O'Ree, Willie 1935–
Willie O'Ree 1935–
Retired professional hockey player
Canadian native Willie O’Ree was the first black man ever to skate for a team in the National Hockey League (NHL). O’Ree made his debut in typical modest fashion for the Boston Bruins on January 18, 1958, and played right wing for the team through 45 games between 1958 and 1961. In a sport dominated by white athletes then and now, O’Ree never received much media coverage; he thought less about his race than about perfecting his ability. “Being the first black didn’t even enter into my mind,” O’Ree told the Orlando News and Sun-Sentinel. “The NHL was the league and I knew it would only pick the best players. That’s what I tried to be.”
According to Rocky Mountain News correspondent Marty York, O’Ree faced an uphill battle from his first moments in the NHL until his premature consignment to the minor leagues in 1961. “Suffice it to say that, while O’Ree desperately tried to establish himself as an NHLer in the 1950s and 1960s, he was a victim of blatant racism, of the sort of human degradation that you and I might be able to comprehend only with the help of Hollywood,” wrote York. “Few spared O’Ree from torment. Not opponents. Not fans. Not the men who governed hockey. It was hell on ice.”
Indeed, O’Ree only played one full season of hockey in the NHL, and that year was punctuated by constant fighting, cheap shots, and racial slurs hurled by opposing players after the whistle. “People just wanted a piece of me, maybe because they viewed me as different, so I had to defend myself,” O’Ree admitted in the Rocky Mountain News. In the Oregonian he added that he fought “sometimes every game, sometimes to the point where I felt like I had my gloves off more than I had them on. It wasn’t understand, that I wanted to fight. But I was determined to play, and if I had to fight to prove it, I would.”
O’Ree broke the color barrier in hockey the same way Jackie Robinson did in baseball, but few blacks have followed in this pioneer’s footsteps. In the more than seven-decade existence of the National Hockey League, only thirteen blacks have played in its ranks. As Joe Sexton put it in the Oregonian, “The careers of most of the black players have generally been short, their achievements marginal, their experiences mixed. The environment they played in has throughout been a charged one, for hockey games are played overwhelmingly and attended almost exclusively by whites.” And, Sexton added, “the NHL, as well as its minor league affiliates, plays a brand of the game that tolerates and arguably promotes violence.”
Professional hockey player, 1956-80. Began playing hockey as a child in Canada; played wing in Canadian Juniors, 1953-55; signed with Quebec Aces, 1956; made National Hockey League debut as first black player, January 18, 1958, with the Boston Bruins; returned to minor leagues for 1959 season; promoted again to Bruins for 1960-61 season; traded to Hull-Ottawa Canadiens, 1961; spent next nineteen years on minor league teams, including San Diego Gulls and San Diego Hawks; retired permanently, 1980. Later employed with Strategic Secutity Inc., a private security company in San Diego, CA.
Addresses: c/o Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame, P.O. Box 6000, 502 Queen St., Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada E3B 5H1; or New Brunswick Filmmakers’ Cooperative, P.O. Box 1537, 51 York St., Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada E3B 4Y1.
Witness one incident that happened to O’Ree during his stay with the Bruins: One night in 1961 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, O’Ree crashed hard into the endboards in the defensive zone of the New York Rangers. The wire mesh between the fans and the ice gave way, and the helpless O’Ree was yanked into an angry, drunken mob. Fortunately, he was pulled back onto the ice by his teammates, although by that time he had been showered with beer and taunted ruthlessly. “I don’t even like to think now what might have happened had they got me up there,” he told the Oregonian. “I just came to the conclusion at the time that the only safe place was on the ice.”
William Eldon O’Ree was born in Fredericton, New Brunswick, a Canadian province just north of Maine. New Brunswick suffers long, ice-cold winters, and hockey is the favorite sport of almost any child who can walk. “I started skating when I was ’bout 3 years old and started playing organized hockey when I was 5,” O’Ree told the Los Angeles Times. “I used to skate down the street and skate to school. I was constantly on the ice. I was fortunate to be born and raised in cold country.... In the wintertime, my dad just turned a hose on out in the backyard and, boom, instant rink.”
The O’Ree family was prosperous enough to afford the rather expensive equipment required for hockey games. Willie grew up playing in ever more competitive leagues, including Canada’s Junior League, a recruiting ground for future professionals. A Chicago Tribune reporter commented: “O’Ree was a fast, tricky skater whose form probably would have fit perfectly into the successful European style currently used by the Edmonton Oilers.” A rarity among hockey players, O’Ree suffered relatively little damage to his knees or his ankles—the two injuries that can end a career.
He did not escape injury, though. In 1954, while still with the Canadian Juniors, he was struck in the right eye with a puck. He lost 95 percent of his vision in that eye, but he kept right on playing. “I was out of commission for about ten weeks,” he remembered in the Los Angeles Times. “I still had another eye. So I switched over from left wing and played right wing for the remainder of my career.”
O’Ree turned professional in 1956, signing with the Quebec Aces. Two years later, he would earn a spot in the majors with the Boston Bruins organization and gain a reputation for speed and ability at right wing. “They said I was one of the fastest skaters in hockey,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “I played with guys who were just as fast as me, but the one thing that was a big asset for me was I could be standing still, take about four strides and be at top speed, while other guys may take seven or eight to get going.”
