Sports fans hold April 15, 1947 as a cherished historical day, the day that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball. But maybe it's time that January 18, 1958 holds a similar designation.
On that day, after spending most of the season with the Quebec Aces, Willie O'Ree stepped on the ice for the Boston Bruins and became the first African American to play in the National Hockey League.
There would not be another black player in the NHL for the next 25 years.
“It was the most amazing feeling when I got the call that I was gong to be called up to the Boston Bruins and to be making my debut against the Montreal Canadians in the old Fourm,” O'Ree said recently while sitting with me before a Coyotes game. “I had played in exibitions there before so the reaction was pretty good, but I didn't notice any specifics except for people pointing because they recognized me.”
His road to the NHL was not easy and he battled for his place.
O'Ree grew up in Frederiction, New Brunswick and was a graduate of the New Brunswick Amateur Hockey Association. He was known for his speed, checking abilities and could score goals.
He played in and around New Brunswick until 1954 when he became a member of the Quebec Frontenacs of the Quebec Junior League, leading them to the 1955 Memorial Cup Tournament.
He turned pro in 1955-56 when, after a short stint with the Ontario Hockey Association Junior “A” Hockey League's Kitchener Canucks, he became a member of the Quebec Aces of the Quebec Hockey League.
During the 1955 season, O'Ree was struck by a puck that was shot and went in a weird direction and hit him square in his right eye. Doctor's told him that he would not be able to play hockey for a long time, if at all, but that just made O'Ree work harder.
“I took that shot and was told by the doctor that I had lost 95 percent of the vision in my right eye and that I may not be able to play again. I was a 19-year-old kid, so he just as well could have told me I was going to die. I thought about all my goals and dreams and thought they were gone.”
After three weeks, he decided that he was going to return to hockey and, after spending his entire life as a right-handed shooter, learned to play left-handed and returned to hockey.
“I just decided that I was going to work hard and return to the sport I loved,” he said.
Racism and the Jackie Robinson of Hockey
Midway through his second minor league season with the Quebec Aces, O'Ree was called up to the Boston Bruins of the NHL to replace an injured player. Normally, being 95 percent blind in his right eye would have precluded him from playing in the NHL, but O'Ree kept it quiet.
“I was so excited to be playing again, I just didn't let anyone know that I had the injury. I loved the sport so much, I would do anything I could to continue playing.”
“I took that shot and was told by the doctor that I had lost 95 percent of the vision in my right eye and that I may not be able to play again. I was a 19-year-old kid, so he just as well could have told me I was going to die." -- Willie O'Ree
Jan. 19, 1958, he became the first black player when he played against the Montreal Canadiens. He would appear in one more game that season before be sent back down to the minors.
“I turned pro in '56 with the Aces in the Quebec Junior league and had to deal with racism daily,” he said. “I didn't hear it so much in Canada, but when I came to the rinks in the USA, I heard all the racist slurs from the crowd.”
O'Ree said he played with numerous other African Americans in the minors and that they all leaned on each other for support, as well as the other players, who were very respectful of them because they could play and weren't just a publicity stunt.
“It helped that I could score goals and was a good player. The other guys on the team were very supportive and helpful and we all worked hard to watch each others' backs.”
During a minor league game with the New Haven Nighthawks, O'Ree took the ice in Tidewater, VA and was greeted by fans who threw a black cat and cotton balls on the ice. O'Ree was involved in numerous fights during his brief NHL career, but never based on racism.
“I never fought because someone used a racial slur. I fought if someone speared me or cross-checked me, because I knew if I didn't take a stand, they would keep doing it. They were testing me to see what I was made of. Most of the time, I would let the racial slurs go in one ear and out the other.”
When O'Ree was recalled during the 1960-61 season, the media started to call O'Ree the Jackie Robinson of hockey, in reference to him breaking the color barrier in ‘58. O'Ree said that while he was with the Bruins, the players were supportive and watched his back, while Bruins legend Johnny Bucyk took him under his wing.
“(Bucyk) was the one that really helped me the most, but there were four or five guys that helped me while I was with the Bruins. They all watched my back and I am very thankful to have had the opportunity to play with the Bruins and those guys. We still stay in touch and are very close and I cherish that to this day.”
O'Ree said that besides breaking the color barrier, one other highlight shines bright to this day.
“When I scored my first goal on New Year's night in ‘61 against the Montreal Canadians, which proved to be the game-winning goal. That is the other thing that is one of my greatest memories of playing in the NHL.”
Hockey for Everyone and honors
For the past 15 years O'Ree has been the ambassador for the NHL's Hockey is For Everyone, which helps celebrate grassroots hockey and the game's growing diversity. It is the NHL's official youth development program and provides support and unique programming to non-profit youth hockey organizations across North America that are committed to offering children of all backgrounds the chance to play hockey and teach essential life skills and the core values of hockey.
“The ultimate goal is that we get as many boys and girls and make it possible for them to play hockey,” O'Ree said. “Most have not tried hockey and we just want them to come out and try it and if they don't like it, they don't have to play.”
O'Ree said the most important part of the program is that they teach the kids commitment, perseverance and teamwork.
“I have been with this program for 15 years and I have never had a kid come to me after trying that did not want to continue. We have 35 non-profit teams and I have come in contact with over 50,000 kids in my time with the program.”
After 15 years, O'Ree said he still gets letters, emails and calls from kids he has helped within the program, which makes the entire process worth everything he has done.
“I still to this day get contact from so many young kids that I made a difference in their lives. They thank me for coming to their school and that things I told them they are still using in there everyday lives. That makes it all worth it.”
O'Ree said the program has been a success, but the goal is to continue to build the program into a building ground for future NHL stars.
“This program takes care of everything for the kids and we hope that one day we can build the program so that everyone who wants to play hockey can and will.”
During his playing time, O'Ree was named a World Hockey League second team All-Star in 1969. He finished his NHL playing career with four goals, 10 assists and 26 penalty minutes in 45 games. He also played 1,283 games in numerous other leagues, accumulating 539 goals, 511 assists and 1,126 penalty minutes. The majority came while playing in the old World Hockey League with the San Diego Gulls and Los Angeles Blades.
“The fans were most accepting during my six years in San Diego, playing with the Gulls and for the six years in Los Angeles with the Blades. I enjoyed my time there and it was towards the end of my career, so it was just a fun time.”
O'Ree was awarded the Lester Patrick Trophy in 2003, which is presented by the NHL and USA Hockey to honor a recipient's contribution to ice hockey in the United States.
April 7, 2010, O'Ree received the Order of Canada, the highest civilian award for a Canadian citizen. He was honored as a pioneer of hockey and dedicated youth mentor in Canada along with the U.S.
While O'Ree said he enjoys the honors and is proud of what he has accomplished, he is focused on the future and helping to build the youth program.
“I just want to work a little longer and come in contact with more boys and girls and teach them about hockey and if they want to, they can work hard and play hockey. I just want to teach them that if they have a dream or a goal, not to let anyone tell you that you can’t do something.”