I have to confess that I’d never heard of Willie O’Ree when I picked up the book, Willie : the game-changing story of the NHL’s first black player. I’m not really a major hockey fan—some Canadian, eh?–or even a big sports fan but I found the story of how O’Ree became the first black to play hockey in the NHL to be an interesting and very inspiring read. This guy really went after his dreams and kept going despite huge obstacles in his path.
Willie O’Ree was born in Fredericton, New Brunswick in 1935. Like many Canadian boys, he loved the game of hockey and found that he had a great natural talent for it. After working his way up through the ranks, O’Ree was signed by the Boston Bruins in 1958 as a winger and played for them for a couple of seasons.
All along the way he encountered racism. His hockey teammates were invariably friendly and welcoming, but players on the other teams and the fans were an entirely different matter. He was the target of a lot of racist words and actions. In the book O’Ree talks about it in a fairly understated way. Basically, yeah, it bothered him to some extent, but, no, it wasn’t going to deter him from pursuing his dreams.
An additional obstacle—and there is a local angle here—is that he suffered a potentially career-ending injury while playing a season for the Kitchener Canucks. He got hit with a puck in his right eye, permanently losing all vision in it. His way of dealing with it? One, he wouldn’t tell anyone (the loss of vision would have ended his career) and two, he would learn how to play pro-level hockey with only one good eye. Now that’s epic dedication and determination! (with maybe a side of foolhardiness.)
Here is what I like best about “first” stories. The first black hockey player or first female vice-president or first whatever, they literally are trailblazers. They prepare the path for the people who come along afterwards by being a role model and source of inspiration for them. But that first person, whether it’s Willie O’Ree or Kamala Harris, they really need to be someone special. They need an extra measure of talent and determination to be the first one to break through that barrier.
BTW, Willie O’Ree is now 85 years old. He has received the Order of Canada, been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame and continues to work as a diversity ambassador for the NHL.
— Penny D.
Postscript: This just out! The Boston Bruins have announced they are retiring Willie O’Ree’s No. 22 hockey jersey. A ceremony will take place February 18th when the Bruins play the New Jersey Devils.