The remarkable secret of Willie O’Ree

Almost all of the black players to ever wear an official NHL sweater have sought him out.

Mike Marson, only the second black player in NHL history, joined the Washington Capitals in 1974, a long 16 years after the colour barrier had been trampled. He wanted to talk to Mr. O’Ree.

Bill Riley, the NHL’s third black player, wanted to meet him as well.

So too did Herb Carnegie, a black Torontonian who believed racism kept him out of the game’s ultimate league in his prime, the 1940s and ’50s. Herbie and his brother Ossie and Manny MacIntyre formed hockey’s first all-black line as the starting forwards for the Quebec Provincial Hockey League’s St. Francois. Mr. O’Ree still chats from time to time with the Carnegie brothers.

Journeyman Tony McKegney, who played 13 seasons for seven NHL clubs after entering the league in 1978, wanted to speak to Mr. O’Ree. Grant Fuhr, Jarome Iginla, Wayne Simmonds… Mr. O’Ree, now 76 years old, is happy to talk to them all.

But what is there to say to the first black man to skate on National Hockey League ice, on Jan. 18, 1958? To the man who didn’t just smash through the game’s colour barrier but continues to stomp all over the rubble and grind it into a fine dust?

“All they can say is, ‘I can’t imagine what you went through to bust the doors and break down the barriers to make it possible for players like myself,’ ” Mr. O’Ree says.

If you think this is a story about a black Canadian, since dubbed the “Jackie Robinson of Ice Hockey” and awarded the Order of Canada, enduring hateful epithets and a few hundred extra hacks, then you are only 10 per cent correct.

For the most remarkable thing about Willie Eldon O’Ree is not that he made the cut in an all-white sport while he happened to be black. It’s not even that he made the NHL when there were only six teams and roster spots were five times harder to come by. It is that he made the NHL, and then flourished as a professional hockey player deep into his 40s, as a man half-blind.

We spoke at length with Mr. O’Ree from Buffalo, where he was continuing his new mission: encouraging boys and girls from diverse backgrounds to lace up skates and pick up the game of hockey.

Do people have any clue what it was like for you in January of 1958 when you became the NHL’s first black player?

You can Google me and find out a lot about me. But what they don’t know is, I lost my right eye when I was struck with a puck. I lost sight in my right eye, and the doctor told me that I would be blind in my right eye and never play hockey again. When I got out of the hospital, I told myself, I just can’t accept the fact that this doctor is telling me I’ll never play hockey again. He doesn’t know the burning desire I have within myself, and the goals and dreams that I’ve set for myself of not only playing professional hockey but making it into the National Hockey League. So I started playing again.

I went to the (Quebec Senior Hockey League’s) Quebec Aces’ training camp after playing my last year of junior. Up in Quebec, Punch Imlach was the coach and general manager. I made the team, but I didn’t disclose the fact that I couldn’t see out of my right eye. I was a left-hand shot playing left wing, so to compensate I had to turn my head all the way around to my right shoulder to pick the puck and the play up. I played for the Aces the next year, and then the Bruins invited me to their training camp in (1957). I went to their training camp, then came back and started playing for the Quebec Aces, and the Bruins said, “We want O’Ree to meet us in Montreal and play two games, on Jan. 18, which was a Saturday in 1958, and then in Boston on the Sunday.” I played the two games, then went back to my parent club, the Aces, and finished out the season. I went to the Bruins’ training camp again the next year and was called up again in 1960-61 and played 45 games with the Bruins.

A lot of people don’t realize, in the 21 years I played pro, I played with one eye.

How do you keep blindness a secret?

When I went to training camp and made the team, I told myself, “If I can make the team with one eye, don’t tell them.” Back then you needed a certain percentage of vision in each eye (to be allowed to play). If it gets out that I’m blind in my right eye, I probably won’t be allowed to play pro, and definitely won’t be allowed to play in the National Hockey League. I never took an eye exam in all the 21 years I played. I never sat in front of an eye machine. I don’t know why back then they didn’t make me. It’s different now. Back then, they were more concerned with your physical condition, and I always kept myself in good shape. I worked out in the gym and played some baseball. And by the time I was ready to return to training camp I was two pounds away from my playing weight. I kept my fingers crossed all those years hoping that nobody would find out. I just played and eventually forgot about it.

