A hockey wall of fame at the Cambie and Broadway SkyTrain station
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the first season of the National Hockey League (NHL). If you’re quick you may be able to begin the year-long celebration by catching a small hockey-themed art exhibit that has been showing for the last few weeks more-or-less at the SkyTrain station on the southeast corner of Cambie and West Broadway.
To be precise, there are four large colour sketches of iconic and history-making NHL players displayed just outside the entrance of the station, stuck high up on the wall of the city-owned building next door.
The sketches are each signed “Miller 2016” and depict a special quartet of professional hockey players.
There’s Fred Sasakamoose, the first Canadian Aboriginal player in the NHL; Willie O’Ree, the first Canadian of African ancestry to play in the NHL, Larry Kwong, first Canadian of Asian ancestry to play in the NHL and Gordie Howe, who, for many years, was first in the scoring stats and in the hearts of North American hockey fans.
Hopefully the sketches are still there. I’ve reproduced them below just in case the City of Vancouver has finally noticed and pulled them down.
Four players who changed the face of Canadian hockey
Willie O’Ree (1935-) was born in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada—a member of one of the only two black families in the city. He joined a hockey league when he was five years old and grew up to become one of the best players in New Brunswick.
In spite of having being virtually blinded in one eye (a fact that he largely kept to himself), O’Ree was called up from minor hockey to make his NHL debut as professional player with the Boston Bruins on January 18, 1958, against the Montreal Canadiens, thus becoming the first-ever Canadian of African ancestry to play in the league.
A decade earlier by the way, another great Canadian hockey player named Herb Carnegie, born of Jamaican parents, came close to playing in the NHL. In 1948, Carnegie was offered a contract to play in the New York Rangers’ minor league system but he turned it down because the money was less than he was making in the semi-professional Quebec league.
The Jackie Robinson of ice hockey
Willie O’Ree has been compared to Jackie Robinson, the African-American pro baseball player who broke the colour barrier in Major League baseball and faced tremendous racism from players and fans alike when the Brooklyn Dodgers started him at first base in 1947.
O’Ree has said that the racist remarks he received came from fans and some opponents (the American ones for the most part)—not from his Bruins teammates and management, who, says O’Ree, welcomed him openly and warmly.
O’Ree played all 50 of his NHL games as a winger with Boston—two games in 1958, and another 48 in 1961, when he scored his career NHL total of 4 goals and 10 assists. After the 1961 season Boston traded O’Ree to the Montreal Canadiens—a team so loaded with talent that it quickly sold O’Ree’s contract to a team in the Western Hockey League.
After two history-making seasons in the NHL, O’Ree was back in minor league hockey, where he enjoyed a successful career for the next 18 years, until the age of 43.
Willie O’Ree has been repeatedly honoured for his contribution to sports and diversity. On April 7, 2010, he was inducted into the Order of Canada as a pioneer of hockey and a dedicated youth mentor. As of the mid-2000s, O’Ree lived in the United States, in Berkeley, California.
History made in a New York minute
Lawrence (Larry) Kwong, aka, the “China Clipper” and “King Kwong” (born: Eng Kai Geong, 1923-) was born in Vernon, British Columbia. He was a star in midget hockey in 1939 and in 1941, at the age of 18, he skipped junior hockey to play at the senior level for the Trail Smoke Eaters.
Anti-Asian racism was endemic and institutionalized in B.C. (not to mention the rest of Canada) while Kwong was growing up. The Chinese Immigration Act of 1923 denied Chinese-Canadians basic rights of citizenship, including the vote. It was literally impossible for Kwong to get a haircut at a barbershop and difficult for him to find a job.
For example, all Smoke Eaters’ players were given high-paying jobs at the Trail smelter (which owned the team)—all the players that is except the ethnically-Chinese Larry Kwong, who, despite being one of the team’s top players, had to settle for working as a low-paid bellhop.
In 1944 he was drafted into the Canadian Army and served out the last year of the Second World War playing hockey to entertain the troops.
After the war, Kwong returned to the Smoke Eaters and helped the team win the B.C. senior hockey championship in 1946. Later that year he was signed to the New York Rovers, a farm team of the NHL’s New York Rangers.
