stories that get told and stories that don’t: tracing hockey’s indigenous histories

(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.

Tidings of Maracle’s 1931 call-up to the NHL caught the eye of newspaper editors across North America.

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.”

 

jump shot

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.

 

make like mikita

Stan-dard: While Stan Mikita played poster boy for the life insurance company The Equitable in the spring of 1970, his Chicago Black Hawks saw themselves swept out of the Stanley Cup’s East Division semi-finals in four straight games by the eventual Cup champions from Boston. If Mikita, who died August 7 at the age of 78, was a key to the series it was because the Bruins understood how closely they had to check him. “We had to stop [Bobby] Hull and we had to stop Mikita,” Boston coach Harry Sinden said in the aftermath. “And we did it.”

stan mikita: tough kid who grew up

The Chicago Blackhawks, long since out of the playoffs, wrap up their home schedule tonight hosting the still-in-hunt St. Louis Blues at the United Center. Before the game, the Blackhawks will honour Hall-of-Fame centreman Stan Mikita with a ceremony involving several of his grandsons. Mikita, who’s 77, was diagnosed with Lewy Body dementia in 2015; Chris Kuc’s Chicago Tribune feature from that time deserves your attention, if you haven’t seen it already. Otherwise, a Mikita reading list might include books like Mikita’s own 1969 autobiography, I Play To Win, published the same year as Stan Fischler’s Stan Mikita: The Turbulent Career of a Hockey Superstar, along with Scott Young’s brief 1974 biography for young readers, Tough Kid Who Grew Up. More recently, there’s Bob Verdi’s richly illustrated review of Mikita’s career, Forever A Blackhawk (2011).

Mikita, of course, spent all 22 of his NHL seasons with Chicago, helping them to win the 1961 Stanley Cup. One of his coaches, Billy Reay, called him “hockey’s most complete player,” and Mikita helped make that case by winning two Hart Memorial trophies as NHL MVP in the 1960s along with four Art Ross scoring titles and a pair of Lady Byng trophies. “If you don’t have pride in yourself,” he explained to a reporter in 1968, “you won’t write a good story. It’s the same with hockey. You have got to have pride in yourself to win.”

(Top Image, from July of 1966, by Frank Prazak, Library and Archives Canada)

crowding the crease

Dual Purpose: Mike Karakas (left) and Paul Goodman share a Chicago net in October of 1938. Note the script on their sticks: “Professional Goalie.” And if you zoom in on Goodman’s left mitt, you’ll see it’s inscribed with the name “Alex Connell.” Did Goodman borrow the leather, perhaps, from the august Ottawa goaler, whose career had come to an end in 1937, or maybe did he inherit it? Could be an autograph, I guess, or an invocation, Goodman’s reminder to himself of who he wanted to be emulating when the pucks started to fly.

Chicago Black Hawks goaltender Mike Karakas fractured a toe on the eve of the 1938 Stanley Cup finals, and for a while there that April it looked liked the Hawks would open the championship series against the hometown Toronto Maple Leafs with New York Rangers’ borrowed backstop Dave Kerr fighting their corner. There was a whole kerfuffle over that, featuring fistfights among coaches. As it ended up, the man featuring in the Black Hawks net was Alfie Moore, who’d played a little previously for the New York Americans, and happened to be on hand. In search of a more permanent solution, Chicago also rushed out and bought Paul Goodman from the AHA Wichita Skyhawks, though when the 33-year-old Moore helped Chicago beat the Leafs by a score of 3-1, they thought maybe he’d do fine.

But the NHL wouldn’t let them keep Moore, so it was Goodman — also 33, born in Selkirk, Manitoba — who got the start in game two.

The Leafs roared back with a 5-1 win, which can’t have done much for Goodman’s confidence, let alone Chicago’s. Karakas, 26, was back in for games three and four, sporting a customized shoe and toe-splint, and Chicago won both those games, which won them the Cup.

Initially, Chicago’s patchwork goaling trio all had their names engraved on the Cup with the rest of their teammates. They stayed there for 20 years, until the Cup was redesigned 1957, at which point five Hawk players whose names should, by rights, be etched into hockey history (including Moore’s and Goodman’s), were, by wrongs, left off.

