Willie O’Ree was born in Fredericton, New Brunswick. Like many Canadians, he played hockey with his friends as a young boy. While playing professional hockey is something most kids only dream of, it would become reality for Willie.
He would even go on to become one of the most influential figures in hockey history.
A Brief History Of Willie O’Ree
Willie’s grandparents came to Canada by way of the Underground Railway to escape slavery in the US. Growing up in Fredricton, Willie was the youngest of 13 children and one of two black families in the town.
Willie started playing hockey at 3 years old. He regularly played on his family’s backyard rink and at school. In an autobiography, Willie shared, “The fact that I was black never came up when we played as kids. You could have been purple with a green stripe down the middle of your forehead, and it wouldn’t have mattered. It was only later, when I became older, that I learned what ‘colour barrier’ meant.”
By the time he was 15, he was playing on the New Brunswick Amateur Hockey Association for the Fredricton Falcons. He progressed to the Fredricton Merchants in the York County Hockey League and then to the Fredricton Capitals on the New Brunswick Senior Hockey League.
By 19, Willie moved to Quebec. Here he played with the Quebec Frontenacs before moving to the Kitchener Canucks with the Ontario Hockey Association. After being hit in the face with a puck, he lost 95% of the vision in his right eye. While he was told to stop playing, he kept the injury to himself and got back on the rink. If anybody found out, he would not be eligible to play with the NHL.
Playing For The NHL
While playing for the Quebec Aces during their 1957-58 season, Willie was called up to play with the Boston Bruins. On January 18, 1958 he made history when he hit the ice as the NHL’s first Black hockey player. He played only one more game with the Bruins that season, then, during the 1960-61 season, he returned to the team. On new years day, 1961, Willie was the first Black player to score in the NHL.
Following his time with the NHL, Willie played on the Eastern Professional Hockey League, the Western Hockey League, the American Hockey League, and the Pacific Coast League.
During his time on the ice, Willie faced racism and prejudice, both from the stands and from opposing players. At one AHL game, fans even tossed cotton balls and a black cat on the ice. Still, his success grew.
In 1998, Willie became the NHL’s Director of Youth Development and an ambassador for the NHL Diversity Program. In 2003, he received the Lester Patrick Trophy for his service to hockey in the US, and in 2010 he received the Order of Canad for his service to youth development and the promotion of hockey in North America.
Willie has also been inducted into the New Brunswick and Canada Sports Hall of Fames, as well as the Hockey Hall of Fame (HHOF). As of his HHOF induction, he was only the 3rd Black player to receive the honour.
Willie O’Ree’s story is an inspiring one. His talent and determination to play in the NHL in the face of racism has left an indelible mark on the sport and the world. Willie O’Ree will go down in history as a pioneer and a trailblazer for generations of hockey players to come.
Featured Image – Title: Willie O’ReeBostonRed Wingstrainer LenJohnyFletcher1961. Author: MJCdetroit. Source: Wikimedia; image resized and cropped