called to the hall or not, buddy maracle deserves his due

Blueshirt Buddy: Ceremonies celebrating yesterday’s National Indigenous Peoples Day on the Six Nations of the Grand River territory at Ohsweken, Ontario, included a tribute to the proud legacy of local NHL and WHA heroes, including Buddy Maracle, Jimmy Jamieson, Guy Smith, Stan Jonathan, and Brandon Montour. Above, local youth goaltender Ashlee LaForme represents for Maracle in a modern-day New York Rangers sweater emblazoned with the number 14 he wore in 1931.

It’s possible (if not probable) that when the Hockey Hall of Fame proclaims a new class of inductees on Tuesday of next week, Buddy Maracle will be among them. Maracle, you’ll maybe recall, was Mohawk, from Ayr, Ontario, and seems to have been the first Indigenous player to have skated in the NHL. His stint with the New York Rangers in 1931 was short (just 15 games), and he died in 1958, facts that would appear to argue against his recognition by an institution that favours prolonged NHL service and doesn’t, these days, tend toward posthumous choices. It’s the case, too, that while Maracle seems to have been a very good player, he wasn’t a great or generational talent. His claim, should it succeed, would be akin to Willie O’Ree’s: if Maracle were to be honoured, it would be as a hockey pioneer.

It could happen. A comprehensive nomination package did go to the Hall in Maracle’s name earlier this year (brief disclosure: I contributed a supporting letter). And Maracle’s story has been gaining more and more attention across the hockey world and beyond. If it wasn’t exactly a secret before 2017, it was fairly obscure and threadbare.

That started to change when Fred Sasakamoose was named a member of the Order of Canada as that year ended. Deserving as that vice-regal acknowledgment was (and by no fault of Sasakamoose’s), the messaging that went along with it was insistently erroneous as institutions that should have known better — looking at you, Rideau Hall and the NHL — blithely identified Sasakamoose as having blazed a trail that, in fact, Maracle had already blazed two decades earlier.

As a matter of history, the oversight wasn’t a good look for the NHL. The league might have attended to their lapse quickly and unobtrusively — maybe as part of the Hockey Is For Everyone initiative they launched in February of 2018 to promote diversity and inclusion in the game.

Display at National Indigenous Peoples Day (known locally as Solidarity Day) on Six Nations of the Grand River.

If nothing else, Maracle’s story is a fascinating one that highlights just how hard it was for an Indigenous athlete to make his way to the top of his sport in the 1920s and ’30s. Instead, the league continued to ignore Maracle. Over at their editorial department, a February, 2018 profile of Fred Sasakamoose on NHL.com re-upped the notion that the distinguished former Chicago Black Hawk is “the NHL’s first Indigenous player.” I guess that’s still the official line: more than a year later, the story hasn’t been corrected.

The fact that Sasakamoose seems to have, in fact, been the third Indigenous NHLer (after Maracle and Jimmy Jamieson) isn’t any slight on him or the remarkable things that he’s achieved in his life. It’s possible that the NHL believes that by highlighting — or even acknowledging? — Maracle’s story they might discomfit or embarrass Sasakamoose, and that’s why they’ve kept quiet.

If that’s the case, I don’t think it really makes sense. Facts are facts and flouting them does no-one any good. Media mentions of Fred Sasakamoose don’t always, now, automatically identify him as the first Indigenous NHLer. But it’s also true that the word on Maracle isn’t widespread, and keeps not showing up in newspapers and magazines and online. Assuming that the NHL knows and is assiduously interested in being true to its own history, many in the media do still take the league’s lead in ignoring Buddy Maracle.

Exhibit A: in March, when the NHL’s Canadian media partners from Sportsnet took their Hometown Hockey show on the road to Enoch Cree Nation in Alberta, Maracle was left, unaccountable, out of the picture. It was a remarkable day and an historic one: the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network’s broadcast in Plains Cree of the game between the Montreal Canadiens and Carolina Hurricanes marked the first time that an NHL game went to air in an Indigenous language.

