|Willie O'Ree made his NHL debut as a forward with the Boston Bruins against the Canadiens at the Montreal Forum on Jan. 18, 1958.|
In 1958, it was not easy to land a spot on an NHL roster. There were just six teams and there were limits on rosters as just 16 players and one goaltender dressed per game. With only 102 roster spots available, it was rare to see a 22-year-old make it to the NHL.
O'Ree was one of those exceptions, though. O'Ree was called up to the Boston Bruins to replace an injured player and made his debut in Montreal against the Canadiens on Jan. 18, 1958.
O'Ree played two games for Boston in 1958 and 43 more in 1960-61. But, he spent the majority of his career in the Western Hockey League and led the WHL in goals in 1964-65 as a member of the Los Angeles Blades.
O'Ree became a career minor leaguer after the Montreal Canadiens picked him up in a trade with Boston in June 1961. Montreal, which was loaded with talented players, had no room for O'Ree and sold his contract to the Blades in November of that year.
O'Ree, like so many players of his generation -- Art Jones, Guyle Fielder, Willie Marshall, Mike Nykoluk, to name a few -- was a very good hockey player who was destined to stay in the minors because the NHL was a pretty exclusive club, a six-team league that had the best 100 or so players in the world.
It was a tough league.
"Oh yeah, Gordie Howe told me that when I came up to the Bruins," said O'Ree. "Doug Harvey, also from the Canadiens, told me. There were a few guys in the League who said it, but I am a rookie, I'm up there, I'm just playing having a good time, but the guys I played with, Don McKenney, 'the Chief' (Johnny Bucyk), always gave me encouragement while I was there.
"(Gordie) was on the ice. While we were playing, he comes in and raps me a couple of times with the elbows and I backed off. He says, 'eh, tough League, kid; eh, keep your head up!' He skated his way and I skated that way. When I was growing up, I had two idols. I had Gordie Howe and I had Rocket Richard. Those were the two guys I really idolized and I never thought one day that I would have the pleasure of playing against them in the ‘Original Six.’ I had the highest respect and the highest admiration for them.
"I was an aggressive player, a lot of people said I was a dirty player. I was aggressive and I hit because I knew I would get hit. When I would get a chance to crank someone, I would crank him and vice versa. I fought a lot when I first started and I fought because I had to, not because I wanted to. Guys wanted to see what I was made out of. I won fights and lost fights, but I said if I am going to leave the League it is because I don't have the skills and the ability to play in it anymore, I am not going to leave it because some guy is trying to run me out of the League. It worked out; the 21 years I played I had a great time."
O'Ree was the first African-Canadian player ever to skate in the NHL. But when he hit the ice for the first time in a Boston Bruins uniform, he was just another rookie who happened to make his debut in the Montreal Forum.
There was almost no noting of the fact that O'Ree was a sports pioneer joining others in breaking the color barrier. In football, it was Bill Willis and Marion Motley, who played with All American Football Conference's Cleveland Browns, and Kenny Washington and Woody Strode with the Los Angeles Rams in 1946. Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier in 1947. Earl Lloyd, the NBA's first African-American player, was with the Washington Capitols in 1950. Wee Willie Smith, though, is generally considered the first African-American to play in a professional basketball league with the National Basketball League's Cleveland Chase Brassmen in 1943.
"I was no stranger to the Montreal fans because just a week prior to that I was Willie O'Ree with the Quebec Aces jersey on, playing in Montreal against the Montreal Royals in the Forum," O’Ree said. "Now I am Willie O'Ree with the No. 22 of the Bruins on, same guy only a different sweater. I had no problems with Montreal, we beat the Canadiens, 3-0, and the big writeup was the Bruins shut out the Habs in the Forum. There was nothing said about Willie O'Ree breaking the color barrier. It wasn't until I came up in 1961 that the media gave me the name the ‘Jackie Robinson of hockey’ because I broke the color barrier."
O'Ree understands that the bigger story on the night of his historic debut was the lowly Bruins shutting out the then two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Canadiens.
"Oh my god, that was a feat in itself," said O'Ree. "When I scored my first goal, it was against the Montreal Canadiens in Boston on New Year's night in 1961; in fact, it turned out to be the game-winning goal."
There is one question that O'Ree can never answer. What if the NHL had more than six teams during his playing days? Would he have had a longer NHL career than 45 games?
"It was (a closed shop)," said O'Ree. "I was playing with the Los Angeles Blades, a team that was operating in the Western Hockey League. Then in 1967 when the expansion came and the Kings come into the Fabulous Forum in Inglewood, the club I was on disbanded. So Max McNab was coaching the team in San Diego and he got a hold of me and brought me down to San Diego and I played seven years with San Diego. But the NHL was a closed league. There were about a 130 players total and you played one another seven, eight, nine times a year.
"I'd do it all over again, it was great; I met some really neat guys. I wish I had been able to stay in the league longer. I had an unfortunate accident and lost my eye. Back then, they never had an eye exam because if they had, I would never had been up with the Bruins and I probably would have never had played pro because you had to have a certain amount of vision. That is one thing I kept to myself.
“They never put me in front of an eye machine, they were more concerned about my physical condition and I always kept myself in good shape, I played ball and worked out. When I would go to camp, I would be ready to go. But the 21 years I played, I played with one eye. A lot of people say that's unbelievable, that's impossible; but you have to do the impossible if you want to reach a goal."
In the three years leading up to 1967, O'Ree put up 30 goals or more in each season. Those totals might have made him an NHL candidate, but he was also 32 at the time and had vision problems. He never did get another chance, but the WHL was a pretty good league and had some interesting cities.
"The league was good, there was about 14 teams in that league. There were four or five from Canada," he said. "There was Calgary and Edmonton and Vancouver and Victoria, then down the coast there was Seattle, Portland, San Diego, Denver, Phoenix, Salt Lake.
“It was a good league, a lot of good players in the league; guys went up to the NHL. A lot of them stayed in the WHL and a lot of them made more money than (NHL players).”
O’Ree left a mark in the NHL and the WHL. San Diego, in fact, retired his number, but O’Ree is far from retired. He is out there selling his love of hockey to all -- especially minority kids.