jean le valiant, riot of the ranks

Portrait Gallery: After a short stint with the Boston Bruins in 1934-35, Jean Pusie was traded back to Montreal, for whom he’d started his NHL career in 1931. Back at Boston Garden, Pusie and his Canadiens teammates posed with a portrait of Pusie in a Bruins uniform. I don’t know who everybody is here, but starting at left at the back we’re seeing: not sure, not sure, Paul Runge, Wilf Cude, Jack McGill, Aurèle Joliat, Pit Lepine. Middle, from left, not sure, not sure maybe Jean Bourcier, Johnny Gagnon, Pusie portrait, Leroy Goldsworthy, Wildor Larochelle. Front, from left: Sylvio Mantha, Art Lesieur, Joffre Desilets’ head, Pusie himself, Walt Buswell. (Image: Leslie Jones Collection, Boston Public Library)

A player of small abilities is something they used to call Jean Pusie, back in the far-off 1930s, that and very popular. He was said to fool around a lot, which may have pleased the people in the stands but eventually wore out the welcome of coaches and managers, of league administrators, of referees (not necessarily in that order). Sort of like Sean Avery, then, except for widely beloved and altogether a sunnier spirit? Maybe more of an Eddie Shack. Hockey historian Andrew Podnieks, for one, is not impressed: Pusie was a man, he wrote in Players, his voluminous 2003 gazetteer of all-time NHLers, “who made such a bizarre ass of himself on the ice that he is as much myth as man, as much comic as player.”

Born in Montreal  on Saturday, October 15, 1910, Pusie played defence for more 26 different teams between 1927 and 1947, most of them in minor leagues, Castors and Panthers, Cubs, Arrows, Renards, Monarchs, Tecumsehs.

I don’t know, though. Does he really deserve such an outright dismissal? There were also Rangers and Bruins and Canadiens in there, too. Pusie’s NHL career amounted to just 68 games in all, scattered across a 17-year horizon, but he could play. In 1931 he did duty in three of the five games that won Montreal the Stanley Cup. In 1934, Boston coach Frank Patrick was talking him up as “one of the most dangerous players in the game, with an extraordinarily fast and accurate shot.” And while Pusie managed just a single NHL goal over the years, he knew how to put the puck in the net. In 1933, he scored 30 goals to lead the WCHL.

He was a good lacrosse player, too, and a boxer. In 1933, not long after the Rangers signed him, Pusie made his debut as a professional wrestler, taking on a New York rival, Harvey Blackstone, and taking him down, mostly by way of (and I quote) terrific flying tackles.

Back in a hockey context,anticsis a word you often see nearby his name, which was often rolled out to full length, especially in American papers, Jean Baptiste Pusie.

Sometimes, too, they called him Gene in the U.S., where the sportswriters also had their brazen fun with his Quebec accent, to the point where (in 1939) it was deemed appropriate for The St. Louis Star and Times to render an answer he gave a reporter this way:

“I weel tell de troot. In de pazz, I have fight the referee; I have hit de fan; I have go home to Canada, for all of which I am verra sor-ree.”

Some of the other phrases associated, adjectivally, with his name over the years include:

  • a versatile athlete who goes in for wrestling on the side (1933)
  • giant defence player (1934)
  • huge rookie for the Rangers (1934)
  • the bristling and the pugilistic (1934)
  • the riot of the Canam ranks (1935)
  • Jean The Valiant (1936)
  • a swashbuckling Frenchman (1939)
  • hockey “bad boy” (1939)
  • the rogue of the American Association (1939)
  • Le Grand Jean (1943)
  • the most colourful clown in all hockey history (1953)
  • the bounce-’em-hard type (1956)
  • a 75-carat kook; a jokester and superb showman (1980)
  • an amusing fellow from Chambly (1992)

The unpredictable Jean Pusie dates to a 1940 report that details his refusal to pay a fine of $50. “Never have I paid a fine before,” Pusie declared. “There is no need to start now.” He was in the employ of the Vancouver Lions by then, in the PCHL, where Cyclone Taylor was president — he was the one to sanction Pusie, and suspend him for a game, after a fight. The Lions paid the fine, in the end, deducting it from Pusie’s wages.

Sportswriter Jim Coleman was someone who admired Pusie’s performance artistry. Called on to take a penalty shot, as he sometimes was, Pusie would preface his attempt by shaking hands with every member of his own team as well as the goaltender he was about to shoot on. “He’d circle the entire rink TWICE at high speed,” Coleman wrote, “pick up the puck and blast it at the goalie from 20-foot range. If he scored, Jean would circle the rink, waving his stick triumphantly at the crowd.”

