BOSTON – When Willie O’Ree first took the ice at the famed Forum, the first black player in NHL history was prepared for anything, except for the lack of fanfare.
“When I steeped on the ice at the Montreal Forum on January 18th, 1958 and became the first black player in the NHL, I was thrilled,” O’Ree said. “And there was no big deal made about my recognition as far as breaking the color barrier. I was just so happy to be a part of the Bruin organization and to be at that game when we beat the Canadiens 3-0.”
The NHL honored the 50th anniversary of O’Ree breaking the league’s color barrier on Saturday with the unveiling of a permanent display at the Sports Museum of New England. O’Ree also dropped the ceremonial first puck for the day’s Bruins-Rangers tilt and was featured in an on-ice ceremony with Bruins legend Johnny Bucyk and NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly.
“I’m kind of at a loss for words and I shouldn’t be because of all the speaking engagements I’ve attended over the years,” O’Ree said. “I just feel so blessed that I’m here and a part of the celebration. I can’t tell you how I feel inside. There are no words I can say.”
Richard Johnson, curator for the Sports Museum of New England, placed O’Ree’s accomplishment in high regard, both locally and through the history of sport.
“On the Bruins all-time roster his name falls between that of Terry O’Reilly and Bobby Orr,” Johnson said. “More importantly though, on the roster of athletes from all-time, I feel his name falls between Arthur Ashe and Jackie Robinson.”
“It’s a privilege for us to be here. To be able to honor him in his hockey home of Boston 50 years later.”
As the famed story goes, O’Ree was called up halfway through his second season with the Quebec Aces. At the time, he told The Hockey News that he was “the most surprised guy in the world” to get the nod and that there were others the Bruins could have called up instead. Once the initial shock subsided, O’Ree understood the significance of what was about to take place, but knew he had to keep his focus on the ice to be successful.
“Lynn Patrick was the General Manager at that time and Milt Schmidt was the coach, took me aside and they said, “Willie, you know you’re going to be the first of your race to break the color barrier.” They said the Bruins organization is behind you 100 percent and it’s going to be a big night for you and don’t worry about anything else and play hockey. And that’s just what I tried to do.
And he did just that, for two games anyway, before being sent back to the Minor Leagues. O’Ree made it back up with the big club in 1961, playing 43 games, scoring four goals and picking up ten assists that season. He was traded the following summer to the same team he made his historic debut against, the Canadiens, for Cliff Pennington and Terry Gray.
In talent-laden Montreal, O’Ree was stuck on the outside looking in. Just 12 games into the season, his contract was sold to the Los Angeles Blades of the Western Hockey League. Despite having great success in the WHL, including two scoring titles and four 30 goal seasons, it was too late for O’Ree by the time the NHL expanded by six teams in 1967. By then, most in the league knew he was legally blind in one eye, an injury he suffered 11 years earlier while with the Kitchener-Waterloo Canucks, and couldn’t pass the league’s vision test.
It was a dozen years before another black player, Mike Marson, took the ice in an NHL uniform.
O’Ree hasn’t let his vision or his age catch up to his day to day activities. As Director of Youth Development for the NHL’s Diversity Program, he has introduced over 40,000 kids to the sport of hockey, most of them coming from low and middle income backgrounds.
“To play hockey you need to get on the ice,” O’Ree said. “You need to develop your skills and if you talk with all of the black and minority players that are playing in the league. They have access to ice where they can improve in their skills.”
“I think the programs that I’m involved with now, it’s giving these kids the opportunity to play a sport where they haven’t had the opportunity to play before.
And those programs are working, not just in numbers but in building the next generation of talent. O’Ree takes great pride in his overwhelming success rate.
“I have not had one boy or girl come up to me on the ice and say ‘Mr. O’Ree, I don’t like this. I’m not coming back.’ So it just goes to show you that these kids have now been exposed to a sport they’ve never been exposed before and they like it.”