Hockey’s Jackie Robinson
As the Boston Bruins affiliate, the Atlanta Gladiators have a very significant link to hockey history. As we honor black history month, we need to recognize Willie O’Ree. Although he didn’t play long in the NHL, he did have a long hockey career. More importantly, he was a pioneer with a big impact. Much like Jackie Robinson, he was the first black player at his sport’s highest level. Unlike Jackie though, who was told to have the courage not to fight back, in a sport like hockey he had no choice but to mix it up once he stepped on the ice. Hockey is just that way.
Willie Eldon O'Ree, currently 84 years old, was born on born October 15, 1935, in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada. Standing in at just 5’9” and 175 pounds, the left-handed winger had more to overcome than his size.
As a black hockey player, it was not as bad in Canada for him as it was once he arrived in the United States. "Fans would yell, (uncalled for racial slurs). It didn't bother me. I just wanted to be a hockey player, and if they couldn't accept that fact, that was their problem, not mine," said O’Ree.
Larry Kwong, who was of Asian descent, first broke the NHL's color barrier in 1948, a year after Jackie Robinson did it in baseball. However, it would not be until a decade later that O'Ree became the NHL’s first black player. Willie, who met Jackie twice when he was young, was inspired by Robinson and made his debut in 1958.
As a young player, Willie O’Ree was an accomplished minor league player, both before and after he broke the color barrier. At the age of 21 during the 1956-57 season, he played major juniors in the QHL and did well, scoring 22 goals.
The following year in the 1957-58 season Willie would make history. He would return to both the QHL and the Quebec Aces, where he spent most of the season, suiting up for 57 games. O’Ree then moved on to the AHL with the Springfield Indians and play in just six games before hockey would change forever. On January 18, 1958, O’Ree played in an NHL game for the Boston Bruins, in a 3-0 win over the Montreal Canadians and history was complete.
He would also suit up for the following game, but it would be the only two games he would play that season. Willie would not play again in the NHL until two years later when he finally scored for the first time in his NHL career. The goal on January 1, brought in the new year with a new feat. It made O’Ree the first black player to score a goal in an NHL game. In his return that year during the 1960-61 season, Willie played in 43 games and put up 14 points. O’Ree would finish the season with four goals and 10 assists.
Unfortunately, he would never return to the NHL, but still had a long pro career of almost two decades. After his historic feat, O'Ree spent 13 more years in the minors, mostly in the WHL. Willie won two scoring titles in the Western Hockey League and scored thirty or more goals four times, with a high of 38 twice. He even played 50 games for the AHL’s New Haven Nighthawks, in 1972–73. Most of his playing time though was with the WHL's Los Angeles Blades and San Diego Gulls. After playing through the 1973-74 season (at age 38) for the San Diego Gulls, where he spent the previous six seasons, he was done playing in San Diego, but not overall. O’Ree returned for the 1978-79 season and played one more year at age 43, for the San Diego Mariners in the PCL.
There was little mentioned about Willies feat at the time he became a hockey pioneer, and it would still take a long time before he was recognized even in the hockey community. Most still don’t realize he was the first black player in the NHL all these years later.
O'Ree was first honored where he grew up when he was inducted into the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame in 1984. However, it was not until 1998 that the NHL hired O’Ree, naming him the NHL’s Diversity Ambassador. In this role, Willie traveled across North America to schools and hockey programs to promote messages of inclusion, dedication, and confidence.
On the afternoon of January 19, 2008, the Bruins and NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, honored Willie at Boston’s TD Garden, to mark the 50th anniversary of his NHL debut. The Sports Museum of New England, located at TD Garden, established a special exhibit on O'Ree's career, comprised of many items on loan from Willie’s private collection. Two days earlier, in his hometown of Fredericton, Willie was honored by having a new sports complex on the Northside named after him.
On January 27, 2008, the NHL also honored O'Ree during the 56th National Hockey League All-Star Game in Atlanta, Georgia. On February 5, 2008, ESPN filmed a special on him in honor of Black History Month. That same year, O'Ree was also inducted into the Breitbard Hall of Fame in San Diego. In 2015 the AHL’s San Diego Gulls would retire Willie’s number, where two years later Atlanta Gladiators’ current defenseman Chris Forney would play. During his six seasons with the Gulls, O’Ree had 281 points (153 goals, 128 assists) in 407 games played.
In 2018, around the time of the 60th anniversary of O'Ree's historic date, he was once again honored by the Bruins and the NHL, when a new street hockey rink in Boston was named in his honor. The NHL would not induct Willie into the Hockey Hall of Fame until just two years ago, in November of 2018. That same year the NHL instituted the annual Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award, which recognizes the individual who has worked to make a positive impact on his or her community, culture or society to make people better through hockey.
Even his home country did not recognize him on a national level until that year when O'Ree received the Order of Canada, which is the highest civilian award for a Canadian citizen. He was honored as a pioneer of hockey and a dedicated youth mentor in Canada along with the U.S.
By early May of 2019, following O'Ree's honor with the Hockey Hall of Fame the previous year, a bill in the 116th U.S. Congress authorized the award of the United States Congressional Gold Medal for Willie’s achievements. It was in recognition of his contributions and commitment to hockey, inclusion, and recreational opportunity.
Sometimes it is a long time before something you did at the time becomes bigger than the person and acts itself. However, it continues to have an impact. O’Ree, now 84, is glad to still be alive to hear the words uttered by San Jose Sharks’ Joel Ward just a few years ago, at hockey’s pinnacle point of the season.
Before the start of the 2016 Stanley Cup Finals, Ward, a veteran of 11 seasons in the NHL from 2006-18 and a black Canadian forward himself, told ESPN that Willie O'Ree was one of his inspirations to play pro hockey. Joel also added, O’Ree should have his number 22 retired by the NHL league-wide, just as Major League Baseball had done for Jackie Robinson. Ward himself honored Robinson's legacy in the NHL, by wearing jersey number 42. Willie, you are and will never be forgotten.