Question of the Month
Hockey Pioneer Willie O'Ree
Q: You hear so much, at least in February, about Jackie Robinson. Why don’t you hear anything about Willie O’Ree, the first African American to play professional hockey?
-- Stephan Lockweed - Boston, Massachusetts
A: O’Ree was born in 1935 and grew up in Fredericton, New Brunswick, a Canadian province just north of Maine, thus he was an African Canadian, not an African American. As a very young child, probably around 3 years of age, he began ice skating and, by the age of five, he was playing in a local hockey league. While in high school he played on what was then a “junior” team, comparable today to playing college hockey in the United States.
Despite being an outstanding junior league player, O'Ree's journey to the National Hockey League (NHL) got a lot more difficult during the 1955/1956 hockey season when, while playing for the Kitchener-Waterloo Canucks, he was struck with a puck in his face. The injury cost him 95 percent of the vision in his right eye. Doctors advised him to retire, but eight weeks after the injury, he was playing hockey. Because of the injury, O’Ree had to switch positions. In his words, "Being a left wing, my right eye was closest to the puck. When I came back, I would lose sight of the puck, and I was getting body checked much more. So I switched to the right side. I had to take most of the passes on my backhand, but it didn't bother me. At least I had vision of the rink."
During the 1956/57 season O’Ree signed with the Quebec Aces, a minor league team affiliated with the Boston Bruins. The Aces won their league championship that year. O’Ree was invited to the Bruins training camp and, though he was not added to the team’s roster, he impressed the coaches. Later that winter, the Bruins were hit with a rash of injuries. O’Ree was called up on January 18, 1958, thereby becoming the first Black player in the NHL. He was warmly greeted by the home fans. That year he played two games with the Bruins before being reassigned to the Aces. In 1961, after two more years in the minors, O'Ree had a longer stay with the Bruins. His statistics were pedestrian; in 43 games he scored 4 goals and had 10 assists.
At the end of the season, O’Ree was traded to the Montreal Canadians who assigned him to Hull-Ottawa, their minor league affiliate. Two months later, the Canadians traded him to the Los Angeles Blades of the Western Hockey League. He knew that his chances of returning to the NHL were slim, but he did not want to give up hockey, so he spent the remainder of his career “toiling” in the minor leagues. O’Ree played the next six seasons for Los Angeles and won the league goal scoring title in 1964 with 38 goals. In 1968, the Blades folded and O’Ree’s contract was purchased by the San Diego Gulls. These were, in some ways, O’Ree’s best days as a professional hockey player; the San Diego fans adored him and he excelled on the ice, winning the WHL goal scoring title 1969 with 39 goals. The Western Hockey League folded in 1974, and Willie briefly retired. In 1978, at the age of 43, he played with the San Diego Hawks of the fledgling Pacific Hockey League; remarkably, he scored 50 goals that season.
A decade before O’Ree took the ice for the Boston Bruins, Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s (MLB) color line becoming the first Black major leaguer since the Walker brothers, Fleet and Welday, who played in the American Association in the 1880s. For six decades, Black ball players were denied the opportunity to play with the New York Yankees, Detroit Tigers, St. Louis Browns, Boston Braves, and other all-white MLB teams. Black players were confined to the “Negro Leagues,” and included such greats as Cool Papa Bell (Homestead Grays), Perucho Cepeda (New York Cubans), and Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe (New York Black Yankees). Robinson’s entry into MLB attacked the legitimacy of all Jim Crow policies, agreements, and laws.
As we know, Robinson was a star player, with accomplishments including: National League Rookie of the Year (1947); National League Most Valuable Player (1949); member of the National League All-Star Team (1949-54); and MLB Hall of Fame inductee (1962). Robinson’s brilliant career meant that Blacks could excel in America’s pastime, its dreamland, and his success meant that Jim Crow laws, customs, and etiquette would one day be relics of the nation’s past. O’Ree was a talented hockey player, but his NHL career never approached the accomplishments of Robinson’s MLB career.
When O’Ree joined the Bruins, it was viewed by most observers as a passing oddity, not a major, crippling blow to Jim Crow, with most newspapers in the United States mentioning it barely, if at all. In part, this reflected the relative unpopularity of hockey in the United States, where many considered hockey little more than a “niche” sport. Is it an important historical event if no one notices? O’Ree stated, “"I was expecting a little more publicity. The press handled it like it was just another piece of everyday news. I didn't care that much about publicity for myself, but it could have been important for other blacks with ambitions in hockey. It would have shown that a black could make it."
The lack of publicity, especially negative media hype, is not meant to imply that O’Ree was well-received by hockey fans and opposing players. Most of the Boston fans were friendly, but elsewhere he was jeered with racial slurs. Like Robinson, O’Ree was the subject of racial taunts by fans and cheap shots by opposing players. Unlike Robinson, who was told by team ownership to never retaliate, O’Ree fought back. "Guys would take cheap shots at me, just to see if I would retaliate," he said. "They thought I didn't belong there. When I got the chance, I'd run right back at them. I was prepared for it because I knew it would happen. I wasn't a great slugger, but I did my share of fighting. I was determined that I wasn't going to be run out of the rink." In one infamous incident he had a stick fight with Chicago Blackhawk players that left the ice red with blood. And, there were games where the opposing fans tried to pull him into the stands to beat him.
Before his death, Jackie Robinson became an ardent civil rights activist. Indeed, Robinson’s work with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Student Emergency Fund are important to his legacy. He was a strong-willed activist who moved comfortably in circles populated with powerful and influential people including Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Nelson Rockefeller, and John F. Kennedy.
O’Ree has been a quiet force for change. He has focused much of his attention on diversifying hockey, traveling thousands of miles across Canada and the United States to establish 39 local grassroots hockey programs, all geared towards serving poor youth, including boys of color. On January 17, 1998, during ceremonies before its All-Star game, the NHL honored O'Ree for his pioneering efforts and named him the Director of Youth Hockey Development for the NHL/USA Hockey diversity task force. The honor was fitting, but the task assigned to him is difficult. Hockey, at every level, remains one of the most racially exclusive sports in North America. And so, O’Ree will once again be a pioneer.
October 2009 response by David Pilgrim, Curator, Jim Crow Museum