Willie O'Ree broke the ice in more ways than one
FEB 28, 2014 12:00p ET
”Shut ‘em right out,” he told CTV News in 2007. “That was the big write-up in the paper.”
That was in 1958, but it wasn’t until 1961, on O’Ree’s second call-up to the NHL that the media seemed to realize the significance of his career. They started calling him the “Jackie Robinson of hockey,” and suddenly his race was a big deal.
It had not felt that way to a young O’Ree, who had grown up in an almost entirely white town in Canada. He said he never experienced any real racial issues there. He was just a little Canadian kid playing hockey like Canadian kids do, the only difference being that, thanks in large part to some toughening-up at the hands of his older brother, he was exceptionally good at it.
As a youngster he met Robinson, and they talked about baseball for a while until O’Ree told him he played hockey too.
He says, ‘Oh, there are black kids playing hockey?” O’Ree told CTV. “I says, ‘Oh yes, there are.’”
O’Ree’s biggest barrier turned out not to be his skin, but his eyes, specifically his right one, which had lost 95 percent of its vision after getting hit with a puck early in O’Ree’s minor league career. He knew if anyone in hockey found out about that, his career was automatically over, so he kept it a secret.
Once he entered the NHL, though, and began playing on the road, he began to understand the significance of his participation. Fans in American cities, he told NHL.com, would yell for him to “go back to the South” and ask why he wasn’t picking cotton. It was worse in the states as opposed to Canada, he said.
O’Ree’s stay in the NHL was brief. He scored four goals and had 10 assists in 1961, figures that stand as his career totals. He played in 43 games that season.
It would be 13 years before another black player, Mike Marson, joined the NHL. O’Ree was inducted into the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame in 1984, and the Sports Museum of New England exhibits a special display in his honor.
In 2010, Canada presented him with the Order of Canada, the highest honor available to a Canadian civilian.