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Willie O'Ree Visits Nashville, Recalls Career as First Black NHL Player

Hockey Hall of Famer Celebrates Black History Month, Hockey Is For Everyone as Work Continues as NHL's Diversity Ambassador

by Max Schneider @Max_Schneider15 /

Willie O'Ree will never forget his first goal.

The date was Jan. 1, 1961. The opponent - the Montreal Canadiens.

O'Ree remembers breaking away from his check in the third period. He remembers skating down the left side, receiving the pass from Leo Boivin in stride. He remembers beating Charlie Hodge, who was in for the injured Jacques Plante, as O'Ree so astutely recalls. He remembers the puck sliding just inside the post to give the Bruins a 3-1 lead.

Most importantly, though, he remembers the standing ovation from the Boston faithful, celebrating the first goal scored by a black player in NHL history.

"I'll never forget that," O'Ree says. "You never forget your first one."

Fifty years later, O'Ree receives another standing ovation, this time at Bridgestone Arena. Predators fans applaud the League's first black player, who visited Nashville on Discover presents Hockey Day in America this past Sunday.

Hours earlier, walking down Symphony Place in Downtown Nashville, O'Ree looks right at home. He's donning his cowboy hat, brown boots and a bolo tie with a scorpion on the clasp.

"Good to be back in Nashville again," he says as he emerges.

He's stepping out of the Black History Hockey mobile museum, a museum highlighting the founders, trailblazers and history-makers that paved the way for black players in the NHL.

"This is my fourth visit to the unit, and it's really nice," O'Ree says. "I just hope a lot of people here in Nashville have the opportunity to come in and walk through [the museum] and see the history of how hockey started with blacks back in the Coloured Hockey League in Nova Scotia."

O'Ree, of course, is a staple in the museum.

He broke the league's color barrier in 1958, coming into the NHL with the Boston Bruins. He played just 45 games over the course of his career, but that didn't stop him from facing racism in just about every place he took the ice.

"As far as myself, I was faced with racism, prejudice, bigotry and ignorance, but I just let those go in one ear and out the other," O'Ree says. "I was a black man; nobody had to tell me that."

The words may not have fazed him, but when opponents picked fights with him on the ice because of his skin color, O'Ree was forced to defend himself.

"I fought a lot when I first started," O'Ree says. "Because I had to, not because I wanted to. Back then, we didn't wear any helmets, no cages, no face gear. Guys were taking shots at my head, and I always tried to protect myself."

Video: Terry Crisp sits down with Willie O'Ree

O'Ree remarked that he's been called the "Jackie Robinson of hockey," a nickname he didn't give himself, but one that stuck because of the barriers the two black athletes broke and the hostility they were forced to endure over the course of their careers. O'Ree recalls meeting Jackie Robinson twice in his lifetime: first, when O'Ree was a teenager, who looked up to Robinson, and then again when he became a professional hockey player.

Even more than a decade later, Robinson didn't forget O'Ree's face.

Like Robinson, O'Ree himself is a Hall of Famer. His induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame took place in November 2018, but O'Ree didn't enter the Hall as a player. Instead, he was inducted as a "builder."

"The feeling I had when I shook hands with [Hall of Fame goalie and fellow black hockey player Grant Fuhr] and when he said 'Willie, it's been time,' it was a great feeling. When I went up and gave my speech and [NHL] Commissioner [Gary] Bettman was sitting down there, it just made me feel good," O'Ree recalls.

Now, O'Ree is the director of youth development for the NHL's diversity task force, a role in which he's served for more than 20 years. It's the role that earned him his Hall of Fame nod just a couple years ago. He's working to ensure that children of all colors have opportunities to learn and excel on the ice.

"I'm kind of a happy camper with the cities that I travel around and the boys and girls that I come in contact with," O'Ree says. "The Hockey is for Everyone program is a good program. I wouldn't have stayed with it for 23 years if I didn't think the program worked. I get phone calls and emails and letters from boys and girls that I've met years ago, just thanking me for when I came to their school."

O'Ree says he still laces up his skates every so often to take the ice with some of the youth he works alongside. It brings some of the memories back for him.

Just before the start of Nashville's game against the St. Louis Blues, O'Ree stares at blown-up photos of himself in a Bruins uniform, smiling and reminiscing about his playing days. He leans over and tilts his hat up to get a closer look.

Then, the Hall of Famer begins to describe each photo, like they were taken yesterday, clear as day in his mind. Because Willie O'Ree will never forget his historic stint in the NHL.

And neither will the rest of the hockey world.

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