In honor of Black History Month, The Athletes Hub will be highlighting black athletes who made enormous impacts on their sports and redefining how we think about the games today. Today, we’re headed to the sport of hockey where we look at Willie O’Ree, the man who broke the color barrier in the NHL. His tenure was short lived, but his appearance in the NHL paved the way for many African American players in the ensuing years.
The “Jackie Robinson of Hockey” debuted on January 18th, 1958 with the Boston Bruins. It wasn’t anything special at the time. There was no ceremony, no tribute, nothing. The official scorer even got his jersey number wrong. However, O’Ree was just happy to play the game he loved, living his dream.
“Back then,” he told ESPN in 2008, “it just didn’t dawn on me. I was just concerned about playing hockey.”
O’Ree played baseball as a youth and recalled an encounter he had with Jackie Robinson in 1949 for an article for The Players Tribune:
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Robinson,” I say.
“I’m Willie O’Ree.”
“Nice to meet you, Willie,” Jackie says, shaking my hand.
He flashes a smile, and I can sense him moving on — shifting his posture to the next kid on the team. I turn to him, slightly.
“I’m a baseball player,” I say, raising my voice. “But what I really love — is hockey.”
“Oh?” Jackie says, turning back to me, still smiling. “I didn’t know black kids played hockey.”
I smile back.
O’Ree played parts of just two seasons in the NHL, both with Boston. In 45 career games, he scored four goals and totaled 10 assists. Playing hockey professionally from 1957-58 until 1978-79, his best play came in the WHL, where he played 13 seasons. He scored 328 goals and tallied 311 assists in 758 career WHL games.
However, his career didn’t come without adversity and sadly, racism. “Racial remarks from fans were much worse in the U.S. cities than in Toronto or Montreal,” O’Ree confided to NHL.com in 2015. “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?'”
He also told of an incident where a Chicago Blackhawks player goaded him with racial remarks and knocked O’Ree’s teeth out with the butt-end of his stick; and when O’Ree went to retaliate, the crowd rioted and he had to be escorted from Chicago Stadium.
Yet, despite all of that, O’Ree was the first black player to play in the NHL and no one can take that from him. He’s paved the way for players like Donald Brashear, Mike Grier, and current Philadelphia Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds. O’Ree was a pioneer, and he was an inspiration to many.
Photo Credit: The Players Tribune
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