Jackie Robinson is an icon. To be the first player to break the color boundaries in baseball must have taken the utmost courage. Robinson helped bust the door wide open for another critical player in sports history. Not in baseball, but hockey. Willie O’Ree or the “Jackie Robinson of hockey” paved the path in his sport. He’s blind in one eye and that wasn’t the only obstacle that he had to overcome. As impactful as Robinson was, the legacy O’Ree created shouldn’t be forgotten.
O’Ree Meets Jackie Robinson
Perhaps this story started when O’Ree was only 14 and playing baseball. After his team won the championship, their reward was a trip to New York, where O’Ree and Robinson would meet. The connection happened two years after Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball.
The team watched a Dodger game and met with the legend. O’Ree shook Robinson’s hand and told him he loved hockey. O’Ree recalled the meeting, “Then I said, ‘I’m a baseball player, but what I really love is hockey.’ He responded by saying with a smile, ‘Oh? I didn’t know black kids played hockey.’ I smiled back and said, ‘Yup!’” Little did he know he was on his way to following in Robinson’s footsteps.
The One-Eyed Miracle
Born in Fredericton, New Brunswick, O’Ree was on his second season in the Quebec Senior Hockey League the day he received the call. Robinson made history in baseball back in 1947, and eleven years later, the Boston Bruins called up O’Ree to do the same in hockey.
The only thing is, the Bruins didn’t know O’Ree was blind in one eye. They called him to replace an injured player and wouldn’t have done so if they knew he was impaired too. “I didn’t tell anyone that I couldn’t see,” said O’Ree. See how he was able to work around this issue.
Changing The Way He Plays
Only a few people knew about O’Ree’s partial blindness. Only his sister and another good friend knew about it. He didn’t tell his parents because he didn’t want them to worry. O’Ree was determined to play no matter what.
Due to his poor vision, he had to change his style of play. He struggled at first having to look over his opposite shoulder to pick up the puck, but then he came to a realization. “I finally said, ‘Willie, forget about what you can’t see. Concentrate on what you can see.’ Once I started doing that, my game began to pick up.” What happened with the Bruins?
Officially Breaking The Color Boundaries
A true show of his humility, O’Ree didn’t even know he was accomplishing something of epic proportions. “To me, I didn’t know I was breaking the color barrier until the next morning when I read it in the paper,” said O’Ree. On Jan. 18, 1958, O’Ree stepped on the ice and made history.
His first game was an away game, against the Montreal Canadiens. His team won that matchup and headed back to Boston to play them again. They lost the second matchup. O’Ree didn’t record a stat and those were the only two games he played for the Bruins that season. But those games changed his mentality for the better.
His Second Chance Came With Cheap Shots
Two years later, O’Ree made his return to the Bruins. This time around, O’Ree played in 43 games and added 14 points and ten assists. All the while he was dealing with discrimination.
O’Ree regularly took cheap shots and even with his one eye; he still looked out for them all. “I had to protect myself,” said O’Ree. “I knew there would be people coming after me.” What do you think happened next?
To Fight Or Not To Fight
O’Ree’s first stop in Chicago as a Bruin was indeed an eventful one. Eric Nesterenko on Chicago’s team taunted O’Ree on the ice. While O’Ree tried to shake it off and focus on the game, it was soon clear that wasn’t going to happen.
The two players collided, and at first, no fists were exchanged. That is until O’Ree was set off. “He just kept standing there and kind of laughed, that’s what set me off, his taunting,” O’Ree said. “So I just hit him right over the head with my stick, dropped my gloves, and it was on.”
Dealing With The Hecklers
When the Bruins would play in Boston, they would have to get dressed 12 feet below street level. As one would imagine, the heat was nearly unbearable, so the players would open up the windows leading to the street. This allowed those who walked by to look in and yell obscenities. O’Ree was often mocked.
While hockey fans and the sport itself requires some thick skin, O’Ree had it especially bad. His brother gave him sound advice on how to handle the negativity. “He’d told me, if I was going to choose hockey as a career, ‘Don’t worry, names will never hurt you unless you let them.’”
O’Ree Was Fast on the Ice
A league that previously hadn’t seen any player of his type wouldn’t call him up for no reason. O’Ree had to be useful in some form. Luckily, he had a skillset that the Bruins admired.
Head coach at the time Milt Schmidt says O’Ree was “one of the fastest skaters in the NHL.” The speedster could reach top speed after only four or five strides and charged the goal. This made him a formidable player.
Willie Leaves the Bruins
O’Ree seemed like he was making a charming impact on the Bruins. When the coach vouches for you, that can only mean good things. Coach Schmidt complimented O’Ree at the end of the season and indicated that O’Ree would return to the team.
“Willie’s got all the equipment a good professional needs and some splendid natural advantages… I hope he’ll be with us a long time,” Schmidt said. Unfortunately, O’Ree was traded six weeks later. What happened next for the pioneer?
