There was a time when Willie O’Ree, the first black player to skate in the NHL, was considering a baseball career.
”Growing up (in Fredericton, N.B., Canada), I played about nine different sports before finally narrowing it down to two --baseball and hockey,’’ O’Ree admitted. “Two scouts from the Milwaukee Braves’ minor-league operations contacted me and asked if I would be interested in going down to Georgia for a tryout.’’
O’Ree, who played shortstop and second base, was reluctant at first, but was eventually talked into making the trip to Waycross, Ga., for a tryout with the Braves.
”I was assigned a dorm with six or seven other players of color and, the whole time, was thinking; ‘Willie, you really don’t want to be here.’ But, I figured I’d just make the best of it. We were informed that a list would be posted outside our dorm and if you’re name was on the list, you would be sent home.’’
After spending just more than a week in Waycross, O’Ree’s name appeared on the list.
”They told me they were impressed with my play, but felt I needed a little more seasoning, so I got on the bus back home and decided to forget about baseball and concentrate on hockey.’’
It was then that O’Ree’s path to a professional hockey career took flight and the rest, is history.
In 1988, he began work as the Director of Youth Development for the NHL/USA Hockey Diversity Task Force, a project that has transformed him into a hockey legend. During the past 10 years, O’Ree has helped introduce more than 40,000 boys and girls of diverse backgrounds to hockey while stressing the importance of life skills, education and the values of hockey, including commitment, perseverance and teamwork.
O’Ree has traveled thousands of miles across North America, helping to establish 39 grass-roots hockey programs, all geared toward serving economically disadvantaged youth.
O’Ree has been the recipient of numerous awards, in addition to being inducted into the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame in 1984. He won the Lester Patrick Award for outstanding service to hockey in the United States in 2003 and, in 2007, became the inaugural recipient of the Bill Walsh Champion of Change Award, which recognizes an individual whose determination paved a path of opportunity to everyone. On Jan. 16, the Fredericton, New Brunswick City Council named a new hockey arena after their native hero -- Willie O’Ree Place. The $16 million sports and leisure complex features two NHL-sized ice surfaces.
”My dad once told me; ‘Willie, find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life,’ and there’s a lot of truth to that,’’ O’Ree said. “I speak at about 40 schools a year and conduct many clinics to encourage hockey and life skills in the inner cities of our country. I’m having the time of my life.’’
O’Ree, 72, was honored Friday by the League at a Diversity Luncheon to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his NHL debut on Jan. 18, 1958 against the Montreal Canadiens. Proceeds from the luncheon, which was held here at the Westin Hotel, will benefit NHL Diversity.
”My two hockey heroes growing up were Gordie Howe and Maurice Richard,’’ O’Ree said. “I watched them play and tried to gear myself up to play the way they played. I was hopeful I would one day reach the NHL and have a chance to play against those gentlemen and, indeed, that happened.’’
Midway through his second season with Quebec, O’Ree was called up to the Boston Bruins to replace an injured player. He scored four goals and dished out 10 assists in 45 NHL games. He would have likely skated much longer in the League had it not been for a stray puck that left him 95 percent blind in his right eye in a game with the Kitchener-Waterloo Canucks of the Ontario junior league during the 1955-56 campaign.
Despite the injury, O’Ree won two scoring titles in the WHL between 1961 and 1974, scoring 30 or more goals four times. He netted 38 goals on two occasions (1964-65 and 1968-69).
There were many dignitaries attending Friday’s luncheon, including Tony McKegney, the first black player to score 40 goals (St. Louis Blues), Bobby Hull, Johnny Bower, Frank Mahovlich and Ted Lindsay. The captain of the 2008 Western Conference All Stars, Jarome Iginla of the Calgary Flames, was also in attendance.
”I followed as many black players playing hockey as I could growing up, whether they were in the NHL or the Canadian junior programs,’’ Iginla said. “Not until I reached the NHL (1995) did I hear about Willie O’Ree and I thought it was so cool to meet him. His determination and courage to play in the League certainly made things a lot easier for players like myself.’’
Hull, who began his NHL career (1957-58) with the Chicago Blackhawks one season before O’Ree broke the color barrier with Boston, never treated O’Ree any differently than any other player he faced.
“As players, and whenever Willie was on the ice, we never treated him any differently than any other guys we faced,” Hull said. “I knew he was Canadian and learned his hockey there and I wished him well, just like he wished us well. I was a 19-year-old kid and, at that time, hadn’t formed any opinions on anyone. I had those boyhood dreams of playing in the League as anyone at my age would. I know some of those narrow-minded people in other cities wanted to see him fail, but, personally, there’s not a nicer guy you would want to meet than Willie O’Ree.’’
Contact Mike Morreale at firstname.lastname@example.org.