O’Ree broke NHL’s color barrier 60 years ago
Willie O’Ree is so unassuming and approachable that most would never know he is a living and breathing significant part of hockey history.
O’Ree, now 82, made his NHL debut 60 years ago, on Jan. 18, 1958, with the Boston Bruins against the Montreal Canadiens at the Montreal Forum. In so doing, he became the first black player to skate in an NHL game.
O’Ree was honored before the game Wednesday, Jan. 17, between the Bruins and Canadiens at the TD Garden in Boston. The Bruins won, 4-1.
I was fortunate to spend a lot of time with hockey’s version of Jackie Robinson back in the late 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s. Back then I covered Youth hockey events with racially diverse participants such as Hockey in the Hood, which was an annual event held at Jack Adams Arena in northwest Detroit and at Clark Park, the outdoor rink on the city’s southwest side and at other venues.
O’Ree was a regular at such events, working for the NHL’s Diversity Program, a position he still holds. He is also the league’s director of youth development.
O’Ree talked about what it was like to be the league’s first black player in 1958. As a black hockey writer, I found it to be an unforgettable experience to be hanging out with the NHL’s first black player, watching kids of all hues play hockey. It was a different scene when I was a black Midget player skating in the arenas and on the rinks of suburban Detroit in the 1970s. It was not always a comfortable experience.
O’Ree loved talking to and interacting with the kids he met on Detroit rinks, and they loved listening and talking to him.
He is still talking to young players and they are still listening.
Recently he spoke to a group of players – black and white, boys and girls – from Boston and Philadelphia at Ulin Memorial Rink in Milton, Mass. And he told them what it was like to be a pioneer in the NHL’s “Original Six” era.
When O’Ree made his NHL debut, he had played in the Montreal Forum before.
“I had played against the Montreal Canadiens in exhibition games. They played in the Forum,” O’Ree told NHL.com. “I had played against the Montreal Junior Canadiens in the Forum. I played against the pro team in Montreal, the Montreal Royals, in the Forum.”
But the game on Jan. 18, 1958, was different.
“Now I’m skating on the ice with the Boston Bruins and playing in a National Hockey League game in the Montreal Forum, and it was great,” he said. “It was a big thrill for me, and I’ll never forget it. It was like it happened yesterday.”
The Bruins had called him up from the minors for a pair of games against the Canadiens.
“I took the train up to Montreal, met the team, met Milt Schmidt, the coach, and we sat down,” O’Ree told NHL.com. “He said, ‘Willie, we brought you up because you could add a little something to the team.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry about anything else. The Bruins organization is behind you 100 percent. Just go out and play your game.’ ”
Boston won that night, 3-0.
O’Ree, a native of Fredericton, New Brunswick, said he didn’t realize he had broken the league’s color barrier until reading about it in the paper the next day.
O’Ree said the other Bruins players welcomed and looked out for him.
“It was just like a family-type thing,” he said. “On the road, they would watch my back because there were certain players on the opposition that didn’t like me because of my color. But I just went out and played hockey and tried to represent the hockey club the best I could.”
He played a second game in Boston against Montreal – which the Canadiens won – and the Bruins returned him to the Quebec Aces. O’Ree was back with Boston in 1960-61 when he had four goals and 14 points in 43 games.
O’Ree’s professional career lasted 21 seasons.
Since O’Ree’s history-making game 60 years ago, 85 black players have skated in the NHL, including Hall of Famer Grant Fuhr and recently retired superstar Jarome Iginla.
This season, 24 blacks have played in the, including star defenseman P.K. Subban of the Nashville Predators, winger Wayne Simmonds of the Philadelphia Flyers and defenseman Seth Jones of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“I wouldn’t be in the NHL if it wasn’t for Willie, Mr. O’Ree here,” said Subban in a segment that aired on ESPN in February 2015, which featured him and O’Ree being interviewed by the late John Saunders. “... It makes it easy for me to go out and do my job every day, what Willie and Jackie Robinson had to go through. A bad day at the office is nothing for me.”
Subban, 28, and O’Ree have forged a special relationship over the years, first meeting when Subban was very young.
“I’m lucky to have a personal relationship with Willie,” Subban told NHL.com. “Whenever we meet, I’ll always spend time with him to catch up and reminisce. He’s so astute, so smart, and he’s very tuned in.”
SCORE Boston, a nonprofit aimed at helping inner-city kids get into hockey,