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

(A version of this post appeared on page SP4 of The New York Times on July 1, 2018, under the headline “Writing the Twisting History of Indigenous Players.”)

At some point during Fred Sasakamoose’s first visit to New York in the fall of 1953, he found himself in a radio station studio. At 19, Sasakamoose was a junior hockey star from Saskatchewan. Speedy and ambidextrous, he was about to make his NHL debut at center for the Chicago Black Hawks. He was also a novelty: one of the first Indigenous players in the league.

He remembers the gifts he was given at the studio, cigars and a transistor radio. And he remembers being asked, for broadcast, to say something in Cree.

“They wanted me to talk Indian,” he said.

He obliged, thanking the interviewer and saying he had never been to New York before.

It was just a few simple sentences, but Sasakamoose struggled, on air, to summon his own language. Home, then and now, was Ahtahkakoop First Nation, in Saskatchewan, but in 1953 it had been years since he had lived there.

Hockey had planted him in Moose Jaw, and before that he’d spent a decade 60 miles from home at St. Michael’s in Duck Lake. one of Canada’s notorious residential schools where the mandate was to erase Indigenous language and culture.

“They don’t allow you to talk your language,” Sasakamoose, now 84, recalled earlier this year from Ahtahkakoop. “Either you talk French or English — and then you go to church, and you’ve got to talk Latin.”

In May, Governor-General Julie Payette inducted Sasakamoose as a Member of the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Revered as a hockey trailblazer, he has worked tirelessly over the years with youth in his community and across the country. Sasakamoose said he was humbled by the honor.

“There’s so much pride,” he added. “It’s just marvelous.”

Proud as the moment is, it is impossible to consider Sasakamoose’s life and career without reflecting on the historical scarcity of Indigenous players at the top levels of the game that Canadians so fervently claim as their own. First Nations peoples, Métis and Inuit make up 4.9 percent of Canada’s population. But of the more than 7,600 players, some 5,100 from Canada, to have skated in the NHL in the 100 years of its history, only about 80 have been of Indigenous heritage.

Canada’s reckoning with its history with Indigenous peoples has been underway for years, reaching not just into the justice system and the resource sector, but across society.

Within hockey, this has been both a season for celebrating the achievements of Indigenous players and one filled with reminders of the ongoing struggles they face — against racism, and for opportunity and recognition.

Recent NHL success stories include Ethan Bear, 20, from Saskatchewan’s Ochapowace Cree Nation, who made his debut with the Edmonton Oilers in March. At the Winter Olympics in February in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Canada’s women’s hockey team featured two Indigenous players, Jocelyne Larocque, who’s Métis from Manitoba, and Brigette Lacquette, a member of the Cote Saulteaux First Nation in Saskatchewan.

The game is thriving in Indigenous communities across the country, at the pond and pick-up level and through organized events like the annual National Aboriginal Hockey Championships for elite teenage players. In March, about 3,000 Indigenous youth players took part in the Little Native Hockey League in Mississauga, Ontario.

“I think we as First Nations people are probably some of the biggest supporters of hockey across Canada,” said Reggie Leach, the NHL’s first Indigenous superstar who continues to work with young players on hockey and life skills. Leach, who is Ojibwe, spent 13 seasons in the NHL, mostly with the Philadelphia Flyers, winning a Stanley Cup in 1975.

Still, the story of Indigenous hockey in Canada is one that has been shaped by familiar themes of geographical isolation and social marginalization. It also continues to be poisoned by racism. In May, a team of 13- and 14-year-old First Nations boys faced racial slurs at a tournament in Quebec City.

“Reading this story made me sad,” Jody Wilson-Raybould, Canada’s Minister of Justice and a member of the We Wai Kai Nation in British Columbia, wrote on Twitter. “Be proud of who you are and always remember where you come from!”

Residential schools are knotted into the history, too. For more than a century through to 1996, the Canadian government made a policy of separating some 150,000 children from their families with the express purpose of indoctrinating them into a culture not their own — taking “the Indian out of the child,” in one early insidious formulation of what the schools were all about.

The government has apologized and compensated survivors. Between 2008 and 2015, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission crossed Canada to hear their stories and investigate abuses. Among the findings in the commission’s final 2015 report is ample evidence of how sports, including hockey, could be a refuge for many children. But the report also explains how, especially in early years, some in authority looked to sports as an instrument of forced assimilation, just another means of “civilizing” students.

The comfort and freedom that hockey offered only went so far. That’s a story told in Indian Horse, Richard Wagamese’s powerful 2012 novel of hockey and residential-school abuse that director Stephen Campanelli and executive producer Clint Eastwood brought to movie screens in the spring of 2018. The pain and the rage deriving from what the central character, Saul, calls the “scorched earth” of his residential-school boyhood — “it corroded everything, even the game.”

