Two athletes – Willie O’Ree and Jackie Robinson – tied together by their accomplishment in breaking color barriers, actually met at least twice. At 14, O’Ree told Robinson how much he loved hockey, and 13 years later, after O’Ree played professionally, Robinson remembered their first meeting. “It was the media that gave me the name the Jackie Robinson of hockey,” O’Ree later said. “It makes me feel good.” On January 18,1958, 11 years after Robinson joined Major League Baseball, O’Ree first played in the NHL.
Although O’Ree had played the last two seasons with the Quebec Aces of the Quebec Senior Hockey League, getting hit with a puck had cost him 95% of vision in his right eye. The left wing had not even told his parents about the vision loss, so only his sister and friend knew. “At first, I had a little trouble and 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.”
Without knowing about his eye, the Boston Bruins called up O’Ree to debut in back-to-back games against the Montreal Canadiens. The Canadiens had just defeated the Bruins in the Stanley Cup finals and in eight consecutive matchups. According to O’Ree, “When I stepped on the ice on Jan. 18, 1958, we were playing the Montreal Canadiens in Montreal. We beat the Canadiens 3-0, then we got on the train and went to Boston. The Canadiens beat us 5-3 [6-2] and then I left. I was just there for the two games.” In fact, O’Ree commented, “To me, I didn’t know I was breaking the color barrier until the next morning when I read it in the paper.”
The Boston Globe did mention that this was the “first time a Negro hockey player has ever appeared in an N.H.L. game.” Before the game, teammates teased O’Ree for the large number of telegrams he received (mostly from New Brunswick) wishing him well. In the Montreal game, Milt Schmidt split O’Ree’s shifts to “ease the pressure.” The Globe claimed, “He had one excellent chance in that game when he was sent in alone with a pass from McKenney, but was robbed by goalie Jacques Plante.” Little good did that do for Plante as Johnny Bucyck, Larry Regan, and Bronco Horvath scored on him, one each period. Bruins goalie Harry Lumley, purchased from Chicago the week before, earned the shutout.
The next night, both teams relocated to Boston. According to the Globe, “Boston fans constantly shouted encouragements to O’Ree on his appearances last night, although he did not see much action in the later stages.” The paper described one of his plays. “In the early minutes last night, McKenney again fed Willie a good leading pass, but he fired into the goalie’s pads as Plante moved to meet his bid.” That game, the Canadiens came out on top winning 6-2.
With two players returning to their lineup, the Bruins returned O’Ree to the Quebec Aces following the two games. However, he was still one of two black players (the other being Stanley Maxwell) who the Bruins had been grooming since training camp. Bruins GM Lynn Patrick commented, “He’s a very fast skater, but there are some things he naturally has to learn yet.” Even the opposing Canadiens GM Frank Selke noted, “O’Ree is not only fast, but he’s a strong skater. He looks as if he could go all night. I know he always has played well in the Forum when he’s been in with Quebec.” As for O’Ree himself, he commented, “I’m just happy to get a chance up here, that’s about all I can say.” He also told the Globe, “I’ll never forget this. It was the greatest thrill of my life.”
That was not the end of O’Ree’s NHL career. During the 1960-61 season, he played 43 games (4G, 10A, 14P) with the Bruins. Although he was then traded to Montreal, he played his remaining 13 seasons in the Western Hockey League before retiring in 1979. Beginning in 1998, O’Ree became the NHL’s “diversity ambassador,” “director of youth development for the League’s diversity task force, encouraging boys and girls from diverse backgrounds to play hockey.” O’Ree said, “Hockey has opened up for everybody. I can see more [black] players coming in. A lot has changed and that’s good.” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman gave a statement that “Willie O’Ree has devoted his life to our sport and our young people, to diversity and inclusion. His words of encouragement, and 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. We marvel at Willie’s strength and his courage, at his willingness to blaze a trail for future generations of players, and we are honored by his continuing presence as a role model, mentor and ambassador for our sport.”
O’Ree and Bettman, along with Martin Brodeur, were inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018. As the third black athlete inducted, O’Ree was honored as a Builder.
- Brian McFarlane, Brian McFarlane’s History of Hockey (Champaign, Ill.: Sports Publishing Inc., c1997), 80-81.
- “B’s Promote O’Ree, Drop Millar, Ehman, Armstrong Bionda,” Boston Globe, 18 Jan. 1958, sports p. 4.
- “Negro Star in Lineup: Bruins Trounce Canadiens, 3-0,” Boston Globe, 19 Jan. 1958, p. 57-58.
- Tom Fitzgerald, “O’Ree Happy Bruins Gave Him Chance,” Boston Globe, 20 Jan. 1958, sports p. 9.
- Herb Ralby, “Blowup Explained: Harvey, Geoffrion Canadiens’ Sparks,” Boston Globe, 20 Jan. 1958, sports p. 14.
- “Bruins Return O’Ree to Quebec,” Boston Globe, 22 Jan. 1958, sports p. 15.