It’s been 42 years since he broke the color barrier in hockey!
Willie O’Ree is a Canadian hockey player who eventually made history as the first Black Hockey player in the National Hockey League (NHL), Encyclopedia Britannica reports. Making significant strides to both American and Canadian sports, O’Ree has received his fair share of accolades over the years and is considered the Jackie Robinson of hockey. In honor of the anniversary of his historic accomplishment, here are 6 important things you should know about Willie O’Ree, the first Black hockey player:
He began playing hockey when he was just 3-years-old.
Born William O’Ree on October 15, 1935, the future famed hockey player grew up in Fredericton, New Brunswick, a province in Canada. He was the youngest of 13 children, his grandparents having escaped slavery in the U.S. through the Underground Railroad and settling in Canada. The son of Rosebud and Harry, a civil engineer who worked in road maintenance, O’Ree found his knack for hockey at an early age. He began playing at just 3 years old, getting into organized hockey by the time he was five and even skating to school when the weather allowed.
O’Ree was blind in one eye.
He continued playing in amateur leagues as a team with the New Brunswick Amateur Hockey Association, progressing quickly through the ranks before moving to Quebec at the age of 19 to play with the Quebec Junior Hockey League. During the 1954-56 season, O’Ree was playing a game with the Kitchener Canucks of the Ontario Hockey Association when a puck broke his nose and cheekbone, causing him to lose 95 percent of the vision in his right eye. While a doctor advised him to stop playing hockey, O’Ree ignored him, returning to the game within two months and never telling anyone about his blindness, since NHL bylaws would’ve ruled him ineligible for play.
He became the first Black hockey player in the NHL.
After playing one year in Ontario, O’Ree returned to Quebec where he suited up for the Quebec Aces during the 1956-1957 season, racking up 22 goals and 12 assists for a total of 34 points. The Aces were known for promoting integration, and during the 1957-1958 season, the organization formed a partnership with the NHL’s Boston Bruins, meaning that Aces players could be called up to play for the Bruins at any time. On January 18, 1958, O’Ree got the call and made history as the first Black hockey player to play a game in the National Hockey League, the Bruins beating the Montreal Canadiens 3-0 in that game.
O’Ree played nearly 30 years of professional hockey.
While O’Ree’s historic debut didn’t create any buzz, possibly because many in Montreal were already familiar with O’Ree as a player, he continued to make waves as a pioneer of the game. On January 1, 1961, O’Ree became the first Black player to score a goal in the NHL, and after his time in Boston, he played 14 more years of professional hockey across Canadian and American leagues.
He also became the NHL’s first diversity ambassador.
O’Ree retired in 1979, eventually becoming the NHL’s Director of Youth Development and first diversity ambassador in 1998. While O’Ree experienced racism and discrimination, he was adamant that the majority of it occurred during his time in the United States, not in Canada. As an ambassador, he championed diversity and inclusion, launching 39 hockey programs and teaching more than 120,000 children to play the game.
Kim Davis, NHL Senior Executive VP of Social Impact, Growth Initiatives, and Legislative Affairs, who partnered with O’Ree on a number of DEI initiatives for younger generations in the century-old organization, previously spoke about the importance of his contributions.
“Willie O’ Ree has been committed to hockey for decades, and his impressive list of accolades and achievements is reflective of his dedication to inspire young people across America,” said Davis.
Willie O’Ree received a Congressional Gold Medal for his contributions.
In 2003, O’Ree received the Lester Patrick Trophy for outstanding service to the game of hockey in the U.S. In 2010, he received the Order of Canada for his work in youth development and promoting hockey across North America. In 1984, he was inducted into the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame, earning the Order of New Brunswick in 2005, and in 2018, he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. In 2019, a documentary was released about O’Ree’s life and in 2021, the Bruins honored him by retiring his jersey, making him only the 12th person in the history of the organization to receive the honor. That same year, a Senate bill was introduced to honor O’Ree with a Congressional Gold Medal, the measure passing at the top of 2022, CNN reports.
Thank you for your sacrifice and immense contributions Mr. O’Ree. Because of you, we can!
6 important things you should know about Willie O’Ree, the first Black hockey player. Photo Courtesy of Brian Babineau/NHLI/Getty Images