a minor leaguer for years to come, that was all for Maracle in the NHL.
In 1944, the Rangers called up an Indigenous defenseman, Jim Jamieson, whose background was Cayuga, from Six Nations First Nation in southwestern Ontario. He played a single game.
Maracle and Jamieson were already forgotten when Sasakamoose made his NHL debut in 1953. “Chief Running Deer,” the papers dubbed him; when he first skated out at Chicago Stadium, organist Al Melgard broke into “Indian Love Call.” Sasakamoose played 11 games that season and looked like he was in the league to stay. Until he decided he wasn’t.
Years later, Sasakamoose recalls, Hall-of-Fame goaltender and fellow Chicago alumnus Glenn Hall told him he should write a book. “He said, ‘You know what you call it?’ I said, ‘What?’ He said: ‘I Want To Go Home.’”
He laughs now, but the memory of homesickness remains raw. “For me,” Sasakamoose said, “I wanted to come home all the time.
“Because, 10 years of residential school. Ten years when you’re small. And you live in that place, in that big huge building, and you don’t see mom and dad. You don’t know them anymore.”
Sasakamoose has spoken over the years about the physical abuse he suffered at Duck Lake, and he testified before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Of his school years, the commission report noted, “He left as soon as he could.”
At the same time, Sasakamoose’s memory of those distant school years in the 1940s can still brighten as he describes learning to stickhandle, or recalls the team with which he won a provincial championship.
Also: Saturday nights in wintertime. One of the presiding priests at Duck Lake would rig up a speaker in time for the weekly broadcast ofHockey Night in Canada from Toronto, 1,300 miles away. “We’d sit there, about 30 or 40 of us, and we’d listen to the Foster Hewitt. Everybody wanted to be a Charlie Conacher.”
For many Canadians, Hewitt, the broadcaster whose signature phrase was a strident “He shoots, he scores!,” remains the original and eternal voice of hockey.
In 1953, when Sasakamoose played his first game at Toronto’s Maple Leafs Gardens, Hewitt descended from his broadcast booth: he wanted to meet the Chicago rookie — and to find out how to pronounce his name.
“I said, ‘Foster, my name is Sa-SA-ka-moose.’”
He laughs now. When the time came to call the action, Hewitt never quite got it right.
“That was okay,” Sasakamoose said. “I was there. I wanted to get there and I did get there.”
Upstart: Headed for the Calder Trophy, they said. One of the two best rookies in the NHL (that from Canadiens’ coach Dick Irvin; the other rookie he favoured was Boston’s Dave Creighton). Born on this day in 1926 in Sceptre, Saskatchewan, Bert Olmstead would eventually make a name as a dynamic left winger for the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto’s own Maple Leafs. But Olmstead, who died in 2015, made his leap into the NHL playing for the Chicago. And it was as a 23-year-old Black Hawk that he rated all those rookie raves during his first full NHL season, 1949-50. Pundits were mentioning him as the leading Calder candidate as early as December, that year; by February, the six NHL captains were prepared to nominate him as the league’s primo rookie. In April, Dink Carroll of the Gazette in Montreal was still hearing that Olmstead still had the inside track. It didn’t work out: in May, when 18 sportswriters cast their ballots, it was 25-year-old Boston goaltender Jack Gelineau who ended up top of the Calder rankings. The league gave him $1000 to go with the trophy, and the Bruins rewarded him, too, with (an undisclosed amount of) cash. Olmstead tied Bruins’ centreman Phil Maloney for second place in the Calder voting; others who were considered were Gus Kyle of the New York Rangers; Toronto’s John McCormack; and Steve Black of the Detroit Red Wings.