Black History in Sports Part 3 of 4
Meet Willie O’Ree
Willie O’Ree is known today by many as the “Jackie Robinson” of hockey, as he was the first black player in the NHL. Willie O’Ree changed hockey forever on Jan. 18, 1958. His journey was incredible, Fight his way to the National Hockey League 97% blind.
O’Ree was born in a small town of Fredericton, somewhere in Canda, where there were only two other black families. He began playing organized hockey at the age of five because “that was the thing to do in the winter. Everything freezes over, the ponds, rivers, creeks. Every chance I had; I was on the ice. I even skated to school. My Dad squirted the garden hose on the back yard, and we had an instant rink.” (source: NHL.com ESPN interview). He was very driven, both academically and in athletics, like most athletes he played multiple sports. He excelled most at hockey and baseball. He eventually chose to make hockey career.
O’Ree joined a junior hockey league team in 1954. Reportedly, in a game a puck struck O’Ree in the right eye. He went toward the net when a teammate took a shot, the puck was deflected by a defenseman’s stick hitting him in the eye. He grabbed his face and fell to the ice. O’Ree was then rushed to the hospital, there a doctor informed him about the extent of his injury. The retina in his right eye was shattered and he had lost 97 percent of the vision in that eye. The doctor told O’Ree he would not be able to play hockey again. He went home to Fredericton to recover. O’Ree only told his sister about the damage to his eye. Everyone in the hockey league knew about his accident. They all assumed O’Ree was completely recovered. He never said anything about his vision loss and he was never asked to take an eye exam. O’Ree was picked up by the Aces. That season he scored 22 goals, and Quebec won their league championship. During the following hockey season, O’Ree would play for the Boston Bruins and make NHL history.
While in the NHL O’Ree experienced racism. He experienced much more racism when playing in American cities than when in Canadian cities. Fans would shout racist comments and wonder why he wasn’t in the south. Many would throw cotton at him. Sitting in the penalty box is when it was the worst for him. O’Ree told people he just wanted to be a hockey player. If the fans couldn’t accept that, it was their problem and not his.
O’Ree, who debuted for the Bruins 67 years ago, was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame under the builder category in 2018, an honor that was viewed as long overdue.