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.”

 

department of throwing stuff: somewhere else in the nhl

20160419_back

Throwdown: Yesterday’s Philadelphia Daily News leads with debris.

The Flyers started last night in Philadelphia with a heartfelt tribute to the team’s late owner, Ed Snider, followed by a quick goal for the home team. Game three of their opening-round series with the much-favoured Washington Capitals didn’t end so well. There was, in third period, the hit-from-behind by Flyers’ forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare on Washington defenceman Dmitry Orlov that saw the former banished from the ice, and a testy display by fans who littered the ice with the bracelets they’d been given to help with a light-show to such an extent that the referee gave the Flyers a delay-of-game penalty. There was the final score, too: Capitals 6, Flyers 1.

They were warned, the fans, ahead of the penalty. Lou Nolan, the 70-year-old PA announcer at the Wells Fargo Centre, was hired originally in 1972 to be the voice of the old Spectrum. Has he ever sounded so vexed? After the brawl that ensued Bellemare’s hit, once fans had tossed at least 50 wristbands on the ice (Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Sam Carchidi did the estimating), Nolan told fans to “show class.”

He also felt that a reminder might do some good: “This,” he said, “is Philadelphia, not somewhere else in the NHL.”

He wasn’t finished. “The next one who does it will cause us a minor penalty. Do not do it.”

One did, of course. When Alexander Ovechkin scored his second goal of the game, more wristbands flew, and the promised penalty was duly called. Announcing it, Nolan added a message of his own: “Way to go.”

The history of throwing stuff at hockey games is long and — well, I don’t know that the word storied applies, since the story has always pretty much been the same, of disgruntled/mischief-making spectators flinging what’s at hand even though hockey authorities and/or policemen try to stop them from flinging. The stoppers have been largely if not entirely successful, over the years. I wrote about hockey stuff-throwing at some length in Puckstruck, the book, and if I didn’t go too deep into mechanics of the stoppage campaign, I was able to catalogue, I think, just how much it really was a part of the game for a long time while at the same time taking a certain joy in listing the rich variety of stuff that has been flung through the years.

“You look at those bracelets,” Washington coach Barry Trotz was saying this morning, “they’re white, the ice is white. All you need is for Claude Giroux to step on one and snap his leg in half.” That’s true — at least, that’s all you don’t need. The throwing of stuff is dangerous, and always was — I talk about that, too, in the book.

Philadelphia COO Sean Tilger condemned the flingers. “We will not condone or tolerate their behavior,” he said today. “They embarrassed the city and the majority of the fanbase that behaved the right way.”

What will the Flyers do to prevent a repeat performance when the two tams meet again tomorrow night? I’m sure they’ve got plans. For one thing, they won’t be handing out more wristbands. They’ve already promised that. Will they draft in extra ushers to police the aisles?

That was a big part of the anti-toss campaign mounted by the Chicago Black Hawks towards the end of the Second World War. Chicago’s old Stadium was one of the more notorious venues for debris in the old NHL days; it could be the very somewhere else that Lou Nolan was invoking last night when he tried to shame those wayward Flyers fans last night.

April, 1944. That spring, the Hawks met the Montreal Canadiens in the finals. Montreal had won the first game at home and in the second, at the Stadium, Maurice Richard scored a pair of goals in what would end as a 3-1 Canadiens victory. To try to contain him, Chicago coach Paul Thompson sent out winger George Allen to trail the Rocket with thoughts of nothing else. Here’s Dink Carroll of the Gazette to take up Allen’s tale:

Instead of obeying instructions, he tried to check Elmer Lach and the pair tangled near the mouth of the Chicago goal. Suddenly Allen came out of the scramble and made for Referee Bill Chadwick, claiming that Lach had been guilty of holding and demanding a penalty. Chadwick ignored him and play continued with Lach again scooping up the puck and passing out in front to Richard, who banged it into the net.

It was then that the greatest fusillade of missiles ever thrown at a hockey game started to rain down on the ice from the huge crowd. For 17 minutes this barrage held up the game, officials and players being completely helpless.

An inventory of the objects thrown lists a bottle, the back of a chair, a compact followed by a lipstick case, heavy wads of rolled-up newspapers, coins, mirrors, one bicycle horn, apples, orange peels — some with oranges in them — playing cards, chocolate cookies, hamburgers, and a few bolts and nuts. At one stage Elmer Lach, who had collected a deck of cards, sat down in centre ice and started a game of solitaire.

