In the days before the hobby boomed, there were plenty of hockey players who made it into just a single card set. More often than not, their names are often lost to history and modern collectors simply grab their vintage cardboard in order to fill a set without considering how they ended up with their pictures wrapped up in wax paper along with a slab of gum. Fred Sasakamoose is not one of those players by any stretch and his first card is one of the hobby’s most important.
While he only played in 11 games during the 1953-54 season, Sasakamoose had a hard road to the NHL. Born on the Ahtahkakoop Reserve in Saskatchewan, he was taken away to a residential school in Duck Lake as a child and endured great trauma and horror on his way to becoming a pro hockey player.
As a 17-year-old in 1950-51, he played for the WCJHL’s Moose Jaw Canucks and his numbers steadily improved until he was called up for his Chicago Stadium debut against the Boston Bruins on November 20, 1953. As a result, he became the first indigenous player (he is of Cree descent) for the Blackhawks. He faced the Toronto Maple Leafs two days later before being sent down to Moose Jaw again.
A Hockey Card By Chance?
Recalled for Chicago’s matchup in Toronto on February 27, 1953, he was caught by a photographer and the image would later appear on his lone hockey card that was issued by Parkhurst the following season. The company’s 1954-55 set featured shots taken at Maple Leaf Gardens and that was his lone appearance there that year.
Sasakamoose did not register a goal or an assist over 11 games in the 1953-54 campaign, but spend six minutes in the penalty box. The third of his minors came in what proved to be his final NHL game as Boston paid another visit to Chicago. By the time his hockey card was coming out of packs, Sasakamoose had moved on to the old WHL’s New Westminster Royals and the QHL’s Chicoutimi Sagueneens.
The card itself is highly sought-after by collectors today that understand his cultural significance and his place in hockey history. To date, PSA has graded over 100 copies of the card, with only a single copy reaching PSA 9.
The card also has two variations, one of which features statistics and a biography. The other features a Lucky Premium offer where kids could order a pair of hockey gloves.
Eventually, Sasakamoose was out of the pro and senior game following a three-year run with the Kamloops Chiefs and returned home. Eventually, he became a band councillor and later, chief. He also has been heavily involved in helping indigenous children’s sports and has been honored by NHL teams in recent years. He also received the Order of Canada, which is the country’s highest honor for civilians.
Not Truly The First Indigenous Player
While he is continually referred to today as the first indigenous person to play in the NHL by the league itself and media members, the fact is that there were other First Nations players before Sasakamoose to skate with a big league club.
Researcher and author Stephen Smith has written about Fred Sasakamoose through his Puckstruck blog and even tackled the subject for the New York Times. His contention is that New York Rangers skater Buddy Maracle was the first and there is plenty of evidence to support the claim. Maracle only skated in 11 games for the Broadway Blueshirts, debuting against the Detroit Falcons (later Red Wings) on February 12, 1931. His best outing came 10 days later as he scored his only NHL goal and added an assist in a drubbing on the one-season wonder Philadelphia Quakers. He also stuck around for four playoff games before returning to the minors the next year. No NHL sets were released that year, and he does not have a hockey card.
Some hockey historians believe the first indigenous player in NHL history was Paul Jacobs, a defender who played for the Toronto Arenas when the Ottawa Senators came to town on December 31, 1918. Any information on Jacobs is murky at best, though, which furthers the debate.