Taking On The Minors
The 1960-61 season happened to be the last time O’Ree would play with a major team. He spent the rest of his career playing in the minors. Most of his time was spent playing in the Western Hockey League.
While in that league, he played with teams in San Diego and Los Angeles. O’Ree stopped skating in 1979 and now calls San Diego home. After making history, what is O’Ree up to now?
Things Have Changed
O’Ree was only the beginning. Since he stepped onto the ice as the first black player, others like him have had their shot on the rink. There have been two men of color named NHL ALL-Star MVP’s. The most recent being Wayne Simmonds who says, “you can’t help but admire what he did.”
O’Ree now understands the bigger impact he has left on the game. “I can see more [black] players coming in. A lot has changed, and that’s good. I was the first one, and 16 years later, Mike Marson was the first [black] player drafted.”
A Life Devoted To Hockey
O’Ree lives in San Diego where he gives back to his community. In 1998, O’Ree shifted his focus to being a director of youth development for the Hockey Diversity Task Force. He hasn’t stopped there; his devotion to hockey has elevated.
With all that he has gone through, the recognition is starting to pour in. The Los Angeles Kings recently honored him for his pioneering efforts. That’s nice of the Kings, but does O’Ree receive the same acknowledgment everywhere else?
The NHL Understands the Importance of O’Ree
Sometimes, great people don’t get recognized while they’re alive. This unfortunate truth won’t be the case for O’Ree. The NHL knows the impact O’Ree had on the sport and acknowledges his place in history.
“Willie O’Ree has devoted his life to our sport and our young people, to diversity and inclusion,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in a statement. “The life lessons he has taught have inspired thousands not only to play hockey but to incorporate our game’s values and ideals into their lives.”
A Place In The Hall Of Fame?
Out of all the honors and rewards O’Ree has gotten, there is one that would seal his legacy. In 1984, he was inducted into the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame. In 2008 he was honored in the city of Fredericton with a skating rink named “Willie O’Ree Place.”
Those are great, but what about the regular Hall of Fame? O’Ree understands why he’s not inducted but still thinks it would be nice to happen. “I didn’t play enough, and there are other guys who played longer and had distinguished careers,” he said. “It would be nice [to be in there], but you never know. It could change.”
O’Ree Gets In The Hall Of Fame
June 26, 2018, couldn’t have been a better day for O’Ree. He no longer has to hope that he will get inducted into the Hall of Fame because now it’s a reality. He’s achieved some of the greatest honors of the sport and made his mark on history.
Ever since O’Ree replaced that injured player on the Bruins in 1958, the trajectory of his life led him here. He may not have made that many plays on the ice, but he has moved the sport forward.
What He Means To Other Players Of Color
Things have changed since O’Ree first skated the rink. Threats aren’t as prevalent, and hockey players of color are welcome to play. A former black player who came up after O’Ree shared an interesting point.
“I can only imagine what he had to deal with,” said NBC hockey analyst Anson Carter. “He dealt with it, and he handled it with class. He gave players like myself hope and knowing that, if Willie can do it, I can certainly do it.” Hope was all Carter needed to play professional, and O’Ree gave him that.
O’Ree And Robinson Meet Once Again
Robinson and O’Ree briefly encountered each other one time when O’Ree was younger. That was in 1949, and their meeting in 1962 was a little different. This time, Robinson also knew who O’Ree was and respected his athletic career.
The setting was an NAACP luncheon. Robinson noticed O’Ree and put up a finger. O’Ree outlined the greeting as follows: “‘Willie O’Ree … aren’t you the young fella I met in Brooklyn?” O’Ree told the Globe. “That made a big impact. I mean, isn’t that something? When you think of the millions of people he met over the years.”
When you are going through a rough patch in your life, it’s always helpful to have positive support around you. For O’Ree, he had the pleasure of having 12 siblings. Of them, his older brother served as a mentor.
His older brother Richard was always there to give advice. One piece of information that stuck with O’Ree was this. “My older brother, my mentor, always told me, ‘Willie, you can’t change the color of your skin, and you wouldn’t even want to,’ ” O’Ree said.
Reflecting On The Team Vibe
Hopefully, the players on your team are supportive of you. Especially during a time when it feels like it’s you against the world. For O’Ree, his teammates had his back during his time with the Bruins. He was not dealing with the heat alone.
O’Ree describes the relationship between his past teammates as one with family elements. “Just like family,” said O’Ree, “They kind of took me under their wing, and I really fell in love with not only the team, but the whole Bruins organization.”
The Press OverLooks The Moment
For a league that doesn’t have much adversity today and even less in the past, the NHL didn’t promote their first black player that much. They could have brought in more attention to their sport but failed to capitalize when O’Ree made his debut.
“I was expecting a little more publicity,” O’Ree said. “The press handled it like it was just another piece of everyday news.” What was handled so poorly back then, would have been the talk of the town today.