Breaking The Ice

One-Eyed Willie O'Ree, the man who busted the NHL'S color line

Racial taunting dogged O'Ree throughout his hockey career, and it only intensified in the NHL. Boston coach Milt Schmidt, wise to the rugged NHL, sized up the situation and decided that if O'Ree was going to play hockey at the highest level, he'd have to learn to turn the other cheek. Prior to O'Ree's debut, the coach told him, "Willie, you could be the first of your race to play in the NHL. You have a lot of the tools. The only thing is, you're colored and you'll have to look beyond that."

His teammates treated him as they would any newcomer, accepting him just for wearing the Bruins sweater. "The guys were behind me 100 percent . . . and I think that's what gave me the confidence to play. In fact, on all 11 professional teams I played with, the guys were very supportive." The same could not be said for those he played against.

"I used to fight a lot," O'Ree says. "Guys speared me, cross-checked me across the head, butt-ended me— that's when I fought. But I never fought because someone made a personal racial remark to me— never. Because if I did, I'd have been fighting all the time. I wasn't going to lower myself to that level.

The Jackie Robinson of Hockey
Courtesy of National Hockey League
The Jackie Robinson of Hockey

"But I heard it constantly," he continues, the emotion of memory causing his voice to rise. "Every game! Not just from the opposition but from some fans. Game after game after game!

"But I'd heard all the names growing up, and the teams I played for wanted me because of what I could do on the ice. So I wanted to represent them to the best of my ability. And I couldn't have done that if I was fighting all the time."

O'Ree will joyously recount the details of his first of four NHL goals (a game-winner against Montreal on New Year's Day, 1961), including the two-minute standing ovation from the Boston Garden fans that followed. He's less comfortable recounting his worst fight, with Chicago's Eric Nesterenko, who first taunted him, then thrust a stick into O'Ree's face, felling him. "It wasn't the racial remark," O'Ree maintains. "It was that he knocked my two front teeth out, broke my nose, split my lip, and then just stood there laughing. If I'd let him get away with that, I'd never be able to come to Chicago again. They'd just run me out of the rink."

Last season, 26 minority players skated in the NHL and racial slurs now result in suspensions— a development that O'Ree wholeheartedly endorses. "They just can't tolerate this kind of conduct from professionals who not only represent themselves but also the team and the NHL. There's millions of viewers watching, especially the kids who accept the players as role models."

O'ree settled in San Diego after retiring from hockey in 1980. He had wanted to stay in the game, and the numerous jobs he took on— in construction, sporting goods retail management, auto sales, and building security— left him unfulfilled. He would return to hockey by assisting some of the 24 regional programs that sprouted in the '80s to promote hockey among minority youth. Today, kids are his life. "He's been working with us for about 10 years, and he's been a real inspiration to a lot of kids in the program," says Ice Hockey In Harlem (IHIH) executive director Todd Levy. "They want to emulate him in every way."

O'Ree comes to New York this week as part of an IHIH fundraiser with the Rangers at the All-Star Café and he'll be the keynote speaker at the IHIH graduation in April.

In 1995, the NHL and USA Hockey rediscovered O'Ree and named an annual weekend event for young minority players after him. The Fourth Annual Willie O'Ree All-Star Game will be on February 28 in Washington, D.C. Last February, 40 years after he broke the ice, O'Ree was hired full-time as director of development for the NHL/USA Hockey Diversity Task Force.

"I feel complete about myself now, being able to give something back to hockey and to work with these kids," he says. "It's better than a monument."

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