At least one novel descended to the ice: Dorsha Hayes’ 1943 barnburner Mrs. Heaton’s Daughter.

Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis was at the game, the baseball commissioner, sitting directly behind the Montreal bench, where a folding chair, hurled from on high, almost hit him.

In The Chicago Tribune, Edward Prell put the crowd at 16,003 and rated their rumpus “the wildest demonstration in the west side arena’s hockey history.” To Carroll’s inventory he added, half-eaten hot dogs, paper airplanes, pennies. “Workmen feverishly swept, but just when the rink was almost cleared, fresh consignments of debris descended to the cheers of the wrought-up fans.”

The Hawks sent their star winger, 38-year-old Johnny Gottselig, to the PA to plead with the loyalists. “Let’s get on with the game,” he suggested. Carroll: “It was the signal for a fresh outburst from the crowd.”

Chicago president Bill Tobin couldn’t believe that the 50 ushers on duty that night hadn’t apprehended a single malefactor. “Somebody might have been hurt, or even killed.”

Black Hawks’ owner Major Frederic McLaughlin vowed that for the next game an extra 50 ushers would be on duty. It was his idea, too, that the home team should be penalized if debris on the ice forced a delay in the game.

Andy Frain was the man commanding the Stadium ushers come Sunday’s game. The Tribune’s list of items confiscated from ticket-holders at the rink’s entrance included:

coat hangers
walnuts and hickory nuts
steel bolts
marbles
bags of rice and flour
oranges and limes
megaphones
playing cards
pieces of steel
quart bottles of beer
rolls of pennies
a couple of folding chairs.

This plunder, and more, was handed over to the Warren Avenue police detachment. “As a result of the frisking,” the Tribune noted, “last night’s game set a model for decorum in the stands.”

Not that it helped the Hawk cause. They lost the game, 3-2, along with the next one, back in Montreal, where the score was 5-4. The Canadiens’ Cup-winning effort didn’t go without disruption, as Edward Prell logged in the next morning’s paper:

Earlier in the evening when things were going against their heroes, the Montreal spectators had demonstrated that Chicago’s fervent fans have no monopoly on the practice of using the rink for a rubbish heap. Their pet weapons were rubber overshoes, and a bottle or two descended on the ice, but the game never was delayed more than a few seconds.

debris chi

Ammo Dump: the game-three haul gathered by Stadium ushers, from Chicago’s Tribune, April 10, 1944.

falling through the ice: lucky I have this hockey stick

rescue

“We’re coming,” Joe shouted. “Don’t be afraid.” And as he skated he tried to remember all he had learned at Scout meetings about rescuing people who broke through the ice.

“It’s lucky I have this hockey stick,” he thought, for as he drew nearer the terror-stricken child and felt the thinner ice begin to crack beneath him, he carefully went down flat on his stomach and held the stick out in front of him, pushing it slowly closer and closer to the hole. Once his heart was in his mouth, for the little red head disappeared and he was terrified lest the current should sweep the child under the ice, beyond all hope of rescue. The little boy was plainly growing weaker, but even such feeble attempts as he was able to make to clamber out of the hole kept breaking the ice around him.

At last Joe shoved the hockey stick close enough. “Hang on,” he pleaded. “Hang on to the stick. Just grab it with both hands and Joe will pull you out all right.” He kept his voice calm so the frightened, freezing child who had been sobbing piteously and thrashing into deeper danger in his panic, quieted for a moment — long enough to notice the stout stick on the jagged ice in front of him.

• Skating Today (1945), M.R. Renick, illustrated by Raymond Vartanian

falling through the ice: nat, come back here!

pass that puck

Following a few series of “starts and stops,” Mr. Hopkins tossed outa dozen pucks that Whitey had handed him. This was the sign that formal practice had ended. The bay now became a madhouse of “shinny.”

After allowing a few minutes of this unrestrained fun, Mr. Hopkins called all but the seniors off the ice. Whitey Sherman limped out to the row of beams. He had to bring in the red flags that marked the boundaries. He watched Ted Dunsworth and Nat Collier skating down the ice passing the puck back and forth in mid-season form.

Just before reaching the boundaries, Ted stopped and fed a hard pass toward the beams, while Nat swung wide to pick it up. The puck, passed too hard, lifted slightly off the ice, hit the top of the beams, and skidded into the out-of-bounds area.

