Willie O’Ree remembers the pre-game talk as if it were yesterday.
Boston Bruins Head Coach Milt Schmidt and General Manager Lynn Patrick sat down their rookie forward, a call-up from the Quebec Aces, before his debut against the Montreal Canadiens in the old Forum and told him “Willie O’Ree, we brought you up because we think you can add a spark to the team.”
‘”Don’t worry about anything else,”‘ O’Ree recalled them telling him. ‘”Just go out and play the game, the organization is behind you 100 percent.”‘
O’Ree didn’t realize the gravity of that January 18, 1958 talk until after the Bruins blanked the Habs 3-0. O’Ree didn’t register a point on the stat sheet that night, but he made a mark in history as the National Hockey League’s first black player.
“I didn’t even know I broke the color barrier until I read it in the newspaper the next day,” O’Ree told me recently.
Hockey honored O’Ree on Wednesday for the 60th anniversary of his feat, a celebration that really began over the weekend in Boston.
But Wednesday was the big day. The Canadiens were in Boston to play the Bruins at TD Garden. Before the game, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh proclaimed January 18 as “Willie O’Ree Day.” The city also announced plans to refurbish a street hockey rink and name it in O’Ree’s honor.
“Willie’s speed, his skill and sheer perseverance earned him a job in a six-team National Hockey League where jobs were, indeed scarce – 60 years ago,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. “We celebrate not only the NHL games he played but the countless thousands of boys and girls he has inspired since becoming our ‘Hockey is for Everyone’ ambassador in 1998.”
The league pulled out all the stops Wednesday. O’Ree dropped a ceremonial puck before the B’s-Habs game. Players wore Willie O’Ree 60th anniversary patches commemorative patches on their jerseys.
Willie O’Ree made history when he entered the NHL with the Boston Bruins in 1958.
The NHL tapped Canadian filmmaker Damon Kwame Mason, director of the award-winning black history documentary “Soul on Ice, Past, Present and Future,” to help produce an O’Ree tribute video.
NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes sat down with O’Ree for a long interview about his history-making moment and his legacy.
O’Ree didn’t have a long NHL career. He only played 45 games over the 1957-58 and 1960-61 seasons and tallied 4 goals and 10 assists. He played those games carrying a secret: He was legally blind in his right eye, the result of being hit by a puck.
Still, he enjoyed a lengthy minor league career, mainly in the old Western Hockey League where he scored 328 goals and 311 assists with the Los Angeles Blades and San Diego Gulls from 1961-62 to 1973-74.
Several hockey aficionados are hoping that O’Ree gets more propers beyond the 60th anniversary celebration.
Folks from filmmaker Mason to retired NHL player-turned-TV analyst Anson Carter believe O’Ree should be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in the Builder’s category for his contributions to the game in mentoring many of the NHL’s minority players and for extending hockey’s reach to communities of color
San Jose Sharks forward Joel Ward suggested that the NHL should retire O’Ree’s Number 22 league-wide the same way Major League Baseball retired Jackie Robinson’s Number 42 in 1997. Robinson broke MLB’s color barrier when he broke in with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947.
“I would like to be in the Hall of Fame. I mean, who wouldn’t?” O’Ree told me. “I’d be thrilled and honored to be selected and go into the hall.”
Follow the Color of Hockey on Facebook and Twitter @ColorOfHockey. Download the Color of Hockey podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, SoundCloud and Google Play.