Q&A: Willie O'Ree on NHL career, post-playing days, push for inclusion

Willie O'Ree, poses for a photo during an interview in Toronto on Wednesday, May 1, 2019. (Tijana Martin/CP)

Willie O’Ree broke the NHL’s colour barrier on Jan. 18, 1958, but that was far from the beginning of his story. A few seasons prior, he lost sight in his right eye thanks to a teammate’s slapshot. And when his decades-long career as a pro player ended, O’Ree toiled for years in numerous jobs — from construction, to car sales, to private security — before being welcomed back into the NHL family.

The past decade in particular has seen the Fredericton, N.B. native feted for his historical accomplishments, which did not make huge waves in the moment.

O’Ree’s autobiography, Willie: The Game-Changing Story of NHL’s First Black Player, details his family’s slave origins, how he pushed through prejudice to become one of the most important figures in hockey history, and the long wait to re-join the league he always wanted to be a part of in retirement.

The 85-year-old O’Ree, a longtime San Diego resident, spoke with Sportsnet about his journey.

SPORTSNET: We all know you for breaking hockey’s colour barrier, but you write that the first time you really felt skin colour come into play in a sporting context was when you received an overture from a Major League Baseball team in the mid-1950s?

WILLIE O’REE: I was playing baseball in my hometown. I was considered a pretty good ball player. I played shortstop and second base. Two scouts came from the Milwaukee Braves’ minor league operation and wanted to offer me a contract to go down to training camp in Waycross, Georgia (roughly 380 kilometres south-east of Atlanta). Right out of the blue I said, “No, I’m not interested. I’m just going to play baseball here.” They said, “You’re giving up a fantastic opportunity; there are not too many Black players in this area that get this tryout. Why don’t you give it some thought? We’re going to be in this area for two or three days.”

I told my parents about it and they said, “Oh no, Willie; going down in the deep south, there are so many problems. We wouldn’t want you to go.” Then I talked to my brother — who was not only my brother and friend, he was my mentor — [and he said], “How do you feel inside?” I said, “I’d really like to go down for the experience.” And he said, “If you feel that way, why don’t you go?”

So I flied into Atlanta, stepped off the plane, went into the terminal and the first thing I saw was the restrooms with “White Only” and “Coloured Only.” I contacted a Black cab driver and explained my situation — I had to stay in Atlanta overnight, could you recommend a hotel? So he took me to an all-Black neighbourhood. I stayed there and the next morning I got on the bus [to] Waycross. I was issued a dorm with eight other players of colour, issued a uniform and started working out the next morning.

My heart really wasn’t in it. I said, “God, why did I make this decision to come down?” Going into the third week [I got cut]. They said, “Mr. O’Ree, we were impressed with your play, but we think you need a little more seasoning.” Outwardly I was looking like I was real sad about being cut, but inwardly I [thought], “Thank God, I’m going back home,” because I had four or five experiences at camp with the racist remarks.

I was on the bus for five days. Blacks in the south had to sit at the back of the bus, which I wasn’t used to. As [we travelled] north I started moving up on the bus; when I got to Bangor, Maine, I was sitting right in the front. When I stepped off the bus [in Fredericton] I said, “Willie, forget about baseball; concentrate on hockey.”

Your pro hockey career could have been derailed before it really began when, as a member of the Kitchener Canucks, you sustained a devastating eye injury. What happened and how did you make it through?

I’m [standing] in front of the net for the deflection, and Kent Douglas — one of my defencemen who was noted for his heavy slapshot — he slapped the puck and it ricocheted off a stick, and the puck comes up and strikes me in the right eye. It broke my nose. I had a big gash on my eye, cracked my cheek. The puck completely shattered the retina. The doctor said, “Mr. O’Ree, you’re going to be blind in your right eye — you’ll never play hockey again.” I was 19. I slumped back into my hospital bed. The goals and dreams I had set for myself were gone.

Within the next five weeks I was back on the ice practising. The season ends, I go back to my hometown. My parents thought I had recovered because I was back [practising], but I was totally blind. The only person I told was my younger sis. I said, “Sis, don’t say anything, because if they find out I’m blind, I won’t be able to play pro hockey, and I definitely won’t be able to play in the National Hockey League.”

[Later in the off-season] I get a call from Punch Imlach, the coach and general manager of the Quebec Aces, inviting me to training camp. I make the team, but I don’t tell them I’m blind in my right eye. They didn’t [do eye exams], so I just thought, “If you’re good enough to make the team with one eye, just don’t say anything.” I played left wing. I scored [22] goals that year and we won the league. That’s when I told myself, “Willie, you can do anything you set your mind to.”

