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Smallthoughts: Old School Tuesday…Willie O’Ree

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O ‘ Ree is known best for being the first black player in the National Hockey League. O’Ree played as a winger for the Boston Bruins. O’Ree is referred to as the “Jackie Robinson of ice hockey” due to breaking the black color barrier in the sport, and has stated publicly that he had met Jackie Robinson twice in his own younger years.

Midway through his second minor-league season with the Quebec Aces, O’Ree was called up to the Boston Bruins of the NHL to replace an injured player. O’Ree was 95% blind in his right eye due to being hit there by an errant puck two years earlier, which normally would have precluded him from playing in the NHL. However, O’Ree managed to keep it secret, and made his NHL debut with the Bruins on January 18, 1958, against the Montreal Canadiens, becoming the first black player in league history, appearing in two games that year, and came back in 1961 to play 43 games, playing with Boston centreman Don McKenney and right wing Jerry Toppazzini. He scored 4 goals and 10 assists in his NHL career, all in 1961.

O’Ree noted that “racist remarks were much worse in the U.S. cities than in Toronto and Montreal,” the two Canadian cities hosting NHL teams at the time, and that “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.”

In the minor leagues, O’Ree won two scoring titles in the Western Hockey League (WHL) between 1961 and 1974, scoring thirty or more goals four times, with a high of 38 in 1964–65 and 1968–69. Most of O’Ree’s playing time was with the WHL’s Los Angeles Blades and San Diego Gulls. The latter team retired his number, now hanging from the rafters at the San Diego Sports Arena. O’Ree continued to play in the minors until the age of 43.

Impact on hockey

After O’Ree’s stint in the NHL, there were no other black players in the NHL until another Canadian player, Mike Marson, was drafted by the Washington Capitals in 1974. There were 17 black players in the NHL as of the mid-2000s, the most prominent being Canadian (and current Colorado Avalanche forward) Jarome Iginla. Art Dorrington was the first black player to sign an NHL contract, in 1950 with the New York Rangers organization, but never played beyond the minor league level. NHL players are now required to enroll in a diversity training seminar before each season, and racially based verbal abuse is punished through suspensions and fines. While O’Ree was the first black player in the NHL, Larry Kwong, a Canadian of Chinese descent, first broke racial barriers when he played one game for the New York Rangers against the Montreal Canadiens on March 13, 1948. Robin Bawa was the first man of Indian descent to play in the NHL, where he achieved six goals and one assist in 61 games, while collecting 60 penalty minutes.

Smallthoughts : Old School Tuesday spotlights…The Black player in NHL history…Willie O’Ree.

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