And on an occasion so fully focussed on the future, present, and past of Indigenous hockey, the man who blazed such a crucial trail was entirely, inexplicably absent. Buddy Maracle didn’t rate so much a mention during Hometown Hockey’s extensive coverage that day.

No Show: First in a series of between-periods boards from Hometown Hockey’s March 24, 2019 broadcast from Enoch Cree Nation in Alberta that somehow forgot Buddy Maracle.

It may be that when the Hockey Hall announces its 2019 class on Tuesday we’ll learn that Buddy Maracle’s time has come, along with — who else’s? Maybe will Reggie Leach, the first Indigenous superstar, finally get his due? Or Rick Middleton? I might bet on Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards making the cut, if I were betting. And, no question: Hayley Wickenheiser. Is this the year Andy Moog gets the call, or Tom Barrasso? What about Seth Martin, J.C. Tremblay, Claude Provost, Lorne Chabot? And then, of course, there’s the perennial clamour for Paul Henderson.

It’s worth saying that the Hockey Hall of Fame is a sovereign state, independent of the NHL, and that it (in theory) thinks and acts for itself, makes its own choices, follows its own stars. I’m not suggesting that if Maracle and his story don’t break through next week it should be seen in a nefarious light. What it will mean is exactly this: his nomination didn’t get enough votes.

Whatever happens, the Hall has quietly shifted its narrative in the past year. Pre-2018, if you’d steered your way over to the Hall’s extensive online biographical dictionary of all-time NHLers, here’s what you would have read for Fred Sasakamoose:

and Buddy Maracle:

I can’t say just when the change was made, but it’s been several months now since the Hockey Hall of Hall adopted a new line and started informing visitors on their respective player pages (Sasakamoose’s here and Maracle’s here) that while “Fred Sasakamoose is among the first Indigenous people to appear in an NHL game,” “Henry Elmer ‘Buddy’ Maracle holds the distinction of being the first Indigenous person to appear in an NHL game.” So that’s some kind of progress.

Family Dues: Members of Buddy Maracle’s extended family gathered during yesterday’s celebrations at the Gaylord Powless Arena in Ohsweken, Ontario.

 

 

 

jimmy jamieson: recalling the nhl’s second indigenous player

Born on a Monday of this date in 1921, Jimmy Jamieson was a hard-hitting defenceman who played just a single big-league game, with the New York Rangers, in 1944. When he suited up that winter for duty on the bluelines of Madison Square Garden, Jamieson almost certainly became the second Indigenous player to play in the NHL, 13 years after Buddy Maracle debuted in Rangers’ blue in 1931, nine years before Fred Sasakamoose skated for the Chicago Black Hawks in 1953.

During his hockey career, newspapers tended to refer to Jamieson’s Cayuga background, though Canadian government records seem to show that his family was Mohawk. He was born in Brantford, Ontario, though his family lived on the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve, probably near Ohsweken. His father, Venus, was a farmer who’s said to have chased pucks in his own right, plying a stick on outdoor rinks as a youth.

His son’s eight-year career as a minor-league defenceman took him to New York and Baltimore in the Eastern Amateur Hockey League, out to Pasadena for a stint in the Pacific Coast Hockey League, and to Milwaukee and Akron in the International Hockey League. While we have have his physical specs from those years (5’9” and 170 pounds), and the usual bare-bones statistical reporting, there’s no detailed descriptive accounting of Jimmy Jamieson’s hockey years.

He played one full season, 1943-44, with the Rangers’ farm team, the EAHL New York Rovers, and it looks to have been a solid one. The Rangers took him to their pre-season training Winnipeg that year, but he didn’t make the cut. With the Rovers his teammates included goaltender Al Rollins, who was later a Leaf and a Black Hawk, as well as defenceman Fred Shero, a Ranger-to-be who’d eventually win a pair of Stanley Cups coaching the Philadelphia Flyers. In 40 games, Jamieson was the highest-scoring defenceman, with six goals and 16 points, and led the team in penalty minutes with 73.

