Hall of famer O’Ree about in­te­gra­tion and in­spi­ra­tion

At age 83, the NHL’s first Black player is a tire­less men­tor

The Welland Tribune - - Sports - AN­DREW KNOLL

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.

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