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.”