Frank Boucher was in his fifth year coaching the New York Rangers in 1943. While he’d steered the team to a Stanley Cup in his first year behind the bench, things had slipped since then. As the new year replaced the old, the team was, as the local Daily News put it, firmly cellared, dead last in the six-team NHL standings, 13 points adrift of Chicago. Though Boucher’s stellar career on the ice had ended five years earlier, the situation was so desperate in New York — and the Ranger roster so depleted by wartime manpower shortages — that Boucher had returned to the ice at the age of 42.

It wasn’t enough. Heading into a mid-January home game against the Black Hawks, New York was mired in a five-game losing streak. Trying to jolt the team’s fortunes, manager Lester Patrick announced that he was adding three new players to the roster, including winger Kilby Macdonald, who’d been on that 1940 Stanley Cup team and won the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie. With centre Hank Damore, acquired from the Brooklyn Crescents of the EAHL, he’d do his best to boost the Rangers’ attack. Jamieson was summoned from the Rovers to bolster New York’s blueline.

Macdonald didn’t make it to New York in time for the Chicago game, but the other two suited up. It’s possibly (probably?) a coincidence that Jamieson wore the number 14 that night — the same one that Buddy Maracle had borne on his sweater during his stay with the Rangers 13 years earlier. (No-one seems to have noticed at that time; in fact, I can find no mention of Maracle and his achievement at all in the coverage from the 1940s.)

Against Chicago, when Damore rifled a second-period shot past Black Hawks’ goaltender Mike Karakas, the assists went to Ab DeMarco and Jamieson. That made the score 4-1 for Chicago, and the visitors did end up winning 5-2 to push New York’s unhappy streak of losses to six games.

And that was all for Jim Jamieson in the NHL. Macdonald would stick, playing out the season in New York and returning for one more; Damore lasted four games in all, the only ones he played in the NHL before returning to the minors.

For Jamieson, it was one and done: following the Chicago loss, he was returned to the Rovers. The coming-and-going was nothing new, Harold Burr wrote that same week in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle; the way it was with the Rangers that year, he quipped, trainer Harry Westerby didn’t know half of the players’ first names.

Other factors that may have been at play: by adding three new players, Patrick does seem to have exceeded the NHL roster limit. With centre Chuck Scherza out injured, the Rangers’ long-serving captain Ott Heller had been moved up to the forward line. With Scherza’s return, Heller was shifting back. So it may have been a matter of numbers that bumped Jamieson back to the Rovers.

The American papers did take note of Jamieson’s background, even if they weren’t quite so sure what it was they were talking about, variously identifying him as “a full-blooded Cherokee Indian;” “a full-blooded Iroquois Indian;” “a full-blooded Cayuga, Indian;” and a plain old “full-blooded Indian.”

Several reports did note that his status eased his travels between Canada and the U.S., which was often a complicated process for hockey players in wartime. “His people,” the Daily Eagle advised, “have numerous peace treaties with the Canadian Government that make it easy for Jimmy to cross the border where other players are held up by yards of red tape.”

Accounts of Buddy Maracle’s career from a decade earlier make the racism he faced, in rinks and in newsprint, all too insidiously clear. That there’s nothing so explicit in the press attending Jamieson’s years as a professionally hockey player doesn’t mean that he didn’t experience any, just that it may not have been written down and reported as it once so casually was.

I can’t tell you much about Jim Jamieson’s post-hockey life, other than that he seems to have done some coaching in Brantford in the 1950s. He died at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Brantford in December of 1985 at the age of 64. He’s buried in a family plot at Six Nations.

Also worth a note: Jamieson’s brother, elder by seven years, was also a talented hockey player. Mostly a right winger, Wendell Jamieson was (somewhat confusingly) also mostly known as Jimmy during his hockey-playing days. He never made it to the NHL, but he did have a long career as a minor-leaguer through the 1930s and ’40s, much of it in the old American Hockey League.

