ENTERTAINMENT - Willie O'Ree didn't let catcalls, slashes or cross-checks keep him from making his mark in the National Hockey League for the Boston Bruins. O'Ree, now 73, recalled becoming the NHL's first black player as he joined another league yesterday: the Order of Canada.
He was one of 60 people named to various ranks of honour by Governor General Michaëlle Jean. "I was at a loss for words, really, when they contacted me this morning," O'Ree, a Fredericton native, said from his home in California.
O'Ree played his first big-league game for Boston on Jan. 18, 1958, against the Habs in Montreal. He played two games in 1958 and 43 in 1960-61, receiving a standing ovation – one of his sweetest memories – when he became the first black player to score an NHL goal on New Year's Day 1961. Some of O'Ree's worst moments include the dirty play and racist taunts he faced during road games in New York, Detroit and Chicago.
"I just wanted to be accepted as just another hockey player." - Willie O'Ree
O'Ree now helps introduce inner-city kids to hockey through the NHL's diversity program.
Willie O'Ree, OC, ONB (born October 15, 1935, in Fredericton, New Brunswick) is a retired professional ice hockey player, known best for being the first black player in the National Hockey League. O'Ree played as a winger for the Boston Bruins. He is frequently but erroneously referred to as the first African American player, though while he is black, he is in fact a Canadian born and remains a Canadian national. Additionally, O'Ree is referred to as the "Jackie Robinson of ice hockey" due to breaking the colour barrier in the sport.
Midway through his second minor-league season with the Quebec Aces, O'Ree was called up to the Boston Bruins of the NHL to replace an injured player. O'Ree was 95% blind in his right eye due to being hit there by an errant puck two years earlier, which normally would have precluded him from playing in the NHL. However, O'Ree managed to keep it secret, and made his NHL debut with the Bruins on January 18, 1958, against the Montreal Canadiens, becoming the first black player in league history. He played in only two games that year, and came back in 1961 to play 43 games. He scored four goals and 10 assists in his NHL career, all in 1961.
Willie O'Ree noted that "racist remarks were much worse in the U.S. cities than in Toronto and Montreal," the two Canadian cities hosting NHL teams at the time, and that "Fans would yell, 'Go back to the South' and 'How come you're not picking cotton?' Things like that. It didn't bother me. I just wanted to be a hockey player, and if they couldn't accept that fact, that was their problem, not mine."
In the minor leagues, O'Ree won two scoring titles in the Western Hockey League (WHL) between 1961 and 1974, scoring thirty or more goals four times, with a high of 38 in both 1964–65 and 1968–69. Most of O'Ree's playing time was with the WHL's Los Angeles Blades and San Diego Gulls. The latter team retired his number, now hanging from the rafters at the San Diego Sports Arena. O'Ree continued to play in the minors until age 43.
After O'Ree, there was no other black player in the NHL until fellow Canadian Mike Marson was drafted by the Washington Capitals in 1974. There are 17 black players in the NHL as of the mid-2000s, the most prominent including Canadians Jarome Iginla and Anson Carter and American Mike Grier (who is currently on the San Jose Sharks). Art Dorrington was the first black player to sign an NHL contract, in 1950 with the New York Rangers organization, but Dorrington never played beyond the minor league level. NHL players are now required to enroll in a diversity training seminar before each season, and racially based verbal abuse is punished through suspensions and fines.
O'Ree was inducted into the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame in 1984. In 1998, O’Ree was working at the Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego, California when the National Hockey League approached him to be the director of youth development for its diversity task force. The NHL/USA Hockey Diversity Task Force is a non-profit program for minority youth that encourages them to learn and play hockey. As of the mid-2000s, O'Ree lives in Berkeley, California.
On the afternoon of January 19, 2008, the Bruins and NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly honoured O'Ree at TD Banknorth Garden in Boston to mark the 50th anniversary of his NHL debut. In addition, The Sports Museum of New England located in TD Banknorth Garden, established a special exhibit on O'Ree's career, comprising many items on loan from his personal collection.
Those in attendance included a busload of friends from O'Ree's hometown of Fredericton. Two days earlier, the City of Fredericton honoured him by naming a new sports complex after him.
On January 27, 2008, the NHL also honored Mr. O'Ree during the 56th National Hockey League All-Star Game in Atlanta, Georgia.
On February 5, 2008, ESPN did a special on him in honour of Black History Month.
On October 29, 2008, San Diego State University presented Mr. O'Ree with an Award for Outstanding Commitment to Diversity and Cross Cultural Understanding.
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