For so much of his life – both as a person and as a hockey player – Willie O’Ree was cruelly told that he didn’t belong.
Tuesday wasn’t one of those days.
O’Ree, who was truly a pioneer, was announced as one of the 2018 inductees into the Hockey Hall of Fame in the builder category.
Long overdue, richly deserved.
It was 60 years ago – on Saturday, January 18, 1958 at the Montreal Forum – that O’Ree broke the colour barrier in the NHL, almost 11 years after Jackie Robinson had done the same in baseball.
That night, the 22-year-old O’Ree played his first NHL game with the Boston Bruins, unaware he was the first black player in NHL history.
But the next day, in the morning paper, near the bottom of the story it read: "The game…marked the debut of Willie O’Ree, the first Negro to play in the league."
Then it sunk in. He was the first, but he would do everything possible to make sure he was not the last. Though, like his induction in the Hall, the arrival of the next black player in the NHL was a long while coming.
"Willie paved the path for the rest of us," said former goaltender Grant Fuhr. "In that way he is a true builder of the game. If you look up the word ‘builder’ there should be a picture of Willie. He is the Jackie Robinson of hockey."
O’Ree played just two NHL games that season: the debut a 3-0 Bruins win, and the next night, a 6-2 loss to the Canadiens in Boston.
Almost three years later, O’Ree got recalled by the Bruins and again made history on New Year’s Day, 1961, scoring his first NHL goal in another game against the Canadiens. He played 43 games that season, scoring four goals, including two games-winners, and 14 points.
O’Ree played just 45 NHL games, but the impact is still felt today.
"There are a select few about whom it truly can be said: ‘He changed the game’," said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who will also be inducted in the builder category. "Willie O’Ree is among that select few."
For those of a certain vintage, it’s hard to fully understand just how different the world was 60 years ago – though sadly there are still too many days when it feels like it still hasn’t changed, at least not enough – and to fully appreciate what O’Ree accomplished and endured.
Remember, back then the NHL was a six-team league, so jobs were limited and in some cases even more so because of colour. O’Ree was exposed to racial remarks and slurs from both players and fans, some cities more difficult than others in which to play. But he perseverved and he starred at the minor league level despite only having sight in one eye, but no one knew and no one noticed.
While O’Ree was the first black player in the NHL, there wouldn’t be another until 1974, when Mike Marson of Scarborough, Ont., was drafted by the Washington Capitals. Others, of course, would follow — the likes of Bill Riley, Tony McKegney, Fuhr, Wayne Simmonds, Jarome Iginla, P.K. Subban, to name a few.
"None of it ever would’ve happened without Mr. O’Ree opening the door – not just for me, but for every black hockey player with a dream," Simmonds wrote in an article in The Players’ Tribune. "My dream simply does not become a reality without Willie O’Ree."
Sixty years after that first game, O’Ree continues to make an impact. For the past 20 years, he has been a part of the NHL, but working off the ice serving as the NHL’s diversity ambassador, helping to grow the game in many different communities, leading the Hockey is For Everyone program, recently honoured by having a community hero award named after him.
"Sometimes, goals, assists, points or shutouts measure a person’s place in the game," the great Wayne Gretzky was quoted as saying, "but desire, determination, work ethic and the drive not to let obstacles get in his way? That is why Willie has earned his induction into the Hall.”
Where he truly belongs.