Willie O'Ree: The NHL's Pioneer

untitledThe hockey world changed forever on January 18th, 1958. That was the day Boston Bruin winger Willie O’Ree made his NHL debut. And almost no one reported it.

Willie Eldon O’Ree was born in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada on October 15, 1935. At the time of his birth there was only one other black family living in Fredericton. That’s right. What makes O’Ree so unique is he was the first African- Canadian/American to play in the NHL.

It is a milestone that is still not widely recognized. There are many hockey fans today who have never heard of Willie. But he encountered the same type of racism that Jackie Robinson did more than a decade earlier. In fact O’Ree was still dealing with racist hate letters 50 years after his first NHL game.

Although his NHL career was neither long nor distinguished, his overall body of work as a pro player was. In fact, he didn’t retire as a player until he was 43 years old and had spent 19 years on professional rinks.

That first year Willie played in only two games for the Bruins before being sent down to the minors. But the door had been opened. Or at least slightly ajar. He was called back up to the Bruins during the 1960-’61 season and played in 43 games, scoring his first NHL goal on New Years day in 1961.

I don’t know about you but I think the first goal scored by a black player on the first day of a new year is somehow fitting. Willie went on to score 3 more goals in 1961 along with 10 assists. He did this while being 95% blind in one eye after being hit by an errant puck in the mid-50’s.

Yes. The first African-Canadian/American player in the National Hockey League also was the NHL’s first player with one eye. So, WOW! Although he spent the majority of the rest of his career in the minor leagues, Willie made a huge impact on the game of hockey, and continues to do so.

Willie now spends his time as Director of Youth Development for the NHL/USA Hockey Diversity Task Force. He continues to be one the NHL’s hardest working ambassadors, working with children all over North America, teaching them hockey and life skills.

After Willie the NHL did not have another black player until Mike Marson was drafted by the Washington Capitals in 1974. The number of black players in the league today has grown to around 30. I hope they all take a moment and think of the man who paved the way for them 56 years ago today.

My favorite Willie O’Ree quote is: ” Working with these kids today and being able to just help them set goals for themselves and work with them towards their goals is a great thing. I think sometimes it’s better than breaking the color barrier.”

Lead on, Mr. O’Ree,  lead on.

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