For years, he was merely the answer to a trivia question: “Who was the first black player in the National Hockey League?” The answer: Willie Eldon O’Ree of the Boston Bruins. Now—at long last—Willie O’Ree is going to be enshrined in the NHL Hall of Fame.
For the 82-year-old O’Ree, this honor was both long overdue and could not have come soon enough. O’Ree made history when he took the ice over 60 years ago. It was January 18, 1958—his Bruins playing against the Montreal Canadiens—as the NHL became the last of the four major sports leagues to integrate. The career of Willie O’Ree was not nearly Hall of Fame caliber on its own merits. In only 45 career games, O’Ree scored just four goals and had 10 assists for 14 points. But what he withstood in order to make it to the NHL tells the a story of a Hall of Fame trail that was blazed against towering odds. These odds had more to do with the New Brunswick, Canada, native’s attempts to navigate the minor-league hockey towns in the United States rather than in his home country. As O’Ree said to NHL.com, dealing with racism was a daily reality, but was “”much worse in the U.S. cities than in Toronto and Montreal. 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 addition to facing down racists and excelling on the ice, O’Ree was blind in one eye.
I spoke with Dave Kaufman, a Montreal-based talk show host and journalist about what O’Ree must have endured. He said to me, “Can you imagine what that guy faced playing in small towns and small-minded big towns when he was coming up? Much like with [Major League Baseball trailblazers] Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby in baseball, O’Ree paved the way for guys like [black NHL players] Wayne Simmonds, J.T. Brown, and my favorite player, PK Subban. His election to the Hall is long overdue.”
The immensity of O’Ree’s accomplishment can be seen in the fact that his taking the ice did not break open the dam that was stifling opportunity for black hockey players. There would not be another black player in the NHL until 1974. He blazed a trail and it literally took another generation before anyone was allowed to follow in his footsteps. It is for reasons such as this that in 2008, O’Ree—who, again, was blind in one eye!—received the Order of Canada, the highest civilian award for a Canadian citizen.
His impact has been incalculable. As Greg Wyshynski, senior NHL writer for ESPN.com, e-mailed to me, “Wayne Simmonds of the Philadelphia Flyers said it best: ‘I used to think about Willie’s story whenever teachers or hockey parents or coaches would laugh at my dream of making it to the NHL.’ Because as fleeting as his 45 NHL games were for the Boston Bruins, they happened. He happened. A black man from New Brunswick shared a dressing room with Hall of Famers John Bucyk and Leo Boivin, and could call Gordie Howe, Jean Beliveau, and ‘Rocket’ Richard contemporaries.
“And while his tenure in the league was minuscule for a 100-year-old organization, its impact was formidable: Every young athlete of color with a desire to play could say Willie did it. And when the journey would take them through the toxicity of racism and classism—the bastards upgraded the cotton balls they threw at O’Ree in the 1950s to banana peels tossed at Simmonds in 2011—they could say that Willie endured it.”
It’s not just O’Ree’s contribution as a trailblazer that has led him to be enshrined as just the third black person to make the Hockey Hall of Fame. It’s his decades of work to open up the sport to black athletes. His time on the ice may have been brief, but O’Ree has also put in two decades as the NHL’s diversity ambassador. He has spearheaded the league’s Hockey is for Everyone program, which has aimed to further diversity goals in the sport.
“It was just a wonderful feeling,” O’Ree said on ESPN’s The Undefeated. “This year has been so wonderful. First of all, my 60th anniversary in Boston with [NHL] Commissioner Gary Bettman and [Boston] Mayor Marty Walsh and they had an event in my honor. And then they came up with this new award—the Willie O’Ree Community Service Award—that this is the first year and I presented that in Las Vegas at the [NHL] Awards. And then now getting the news that I’m being inducted into the Hall of Fame is just absolutely wonderful. There’s just so many good things that have happened this year that I’m just thrilled.”
Also thrilled are today’s generation of black NHL players, now more than 30, skating and starring in a league that was transformed by the legendary Willie O’Ree.
Or as Wyshiniski wrote, “I think about this as we’re seeing trans players navigate through participation in gender-specific leagues. I think about this as the NHL still waits for its first active openly gay player, that it’s not just about that moment of representation, as vital as it is. It’s the way the community of hockey supports it and embraces it, which is why Willie O’Ree remains a prominent part of the NHL’s efforts to grow the game, and the reason he’s now a Hall of Famer.”