I was traded to the Los Angeles Blades of the Western professional Hockey League in 1961. Alfie Pike was the coach when I was out there. When I went to training camp, Alfie said, “Willie, have you ever played right wing?” I said, “No, Alfie, I’ve played left wing my whole career, being a left-hand shot.” He says, “Well, I’ve got about seven left-wingers here. Why don’t you give it a try? We could use your speed on the right side.” So now I switch over to my right, the boards are on my right, and I don’t have to turn around and look over my shoulder. The only disadvantage was taking passes on my backhand, but after three or four games, I fell right into it. I played the last 12 years of my career on the right side, and I won the Western scoring race in 1965, in ’69, and was voted onto four all-star teams due to the fact I switched over.

Do you let yourself wonder how successful you would’ve been in the NHL if you had perfect vision? Or if you had made the switch to right wing earlier?

That’s the thing right there. I don’t know if they found out that I had an impairment. After I left the Bruins, the coach and general manager, Lynn Patrick, said, “Willie, go home and have a good summer. We look forward to you coming back to the Bruins.” So I go home and tell my mom and dad and all my friends that I’m coming back to training camp.

I was home about six weeks, I’m in my living room at my mom’s place, and the phone rings. My mom says, “It’s a sportswriter. He wants to talk to you.”

I pick up the phone, and he says, “Willie, what do you think about the trade?”

I said, “What trade are you referring to?”

He says, “You’ve been traded to the Montreal Canadiens.”

I say, “I have?”

He says, “Yeah, what do you think?”

I said, “Well, I’ll probably be playing on their farm team.”

I never found out why I got traded, and I never asked.

How’s your sight now?

Oh, I’m blind. I’ve been blind from the day the puck hit me. Later I had my eye removed, it was paining me so much. I went to the doctors, and they X-rayed it and said, “We could inject a solution that will alleviate some of the pain, or we can remove your eye and you’ll have no pain.” So I had my eye removed and I wear a special prosthesis; it’s like a contact lens that I need to clean every now and then.

Obviously it was a different era, but when you were hit in the eye, did anyone even mention the need for face protection?

Nobody wore any helmets. The goalies didn’t wear masks. Face guards weren’t even invented until the ’70s. The goalies were getting hit with sticks and pucks in the face, and you tried to protect yourself by keeping an eye on the puck. What happened to me was, a slap shot from the point came when I was in front of the net. A defenceman cross-checked me in the back and swung me around. I turned around to see where the puck was, and it ricocheted off a stick and struck me in the eye.

Let’s go to the beginning. What was it like growing up as a kid in Fredericton, New Brunswick?

Great! Being the youngest of 13 children, I had a good childhood. My parents were very strict about me staying in school and getting an education. I played about nine different sports growing up, but I always had to keep my grades up. I played up through the ranks (in several sports) until I was 14, when I decided I wanted to be a professional hockey player.

My older brother was also my friend and my mentor, and he taught me a lot of things I should know if I wanted to choose hockey as a career: “You’ll have problems with other people because of your race. You’ll be called names. Don’t let that interfere with what you really want to accomplish. If you stay focused on playing to the best of your ability and representing your hockey club, the other stuff will fall by the wayside.”

That’s what I put in my mind, and I just kept focused and worked hard. And every time I went to camp I said, “If they’re going to keep 20 players on their roster, I’m going to be one of the 20 no matter what I have to do. If I have to fight, if I have to score, if I have to skate faster…” In all the training camps I went to, I made the team. Later, I got traded. I was afraid to fail. I was afraid to go away to a training camp and not make it and come home and face my parents and say, “I wasn’t good enough to make the team.” That would be devastating. I played afraid.

Was your brother able to see you play in the NHL?

Oh, yeah. My family came to Montreal and Toronto, because those were the two closest cities. They watched me play. They came to Montreal and saw my first game, and then to Boston to see me on the Sunday. My mom and dad supported me. They didn’t have to push me because I did all the pushing, but they were always there when I needed them.

When did you realize that there were no black players in the league?

I knew it when I was in junior. When I went to Quebec the first year, Phil Watson was the coach. He had played earlier with the New York Rangers in the ’40s. He said, “Willie, you know, there are no black players in the NHL. You could be the first. You have the skills, you have the ability. All you have to do is work hard.” It went in one ear and out the other, because I just wanted to do a good job in junior.

When I was second year I went to Kitchener and Jack Stewart told me the same thing: “Willie, you have the skills to break the colour barrier.” When I turned pro with the Quebec Aces, Punch Imlach and Joe Crozier told me the same thing. It started to register with me. We won the Duke of Edinburgh Trophy, which was like our Stanley Cup at that time. That gave me the extra confidence I needed.