•••

Tracing the history of hockey’s Indigenous players, you can’t help but reflect on the ways in which narratives form, shift and settle, and on the stories that get told or don’t. While Indigenous players are scarcely seen in the annals of early hockey history, it’s also true that those in the business of recording the sport’s history have simply neglected or overlooked some of those who did make it to hockey’s highest levels.

Henry Maracle is one of those whose story has been erased, one way and another. While Fred Sasakamoose is still often described as having been the NHL’s first Indigenous player — including by the league itself and in his Order-of-Canada citation — the evidence seems to increasingly contradict that distinction.

Hockey teams in Canada started vying for the Stanley Cup in 1893, well before the NHL came into being in 1917. In 1901 and again in 1902, the Winnipeg Victorias won the Cup with a roster featuring three Métis stars, Tony Gingras and the brothers Rod and Magnus Flett.

Toronto’s NHL lineup in 1918-19 may have included a Mohawk defenseman, Paul Jacobs. While league records show him playing a game in the league’s second season, it’s unclear whether he actually made it onto the ice. Taffy Abel, who had Chippewa background, was a member of the 1924 United States Olympic team and one of the earliest Americans to flourish in the N.H.L. Could he be counted as the league’s first Indigenous player?

New York got its first N.H.L. team in 1925, the Americans, a year before the Rangers hit the ice. With an idea of adding an exotic accent to the Americans’ lineup, manager Tommy Gorman briefly pretended that a non-Indigenous Montreal-born center, Rene Boileau, was a Mohawk star by the name of Rainy Drinkwater.

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

While the N.H.L. seems strangely loath to acknowledge him, Maracle is slowly gaining wider recognition as the first Indigenous player in the league. Maracle, who died in 1958, was honoured this past June at a community ceremony in Ayr, Ontario, the small town where he was born.

Midway through the 1930-31 season, the Rangers summoned Maracle, a 27-year-old Mohawk left winger, from their affiliate in Springfield, Mass. That the Springfield team was nicknamed the Indians was not lost on headline writers and reporters narrating the scoring exploits of the “Springfield Injun” and “Redskin Icer.”

Maracle, who went by Buddy, was often, inevitably, called “Chief.” His NHL career lasted 15 games, yielding a goal and three assists. While he would thrive as a minor leaguer for years to come, that was all for Maracle in the NHL.

In 1944, the Rangers called up an Indigenous defenseman, Jim Jamieson, whose background was Cayuga, from Six Nations First Nation in southwestern Ontario. He played a single game.

Maracle and Jamieson were already forgotten when Sasakamoose made his NHL debut in 1953. “Chief Running Deer,” the papers dubbed him; when he first skated out at Chicago Stadium, organist Al Melgard broke into “Indian Love Call.” Sasakamoose played 11 games that season and looked like he was in the league to stay. Until he decided he wasn’t.

Years later, Sasakamoose recalls, Hall-of-Fame goaltender and fellow Chicago alumnus Glenn Hall told him he should write a book. “He said, ‘You know what you call it?’ I said, ‘What?’ He said: ‘I Want To Go Home.’”

He laughs now, but the memory of homesickness remains raw. “For me,” Sasakamoose said, “I wanted to come home all the time.

“Because, 10 years of residential school. Ten years when you’re small. And you live in that place, in that big huge building, and you don’t see mom and dad. You don’t know them anymore.”

Sasakamoose has spoken over the years about the physical abuse he suffered at Duck Lake, and he testified before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Of his school years, the commission report noted, “He left as soon as he could.”

At the same time, Sasakamoose’s memory of those distant school years in the 1940s can still brighten as he describes learning to stickhandle, or recalls the team with which he won a provincial championship.

Also: Saturday nights in wintertime. One of the presiding priests at Duck Lake would rig up a speaker in time for the weekly broadcast ofHockey Night in Canada from Toronto, 1,300 miles away. “We’d sit there, about 30 or 40 of us, and we’d listen to the Foster Hewitt. Everybody wanted to be a Charlie Conacher.”

For many Canadians, Hewitt, the broadcaster whose signature phrase was a strident “He shoots, he scores!,” remains the original and eternal voice of hockey.

In 1953, when Sasakamoose played his first game at Toronto’s Maple Leafs Gardens, Hewitt descended from his broadcast booth: he wanted to meet the Chicago rookie — and to find out how to pronounce his name.

“I said, ‘Foster, my name is Sa-SA-ka-moose.’”

He laughs now. When the time came to call the action, Hewitt never quite got it right.

