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Celebrating Willie O'Ree

by John McGourty

Back on Jan. 18, 1958, Willie O'Ree made history by suiting up for the Boston Bruins and becoming the first black man to play in a NHL game.
WATCH: O'Ree interview after first NHL game
It was Jan. 18, 1958, and Willie O'Ree found himself in a familiar place in an unfamiliar uniform.

The slick-skating left winger was in the Montreal Forum, where he had played many games as a member of the AHL Quebec Aces, but on this night he was wearing the uniform of the Boston Bruins, the first black to play in a National Hockey League game.

It had been 11 years since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in professional baseball amid great controversy. But there was little fanfare surrounding O'Ree's call-up to the Bruins.

They needed a third-line winger for a home-and-home weekend series against the Montreal Canadiens, he was the best they had in their farm system and they debuted him on the road. There was little to no pre-game publicity about O'Ree, and only minor mention near the bottom of most of the post-game stories in the Boston Herald, Boston Globe and Boston Record.

Oh, and they called him “Billy” in some of the stories.

"Good wheels, that's what I remember. Willie could really skate," said Hockey Hall of Fame right winger Johnny Bucyk, now a Bruins executive. "There wasn't a lot of hoopla about it. For one thing, his first game was on the road, in Montreal. Then the next night in Boston. I don't remember him playing a lot of minutes in either game. He came up a couple of years later and played pretty well.

"Nothing was made of the race issue. It was a hockey decision. We needed someone at his position and he had earned the right to be called up. He was the next best player at that position in the organization."

"The skating was the strength of his game," said former Bruins defenseman Fern Flaman, later the long-time coach of the hockey team at Northeastern University. "He was just a fast skater and I remember he was very happy to have made it to the NHL, like all kids were at that time. He fit right in with everybody and everybody liked him. I know I've read where he heard insults from the crowds, but on that occasion, he got a big hand when he was introduced. I saw nothing negative at all, in either Boston or Montreal. Of course, in Montreal, they love their athletes.

"Willie was a very fast skater and deserved to come up. We used him pretty much as a third-line player. I remember he was nervous when he played that night."

"I was no stranger to the Montreal fans," O'Ree said. "The week before I was Willie O'Ree of the Quebec Aces."

The Bruins were struggling with injuries and searching for answers at several positions when O'Ree received his call-up. After missing the playoffs in 1955-56 for the first time in six years and only the second time in 12 years, the Bruins bounced back to finish third in 1956-57 and advanced to the Stanley Cup Final against Montreal, losing in five games. But they were in a fourth-place tie with the Toronto Maple Leafs, sporting a 14-19-9 record, on Jan. 18, 1958.

Goalie Don Simmons was out with a shoulder injury. His replacement, Al Millar, went 1-4-1 with a 4.17 goals-against average and was returned to the minors. Veteran Harry Lumley was brought in and made 28 saves in a 3-0 road shutout, the Bruins’ first win in seven games against Montreal that season.

Lumley was one of the few transactions that worked. Defenseman Doug Mohns had been out with a broken jaw for five weeks and replacements Jack Bionda and Bob Armstrong had been deemed unworthy and returned to Springfield.

Forwards Real Chrevrefils was injured and Leo Labine was sick. Gerry Ehman proved a suitable substitute until Springfield Indians owner Eddie Shore demanded Ehman be returned to Springfield for a home-and-home series with the Rochester Amerks.

"The only information that I had was that they notified the Quebec Aces, and my coach told me to meet the Bruins in Montreal to play back-to-back games against the Canadiens," O'Ree said. "I knew it was for just two games and I didn't know the circumstances, who was injured or whatever."

Boston General Manager Lynn Patrick turned to the Quebec Aces farm club and brought up O'Ree. The Fredericton, New Brunswick, native had looked good in training camp and was sent to Springfield, then transferred to Quebec.

