Book excerpt: Willie O'Ree on wide-ranging impact of Foster Hewitt, HNIC

Willie O'Ree broke the colour barrier in the NHL on Jan. 18, 1958. (AP Photo)

Excerpted from Willie: The Game-Changing Story of the NHL’s First Black Player by Willie O’Ree and Michael McKinley. Copyright © 2020 Willie O’Ree. Published by Viking Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

SINCE TV DIDN’T EXIST when I was young, the radio was how we engaged in the wider world. And on Saturdays, the wider world meant Hockey Night in Canada. I was dying to hear what my hero Maurice “Rocket” Richard was doing for the Montreal Canadiens. Rocket Richard was, to me, a hero’s hero. A member of eight Stanley Cup championship teams, he was a fourteen-time All-Star player, and he was fast — that’s why he was called the Rocket. He showed me — well, Foster Hewitt’s voice told me — what speed could do for a team: win. When the Rocket retired, he was the highest-goal-scoring player so far in pro hockey.

Foster Hewitt, as the voice behind the games, did about as much for the game as any star player. He made every Saturday night special for a hockey-crazed kid in Fredericton. And not just me. Hewitt made Saturday night magical for “hockey fans in Canada and the United States and Newfoundland,” who, just like the O’Rees of Charlotte Street, would gather around their radios to listen to Hewitt paint us a picture of our favorite teams and our favorite players.

He was the guy who created and defined hockey broadcasting. Although he’d started out in the early 1920s as a sportswriter for the Toronto Daily Star, his sports savvy helped make him the voice of hockey. When he began announcing games on the radio in 1923, his high-pitched nasal voice made famous that phrase “He shoots! He scores!” And his voice would crackle when he got excited or rise when he had to shout over the roaring crowd — it was all so exciting and dramatic.

Hewitt created such wonderful pictures of the Rocket blasting in on some poor goalie that those games seemed as if they were taking place right out back on the rink in our yard. I never dreamed at the time that one day I’d be on Hockey Night in Canada myself. As a player.

Kids today probably watch their heroes on highlight reels and YouTube more than any other way. But I never once watched the Rocket. His legendary rushes and fiery intensity came to life in my imagination so vividly that I remember them as if I’d been right there in the Forum in Montreal to see them. Those epic games played out entirely in my mind.

I sometimes wonder whether my life would have been different, or somehow felt different, if I’d grown up watching Richard and other NHLers on television. That is, if I saw what they looked like. I never saw the red, white, and blue of the Habs sweaters, but I also never saw black and white—because it wasn’t there for me to see. All I ever imagined as a kid was the game itself. The question of color was never part of it. It’s interesting to think that the tradition of Hockey Night in Canada on the family radio, which was so much a part of Canadians’ lives back then, allowed me to imagine a version of the game that had a place for a player like me.

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