Fred Sasakamoose, Sask. Indigenous hockey pioneer, remembered as leader and trailblazer at funeral

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Indigenous hockey pioneer Fred Sasakamoose's funeral on Saturday was streamed to hundreds of people on Facebook and featured comments from leaders across Canada.

Sasakamoose died on Nov. 24 of complications of COVID-19. He was 86.

Sasakamoose, one of the first Indigenous people to play in the NHL, played 11 games with Chicago during the 1953-54 season, splitting time with the Moose Jaw Canucks of the Western Canadian Junior Hockey League.

FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron was the master of ceremonies for the service which was held at the community arena bearing Sasakamoose's name on the Ahtahkakoop First Nation.

Due to the public health order regarding funeral service restrictions, only 30 people were in person for Sasakamoose's funeral but the stream on Facebook saw over 600 people to virtually attend.

In an interview, Cameron said he had many great memories of Sasakamoose and his legacy. He said Sasakamoose was a "mighty fine man."

"He always had a lesson when he spoke to not just me, but to thousands of us," Cameron said. "I'll never forget, he'd say: 'Believe in yourself'."

A video tribute was played at the ceremony which featured condolences from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, AFN Chief Perry Bellegarde and many other First Nations leaders.

"In every generation there are people who fight for what is right who break down barriers and who've paved the way for others," Trudeau said in a video tribute. "Fred Sasakamoose, was one of those people. He was a survivor, a trailblazer and a leader.

"On the ice or on the band council, Fred dedicated his life to his community after he survived the residential school system, after he made history as one of the first Indigenous players in the NHL, he returned home to give back," Trudeau said.

"Fred didn't just share his love of the game with young people he believed in them and worked hard to support them, he was a champion for youth and his legacy will live on."

Bettman said in the video tribute Sasakamoose was a pioneer who "gave so much of himself to his community".

"I considered it a pleasure to meet him and know him, he will be missed," Bettman said.

Eugene Arcand, Brandon Montour, John Chabot and Reggie Leech were among many of the NHL players to appear in the video as well.

Cameron said he and the FSIN have been clear about their messaging regarding the seriousness of COVID-19.

"Let's all do our part to stay safe because it has taken one of our leaders and a man who was well respected throughout the First Nation country and federal government."