Black History Month Feature: Willie O’Ree; First Black to play in the NHL

By Lady Houston

Willie O’Ree of the Boston Bruins and Detroit Red Wings trainer Len Johny Fletcher, 1961. By MJCdetroit – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https commons.wikimedia.org

FROM WIKIPEDIA COMMONS

William Eldon O’Ree CM ONB (born October 15, 1935) is a Canadian former professional ice hockey player from FrederictonNew Brunswick. He is widely recognized for being the first Black player in the National Hockey League (NHL), playing as a winger for the Boston Bruins. His accomplishment of breaking the Black color barrier in the NHL has led him to sometimes being referred to as the “Jackie Robinson of hockey,” whom he had the chance to meet when he was younger. In 2018, O’Ree was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, and starting that year the NHL has introduced the annual Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award in his honor.

He is 88 years old today and doesn’t look it.

PLAYING CAREER

O’Ree played junior hockey for several teams in Quebec and Ontario before being signed by the Quebec Aces of the Quebec Hockey League (QHL) in 1955. 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 Leo Labine, who was unable to play due to an illness. Two years earlier, O’Ree had been blinded when he was hit in his right eye by an errant puck; which would have precluded him from playing in the NHL if the Bruins had known. However, O’Ree managed to keep it secret, and made his NHL debut with the Bruins on January 18, 1958, against the Montreal Canadiens, becoming the first Black player in league history. He played two games that year, with centre man Don McKenney and right wing Jerry Toppazzini as his line mates. O’Ree played 43 games for the Bruins during the 1960–61 NHL season. An incident occurred during a game from that season against the Chicago Blackhawks in Chicago Stadium. According to O’Ree, he was called racist names by several of the Blackhawks players.[9] During the game, Eric Nesterenko butt-ended O’Ree, knocking out his two front teeth and breaking his nose. O’Ree responded by hitting Nesterenko over the head with his stick, which O’Ree said “almost created a riot”. O’Ree remembered that fans called him racist names and that the Blackhawks players were threatening to kill him, and he stated that he was “lucky to get out of the arena alive”. After playing the 43 games for the Bruins during that season, O’Ree was then traded to the Montreal Canadiens. O’Ree described the Canadiens were run by racists and that he wasn’t invited to try out for the team, but was sent to a minor league team in Hull, Quebec O’Ree scored 4 goals and 10 assists in his NHL career, all in 1961.

O’Ree faced racial taunts throughout his hockey career, including in the NHL, especially in the United States.  He noted that racist remarks were much worse in the U.S. cities than in Toronto and Montreal, the two Canadian cities hosting NHL teams at the time, and that “Fans would yell, ‘Go back to the South‘ and ‘How come you’re not picking cotton?’ Things like that. It didn’t bother me. I just wanted to be a hockey player, and if they couldn’t accept that fact, then that was their problem, not mine.”

In the minor leagues, O’Ree won two scoring titles in the Western Hockey League (WHL) between 1961 and 1974, scoring 30 or more goals 4 times, with a high of 38 in 1964–65 and 1968–69. O’Ree played 50 games for the American Hockey League‘s New Haven Nighthawks in 1972–73. Most of O’Ree’s playing time was with the WHL’s Los Angeles Blades and San Diego Gulls. The latter team retired his number, which now hangs from the rafters at Pechanga Arena, formerly known as the San Diego Sports Arena. O’Ree continued to play in the minors until the age of 43.

Willie O’Ree in 2019. By Eric Connolly, U.S. House Photographer, Public Domain, https commons.wikimedia.org

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