Hall of famer O’Ree about integration and inspiration
At age 83, the NHL’s first Black player is a tireless mentor
Willie O’Ree once had to wait for two police officers to escort him off the ice in Chicago after a benches-clearing brawl, which began when his front teeth were purposely knocked out by the butt end of an opponent’s stick.
Another time, he had to be pulled away from a mob of hostile fans at Madison Square Garden who tried to yank him into the stands.
O’Ree, the first Black player in the NHL, endured a lot over his 24 seasons in professional hockey, most of them in the minor leagues. But he loved the game so dearly that after a puck hit him in the face at age 19, permanently blinding his right eye, he stayed quiet about the disability so that no doctor would rule him unfit to play.
For his contributions to the sport, O’Ree, 83, will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday in the builder category. He is being honoured not just for the historical significance of his NHL career, but also for his decades of working with young players all over North America through various youth hockey and outreach programs.
“If you look at what he’s done, he kind of opened the door for the rest of us to step in and play,” said former goalie Grant Fuhr, the first of two Black players to precede O’Ree into the Hall of Fame (the other is Angela James). “In my world, that’s the perfect description: as a builder of the game.”
At least 30 Black players have dressed to play in the NHL since the 2016-17 season, when a record four Black players were named all-stars. Approximately 90 Black players have dressed for at least one game in the league. No longer confined by stereotypes that once narrowly defined their roles, Black players are now explosive scorers, shutdown defenders, goalies and everything else in between.
“There are more Black players to relate with in the NHL than when I was younger,” said Jarome Iginla, who in 2001-02 became the NHL’s first Black scoring champion.
Still, there have been only two Black captains in league history — Iginla with the Calgary Flames and Chicago’s Dirk Graham. Graham, who spent 59 games behind the Blackhawks’ bench in 1998-99, remains the NHL’s only Black head coach.
“The numbers are pitiful,” said Patrice Carnegie, the daughter of Herb Carnegie, a top Black player in the 1940s who never reached the NHL. “We had many, many, many years to make a difference.”
O’Ree, one of 13 siblings, broke the colour barrier in 1958, during a two-game stint with the Boston Bruins that went largely unnoticed. In the 1960-61 season, he competed in 43 games and notched 14 points, arousing greater curiosity, fanfare and, sadly, hatred. Along the way, he would surmount resistance, both tacit and vile, and also defend himself on the ice.
“I heard that N-word so many times that I just let it go in one ear and out the other,” O’Ree said. “I never fought because of racial slurs or remarks. I fought because guys speared me, buttended me, cross-checked me and things of that nature. Otherwise I would have spent every game in the penalty box.”
O’Ree initially played left wing, a challenging position for someone with his limited vision since nearly every pass he received came from his right. A switch to right wing would be a factor in his success in the Western Hockey League, where he won two scoring titles during the 1960s.
“You can do anything you set your mind to if you feel strongly in your heart,” O’Ree said. “When the doctor told me I’d never play hockey again, I just said, ‘I can’t accept that.’ He didn’t know the goals and dreams that I had set for myself, and he didn’t know the burning fire that was within me.”
A native of Fredericton, New Brunswick, O’Ree had been named to the Order of Canada, the highest honour bestowed on a citizen of the country.
He twice met Jackie Robinson, who broke Major League Baseball’s colour barrier 11 years before O’Ree entered the NHL. The first time, when O’Ree was a teenager, a wide-eyed Robinson said that O’Ree was the first Black hockey player he had met. The second time, O’Ree was in his 20s, attending an NAACP luncheon, where Robinson surprised him by remembering their first encounter.
Unlike baseball, the NHL was not formally segregated, though Canada did have an all-Black league at the turn of the 20th century. Known as the Coloured Hockey League of the Maritimes, its players are often credited with innovations such as the slap shot and early iterations of the butterfly goaltending style.
While ground has been gained since O’Ree’s day, Black players still face ugliness from fans. Wayne Simmonds was struck with a banana during a 2011 exhibition game in Canada. Last season, fans in Chicago taunted Washington Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly as he sat in the penalty box, chanting, “basketball, basketball,” to indicate they thought he was in the wrong sport. Simmonds and SmithPelly, who both grew up in Toronto, said they have endured other racial taunts in their careers.
“I’ve gone through my fair share of incidents,” said Simmonds, who now plays for the Philadelphia Flyers, “and I would have thought, ‘Well, Mr. O’Ree probably thought the same thing, that he’d be the one enduring all the garbage to make it better for the younger kids that were coming up under him.’ ”
This generation of Black players has embraced their roles beyond hockey and formed a tight-knit group that emphasizes the importance of past sacrifices and a vision of a fairer future.
“I want to be remembered as one of the best players that has ever played the game,” said P.K. Subban, the first Black winner of the Norris Trophy for the league’s best defenceman. “But I also recognize who I am, where I come from, what I stand for and the responsibility that I have within the game of hockey.”
At last season’s all-star weekend, Subban held court with the news media longer than any other player during the tournament. O’Ree approached him, and the two exchanged warm smiles. They later strolled off together, sharing an almost familial moment.
“It seems like Willie’s in his
40s. When you talk to him, he’s got so much energy,” Subban said, adding: “He’s just a great man”
Willie O’Ree, right, will be formally inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday.