Willie O'Ree and His Journey to the Hockey Hall of FameNov 12, 2018
By Steve Brown
Willie O’Ree is now a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame. It was 22,213 days since he made hockey history.
On Jan. 18, 1958, Willie O’Ree became the first black player to play a National Hockey League game with the Boston Bruins against the Montreal Canadiens at the Montreal Forum. He played 45 games with the Bruins, and also became the first black player to score an NHL goal on January 1, 1961. His extraordinary events paved the way for future players of diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds, and 60-plus years later he was finally rewarded with one of the ultimate honors bestowed.
He will forever be enshrined amongst the game’s greatest.
One of six inductees to his year’s 2018 class that includes goaltender Martin Brodeur, forward Martin St. Louis and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. O’Ree stands out as not the three-time Stanley Cup winner, prolific scorer or international sensation, but of one that, for 60-plus years, built and grew the game, made an immeasurable impact that paved the way for thousands of players to follow.
Not only did O’Ree become a trailblazer, his strength of character opened doors for others in a time where the U.S. in the midst of a larger Civil Rights movement. For that, he will be remembered with his name forever adorned in a hall of the greatest names.
His career with the Bruins spanned two seasons and 45 games (two games in 1958 and 43 in 1960-61). He only scored four goals and added 10 assists. In addition to his time in the NHL, O’Ree also scored 314 points (153 goals, 161 assists) in 407 games with the San Diego Gulls of the Western Hockey League (WHL) from 1967-1974.
His number 20 hangs in the rafters of Valley View Casino Center, and to this day calls San Diego home.
Beginning in 1956, his professional hockey career spanned 21 seasons through its conclusion with the Gulls in 1979. His impact both on and off the ice has been insurmountable and will leave a lasting legacy.
His NHL career consisted of just 45 games over two seasons, but it is the historical impact of those games and the role in the sport he’s played for over 20 years that has led him to his honored member status in the Hockey Hall of Fame. He is the third black player to be inducted, joining Grant Fuhr (2003) and Angela James (2010).
Since 1998, he has worked as the NHL’s Diversity Ambassador for the Hockey Is For Everyone initiative. Likened to his achievement breaking barriers on the ice, his tireless work to grow the sport of hockey for over 20 years has left just as large an impact. Through his role with Hockey is For Everyone, he has helped introduce more than 120,000 boys and girls of diverse backgrounds to unique hockey experiences and served economically disadvantaged youth throughout the U.S. and Canada.
How did it all get started for an unlikely young man and one of 13 children from New Brunswick?
THE PATH TO THE HALL
Born on Oct. 15, 1935 in Fredericton, O’Ree learned to skate at a young age and with the help of his father, and brother Richard, he learned the essentials of the game.
"I started skating at the age of three, I remember that,” he reminisced. “My dad had a rink in my backyard. I remember skating around with help sometimes from a wooden chair. We had a pretty good sized backyard so there was plenty of room to move around and skate.”
It was Richard, a brother 12 years his senior, that would also play hockey and help teach him the basics of the game.
He taught me a lot of things that I would need to know and I had the pleasure of playing with him on two or three different teams before I left my hometown to go away and play junior.
“He just taught me a lot of things on body checking, keeping your head up, two hands on your stick and things like that. Always be aware in the corners and things you just have to know. I credit him to be with me as far as the things I played with. The years I played, I credit my brother.”
Richard was a steady presence in his life growing up, and the message was to set goals for himself and to work hard. The goals Willie had: play professionally and then in the National Hockey League.
“All throughout my career, the 21 years that I played pro, I credit my brother for influencing me and giving me the hockey knowledge,” said O’Ree.
He was a prolific junior scorer with the Kitchener Canucks of the Ontario Hockey Association (OHA) in 1955-56. The following season he joined the Quebec Aces, the primary affiliate of the Boston Bruins, where he collected 22 goals and 12 assists in 68 games. He helped the Aces win the Edinburgh Trophy, awarded to the winners of a series between the champions of the WHL and the Quebec Hockey League (QHL).
It would be what eventually led to the eventual call up by the Bruins in mid-January of 1958. As he always has, he went about his business and focused on playing hockey, unaware of the true magnitude of what was to happen.
“My coach Milt Schmidt and General Manager Lynn Patrick pulled me aside and said, ‘Go out and play your game, the Bruins organization is behind you 100 percent.’ Basically, that’s what I did.”