Having established himself as the Rover’s top scorer, Kwong was called up to make his NHL debut with the Rangers on March 13, 1948, against Maurice Richard and the Montreal Canadiens in the Montreal Forum.
Kwong’s chance to play came in the third period but he was only allowed about 90 seconds of ice time—a “New York minute” as the New York Times put it in 2013. But it was enough to make history by making him the first player of Asian descent to play in the NHL.
“I broke the ice a little bit,” Kwong told the Times.
“Maybe being the first Chinese player in the NHL gave more of a chance for other Chinese boys that play hockey.”
Larry Kwong never played in the NHL again. Other Rover players were called up but not him.
Rather than stay with the Rovers on the unlikely chance that the Rangers would ever call him up again, he took a lucrative offer to play in the Quebec Senior Hockey League.
He went on to have a long career in senior leagues in Canada and the United States, playing for coaches like Toe Blake and competing against such future NHL All-Stars as Jean Béliveau and Jacques Plante.
In the late 1950s Kwong both played and coached professional hockey in the UK and Switzerland—the latter role of coaching being another first for a person of Chinese descent.
Kwong finally retired from sports when he returned to Canada in 1972, and for over 20 years he ran a supermarket together with his brother. He retired completely in 1999 and reportedly lives in Calgary, Alberta.
Larry Kwong has been recognized numerous times for his many achievements—but never by the New York Rangers (in 2013 Kwong said that he’d had no contact with the team since 1948).
In 2011 Kwong was inducted into the Okanagan Sports Hall of Fame and in 2013 became a member of the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame. He joined the Alberta Hockey Hall of Fame last July 23. He is also the subject of at least one biography: King Kwong: Larry Kwong, the China Clipper who Broke the NHL Colour Barrier, by B.C. writer Paula Johanson and several documentaries, including 2012’s Lost Years: A People’s Struggle for Justice and The Shift: The Story of the China Clipper, which premiered in Vernon, B.C. in 2014.
A natural if ever there was one
Gordie Howe (1928-1926) was born in Floral, Saskatchewan, Canada. He played professional hockey in the NHL from 1946 t0 1980—26 seasons in total—the first 25 with the Detroit Red Wings.
Howe’s game on the ice was something new—an unequaled combination of scoring touch, playmaking ability and raw physical toughness which transformed the gameplay of professional hockey and redefined what it meant to be a hockey power forward. Off the ice he was courtesy and humility itself.
Howe was one of the most dominant NHL players through the 1950s and 1960s. He was a 23-time NHL All-Star, won the league championship, the Stanley Cup, with the Red Wings four times and held many of the NHL’s scoring records until they were finally bested in the 1980s by Wayne Gretzky (who Howe played with in his unparalleled six-decade-spanning career).
Echoing the opinion of most fans and players, Wayne Gretzky—himself nicknamed “The Great One”— unreservedly calls Howe “the greatest hockey player to ever play.”
In 1972 Howe retired to a front office job with the Red Wings but returned to the ice in 1973, to play in the World Hockey Association (WHA) with his two sons. When the WHA folded in 1979, Gordie Howe was with the WHA’s New England Whalers and stayed with the team for the 1979–80 season after they became the Hartford Whalers in the NHL.
Having already played professional hockey in five consecutive decades, in October, 1997, a 69-year-old Howe laced on the skates again and played two shifts of a game with the Detroit Vipers of the IHL, becoming the only player in history to compete professionally in six decades—the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s—not to mention in three different leagues: the NHL, WHA and IHL.
Gordie Howe passed away last year, on June 10, 2016, at the age of 88, at his son Murray’s house in Sylvania, Ohio. Unlike so many great athletes, he was never forgotten—never entirely out of the spotlight.
Years before his hockey career ended, Howe was made an officer of the Order of Canada in 1971. He was named to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1972—the same year the Red Wings retired his number 9 jersey—and to Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1975.
In his lifetime, Gordie Howe was honoured as few other Canadian athletes have been or ever will be. Perhaps the greatest honour was his longtime nickname—”Mr. Hockey”—bestowed on him by a grateful and adoring public; it was a sobriquet he wore humbly, proudly and deservedly.
Where there’s a willow there’s a way
Frederick “Fred” “Chief Running Deer” George Sasakamoose (1933-) was born at Ahtahkakoop 104 (formerly the “Sandy Lake reserve“, a Cree First Nations reserve in Shell Lake, Saskatchewan, Canada.
