At a time when reconciliation stands as a pivotal moment in modern Canadian history, the contributions of Indigenous peoples are gaining a new level of celebration and appreciation. Equally compelling involves the positive impact made in the sporting footprint. From a hockey perspective, the Fred Sasakamoose Chief Thunderstick tournament in Saskatoon demonstrates the important values of inclusion, sportsmanship and unity.
Having appeared in 11 games for the Chicago Black Hawks during the 1953-54 NHL season, the hockey odyssey of Sasakamoose also saw him skate for the Moose Jaw Canucks, New Westminster Royals, Chicoutimi Sagueneens, Kamloops Chiefs and North Battleford Beavers. Beyond hockey, a band councilor of the Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation, including a period of six years in the capacity of chief, Sasakamoose also earned the Order of Canada on December 13, 2017.
With an annual tournament that bears his name, featuring Indigenous players from throughout the country, its impact reached greater relevance in 2022. Introducing a women’s tournament for the first time, adding an element of importance to tournament lore, it also stands as a proud chapter for the growth of the female game in Canada.
Displaying gratitude towards the women that have helped bring the female game to greater prominence, marking a seminal moment in the careers of many participants, it provided others with an opportunity to extend their season. Having skated in the gold medal game of the 2022 U Sports Nationals with the University of Nipissing Lakers, blueliner Britney Zack experienced feelings of reunion and coincidence.
Just a few weeks prior, two of Zack’s teammates on the Wiikwemkoong T-Birds roster at Chief Thunderstick, were competitive rivals at U Sports Nationals. Lily George and Jana Headrick, the recipient of the 2022 Marion Hilliard Award, faced off versus the Lakers as members of the University of New Brunswick (UNB) Reds. Worth noting, both schools appeared at the U Sports women’s Nationals for the first time ever.
Adding to the theme of coincidence is the fact that both George and Headrick played a prominent role in Zack’s early years in the game. Not only do Headrick and Zack belong to the same First Nation, Zack’s PWHL career involved calling George a teammate on the Barrie Sharks, collectively having a positive impact on shaping each of their young careers, respect and admiration clearly reciprocated.
“I actually have gotten to play with both Jana and Lily over the past few years. I have played with them both at NAHC – National Aboriginal Hockey championships. Jana and I also come from the same community, Garden River First Nation.
I billeted in North Bay my grade eleven year and played with Lily as well as playing junior with her in Barrie. It was definitely exciting meeting up with them in the semi-finals at Nationals in PEI. I know them both on a personal level and it was pretty great having them as teammates again at the Chief Thunderstick tournament.”
Discussing the origins of the women’s tournament, Neil Sasakamoose displays a tremendous humility. Paying homage to Fred’s legacy, acknowledging his positive influence as a builder, creating opportunities for Indigenous peoples to grace the ice, a sincere appreciation for the women of ice hockey is evident.
Reflecting on how numerous women competed on men’s teams in past tournaments, another key catalyst in the realization of a women’s tournament involved the encouraging suggestion of Brigette Lacquette, a member of the Cote First Nation. Coincidentally, her first involvement with Chief Thunderstick involved playing with a men’s team.
With a brilliant career, including an appearance for Canada at the Winter Games, along with the privilege of an INDspire Sports Award in 2019, the realization of a women’s tournament at Chief Thunderstick marked a significant milestone for Lacquette. Serendipitously, she enjoyed the first championship in tournament history, skating for the Mistawasis SageStrong, her father Terrance served as head coach, facing off versus the Cross Lake Lady Islanders in the Finals.
Although Fred never enjoyed the chance to see the inaugural women’s tournament, passing in November 2020 due to complications from the pandemic, the platform of his tournament is destined to establish a new heritage for the female game.
“The women’s portion of our event can be attributed to a couple of people. One is Fred and our family. Fred was a great admirer of women in sports and was so a big supporter of it. He always wanted to add a women’s Division in his event. Unfortunately, he never got to witness it in his tournament in 2022.
He would have been so proud to watch some of North America’s finest Indigenous women’s players meet and compete for a National Title. Also, he would already understand that it takes time to develop women’s hockey. He would have stood proudly behind it with care and support.
The second person to recognize is Brigette Lacquette. She played in the men’s division for two years at Chief Thunderstick for her First Nation, Cote. She was astounding to watch and the fans loved watching her skate right out of the Olympic Games.
She called in 2021 and asked why would we not have a women’s Division at Chief Thunderstick? The truth is we never thought about it and it was a question we had no answer. She told us that we should showcase women’s hockey as it is a great place for Indigenous to play.
From there it was no looking back. We asked for 10 teams and immediately it was full from across Canada. Abby Roque just finished skating for Team USA and Victoria Bach plus Jocelyn Larocque from Team Canada confirmed they would play and the rest is history for us. The women played in front of thousands of people and young girls flocked the arenas to become inspired with hope that they have a chance in this world.”
A member of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte First Nation near Belleville, Ontario,.Bach, the first player to record 100 career goals for the Boston University Terriers, called Lacquette and Larocque teammates on SageStrong. As a side note, Bach and Larocque were also former teammates in the professional ranks with the Markham Thunder. Adding the Chief Thunderstick women’s tournament title to an incredible list of career accomplishments, Bach recorded 11 points in four games played, including a pair of assists in the finals.
Inspired by her late grandmother, Shirley, who was born and raised in Tyendinaga, the tournament represented a proud opportunity to honour her heritage. Currently doing post-graduate studies in Eastern Ontario, also aspiring to learn more about Indigenous history, the occasion to be part of a new chapter encompassed a greater appreciation for the game. Akin to every competitor on-hand for this highly impactful event, Bach is definitely an inspiration, paving an exciting path forward, already anticipating the 2023 edition of the tournament, building an exciting legacy poised to have a highly positive sporting and cultural influence.
“It was incredible to take place in the Chief Thunderstick tournament honouring the late Fred Sasakamoose in the Women’s division that was added for the first time this year. The hockey was fast and high-paced. It was great to see all the amazing female Indigenous athletes competing.
Such a great opportunity to get to meet new teammates and friends, to connect with the community and be female role models. Of course, to share the love of hockey with one another! This will be a tournament I will not forget. Already looking forward to next year!”
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Featured image obtained from: https://www.facebook.com/SasakamooseInvitational