How aware were the fans on Jan. 18, 1958 that the colour barrier was being broken?

I don’t know if they were or not. I was no stranger to the Montreal fans. I had played against the Montreal Canadiens in exhibition games, and I played against the Montreal Junior Canadiens and the Montreal Royals. So when I stepped on the ice on Jan. 18, 1958, I saw people pointing at me, saying, “There’s that black kid. He’s up with the Bruins now.” There was nothing said about breaking the colour barrier. It didn’t register with me until I read it in the paper the next morning. Then when I was called back up in 1960-61, the media said, “That’s Willie O’Ree. He’s the Jackie Robinson of hockey.”

Where did the majority of hate and ignorance come from?

Players and fans, especially when I came to the States. There were only six teams when I was playing. I noticed the racial slurs and remarks in Detroit and especially Chicago. But it really didn’t bother me. I just wanted to play hockey, and if they couldn’t accept me for the individual that I am… because I had the skills to play in the league. I fought a lot when I first started, not because I wanted to but because I had to. Guys wanted to see what I was made of. I’d drop the gloves. I said, “If I’m gonna leave the league, it’ll be because I don’t have the talent.” It got a little easier as time went on, but I stayed focused on playing the best hockey I could. Soon I gained the respect of not only the players on the opposition but the fans in the stands. I’ve had racial slurs directed at me at airports and restaurants, so it goes in one ear and out the other.

How old were you when you stopped playing profesionally?

Forty-five. I injured a couple of ribs and decided to pack it in. I enjoyed the 21 years I played (pro), met a lot of great guys. The guys I played against in the NHL were great players, and I thank the Boston organization for thinking enough of me to call me up and making me part of their team.

What happened to you after you stopped playing pro?

I retired in 1980, my last year of pro, and then I had several jobs, but I wanted to get back into hockey in some capacity. I had something to give back to the sport that the sport gave to me. I wrote letters and had doors open and close. I had numerous jobs. I worked for a private security company for 18 years. And if you’ve ever been to San Diego, there’s a historical hotel in Coronado called Hotel Del: I got into security over there.

I worked there for five years, and then Brian McBride, who was the newly appointed vice president of the (NHL’s) diversity program, found out I was in San Diego, and Brian said, “Mr. O’Ree, would you like to be an ambassador and encourage boys and girls to play hockey?”

They laid a plan out, and I looked at it. The first thing I said was, “Are we looking at a long-range program? Is this something that’ll still be going in 20 or 30 years? Because I don’t want to involve myself with something that goes for a couple years and fizzles out.”

Brain McBride says, “No. I’m 100 per cent for it, and commissioner Bettman is 100 per cent for it.”

I said, “I’m in.”

When you hear of incidents such as the fan in London, Ont., throwing a banana at the Flyers’ Wayne Simmonds last fall, what runs through your mind?

Ignorance, that’s all it is. This guy who threw the banana, put yourself in Wayne Simmonds’ shoes: How would he like it, the reception that he gave? It’s just ignorance. The guy brought the banana in for one purpose only; they don’t sell bananas in the stadium. (Editor’s note: The man who threw the banana said he did buy it from a stand in the John Labatt Centre.) He brought it in to throw it on the ice and discredit the player. Things like that, they happen but you wonder why they happen. We just need to keep working together, and hopefully down the road there will be no more racial remarks and slurs directed towards these players.

Most of your recognition has come in the last decade: the Order of Canada, the Fredericton arena named after you, the Lester Patrick Award. Why the delay to recognize your accomplishments?

They say things happen for a reason. I have to credit commissioner Bettman for appointing me to the diversity program. A lot of this recognition has come in the past five to eight years. I don’t know why the reason. The type of individual that I am, I just wanted to give back and let these boys and girls know there is another sport they can play if they want to. Some of them have never had a chance to skate, let alone play hockey.

Once I get these kids on the ice, I’ve never had one boy or girl tell me, “Mr. O’Ree, I don’t like this. I’m not coming back.” Ninety per cent of the job is just getting them on the ice and letting them know that it’s a fun sport. Like yourself, feel good about yourself. If you like yourself and feel good about yourself, people will like you. If you have a negative attitude, what do you expect from other people? The one expression I use is, “If you think you can or if you think you can’t, you’re right.” You have to believe in yourself and set goals for yourself and don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t attain your goals.

