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Showcase features Aboriginal hockey pros
A bit of hockey history was made in Saskatoon at an Aboriginal Hockey Showcase held at the TCU Place just a week before Christmas.
The six-day event was part of the BHP Billiton Family Hockey Fest, which was staged to promote the world junior hockey championships, which ran Dec. 26 through Jan. 5 in Saskatoon and Regina.
It was believed to be the first time an International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF)event - at any level - had such a strong Aboriginal connection. Among those who were featured at the event, which offered free admission, were four former Aboriginal professional hockey players.
They were Freddie Sasakamoose, Reggie Leach, Jim Neilson and Rich Pilon.
All four of these players made it to the National Hockey League (NHL).
In fact, Sasakamoose was the first Aboriginal person to play in the NHL. He suited up for 11 games with the Chicago Blackhawks during the 1953-54 season.
Besides meet-and-greet and autograph sessions with the former pros, the Aboriginal Hockey Showcase also featured displays of various Native players.
The displays included their jerseys, hockey cards and other memorabilia.
Milt Tootoosis, one of the event organizers, was thrilled the showcase was held in conjunction with the world tournament.
"We are encouraged that the local host committee invited our participation and have acknowledged the contributions of Aboriginal people to the game of hockey," he said. "We educated the public on the success of Aboriginal players at all levels of hockey."
Eugene Arcand, another event organizer, was also thrilled with the reception the Aboriginal Hockey Showcase received. Especially since organizers had to hastily arrange everything down to the last detail, all within about a week and a half.
"We had to scramble," Arcand said. "But through the co-operation of everybody, we managed to pull it off." Arcand said what also was to the organizers' advantage is that all the ex-pros know each other rather well. "They're all pretty good friends," he said. "It helped us (getting all of them together)."
During one of the days at the showcase, all four former pros were signing autographs. More than 2,000 people lined up that day to meet them. Though the number of people who showed up wasn't that much of a surprise, Arcand was somewhat shocked to see the large number of fans who came either wearing or with NHL jerseys representing the squads the Aboriginal stars had suited up for.
Sasakamoose was the only one who played for just one team. Leach is best known for playing with the Philadelphia Flyers. He was nicknamed the Rifle and the high-scoring forward had a career-high 61 goals during the 1975-76 season.
During his 13-year NHL career Leach also played for the Boston Bruins, California Golden Seals and Detroit Red Wings. He appeared in a total of 1,028 NHL games and collected 735 points, including 428 goals.
As for Neilson and Pilon, they both ended up playing for three NHL clubs during their pro careers, which lasted 16 and 14 seasons, respectively. Neilson, a defenceman, played for the New York Rangers, California Golden Seals and Cleveland Barons. And Pilon, also a blueliner, suited up for the New York Rangers, New York Islanders and St. Louis Blues.
Though the Family Hockey Fest was staged to promote the world junior tournament, Arcand said the Aboriginal Hockey Showcase component was partly held to increase the public awareness of the former Native players.
"Getting to (the NHL), whether you are Native or non-Native takes a lot of work and is a big deal," he said. "There are some obvious obstacles though when you are a First Nations player."
The event also included a pair of Aboriginal players - Jeremy Boyer and Craig McCallum - who are hoping they too will eventually graduate to the NHL. Both Boyer and McCallum are currently in the junior ranks playing in the Western Hockey League. Boyer is a member of the Saskatoon Blades while McCallum is with the Prince Albert Raiders.
Meanwhile, there was also some other Aboriginal ties to the world junior tournament. Organizers decided to include photos on some of the tournament tickets of former Aboriginal players who were born in Saskatchewan and that had played in the NHL. Those who were honoured in this way were Sasakamoose, Neilson and Ron Delorme, who played nine seasons in the NHL with the Vancouver Canucks and Colorado Rockies.
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