Without a bit of hesitation, Nat jumped lightly over the beams and skated in pursuit.

Aware of the closeness of treacherous ice, Whitey, who was nearest to him, shouted, “Nat come back here!”

The puck was sliding fast now. Nat reached it in a second, curled his stick around it, stopped suddenly and swept the puck back toward the beams. At the same time, Whitey and the others that were watching, saw the ice area around Nat suddenly sag and give way. With arms outstretched, hockey stick in the air, Nat Collier settled into the water.

• Pass That Puck! (1948), Richard T. Flood

falling through the ice: take your skates off, poletti, they’re weighin’ ya down

dangerSometimes in the hockey novels, the pond where the high-school team plays its big game is beautiful, black and smooth and deep, and the sound that skates make on it bespeaks power and gracefulness and cold outdoor air, such that young Jack Taylor, who watches the game, can’t resist heading out onto this same ice a few days later when the weather starts to warm.

I’m speaking here of Lightning On Ice, Philip Harkins’ 1946 novel for young readers, and if you can see where we’re heading, well, yes, obviously. The pond doesn’t have a name, though it’s big enough, apparently, to be called a lake. The boys find a sheltered cove where the ice, soft as it is, seems thick enough. They ignore the signs warning them off. They shed their shoes, pull on skates. It’s older boys, mostly. Jack is younger, meek. At first, there’s no room for him in the game, but then one of the captains says he can tend goal. Poletti. Jack doesn’t want to play in goal but, okay, fine. Schulz is the other captain, and a jerk. It’s his wrist shot that hits Jack in the shin, fells him briefly, despite everybody having agreed to no raising. I’m not going to get into the bad blood that boils between Schulz and Poletti. Poletti pokechecks him — I will say that. And so:

Schulz, chagrined, watched the puck skim over the ice. Then his chagrin vanished as he saw the rubber disc slide serenely out of the cove onto the thin ice of the pond. Watching the puck and realizing what this would mean to its owner, Schulz broke into a laugh. “O.K., wise guy!” he cried. “There’s your pokecheck and there’s your puck. You go get it — and have a good swim!”

Poletti goes. It’s his puck, the only one he’s got. The rest of the players look on. He skates fast, gets to the puck, whacks it to safety, turns back.

Poletti was returning. The ice was sagging dangerously, rising up and down beneath him like a rippling snake. Poletti was skating uphill and downhill over the creaking ice. A boy yelled, “Come on, Poletti. You kin make it.”

No. Not true. He trips, cries out, crashes through the ice. O no.

The boys stood paralyzed. Then they broke into excited cries and skated in excited circles. “He’s up,” someone shouted. Poletti had pulled himself onto a ledge of solid ice and was pushing himself up with his arms. Suddenly the ledge gave way and Poletti dropped back into the icy water. Cakes of ice ground around him, seemed to promise support, and then sank under his weight.

ftti harkins - Version 2

Take off your skates, Schulz counsels from afar: “They’re weighin’ ya down!” No way: those skates cost him ten bucks. Jack’s the one who goes after Poletti, of course: it’s his job as the novel’s hero. Along with his nerve, he’s got a plan.

When he reached the thin ice of the pond, he dropped to one knee and, getting flat on his stomach, wriggled forward with extended hockey stick. He ignored the warnings of the other players.

“Grab my ankle,” he cried to them, and someone followed, lay down, and grabbed Jack’s ankle. Then another joined the human chain and another, and now there were four boys anchored to Schulz, who was kneeling on the thick safe ice of the cove.

Jack slid farther out near Poletti. Poletti thrashed against the heavy ice cakes, pushed them aside, and fought his way to solid ice. Jack stretched, Poletti strained. Then Poletti managed to grasp the end of the hockey stick which Jack extended toward him.

“O.K. Pull,” cried Jack. “Everybody hold on with two hands!”

Slowly painfully, Poletti came up out of the icy water onto ice that held under his weight, over the ice of the pond to the thicker ice of the cove, where he lay at last soaked, dripping, safe.

All’s well that ends & etc. Happy and proud, Jack joins Poletti for hot chocolate and hot dogs. What could be better? “A day that had started miserably,

with an assignment of goal tending and a painful bang on the shin, had turned out extremely well; by express invitation he was walking home with a big boy, a high school boy, a good hockey player.