“That was okay,” Sasakamoose said. “I was there. I wanted to get there and I did get there.”

 

jump shot

Upstart: Headed for the Calder Trophy, they said. One of the two best rookies in the NHL (that from Canadiens’ coach Dick Irvin; the other rookie he favoured was Boston’s Dave Creighton). Born on this day in 1926 in Sceptre, Saskatchewan, Bert Olmstead would eventually make a name as a dynamic left winger for the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto’s own Maple Leafs. But Olmstead, who died in 2015, made his leap into the NHL playing for the Chicago. And it was as a 23-year-old Black Hawk that he rated all those rookie raves during his first full NHL season, 1949-50. Pundits were mentioning him as the leading Calder candidate as early as December, that year; by February, the six NHL captains were prepared to nominate him as the league’s primo rookie. In April, Dink Carroll of the Gazette in Montreal was still hearing that Olmstead still had the inside track. It didn’t work out: in May, when 18 sportswriters cast their ballots, it was 25-year-old Boston goaltender Jack Gelineau who ended up top of the Calder rankings. The league gave him $1000 to go with the trophy, and the Bruins rewarded him, too, with (an undisclosed amount of) cash. Olmstead tied Bruins’ centreman Phil Maloney for second place in the Calder voting; others who were considered were Gus Kyle of the New York Rangers; Toronto’s John McCormack; and Steve Black of the Detroit Red Wings.

 

humboldt

The fundraising effort to support the victims and families of those involved in Friday’s crash of the Humboldt Broncos’ team bus with a semi-trailer truck in Saskatchewan continues. You can find it, and donate, here:

www.gofundme.com/funds-for-humboldt-broncos

A vigil is planned for tonight at Humboldt’s Elgar Petersen Arena. Fourteen people were injured in the accident. Players and coaches; a broadcaster; a busdriver; a statistician, the 15 who died are:

Tyler Bieber

Logan Boulet

Mark Cross

Glen Doerksen

Darcy Haugan

Adam Herold

Brody Hinz

Logan Hunter

Jaxon Joseph

Jacob Leicht

Conner Lukan

Logan Schatz

Evan Thomas

Parker Tobin

Stephen Wack

 

 

erfolgreichster und populärster eishockeyspieler

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

johnny bower: when his team lost, his grin was the same as when his team won

I don’t know of anybody playing with Johnny who ever had a bad word to say about him. He’s just one of those wonderful fellows who comes along that’s tolerant of everything. If trouble is there, he’ll enjoy it and try to find a way to get out of it. I’ve never seen him without a smile on his face. When his team lost, his grin was the same as when his team won. If you try a hundred per cent, then you should have no bad feelings about the outcome. That was relayed to me once and I think somebody must have told Johnny the same thing. There’s a good picture of us together when the Leafs won the Cup in 1963 and I’ve got my arm around him at centre ice, congratulating him. I felt it was the right thing to do. He was an old friend and I had to go congratulate him.

• Gordie Howe in his foreword to The China Wall, Bob Duff’s 2006 Johnny Bower biography.

 

(Image: Stephen Smith)

my first hockey game: stan fischler

No-one has talked and written more hockey in the past 50 years than Stan Fischler. Today in Puckstruck’s occasional series, the man they call “The Hockey Maven” recalls the first NHL game he saw in person.

Eighty-five now, Fischler got his start on the page in the mid-1950s with The Brooklyn Eagle and The New York Journal-American. Nowadays he’s on air for MSG’s broadcasts of games involving New York Rangers and Islanders and New Jersey’s Devils. Born in Brooklyn, he’s an authority on New York’s subways and American-Jewish humour as well as all things puckish. He’s bylined stories over the years for The New York Times and The Toronto Star, Sports Illustrated, and Hockey Digest. He’s a columnist for The Hockey News, and has been publishing his own weekly Fischler Report for more than 20 years.

Stan Fischler

Fischler has been publishing books since 1967, and his bibliography, which runs to more than 100 titles, includes biographies of Gordie Howe and Stan Mikita, memoirs by Brad Park and Maurice Richard, along with team and oral histories, and …. there’s not much in the game that hasn’t caught Fischler’s attention. Among the best, in my books: Those Were The Days: The Lore of Hockey by The Legends of the Game, his 1976 compendium of interviews with greats of the game going back to Cyclone Taylor and Newsy Lalonde; and Metro Ice: A Century of Hockey in Greater New York (1999).

 In 2007, Fischler won the Lester Patrick Trophy, which recognizes significant contributors to the cause of hockey in the United States, adding his name to an all-star roll that features the likes of Jack Adams, Eddie Shore, Scotty Bowman, and Art Ross.

