Chief Thunderstick championship in Saskatoon brings dozens of Indigenous teams together

From Rankin Inlet, Nunavut to Ochapawace, Saskatchewan, Indigenous hockey teams from all over Canada are in Saskatoon this weekend playing in the Fred Sasakamoose "Chief Thunderstick" National Hockey Championship.

After taking the last two years off because of COVID-19, the fifth edition of the tournament happening at Merlis Belsher Place and Rod Hamm Arena features 40 teams.

Neil Sasakamoose, organizer and son of the late Fred Sasakamoose – the first Indigenous person with treaty status to play in the Nation Hockey League -- is happy to see how massive the tournament has become and how widely adored he is.

“These players are in their 20s and my father was 86, that’s a big generation gap,” Neil said. “They’ll spread the message out in their area and then more people will know who he is.”

“He wanted them to compete here…and he chose Saskatoon as the centre of the universe for that.”

Sasakamoose died after contracting COVID-19 in November 2020.

Earlier this week, a statue of Sasakamoose was unveiled outside of SaskTel Centre. More than just the hockey, this event has turned into a pilgrimage of sorts with plenty of fans and players visiting the statue throughout the weekend.

After spending 13 hours driving to Toronto from northern Quebec just to spend another half of a day travelling to Saskatoon to play in the tournament, Geronimo Whiteduck of the Nemaska Axemen felt the journey was worth it after the team posed for a photo with the new statue.

“He’s the one that started the tournament, and for every Indigenous hockey player out there, he led the path,” he said.

Neil spent time Saturday visiting with the team and thanking them for competing in the tournament. He said each interaction shows the legacy of his father.

“It tells you – across Canada – how people perceive him,” Neil said.

To Neil, Fred Sasakamoose was his dad, but to these players he's an icon.

"The trailblazer. He's the one that made it a reality for that kid on the reserve to work harder, try harder and realize there is a chance they can make it all the way,” Williams Lake First Nation Chief Willie Sellars said.

Sellars flew to Saskatoon from Williams Lake to play in the tournament, and he wasn't leaving until he got a picture with the brand new statue.

“When I show the kids these pictures back home, they’re going to be pumped and hopefully inspired to work harder, try harder and hopefully be here one day,” he said.

Neil called these moments with players and fans in town for the tournament “bittersweet.” He’s spent the previous few mornings eating breakfast alongside the statue wishing his father could be here for one more tournament to see the impact he’s had across the country.