By Alex Distefano
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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.
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.
"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."