O'Ree a hockey pioneer

Monday, 01.08.2007 / 1:57 PM
John McGourty  - NHL.com Staff Writer

Willie O'Ree, the NHL's first black player, was born in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada, in 1935, the son of a city civil engineer and a member of one of only two black families in the city. He was one of 13 children, including twins who died in infancy.

Willie had an older brother, Richard, who was a good athlete and he followed in his brother's skate strides. He began skating at age three and joined a hockey league when he was five years old.

"Every chance I had, I was on the ice," O'Ree recalled. "I even skated to school. My dad squirted the garden hose on the back yard and we had an instant rink. I loved the feel of the wind rushing by as I flew along the ice. I loved the sound of spraying ice chips when I hit the brakes and spun around to charge back the other way. I loved having the puck on my stick and learning how to stickhandle. The speed that I could reach on my skates when I was stickhandling with the puck was like defying gravity."

In his autobiography, The Willie O'Ree Story: Hockey's Black Pioneer, O'Ree describes a family-oriented childhood relatively free of racism.

"The fact that I was black never came up when we played as kids," O'Ree wrote. "You could have been purple with a green stripe down the middle of your forehead, and it wouldn't have mattered. It was only later, when I became older, that I learned what 'color barrier' meant."

O'Ree developed into one of the best players in New Brunswick. He spent five years playing with his older brother on teams in Fredericton, then joined the Quebec Frontenacs of the Quebec Junior Hockey League in 1954-55, scoring 27 goals and adding 17 assists for 44 points in 43 games. The next year, he was acquired by the Quebec Aces of the Quebec Hockey League, a prestigious and competitive league in that era, and continued to progress as he helped them to the championship.

Willie's mother, Rosebud, always admired the house across the street in Fredericton. It came up for sale while Willie was playing junior hockey in 1952. He used his savings to help his parents buy it.

"Hockey gave me the money to send to my parents to help them buy a house," O'Ree said. "They had always made a home for me, a wonderful place that I would go back to if I could time travel. Because of hockey, I could help make a home for them. It makes me proud still."

Midway through his second season at Quebec, O'Ree was called up to the Boston Bruins of the National Hockey League to replace an injured player. He made his NHL debut on Jan. 18, 1958 against the Montreal Canadiens, becoming the first black player in the League's history. The publicity, or rather, the lack of publicity was amazing for such an historic occasion. The Bruins, the Boston and Montreal press and the national media didn't attach much significance to O'Ree's milestone.

"I was expecting a little more publicity," O'Ree said. "The press handled it like it was just another piece of everyday news. I didn't care much about publicity for myself, but it could have been important for other blacks with ambitions in hockey. It would have shown that a black could make it."

The point is well taken for it was a dozen years before another black player, Mike Marson, appeared in the National Hockey League.

O'Ree played another game against Montreal in Boston, then returned to Quebec. Late in the season, the Bruins promoted him to Springfield of the American Hockey League, where he played six games.

O'Ree played one more season in Quebec, then played the 1959-60 season with the Kingston Frontenacs of the Eastern Professional Hockey League where he scored 21 goals and added 25 assists in 50 games. He started the next season with the Hull-Ottawa Canadiens but after he scored 19 points in 16 games, the Bruins called again.

O'Ree achieved another milestone that season. In a game against Montreal on Jan. 1, 1961, O'Ree collected a pass from Bruins defenseman Leo Boivin, skated past Canadiens defenders Jean-Guy Talbot and Tom Johnson and snapped a low shot past goalie Charlie Hodge for the first NHL goal ever scored by a black player.

O'Ree played 43 games that season, scoring four goals and adding 10 assists. Although two goals were gamewinners, the numbers were disappointing for a player who had never averaged less than a half-point per game in any league. But the Bruins indicated they were pleased and told him to enjoy the summer before returning to training camp in the fall.

Willie's world was rocked by a midsummer phone call from a reporter asking his reaction to being traded to Montreal for Cliff Pennington and Terry Gray.

O'Ree told the reporter it probably meant he was destined for the minor leagues again because Montreal had too much talent. He was correct. Twelve games into the season, Montreal sold O'Ree's contract to the Los Angeles Blades of the Western Hockey League.

O'Ree spent the next 11 years with the Blades and the San Diego Gulls, leading the WHL in goals in 1964-65. He spent the 1972-73 season with the New Haven Nighthawks of the AHL then returned to California where he played through 1978-79, taking two years off before coming back for one final season in San Diego. Ironically, Pennington became O'Ree's teammate in Los Angeles in 1965-66 and Gray was with the St. Louis Blues in 1970 when the Bruins beat them to capture their first Stanley Cup in 30 years.

O'Ree's hopes of returning to the NHL were dashed when he wasn't chosen by one of the six expansion teams in 1967. By then most people in hockey knew O'Ree was blind in one eye and couldn't pass the NHL's vision test.

A puck struck O'Ree in his right eye during a game with the Kitchener-Waterloo Canucks in the 1955-56 season. Eight weeks later he returned but had lost 95 percent of the vision in that eye. O'Ree kept it as much of a secret as he could but word got out. When he played for the Blades, his coach, Alf Pike, switched the left-hand shooting O'Ree to right wing and he became one of the WHL's most exciting players and prolific scorers.

