Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Willie O'Ree's Little-Known Journey to Break the NHL's Color Barrier

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Willie O'Ree's Little-Known Journey to Break the NHL's Color Barrier

Article excerpt

Willie O'Ree's little-known journey to break the NHL's color barrier

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This article was originally published on The Conversation, an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. Disclosure information is available on the original site.

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Author: Thomas J. Whalen, Associate Professor of Social Sciences, Boston University

Almost everybody knows about Jackie Robinson and the historic role he played integrating Major League Baseball. But mention Willie O'Ree and you'll likely receive a blank look.

That's a shame because 60 years ago O'Ree did his own part bringing down a racial barrier in a different sport.

On Jan. 18, 1958, O'Ree -- a 22-year-old forward from Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada -- became the first black person to play in a National Hockey League game.

O'Ree had always known he possessed the talent to play in the NHL. A speedy skater with an intuitive feel for the game, he had played organized hockey since age 5 and had scored 22 goals with 12 assists in his first professional season with Quebec. His big break came when the Bruins invited him to attend training camp before the start of the 1957-58 season. Although he failed to make the final cut, team officials were impressed enough by his overall performance to tell him he needed only "a little more seasoning" to reach the big time.

"They knew what I could do," O'Ree later recalled in his 2000 memoir, "The Autobiography of Willie O'Ree: Hockey's Black Pioneer."

Sure enough, that January, the Boston Bruins were short a roster player and called him up from their minor league club for a road contest against the Montreal Canadiens.

O'Ree could barely control his excitement. "I could see fans pointing, 'There's that black kid. He's up with the Bruins,'" O'Ree wrote.

Despite his nervousness, he did nothing to embarrass himself during a rare 3-0 Boston shutout over their hated archrivals. "O'Ree is not only fast, but he's a strong skater," Montreal coach Frank Selke said after the game. "He looks as if he could go all night."

O'Ree suited up for only one more game as a Bruin that season before returning to the minors. He was hardly crestfallen. "I'm just happy to get a chance up here, that's about all I can say," he told The Boston Globe.

O'Ree returned to the Bruins in 1960-61 and notched four goals and 10 assists in 43 games. His first NHL goal -- a game-winner against Montreal at the Boston Garden on New Year's Day, 1961 -- proved memorable. On a breakaway, a teammate fed him a perfect pass, which he deposited under the glove hand of Montreal goaltender Charlie Hodge. For his standout effort, O'Ree received a rousing standing ovation from the home crowd that lasted several minutes.

O'Ree wasn't so well received at other NHL venues. At New York City's venerable Madison Square Garden, for instance, fans showered him with racial insults before he even stepped onto the ice. …

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