There are few people who were bigger pioneers in the sport of hockey than Willie O’Ree, otherwise known as hockey’s Jackie Robinson. For those of you who don’t know, he became the first black player to ever play in an NHL game when he suited up for the Boston Bruins against the Montreal Canadiens on January 15th, 1958. In honor of his 85th birthday today, let’s take a look back not only on what he’s done ever since retiring but on his playing career, which is often overshadowed by his incredible post-hockey philanthropic efforts.
Willie O’Ree, a left-shot winger from Fredericton, New Brunswick, played in nine different junior, amateur, and professional hockey leagues in his career. Many of these leagues no longer exist today so if you haven’t heard of them, that’s why. He started out with the Fredericton Capitals of the NBSHL in the 1952-53 season. He appeared in 25 games over two years with the team, through which he produced nine goals and 11 assists for a total of 20 points.
O’Ree then spent a season in the QJHL with the Quebec Frontenacs. He played 43 games for them and tallied 27 goals and 17 assists for a total of 44 points. He then transitioned to the OHA-Jr. league, where he played 68 games for the Kitchener Canucks. During that time, he put up 30 goals and 28 assists for a total of 58 points. It was also in this season when a slap shot deflected off a stick and hit him in the eye. This left him permanently blind in his right eye. Incredibly, he was able to keep this a secret from every team he played for after that. If he hadn’t, it’s probably safe to say I wouldn’t be writing about him today.
O’Ree then spent the following season in the QHL’s Quebec Aces and played in 68 games, over which he produced 22 goals and 12 assists for a total of 34 points. Then, in the 1957-58 season, he broke the NHL’s color barrier, suiting up in two games for the Bruins, in which he had zero points. He also played six games in the AHL that season with the Springfield Indians, through which he had zero points. Finally, O’Ree played in 57 games for the Quebec Aces that season, in which he tallied 13 goals and 19 assists for a total of 32 points. He then spent the entirety of the next season with the Aces, appearing in 56 games and producing nine goals and 21 assists for a total of 30 points.
O’Ree then moved to the EJHL, where he played for the Kingston Frontenacs. He appeared in 50 games for them, through which he put up 21 goals and 25 assists for a total of 46 points. The following season, he returned to the NHL, again for the Bruins, and played in 43 games. During this time, he produced four goals and ten assists for a total of 14 points. He also played 16 games for the Hull-Ottawa Canadiens that season. During that time, he tallied ten goals and nine assists for a total of 19 points. The following season he began his transition to the WHL, where he’d pretty much spend the rest of his career.
Willie O’Ree’s WHL career began in 1961-62 when he joined the Los Angeles Blades. He played in 54 games for them, over which he produced 28 goals and 26 assists for a total of 54 points. That season, O’Ree also played in his last EJHL games with the Hull-Ottawa Canadiens. He appeared in 12 games for them and tallied one goal and two assists for a total of three points. He’d then spend the next five seasons with the Blades in the WHL. All told, he played in 378 games for the Blades, over which he put up 175 goals and 150 assists for a total of 325 points.
O’Ree then signed with the San Diego Gulls, then part of the WHL. He’d go on to spend the next five seasons with the team. During that time, he appeared in 316 games and tallied 117 goals and 128 assists for a total of 245 points. O’Ree then split the 1972-73 seasons between the AHL’s New Haven Nighthawks and the Gulls. He played 50 games for the Nighthawks that season and produced 21 goals and 24 assists for a total of 45 points. In addition to that, he played in 18 games for the Gulls and putting up six goals and five assists for a total of 11 points.
O’Ree would then go on to play one more season for the Gulls, in which he appeared in 73 games and tallied 30 goals and 28 assists for a total of 58 points. He spent his final season with the San Diego Hawks of the PHL. He played in 53 games for them and produced 21 goals and 25 assists for a total of 46 points. O’Ree then retired from professional hockey at the age of 43.
Post-Retirement Work and Recognition
Community Outreach Efforts
Despite his long playing career, Willie O’Ree is best known for breaking barriers and for his off-ice work following his retirement. Having endured a lot of racism during his playing days, O’Ree made it his mission following his retirement to make the game of hockey more inclusive. In 1998, O’Ree took a huge step towards doing that. He became the director of youth development for the NHL/USA Hockey Diversity Task Force, which encourages minority youth to learn and play hockey. He’s also an ambassador for the NHL’s Diversity program. He travels all over North America to speak to and inspire minority kids to play hockey and chase their dreams.
O’Ree is a huge inspiration to countless people for everything we went through. He not only persevered but succeeded in the face of intense racism, bigotry, and ignorance throughout his entire career, on top of being blind in one eye. Back in 2017, when asked about O’Ree, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman had this to say: “Willie O’Ree has devoted his life to our sport and our young people, to diversity and inclusion,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in a statement. “His words of encouragement, and the life lessons he has taught, have inspired thousands not only to play hockey but to incorporate our game’s values and ideals into their lives. We marvel at Willie’s strength and his courage, at his willingness to blaze a trail for future generations of players, and we are honored by his continuing presence as a role model, mentor, and ambassador for our sport.”
Awards and Honors
As a result of all of his philanthropic efforts, O’Ree has received a lot of honors. The first came back in 1984 when he was inducted into the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame. Then, in 2000, he received the Lester Patrick Award, which is given annually for service to the sport of hockey in the United States. He also received the Order of New Brunswick in 2005 and the Order of Canada in 2008. Also that year, he had the ice rink in his hometown of Fredericton, New Brunswick named after him. He was also inducted into the Breitbard Hall of Fame in 2008.
In addition to all this, in 2018, the NHL announced the creation of the Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award. It’s awarded annually “to an individual who – through the game of hockey – has positively impacted his or her community, culture, or society.” Willie O’Ree was also inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder in 2018. Finally, O’Ree will be inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 2020/21.
Willie O’Ree is a True Hockey Pioneer
Willie O’Ree has done more for the game of hockey than I could possibly write about here. From his oft-overlooked playing days to his still-ongoing community outreach efforts, there are few people who have left a greater impact on the game than him. If you want to learn more about him, I highly recommend the documentary “Willie”. It’s about his life and tells his story better than I ever could.
I will never understand just how much of an impact he had given I am white. But, I have so much respect for everything he has done. He took the weight of breaking down barriers that didn’t want to be broken on his shoulders. Plus, he still pushes for hockey to be better today at the age of 85. So, thank you, Mr. O’Ree. You’ve done more for hockey than anyone ever could’ve asked of you, and it will never be forgotten. Also, from all of us here at Couch Guy Sports, have a happy birthday!
-Lydia Murray (@lydia_murray12)
Featured image courtesy of mint.ca.