Tha Sports Junkies 101

Black History Month: Willie O’Ree

Black History Month: Willie O'Ree Bob Cotter/via Flickr

NHL

This article is part of a special tribute to African-American individuals or teams who have sacrificed and broken through various forms of restriction to achieve greatness, not solely defined within sport, but among humanity.

“We’re different. People are always afraid of what’s different.”-Cool Runnings

While the quote is from a Disney movie, it speaks the unfortunate truth that humanity has faced for ages. Those that can attest to this the most are people of color, especially when they are in an “area of life” where they are not the majority. However, there are many who did not let this stop them from making an impact on people.

Former NHL forward Willie O’Ree is one of these.

Born on October 15, 1935 in New Brunswick, Canada, O’Ree, like many Canadian kids, grew up playing and falling in love with the game of hockey. His love for the game eventually led him to play for his hometown junior hockey team for the 1950-51 season at the age of 15.

After playing five years of junior hockey, O’Ree joined the Quebec Aces in the 1956-57 season for his first professional season in the minors. He would play in 68 games with the Aces that year, tallying 22 goals and 34 points.

O’Ree would start the following campaign with Quebec. On January 18, 1958, though, he would become a part of a groundbreaking and historic event. That day, he suited up for the Boston Bruins, becoming the first black player to play a game in the NHL.

He played in one more NHL game that season before getting sent back down to the minors. After two more years in the minor leagues, O’Ree would then play in 43 games with the Bruins during the 1960-61 campaign. He tallied four goals and 14 points that season.

O’Ree would not play in an NHL game after that season, but continued to play in the minors. He would finish his playing career in 1978-79 with the San Diego Hawks of the defunct Pacific Hockey League.

While he enjoyed a long career, it was not always easy for O’Ree. He states that “racist remarks were worse in the United States than in Toronto or Montreal. I particularly remember a few incidents in Chicago. The fans would yell, ‘Go back to the South,’ and, ‘How come you’re not picking cotton?’ Things like that.”

He also had to deal with 95% blindness in his right eye after being hit by a puck during one of his junior years. While he kept it a secret the best he could, it eventually came out. Many believe that’s why he was never chosen to play in the NHL again.

All of that, however, did not keep O’Ree from making an impact on those that came to know him. Former teammates Doug Mohns and Don McKenney, among others, have praised O’Ree over the years on how he handled all the adversity he faced. They’ve also praised his work ethic and playing ability.

37 years after playing his final game in the NHL game, O’Ree would rejoin the league. He was selected as the Director of Youth Development and hockey ambassador for NHL Diversity. It is a position he still holds to this day.

The NHL is not the only organization that has recognized O’Ree. He is an inductee of the New Brunswick Hall of Fame and San Diego Hall of Champions. He has also received the Order of Canada, Canada’s highest civilian award for a citizen.

San Jose Sharks forward Joel Ward feels there is another distinction that O’Ree should receive. Ward, one of the NHL’s current black players, believes O’Ree’s number 22 should be retired league-wide, like Major League Baseball did with Jackie Robinson‘s number 42.

Regardless of whether or not he gets that distinction, one can not overlook what O’Ree’s debut did for others like him. Many black players, like Ward, see O’Ree as their inspiration to play hockey.

His debut opened the doors for players like Grant Fuhr, Anson Carter, Kevin Weekes, Wayne Simmonds, and P.K. Subban to play in the NHL years later. It has also impacted other players.

The NHL requires players to enroll in a preseason diversity training seminar. The league also does not tolerate racially-based verbal abuse, dealing suspensions and fines to those found guilty of this type of abuse.

When you look at the stats, O’Ree isn’t among the game’s greats. His contribution to the game, however, goes far beyond the stat sheet. In fact, it’s a contribution that goes beyond the game itself. And that’s what puts him among the greats, no matter how “different” he seemed to be.