Celebrating Black History Month: Former San Diego Gulls winger Willie O'Ree broke NHL color barrier with Boston
Willie O'Ree prepares to drop a ceremonial puck before a recent San Diego Gulls game. O'Ree, a former Gulls player, was the first black player in the NHL 60 years ago. At left is current Gull Jaycob Megna and at right John McCarthy of the San Jose Barracuda. SAN DIEGO GULLS / COURTESY
Former member of the San Diego Gulls Willie O'Ree, left, is presented a jersey by the current Gulls team during a night honoring the legendary O'Ree. The native of Fredericton, New Brunswick was the first black player in the National Hockey League when he joined the Boston Bruins in 1958. SAN DIEGO GULLS / COURTESY
On Jan. 18, 1958, a young hockey player was called up from the minor leagues to join the Boston Bruins of the National Hockey League, who were in Montreal for a game at the Forum, home of the Canadiens.
His name was Willie O'Ree, and history was made that night. Why?
O'Ree is black.
And, while he only played in two games that season, the color barrier in professional hockey had been broken, giving O'Ree the honorable designation as the "Jackie Robinson of hockey."
Born Oct. 15, 1935, in the coal-mining town of Fredericton, New Brunswick, O'Ree was the youngest of 13 children. Driven to succeed in both athletics and academics, he soon began to believe he could compete in sports at a pro level. As a youngster in 1949, he also received an invitation from the Atlanta Braves to their minor league baseball camp. When he deplaned in Atlanta, he recalls seeing the drinking fountains marked "White Only" and "Colored Only."
While in the United States, however, O'Ree had the opportunity to meet black baseball star Jackie Robinson in Brooklyn. “I knew he broke the color barrier,” O’Ree recalls, “and when I actually met him he said, ‘There’s no black kids that play hockey.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, there’s a few.'” Robinson told him “Whatever sport you choose, work hard and do your very best. Things will work out for you.”
O'Ree returned in 1961 to play 43 games for the Bruins, scoring four goals and adding 10 assists. And while those were the only games he played in the NHL, the door had opened for black players to compete at the highest level.
O'Ree's greatest strengths were the speed with which he could skate and his checking ability on defense. While he was not imposing in stature at 5 feet 10 inches tall and 170 pounds, his toughness, determination and speed allowed him to make a considerable impact driving opposing players into the boards.
His Boston teammates stuck up for him, but in one game Eric Nesterenko of the Chicago Black Hawks hit him in the face with the butt end of his stick, knocking out two of O'Ree's teeth and breaking his nose. O'Ree responded by hitting Nesterenko over the head with his stick, igniting a fight between the teams... with Nesterenko acquiring 15 new stitches in his head.
"I was prepared for it [verbal and physical abuse] because I knew it would happen. I wasn’t a great slugger, but I did my share of fighting. I was determined that I wasn’t going to be run out of the rink,” O'Ree recalled.
In 1967, general manager Max McNabb of the nascent San Diego Gulls of the Western Hockey League acquired O'Ree from the rival Los Angels Blades, and O'Ree immediately became a fan favorite as he accelerated to full skating speed in four or five strides and rushed the opponents' net.
Record-size minor league crowds at the then San Diego Sports Arena roared as O'Ree won the WHL goal-scoring title with 38 in 1968-69. With his 41 assists, he totaled 79 points in 70 games.
After his retirement in 1979, O'Ree settled in San Diego and today lives in La Mesa.
O'Ree kept a secret during his playing career that spanned 28 years: One afternoon in the mid 1950s, a puck ricocheted off a stick and struck O'Ree in the right eye, shattering his retina. He lost 97 percent of the vision in the eye, which had to be removed years later. Doctors urged him to hang up his skates.
Eight weeks later he was back on the ice where he switched from left wing to right wing so he could see the puck better, yet fearing his career would end if his handicap were discovered.
Eventually, the NHL took note of O'Ree's historic status and in 1998 invited him to be the director of youth development for its Diversity Task Force, a nonprofit program for minority youth that provides equipment and ice time so inner-city kids might learn and play hockey in its "Hockey is for Everyone" program.
On Jan. 19, 2008, the Boston Bruins and NHL honored O'Ree at TD Garden marking the 50th anniversary of his debut. Those in attendance included a busload of O'Ree's friends from his native Fredericton.
The next month, ESPN aired a special program on O'Ree in honor of Black History Month.
Last month marked the 60th anniversary of O'Ree's first game, and O'Ree once again returned to Boston to be honored.
"It’s wonderful and I was thrilled," O'Ree recalled. "When I was in Boston [last month] it took me back to when I first came to the Bruins and the training camp in 1957. I kind of fell in love with the team and the entire Bruins organization."
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman noted O'Ree has impacted more than 40,000 children in his 20-year NHL ambassador career.
"Willie has a resolve and an inner strength that allows him to do what he believes and not let anything get in his way," Bettman said.
O'Ree has received many other awards including the Order of Canada, the highest civilian award for a Canadian citizen.
The love affair between San Diego hockey fans and Willie O'Ree has continued to grow over the decades. When not on the road as part of his NHL commitment, O'Ree, now 82 years old, can be found enjoying a San Diego Gulls game at the Valley View Casino Center. Always upbeat, he never denies an autograph request.
While his number 20 jersey has hung from the arena rafters for several years, the Gulls recently honored O'Ree at a Diversity Night-themed game. He conducted the ceremonial puck drop to a standing ovation from over 8,500 fans.
O'Ree has overcome much in his life and, through hard work and determination, earned his status as a local legend and hero.
QUOTABLE: FROM HOCKEY LEGEND WILLIE O'REE
“Racist remarks from fans were much worse in the U.S. cities than in Toronto and Montreal. I particularly remember a few incidents in Chicago. The fans would yell, ‘Go back to the South’ and ‘How come you’re not picking cotton?’ Things like that. It didn’t bother me. Hell, I’d been called names most of my life. I just wanted to be a hockey player, and if they couldn’t accept that fact, that was their problem, not mine.
“In the penalty box, stuff would be thrown at me and they’d spit at me. I never fought one time because of racial remarks. But I said, ‘If I’m going to leave the league, it’s because I don’t have the skills or the ability to play anymore. I’m not going to leave it ’cause some guy makes a threat or tries to get me off my game by making racial remarks towards me."
"We have approximately 32 cities in the Hockey is For Everyone program, and the first thing I say is to these boys and girls is to stay in school and get an education. Education is the key. You can’t go anywhere today in the world without an education."
"You need to set goals for yourselves, and you need to work towards your goals and believe and feel good about yourself and like yourself."
"If you think you can then you can, and if you think you can’t, you’re right."