In 1938-39, the elder, non-NHL Jimmy Jamieson joined the Detroit Holzbaugh of the Michigan-Ontario Hockey League. At 24, he was described as a fast skater and accomplished stickhandler, and seen as one of his team’s prime offensive threats. Anchoring the defence of one of the teams he faced that year, the Detroit Pontiac Chiefs, was a 34-year veteran with “an oft-broken nose” who’d converted from left wing to blueliner: Buddy Maracle.

fifteen games a ranger: buddy maracle, in and out of the nhl

In A Minors Key: The Springfield Indians, probably in their 1928-29 configuration. Back row, from the left, best as I can tell, that’s coach Frank Carroll, Frank Waite, Harry Foster, Leroy Goldsworthy, and Laurie Scott (?). Front, from left: Buddy Maracle, Wilfrid Desmarais, Andy Aitkenhead, Clark Whyte (?), Art Chapman.

The turn of the calendar from January to February brings Hockey Is For Everyone™ — “a joint NHL and NHLPA initiative celebrating diversity and inclusion in hockey.” There’s a hashtag, there are websites (here and here), a mobile museum; there are events and programs planned around the league, throughout the month. Ambassadors have been named, one for each NHL team; others are drawn from women’s hockey, the media, as well as from the ranks of the league’s distinguished alumni.

Fred Sasakamoose is one of the latter. His story and achievements have both been widely chronicled, and there’s no questioning his contributions or commitment as a hockey pioneer and change-maker. Last year, he was a worthy (and past due) recipient of the Order of Canada. To point out (again) that Sasakamoose doesn’t seem, in fact, to have been the NHL’s first Indigenous player doesn’t diminish his achievements, or affront his dedication to many causes, hockey and otherwise, over the years. The NHL doesn’t want to get into it, apparently: in recent months, the league’s position on its own history so far as it involves Buddy Maracle and his apparent breakthrough has been — no position at all. You’ll find his statistics archived on NHL.com, but no word of his story, beyond those bare numbers. I’ve asked both the league and the New York Rangers, for whom Maracle played in 1931, about whether they have plans to recognize and/or honour his legacy. They don’t.

Maybe there’s a debate to be had, maybe not: the NHL is nothing if not steadfast in staying as aloof as possible from the history. This month, still, wherever he’s introduced in the league’s Hockey Is For Everyone outlay, Fred Sasakamoose remains “the NHL’s first Canadian indigenous player.”

Here (again): Buddy Maracle’s story. A version of this post first appeared in the January 7, 2019, edition of The Hockey News.

Buddy Maracle’s time as an NHLer lasted not quite two months in 1931, and when it was over it quickly subsided into the thickets of history and statistics. A review of the records indicates that, beyond the big league, he played all over the North American map in a career that lasted nearly 20 years. What they don’t so readily reveal is why now, 60 years after his death, Maracle is being recognized as a hockey trailblazer. That has to do with something that the NHL itself has been reluctant to acknowledge: Maracle’s legacy as the league’s first Indigenous player.

For years, Fred Sasakamoose has been credited as having been the man who made that breakthrough when he skated as a 19-year-old for the Chicago Black Hawks in 1953. Now 85, Sasakamoose, from Saskatchewan’s Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation, has been justly celebrated for his hockey exploits and as a mentor to Indigenous youth. Last year, he was named a Member of the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.

And yet history suggests that at least two other Indigenous players preceded Sasakamoose into the NHL. The oversight has a long if not exactly distinguished history: those who’d gone before had already been all but forgotten by the time Sasakamoose joined Chicago for the 11 games he played over the course of the 1953-54 season.

The question of just who might have been the NHL’s original Indigenous player goes back to the league’s very beginnings. According to NHL records, Paul Jacobs lined up for the Toronto Arenas for a single game in the league’s second season in 1918. Jacobs, who was Mohawk from Kahnawake, near Montreal, did indeed practice with Charlie Querrie’s team in the pre-season, but the evidence that he actually made it to regular-season ice is sparse, at best.

