REGINA, Saskatchewan -- Fred Sasakamoose, one of the first Canadian indigenous players in the NHL, was the star of a heavy First Nations presence during a luncheon Friday to celebrate the arrival of the Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic here.
Sasakamoose, who played 11 games for the Chicago Black Hawks during the 1953-54 season, is from Ahtahkakoop, Saskatchewan and he, like many at the luncheon, enthusiastically welcomed the NHL to town on the eve of the game between the Calgary Flames and the Winnipeg Jets at Mosaic Stadium on Saturday (10 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN1, City, TVA Sports2).
"You don't understand what an honor it is for all of us," the 85-year-old said after presenting NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman with a statue depicting his rookie card from his only NHL season. "We know you are humbled, but it is great honor for you to be here."
Commissioner Bettman was at the luncheon to announce the NHL Hockey is for Everyone Scholarship legacy initiative, as well as to celebrate the rich history of hockey in the province.
Sasakamoose is a huge part of that history.
Video: Bellegarde honors Bettman with tribal blanket
His hockey journey started at a residential school in Duck Lake, Saskatchewan before he caught on with the Moose Jaw Canucks of the Western Canada Junior Hockey League.
Ironically, he says he was playing a game in Regina when he received the historic message from the Black Hawks.
"I was in the playoffs [against] the Regina Pats and I opened the telegram and it said, 'Fred Sasakamoose report immediately to the Chicago Black Hawks.'" he said. "It was in Regina here; in that old barn. I was a dreamer that never dreamed to be an Indian to make it to the NHL.
"They put me on a train, and I slept on a bench and woke up in Winnipeg. The next day, they put me in a bunk and then I woke up in Sudbury. I ended up at the Toronto train station and they took me to Maple Leaf Gardens. Tim Horton, Carl Brewer, George Armstrong, the biggest names you can think of [in hockey]. Today, I have this proud moment to celebrate."
The forward, known for his nasty lefthanded shot, played 11 games that season for the Black Hawks before returning to the minors and playing for five more seasons.
He was clearly moved on Friday about the presence of the NHL in his home province.
"You, the commissioner to come down and celebrate our hockey … to be able to celebrate with you is a great moment in our lives," he said.
It was also a great moment for the NHL Commissioner who was touched by the present and the outpouring of support from the community throughout the two-hour program.
"I cannot thank you enough," said Commissioner Bettman "It is a great honor not only to receive this wonderful present but to meet you Fred, and your son, and this will have a permanent place in my office. It's just terrific."
The statue was not the only gift Bettman received Friday. He was also given a star blanket featuring the NHL colors of black, orange, gray and white.
"This is one of the highest honors we can bestow," said Edgar Bellegarde, the tribal chief who presented the gift. "It's a show of respect to the territory and a thank you. We honor you and we honor the National Hockey League for everything that you do for inclusivity and diversity throughout North America."