GLENDALE, Ariz. — Willie O’Ree woke up in a hospital bed in 1956 with a broken nose, a broken cheek and a shattered retina. The slap shot he had turned to locate proved easy to find when it deflected off a stick and into his unshielded right eye.
“The doctor told me I was going to be blind in the eye and I’d never play hockey again,” said O’Ree, part of an era when players didn’t wear helmets. “I was a 19-year-old kid, so he might as well have told me I was going to die. I slumped back in my hospital bed thinking all the goals and dreams I had set for myself were gone.”
It took O’Ree about three weeks to determine the doctor was wrong. Not because the eye healed; it didn’t. O’Ree, now 77, wears a prosthesis in that socket after having the eye removed to alleviate severe migraines. The doctor was wrong because he didn’t know O’Ree. He didn’t understand the determination that defined O’Ree’s family.
It led his grandparents to flee slavery in the South, via the underground railroad, for opportunity in Fredericton, New Brunswick. It led his parents to make a better life for their 13 children in that same community. And it led O’Ree to conceal his injury when the Boston Bruins invited him to training camp and eventually called him up to the club in 1958 for a pair of games against the eventual Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens, making him the first black player ever to lace up skates in the National Hockey League.
That moment was met with curiosity in Canada but widespread disgust in the United States, where racism was still the norm 11 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier by debuting for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
“In Montreal and Toronto it wasn’t a big deal, and Boston was OK because I was playing for the Bruins, and the players were terrific — they accepted me from day one,” O’Ree said. “But especially in Chicago and Detroit, I ran into players and fans that made racial slurs and remarks. I heard the N-word so much I thought they were complimenting me.”
During one minor league stint with the New Haven Nighthawks, O’Ree took the ice in Tidewater, Va., and the fans promptly tossed a black cat and cotton balls on the ice.
O’Ree took part in more than his share of fights in his brief NHL career, “but I never fought because someone used a racial slur. I fought if somebody speared me or butt-ended me or cross-checked me, because I knew if I didn’t take a stand, they’d keep doing it,” he said. “They were testing me to see what I was made of.”
O’Ree played just two games for the Bruins in ’58 but returned in 1961, when he played 43 games, scoring four goals and adding 10 assists in his only other NHL season. He spent the rest of his time in the minor leagues, playing mostly for the Los Angeles Blades and San Diego Gulls, where he regularly made trips to Phoenix to face the Roadrunners in the old Western Hockey League.
It was there that O’Ree, a left-handed shot, shifted to the off (right) wing and won a pair of scoring titles while topping 30 goals four times due to his trademark speed and a simple reality of his vision.
“When I played left wing, I had to turn my head all the way to the right to see the puck because of my right eye,” he said. “But once I switched to the right wing, that eye was facing the boards and I didn’t have to work so hard to see the ice.”
After retiring in 1979, O’Ree worked first with the NHL’s marketing arm and now serves as an ambassador for the NHL’s diversity program, Hockey is for Everyone, which means he’s on the road frequently, promoting the game, introducing kids to it, signing autographs and making appearances.
On President’s Day — and during what is also Black History Month — O’Ree, a La Mesa, Calif., resident, attended his first game at Jobing.com Arena to watch the Coyotes defeat the Calgary Flames 4-0. The appearance happened by coincidence. He has friends with a time share in nearby Peoria who invited him down. It was only later that he realized Calgary and black forward Jarome Iginila were also in town, affording O’Ree another opportunity to meet with Iginla in the Flames’ locker room afterward.
“I didn’t have a lot of racial issues coming up — I could probably count them on both hands,” said Iginla, one of 20 black players and 41 minority players in the NHL today. “But I know he went through a much tougher time, a lot of challenges I couldn’t even imagine, to make it easier for guys like me. Growing up, it meant a lot for me to see other black players in the NHL. It let me know that the dream was possible.”
O’Ree doesn’t give much thought to his place in history, the prejudice he had to overcome to achieve his goals or the trailblazing he did for minority players who came after him, such as the Coyotes’ Raffi Torres, who came away from the duo’s first meeting impressed with O’Ree’s humility and toughness.
“I learned from a young age that names won’t hurt you unless you let them. I knew if people couldn’t accept me for the individual I was then that was their problem, not mine,” O’Ree said. “I’ve always loved this game. I skated to school every morning down the roadway when I was a kid. It’s like my dad told me a long time ago: ‘Find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.'”