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50 Years Ago Today: Willie O'Ree Breaks the NHL Color Barrier PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Maury Brown   
Friday, 18 January 2008 05:54

Will O'ReeWhile it is Jackie Robinson that is often citied as a pioneer for breaking the color barrier in North American professional sports, it may be Willie O’Ree whose entry into the world of the NHL that should be considered as great a moment, along side of Robinson. Where Robinson had the Negro Leagues in baseball as the launching pad into minor league baseball (the Montreal Royals) and then Major League Baseball (the Brooklyn Dodgers), O’Ree broke through without a “Negro Hockey League”, but rather worked his way through playing on teams in his native Fredericton in New Brunswick, Canada starting at the age of 5, where his older brother Richard served as his mentor. Willie O’Ree surely must have been the only hockey player of color at the time. Like most aspiring athletes, he worked his way up through each consectutive system. Whether it was Quebec Junior Hockey League in 1954, Quebec Hockey League, and finally being called up to the National Hockey League where he became the first player to break the NHL’s color barrier.

The 50th anniversary of that momentous call up by the Boston Bruins takes place today.

On January 18, 1958 O’Ree took the ice against the Canadiens in Montreal. O'Ree played on a line with Don McKenney and Jerry Toppazzini and helped the Bruins defeat the Canadiens, 3-0.

“I guess I’ve always hoped that some day I might make the National Hockey League. I’ve thought about it ever since I began listening to the Saturday night broadcasts from Toronto by Foster Hewitt.,” O’Ree said of the moment in Feb. 1, 1958 edition of The Hockey News. “I was the most surprised guy in the world when I found out I was going to play for the Bruins. In fact, I still am. After all, I thought there were several other guys Boston could have called up before me.”

It may surprise some to find out that racism was not something that O’Ree was challenged with at a young age (that would come later in the NHL when playing in places like Chicago), this against the backdrop of being a member of one of only two black families in Fredericton, both of which lived on the same street. “It was a fun childhood. 95% of my friends were white. I was the only black player on the rugby team, the baseball team… I didn’t experience any real bad racial remarks, it was just kids playing and growing up and having fun.”

Hockey, it seems, was always on his mind.

“Every chance I had, I was on the ice. I even skated to school,” O’Ree said. “My dad squirted the garden hose on the back yard and we had an instant rink. I loved the feel of the wind rushing by as I flew along the ice. I loved the sound of spraying ice chips when I hit the brakes and spun around to charge back the other way. I loved having the puck on my stick and learning how to stick the handle. The speed that I could reach on my skates when I was stick handling with the puck was like defying gravity.”

At the age of 14, he made the conscious decision to work toward becoming an NHL player, and worked through the various hockey leagues to get there.

Willie O'Ree - 1958 Roster CardOn that day in 1958, when O’Ree would break the color barrier, it did not have the impact in the media that Robinson’s call up from the Montreal Royals to the Brooklyn Dodgers had. As O’Ree said, “There was no big deal about it. When I took the ice against the Canadiens, I was Willie O’Ree with a Boston Bruins jersey on, but the week before, I was Willie O’Ree with a Quebec Aces jersey on. The fans just said, ‘Oh, here’s this black kid, he’s just up now with the Bruins.'”

O’Ree finished out the game, both teams traveled to Boston on the train where the Bruins lost to the Canadiens the following Sunday 5-3. O’Ree then was sent back down to Quebec, was eventually promoted to Springfield of the American Hockey League, where he played six games. He played one more season in Quebec and then played the 1959-60 season with the Kingston Frontenacs of the Eastern Professional Hockey League where he scored 21 goals and added 25 assists in 50 games. He started the next season with the Hull-Ottawa Canadiens but after he scored 19 points in 16 games, the Bruins called again.

It was his second call-up by the Bruins that the media took notice, and began calling him the “Jackie Robinson of Hockey’. On Jan. 1, 1961, O’Ree scored on a pass from Bruins defenseman Leo Boivin, worked past Canadiens defenders Jean-Guy Talbot and Tom Johnson and slapped a low shot past goalie Charlie Hodge for what would be the first NHL goal ever scored by a black player.

O’Ree played professional hockey from 1951 to 1979, an astonishing 28 year career, spanning the EPHL, AHL, WHL, and yes, the NHL. He had lengthy stints in the WHL with the Los Angeles Blades (1962-’67) and San Diego Gulls (1967-1974)

In an interesting sidebar, O’Ree had been legally blind after he permanently lost 95% of the vision in his right eye after being struck with the puck while playing for the Kitchener-Waterloo Canucks during the 1955-56 season.

Despite being advised to stop playing, O’Ree was back on the ice in eight weeks, switching from left wing to right wing to compensate for his eye sight.

O'Ree as part of youth Diversity ProgramBut O’Ree’s hockey story did not end when he hung up his skates. Over the past 10 years, O'Ree has helped the NHL Diversity program introduce hockey to more than 40,000 boys and girls of diverse backgrounds. He has traveled thousands of miles across North America, helping to establish 39 local grass-roots hockey programs, all geared towards serving economically disadvantaged youth. O'Ree stresses the importance of essential life skills, education, and the core values of hockey, which are: commitment, perseverance, and teamwork. "Not only do they learn hockey skills, but they learn life skills as well," O'Ree said. "Education is key."

