Willie O'Ree - A Little Black History On Ice

On the upcoming 50th anniversary of Fredericton, New Brunswick native Willie O'Ree's entrance into the ranks of the National Hockey League, and via Dave Stubbs at Habs Inside/Out:

When he played for the Boston Bruins against the Canadiens in Montreal on Jan. 18, 1958, Willie O’Ree became the first black person to play in the National Hockey League. O'Ree played on a line with Don McKenney and Jerry Toppazzini and helped the Bruins defeat the mighty Canadiens, 3-0.

Fifty years later, O’Ree is still involved in hockey as the Director of Youth Development for the NHL’s Diversity program. In the past 10 years, he has helped introduce more than 40,000 boys and girls of diverse backgrounds to hockey while stressing the importance of essential life skills, education and the core values of hockey: commitment, perseverance and teamwork.

The National Hockey League has prepared a terrific look at the trailblazing O'Ree and his significant contribution to the game.

You can read more on Willie O'Ree here... And from his wikipedia profile you can get a sense of some of the adversities O'Ree had to overcome in his career:
Midway through his second minor-league season with the Quebec Aces, O'Ree was called up to the Boston Bruins of the NHL to replace an injured player. O'Ree was 95% blind in his right eye due to being hit there by an errant puck two years earlier, which normally would have precluded him from playing in the NHL. However, O'Ree managed to keep it secret, and made his NHL debut with the Bruins on January 18, 1958, against the Montreal Canadiens, becoming the first black player in league history. He played in only two games that year, and came back in 1961 to play 43 games. He scored four goals and 10 assists in his NHL career, all in 1961.

Willie O'Ree noted that "racist remarks were much worse in the U.S. cities than in Toronto and Montreal," the two Canadian cities hosting NHL teams at the time, and that "Fans would yell, 'Go back to the South' and 'How come you're not picking cotton?' Things like that. 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."

In the minor leagues, O'Ree won two scoring titles in the Western Hockey League (WHL) between 1961 and 1974, scoring thirty or more goals four times, with a high of 38 in both 1964-65 and 1968-69. Most of O'Ree's playing time was with the WHL's Los Angeles Blades and San Diego Gulls. The latter team retired his number, now hanging from the rafters at the San Diego Sports Arena. O'Ree continued to play in the minors until age 43.

After O'Ree, there was no other black player in the NHL until fellow Canadian Mike Marson was drafted by the Washington Capitals in 1974. There are 17 black players in the NHL as of the mid-2000s, the most prominent including Canadians Jarome Iginla and Anson Carter and American Mike Grier. NHL players are now required to enroll in a diversity training seminar before each season, and racially based verbal abuse is punished through suspensions and fines.

O'Ree was inducted into the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame in 1984. He later became the Director of Youth Development for the NHL/USA Hockey Diversity Task Force, a non-profit program for minority youth that encourages them to learn and play hockey. As of the mid-2000s, O'Ree lives in Berkeley, California.
An interesting parallel with Jackie Robinson's barrier breaking career, beyond the racial issues, was the fact that both of them were playing for their teams' respective minor league affialiates in Quebec, Canada before they were called up to play in with their major league teams, Willie O'Ree with the Quebec Aces and Jackie Robinson with the Montreal Royals:
In 1946, the Dodgers assigned Jackie Robinson to the Montreal Royals. Jackie proceeded to lead the International League in batting average with a .349 average, and fielding percentage with a .985 percentage. That winter he also married Rachel Isum, his former UCLA classmate. Although the season was emotionally arduous for Robinson with the racist abuse he faced during the team's away games, he also deeply appreciated the enthusiastic support by the Montreal fans who followed his performance with intense interest. Because of Jackie's play in 1946, the Dodgers called him up to play for the major league club in 1947. Robinson made his Major League debut on April 15, 1947, playing first base when he went 0 for 3 against the Boston Braves.
Anyways... A tip of the hat to Willie O'Ree. For what he did 50 years ago, and for the work he still does as the NHL's ambassador for diversification with today's youth.

[update] An interview with Willie O'Ree:
In this interview with Mr. Steve Murphy of CTV News in Halifax on August 23, 2007 Mr. O'Ree discusses his childhood in Fredericton, NB, his NHL career, racism, Jackie Robinson and gives his opinion on hockey today.

[update deux] Welcome to BuzzFlash readers, and an interesting side note for Rangers fans. Willie O'Ree was the first black player to play in the NHL, but in 1950 the New York Rangers signed the first black player, Art Dorrington, to an NHL contract, though he did not make it to the NHL level.

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