Los Angeles Kings Commend Willie O’Ree on MLK Day

The Los Angeles Kings had Willie O’Ree drop the puck before their Martin Luther King, Jr. Day game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, and the historical significance of the moment was unmistakable.

O’Ree became the first black player in NHL history back in 1958 when he laced up his skates for the Boston Bruins.

There is definitely some stark irony to that milestone. The Boston Red Sox were actually the last MLB team to field a black player after the color barrier was broken in their sport. Pumpsie Green first made an appearance on the Red Sox in 1959, 12 years after Jackie Robinson’s famous debut.

The same city that welcomed the first black player in hockey was the last holdover to segregation in another sport.

It’s important to note that while O’Ree was the first black player in the NHL, he did not officially break the league’s color barrier. Larry Kwong was of Chinese ancestry and played 1 game for the New York Rangers in 1948.

Nobody can deny that O’Ree has had a powerful impact on not just sports, but the civil rights movement in general. It’s puzzling that he never became a humanitarian icon of the same magnitude that Jackie Robinson did, though.

I remember being in 1st or 2nd grade and having my teacher read us a book about Robinson, yet it wasn’t until embarrassingly recently (maybe 3 or 4 years ago) that I learned who O’Ree was.

There could be a lot of different reasons for this. I’ve lived in Northern California for my entire life, and hockey doesn’t have as deep of roots out here as other parts of North America.

I’m assuming that in geographic regions where the culture is thoroughly engulfed in hockey, O’Ree is a more celebrated figure.

O’Ree was also born in New Brunswick, so it’s entirely possible that there’s a nationalistic angle to this. The U.S. makes more of an effort to honor Robinson because not only was he an American, but he integrated America’s Pastime.

It sounds suspicious enough, at the risk of letting cynicism intrude, but the theory has some flaws. The most prominent is that the U.S. doesn’t do much to promote the story of Val James, who became the first American-born black man to play in the NHL when he joined the Buffalo Sabres during the 1981-1982 season. Interestingly, James was also the first NHL player born in Florida.

To be fair, the players who broke the color barriers in the NFL and NBA aren’t as well known as Robinson, either, and football and basketball are perhaps the two most popular American sports currently.

Earl Lloyd became the first black player in the NBA during the 1950-1951 season. The NFL had a handful of black players join the league in 1946, including Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, Bill Willis, and Marion Motley.

It also can’t be because baseball did it first, because football did it a year before Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers.

They say that sports is the purest meritocracy within our society. If you’re more talented than the person next to you, you’re going to play, regardless of socioeconomic background, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.

In an athletic context, it’s hard for the public to celebrate a pioneer if they aren’t accompanied by statistical greatness. Robinson happened to be a Hall of Fame player in his sport from a pure athletic perspective.

Juxtapose that fact with the careers of some of these other guys. Lloyd averaged 8.4 points per game during his NBA career. O’Ree scored 14 points in 45 career NHL games. Washington had 8 career touchdowns in the NFL. Strode played just one season in the NFL.

However, Willis and Motley were stars of the NFL, and both ended up being elected to the Hall of Fame. Even the legendary talent argument fails to completely explain the discrepancies within this issue.

It’s impossible to know for sure how these types of things happen, but what I do know is that the contributions of Willie O’Ree were invaluable to the civil rights movement.

I wish that he and other similar trailblazers were more well known, and that celebrations of Robinson could be expanded to include the other pioneers more often than they are.

It’s not about creating a hierarchy of praise amongst deserving recipients, but ensuring that younger generations aren’t ignorant of those who made immeasurable sacrifices to help make the world a better and more inclusive place.

Thank you Willie O’Ree for all you did to inspire hope in a better tomorrow. The impact you made is strongly felt, even if your name doesn’t generate the recognition it warrants.

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