By Nathan Easington, Contributing Writer
Posted 12:50 AM EST, Thurs., Feb. 16, 2017
He was a legend on ice.
Historically, hockey is a sport that is populated, dominantly, by white athletes. But Willie O’ree, unfazed by the color of the sport, became the first Black man to ever tie up his skates as a player in the NHL.
Starting his career in the Canadian minor league in the early 1950’s, it wasn’t until almost a decade later that O’ree began to dominate as a winger. In the 1957-1958 season, he was selected to play for the Boston Bruins, after a player on the team was injured. On Jan. 18 of that year, O’ree officially broke the racial barrier that was present in the NHL.
The following year, O’ree was no longer needed by the Bruins. However, after a few seasons in the NHL’s minor league, the American Hockey League (AHL), he returned to play another season for the Bruins in 1960, netting 4 goals and 10 assists.
O’ree was known throughout the NHL for not making excuses. He always present himself well and showed a great regard of respect when visiting stadiums that were known to make racist comments, such as “Go back to the cotton field” and “Who let you out of the South?”
And yet, those comments didn’t hinder him. If anything were to hinder him, it’d be the vision in his left eye, which he lost 95 percent of after getting hit by a puck. O’ree kept his injury a secret as he did not want to give himself an excuse to underperform nor did he want anybody’s pity.
O’ree credited Jackie Robinson as one of his inspiration. Integrating the NHL during the Civil Rights Movement, O’ree would be an inspiration for future NHL players of color like the Subban brother and Ryan Reaves.
Just before the start of the 2016 Stanley Cup Finals between the San Jose Sharks and the Pittsburgh Penguins, Joel Ward, a Black winger for the Sharks, said that O’ree inspired him to play hockey, and he believed O’ree’s jersey number should be retired league wide.
Like Jackie Robinson, O’ree wore the number 42.
Although the NHL is still a predominantly white league, averaging about 35 Black players from year to year, O’ree was the barrier breaker for Blacks in the NHL, paving the way for future players of color, despite the numbers.
Today, O’ree, 81, enjoys helping children through different charitable programs, something he believes to be more fulfilling than breaking the color barrier years ago.