The Fred Sasakamoose “Chief Thunderstick” National Hockey Championship in Saskatoon is one of the biggest events for Indigenous players in the country. This year’s edition, which is usually held at the end of April, was cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Organizer Neil Sasakamoose, who is Fred’s son, said it was a tough decision.
“This would have been the fifth year. When it was cancelled, we were pretty glum because this year we would have had 40 teams from across Canada and eight women’s teams. It would have been the largest ever contact tournament in Indigenous hockey,” said Neil Sasakamoose.
The tournament was started by Fred Sasakamoose, the first Indigenous person to play in the National Hockey League when he suited up for the Chicago Black Hawks on February 27, 1954. Since it began in 2016, the event has grown every year.
After the cancellation, Sasakamoose says some Innu players from Maliotenam asked him to consider hosting the tournament online with EA Sports NHL 20.
“I spoke with my dad, who’s 86, and explained to him that it’s a video game played on a PlayStation,” he recounted. “I asked a few teams and people I know, and they told me to go for it.”
After posting a call-out on the Chief Thunderstick Facebook page to see if there was any interest, Sasakamoose received more than 160 responses from Indigenous communities across the country within the space of a few hours.
With so much interest Sasakamoose decided to go ahead with the tournament, even though he had never done anything like it. Tristan Keshane, an Indigenous online entrepreneur in Saskatchewan who owns Treaty 4 Esports, contacted him with an offer to help. The company runs online tournaments for Indigenous communities, and Keshane was supposed to be playing in the tournament before the cancellation.
“He said he would do it for free just so we have something to do,” said Sasakamoose.
With so many entries, organizers had to choose 64 teams, which were picked randomly. Because it was an invitational, there was no entry fee.
“It’s a tradition on the plains that when you invite people to come, you make it easy for them. You’re inviting them, so you’re responsible as a host. It’s how we do it here… it’s our culture,” Sasakamoose explained.
He said that tradition was integrated into the Chief Thunderstick Championship. Players just had to promise to play fairly and with integrity while following the rules.
One of the teams that entered were last year’s champions, the Waswanipi Chiefs.
Chiwetin Blacksmith was the captain of the winning team in 2019. Although he was disappointed that this year’s on-ice tournament was cancelled, he was happy to participate in the online version.
“Every community was allowed a team with six to eight players, so I invited four guys who were on last year’s winning team,” explained Blacksmith. “There were three forwards, two defenseman and one goalie. We couldn’t find a goalie for the longest time, so we asked two guys from our community to play who were pretty decent at NHL 20.”
The other Waswanipi players for the online championship were Joshua Blacksmith, Silas Mattawashish, Austin Cheezo, Mispun Cooper, Kyle Blacksmith and Sammy Blacksmith.
Notably absent from the Waswanipi Chiefs was Chris Cooper, who hung up his skates this year because he wanted to “make room for the younger guys.”
Cooper picked a good year to leave the team as many of the younger players are pretty good gamers and play NHL 20.
“I don’t [play video games], but my sons do,” laughed Cooper. “I have to give Neil Sasakamoose credit for finding a way to bring us all together and to continue playing anyway we can. We all love hockey.”
This year however, the Wikwemikong First Nation knocked the Waswanipi Chiefs out of the tournament. Despite that, Blacksmith said it was a good experience. “It brought all the communities together without actually being together. I think that was the best thing. It got us all involved and got our minds off Covid-19.”
In the end, the Listuguj Warriors won by defeating the Maliotenam Warriors. The winners took home $2,000, while the runners-up walked away with $1,000.
Sasakakamoose said the Listuguj team will also receive a trophy while noting, “There’s only one other in existence, and that’s in Waswanipi with the Chiefs.”
Cooper said he was happy how this year’s event turned out.
“With the hard times we are going through with the pandemic, the organizers continued on and found a way for players to enjoy the event and honour Fred Sasakamoose. He’s a legend.”
Neil Sasakamoose said his father watched the games at home and was very impressed. He added that organizers expect the 2021 edition of the tournament will return to the ice next April 23-25.
Sasakamoose said the online event was a huge success and opened his eyes to gaming and the many opportunities it offers.
Then he ambitiously added, “We’re definitely hosting another online version of the tournament again. I see us setting up a league for the communities towards the end of summer with an NHL-style winter schedule with divisions, games and a playoff championship tournament.”
When asked about the possibility of another online tournament and winter league, Blacksmith said, “That would be pretty cool – I would definitely like to join it for sure.”
As for the on-ice championship, Blacksmith said he is already planning to make the trip to Saskatchewan next year with the Chiefs.