Taffy Abel, who played defence for the 1924 U.S. Olympic team, had Chippewa background, though it’s not clear how much. When New York launched its first NHL team in 1925, the Americans, someone had the bright idea of pretending that a non-Indigenous Montreal-born centreman, Rene Boileau, was in fact a Mohawk star by the name of Rainy Drinkwater. Manager Tommy Gorman might have been behind the stunt, though he later said it was all co-owner Tom Duggan’s idea; either way, it quickly flopped.

When the New York Rangers joined the league the following year, Conn Smythe was the man briefly in charge of assembling a roster. The man who’d go on to invent and shape the destiny of the Toronto Maple Leafs was fired from his first NHL job before his fledglings played an NHL game. Smythe did recruit Taffy Abel before he ceded his job to Lester Patrick, and he seems to have had an eye on Maracle, too, who was by then skating in Toronto’s Mercantile League. As it was, 22-year-old Maracle found a home with a Ranger farm team that fall.

There’s much that we don’t know about how Maracle got to that point. Much of what is known of his earliest years has been pieced together by Irene Schmidt-Adeney, a reporter for The Ayr News who took an interest in the Maracle story early last year.

A town of 4,000 in southwestern Ontario, Ayr is arranged around a curve of the Nith River, a frozen stretch of which, just to the south, Wayne Gretzky skated as a boy. It’s by way of Schmidt-Adeney’s researches that we understand that young Albert Maracle and his family, Oneida Mohawks, seem to have moved close to town after departing the nearby Six Nations of the Grand River reserve in the early 1900s. At some point Albert married Elsie Hill; their son, Buddy-to-be, was born Henry Elmer Maracle in Ayr in September of 1904.

The family subsequently headed north, to Haileybury, which is where Henry got his hockey-playing start, first at high school, then as a junior with the North Bay Trappers. He seems to have gone mostly by Elmer in those years, though the course of his career he began to show up in contemporary newspapers as Bud, Clarence, Moose, and (inevitably) Chief. Buddy seems to have taken hold by the time, in 1926, that he found himself farmed out to New York’s Can-Am Hockey League affiliate team in Springfield, Massachusetts — which just happened to be nicknamed the Indians.

Accounts of him from his hockey heyday in the late 1920s and early ’30s note his size and his speed, his deft stickhandling, his “tireless” checking. “Comes at you from all directions,” was one opponent’s assessment of his play on the left wing. “Maracle is so big that stiff body checks hurt the checker more than they do him,” The Boston Globe enthused. “Players just bounce off him.”

He’d end up playing six seasons in Springfield, captaining the team, and becoming a favourite with the fans for his industry and failure to quit. Watching him play in Philadelphia, one admiring writer decided that he “personified the ideal of American sportsmanship.”

For all the admiration Maracle garnered in his playing days, many contemporary newspapers had trouble getting his heritage straight: over the years, he was variously identified as Iroquois, Blackfoot, Sioux, Sac Fox, and “the last Mohican.”

“Redskin Icer” was another epithet that featured in press reports of Maracle’s exploits. Recounting his hockey deeds, reporters were also only too pleased to couch their columns with references to warpaths and wigwams, war whoops, tomahawks, and scalps.

Assessing just how much of this was idle stereotyping and how much pointedly racist is beside the point: casual or otherwise, it’s all more or less insidious. As nasty as it reads on the page in old newspapers, how much worse must it have been for Maracle in the moment? When Springfield visited Boston Garden in 1929 to play the hometown Tigers, local fans singled out Maracle for abuse: whenever he touched the puck, a local columnist blithely reported, “there were shouts of ‘Kill him.’”

Maracle got his NHL chance towards the end of the 1930-31 season. “Those who used to boo the Noble Red Man in the Canadian-American League can now boo him in the National Hockey League,” The Boston Globe advised, “though, of course, it will cost more.”

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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.”

 

ayrborn: recognizing buddy maracle, the nhl’s first indigenous player

Once A Ranger: A photo of Buddy Maracle as he appeared during his 1931 stint with the New York Rangers adorns a sweater donated by the modern-day Rangers at the Queen Elizabeth Arena in Maracle’s hometown of Ayr, Ontario, during the June 13 ceremony.

