Remembering Freddy: Sasakamoose statue was built for big crowds, and quiet moments

“How many people get to make something that will last 1,000 years?”

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Fred Sasakamoose is ready for the elements: Rain will fall on him, sun beat down; snow will coat his head and shoulders.

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There’s no sharp edges to his statue outside SaskTel Centre — sculptors Don and Shirley Begg saw to that — and kids will find various ways to get up close and personal.

Longtime NHL goalie Glenn ‘Chico’ Resch reached his hand out during Wednesday’s statue unveiling and touched Sasakamoose’s bronze face. The hand lingered there for a few seconds, and Resch was asked about it later.

“It was Freddy’s spirit … I don’t know,” said Resch. “He was just so kind, so approachable. He lived the second commandment: love your neighbour as yourself. That is a really hard thing to do, but Freddy Sasakamoose could do that.

“All the times we travelled, everywhere we went, we talked about the residential schools and some of his tough challenges. And honestly, there was never any anger or resentment. I talk about Bobby Clarke (one of Resch’s old NHL rivals) and there’ll be resentment, but with Freddy, he was just so pure in his heart. He respected everyone.”

The Fred Sasakamoose bronze statue is unveiled at SaskTel Centre in Saskatoon on May 18, 2022.
The Fred Sasakamoose bronze statue is unveiled at SaskTel Centre in Saskatoon on May 18, 2022. Photo by Michelle Berg /Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Sasakamoose, from Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation, died of COVID-19 in 2020 at age 86. He was sexually abused at a residential school in Duck Lake, where he spent most of his formative years, but also broke through into the six-team NHL, playing 11 games for the Chicago Blackhawks in 1953-54. He was the first treaty Indian to play in the NHL, and later used his platform to advocate for and help Indigenous youth.

Resch and Sasakamoose met for the first time in 2007, when they were inducted into the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame at the same time. They discovered that they were, as Resch put it, “kindred spirits,” and became close friends — working on projects together, traveling, chatting on the phone.

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On Wednesday, Resch wore a vintage-looking Blackhawks jersey bearing the No. 21 Sasakamoose wore in the NHL. Sasakamoose penned his signature onto the jersey a few years ago, and it’s a prized possession.

“When I was a kid, 10 years old, growing up in Regina, I got some hockey cards,” Resch said. “I knew all the players, but then there was this Fred Saska … you couldn’t say his name, right? But I was always intrigued. I was a goalie, always thinking outside the box, and I thought, ‘Freddy …’ But his card didn’t come out anymore. So he was always intriguing.

“And then when they told me about the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame, and I’m going to be inducted with Freddy Sasakamoose … I said, ‘I’m going to meet the hockey card, finally!’ ”

NHL players all have their cardboard representations — one for Sasakamoose, a dozen or more for longer-serving skaters — but the kid from the residential school now has something very few can claim: He’s cast in bronze, forever.

“How many people get to make something that will last a thousand years?” Don Begg, the sculptor, said Wednesday, and at 800 pounds, there’s an awful lot of permanence to that Sasakamoose likeness.

Don and Shirley Begg worked on the statue for nearly a year out of their studio in Cochrane, Alta., and they were on hand for the unveiling. They’d installed it the day before, and talked on Wednesday about the research that went into the project — making sure the stick (no curve in the blade) was just right, and that the uniform was exactly what the Blackhawks wore in 1953-54.

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Their creations can be seen around the world, including in front of all three western Canadian legislatures, and on this project they worked from photographs while talking frequently with family members, who took great pride in all of it.

“It’s been an honour,” said Shirley, “and we have learned so much.”

Neil Sasakamoose, Fred’s son, said later that they’d invited 40 people to the statue unveiling. Hundreds — many, many hundreds — unexpectedly showed up, filled the concourse, laughed and cried and wrapped arms around Fred.

Sasakamoose has one corner of the concourse, and Gordie Howe’s statue has the other, and it’s awfully fine company for both men.

“It’s here for other people to enjoy it,” said Neil Sasakamoose, as a big, loud and happy throng moved about, posing for pictures, creating new memories. “But I’ll come here Sunday night or early Sunday morning, and bring my wife. We’ll sit here and have something to eat, and just sit here while no one’s here.”

And that’s the thing about a good statue: It’s there for the crowds, and also for those quiet, one-on-one moments. Fred Sasakamoose will have plenty of company in the years to come.

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