OTTAWA – Willie O’Ree didn’t let the catcalls, slashes or cross-checks keep him from making his mark in the National Hockey League.
What’s more, the affable former Boston Bruin they call the Jackie Robinson of hockey played on, despite taking a puck to the face that left his right eye legally blind – a disability he hid for years.
O’Ree, now 73, recalled becoming the NHL’s first black player as he joined another rarefied league Tuesday: the Order of Canada.
He was one of 60 people named to various ranks of honour by Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean.
“I was at a loss for words, really, when they contacted me this morning,” O’Ree said from his home in San Diego.
It was Jan. 18, 1958, when O’Ree, born in Fredericton, played his first big-league game for Boston against the Habs in Montreal.
“It was a Saturday night, and we beat the Canadiens 3-0. Shut them out in the Forum. The big write-up was Bruins Shut Out Habs. There was no mention of Willie O’Ree breaking the colour barrier, opening doors and breaking down barriers.”
Reporters wouldn’t pick up on that angle until O’Ree was called back up to the NHL two years later, he said.
Unlike Robinson, the baseball legend to which he is often compared, O’Ree’s flash of an NHL career didn’t exactly make him a household name.
He played two games in 1958 and 43 in 1960-61, receiving a two-minute standing ovation – one of his sweetest memories – when he became the first black player to score an NHL goal on New Year’s Day 1961. It was a home game for the Bruins against Montreal.
Some of O’Ree’s worst moments include the dirty play and racist taunts he faced during road games in New York, Detroit and especially Chicago. He lost it one game in 1961 when a Blackhawk winger used the butt end of his stick to split O’Ree’s nose and lip.
The ensuing scrap cleared both benches as O’Ree wound up in the dressing room under police guard while irate fans bayed nearby.
“They were throwing things. But you know, this happened in other cities.
“I just wanted to be accepted as just another hockey player. … I knew there were going to be racial remarks and slurs directed towards me. But I just let it in one ear, and out the other. I really did.”
He later played 16 more minor league seasons, most of them for the Los Angeles Blades or the San Diego Gulls of the Western Hockey League.
O’Ree now helps introduce inner-city kids to hockey through the NHL’s diversity program. It’s still among the world’s whitest sports, short of NASCAR, but it has come a long way, he says.
“When I go around and meet guys like (Calgary Flames captain) Jerome Iginla and some of the other players, it’s a nice feeling when they come up to me and say: ‘Mr. O’Ree, I just can’t imagine what you had to go through when you played to … make it possible for players like myself.”‘
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman tipped his hat to O’Ree’s “lifetime of outstanding achievement, service and dedication to the community.
“For more than 50 years, Willie has been a pioneer in helping others. As an NHL player, he paved the way for countless others to play the game.”
O’Ree was one of 42 people named Tuesday as Members of the Order.
Two Canadian singing stars, Celine Dion and tenor Ben Heppner, were elevated to Companions of the Order, the highest of the three rankings.
Also raised to the Companion level were Barrick Gold founder and chairman Peter Munk and investment guru Stephen Jarislowsky of Montreal.
Those named Officers of the Order – the second-highest rank – include Allan MacEachen and Iona Campagnolo, two former members of Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government, and Nellie Cournoyea, the premier of the Northwest Territories from 1991 to 1996.
Retired Liberal Senator Michael Kirby, Quebec dancer Louise Lecavalier, Claude Lamoureux, the recently retired head of the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, were also named Officers of the order.
They will receive their insignia at a ceremony to be held at a later date.
The Order of Canada was first awarded in 1967 to recognize outstanding citizens and their contributions.