October 15, 1935 |
Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada
|Height||5 ft 10 in (178 cm)|
|Weight||175 lb (79 kg; 12 st 7 lb)|
|Played for||Boston Bruins|
Willie Eldon O'Ree, CM ONB (born October 15, 1935) is a Canadian former 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. O'Ree is referred to as the "Jackie Robinson of ice hockey" due to breaking the black colour barrier in the sport,[NB 1] and has stated publicly that he had met Jackie Robinson twice in his own younger years.
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, appearing in two games that year, and came back in 1961 to play 43 games, playing with Boston centreman Don McKenney and right wing Jerry Toppazzini. He scored 4 goals and 10 assists in his NHL career, all in 1961.
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 1964-65 and 1968-69. O'Ree played 50 games for the AHL's New Haven Nighthawks in 1972-73. 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 the age of 43.
After O'Ree's stint in the NHL, there were no other black players in the NHL until another Canadian player, Mike Marson, was drafted by the Washington Capitals in 1974. There were 23 black players in the NHL as of the mid-2010s, the most prominent being P. K. Subban. Art Dorrington was the first black player to sign an NHL contract, in 1950 with the New York Rangers organization, but never played beyond the minor league level. NHL players are now required to enroll in a preseason diversity training seminar, 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 Garden in Boston to mark the 50th anniversary of his NHL debut. In addition, The Sports Museum of New England located in the TD 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 on the North side after him. On January 27, 2008, the NHL also honoured 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 O'Ree with an Award for Outstanding Commitment to Diversity and Cross Cultural Understanding. In 2008, O'Ree was also inducted by the San Diego Hall of Champions into the Breitbard Hall of Fame honouring San Diego's finest athletes both on and off the playing surface.
The same year, O'Ree received the Order of Canada, the highest civilian award for a Canadian citizen. He was honoured as a pioneer of hockey and dedicated youth mentor in Canada along with the U.S. On June 28, 2011, The Sports Museum at TD Garden in Boston honoured O'Ree with the Hockey Legacy Award at the 10th Annual "The Tradition." Other honourees that evening included Larry Bird, Mike Lowell, and Ty Law. The Buffalo Sabres hosted a Willie O'Ree skills weekend in March 2012. His jersey was retired by the San Diego Gulls on October 16, 2015.
As the 2016 Stanley Cup Finals was about to start, the San Jose Sharks' Barbadian Canadian-ethnicity star right winger Joel Ward was preparing to play against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Ward spoke to ESPN, stating that O'Ree was one of his inspirations to play pro hockey, and should have his player number 22 retired by the NHL league-wide, just as Jackie Robinson, the first player of color in Major League Baseball has been honored. Ward himself honors Robinson's legacy by wearing jersey number 42 in NHL play; Robinson's own player number 42 has been retired league-wide in pro baseball.
During early 2018, around the time of the 60th anniversary of O'Ree's contribution to ice hockey, he was once again honored by the Bruins and the NHL, with a new street hockey rink in Boston named in O'Ree's honor, being among the wide variety of accolades the Bruins and NHL legend was involved with. One of the most personal of these honors was when John Grzelcyk, father of current Bruins rookie defenseman Matt Grzelcyk and himself a long-time member of the old Boston Garden and current TD Garden "bull-gang" team of arena personnel that assists with "changeovers" for different events at each facility, had saved an original #22 Bruins uniform jersey worn by O'Ree from the 1960-61 Boston Bruins season, when O'Ree last played in the NHL as a Bruin - both John and Matt personally presented the jersey to O'Ree, to honor him for his time with the Bruins and the NHL. At about the same time as Willie received his vintage Bruins game-sweater, it became known that a rookie Washington Capitals player of bi-racial ethnicity (with a Black Canadian father), Madison Bowey had himself been taught by his father about O'Ree's importance in NHL history; and selected No.22 for his player number with the Capitals to honor O'Ree's achievement, with Bowey playing for them wearing No.22 through the Capitals' win of the 2018 Stanley Cup Finals.