Following the game in an interview with a local reporter, he didn’t even realize he had broke the color barrier. It wouldn’t be until the next morning when he read the newspaper that it sunk in.
“I was just excited about playing the Montreal Canadiens in my first game, and beating them (3-0).”
Fast forward to New Year’s Day 1961 and O’Ree set history again when he became the first black player to score an NHL goal.
“It went right along the ice, hit the post and went in. It made it 3-1 for the Bruins. Henry “Rocket” Richard, scored about six minutes later. The goal that I got ended up to be the winning goal. We beat the Canadiens 3-2.”
The Bruins fans gave him a two-minute standing ovation that night. It’s been 60 years, and he still has the puck to this day, displayed in his office with other memorabilia.
His NHL career may not have lasted more than the 45 games, but in his time representing hockey on the ice he found his way back and forth through the AHL, QHL, Eastern Professional Hockey League, WHL and Pacific Hockey League.
In total, he amassed nearly 1,100 professional games and 400-plus goals, continuing to play the game he enjoyed as a kid in Fredericton. New Brunswick is where the foundations of his career began, but it’s the time he spent playing the game and overcoming odds where he made hockey history.
THE JACKIE ROBINSON OF HOCKEY
To break barriers, one typically has to endure. It’s something O’Ree overcame in his career as one of the few black hockey players of his generation.
“I had very little racism when I was growing up,” recalled O’Ree of his time in Fredericton. “Kids just played together. There were only two black families living in Fredericton and they both lived on the same street. I can’t recall any racism or prejudice while I was growing up. I just used to play with other kids and had a great time.”
It’s that innocence of youth that enabled him to enjoy a simple game and continue to evolve year by year. It was in spite of racism that he continued to excel and develop through hockey’s ranks.
In that era, in a prominently white sport, he endured. Advancing through junior an professional hockey, racism would rear its ugly head at various levels of the sport in what he called taunts and remarks from opposing fans, even players.
He remembers most of the incidents from every level, but two or three in his career stand out. A prominent instance came in 1960 while playing for the Bruins when he was the victim of racist taunts from a Chicago Blackhawks player who also butt-ended him with a stick to the mouth.
“I fought a lot when I first started. I fought because I had to, not because I wanted to,” he said.
It’s how he handled himself in those tough times, standing up for himself because he had to and to this day as he continues to hold himself to the highest of standards and professionalism. His career of overcoming obstacles, similar to that of another iconic symbol of his sport endured and overcame.
Oftentimes referred to as the Jackie Robinson of hockey, O’Ree and the former Brooklyn Dodgers outfield who broke the color barrier in baseball crossed paths numerous times.
“What had happened was, when I left the National Hockey League in 1958 and then when I was recalled back in 1960-61, the media gave me the name ‘The Jackie Robinson of Hockey.’ I’m very honored and very happy to be in the same category of Mr. Robinson.”
“I met him when I was 14,” said O’Ree. “I was playing baseball in my hometown and we won the championship. The reward was that our team was going to be taken to New York..I met him after a game at Ebbets Field. I went down and shook hands with him and told Mr. Robinson I not only played baseball, but I played hockey. He didn’t realize that there were any black kids playing hockey at that time.”
That was in 1949. Over a decade later as a professional hockey player, their paths crossed again at a NAACP luncheon in Robinson’s honor.
“Mr. Robinson turned and looked at me and said, ‘Oh, Willie O’Ree, aren’t you the young fellow that I met in Brooklyn?’ He remembered my from 1949 to again in 1962. He made a big impact on me.”
“He was a barrier-breaker like myself,” added O’Ree. “He broke the color-barrier in 1947 and opened the doors up for not only black players, but players of color...I had the highest regard and highest respect for Mr. Robinson.”
Despite braking the barrier in the NHL, Jan. 18, 1958 didn’t carry the magnitude that Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Dodgers did. But, it was a historic moment in the game’s history, and is now much more widely celebrated than that day 60 years ago.
The magnitude of his career can’t be underestimated. The second black player to join the NHL was Mike Marson, during the 1974-75 season with the Washington Capitals…17 years later.
His broken barrier and willingness to grow the sport and teach the importance of essential life skills, education and the core value of hockey as a Diversity Ambassador is what keeps him going.
With each passing year, O’Ree is celebrated throughout the sport, and his travels take him back to Boston, to the likes of New York City, Toronto and other hockey-mad cities. In data compiled by the NHL, O’Ree has logged more than 2,400 days of travel to promote the game and grassroots hockey in marginalized communities and areas of need, such as Harlem, N.Y.
