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NHL Centennial

Willie O'Ree made history in 1958 debut with Bruins

Became first black player in NHL 59 years ago today

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / NHL.com Columnist

MONTREAL -- Willie O'Ree had seen the Montreal Forum before. He'd played in this hockey shrine with the senior-league Quebec Aces, looked up at the banners of the Montreal Canadiens legends hanging in the arena rafters.

But on Jan. 18, 1958, as he skated onto the ice wearing a Boston Bruins jersey, the Forum looked larger, more spectacular and perhaps more intimidating than he'd ever seen it.

O'Ree that night became the first black player to skate in an NHL game, the first of two games he would play in a weekend home-and-home series against the Canadiens -- Saturday night in Montreal, a 3-0 victory, and Sunday in Boston, a 6-2 loss.

The native of Fredericton, New Brunswick, had arrived in Montreal from Quebec on an emergency call-up, carrying a suitcase and the baggage of racial intolerance he had been lugging through the minor pros. Summoned by the Bruins to fill in for flu-stricken forward Leo Labine, O'Ree probably had no idea he was a pioneer; when you're unexpectedly called up to the NHL from the minors, to play your first big-league game in one of hockey's grandest buildings against one of hockey's greatest teams, the small picture is much more important.

"The lights were brighter. The ice was brighter, the fans seemed more elegant and nobody called me any names," O'Ree said of his debut, as quoted in Nicole Mortillaro's 2012 book, "Willie O'Ree: The Story of the First Black Player in the NHL."

Video: Memories: Willie O'Ree is NHL's first black player

If O'Ree weren't focused on his trailblazing, he was reminded of it before the game by his coach, Milt Schmidt, who told the 22-year-old the Bruins, as a whole, understood the enormity of his debut.

But O'Ree's historic appearance garnered only passing mention in the following morning's Montreal Gazette, which noted in the third paragraph of its report: "The game also marked the debut of Willie O'Ree, first Negro to play in the NHL, at left wing for the Bruins. … A fleet skater, he had one good scoring chance on a play with [Jerry] Toppazzini in the third period. He lost it when he was hooked from behind by Tom Johnson.

Skating on a line with right wing Toppazzini and center Don McKenney, O'Ree wasn't deemed worthy of a newspaper photo; the four published images all were of Bruins goalie Harry Lumley, who shut out the Canadiens with a 28-save effort.

O'Ree acquitted himself well that night at the Forum. He didn't have a point but he wasn't out of place.

"There was nothing said about Willie O'Ree breaking the color barrier or being the first of his race to play in the NHL," he told Mortillaro for her book. "It didn't really dawn on me until the next day. I was just happy to play with the Bruins and be on the winning team."

In 2007 interview with NHL.com, O'Ree said, "I was expecting a little more publicity. 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."

Indeed, it wouldn't be until 1974 that the second black player, Mike Marson, would skate in the NHL, for the Washington Capitals. 

All of O'Ree's childhood friends in the Canadian Maritimes in the early 1940s were white, and any racial discrimination, if it existed in his community, went unnoticed.

"As he saw it, in those early days black meant puck and white meant ice," Wayne Gretzky wrote of O'Ree in his 2016 book, "99: Stories of the Game."

O'Ree moved up the ranks of minor hockey, dodging opponents as skillfully as he did the racist barbs that increasingly were being thrown his way as he became an excellent junior in Fredericton, Quebec City and Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario. It was on that final stop, in 1955-56, that a deflected puck broke his nose and cheek. His surgeon said his career was finished because the retina in his right eye had been shattered by the impact.

But O'Ree defied the odds and his doctor's prognosis, getting back on skates 10 days later and working to change the way he played the game to compensate for being almost completely blind in one eye. 

He conveniently forgot to mention this legal blindness to Quebec coach Punch Imlach when he was invited to camp in the fall of 1956. O'Ree was paid $3,500, with a $500 signing bonus. 

It wasn't long before O'Ree was experiencing the ugliness of racial intolerance, targeted by opponents and fans similar to what baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson had endured when he broke his sport's color barrier a decade earlier.

O'Ree would have no such problem on the night of his NHL debut in Montreal, which with great warmth had welcomed Robinson when he played with the Montreal Royals of the International League, his final stop before joining the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

Bronco Horvath, a Bruins teammate, told O'Ree years later that everyone in the dressing room had his back as he prepared to make history.

"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,'" Horvath told O'Ree.

"This was a case of the player deserving an opportunity to have a chance to come up and play in the NHL," Bruins defenseman Fern Flaman said. "Willie was just a hockey player to us."

O'Ree's parents were in Boston for his second NHL game, the night after his debut, their son embraced by Bruins fans no matter the home team's 6-2 loss.

The call-up was short-lived, however, as O'Ree was returned to Quebec after his two games. He was invited to the Bruins camp the following season but was sent back down and would knock around the minors until he got another call in December 1960.

Video: Willie O'Ree becomes first black player to score goal

At age 25, this second and final tour of NHL duty would run 43 games, during which he had four goals and 10 assists. His highlight, by far, was his first NHL goal, the game-winner scored on New Year's Day 1961 at Boston Garden against the Canadiens when he raced past a pair of defenders and beat goalie Charlie Hodge.

Fans gave O'Ree a tremendous ovation, unlike what he was getting in many NHL cities, when he was insulted and spat upon just for the color of his skin. He weathered almost all of it without reaction, until a game in Chicago, when he was racially taunted by an opponent during the pregame warmup. O'Ree realized if he backed down on this night he'd be targeted and run over forever.

Early in the game he took a butt end in the mouth from his antagonist, a blow that broke his nose, knocked out two teeth and split his lip. This time O'Ree didn't turn the other cheek, clubbing his foe over the head with his stick and cutting him for 15 stitches. He was banished to the Bruins dressing room, as much for his own safety as for his role in the melee.

O'Ree returned home at season's end, encouraged by the Bruins' support and glowing praise, eager to resume his career at training camp in 1961.

But it wasn't to be. The Bruins traded him that summer to the Canadiens, who sent him to the Los Angeles Blades of the Western Hockey League and a 14-season stay in the minors.

O'Ree retired in 1979 and pursued work in security. He would return to hockey in 1996 with some involvement in a tournament featuring urban-based programs. Two years after that he was back in the NHL family; since January 1998 he has been the League's Director of Youth Development and its ambassador for NHL Diversity.

Now 81, his historic NHL debut 59 years behind him, Willie O'Ree still is blazing a trail, sharing his positive, inspirational message of inclusion with a thousand-watt smile and his priceless life experience.

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