Even when he first skated onto the white ice of the Montreal Forum as a Boston Bruin almost 50 years ago, it didn’t seem like a big deal.
But his hometown thinks it’s an accomplishment worth honouring, and this week the city of Fredericton voted unanimously to name a new hockey arena on the city’s north side after O’Ree – the Jackie Robinson of hockey.
“It’s a nice feeling,” O’Ree said Wednesday in an interview from his home in San Diego, CA. “My close friends in Fredericton never forgot from Day 1 when I left there, the things that I accomplished playing hockey. I’m deeply honoured.”
The new arena will be formally named in January, as close as possible to the actual 50th anniversary of O’Ree’s debut in the NHL on Jan. 18, 1958.
A second arena under construction on the city’s south side also will be named after a local hockey legend – Danny Grant, the former Detroit Red Winger often referred to as Iron Man after he played 566 consecutive games.
City council approved the honours after a group of citizens lobbied for the names.
Fredericton lawyer Bob Kenny, a member of the citizens’ committee, said Canadians are often slow to recognize the achievements of their heroes, and he wanted to make sure that didn’t happen with O’Ree and Grant.
“Here’s a part of Canadian history that could have been overlooked,” Kenny said, referring to O’Ree’s breakthrough as a black player. “We didn’t want that to happen.”
O’Ree, 71, is director of the NHL’s diversity program, travelling across Canada and the United States promoting hockey and the involvement of children from all cultural backgrounds.
O’Ree said he’s pleased with the cultural diversity now evident in the NHL, especially the growing interest in the game in the southern states.
But despite on-going efforts to enourage more kids, the NHL remains dominated by white athletes.
O’Ree said he clearly remembers what it was like when he first played with the Bruins against the Canadiens in Montreal on that night in 1958.
“It seems like yesterday,” he said. “I was no stranger to Montreal fans since just the week prior I was Willie O’Ree with the Quebec Aces jersey playing against the Montreal Royals in the Quebec professional league.
“Now I’m Willie O’Ree with the Bruins jersey on and people just said. ‘Oh, there’s that black kid. He’s up with Bruins now.’ There was really no big deal made of it.”
By the time he was ready to hang up his skates, O’Ree played 21 years in the NHL and minor leagues.
In addition to breaking the colour barrier, O’Ree also broke a disability barrier since he was blind in the right eye as a result of a hockey accident when he was 21.
He kept the injury secret from his coaches and other players.
A left winger, O’Ree played two games for the Bruins in 1957-58 and 43 more in 1960-61.
He was best known for his exceptional speed and his checking ability. He spent most of his long professional career in the old Western League with the Los Angeles Blades and the San Diego Gulls.