COVID-19 outbreak causes scare after all-Indigenous national hockey tournament

Members of a Cree hockey team in Quebec and their families are isolating near Ottawa after eight of them tested positive for COVID-19 on their way home from an all-Indigenous hockey tournament in Saskatchewan.

The Fred Sasakamoose “Chief Thunderstick” National Hockey Championship brought together 32 teams from First Nations communities across Canada. Seven thousand fans attended the event over three days.

“It could have [spread] all over and people had to travel back to their communities,” said Neil Sasakamoose, organizer of the event that ran from August 13 to 15 in Saskatoon. “[It] put me in a real, real depressed state of mind for a bit,”

It could have [spread] all over and people had to travel back to their communities.– Fred Sasakamoose, organizer

Sasakamoose said he feared the outbreak could have devastating impacts on vulnerable Indigenous communities from coast to coast. 

Measures not enough

“We tried to make it a safe event. I felt ashamed, to be honest,” said Sasakamoose, whose own father died of COVID-19 in November. 

Organizers had cleaning crews spreading disinfectant in the building and dressing rooms between games and washing down door knobs and other surfaces. Rapid testing was also available on site at the event and a vaccination clinic set up. Free masks were also available.

But it wasn’t enough.

Neil Sasakamoose (left) pictured with his father Fred and sister at the Fred Sasakamoose “Chief Thunderstick” National Hockey Championship in 2018. (submitted by Neil Sasakamoose)

Que. players struggling

As for the Waswanipi team, they are having a tough time, according to the community’s chief, Marcel Happyjack. 

“The ones who tested positive for COVID-19 are feeling the symptoms with fever, coughing, and having a hard time breathing,” said Happyjack in Cree, adding that the entire group was struggling mentally as they waited for test results. 

A delivery of traditional food and medicine was sent to the Que. team earlier this week from Waswanipi and a total of 53 people — either players or their supporters — have been tested, according to Cree health board. 

Happyjack also travelled to Saskatoon to cheer on the team who won the tournament in February of 2020, but was allowed to return home after testing negative twice.

Sasakamoose said at least eight other complete teams have also been tested, as well as all the referees and a team of over 60 volunteers who helped out at the event. 

The outbreak appears to be contained to the Chiefs, and three other people who attended the tournament, he said. 

Lessons learned: organizers

The experience has instead become a cautionary tale of hosting events in the time of COVID-19. 

Initially the tournament was supposed to be online-only, but Sasakamoose said there was intense pressure to open it up and hold a memorial for his dad Fred Sasakamoose, who was one of the first Indigenous athletes to play in the National Hockey League and who founded the tournament. He died in November of 2020 as a result of complications from COVID-19.

“We were getting lots of pressure to celebrate him,” said the younger Sasakamoose and when they opened it up, the people showed up in droves. 

That’s how much people miss hockey and gatherings and being a fan.– Neil Sasakamoose, organizer

“That’s how much people miss hockey and gatherings and being a fan,” said Sasakamoose. 

“It’s been a long two years and we missed hockey.” 

Sasakamoose said his takeaways as they plan for the next tournament in May of 2022, is to require that players be double vaccinated and agree to regular rapid testing during the tournament. 

As for whether the 2022 Fred Sasakamoose “Chief Thunderstick” National Hockey Championship will be open to the public, he said a decision on that hasn’t been made yet.

Former Chicago Blackhawks player, and the first Indigenous pro hockey player, Fred Sasakamoose is honoured at the Edmonton Oilers and Chicago Blackhawks game in Edmonton in 2017. (Jason Franson/CP)

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