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O'Ree excelled in WHL

by Evan Weiner
Willie O'Ree may not be in the Hockey Hall of Fame, but he keeps racking up awards. Recently, O'Ree, who broke the NHL's color barrier on Jan. 18, 1958 as a member of the Boston Bruins, was named to the Order of Canada, putting him in pretty good company. Music star Celine Dion, tenor Ben Heppner, O'Ree and others will be in Ottawa later this year to be officially recognized in a ceremony.

For O'Ree it is another honor that was probably unimaginable when he was "exiled" to the Western Hockey League in 1961. The WHL was a pretty good league, but once former NHL players were sent to WHL teams in the days of the Original Six, it usually meant that the NHL was no longer interested in their services.
O'Ree played nearly 10 full seasons in the WHL -- six with the Los Angeles Blades and five with the San Diego Gulls -- and during that time he had four 30-goal seasons and never scored fewer than 17 in a season. The old WHL was founded in 1952 and lasted until 1974. The league is pretty much forgotten today, although at one point WHL owners thought they could form a "major league" rival to the NHL. That never happened.
The WHL had hockey characters like goaltender Marcel Pelletier, who once described his playing days with the Los Angeles Blades as something he did while he played golf and went to the beach. Howie Young and Tom McVie were also in that league.
"Probably yeah," said O'Ree of Pelletier's claim of playing hockey between rounds of golf and swimming. "I imagine a lot of guys did that. The league was fun.

"You can probably say it was very close (to being an NHL rival). They had players who were good enough to the NHL. I guess the timing wasn't right. A lot of the guys I played with had a good opportunity to go up with some of the (1967) expansion teams and they did very well."
The WHL had Los Angeles, San Francisco and Vancouver, which would have been a great start for an NHL rival back in the 1960s.
"We had Seattle, Portland, Calgary, Edmonton, Spokane, Vancouver, Victoria, Denver, Salt Lake City. It was about a 14-team league, it was good," O'Ree said. "I think they probably could have gone into the NHL. They needed a few additions, but they had some good players and back then there were only six teams and in '67, they expanded to 12 and there were a lot of good hockey players around that probably could have made it."
O'Ree never did get a second chance at the NHL even though the league doubled in size in 1967. But the WHL was a good a league as any after the NHL.
"I would have put it on par with the American Hockey League back then," said O'Ree, who did not play in the AHL until 1972-73. "They said the American Hockey League was one step away from being up there with the NHL teams. There were a lot of good players in the Western Hockey League. Guys like Guyle Fielder who was with the Seattle Totems and Art Jones who played with the Portland Buckaroos.

"I arrived in Los Angeles in 1961 and played for the Los Angeles Blades. It was the first year of the Blades and in 1967 was the first expansion of the NHL. That was when the Kings came into the Fabulous Forum in Inglewood. So the team I was on disbanded and Max McNab and Bob Breitbard contacted me in Los Angeles and wanted to know if I wanted to play for the Gulls."
The 1966-67 season was an interesting one for O'Ree and his Blades teammates. They understood that the team would not continue in Los Angeles and it was unlikely the Kings wanted the Blades players.
"We knew when the Kings came into L.A., our team wasn't going to operate because they were not going to have two professional teams in (LA), especially when one was in the National Hockey League. My worry was that hopefully I was going to be picked up by another team in the Western Hockey League rather than to go back to the American Hockey League.
"When I was traded by Boston to Montreal, they could have found out about my eye injury," said O'Ree of why he never made it back to the NHL despite winning scoring titles in the WHL. "I lost my eyesight my last year of junior and even when I went up with the Bruins the first time they didn't realize I was blind in my right eye and when I was recalled the second time, the same thing. I think if I hadn't had the eye injury, I would have gotten a second shot because the Oakland Seals were struggling at that time and I probably could have had a shot with them. It never happened and I was happy for the 14 years I played in the WHL."
O'Ree isn't sure why the World Hockey Association didn't pick him up. He was only 37 at the time the league that was formed to challenge the NHL for hockey supremacy, and O'Ree would have jumped at the chance if he were given the opportunity.
"It is kind of a forgotten league, but again those cities that were in the league, they all supported the teams." -- Willie O'Ree

"I wasn't old," said O'Ree. "I was watching those guys. They were guys who were playing there that scored 8, 10 goals a year. If you are any good at all, you can kick that many in. It just didn't work out."
The WHL's Lester Patrick Cup championship trophy sits in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. It is one of the few vestiges of the WHL that is still around along with the name Vancouver Canucks.
"It is kind of a forgotten league, but again those cities that were in the league, they all supported the teams. Even when I was playing in L.A., we had 7,500 (people per game) and when I came to San Diego, during the week we may have had 4,500, but on the weekends we would have 10,000, 11,000. San Diego still holds the minor league average for attendance," O'Ree said.
The Western Hockey League ultimately could not overcome losing L.A., San Francisco (Oakland) and Vancouver to the NHL along with Phoenix to the WHA. Three teams survived the league's collapse after 1974 -- Denver, Seattle and Salt Lake City and the franchises moved onto the Central Hockey League. It may have been hockey's forgotten league, but the WHL's alumni include Hockey Hall of Famers Al Arbour, Andy Bathgate, Johnny Bower, Johnny Bucyk, Tony Esposito, Emile Francis, Ching Johnson, Fred Shero, Norm Ullman, Gump Worsley along with one-time NHL ironman Andy Hebenton and TV personality Don Cherry.

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