The 2007-2008 season marks the 50th anniversary of the first appearance of a black player in a National Hockey League game.
In fact, this year is the anniversary of two significant advances for minority players in the NHL and both involve Willie O'Ree
. Forty-seven years ago, O'Ree became the first black player in NHL history to score a goal.
O'Ree had a brief callup with the Boston Bruins
in 1957-58. He was brought up from the Quebec Aces and played his first game on Jan. 18, 1958 at the Montreal Forum. The Bruins won, 3-0. O'Ree played one more game, replacing an injured Bruins player, and then returned to the Aces to continue working on his skills.
"I didn't get any goals but I had already accomplished my biggest one," O'Ree wrote in his autobiography. "On the night of Jan. 18, 1958, I became the first black man to play in the NHL."
O'Ree recalled there was no mention of the historic feat in the local newspapers.
"Nobody called me the 'Jackie Robinson of Hockey' then but that's how I felt. Of course, Jackie had far worse things happen to him that I ever did, but there I was, in a place where no black man had ever been."
After an outstanding season in 1959-60 with the Kingston Frontenacs of the Eastern Professional Hockey League, O'Ree was recalled by the Bruins in December 1960. The Bruins were hosting the Montreal Canadiens
at Boston Garden on Jan. 1, 1961. Former Bruins stars Don McKenney
and Doug Mohns
remember the game.
"Willie was a very fast skater with quick moves," Mohns recalled. "He got a lot of breakaways because of his speed and quickness."
Halfway through the third period, with the Bruins leading, 2-1, and both teams down a man because of penalties, O'Ree took a pass from Leo Boivin
and rocketed past Canadiens defenseman Jean-Guy Talbot
. Talbot's partner, Tom Johnson
, attempted to stop O'Ree, but broke his stick trying to knock the puck away.
Suddenly, O'Ree was all alone in front of Canadiens goalie Charlie Hodge
. O'Ree had beaten the diminutive Hodge with high shots when he played with the Aces and Hodge with the Montreal Royals. But Bruins star scorer Bronco Horvath
had been working on shooting techniques with O'Ree, advising him to aim for lower openings.
O'Ree fired the puck along the ice and beat Hodge who was anticipating the high shot. O'Ree reached into the net for the puck and gave it to coach Milt Schmidt
O'Ree, then 25, was in his seventh professional season and second NHL tour-of-duty when he scored his historic goal. Look at the names involved in the play, remember there were only 130 players (all of them Canadians) in the then-six-team National Hockey League, that blacks comprised one-tenth of one percent of the Canadian population and you begin to understand how rare and difficult a feat it was.
Johnson played on six Stanley Cup winners, appeared in seven All-star games and is a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame; Talbot played for seven Stanley Cup winners and in seven All-Star games and Hodge twice won the Vezina Trophy while winning Stanley Cups for Montreal. Boivin and Schmidt are also members of the Hall of Fame.
"It was tough in those days with just six teams," recalled McKenney, a seven-time All-Star and Lady Byng Trophy winner. "Each year, one or two guys would crack the lineup. It was awfully hard to break in. Willie had a couple of cracks. He was a great skater and a good all-around player but he had trouble putting the puck in the net when he was in the NHL. He did much better in other leagues. I didn't know he was blind in one eye when I played with him but that must have had a lot to do with his NHL scoring troubles. Mostly, though, you had to be awfully lucky to make it back then."
How hard was it for a black man to be accepted by the Boston Bruins
' players in the late 1950s, less than four years after American schools were desegregated?
"It didn't mean anything to us," McKenney said. "He was one of us. 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 just another guy," Mohns said. "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 but most important to us, he was a hard worker. He went full tilt every shift."
And the fans?
"For two minutes afterwards, people in Boston Garden just stood and cheered for me," O'Ree wrote in his autobiography. "It was amazing ... I knew the fans in Boston were on my side but I didn't know how much."