“Pusie was at his best in his early days of pro hockey,” Bill Roche wrote in 1953, “when all his stuff was spontaneous. Later on, it got to be an act, and he turned into something of a showboat. A smart lad, despite his tomfoolery Jean Baptiste soon realized that his comedy could be developed produce more publicity than his straight hockey ability, in which he was lacking. He finally carried things too far, got into trouble more than once by tangling with cash customers and the police, and thus he disappeared from the hockey scene.”

That’s a reference, the last part, to Pusie’s stint in St. Louis in 1939. He was 27 by that time, and the Flyers there, then, were a good team, the reigning AHA champions, with Joe Matte in the line-up, and also Fido Purpur.

Carried things too far is one way of describing Pusie’s post-Christmas adventures that season. The question that nobody seems to have raised at the time is, even if he didn’t find himself in court in December, how did he avoid it in February and/or March?

Sorry; to be fair, he did go to jail, in Wichita, Kansas, just briefly. And his case did surface in court, too, though Pusie himself was absent. That was in February.

But first things first: a month earlier, he got into a fight with the Tulsa Oilers goaltender, Porky Levine, during which he spent some time kicking Levine. On the way to the penalty box, Pusie tripped the referee, Davey Davidson, punched him in the head. The league fined Pusie $100 for that — he paid, or his team did — and suspended him for 10 days.

In Wichita, in February, the Flyers were in to play the local Skyhawks, and a fan — or fans — threw a steel chair — maybe several chairs. One of them hit Pusie, on the head. Pusie counterattacked, with his stick. Hit a fan, on the head. Zola Moore was the fan’s name. He was 23. He ended up suing Pusie, the Flyers, and Wichita under Kansas’ mob law, seeking $5,000 in damages. (I can’t find a record of the outcome.) On the ice, there was no penalty on the play; when order was restored, Pusie finished the game. The team from Wichita lodged a protest about that, but by then Detective Captain Le Roy Bowery of the Wichita police had already arrested Pusie, charged him with aggravated assault. Flyers coach John McKinnon posted a $500 bond to spring him from jail.

There was no suspension this time, though Pusie did remove himself from the line-up, his team, the country, headed for his home in Chambly, Quebec, south of Montreal — all because, he declared, in that same game, his own goaltender, Hub Nelson, had reprimanded him for failing to stymie a Wichita rush.

Back home, he stewed in his snit for a bit. While he was gone, Judge John Hurley heard his case in Wichita’s Police Court. A local lawyer entered a guilty plea on his behalf and Judge Hurley fined him $450 plus $1.90 in court costs. That came out of the money that his coach had put up originally, as far as I can tell.

It’s hard to gauge how people felt about all this, people who were paying attention, whether they were appalled, wondered if hockey had a problem that was larger than Pusie, puzzled over the conundrum of how hockey assaults so rarely seemed to be considered actual assaults. There was a certain measure of outrage at hockey’s violent excesses that echoed in St. Louis in and around these events in ’39, if not much specific surprise when someone like Jean Pusie carried things too far, and farther. In Canada, news of Pusie running amok was often reported in a wry he’s-at-it-again tone, raising no alarms.

In the wake of Pusie’s first game back with the Flyers at the end of February, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran a photo showing him being restrained by the president of the team and a member of the St. Louis Police Department’s Mounted Division, to keep him out of a melee that other players had started.

They couldn’t contain him for long. He was in a fight the next game, against the St. Paul Saints.

His next outburst was his final one that year in St. Louis. It came at the end of March, when the Flyers were facing the Tulsa Oilers in the finals. The second game, in Oklahoma, is the one we’re focussed on here. In the first period, referee Stan Swain called Pusie for slashing. To say that Pusie objected doesn’t quite capture the moment insofar as his objection involved knocking Swain to the ice. “This precipitated a near riot,” The St. Louis Globe-Democrat reported, “and grave trouble might have occurred had not Swain recovered after being unconscious on the ice for five minutes and resumed his duties as official.”

For knocking a referee out cold, Pusie was assessed a match penalty. And while Tulsa police did escort him from the arena, it was to protect him from local fans — he wasn’t, this time, charged for his assault. Pusie was subsequently suspended, despite his protests of innocence. “But I do not attack heem,” the St. Louis Star and Times heard from the accused. “Do not say Jean Pusie heet heem, he only poosh heem, an’ he fall.”

He appealed the suspension. His appeal was rejected, with emphasis: Pusie was, the AHA made clear, banned from the league for life.