As to what O’Ree has done for the game of hockey and for those of color that look to hockey as a sports option, O’Ree remains ever optimistic.

“What a pleasure it's been to meet players like Mike Grier and Anson Carter who have told me I opened a door and made it possible for them,” O’Ree said. “They know they are role models for younger boys and girls playing now. These kids are now setting goals for themselves because it is possible to break that barrier. You can do what you want if you believe you can and if you think you can, you will.”

On Tuesday the 16th, the city of Fredericton's $16-million sports and leisure complex officially was named "Willie O'Ree Place." The Fredericton City Council voted unanimously to name the facility after O'Ree, a native of Fredericton. The arena, which features two NHL-sized ice surfaces, opened officially on March, 29, 2007. The ceremony and gala event will precede O’Ree’s 50th Anniversary celebration today.

There may be reasons why Willie O’Ree is not as notable in collective conscious of history as that Brooklyn Dodger, Jackie Robinson became. It may be that the National Hockey League did not yet resonate in America at the time, where the Civil Rights movement was then making international news. It may be that his NHL career, by Robinson’s standards, was far shorter. It may be that history has recorded the incredible levels of racism that Robinson endured, where O’Ree’s recollections of his time in Fredericton are mostly devoid of it, and not until he played NHL games in the US, or has since become involved in the NHL’s diversity efforts, did racial slurs and taunts come to the forefront. None of it should remove his work to make kids of color realize that hockey is a sport option available to them in his current role. 50 years after O’Ree broke hockey’s color barrier, he embodies class, integrity, and a passion for the sport he has always loved. His color has nothing to do with any of that. In that, he has become far more than a man that broke through some barrier that should have never been. Willie O’Ree, by any color, has been great for the game of hockey.

In this interview with Mr. Steve Murphy of CTV News in Halifax on August 23, 2007
Mr. O'Ree discusses his childhood in Fredericton, NB, his NHL career, racism,
Jackie Robinson and gives his opinion on hockey today.

Diversity Milestones in the NHL

1949 - George Armstrong becomes the first Native-Canadian (First Nation) to play in the NHL (Toronto Maple Leafs).

1950 - Art Dorrington becomes the first black player to sign a contract with an NHL team when he joined the New York Rangers organization. He never made it to the NHL.

1958 - Willie O’Ree breaks the NHL color barrier during his debut with Boston (January 18).

1984 - Grant Fuhr becomes the first black player to win the Stanley Cup (Edmonton Oilers)

1988 - Grant Fuhr becomes the first black player to win the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s best goalie.

- Dirk Graham is the first black player named captain of an NHL team (Chicago Blackhawks).

- Tony McKegney becomes the first black player to score 40 goals (St. Louis Blues).

1990 - Jim Paek becomes the first Asian to play in the NHL (Pittsburgh Penguins).

1991 - Bill Guerin becomes the first Hispanic to play in the NHL (New Jersey Devils).

- Tony McKegney becomes the first minority to play on the Canadian National Team.

1994 - John Paris of Windsor, Nova Scotia, leads the Atlanta Knights to the International Hockey League championship as the first black head coach in professional hockey.

1995 - Paul Kariya becomes the first Asian player to score 50 goals in a season (Anaheim Ducks).

1998 - Dirk Graham becomes the first black to serve as head coach in the NHL (Chicago).

2000 - Scott Gomez, of Mexican and Colombian descent, wins the Calder Memorial Trophy.

2002 - Jarome Iginla becomes the first player of African descent to win the Art Ross Trophy, the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy and the Lester B. Pearson Award.

2003 - Jordin Tootoo becomes the first native Inuit to play in the NHL (Nashville).

- Grant Fuhr becomes the first black inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

- Gerald Coleman becomes the first NHL Diversity program graduate selected in the NHL Draft (224th overall by Tampa Bay).

2006 - Jonathan Cheechoo, the first member of the Moose Cree First Nation to play in the NHL, wins the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy.

12 black players who have played in the NHL this season:

  • Donald Brashear (WSH)
  • Dustin Byfuglien (CHI)
  • Trevor Daley (DAL)
  • Nigel Dawes (NYR)
  • Ray Emery (OTT)
  • Mike Grier (SJ)
  • Jarome Iginla (CGY)
  • Georges Laraque (PIT)
  • Jamal Mayers (STL)
  • John Oduya (NJ)
  • Bryce Salvador (STL)
  • Kevin Weekes (NJ)

Sources: National Hockey League, 2007 interview on CTV News in Halifax, minor league hockey career data via Wikipedia

Maury Brown

Maury Brown is the founder and president of the Business of Sports Network, which includes The Biz of Baseball, The Biz of Football, The Biz of Basketball and The Biz of Hockey. He is also an author for Baseball Prospectus, Basketball Prospectus and is an available writer for other media outlets.

Brown's full bio is here. He looks forward to your comments via email and can be contacted through the Business of Sports Network.

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