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50 years later: Reflecting O'Ree's historic achievement

Monday, 01.14.2008 / 10:45 AM / History

By Stephanie Geosits - Special to

Willie O'Ree poses with New York Islanders goaltender Rick DiPietro at an NHL event in October.
Sometimes it takes a while for history to write itself. In the case of Willie O’Ree, soon it will be 50 years since he broke the National Hockey League’s color barrier, and it has taken almost as long for him to be recognized as one of hockey’s pioneers.

VIDEO: O'Ree interviewed after his 1st NHL game

January 18, 2008 will mark half a century since O’Ree took the ice in the Montreal Forum as a member of the Boston Bruins. An emergency call-up from the Quebec Aces, his was a familiar face to the Habs fans, so when Boston beat Montreal 3-0 that night, the big news was about the final score and not about O’Ree making history.

“There was a big writeup the next day about how the Bruins shut out the Habs,” he said.  “The clips from my home town (Fredricton, NB) paper said I was ‘the first Negro to play in the National Hockey League,’ but in Fredricton it was no big deal. There wasn’t anything made about it on January 18th that I was the first black player.

“I can’t believe almost 50 years have gone by,” he added.

This year, O’Ree’s historic achievement will be a big deal. The Boston Bruins announced in September that the club will host Willie O’Ree Night on January 19, 2008 to honor the 50th anniversary of O’Ree breaking the color barrier in the National Hockey League.  The NHL All-Star Game in Atlanta will also pay tribute to O’Ree’s breaking the color barrier.

O’Ree returned to the Bruins roster for the 1960-61 season in a time when Boston, like most major US cities, was undergoing major turmoil, but O’Ree had no issues.

“I had no problems when I lived in Roxbury (just outside Boston) with my cousin. I took the train into the (Boston) Garden and played and then took the train home at night.”

On New Year’s Day 1961, O’Ree scored the winning goal for Boston against the Canadiens and he received a two-minute ovation from the crowd.

“I can still feel the enthusiasm and the electricity from the crowd,” O’Ree said. “I have the highest admiration for the Boston organization, our coach Milt Schmidt. “I really enjoyed playing there and always thanked them for giving me the opportunity.

O’Ree was traded to the Los Angeles Blades in 1961 and he soon received an opportunity to reconnect with the man who broke baseball’s color barrier.

“In 1962 there was and NAACP luncheon with Mr. Robinson and I was invited through the hockey club. (When I was introduced to him) he remembered me as the young kid he had met.”

Despite being blind in one eye for much of his career, O’Ree played professional hockey for more than two decades, concluding his career in the WHL. Up until 10 years ago, however, he was separated from the sport he loves.

O’Ree’s return to hockey didn’t happen until a decade ago when representatives from USA Hockey and the NHL gathered in Detroit to figure out how to expand their diversity program. According to O’Ree, it was long-time US National Team Coach Lou Vairo who recalled the fact that the “NHL’s Jackie Robinson” was alive and well.

Representatives from the NHL phoned O’Ree and told him of their plans to “Expose every boy and girl to hockey, regardless of whether they can afford it or not.”

With the motto “Hockey Is for Everyone,” NHL Diversity was born with O’Ree as its ambassador. Before agreeing to join the program, O’Ree wanted to make sure that there was a long-range plan in place. He was assured that there was, and the rest is all about writing and righting history.

“When the program started we had three or four groups,” O’Ree said. “We have 36 programs now.”  In his travels O’Ree has addressed thousands of young people, and “Never have I had one boy or girl say to me, ‘I’m not coming back.’”

“Not only do they learn hockey skills, but they learn life skills as well,” O’Ree said. “Education is key.”

After its first decade, there are many NHL Diversity success stories but one that O’Ree is particularly proud of is that of Gerald Coleman. Drafted by the Tampa Bay lightning, Coleman made his NHL debut in 2005 and is the first NHL Diversity program participant to make it to the NHL.

O’Ree tells of meeting Coleman in Chicago at the all-star game named in his honor. The young goaltender was adamant that he wanted to play in the NHL, and refused to listen to friends and family who wanted him to pursue basketball. Coleman is a prime example of O’Ree’s mantra: “If you think you can, you can. If you think you can’t, you’re right!”

O’Ree attributes his success, as well as Coleman’s, to keeping his goal in mind and not getting distracted.

“I stayed focused,” he said. “I always told myself that names would never hurt me. I never fought one time because of a racial remark. I turned the other cheek but I played 21 years and I represented my hockey club to the best of my ability and stayed focused.

It gives O’Ree great pride to see a current generation of diverse players in the NHL.

“We’ve got so many great role models, not just black players but players of color,” he said.

Being able to see their heroes in action is critical for young players.

“The opportunity to skate with them and just see them is such a big lift and that’s what we need to break down barriers,” O’Ree said. “Fans can see these guys playing and they didn’t get to see me play, but these kids can see all these players play.”

Up until 10 years ago, recognition for O’Ree’s contribution to the sport was slow in coming, but since then it has been fast and furious.

“Up until (I was brought on board), it was kind of silent, but since I’ve been aboard I’m getting a lot of recognition.”

“Some things take a little longer than others,” he said.

His efforts to spread the word that “Hockey Is for Everyone” are ongoing.

“A lot of the kids even today don’t know that I was the first one,” he said, but many other people are taking notice. In January Fredricton will dedicate a rink in his honor. “A lot of nice things are happening in these few years,” he said.

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