And so, while his Flyers teammates got down to wrapping up the championship, Pusie changed gears, announcing that he’d signed up for a series of wrestling bouts across the U.S. Midwest.  He only ended up in a single match, as it turned out, conquering Young Joe Stecher from Boston at the St. Louis Coliseum. The Star and Times was only too pleased to hear him philosophize after it was all over. “I do not like to fight rough in the razzle reeng,” Pusie said, in reporter Ray Gillespie’s rendering. “Why should I try to hurt de odder fellow for only one hundred books. We both moost make a leeving.”

Otherwise, that pre-war summer of ’39, Pusie was in the news for familiar reasons: in June, playing in Quebec’s Provincial Lacrosse League, he was tossed out of a game for pushing referee Paul Jacobs. (Jacobs, it’s worth mentioning in passing, was a hockey player, too, and may have been, though probably not, the first Indigenous player to skate in the NHL.)

With the fall came news that St. Louis had traded Pusie to Vancouver of the PCHL. He fought there, incurred more fines, as detailed above, and generally carried with his brand of carrying things too far. He still had seven more years of pro hockey in him, at this point. He even got back to St. Louis: in 1941, in light of wartime manpower shortages, an AHA pardon paved the way for a return to the Flyers. Jean Pusie died at the age of 45 in Montreal in 1956.

One more detour, around one other loop, before we leave him. This is going back to 1931, when he made his debut in Canadiens colours at the age of 20. He’d been in the Montreal stable for a couple of seasons, but it wasn’t until December of 1930 that he made his first NHL appearance. He played six regular-season games that season while seeing regular duty with the Galt Terriers of the Ontario Professional Hockey League.

Montreal recalled him in early April to bolster their defence as they took on the Chicago Black Hawks in the Stanley Cup finals. The Canadiens were, of course, successful in defending their title, dispensing with the Black Hawks in five games. Pusie dressed for three of those — and yet his name wasn’t one of the 28 that would end up being stamped on the Cup itself.

I wondered about that. Why didn’t Pusie rate the recognition along with teammates Howie Morenz, George Hainsworth, Wildor Larochelle, and the rest? Right winger Bert McCaffrey was the other Canadien whose name was left off the Cup that year, but then he’d only played in the regular season, and wasn’t called on for any of Montreal’s ten post-season games, so there’s a trace of logic there.

I checked in with Craig Campbell, manager of the Doc Seaman Resource Centre and Archives at Toronto’s Hockey Hall of Fame, which is where the Cup is at home when it’s not out and about with the current champions. No, he confirmed, Pusie’s name is not on silver band that enumerates the ’30-31 winners. Furthermore, the Hall has no documentation noting why he might have been left off. “It’s a mystery,” Campbell e-mailed.

Mining the archives, I may have found an explanation. It doesn’t seem fair, but it could just be the reason Pusie’s effort in showing up and getting into his gear for 60 per cent of Canadiens’ successful campaign in ’31 wasn’t rewarded: he never got on the ice.

Heading into the Cup finals after a five-game semi-final against the Boston Bruins, the Canadiens were a battered bunch. Winger Armand Mondou was in hospital with what the AP described as “wrenched chest muscles,” while Battleship Leduc, stalwart defender, was out with what they were still calling a “brain concussion:” he’d collided with Dit Clapper and hit his head on the ice.

And so when the series opened at Chicago Stadium on a Friday, April 3, Pusie was one of five defencemen in the 13-man Canadiens line-up. Coach Cecil Hart mostly went with just three of them to secure Montreal’s 2-1 win, relying on the Mantha brothers, Sylvio and Georges, and Marty Burke. “Arthur Lesieur was on the ice only for a few minutes altogether,” the Ottawa Journal reported. As for Pusie, Hart “hesitated to try the youngster.”

Two days later, when the Black Hawks evened the series in a game that went into double overtime. Pusie was again in the line-up; La Patrie subsequently noted that “management did not use him.”

Back in Montreal, the teams went to three overtimes before Chicago’s Cy Wentworth settled the matter in the Black Hawks’ favour. At one point, with Lesieur and Sylvio Mantha both serving penalties, coach Hart deployed forwards AurèleJoliat and Pit Lepine alongside Burke rather than blood Pusie. “Although in uniform,” La Patrie recounted next day, he “never had the opportunity to take the ice.”

He never got another chance. Though Battleship Leduc had, according to the Gazette, spent more than two weeks in hospital, he and his rattled brain returned to the line-up for the fourth game of the series and the fifth, both of which Montreal won to claim the Cup.

Pusie appeared in just a single game for Canadiens the following year. He’d wait two years after that before making his return to the NHL ice as a New York Ranger.

Le Grand Jean: Pusie and friend at Boston Garden. (Image: Leslie Jones Collection, Boston Public Library)

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 of Hockey 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.”

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.