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, in Fredericton, New Brunswick) 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 color 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 Canadian (and current Nashville Predators defenceman) 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.
On April 7, 2010, 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.
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.
|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||--||--||--||--||--|
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."