Why Willie O’Ree deserves his place in the Hockey Hall of Fame


Willie O'Ree, known best for being the first black player in the National Hockey League. (Stephen MacGillivray/CP)

Willie O’Ree is a hall-of-famer. And it’s not particularly close.

To me it’s a truth that is self-evident. I had the pleasure to spend some time with Mr. O’Ree earlier this year, shortly before his induction was announced. O’Ree was on the Rogers Campus in Toronto for a screening of the film, Soul on Ice, and took part in a panel discussion on diversity in hockey afterwards. Much of his time now is spent spreading the gospel of the sport of hockey.

During my conversation with O’Ree, as he settled in proudly brandishing his Bruins ring and Bruins tie, there was only one caveat: no questions about the Hockey Hall of Fame, as he didn’t want to campaign for himself. O’Ree’s induction candidacy, or lack thereof, has been a controversial topic in hockey. Detractors feeling his hockey resume didn’t meet the Hall’s illustrious standards.

Judging O’Ree by counting stats is either missing the point or flat out prejudice.

The fact he made it to the NHL alone makes him a medical marvel. O’Ree played in the minors to earn his NHL shot despite being blinded in one eye while playing junior in Fredericton, N.B.

O’Ree was struck by a shot from eventual Toronto Maple Leaf Kent Douglas, but kept the injury from the Boston Bruins, who owned his NHL rights. His condition wasn’t fully revealed until the end of his career.

Willie O'Ree: I fought because I had to, not because I wanted to
November 10 2018

Part of O’Ree’s eventual call up to the NHL was circumstantial, luck meeting preparation. The date was Jan. 18, 1958 and at the time he was a three-time 20-goal scorer playing for Punch Imlach’s Quebec Aces. The Bruins were playing in Montreal, the team O’Ree grew up watching, and needed an injury replacement.

On that day, the NHL became the last of the four major North American leagues to field black players.

It was 10 years after Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier in baseball, but O’Ree didn’t even realize he made NHL history until reading it in the newspaper a day later.

He earned a two-game call-up to the Bruins and then played 43 games in 1960-61.

O’Ree only played 45 NHL games, but his pro career lasted 25 years, playing in over 1,000 games before he retired at age 43 winning two scoring titles in the Western League.

He was a trailblazer, but a sad part of his legacy is it took 16 years until Mike Marson followed in his footsteps as the first black player drafted by the Washington Capitals in 1974.

O’Ree wishes he wasn’t the trendsetter.

“I wish I wasn’t the first,” O’Ree said. “Many before me and that played with me were also good enough to get a shot.”

Herbert Carnegie, Art Dorrington, John Utendale and Stan Maxwell, a teammate of O’Ree’s in the Boston Bruins’ farm system, all could have broken the colour barrier before O’Ree. For various reasons none did.

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Conn Smythe allegedly said, “I will give $10,000 to anyone who can turn Herbert Carnegie white,” Carnegie revealed in a Hockey Night in Canada interview with Elliotte Friedman.

Former player and referee Red Storey explained, “There’s a reason why Herb Carnegie did not play in the NHL,” going on to say, “It’s very simple: He’s black. Don’t say we don’t have any rednecks in Canada.”

Utendale had a similar but slightly different issue. Utendale’s brother, Paul, revealed to the Edmonton Journal, “to be very candid, the reason he didn’t get to play with the Detroit Red Wings is Jack Adams, the coach and general manager at the time. John was married to Maryan Maddison Leonard. It was a mixed marriage and that was one of the very large stumbling blocks that kept him out of the NHL. More the mixed marriage than just being a black player.”

O’Ree’s induction is not just about him, it’s about symbolically representing them. When he goes in, they go in with him because they endured and paved the way for him.

Hockey can’t rewrite the blemishes in its history but it can acknowledge a yearning to be better moving forward, which O’Ree’s induction signifies.

Hockey has a long way to go, which is what the Kim Davis led Hockey is for Everyone initiative hopes to address.

There still isn’t a black player on every team. There still isn’t a black head coach or general manager.

O’Ree’s true gift to the game has come post-career, trying to change those stats.

In 1998 he was commissioned by the NHL diversity committee to be the director of youth development for the NHL/USA Hockey Diversity Task Force, a non-profit program for minority youth. His mandate was to spread the message of inclusion in the game. The man who came up in an era where black people were excluded from the game, who dealt with racist barbs and insults, is now being asked to spend his retirement being an evangelist for the game.

For his work, he won the NHL’s Lester Patrick Trophy in 2003 for assisting hockey’s development in the U.S.

He later received the Order of New Brunswick in 2005.

He then received the Order of Canada in 2008.

But he has had to wait to get the call from the hall.

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I have a few personal criteria when it comes to Hall of Fame candidacy.

Can you write the history of the game without that person? Did they leave the game better than they found it because of their impact?

If we agree on the premise that those are worthwhile markers of hall-of-fame status, ask those questions of yourself as they apply to O’Ree. The answer is inexplicably yes.

The hall’s criteria for a builder is “coaching, managerial or executive ability, or ability in another significant off-ice role, sportsmanship, character and contributions to his or her organization or organizations and to the game of hockey in general.” Sounds like O’Ree to me.

O’Ree’s legacy is all the current players he has inspired like Wayne Simmonds and Joel Ward who campaigned for O’Ree to be inducted.

O’Ree becomes only the third black player inducted, joining 2003 inductee Grant Fuhr and 2010 inductee Angela James.

Willie O’Ree is a social rights activist.

Willie O’Ree is a living piece of Black History.

Willie O’Ree is a Canadian treasure.

Willie O’Ree is the “Jackie Robinson of hockey.”

Willie O’Ree is a living testimony that what you do with the sport is more important than what you do playing the sport.

That’s why Willie O’Ree is a Hockey Hall of Famer.


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