Back in 1958 the world was a different place. Racism was more openly rampant and no black person had ever taken the ice in the NHL. But Willie O’Ree came along and changed all that. He broke the color barrier and became known as the “Jackie Robinson of hockey.”
It wasn’t easy for O’Ree, who had to endure the racially tinged chants from fans, as Mike Walsh recalls O’Ree saying in Walsh’s “Soul on Ice” story on Missioncreep.com.
"Fans would yell, 'Go back to the South' and 'How come you're not picking cotton?' Things like that. 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."
While a lesser man might have caved in under the weight of those difficult times, O’Ree didn’t let it bother him. He used his love of hockey and his strong will and character to persevere beyond what many others could have accomplished.
But it wasn’t just his color that he had to overcome. During the 1955-56 hockey season, O’Ree played for the Kitchener-Waterloo Canucks, a junior league team. He was struck in the right eye by a puck, and the injury was so bad that he was legally blind in that eye. Though doctors advised him to quit playing, O’Ree persevered.
In eight weeks he was back on the ice.
But he was a left-winger, so his eye problems forced him to switch to the right side, a move that he made with the same grace and success he did with everything else.
O’Ree’s history day came on January 18, 1958, in Montreal. He took the ice with the Boston Bruins, becoming the first black player to make it to the NHL. He expected a stronger reaction, hopeful that the publicity could help other young black athletes, but the story was handled with little fanfare.
Life was hard for a black hockey player, but O’Ree never backed down or let it stop him.
Guys would take cheap shots at me, just to see if I would retaliate. They thought I didn't belong there. When I got the chance, I'd run right back at them. I was prepared for it because I knew it would happen. I wasn't a great slugger, but I did my share of fighting. I was determined that I wasn't going to be run out of the rink.
One night, the Chicago Blackhawks’ Eric Nesterenko butt-ended O’Ree in the face with his stick. He knocked out two of Willie’s teeth and broke his nose. O’Ree didn’t back down, however, hitting the Hawks player over the head with his stick.
After being traded by the Bruins following the 1961 season, he never again played in the NHL despite his talent. To this day he is regarded as a footnote in the sport, which isn’t right. What O’Ree endured was more than what any single hockey player has ever had to endure. There will never be another such first in the game. Fittingly, it was Willie O’Ree, a fighter to the end.
Presented by MetLife. I Can Do This.