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Tue, 10.15.1935

Willie O’Ree, Hockey Pioneer born

Willie O'Ree

*Willie O'Ree was born on this date in 1935.  He is a Black Canadian professional ice hockey player (retired), the first Black player in the National Hockey League.  

William Eldon O'Ree was raised in a large family in Fredericton, New Brunswick. He was the youngest of 13 children of parents Rosebud and Harry. O’Ree’s grandparents came to Canada from the United States through the Underground Railroad to escape slavery. While O’Ree was growing up, only two black families lived in Fredericton. O’Ree’s father, Harry, was a civil engineer who worked in the city’s road maintenance industry.  O’Ree started playing hockey at age three and organized hockey at age five. He promptly had a passion for the game. O’Ree played regularly on the backyard rink of the family home and skated to school when weather permitted.  

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 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. He played two games that year. O'Ree came back in 1961 to play 43 games and 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. O'Ree played 50 games for the American Hockey League's New Haven Nighthawks in 1972–73. Most of O'Ree's playing time was with the WHL's Los Angeles Blades and San Diego Gulls.  O'Ree continued to play in the minors until the age of 43.  

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 23 black players in the NHL as of the mid-2010s, the most prominent being P. K. Subban. 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 preseason diversity training seminar, and racially based verbal abuse is punished through suspensions and fines.   Since 1998, O’Ree has been the NHL’s Diversity Ambassador, traveling across North America to schools and hockey programs to promote messages of inclusion, dedication, and confidence.  

In 2008, the Bruins honored O'Ree at TD Garden in Boston to mark the 50th anniversary of his NHL debut. In addition, The Sports Museum of New England located in the TD Garden, established a special exhibit on O'Ree's career, comprising many items on loan from his personal collection.  In 2018 it was announced that O'Ree would be inducted as a Builder into the Hockey Hall of Fame and a dedication of a street hockey rink named in his honor in the Boston neighborhood of Allston, as part of the continuing legacy of O'Ree's time with the Bruins.  By early May of 2019, following O'Ree's Builder honor with the Hockey Hall of Fame the previous year, a bill in the 116th U.S. Congress is authorizing the award of the United States Congressional Gold Medal for O'Ree's achievements.  

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