Career statistics source
|1951-52||Fredericton Jr. Capitals||NBJHL||3||2||0||2||0||--||--||--||--||--|
|1952-53||Fredericton Jr. Capitals||NBJHL||12||15||3||18||6||4||5||0||5||2|
|1961-62||Los Angeles Blades||WHL||54||28||26||54||57||--||--||--||--||--|
|1962-63||Los Angeles Blades||WHL||64||25||26||51||41||3||2||3||5||2|
|1963-64||Los Angeles Blades||WHL||60||17||18||35||45||12||4||8||12||10|
|1964-65||Los Angeles Blades||WHL||70||38||21||59||75||--||--||--||--||--|
|1965-66||Los Angeles Blades||WHL||62||33||33||66||30||--||--||--||--||--|
|1966-67||Los Angeles Blades||WHL||68||34||26||60||58||--||--||--||--||--|
|1967-68||San Diego Gulls||WHL||66||21||33||54||54||7||2||2||4||6|
|1968-69||San Diego Gulls||WHL||70||38||41||79||63||7||3||3||6||12|
|1969-70||San Diego Gulls||WHL||66||24||22||46||50||6||6||3||9||4|
|1970-71||San Diego Gulls||WHL||66||18||15||33||47||6||4||1||5||14|
|1971-72||San Diego Gulls||WHL||48||16||17||33||42||4||0||1||1||2|
|1972-73||New Haven Nighthawks||AHL||50||21||24||45||41||--||--||--||--||--|
|1972-73||San Diego Gulls||WHL||18||6||5||11||18||6||1||4||5||2|
|1973-74||San Diego Gulls||WHL||73||30||28||58||89||4||3||3||6||0|
|1974-75||San Diego Charms||SoCal-Sr.||?||?||?||?||?||?||?||?||?||?|
|1975-76||San Diego Charms||SoCal-Sr.||?||?||?||?||?||?||?||?||?||?|
|1978-79||San Diego Hawks||PHL||53||21||25||46||37||--||--||--||--||--|
|NHL totals (2 seasons)||45||4||10||14||26||--||--||--||--||--|
|WHL totals (13 seasons)||785||328||311||639||669||55||25||28||53||52|
|QHL totals (3 seasons)||181||44||52||96||197||19||7||5||12||18|
|EPHL totals (3 seasons)||78||32||36||68||80||--||--||--||--||--|
Willie O'Ree first met Jackie Robinson when he was just 14 years old...The New Brunswick native was in New York for a trip honoring his youth baseball team and managed to carve out a few minutes to chat with the legend by the dugout during a visit to Ebbets Field. O'Ree made sure to inform Robinson that in addition to his baseball accomplishments, he was also a hockey player...Robinson was a bit surprised, not realizing that any black kids played hockey. It was an interaction that proved to be a memorable one...Some 13 years later during an NAACP luncheon in Los Angeles, the two once again crossed paths. Following an introduction, Robinson - the first black player in Major League Baseball history - quickly realized that it was not their first encounter..."'Willie O'Ree - aren't you the young fella I met in Brooklyn?" Robinson asked...It was a moment that O'Ree cherishes to this day - and one he felt important to share during a celebration marking the 60th Anniversary of his breaking the NHL's color barrier.
Joel Ward has an idea for the National Hockey League to honor the history and growing impact of black players in the sport: Retire the number 22 Willie O'Ree wore with the Boston Bruins when he became the league's first black player in 1958."I definitely think Willie should be recognized for sure," Ward told ESPN Sunday, the media day before his San Jose Sharks face the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. "It's a no-brainer. Without Willie, it would be tough for me to be sitting here today. I definitely think Willie should be a big part of this."
On Wednesday, [January 17th] during a press conference dedicating a new street hockey rink in his honor, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said O'Ree deserves to be in the same historical category as Robinson and President Barack Obama..."Willie means a great deal to our city," said Walsh. "This is history in the living right here...it's an incredible message to our young people. When I talked to the young people in the front row [of the press conference] - everyone knows Jackie Robinson, everyone knows Barack Obama, everyone in Boston knows Willie O'Ree, but I think his story needs to be told around the country... "It's a great honor to be here, an honor to hear him speak about what he's done."
The sweater had been hanging in the Grzelcyk house for years, just another jersey from the Boston Bruins, a castoff. It had been found abandoned by a trainer, John Grzelcyk believed, perhaps 35 years ago, long after its useful life, and given to him...At some point, Matt Grzelcyk, John's son and a Boston Bruins defenseman, had started to suspect the history of the small-ish black jersey from the early 1960s, No. 22, that hung in the back of a closet...On Jan. 17 , the sweater finally made its way back to its rightful owner, 60 years after Willie O'Ree made his barrier-shattering debut in the National Hockey League, as the first black player to play in the League.
Madison Bowey always wore No. 22 on the baseball field growing up, but it was taken whenever he joined a hockey team...That was the case as the defenseman turned himself into an NHL prospect and joined the Capitals' system as a second-round pick in 2013. The number was taken again as he proved himself in the American Hockey League. But No. 22 was available when he was called up to the Capitals at the start of this season..."It's pretty special to be in the NHL and playing my first NHL year on the 60th anniversary of Willie O'Ree," Bowey said Thursday. "There's a lot of significance behind that, and obviously he's a very special person."