You may have heard tell of the story that Alfie Moore was drunk in a Toronto bar just before he was hauled in to Maple Leaf Gardens to play for the Black Hawks. It’s one of those popular old hockey tales that’s trotted out over and over again to see whether it might someday harden into a piece of authentic truth. The Chicago Tribune devoted an entire page to retailing it in 2013, enriched with quotes from former Hawk captain (and later, PR man) Johnny Gottselig, who scored two goals in front of Moore that night. “He had about ten or a dozen drinks,” Gottselig seems to have told John Devaney for his 1975 book The Stanley Cup: A Complete Pictorial History. “We put some coffee into him and put him under the shower. By game time, he was in pretty good shape.”

Moore, who died in 1979, remembered things a little differently. He was at home in Toronto that April afternoon in 1938, he recalled — and sober. The Leafs called, collected him, took him to the Gardens. “I didn’t know what they wanted,” he told Larry Spears in 1965. It was only when he got to Chicago’s dressing room that he learned he’d be suiting up to play for the Stanley Cup.

“I had no interest in playing,” he said. “And Chicago didn’t want me. They thought I was in league with the Leafs.”

They changed their minds, later, of course. “I wouldn’t say that it was my best game, by any means,” Moore said subsequently. “It was just the circumstances of it, a minor league goalie, the Stanley Cup, and all of that.” He was duly fêted when he travelled to Chicago to see the Black Hawks finish the job he’d started. Paid $300 for his game-one troubles, he later got a gold watch from his fleeting Hawks teammates, while the club contributed a week’s holiday at their expense.

Paul Goodman was back with the Hawks in the fall of ’38; the photograph here dates to that pre-seasonal October. Toe-healthy, Karakas wasn’t quite ready yet to cede the goal on anything like a full-time basis, and so Goodman returned to Wichita for the duration of the 1938-39 season.

The year after that, Chicago had three goaltenders at camp, adding a young Frank McCool to the mix. He eventually returned to university in Spokane, while Goodman was assigned to the IAHL Providence Reds; Karakas kept his net. But only for a month or so: with the Black Hawks faltering in December, coach Paul Thompson decided a switch was in order. So Goodman finished the season as Chicago’s first-choice puck-parryist.

Karakas played a bit for Providence before he decided he didn’t want to be in the minors. Suspended, he, too, ended up as an emergency replacement before the season was out, appearing for the Montreal Canadiens in stead of the injured Wilf Cude and Claude Bourque. Karakas did eventually make it back to the Black Hawks’ crease, but it took a while: he had two more seasons in the minors ahead of him before he made his return.

Paul Goodman would keep Chicago’s 1940-41 net, but only temporarily. He got hurt not long after Christmas, and the Hawks called up 23-year-old Sam LoPresti — a son, like Karakas, of Eveleth, Minnesota. About to turn 36, Goodman decided he’d had enough, announcing his retirement before January was over.

 

durnan down

Close Action: A newswire photograph, helpfully captioned, from 1943-44 shows a fluster of Black Hawks in front of Montreal’s goal. From left, that’s Chicago’s Johnny Harms lined up with Canadiens Ray Getliffe and Mike McMahon, who are doing their best to aid goaltender Bill Durnan in his effort to smother the puck, while Hawks Doug Bentley (#7) and Clint Smith (#3) stand by in hope that he’ll fail.

erfolgreichster und populärster eishockeyspieler

Canadians won’t, this morning, find much that’s consoling in the news that a team wearing the maple leaf did beat Germany back in February of 1936, but it’s true, they did it, 6-2 was the score in Garmisch-Partenkirchen at the IV Winter Olympics. Recognized as one of Europe’s best hockey players (and a national tennis champion, to boot), 27-year-old winger Gustav Jaenecke was the German captain at Garmisch. The German coach — Reichstrainer — was Val Hoffinger, a son of Salvador, Saskatchewan who’d played a handful of games for the Chicago Black Hawks. In the six weeks leading up to the Olympics, Hoffinger had his charges testing themselves against a training team, or Lermanschaft, that he’d organized and stocked with eight Canadians. A reporter watching the Germans before the Games noted that they had a tendency on the attack to swerve toward the corners, and they liked to grab their opponents’ sticks, but nonetheless deemed them a “smooth-skating, thoroughly disciplined corps.” At the Games, the Germans followed up an opening-day loss to the United States with wins over Italy and Switzerland. That got them to the second round, where they edged Hungary before achieving something Canada couldn’t. While the Canadians lost to the eventual champions from Great Britain, Germany held the British to a 1-1 tie. After beating the Germans, Canada finished the tournament with a pair of wins that didn’t end up turning their silver medals to gold. Germany finished the tournament in fifth place, tied with Sweden.