Buddy Maracle played just 11 games in the NHL, in 1931, and when his time on the left wing with the New York Rangers came to an end that season, the memory of what he’d achieved was quick to fade.

Maracle, who was Mohawk, seems to have been the first Indigenous player to have skated in the NHL. But while historians have long recognized this distinction, including many belonging to the Society for International Hockey Research (SIHR), the news hasn’t exactly resonated in the wider world. The NHL itself doesn’t acknowledge Maracle and what he achieved — the history as the league has it is that Cree center Fred Sasakamoose was the original Indigenous player when he skated out for the Chicago Black Hawks in 1953-54.

It’s no disrespect to Sasakamoose, 84, to point out this discrepancy, and doesn’t diminish his achievements, which were deservedly recognized last month when Governor-General Julie Payette made him a member of the Order of Canada. Mostly known in his hockey-playing days as “Buddy,” Maracle appears to have been already well and truly forgotten in 1953 when Sasakamoose made his debut, and the forgetting just continued on from there. Maracle wasn’t alone in fading into near-oblivion — a second Indigenous Ranger, defenceman Jim Jamieson, also preceded Sasakamoose on NHL ice, playing a single NHL game in 1944. His background was Cayuga, from Six Nations First Nation in southwestern Ontario.

Sixty years after his death in 1958, Maracle is now gaining some measure of the recognition he’s due.

Much of that is thanks to the efforts of Irene Schmidt-Adeney, a journalist in Ayr, Ontario, the small town, south of Kitchener, where Maracle was born in 1904. Her research into Maracle’s story resulted in a series of articles this spring in The Ayr News, the newspaper where she’s a reporter.

Earlier this month, she also organized a poignant community ceremony in Maracle’s honour that was attended by members of his family along with an array of local politicians and hockey luminaries.

“A short NHL career,” Schmidt-Adeney said there, in the second-floor hall of the Queen Elizabeth Arena, “but long enough to give Ayr bragging rights.”

On a night that also featured a concert by the 40-piece Ayr-Paris Band, Schmidt-Adeney began by sketching out the story of the journey that took Maracle from this small southwestern Ontario town of 4,000 to hockey’s heights. She finished up by presenting two latter-day New York Rangers sweaters emblazoned with Maracle’s name and number (14).

One went to Sue Foxton, mayor of the Township of North Dumfries, in which Ayr is situated. The second was presented to Terry General, a councillor from the Six Nations of the Grand River, which lies some 50 kilometres to the southeast.

The Rangers, at least, appear to acknowledge Maracle’s achievement: at Schmidt-Adeney’s request, the team donated the sweaters.

It was a Globe and Mail obituary in February that started Schmidt-Adeney’s campaign leading up to the June 13 event. A reader of hers saw a mention of Maracle’s Ayr connection in Tom Hawthorn’s remembrance of hockey player Art Dorrington. Intrigued, she did what reporters do, and started digging. Her inquiries took her to the Six Nations Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford, and it was there that she was able to trace the histories of Maracle’s parents, Albert and Elsie, both of whom were Mohawk from Six Nations.

They were living in Blenheim Township, near Ayr, when Henry Elmer Maracle was born on September 8, 1904. Albert was a farm worker, and Schmidt-Adeney’s research points to the possibility that the family attended Ayr’s Presbyterian church. It’s not clear just where they were living at the time the baby was born, and if he was in fact delivered in town, it have been because that’s where the doctor was. If details of that are lacking, Schmidt-Adeney does note that in 1924, when Buddy Maracle married, he gave his birthplace as Ayr.

“I didn’t know anything about his side of the family,” Christine Pritchard was saying after the June 13 event. Her great-great grandfather was Wesley Richard Maracle, Albert Maracle’s elder brother, but in her 20 years of research into the family’s history, she’d never come across Buddy Maracle’s story. It was only after Schmidt-Adeney’s initial Ayr News article was published in March that someone from Six Nations alerted her to the connection. She came to Ayr with her aunt, Nancy Maracle, both of whom live in St. Catherines.