 His first NHL game? Here’s his recent recollection of how that happened in 1942, followed by some further historical fleshing-out of the night in question.

I saw my first hockey game at Madison Square Garden in 1939. It was an “amateur” doubleheader: Met League game at 1:30 Sunday, followed by a Rovers Eastern League game at 3:30 p.m.

I was seven years old at the time and not allowed to go to Rangers or Americans games because they did not start until 8:30 p.m., and I had to get up early to go to P.S. 54 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in those days.

Of course, I yearned to see an NHL game and finally got my wish in November of 1942. World War II was on in its intensity and every NHL team had lost players to the armed forces, including the Rangers. Having begged my father to take me and a friend named Jerry, he finally agreed.

However, the rain was coming down in torrents that afternoon and Dad hesitated because of that. Finally he agreed and we took the subway to the old Garden on Eighth Avenue and 49th Street. Dad bought the cheapest seats — side balcony — and it was Rangers vs. Chicago Blackhawks.

Problem was the side balcony seats — except for first two rows — had obstructed views and we couldn’t see anything that happened along the side boards right below us. Nevertheless, we were thrilled beyond belief. Chicago still had the Bentley Brothers, Max and Doug, while the Blueshirts were reduced to lesser stars.

I was so dazzled by the mere viewing of my first major league game that I was more observer than fan. Besides, I was a Maple Leaf fan and could no summon any rooting interest.

As it happened, I continued going to every Sunday afternoon game and did not see another NHL game until the 1945-46 season when my Dad took me to see Toronto vs. Rangers. New York won by a goal and while I was very disappointed, I enjoyed seeing my Leafs in person.

A year later I started going to Leaf games at MSG on a regular basis and became a season ticket holder for the 1947-48 season.

Stan Fischler’s first obstructed-view experience of NHL hockey came on a Tuesday night, November 10, 1942, along with 8,558 other fans at Madison Square Garden. It was the Rangers’ fifth game of the season, the second they’d played on home ice. Neither New York nor Chicago would fare well that season — both teams missed the playoffs — but on the night, Rangers prevailed, 5-3, in overtime.

 One of the stories for the Rangers that nascent season was in goal. Sugar Jim Henry was gone to the war, and to replace his preventative measures, GM Lester Patrick had brought in a 25-year-old rookie, Steve Buzinski, from Saskatchewan’s senior-league Swift Current Indians. When he wasn’t watching for pucks, Buzinski worked as a wheat and cereal expert with Swift Current’s Dominion Experimental Station. As one newspaper wag, Harry Grayson, was writing in ’42, Patrick was considered “the smartest man in the dodge,” so when he plucked up Buzinski, “everyone expected he would have another ace to show them. Hadn’t the Rangers had such illustrious netkeepers as Lorne Chabot, John Ross Roach, and Davey Kerr?”

 It didn’t go so swimmingly. The Rangers lost three of their four first games, including a 12-5 loss to Detroit and a 10-4 Montreal drubbing, with Buzinski surrendering 32 goals as they did so. “By now,” Harry Grayson cruelly reported, “the boys were calling Steve ‘Sieve.’”

 He rallied under Fischler’s young gaze. Joseph Nichols wrote it up for The New York Times. “Aided not at all by the Rangers defence, which had trouble with the fleet Black Hawk wings, Buzinski nevertheless had the creditable total of thirty-nine saves.” Tied 3-3, the teams headed for (non-lethal) overtime, which saw Bryan Hextall and Lynn Patrick score to secure the Ranger win. Wartime cutbacks would shelve regular-season overtime, so this, as it happens, was the last one the NHL would see for 40 years.

 True to Fischler’s memory, the Bentleys were on show that night, with Doug counting two of the Chicago goals and Max adding an assist. Brother Reg was with Chicago that year, too, his only season in the NHL, though he wasn’t in the line-up for this Ranger game.

 And Buzinski? He didn’t last the month of November. Stan Fischler’s first game was the last one Buzinski won in the NHL. He guarded the Ranger net for four more games after that, losses all, whereupon the Rangers brought in a Detroit farmhand, Jimmy Franks, and Buzinski’s NHL career was over. While the Rangers sent him down to the AHL New Haven Eagles, he didn’t last there, preferring to head back to Saskatchewan, where he was reinstated as an amateur. He enlisted not long after that. He did get back into the nets, post-war, with the Swift Current seniors.

 Around the time he was shipping out of New York in 1942, he wrote a letter home to the editor of The Swift Current Sun. “These New York sportswriters are really something to fear,” it read, in part.

Brothers In Arms: Chicago’s own Saskatchewaners coming at you, in 1942, Reg Bentley on the left alongside Max and Doug.