On Jan. 18, 1958, the “Jackie Robinson of Hockey,” wearing a Boston Bruins jersey, glided across the ice at the historic Montreal Forum.
Willie O’Ree who was born in Fredericton, N.B. on Oct 15, 1935, did not know he was breaking hockey’s colour barrier that evening. He was more concerned about his first game in the National Hockey League (NHL).
“When I stepped on the ice with the Bruins, it did not dawn on me that I was breaking the colour barrier,” O’Ree said in his 2018 Hall of Fame acceptance speech. “That’s how focused I was on making my dream come true. I did not realize I had made history until I read it in the paper the next day.”
O’Ree only played two games in the NHL that season, but he was lucky he did.
O’Ree had lost 95 percent of the vision in his right eye and he never told the Bruins. If they knew about his injury, he would not be wearing a Boston or any hockey jersey.
“I didn’t tell anyone that I couldn’t see,” said O’Ree. “My sister, Betty, and my good friend, another Black player named Stan Maxwell, were the only ones who knew that I couldn’t see. I didn’t tell my Mom and Dad because I didn’t want them to worry.”
“I didn’t let that stop me. Back then, they didn’t have physicals like the ones given today. I could still see out of my left eye. I wanted to play and I did what I had to do to compensate for the injury. After being injured, I came back and tried to play as if I had recovered.”
O’Ree lost the sight in his right eye after he was hit by a puck. He played left wing, and to compensate, he would turn his head all the way to the right to see over his right shoulder.
“At first, I had a little trouble and I finally said, ‘Willie, forget about what you can’t see. Concentrate on what you can see. Once I started doing that, my game began to pick up.”
O’Ree got a second opportunity to play for the Bruins during the 1960-61 season. This time, he played in 43 games and collected 14 points on four goals and 10 assists. He also logged 26 penalty minutes.
O’Ree went on to play professional hockey for 21 seasons. He spent most of them in the Western Hockey League (WHL) with the Los Angeles Blades and the San Diego Gulls. He won two scoring titles in the WHL.
O’Ree retired from professional hockey in 1979.
In 1996, O’Ree became the NHL’s first Diversity Ambassador.
In January 1998, he became the Diversity Ambassador for the NHL’s Hockey is for Everyone initiative. It encourages boys and girls from diverse backgrounds to play hockey. It also promotes the importance of education and the essential life skills that can be learned from the game.
When O’Ree broke the colour barrier in hockey, he was aware there were people coming after him. He endured many nights of racial slurs, threats, and fights. He was taunted by fans, especially in the U.S.
“Racism . . . it’s not going to stop overnight,” he said.
“I experienced it when I was playing and a lot of these boys and girls I come in contact with the Hockey Is For Everyone program, they’ve had racial remarks directed towards them on the ice, on the bench or in the dressing room.”
“I think it’s just terrible you just can’t look at a person for who they are and forget about the colour of their skin.”
The Jackie Robinson of Hockey, a name given to him by the media, is slowly getting the recognition he deserves.
O’Ree was inducted into the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame in 1984, and the city of Fredericton added him to its Sports Wall of Fame in 1992. In 2005, he was named to the Order of New Brunswick, and in 2006, O’Ree was named to the Black Ice Hockey and Sports Hall of Fame.
In 2008, Willie O’Ree received the Order of Canada, the highest civilian award given to a Canadian citizen.
The NHL awarded O’Ree the Lester Patrick Award in 2000. The award is presented annually for outstanding service to hockey in the United States.
In 2018, the NHL introduced the Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award. The award is presented to the person who best utilizes hockey as a platform for participants to build character and develop important life skills for a more positive family experience.
O’Ree was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018 under the builder category.
On Feb. 18, 2021, the Boston Bruins will retire O’Ree’s No. 22 and raise his jersey to the rafters in a ceremony before a game against the New Jersey Devils.
“I was at a loss for words there for a few seconds,” O’Ree said when he learned about the honour. “I’m overwhelmed and thrilled about having my Bruins jersey hung up in the rafters.”
The 85-year-old O’Ree is the third Black player to have his number retired by an NHL team. The Edmonton Oilers retired Grant Fuhr’s number 31 in 2003 and Jarome Iginla’s No. 12 was retired by the Calgary Flames in 2019.
SOURCES: CBC.CA, CTVNEWS.CA, ESPN.COM, GG.CA, HHOF.COM, NHL.COM, THEUNDEFEATED.COM, USAHOCKEY.COM