Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
A tournament that started out as an invitational event recognizing a trailblazing First Nations player has blossomed into a prestigious national tournament.
And teams from across the country will once again be converging on Saskatoon this week to vie for bragging rights.
The Fred Sasakamoose Chief Thunderstick National Hockey Championship will begin on Thursday, May 18 and continue until May 21. A total of 40 men’s squads will compete. And there will also be a 16-team women’s division.
The event is named after Fred Sasakamoose, who suited up for 11 games with the Chicago Blackhawks during the 1953-54 season.
Sasakamoose, who was a member of Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, died in November 2020.
Sasakamoose was long believed to be the first First Nations man to play in the National Hockey League. In recent years, however, the names of other players who pre-dated Sasakamoose in the NHL have surfaced, but who had not previously been identified as having Indigenous ancestry.
Neil Sasakamoose, Fred’s son, said his father had long envisioned a national tourney for Indigenous adult players.
This tourney began in 2016 with just eight men’s teams from across the country being invited to take part. Originally called the Fred Sasakamoose Invitational Hockey Tournament, the event was renamed in 2019.
Neil Sasakamoose said his father would be proud of the way the event has grown. A women’s division was added last year.
“He’d be jigging around at the games,” Sasakamoose said. “He used to like jigging around when he was happy.”
A total of 126 matches will be staged at this year’s tournament.
“There’s been a huge jump in participation and now there is a large interest,” Sasakamoose said. “Each community has a really big fan base. It drives the economy here. And I’m pretty sure it sells out the city.”
For those unable to attend the games in person, they will be able to purchase pay-per-view packages. Day passes are available for $35. And tournament passes cost $85.
Info on the pay-per-view packages is available at www.chiefthundersticklive.ca
Those participating in the women’s division are free to suit up for any club they wish from across the country. But teams in the men’s category must primarily be made up of players from their own community. Each squad is allowed a maximum of four imports.
As a result, Sasakamoose said quite the competition often ensues to see which teams will land the best available imports.
“It’s just like the NHL,” he said. “The managers will get the names of the imports available. Then they try to get them into their lineup.”
One of the tournament entrants in the men’s division this year is from Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation in Quebec. Gino Odjick, the popular former NHLer who died this past January, was supposed to serve as the manager for this squad from his Nation.
Sasakamoose said he spoke to Odjick in January and the ex-pro was excited to come to the tournament and watch two of his sons represent Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg.
“It was kind of sad,” Sasakamoose said. “It would have been four days before he passed that I talked to him. It was something he was really looking forward to. And he told me ‘We’re going to bring the best team our reserve has ever had’.”
Another former NHLer, John Chabot, is coaching the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg team.
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Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.