WILLIE O’REE

Nowhere near enough attention has been paid to hockey’s Jackie Robinson, Willie O’Ree, the NHL’s first Black player.

O’Ree, who debuted for the Boston Bruins 63 years ago, was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame under the builder category in 2018, an honor that was widely considered long overdue.

The Bruins will retire O’Ree’s №22 and raise it to the rafters — celebrating the man who unwittingly made hockey history — in a February 18 pre-game ceremony prior to a contest against the New Jersey Devils.

The 85-year-old O’Ree was nearly knocked off his pins when he got the call from Bruins president Cam Neely, informing him of the honor.

“I was at a loss for words there for a few seconds,” O’Ree admitted. “I’m overwhelmed and thrilled about having my Bruins jersey hung up in the rafters.”

As he should be.

O’Ree will be just the 12th Bruins player to have his number retired to the Garden rafters, joining Eddie Shore (№2); Lionel Hitchman (3); Bobby Orr (4); Dit Clapper (5); Phil Esposito (7); Cam Neely (8); Johnny Bucyk (9); Milt Schmidt (15); Rick Middleton (16); Terry O’Reilly (24); and Ray Bourque (77).

Elite Black & Gold company, spanning the Original Six franchise’s rich history.

He will become the third Black player to have his number retired by an NHL club, following Grant Fuhr of the Edmonton Oilers and Jarome Iginla of the Calgary Flames.

Last season, there were only 43 non-White players in the NHL, representing less than 5% of the league.

Being Black when O’Ree debuted on January 18, 1958, not to mention legally blind in one eye, presented a rather daunting double-whammy, but he didn’t feel that way.

(As an interesting aside, Martin Luther King Jr. Day fell on January 18, this year).

“When I stepped on the ice with the Bruins, it did not dawn on me that I was breaking the color barrier,” O’Ree remarked in his 2018 HOF acceptance speech.

“That’s how focused I was on making my dream come true. I did not realize I had made history until I read it in the paper the next day.”

Midway through his second minor-league season with the Quebec Aces — Les As de Quebec — O’Ree was called up to Boston as an injury replacement.

Two years earlier, he’d been blinded, when he was hit in the right eye by an errant puck.

Had the Bruins known, game over for Willie.

No go.

“I didn’t tell anyone that I couldn’t see,” recalled O’Ree.

“My sister, Betty, and my good friend, another Black player named Stan Maxwell, were the only ones who knew that I couldn’t see.

I didn’t tell my mom and dad because I didn’t want them to worry.

I didn’t let that stop me.

Back then, they didn’t have physicals like the ones given today. I could still see out of my left eye. I wanted to play and I did what I had to do to compensate for the injury.

After being injured, I came back and tried to play as if I had recovered.

Being a left-handed shot and playing left wing, to compensate, I had to turn my head all the way around to the right [and] look over my right shoulder to pick the puck up.

At first, I had a little trouble and I finally said, ‘Willie, forget about what you can’t see. Concentrate on what you can see.’

Once I started doing that, my game began to pick up.”

Somehow he kept it a secret and played two games with center Don McKenney and right winger Jerry Toppazzini as his linemates, before being shuttled to the Springfield Indians (AHL); and then back to the Aces (1958–1959); the Kingston Frontenacs (1959–1960); and the Hull-Ottawa Canadiens (1960–1961).

“When I stepped on the ice on January 18, 1958, we were playing the Montreal Canadiens in Montreal. We beat the Canadiens 3–0, then we got on the train and went to Boston.

The Canadiens beat us 5–3 and then I left. I was just there for the two games.”

After 16 games with Hull-Ottawa in ’60-’61, and a line of 10 G; 9 A; 19 Pts; & 21 PIM, he got his second call-up to the Bruins.

It was to be his only extended stay in the National Hockey League.

He appeared in 43 games, collecting 14 points on four goals and 10 assists.

He also logged 26 penalty minutes.

Cheap shots were de rigueur, and O’Ree — one eye and all — watched closely for them, anticipated them and did what he had to do.

“I had to protect myself,” he said. “I knew there would be people coming after me.”

It was an unenlightened era, and while he’d endured racial taunts throughout his hockey career, visiting NHL arenas offered no safe haven.

He was heckled and harassed by fans, especially in the United States.

“Fans would yell, ‘Go back to the South’ and ‘How come you’re not picking cotton?’ Things like that,” O’Ree sadly recalled.

“It didn’t bother me. I just wanted to be a hockey player, and if they couldn’t accept that fact, that was their problem, not mine.”

The rest of O’Ree’s professional career was spent largely in the Western Hockey League, playing with teams in Los Angeles and San Diego.

He won two WHL scoring titles, notching 30 or more goals 4 times, with a high of 38 in 1964-’65 and 1968-’69.

In 1972-’73, O’Ree played 50 games for the American Hockey League’s New Haven Nighthawks, tallying 45 points on 21 goals and 24 assists along with 41 PIM.

He stopped skating professionally in 1979, at the age of 43.

Forty-five NHL games over two seasons was the preamble to a much larger story.

His impact and the magnitude of Willie O’Ree’s hockey career as a Black player can never be underestimated.

Like Robinson, he was a pioneer.

Big-time.

“When I went to Quebec (Frontenacs of the Quebec Junior Hockey League) the first year (1954–55), Phil Watson was the coach.

He said, ‘Willie, you know there are no Black players in the NHL. You could be the first. You have the skills, you have the ability.’

When I went to Kitchener (1955–56), [coach] Jack Stewart told me the same thing.

When I turned pro with the Quebec Aces (1956–57), [general manager] Punch Imlach told me the same thing.

It started to register with me. That gave me the extra confidence I needed.”

Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier on April 15,1947.

Willie O’Ree broke the NHL color barrier on January 18, 1958.

Nearly an eleven year difference in time.

They knew, and of, each other.

When he was 14, O’Ree was a very good baseball player.

His team won a championship and as a reward was treated to a trip to New York City.

On that trip, he met Robinson.

“He had broken baseball’s color barrier only two years prior, in 1947 and to us he’s an icon. We went to Ebbets Field and watched a Dodgers game.

We met him afterwards.

When I get my chance to shake his hand, I said, ‘Nice to meet you, Mr. Robinson,’ I say, ‘I’m Willie O’Ree.’”

They shake hands — Robinson’s mitt swallowing the 14-year-old O’Ree’s outstretched hand — and the youngster blurted out, “I’m a baseball player, but what I really love is hockey.”

To which Robinson responded with a smile, “Oh? I didn’t know Black kids played hockey.”

O’Ree smiled back and said, “Yup!

Fast forward to an NAACP luncheon in Los Angeles in 1962.

“I was 27 then and playing with the Los Angeles Blades,” O’Ree remembered.

“I’m there with the coach and a few other players. My coach [George ‘Bus’ Agar] noticed the guest of honor talking to some people.

He waited a few minutes for their conversation to end and then he brought me over to meet him.

He tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘Mr. Robinson, I’d like you to meet one of our players, Willie O’Ree.’

Jackie Robinson turned around, stared at me for a moment and said something I wasn’t expecting.

‘Willie O’Ree,’ he said while shaking my hand. ‘You’re the young fellow I met in Brooklyn.’

I was stunned, let me tell you. I would’ve never thought that the great Jackie Robinson would remember me out of all the people he had met.”

Two titans, two trailblazers who paved the way for future generations of players as role models, mentors and the most worthy ambassadors of sport.

A deep reservoir of strength and courage is required to promote diversity and inclusion.

They both had it.

It overflowed in each man.

[Editor’s Note: This piece was written by Mr. Kaplan in February 2021.]

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