“I was ecstatic when I heard what he’d done,” Nancy Maracle said. “I thought, this is something. Now he’s recognized. It’s a big deal.” She’s one of ten siblings, she said; her father, Albert, was named after Buddy’s father. Growing up in the Niagara Peninsula, her whole family chased pucks, she said. “My father always had us out on the pond — we played on Fifteen Mile Pond.”

Buddy Maracle and his family moved north at some point during his childhood. He first made his mark as a hockey player in Haileybury, playing for his high school, before going to North Bay in the early 1920s, where he worked as a riveter when he wasn’t skating the wing for the Trappers of the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League. In the mid-1920s, he went to the Springfield Indians of the Can-Am League, where he played four years before taking his NHL turn in 1931. There’s more on that here.

A couple of Rangers of later vintage who now live locally attended the June 13 ceremony. Dean Prentice, now 85, played the first 11 of his 22 NHL seasons in New York. In the 1970s, following his retirement from as an NHL left winger, he worked for the North Dumfries recreation department. Jay Wells, 59, got his start on the ice with Ayr Minor Hockey before serving 18 seasons as a defenceman with seven NHL teams, including the Los Angeles Kings, Buffalo Sabres, and the Rangers.

Neither Prentice nor Wells knew of Maracle when they were in the NHL.

“I think it’s a great thing,” Wells said of Ayr’s recognition of Maracle. “It was a long time coming. It’s awesome.”

Terry General, the councillor from Six Nations, was emotional when he got up to accept one of the Ranger-blue sweaters from Irene Schmidt-Adeney. He spoke with pride of other hockey players from Six Nations who’ve worked their way to NHL ice, including Stan Jonathan, who made his name as an unforgiving left winger for the Boston Bruins in the 1970s, and defenceman Brandon Montour, who plays for Anaheim’s Ducks.

General said he’d known nothing of Buddy Maracle before he heard Schmidt-Adeney’s accounting. “I’ll take this sweater back with a lot of pride,” he said, near tears. “After today, many Six Nations people will know who he is. When we hang this sweater up in our arena, he’ll be recognized by 15,000 people that live on the rez.”

“Buddy was the first one,” General said, “and I’m glad. There will be many more.”

 

Maracle’s 14: Showing their Ranger blues at the June 13 ceremony in Ayr, Ontario, are (left to right) Terry General, councillor from the Six Nations of the Grand River; Sue Foxton, mayor of the Township of North Dumfries; Irene Schmidt-Adeney.

 

(Images, top and bottom: © Stephen Smith)

breaking through: notes on fred sasakamoose in 1953, and some others, who went before

Here’s what seems reasonable to say: the facts on just who might have been the NHL’s first Indigenous player are unsettled.

I wrote about this back in December, here, but it bears reviewing.

The record on whether Paul Jacobs actually skated for Toronto in 1918 is — murky.

What about Taffy Abel of the Chicago Black Hawks in the 1920s? Not so clear.

I’m not the only one who’d say the strongest case would seem to be that of Buddy Maracle, who played for the New York Rangers in 1931.

Jim Jamieson, also a Ranger, would seem to have come next, in 1944.

Which gets us to Sasakamoose. There’s no disrespect for what he’s achieved in his career in the suggestion that he’s probably the third Indigenous player to have skated in the NHL. So why hasn’t the NHL gotten around to acknowledging this?

This isn’t new news. It’s been discussed before. Not by the NHL, pointedly — the league shows no interest the history beyond the version they’ve settled on. No interest, at least, in disturbing the history that seems to have served just fine since Sasakamoose was actually in the league. No-one was acknowledging Maracle and Jamieson in the 1950s, let alone telling their stories — they’d already been forgotten.

Sasakamoose gets a second call to the NHL, in February of 1954.

The silencing and erasure of Indigenous stories is, of course, another not-new Canadian story. Sasakamoose was only briefly an NHLer in the 1950s, and whatever currency his story had in the mainstream press in Canada and the United States at the time was couched in stereotypes, assumptions, and casual racism.