"Alf may have been informed about my eye but we didn't discuss it in great detail," O'Ree said. "He asked if I ever tried right wing. He moved me over there and I didn't have trouble seeing the puck. If I had moved over to right wing when I was with the Bruins, I might have scored more goals and been more of an asset."

"I remember Willie and I were alone in the dressing room, sitting in front of our lockers which were separated by 30 feet or more," recalled Bruins' teammate Doug Mohns. "I said something to Willie and he had an odd look on his face as he started walking toward me. He got about 15 feet away and said, 'Oh, Mohnsie, it's you.' I asked him if he had trouble seeing me from further away. He said he had a little eye problem and asked me not to say anything. I never even told my best friend while Willie was still playing."

"There was a national magazine article about Willie entitled 'The King of the Near Miss,' talking about the number of shots he missed,'' recalled former Bruins linemate Don McKenney. "I'm sure his eye problem was the cause of that because Willie O'Ree was an excellent hockey player in every other regard and when he switched to the off-wing his scoring took off. I never knew about his eye problem until recently. Willie had all the tools to make it. He was extremely fast and he had a strong shot."

While O'Ree was subjected to racist remarks by fans and some opponents, he received a warm welcome from his Bruins teammates and management. Coach Milt Schmidt sat him down for an encouraging talk and warned him that some opponents would test him through words and actions. McKenney and Mohns said he was warmly welcomed into the Bruins dressing room and O'Ree agrees. He looks back happily on those relationships.

"I usually played left wing with Don McKenney at center and we had several different right wings including Jerry Toppazzini and Leo Labine. I also played a lot with Charlie Burns, the first NHL player to wear a helmet, Tom McCarthy and Jimmy Bartlett," O'Ree recalled. "Don was a good hockey player, we moved the puck well. I got my fair amount of shots on goal and Don was very helpful. Bronco Horvath, who led the League in goals the year before, was also very helpful.

"Horvath gave me pointers on goalies, like where they were weak and where to shoot. All the guys were very helpful. I really enjoyed playing in Boston. Coach Milt Schmidt was great and so was General Manager Lynn Patrick. There were so many good people like Fern Flaman, Leo Boivin and Johnny Bucyk. Whenever I see Bucyk, we talk about the old days."

"(His race) didn?t mean anything to us. He was one of us, a Bruin," McKenney said. "We had no trouble with that and I'm sure Willie didn't. He was with us all the time on the road. There was no black and white as far as we were concerned."

"Willie was a hard worker," Mohns said. "When he got on the ice he always went at full tilt. You could depend on him to work his hardest. I have to believe his eyesight was a real detriment. I never gave it a thought that (his short NHL career) had anything to do with his color but I never walked in his shoes so I wouldn't know. Willie was just another guy. We got a kick out of him because he had a great sense of humor and was fun to be with. He was a real gentleman."

O'Ree lived with cousins in the Roxbury section of Boston and commuted by subway to Boston Garden.

"The fans were great," he remembers. "They took to me like I was one of the Bruins and that I had played there forever." But there was an ugly incident in Chicago Stadium where a Blackhawks player taunted him with racial remarks and butt-ended him in the mouth, knocking out two teeth. O'Ree got up from the ice to fight the offender and the crowd nearly rioted. Police escorted O'Ree from the building for his safety.

"Racial remarks from fans were much worse in the U.S. cities than in Toronto or Montreal," O'Ree said. "I particularly remember a few incidents in Chicago. The fans would yell, 'Go back to the South,' and, 'How come you're not picking cotton?' Things like that. It didn't bother me. Hell, I'd been called names most of my life. I just wanted to be a hockey player, and if they couldn't accept that fact, that was their problem, not mine."

After O'Ree's professional hockey career ended in 1979, he became a supervisor for a company that handled security for the San Diego Chargers and later worked security at the spectacular Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego harbor.

O'Ree began doing promotional work in 1990 for the International Hockey League's San Diego Gulls. Six years later, he was asked by the National Hockey League to assist with a hockey tournament featuring players from two dozen urban-based hockey programs. In 1998, O'Ree joined the NHL again, this time as the Director of Youth Development and hockey ambassador for NHL Diversity.

"I feel good about being in the position I'm in, meeting people I played with and against and talking to the players in the league now," he said. "Many of them know the name Willie O'Ree. What a pleasure it's been to meet players like Mike Grier and Anson Carter who have told me I opened a door and made it possible for them. They know they are role models for younger boys and girls playing now. These kids are now setting goals for themselves because it is possible to break that barrier. You can do what you want if you believe you can and if you think you can, you will."

The 2007-2008 season will mark the 50th anniversary of O’Ree’s NHL debut with the Boston Bruins. To commemorate his work and recognize this milestone, O’Ree and the National Hockey League will host numerous activities throughout the season at both the local and national levels—including events celebrating the diversity of the game and the Hockey is for Everyone initiative.

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