When the doctor told me I’d never play hockey again, I couldn’t accept that. He was a fine physician, but he didn’t know the burning desire in my gut. I went out and played hockey regardless, to prove this gentleman wrong. And I forgot about the impairment that I had. People said it’s impossible to play hockey, with its speed and sticks flying, when you’re blind. Well, you can do the impossible if you feel it within yourself. I’m a strong believer in that.

I’ve been blessed. My dad said, “Find a job you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” There’s truth to that. It doesn’t seem like a job when you can go out and put a smile on a boy or girl’s face. It’s very rewarding.

Is the NHL doing enough to encourage diversity?

Oh, yeah. There’s more rinks all over now. Hockey’s a very unique sport. You can go to any type of hall or court and throw a baseball, dribble a basketball or hit a tennis ball. In order to play hockey, you need to get on the ice. You could start with an in-line skate program, but you really need to get on the ice. There’s no other way. Now these kids have that opportunity.

Is there a piece of memorabilia that you hold dear?

When I left the Bruins I would’ve taken my jersey with me had I have known I wasn’t coming back. But there are some early hockey cards out. I have a couple cards that have part of a hockey stick that I played with inserted in the hockey card. Then I have some pictures of some of the guys I played with and a picture of the old Boston Gardens. I get back about four times a year and go to the Alumni Room and see some of the guys I played with. Some are still there. It’s a nice feeling.

Why aren’t you in the Hockey Hall of Fame?

[Laughs] I only played in the NHL 45 games. If I get into the Hall of Fame, it’s going to be for the work I’m doing now. A lot of people tell me, “You should be in the Hall of Fame. You broke the colour barrier!” Yeah, but I only played 45 games; the guys that are in there played in the NHL for years and established themselves. But I’m hoping one day I get in.

Describe your day-to-day role with “Hockey Is for Everyone.”

Back in 1998, the NHL all-star game was in Vancouver, Canada. It just happened to fall on my anniversary (of breaking the colour barrier) of Jan. 18. Commissioner Bettman appointed me the director of the NHL’s diversity program as an ambassador to make it possible for more boys and girls to play hockey. At that point, there were about four or five programs; we have 34 now. My duties are to travel around to the different programs and help these kids on and off the ice, develop their hockey skills and life skills. The logo “Hockey Is for Everyone” is exactly what that means — we won’t turn any boy or girl away. We’ll make it feasible for these boys and girls to play, and if they come and don’t like it, they can just walk away. It won’t cost them anything. Since my involvement over the past 14 years, I’ve seen a big increase in the number of boys and girls who want to play the game.

In those 14 years, are there examples of children you’ve seen grow up through the program?

There’s several. One is Gerald Coleman. He was with the program in Chicago called PUCK, Positive Uplifting of Chicago Kids. I met Gerald when he was 13, just a skinny little black kid. He came through the program, wanted to be a goaltender. Everybody tried to talk him out of it: “No, Gerald. You’ll be turned down because of your colour.”

“I don’t care,” he said. “I’m going to be a goalie, and I’m going to play in the National Hockey League.”

Well, four years ago he was drafted by the Tampa Bay Lightning, played (two games) in the NHL. I think he’s in the minors now, but he’ll definitely be back. (Coleman currently plays with AHL’s Lake Eerie Monsters.) And there’s two or three other kids who are in college playing now. A lot of these kids come through the program, then come back to help out.

Before we finish, tell me about meeting Jackie Robinson.

I met him on two occasions. I met him in 1949. I was playing baseball in my hometown, and the reward was my team was taken to New York to see the Empire State Building and Radio City Music Hall and Coney Island and all the tourist attractions. He was playing with the Dodgers; I met him after a game. I told him, “Yeah, I play hockey too, Mr. Robinson.” He didn’t know there were any black kids playing, but he said, “Whatever sport you choose, work hard and do your very best. Things will work out for you.”

And when I was traded to the Los Angeles Blades in 1961, in 1962 the NAACP held a luncheon in Mr. Robinson’s honour. I made a case to the Blades to go. Mr. Robinson was over in the corner talking to a couple of media people. After they cleared out, we went over.

The coach of our team said, “Mr. Robinson, I’d like you to meet one of our star hockey players. This is Willie O’Ree.”

Mr. Robinson looked at me for a couple of seconds. Then he said, “Oh, yeah, you’re that young fellow I met in Brooklyn.”

So from 1949 to 1962, he remembered.