According to an interview he gave to the Globe and Mail in December 2016, it was Fred’s blind and mute grandfather who started him skating while he was still a toddler and carved him hockey sticks out of red willow branches, with which Fred whacked away at “pucks” made from frozen horse droppings.
This was all very traditional as ice hockey was invented hundreds of years ago by Aboriginal peoples and the first versions of the game were likely played with carved one-piece wooden sticks and makeshift pucks.
When Fred was 6, he and his 8-year-old brother were taken from their parents by a priest and an agent from the Department of Indian Affairs and driven off, with 28 other kids, to the Roman Catholic-run St. Michael’s Residential school for Aboriginal children, in Duck Lake, Saskatchewan, where Fred had to spend the next 10 years.
The lessons which St. Michael’s had to teach its Aboriginal charges began almost as soon as they all piled out of the truck.
“The 30 of us got off. I had beautiful braids and so did my brother. My mom was always so delicate fixing our hair every morning. A priest cut them off. The abuse we received in that school was not human.”
As an aside. the absolute evil of the residential school system cannot be overstated.
Personally, as a white/Asian child growing up in Saskatchewan in the 1960s, my knowledge of residential school horrors was secondhand, gained from the many troubled Aboriginal teenagers whom I met in other youth facilities.
It was no secret back then what went on in residential schools—not to us children and certainly not to our adult overseers. For one thing, the culture of adult licence and licentiousness which still “governed” residential schools in my childhood, undeniably spilled over into some of the other, more isolated, youth institutions, such as Ranch Erhlo, which was located about 9.6 km outside of Regina, Saskatchewan (you could run but you couldn’t hide).
When I spent my bit of nightmare time at Ranch Erhlo as a rabbit-scared 8-year-old in 1969-70, abuse was a common enough peril. For my part I was raped once and subjected to several physical assaults by my older peers. But I understood at the time that Aboriginal kids in residential schools had it a lot worse. Certainly I don’t remember any of the kids at Ranch Erhlo dying.
“Towards the final solution of our Indian Problem”
To be blunt, the residential school system was set up in the 1880s as part of a government-sponsored program of deliberate cultural genocide. The purpose of the schools was to indoctrinate (brainwash) Aboriginal children with the Christian value set of the dominant white European colonizers.
Canada’s effort to forcibly “whitewash” Aboriginal children en masse, using the residential schools anticipated—by some 40 years—identical efforts by the Nazi regime in Germany to “Aryanize” the young children of the Slavic peoples that it conquered and tried to eradicate during the Second World War.
In fact, the attitudes expressed by Canadians officials charged with salvaging the children of “inferior” Aboriginal peoples could only have served to inspire their later Nazi counterparts.
As Duncan Campbell Scott, Canada’s Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs (1913-1932) wrote in 1910:
“It is readily acknowledged that Indian children lose their natural resistance to illness by habitating so closely in these schools, and that they die at a much higher rate than in their villages. But this alone does not justify a change in the policy of this Department, which is being geared towards the final solution of our Indian Problem.” (emphasis mine)
You say vernichtung (extermination), I say Indian Act.
That’ll teach ’em for being Aboriginals
After 10 years in residential school Fred Sasakamoose says that he had no better than a seventh grade education; that’s because the residential schools were schools in name only. They were really workhouses, where the children laboured at whatever tasks the priests could contrive for them.
“I was an employee, a slave,” Sasakamoose explained to the Globe and Mail.
Within three years of arriving at the residential school he was also a victim of sexual assault. When he was 9, a group older boys dragged him into the bush and raped him.
In 2012 he recounted the assault at a hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), held in Prince Albert. He related how he believed a priest witnessed the assault, but chose not to intervene.
Sasakamoose and a friend ran away from the residential school following the rape but were ultimately caught, made to walk back in their bare feet over a gravel road and then beaten with a strap in front of the other students and further humiliated by being made to eat their dinner off the floor of the dining hall.
By the way, this basic outline still held some 30 years later at boys’ institutions in Saskatchewan that weren’t even residential schools—the older boys were largely left alone to prey on their younger peers and any boys caught acting against authority or running away were made examples of by being beaten and humiliated in front of the rest of the population.
