Willie O'Ree played a lot more hockey than just his two NHL games for the Boston Bruins in January 1959. He played in a number of leagues during his career, including the AHL and a number of others that live only through history and record books and from stories that players like O'Ree still tell.
The AHL is the NHL's top development league and has been the sole top development league since 2001 when the International Hockey League disbanded. Minor league hockey circuits come and go, but the AHL has been around in some form since 1926.
In the late 1950s, the six NHL owners decided that they needed a real development league and in 1959, the owners established the Eastern Professional Hockey League with teams in Hull-Ottawa, Kingston, Montreal, Sault Ste. Marie, Sudbury and Trois Rivieres. This was not a league to be taken lightly, according to O'Ree, who played for the Kingston Frontenacs in 1959 after he played two games with Boston in 1958-59 and with the Hull-Ottawa Canadiens in 1960-61 and 1961-62.
"There were some good teams there," O'Ree said. "I played in Kingston. Cal Gardner was our coach and we had a good group of guys. A lot of good hockey players, some of them went up to the NHL, some of them went to the Western Hockey League. I ended up in the Western Hockey League after leaving the Eastern League."
O'Ree named a who's-who of hockey talent who were his Hull-Ottawa teammates.
"Let's see there was Junior Langlois, myself, Stan Maxwell, Bobby Rousseau. There was about eight or nine guys. Charlie Hodge, Montreal's backup goalie, they had a lot of good players."
Forty-two Hull-Ottawa players were in the NHL with varying degrees of success, ranging from Claude Cyr, who played one game with the Montreal Canadiens, to Jacques Laperriere, a Hall of Fame defenseman.
There were a lot of good players in the long defunct Eastern Professional League. O'Ree's first EPHL team in Kingston had 40 players who eventually played in the NHL including Barry Ashbee, Reggie Fleming, Dale Rolfe, Wayne Rutledge, Pat Stapleton, Eddie Westfall and Tommy Williams, who for a long time was the only American playing in the NHL.
Sault Ste. Marie was the training ground of two Hall of Famers: goaltender Gerry Cheevers and one of the NHL's greatest scorers, Phil Esposito. The Thunderbirds had other really good goaltenders as well, Roger Crozier, Denis DeJordy and Roy Edwards.
Kitchener-Waterloo's 1960-61 roster included a 26-year-old defenseman named Don Cherry who went on to bigger and better things in his post-hockey career. Some of Sudbury's players included future NHL players like Cesare Maniago and Jim Pappin.
Jacques Plante played eight games for the 1960-61 Montreal Royals after winning five straight Cups with the Canadiens from 1956-60.
Hall of Fame executive Sam Pollock ran Hull-Ottawa and won the 1960-61 and 1961-62 EPHL championships. Pollock was part of 12 Stanley Cup teams in Montreal, nine as the general manager. He gave Scotty Bowman his first professional coaching job. Pollock was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1978; in 1985 he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada and in 2002 was made a Knight of the National Order of Quebec.
The old EPHL was loaded with talent on the ice, behind the bench (Scotty Bowman and Billy Reay) and in the front office. But ultimately someone has to pay the bills and the EPHL didn't have enough fans. In 1962-63, only four teams remained, Hull-Ottawa,
Kingston and Sudbury hung in and Sault Ste. Marie moved to Syracuse, but the franchise moved to St. Louis midway through the season. The league was also had an interlocking schedule with International Hockey League clubs, but the EPHL, despite an array of talent, was unsustainable. The NHL decided to open up a Midwest United States based development league in 1963 and the EPHL became a memory.