February is Black History Month and we are going to highlight a few trailblazers for people of colour in sports. The series will start with Willie O’Ree, the first black player to play in the National Hockey League.
Willie O’Ree was born in 1935 in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada. His family had escaped slavery in 1779 and made their way to the East Coast of Canada. Willie was the youngest of thirteen kids for Rosebud and Harry O’Ree. At the time, his family was one of two black families in the city. As a kid, he learned to play hockey and fell in love with the game as many kids do, especially in Canada. Willie explains in his book, “The fact that I was black never came up when we played as kids. You could have been purple with a green stripe down the middle of your forehead, and it wouldn’t have mattered. It was only later, when I became older, that I learned what ‘colour barrier’ meant.”
At age nineteen, Willie moved to Quebec to play hockey in the Quebec Junior Hockey League for the Quebec Frontenac. The next season, O’Ree moved to a team in Ontario. There he suffered an eye injury and the doctors advised him to quit playing hockey. As the outcome tells us, this was not the end of his career. This eye injury was a secret that O’Ree kept for his entire career. The NHL has a rule which does not allow players who are blind in one eye to play in the league.
Willie now had two factors against him, his eye injury and his skin color.
While O’Ree was playing for the Quebec Aces a few years later, the team created a working relationship with the NHL’s Boston Bruins. The Bruins were now able to use the Aces as call-ups during any point of the season. O’Ree was not the only black player on the Quebec Aces during this time. His linemate, Stan Maxwell was also black but never made it to the National Hockey League.
On January 18, 1958, O’Ree became the first black player to play a game in the National Hockey League. He skated onto the ice at the Montreal Forum as a member of the Boston Bruins to play the Montreal Canadiens. The hockey fans in Montreal had seen O’Ree play a few times during his time with various minor league Quebec teams. Until Willie read the newspapers the following morning, he had no idea that he had broken the colour barrier.
O’Ree faced criticism and hate his entire hockey career. He had things thrown at him, opposing players taunted him and abused him. One time, a player on an opposing team intentionally butt-ended him in the mouth and knocked his teeth out. O’Ree only played parts of two seasons in the NHL before ending up in different minor leagues across North America.
I want to give thanks to Mr Willie O'Ree for making it possible for players like my self to live out our dreams! If it wasn't for you none of this would have been possible #22forever #HockeyIsForEveryone
— Wayne Simmonds (@Simmonds17) January 19, 2018
Current NHLer, Wayne Simmonds wrote a piece in the Players Tribune regarding Willie’s role in giving him a chance to play in the NHL. Simmonds states that “none of it [Simmond’s career] ever would’ve happened without Mr. O’Ree opening the door — not just for me, but for every black hockey player with a dream”.
In 1998, O’Ree was hired by the NHL as the Director of Youth Development and ambassador for NHL Diversity. He has helped disadvantaged kids get involved in hockey in different areas across the continent. He is the head of the Hockey is for Everyone campaign which supports inclusivity and teamwork for everyone. The campaign wants to be a positive change socially.
Willie O’Ree was named to the Order of New Brunswick, the Order of Canada and in 2018, was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder. In the year of his Hall of Fame induction, the league established an award in O’Ree’s honour. The Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award is given to someone who “recognizes an individual who – through the game of hockey – has positively impacted his or her community, culture or society.” The inaugural winner of the award was the late Darcy Haugan, former Humboldt Broncos coach who passed away in the tragic bus crash.
There is set to be a movie, “Willie” documenting Willie O’Ree’s life from his days in New Brunswick to the impact he is still making today. It will be released sometime this year.
Willie’s impact on the hockey community is immeasurable. So many athletes of different races have been able to excel in hockey because of what O’Ree accomplished all those years ago. His impact will be remembered and celebrated as the hockey community continues to grow and evolve for the better.
Photo: K.C. Alfred/UT San Diego