This column was originally written on Jan. 17, 2018. Willie O’Ree was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder on June 26, 2018.
Willie O’Ree was a trailblazer.
He just didn’t really know it at the time.
Sixty years ago, almost 11 years after Jackie Robinson had broken the colour barrier in baseball, Willie O’Ree did the same in the NHL.
It was Saturday, January 18, 1958.
The Montreal Forum.
His first NHL game with the Boston Bruins…the first black player in the history of the NHL.
But it wasn’t until O’Ree opened the newspaper the next morning that he truly understood the significance of his NHL debut.
Near the bottom of the story appeared the words: “The game…marked the debut of Willie O’Ree, the first Negro to play in the league.”
O’Ree actually felt quite comfortable in that first game at the Forum. After all, he had played junior hockey with the Quebec Frontenacs against the junior Canadiens, and after a season in Kitchener-Waterloo, he returned to play minor-pro for the Quebec Aces, playing against the Royals. So he knew Montreal and he knew the Forum. And they knew him.
So his debut that night was somehow less of a novelty even though it was history in the making.
O’Ree, who was 22 years old, didn’t earn any points that night in a 3-0 Bruins win, or the next night when the Canadiens won 6-2 in Boston. He said he didn’t experience any racism that first game, again probably because of the familiarity with Montreal.
“I felt I was just playing for the Boston Bruins,” O’Ree said afterwards, insisting he was just focused on playing and realizing his dream. “I just happened to be playing and I just happened to be black.”
After those first two games, O’Ree, who was raised in a family of 13 in Fredericton, N.B., was returned to the Aces, but he was promoted several weeks later to play the final six games of the season with the Bruins’ top farm club in Springfield.
He had to wait almost three years before he got another call from the Bruins. But it was on New Year’s Day, 1961, that O’Ree made history again, scoring his first NHL goal. He took a pass from Bruins defenceman Leo Boivin, raced past a pair of Montreal defenders and then beat goalie Charlie Hodge.
In 43 games that season, playing mainly on the left side on a line with centre Don McKenny and right wing Jerry Toppazzini, he scored four goals, including two game winners, and 14 points.
The Bruins wound up trading O’Ree to the Canadiens in May, 1961. The same Canadiens who won the Stanley Cup for five straight seasons to close out the decade. Because of all that talent, O’Ree was stuck in the minors and was eventually sold to the Los Angeles Blades of the Western Hockey League.
When the NHL expanded to a dozen teams in 1967, O’Ree hoped he might get another shot, but by then a secret he had kept dating back to his junior days, was no longer.
During his season in Kitchener-Waterloo, O’Ree was hit with a puck to his right eye, losing 95 per cent of his vision. Doctors told him he would never play again, but he somehow still managed to play and to play very well. He didn’t tell anyone about the eye and no one noticed for the longest time.
Indeed, while he was playing with the Blades his coach moved O’Ree from left to right wing because of his vision problems. O’Ree wound up winning a pair of scoring titles before his retirement with San Diego at age 43.
Throughout his career, wherever he played, O’Ree was exposed to racial remarks and slurs, from both players and fans. He was physically abused and had to fight on the ice because of it.
“It wasn’t rough until I played in the United States, especially Detroit and Chicago,” he once said. “I was the only black player and I was exposed to racial remarks and slurs. But I let it go in one ear and out the other.”
And he refused to quit.
It is impossible to even remotely understand what he had to endure to realize his dream. Being black was a difficult enough challenge, but in his prime the NHL was also a six-team league, with limited opportunity. Under those circumstances, that he made it to the NHL, no matter for how long, and with sight in just one eye, speaks to his talent and character and perseverance.
There wouldn’t be another black player in the NHL after him until 1974, when Mike Marson of Scarborough was drafted by the Washington Capitals.
But O’Ree helped to make that happen. He was the first.
Leading the way for the likes of Marson, Bill Riley, Tony McKegney, Grant Fuhr, Wayne Simmonds, Jarome Iginla, P.K. Subban, and so many others. And not just for black players, but players with diverse ethnic backgrounds.
O’Ree actually met Jackie Robinson twice. The first time was a chance meeting on the streets of New York, when a 14-year-old O’Ree and his minor hockey teammates won a tournament, their reward a trip to Manhattan.
“I shook hands with him after and told him that I not only played baseball, but I played hockey,” O’Ree said. “He said, ‘Oh, I didn’t know there were any black kids playing hockey’.”
The second time was at an NCAAP luncheon to honour the Brooklyn Dodgers slugger 13 years later, just after O’Ree’s two stints with the Bruins and his trade to the Montreal organization.
“Willie O’Ree,” Robinson said after he was introduced to the hockey player, “Aren’t you the young fella I met in Brooklyn? This was from 1949 to 1962. So that made a big impact, a big impact.”
Today, 60 years later, Willie O’Ree is still making a big impact, serving as the NHL’s diversity ambassador, leading the Hockey Is For Everyone program.
Forever a trailblazer.