That his story is being told now, frankly and in fuller frame, with all the pain and ugliness of his experience at residential school, is a greater good. (See, in particular, Marty Klinkenberg’s powerful 2016 Globe and Mail profile.) But what about acknowledging the other Indigenous NHLers who went before? Why is this so hard?

In late December, when Sasakamoose was named a Member of the Order of Canada, he was on the ice at Edmonton’s Rogers Place to preside over a ceremonial face-off ahead of a game with the Chicago Blackhawks.

The NHL line and that of all the press attending those events was that he was the first Indigenous player. Reporting another story in January, I e-mailed a contact at the league to ask about the possibility that maybe that wasn’t so. Here’s what I heard back:

As far as we know, Sasakamoose was the first Canadian Indigenous player with ties to First Nations. Since we don’t track race/ethnicity, we rely on archives/online stories, and information from the players themselves. In Canada there are lots of communities with ties to First Nations — it’s possible there was a player with Indigenous parents that played before Sasakamoose, but there’s no way to know for sure.

A month later, no such latitude seems to have worked its way into the wider conversation, where there still seems to be no doubt about Sasakamoose’s firstness to the fore. In a front-page story in today’s Globe and Mail, Marty Klinkenberg celebrates Ethan Bear, the latest First Nations player to make it to the NHL. Sasakamoose is in the lede: “the first Indigenous player in the NHL.”

Same again earlier in the week, via the league’s own editorial arm, NHL.com, where Tom Gulitti was still, in a prominent Sasakamoose profile, putting him ahead of any others.

I tweeted a note to Gulitti, with a link to my Maracle story, but didn’t hear back. Along with several other writers, elsewhere, Gulitti also touted this week as the anniversary of Sasakamoose’s NHL debut, in 1954. (Klinkenberg mentions ’54, too.) Quibblesome as it’s going to sound, that’s not right, either.

It’s true that Sasakamoose, rookie centreman, was in the line-up for Chicago when they played in Toronto on February 27 of ’54. But he’d already been called up from the minors earlier that season, in November of ’53.

He’d made an impression at the Black Hawks training camp that year, as Arch Ward of The Chicago Tribune told his readers that September. The Hawks, he wrote, “have a genuine Injun hockey player — Chief Running Deer — under contract, but will call him up to the Stadium ice this season only if they need an attraction to boost the gate receipts.” He continued:

The chief is only 18 and plans to play junior hockey with Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, where he will be listed in the program as Fred Sasakamoose. … He is a full blooded Cree and as such collects $5 a month from the Canadian government under the ancient peace treaty with the tribe. … Sasakamoose, or Running Deer, is 5 feet 11 inches tall, weighs 165 pounds, a fast centre, and ambidextrous. … Gordie Howe of the Detroit Red Wings is the only ambidextrous player in the National Hockey League at the moment and experts say he does not operate as smoothly as Sasakamoose, or Running Deer.

The Black Hawks had played 20 games when Sasakamoose re-joined them, in New York, on a Wednesday, November 18, under the supervision of Black Hawks’ scout (and former NHL goaltender) Tiny Thompson. That was necessary, the Tribune explained, “because of a Canadian law which requires that a guardian accompany any Indian minor when travelling away from his reservation.”

Chicago coach Sid Abel was said to have high hopes for him when he put him into the line-up on the Friday, at home against Boston. The Tribune said he “gave a spirited account of himself,” showing “a pleasing willingness to rough it up” in Chicago’s 2-0 loss, firing “two or three good shots” on the Bruins’ Sugar Jim Henry.

For Sunday’s game, home again to Toronto, Abel put him on a line with veterans Bill Mosienko and George Gee. He didn’t really feature as the Leafs prevailed 5-1 — or if he did, the Chicago papers didn’t take notice. They did mention that next morning, Monday, the Hawks sent him down: Tiny Thompson took Sasakamoose back to Moose Jaw, where he’d play through until the next call-up, in February.