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No monuments stand in Boston for Willie O'Ree. No Massachusetts highways bear his name. Neither the Bruins nor any NHL team has retired his number 22. Yet Willie O'Ree is hailed as "The Jackie Robinson of Hockey" the first black man to skate in the NHL. Unlike Robinson, he was not a big star. He played only a handful of NHL games for the Bruins. But if O'Ree's career may not be Hockey Hall of Fame stuff, his story certainly is.
Hockey, of course, is the whitest of the four major sports 96 percent of NHL players are white. This is largely due to the paucity of citizens of African descent in Canada the nation in which hockey is rooted. The sport had no segregated, parallel universe of black hockey alongside its white league, as did baseball; the few black players were part of the "organized" game. And while personal prejudices created problems institutional discrimination never seemed a factor.
Still, a few cases raised suspicion. The most egregious was that of Herbie Carnegie, a minor leaguer whose talents were obvious. Carnegie skated with his brother Ossie and Manny McIntyre on an all-black line for minor league Sherbrooke in the postwar 1940s. "They were dazzling," recalls hockey historian Stan Fischler, who saw the trio play at Madison Square Garden against the Rangers farm team, the Rovers. The Rangers invited Herbie to training camp in 1947 and, though he played impressively, he wound up back in Sherbrooke. "The general feeling was that if Herbie had been white, he would have made it," says Fischler.
Ultimately, it was William Eldon O'Ree the youngest of 12 children from the only black family in Fredericton, New Brunswick who broke through. O'Ree was an accidental pioneer. His place in the Boston lineup on January 18, 1958, did not culminate some grand plan by a hockey visionary. There was no huge grassroots campaign to integrate the NHL. Quite simply, the Bruins had a few injuries, he was a farmhand with the Quebec Aces and, since Boston was scheduled to play in Montreal, he was conveniently located.
"I didn't set out to become the first black NHL player," O'Ree says, reflecting on his initial two-game stint as a nervous 22-year-old. With typical Canadian modesty and hockey's traditional team-first outlook, he recalls today, "I never gave it any thought that I had just broken the color barrier. We beat the Canadiens that night 3-1 and that was a feat in itself, because it was tough beating the Canadiens in Montreal. After the game both teams jumped on the train to Boston. They beat us there on Sunday 5-3. I went back to Quebec and finished the year out. It really didn't dawn on me until later on what I had accomplished."
Something else about O'Ree, which few knew at the time, was also remarkable. He played his entire professional career without vision in one eye.
In 1955, during O'Ree's last season of junior hockey with the Kitchener Canucks, a deflected puck struck him in the right eye. "The doctor stood by my bed and said, 'Mr. O'Ree, I'm sorry to tell you that you'll never play hockey again. The impact of the puck did so much damage that I couldn't save [your vision in] the eye.'
"I was 19 and it was just devastating. But I said to myself, 'Hey, wait a minute. This doctor may be a fine surgeon, but he doesn't know how I feel about hockey. Screw him.' And I just started practicing. Being a left-handed shot, playing left wing, all my passes would be coming from the right side so I had to turn my head a little to the right to pick the puck up with my left eye. It was an adjustment, but I started back playing and then just kind of forgot about it. I figured if I worried about getting hit in my good eye or getting into a fight, it would just take away from my game. My mom and dad thought I was crazy and my friends told me I was taking a terrible chance, but I loved the game so much."
Had hockey officials known of his blindness, O'Ree would not have been the first anything he'd have been ineligible to play. As it was, the 97 percent loss of vision almost certainly contributed to the brevity of his NHL career. O'Ree was an exceptionally fast skater whose acceleration could shake a check and open the ice. But he failed to convert many of the chances his speed created, acquiring the label "King of the Near Miss."
After his first NHL call-up, O'Ree returned to the minors. Three years later, he was called up again and played over half the 196061 season with Boston. He never made it back to the NHL after that (and it would be 13 years before the next black player skated in the NHL Mike Marson for the Washington Capitals), but his speed made him a very popular attraction in the Western Hockey League, first for the Los Angeles Blades, then the San Diego Gulls. When his L.A. coach, ex-Ranger Alf Pike, learned of his blindness, he shifted Willie to right wing, a move that boosted his scoring totals. He shed the "Near Miss" tag and twice led the WHL in goals.