"I remember Lynn Patrick coming into the dressing room and telling us there was a new player coming in and he was black," said Bronco Horvath. "Right away, Leo Labine asks if he can fight. The night of the game, Willie walks into our dressing room and Labine is yelling some crazy stuff at (Jerry) Toppazzini, another nut, and Topper is yelling back some crazy stuff of his own, about the broadcast gondola or something. You'd never guess we were getting prepared for a hockey game. Milt Schmidt is standing there, looking distinguished as always, taking it all in, and Willie can't believe the scene.

"We told him, don't worry, you'll be fine. If anyone hits you, slurs you or tries to hurt you, there'll be nine guys on him in the blink of an eye. Willie understood and I think he felt a lot better. He was a great kid who worked hard and I'm proud I got to know him. He's been doing wonderful things for kids in recent years."

Henry McKenna's story in the Boston Herald was headlined, "Bruins Call up O'Ree, First Negro Star."

Schmidt juggled his lines and defense pairings for the game at the Forum. Horvath centered the famed "Uke Line" of Vic Stasiuk on right wing with Bucyk on his left. McKenney centered right winger Buddy Boone and Toppazzini. Larry Regan was the center for right winger Fleming Mackell, with O'Ree and Johnny Pierson alternating at left wing. Flaman paired with Allan Stanley, while Leo Boivin defended alongside Larry Hillman. Mohns was available for spot duty. Schmidt switched McKenney and Regan back and forth between the second and third lines during the weekend.

Patrick explained that O'Ree's shifts would be short and few "to ease the pressure and reduce the margin of error."

Hillman and Montreal's Bert Olmstead scrapped at 15:20 of the first period and Boom Boom Geoffrion was sent to the box 25 seconds later. Bucyk scored during the 4-on-3, with assists to Stasiuk and Boone. Regan scored midway through the second period, with assists from Boone and Mackell. Horvath scored off an assist from Hillman in the third period.

Willie O'Ree is a hero and a role model to many people who are inspired by his improbable story.

Back home in Boston Sunday night, it was a different story as the Canadiens breezed to a 6-2 victory. Geoffrion scored in the first period and Bucyk in the second, but the Canadiens scored five times in the third. Dickie Moore scored twice and Olmstead once in a span of 47 seconds.

The Canadiens were without both Maurice "Rocket" Richard and his brother, Henri Richard. The Rocket suffered an Achilles tendon injury shortly after scoring his 500th NHL goal early in the season, and the “Pocket Rocket” had a groin pull.

"I told Willie if you die, leave me your legs," Horvath said. "Willie's legs and my body? I'd have made them forget the Rocket. From a standstill, Willie could take off flying, no one could catch him. His jersey used to billow out behind him."

"I was the coach, but I had nothing to do with bringing up Willie from Quebec," said Schmidt, the Bruins’ Hockey Hall of Fame center who went on to coach the team for all but one year between 1954-66 and then was general manager until 1972. "General Manager Lynn Patrick and scout Harold ‘Baldy’ Cotton, who had a long playing career with the Toronto Maple Leafs, were the ones who made that decision.

"We were having a tough time and I thought, "Fine, it doesn't matter what color he is as long as he can play, which he could. Willie was a very good skater, one of the fastest in the NHL. At times, it seemed his legs went faster than he could think. One thing that annoyed me later was that he had only one eye and I knew nothing about it. Not many people knew. If the NHL had known, they'd have never let him play."

O'Ree has said he was subjected to taunts from fans and opposing players, but never from his Bruins teammates. They recall O'Ree as an easy-going guy off the ice who played with a lot of determination and had good skills, especially his skating.

"'Topper' used to trade insults with Willie after he realized Willie could give as well or better than he took," Horvath said. "Willie was one of the few guys who could take Topper's crazy chatter, give it back to him and shut him up. Topper was always giving everybody the business, keeping up a competitive atmosphere. Drove me nuts."

"The color of a person's skin was never an issue in hockey," said Flaman. "This was a case of the player deserved an opportunity to have a chance to come up and play in the NHL. There were so few black players playing hockey at that time. At that time in Canada, black athletes were more prevalent in ball sports. Willie was just a hockey player to us."