All that could be said for St. Michael’s is that in 1944, two years after Sasakamoose’s sexual assault, a new priest arrived from Quebec who recognized the young boy’s hockey potential and convinced him to play on the school’s team.
Sasakamoose was pushed to excel and he did.
In the 1948-49 season, the St. Michael’s Duck Lake team (imaginatively named the Duck Lake Ducks) won the Saskatchewan midget hockey title, thanks to their star player, the 15-year-old Fred Sasakamoose.
Today, Sasakamoose remembers being somewhat ambivalent at the time about his hockey success with the residential school team, as if he still felt like an employee or a slave (albeit a very talented one) and hockey was just another of the chores he was made to perform.
Unbeknownst to Fred, his talent was to be his ticket out of St. Michael’s. His play at the provincial tournament had caught the attention of George Vogan, the general manager of the Moose Jaw Canucks, who wanted the young man to play for him in the Western Canada Hockey League (WCHL).
After another separation from his family and a tryout in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, that saw the homesick young phenom almost lose to his fears and insecurities and run away back to his reserve, his talent won him spot on the team. For the next four seasons he played centre with the Moosejaw Canucks and lived with Vogan and his wife and two children.
In 1953-54 the 20-year-old Sasakamoose was voted the most valuable player in the WCHL and after the last game of the season with the Canucks, he was called up to immediately play for the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens.
Sasakamoose recalled to the Globe and Mail how he was buttonholed when he arrived at the Toronto arena by none other than Foster Hewitt, the legendary sports broadcaster who was the voice of Hockey Night in Canada. The announcer had one question for Fred:
“How the hell do you pronounce your name?”
Ever the professional, Hewitt wanted to make sure that he knew how to say “Sasakamoose” properly on the radio.
Sasakamoose played 11 games for the Blackhawks during what remained of the 1953-54 season. He failed to score any points but earned 6 penalty minutes. He never played a 12th game in the NHL.
Important history was made all the same and he became the first in a long line of Aboriginal Canadians to play in the NHL.
The next year the Blackhawks ordered him to report to their American Hockey League (AHL) farm team in Buffalo, New York, but he refused, asking to be sent to a team closer to his home in Saskatchewan.
Sasakamoose did go on to briefly play minor league hockey for teams in Chicoutimi, Quebec, New Westminster, B.C., and Calgary, Alberta, but by 1961 he had given up playing any kind of pro hockey in order to return permanently to his reserve in Saskatchewan and to his wife of 6 years, Loretta. Some 62 years later, the pair are still together and have 128 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
In the 60-some years since Fred Sasakamoose made NHL history, he has devoted himself to the Ahtahkakoop Cree community and to his family. He has served as a chief (1980-84), a band councillor and a role model and mentor to the young, 30-something-and-under, Cree who comprise over 60 percent of the reserve’s population of 1,100.
For over 50 years he has promoted Aboriginal youth hockey along with participation in other sports as healthy and healing activities and he has addressed his own healing as a residential school survivor.
One of the ways that Sasakamoose reconnected to his culture was to regain fluency in his Cree language.
“In school, the Cree language was totally outlawed. You would get a severe punishment. When I came home as a child, I couldn’t even say spoon or fork in Cree. I had to point to get it across to my mom. It wasn’t easy to relearn my language but it was important to me to be able to speak to my family, to be recognized as belonging to the Cree nation.”
Being the first Aboriginal Canadian to play in the NHL and all those grandkids aside, the real achievement of Fred Sasakamoose has to have been the way that he managed to unlearn the lessons of self-loathing and cultural abnegation that the priests tried to beat into him. It’s amazing and inspiring to see how he survived 10 years of residential school with his self-esteem and optimism as a member of the Cree nation intact.
It was both as a survivor of the Residential school system and as the NHL’s first Aboriginal player that the Edmonton Oilers invited him to drop the puck at at March 2014 home game against the New York Rangers, to mark the end of the final national Truth and Reconciliation Commission event.
Sasakamoose was named to the Saskatchewan Indian Hall of Fame in 1994, the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame (builders category) in 2007 and the Saskatchewan Hockey Hall of Fame in 2012. He was finally honoured by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2002. Click the images to enlarge them.