January 20, 2007

Willie O'Ree

In 1958 Willie O'Ree made his debut in the National Hockey League. He was with the Boston Bruins for two games. In 1961, after two more years in the minors, O'Ree returned for a longer stay with the Bruins--41 games. O'Ree never played another game in the NHL. He only scored 4 goals and 10 assists.

This certainly doesn't seem particularly significant at first glance, but O'Ree was different from every other NHL player who had come before him during the league's first 50 years. He was the first black player in NHL history. And there wouldn't be another black player in the NHL for 15 years.

He is considered to be the "Jackie Robinson of hockey." So what was it like to break hockey's color barrier?

"Guys would take cheap shots at me, just to see if I would retaliate," he says. "They thought I didn't belong there. When I got the chance, I'd run right back at them. I was prepared for it because I knew it would happen. I wasn't a great slugger, but I did my share of fighting. I was determined that I wasn't going to be run out of the rink."

It wasn't just opposing players he had to contend with.

"Racist remarks from fans were much worse in the U.S. cities than in Toronto and Montreal. I particularly remember a few incidents in Chicago. The fans would yell, 'Go back to the south' and 'How come you're not picking cotton.' Things like that. It didn't bother me. Hell, I'd been called names most of my life. I just wanted to be a hockey player, and if they couldn't accept that fact, that was their problem, not mine."

Was the hockey world racist? Racism didn't exist to the same extent in Canada, which helped to eliminate charges of racism in the hockey world. Fact that few children out of the tiny black population in Canada played hockey until recent years helps to suggest the NHL was better than MLB. Certainly charges of racism have been kept well under the carpet, although their record is undoubtedly less than perfectly clean..

O'Ree never has accused the NHL of being racist. However he did have his suspicions:

"There were blacks in the minor leagues and good ones too. The Quebec Aces had a history of having black players. Before my time, they had an all-black line with the Carnegie bothers, Herbie and Ossie, and Manny McIntyre. You talk about three players who were good, stick handling, passing, shooting--you name it, they could do it. But they never got a chance. Not one of them was ever called up."

O'Ree got called up because he had such great speed. He was a speedster in the minors as well as a good goal scorer. Milt Schmidt once said that Willie "was one of the fastest skaters in the NHL."

So why didn't he get a longer shake at NHL employment?

"If I hadn't gotten that eye injury," he says regretfully. "To this day a lot of people don't realize that I played my entire 20-year pro career with one eye."

During the 1955/1956 hockey season, Willie played for the Kitchener-Waterloo Canucks, a junior league team. During a game he was struck with a puck in the right eye. The injury was so serious that he permanently lost 95% of the vision in that eye. A doctor advised him to stop playing, but that was inconceivable to Willie. In eight weeks he was back on the ice.

O'Ree had to keep this injury quiet. The NHL had (and still has a rule) that won't allow a player with only one eye to play for fear of something else happening to the good eye.

Willie's most bitter memory of his hockey days came in 1961. He had just come off of his first and only full NHL season. He was feeling really good about his future with the Boston Bruins until he learned he had been traded to talented Montreal Canadiens.

"Considering the talent Montreal had, I knew I had no chance of making their squad. So I wasn't surprised when I was assigned to their Hull-Ottawa minor league affiliate."

What irks O'Ree the most though is the Bruins never informed him of the trade. O'Ree found out weeks after the trade when a reporter caught up to O'Ree.

"I never did get any information from the Bruins on why the move was made."

Two months later, Willie was again traded to the Los Angeles Blades of the Western Hockey League. He would later join the San Diego Gulls. In total he played 14 years in California, where he is somewhat of a hockey legend.

Despite his status as a star hockey player on the west coast, and the NHL expansion into Los Angeles in 1967, O'Ree never did get another shot at the NHL. The reason wasn't so much because of race, more because the NHL found out about his eye injury. While there was never any official ruling that O'Ree couldn't play because of his eye, it kept all NHL teams away from hi as they knew it certainly would become an issue.

O'Ree fell in love with San Diego, and continues to reside there. After working much of his post-hockey life in the security business, he was named as the NHL's Director of Youth Development for the NHL/USA Hockey Diversity Task Force.

"I feel good about being in the position I'm in, meeting people I played with and against and talking to the players in the league now," he told NHL.com. "Many of them know the name Willie O'Ree. What a pleasure it's been to meet players like Mike Grier and Anson Carter who have told me I opened a door and made it possible for them. They know they are role models for younger boys and girls playing now. These kids are now setting goals for themselves because it is possible to break that barrier. You can do what you want if you believe you can and if you think you can, you will."

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