"That first game, I told Willie if the other players want to get to talking, saying different comments, just accept it," Schmidt said. "Say, 'I'm just as good as you are.’ " If it gets physical, you know how to handle yourself.

"Willie accepted everything and was well accepted by his teammates, by my general manager and everyone in the organization. He was one of the guys and it didn't matter what color he was. Willie was always full of good humor and laughs. He was quite capable of handling himself in all ways and he was always included in things. He never went on his own."

"I think it was astonishing that he was able to play at all," Mohns said. "Playing hockey at the highest level is tough enough, but playing well with one eye is incredible. Good peripheral vision is so important to a hockey player. I can't imagine how anyone could do what he did. When he shared his secret with me, I was speechless, but I kept my promise that I would not tell anyone, and I never did.

"Before I went on the ice, I was a little nervous. After I got on the ice, I relaxed and just got into the play. I had played against the Canadiens in exhibition games when I was with the Aces, but this was my first opportunity to play them in an NHL game." - Willie O'Ree

"I was surprised no one else in Boston found out. I didn't walk in Willie's shoes, or skate in his skates, so I have no idea what problems he faced, on or off the ice. I only know that he was a good guy with a great sense of humor. He was well liked. As a hockey player, he was a fast skater, quick on his feet, and he worked hard at both ends of the ice, which not all players did. How could you help but admire the guy?"

Mohns said he hadn't seen O'Ree in years when he spotted a somewhat familiar face across a room at the annual Bruins charity golf event who seemed to be staring at him.

"All of a sudden, I screamed 'Willie,' and we ran up and hugged each other. He deserves a lot of credit for what he's doing now."

Mohns said O'Ree then shared some of his frustrations and recalled some negative incidents during his NHL career.

"I understand, now, that he had some problems," Mohns said. "I don't know what it was like for him in Boston because I didn't live near him. There was an incident, I think it was in Detroit, where the players went into a restaurant and they wouldn't serve Willie so everyone got up and left. I'm sure it was tough for him."

McKenney set O'Ree up for a couple of shots in those two games, but Willie was stifled by Jacques Plante each time.

"I was playing with Don and he gave me some good passes," O'Ree said. "I should have scored, but I have to give the goalie credit. He was pretty famous, guy named Jacques Plante.

"Before I went on the ice, I was a little nervous," O'Ree admitted. "After I got on the ice, I relaxed and just got into the play. I had played against the Canadiens in exhibition games when I was with the Aces, but this was my first opportunity to play them in an NHL game."

O'Ree was sent back to Quebec City after the weekend and returned to the Bruins during the 1960-61 season, when he had four goals and 10 assists in 43 games. O'Ree was traded with fellow black hockey player and friend Stan Maxwell to the Canadiens in June 1961 for Cliff Pennington and Terry Gray.

O'Ree never played in the NHL after that, but continued to play professional hockey, mostly on the West Coast, until 1979. In the minors, O'Ree was switched to his off wing, saw the ice better and became a prolific scorer.

In a haunting twist to the story, the late Tom Johnson, a Hockey Hall of Fame defenseman with the Canadiens that night and later a Bruins player and coach, discussed O'Ree with just a few hours before he died Nov. 21. In typical Johnson fashion, he got in a few teases, but he had a lot of respect for O'Ree.

"He always claims he went around me for a goal," Johnson said with a laugh. "I don't remember it, but he had to mention a name that people knew! I really got to know and like Willie much later in life. He's been to a few of the Bruins functions. What I remember about Willie is that he was a great skater.

"My favorite memory of Willie was in a preseason exhibition game in Fort William (now a part of Thunder Bay), Ontario. He was with Boston and I was still with Montreal. We had just gotten Lou Fontinato, a tough guy. Willie wasn't a fighter and never got a lot of penalty minutes, but Lou is chasing Willie all over the ice and wants to fight him. This is going on every shift until, suddenly, Willie stops and punches Lou and knocks him down. Just like that it's over. Willie was a good, little player and he loved to play hockey."


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