Growing up, O’Ree had felt little prejudice. He was almost always the only black player on his various teams, and the more tolerant Canadians saw only his ability, not his skin color. Still, he was proud and felt that he was doing something for his race when he became the first black man to skate with an NHL team. He made his debut with the Bruins on January 18, 1958, and was warmly greeted by the fans. The Bruins beat Montreal that night 3-0. “It was a nice feeling,” O’Ree admitted in the News and Sun-Sentinel.
The warmth soon faded. After only two games, O’Ree was sent back down to the minors. He stayed there one more season before finally making the Bruins’ regular roster in 1960. Then the trouble began. “I wanted dearly to be just another hockey player, but I knew I couldn’t be,” O’Ree told the Rocky Mountain News. “No matter how hard I played or how fast I skated, people just kept making references to my color.” The Boston fans were friendly, but elsewhere he was heckled with racial slurs. On the road he stayed at the same hotels as the other team members, but hospitality was noticeably lacking. “And there were always racial remarks made to me by other players after the whistles,” he said. “I knew I was going to have to face all this, but I just felt like I had to keep going. That’s how much I loved hockey.”
Fights were numerous and prolonged for O’Ree. Not aggressive by nature, he had to answer challenge after challenge during his stay in the NHL. “I was always being tested on the ice, but that may have just gone along with being a new player,” he said in the Chicago Tribune.
By 1961, O’Ree had played 43 games with the Bruins and had scored four goals. The team management seemed high on him, as did the fans and his teammates. “I thought I had it made,” he told the Rocky Mountain News. Then, to his surprise, he found that he had been traded in the 1961 off-season to the Hull-Ottawa Canadiens, a so-called “farm team” of the Montreal club. He was not even notified by the Bruins. The news came to him from a sportswriter who telephoned him for his comments. O’Ree was crushed. He knew the trade meant a long stay in the minors, at best. “I still think someone, somewhere, didn’t want me in the NHL because of my color,” he said.
Other black players in hockey have met similar fates. Today, only Grant Fuhr and Tony McKegney can be said to have had substantial careers as blacks in the sport. As for O’Ree, he spent the rest of a long career on various minor league teams. He finally settled in San Diego, California, with the San Diego Gulls and played with them until 1974. When that team folded he retired briefly, but came back to play with the San Diego Hawks. O’Ree retired permanently in 1980.
During the course of his career, O’Ree sustained almost all of the injuries hockey players can be expected to receive. In addition to the permanent eye damage, he suffered broken ribs and thumbs, a shoulder dislocation, broken teeth, and numerous cuts to the face. He still wears a metal pin in his shoulder, and he has undergone surgery several times for damage to his knees that occurred later in his career. Nevertheless, he played hockey professionally for twenty years, twice the length of an average hockey career.
Thirteen years passed between O’Ree’s debut with the Bruins and the next NHL debut of a black player. Even in the 1990s, the sport was not attracting many black athletes. For his part, O’Ree is doing what he can to change that by appearing at clinics for young black skaters and promoting the sport in such places as New York’s Central Park, where he held a teaching clinic for the Ice Hockey in Harlem program. O’Ree blames financial factors for the lack of black involvement in hockey. “I think blacks have just said, ‘Hey, this is too hard to get into’” he told the News and Sun-Sentinel. “Baseball can be played in any area, but with hockey you need to get on to the ice. It costs $150-$160 just for the equipment. That’s a big factor.”
“People say I paved the way,” O’Ree told the Los Angeles Times. “Back then, it really didn’t dawn on me that I was a pioneer, because it was no big deal. When I stepped on the ice, I wanted to be just accepted as another hockey player.” In his best year as a hockey professional, however, Willie O’Ree earned only $17,000. Today, although he admits to being proud of his groundbreaking achievement, he is somewhat sorry that it has been so overlooked by the National Hockey League. “I’ve been honored in my home province [in Canada] and in San Diego for being a pioneer, but I’ve never gotten recognition from the NHL,” O’Ree said in the Chicago Tribune. “I always thought it would be good for at least a ring or a plaque.”
Associated Press wire report, July 2, 1991.
Boston Globe, February 8, 1991.
Chicago Tribune, January 23, 1983; April 17, 1987.
Ebony, February 1989, p. 84.
Jet, December 3, 1990, p. 48.
Los Angeles Times, December 17, 1989.
News and Sun-Sentinel (Orlando, FL), February 13, 1985.
New York Times, February 25, 1990, sec. 8, pp. 1, 9.
Oregonian, March 11, 1990.
Philadelphia Daily News, January 24, 1983.
Rocky Mountain News, November 4, 1990.
St. Paul Pioneer Press, January 14, 1992.
An independently produced film documentary titled Echoes in the Rink: The Willie O’Ree Story, directed by Errol Williams for the New Brunswick Filmmakers’ Cooperative of Canada, is scheduled for completion in the fall of 1993. Additional information for this profile was taken from a press kit on the film.
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