The 50th anniversary of Willie O’Ree becoming the first black player to skate in the NHL is Friday. O’Ree remembers it as if it were yesterday.
He was playing senior hockey for the Quebec Aces when the Boston Bruins called him up for a game in the Montreal Forum. General manager Lynn Patrick and coach Milt Schmidt briefed him before the game. It was Jan. 18, 1958.
“They said, ‘Willie, you’re going to be the first of your race to play in the NHL,”‘ O’Ree recalls. “They said, ‘We’ve seen you play and we feel you can add something to our club. Keep in mind that the Bruins organization is behind you 100 per cent and if you go on the ice and hear any racial remarks don’t let it affect your game.”‘
There were no racial slurs hurled at O’Ree that night. Jackie Robinson, the first black major-league baseball player, had been on a team in Montreal so seeing a man of colour in big-time sport was nothing new to sports fans of the city, and O’Ree had previously skated in the city with the Aces. Still, he created a buzz.
“I could see fans pointing, ‘There’s that black kid. He’s up with the Bruins,”‘ he recalls. “There was no mention at the time of Willie O’Ree breaking the black barrier.”
The Bruins, last in what was then a six-team league, beat the Habs 3-0. O’Ree was so excited. His parents travelled from Fredericton and his sister and brother and a bunch of friends were at the Forum, too, to witness the NHL debut of the five-foot-10, 175-pound forward.
O’Ree was on a train with the Bruins for the trip to Boston and a game against the Habs the next night, and then he was returned to the Aces. They were the only two games he played that season, and he wouldn’t be recalled again until the 1960-61 season, when he appeared in 43 games.
“That’s when the media gave me the name ‘The Jackie Robinson of Hockey,”‘ said O’Ree.
O’Ree scored his first NHL goal in Boston on Jan. 1, 1961, against Montreal goaltender Charlie Hodge.
Racial slurs were directed at him by opponents and fans during games in Chicago, Detroit and New York.
“I had geared myself up,” he says. “I told myself, ‘Willie, names will never hurt you. Just play hockey. If they don’t accept you for who you are, it’s their tough luck. You’re not going to leave because players are trying to goad you and run you out of the league.”‘
O’Ree is 72 now.
O’Ree was to be honoured Wednesday in Fredericton where an arena will officially be known as ‘Willie O’Ree Place’.
“I’m thrilled,” he said from New Brunswick’s capital during a telephone interview. “When I was contacted and found out the rink was going to be dedicated in my honour, my goodness, I was a little lost for words.
“I’m very proud.”
It’s on to Boston where the Bruins are hosts for ‘Willie O’Ree Night’ when they face the New York Rangers on Saturday.
O’Ree is the director of youth development for the NHL’s diversity program, which provides access to the sport for children throughout North America. It’s a full-time job he took 10 years ago.
O’Ree scored four goals and assisted on 10 in his 45 NHL games, and he would have played many more had he not had a vision problem caused by a hockey injury.
“I think I was a good enough player to be in the league a lot longer,” he says. “The first expansion was in 1967, when Kings came in and they put a team in San Francisco, too.
“I knew in my heart that, if I hadn’t had my eye injury, I definitely could have caught on with one of those teams.”
He was playing in the Ontario junior league in 1955-56 for the Kitchener Canucks in a game in Guelph when he passed the puck to teammate Kent Douglas and rushed towards the net as Douglas wound up to take a shot. The puck glanced off a defender’s stick and struck his right eye.
“I remember dropping to the ice and I could feel the blood rushing down my face,” he recalls. “I was in hospital for two days.
“The surgeon told me the retina was shattered. He told me that I would be blind in the eye and never play hockey again. It was devastating. I thought my dream of playing in the NHL was gone.”
He lost 97 per cent of the vision in the eye. His junior eligibility gone, he returned home. Months passed. Then he got a call from Quebec GM-coach Punch Imlach inviting him to camp. He made the team.
He’d told only his sister and a longtime friend of the loss of vision. He didn’t even tell his parents. Everybody assumed he’d recovered from the injury.
O’Ree scored 22 goals during the regular season and the Aces won the Quebec senior league title.
“I was so happy,” O’Ree recalls. “I was telling myself, ‘Forget about what you can’t see and concentrate on what you can see.’
“The Bruins didn’t know the extent of my eye problem either. They didn’t do eye exams back then.”
After his brief NHL stints, he went on to play pro from 1962 until 1979 in California. He’d settled in the San Diego region and after his playing career he worked construction, sold cars, managed fast-food restaurants, was a security firm manager and was director of security for a hotel-resort.
The job offer from the NHL diversity program came 10 years ago and O’Ree has devoted himself to the task. Hockey Is For Everyone is a program motto and O’Ree travels extensively to conduct clinics on and off the ice and make personal appearances, many of them in schools.
“I’m having a great time,” he says. “I’m so glad I’m in a position to give back to the sport.
“The youth development program is great. I’ve been exposed to so many boys and girls and I’m trying to make a difference in their lives, help them set goals for themselves. We’re not only concerned with their hockey skills, but we’re concerned with their life skills and how they do in school.”
The branch of the diversity program in which he works is so far-reaching that, if a disadvantaged child has no way to get to a rink, volunteers are organized to provide rides.
“We will not turn any boy or girl away,” says O’Ree. “I wouldn’t have stayed with it for 10 years if I didn’t think the program works.
“The kids are having a great time. The first thing I say to kids when I get to an arena is, ‘We’re here to learn about hockey and if anybody doesn’t want to have fun the door is open and leave the ice right now so we can get started.’
“I’ve never had one boy or girl come up to me and say Mr. O’Ree I don’t want to be here. It is very rewarding work.”
There are about 20 NHL players of colour today. After a recent game in California, Mike Greer of the San Jose Sharks spotted O’Ree.
“He came over and said, ‘Gosh, Mr. O’Ree, it’s great to see you. Anything I can do for your program, just ask.’
“Kids need these role models to look up to. They are down-to-earth human beings. They are really into the diversity programs.”
The NHL will mark the 50th anniversary by honouring O’Ree during the all-star game in Atlanta later this month.