The next year I got a nice letter from the Boston Bruins inviting me to their training camp. On January 18 [1958], the Bruins called the Aces and said, “We want O’Ree to meet the Bruins in Montreal to play two games against the Montreal Canadiens.” It was a Saturday night in the Montreal Forum. When I stepped on the ice, I became the first Black player to play in the NHL. It didn’t dawn on me until the next day. I read it in the paper. I was just so happy about being called up.

Everyone knows about those watershed two games in 1958, but I imagine fewer people are aware you played more than half the 1960–61 season with Boston. You were 25 and it appeared your dream of becoming a full-time NHLer was coming to fruition.

After the season, the Bruins said, “Go home, have a good summer, look forward to coming back to the Bruins.” I was overjoyed, told my mom and dad I was going back to the Bruins. I was home about six weeks, the phone rings, my mom hands the phone to me and says, “It’s a sportswriter.” He said, “Well, what do you think about the trade?” I said, “What trade are you referring to?” He said, “You’ve been traded to the Montreal Canadiens.”

I didn’t get any notification from the Bruins, but I did get a nice letter from the Montreal Canadiens saying, “You’re to report to the Hull-Ottawa Canadiens.” I go [there] and I’m having a pretty good season, then I got traded to the Los Angeles Blades of the Western Hockey League. I went out to Los Angeles on Nov. 12, 1961, and played with the Blades for six years.

After playing in L.A., you spent the rest of the ’60s and a huge portion of the 1970s playing minor-pro in San Diego. What were your post-playing days like?

After I retired, I had several jobs. But my goal that I had set in the back of my mind was to get back into the National Hockey League in some capacity where I could give back, not only to the sport, but to the community. A door would open and close; open and close. But I felt strongly I was going to get back into hockey.

[Then in 1996], Bryant McBride, who was the newly appointed vice president of the [NHL’s] diversity program, was in a meeting with Lou Vairo from USA Hockey. They were planning to open hockey up to every girl and boy and let them know, “Here’s a sport — if you want to play it, you have the opportunity.” Jackie Robinson’s name came up during the meeting and just out of the blue Vairo says, “We have our own Jackie Robinson in hockey,” and the room went silent. They said, “Who is it?” Lou said, “Willie O’Ree. I watched him play with the Boston Bruins in the old Madison Square Gardens.”

Bryant said, “Well, I’m going to try and get ahold of him.” He [couldn’t get] my number. He knew a couple FBI agents in the San Diego area, and he called them and explained what he wanted. Within a few hours, the FBI gentleman called back and said, “Mr. O’Ree is working [security at the Hotel del Coronado].”

Bryant called me and introduced himself. I was a little hesitant. I said, “Why are you calling me?” He said, “I’m the new vice president of the NHL’s diversity program involving kids playing hockey. I was just wondering if you’d be interested?” I said, “I don’t know. I live here in San Diego, and there’s no way I could move to New York.” Bryant said, “You can live in San Diego and commute from there.” So that’s how it all started.

You’ve been in this position more than 20 years now. What have you learned about diversity and inclusion yourself, and do you feel the NHL is moving fast enough today to make hockey a completely inclusive sport?

We still have problems. I’ve even had racial remarks directed toward me, still today, from people I’ve never met. Maybe they’ve met me, but I’ve never known it. We’re working in the right direction. It’s not going to stop overnight, unfortunately. You have those people out there who are prejudiced, and they’re bigots and racists. But overall I think the National Hockey League has come a long way from 20 or 30 years ago. I really feel we’re working in the right direction.

The Black players and players of colour who are in the league now, they’re there because they have the skills and the ability to be there; they’ve worked hard. I’m sure some of them still get racial remarks, [but] I really feel things are getting better. As I mentioned, things are not going to happen overnight [in hockey or the world in general].

It took a long time, but you’ve finally gotten your proper due, being elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018, the same year the league established the Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award. What has this chapter of your life been like?

I was invited to Jarome Iginla’s hockey school in Calgary [a couple years after beginning work with the NHL]. I met a lot of the kids up there, parents, a lot of the fans. We’re on the ice and Jarome took me aside and said, “Willie, I can’t imagine what you had to go through to make it possible for players like myself to play in the National Hockey League.” When you hear that from [a guy like Iginla], that’s a nice feeling.

A lot of people thanked me for the things I’ve accomplished. I get [phone calls, emails, letters] from boys and girls I met six, seven years ago thanking me for coming to their school and talking about goal-setting, believing in yourself, liking yourself. I feel I’m a much better person [for that]. If these boys and girls take one thing from my presentation and use it in their daily life, I’m a happy camper.

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