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Black History Month

Black History Month spotlight: O'Ree's NHL debut

Pioneer, League diversity ambassador played first game for Bruins in 1958

by John Kreiser @jkreiser7713 / NHL.com Managing Editor

As part of the NHL's celebration of Black History Month, NHL.com will highlight great moments and important figures in black hockey history each day throughout February. Pioneers like Willie O'Ree, Angela James and Grant Fuhr will be featured.

Today we look at O'Ree, who in 1958 became the first black player to play in the NHL.

Willie O'Ree knew he'd be a replacement for flu-stricken Leo Labine when he took the ice for the Boston Bruins at the Montreal Forum on Jan. 18, 1958. He was focused on the small picture, trying to help the Bruins defeat the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens in their own building while making his NHL debut.

 

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The fact that the native of Fredericton, New Brunswick, was the first black player to play a game in the NHL drew little attention in the media after Boston's 3-0 win.

"I was expecting a little more publicity," he told NHL.com in 2007. "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."

O'Ree proved a lot more than that.

Video: A look back at the impact of O'Ree's NHL debut

His first NHL stint lasted two games before he was returned to the minor leagues. He played another 43 games for Boston during 1960-61, then spent another 14 seasons in the minors before retiring in 1979 at age 43. He had 14 points (four goals, 10 assists) in 45 NHL games.

But O'Ree's impact on hockey was just beginning. He returned to the game in 1998 with the NHL/USA Hockey Diversity Task Force, now known as Hockey Is For Everyone, and is the NHL's diversity ambassador. He's spent the past two decades crisscrossing North America to let kids from all backgrounds know they can play hockey and achieve their goals in life.

O'Ree's efforts were recognized in 2018 when he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in the Builders category. But his legacy and impact on hockey continue in the many thousands of kids and adults he's encouraged, and it will last for generations to come.

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