But, it’s in the southernmost city of the Western U.S. where O’Ree calls home. San Diego.
CALLING SAN DIEGO HOME
O’Ree joined the San Diego Gulls of the WHL in 1967. Following a year in Los Angeles where he was an opponent, he found himself on the other end of the rivalry a year later when he drove himself south to negotiate his own contract in September of 1967.
It was founder of the original Gulls and San Diego Sports Arena Bob Breitbart and then general manager and head coach Max McNab, the father of current Anaheim Ducks Senior Vice President of Hockey Operations David McNab.
He signed a one-year contract that September, but his Gulls career spanned a total of seven seasons through 1974, the final year of the WHL.
“I enjoyed my seven years with the Gulls,” he reminisced. “It was a great organization, and still is a great organization. I have the highest respect and admiration for the team I played for and for the present team that is here.”
It was following his Gulls career, and three other seasons in San Diego with various iterations of San Diego professional hockey clubs. It was after that final season in 1979 that O’Ree was retired from the game that brought him to American’s Finest City and he’s been a resident ever since.
He fell in love with the climate when he first arrived, coming from a cold Canadian climate was a stark contrast to “the beaches, the mountains, the deserts and the palm trees.”
“I fell in love with the weather, I married, and it’s home.”
It was nearly 20 years from the time his playing career ended to when he would officially work for the NHL again. He had several jobs to varying degree, but his main goal was to get back to the NHL in some capacity. He had something give back to not only the sport, but the communities that support, and those that lack.
In 1998, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, a fellow 2018 Hall of Fame inductee, hired O’Ree to become the league’s Diversity Ambassador.
“I was given the opportunity to give back to the sport and work with these boys and girls to help set goals for themselves,” said O’Ree. “Not only hockey skills, but life skills. I use my experience to let them know you can do anything you set your mind to do. It takes hard work, it takes a lot of your time, but if you decide you want to choose a career, work at it and be the best you can be.”
O’Ree’s travels have taken him all over the world the past 20 years.
As the most notable ambassador of Hockey Is For Everyone, the program uses the game of hockey - and the League's global influence - to drive positive social change and foster more inclusive communities. Traveling to underserved and overlooked communities, O’Ree spreads his uplifting message to all.
The motto he shares at every function: “If you think you can, you can. If you think you can’t, then you’re right.”
It's that motto that has taken himself to where he is, and why his mesage resonates with so many across the world as he continues to live in the way he holds himself.
“The way I’ve lived all the years I can remember is trying to give respect to people, work as hard as you can and believe in yourself. Be the individual that you are.”
"We are three individuals within ourselves. We’re a person we think we are, we’re a person who other people think we are we are and a person who we really are. We try to find out who the real person we are within yourself. That’s how I live.”
He continues to teach kids across the county, and world, to take these life lessons, to work hard and to encourage them to play hockkey. It was hockey that taught him these life lessons and it's what he hopes will encourage those he speaks with to do so as well.
His legacy will continue to live on in the form of the Willie O'Ree Community Hero Award which was introduced by the NHL this year to recognize an individual who positively impacts his or her community, culture or society through the game of hockey.
While his NHL career was brief, his hockey career and legacy was not. He opened the door for other players of various races, ethnicities, religions and more to dream about NHL careers.
CAREER ACHIEVEMENTS AND HONORS
- Broke the Color Barrier on Jan. 18, 1958
- First Black Player to Score an NHL Goal on Jan. 1, 1961
- New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame (1984)
- Fredericton Sports Wall of Fame (1992)
- Lester Patrick Trophy for his contributions to hockey in the U.S. (2003)
- Order of New Brunswick (2005)
- Black Ice Hockey and Sports Hall of Fame (2006)
- Willie O’Ree Sports Complex in Fredericton (2008)
- Honored by the NHL during the NHL All-Star Game in Atlanta (2008)
- Outstanding Commitment to Diversity and Cross-Cultural Understanding Award from San Diego State University (2008)
- San Diego Hall of Champions (2008)
- Order of Canada, Awarded to the Highest Civilian Award Given to a Canadian Citizen (2010)
- Sports Museum’s Hockey Legacy Award (2011)
- Willie O’Ree Community Award presented to the person who best utilizes hockey as a platform for participants to build character and develop important live skills (2018)
- Hockey Hall of Fame (2018)