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Posted under: Culture

Willie O'Ree, The First Black NHL Player, Discusses Playing Without A Helmet, Meeting Jackie Robinson And Growing Up In Hockey

Willie O’Ree — the "Jackie Robinson of hockey" — has a story to tell.

Note: This article is part of Blavity's #MakingHistoryWhileBlack Black History Month series, where we highlight unsung historical Black figures whose personal stories are deserving of more prominence.

Listening to the firsthand stories of earlier history-makers is like sitting at the feet of family elders; it never gets old and the tales get more interesting with every moment. People who’ve had the opportunity to hear these narratives understand the significance of cherishing the circumstance — it’s important. One significant history-maker whom we are thankful can still tell his own story is Willie O’Ree, the first Black man to play in the National Hockey League (NHL). Blavity had the distinct honor of speaking with O’Ree about his journey.

Eighty-four-year-old O’Ree was born and raised in New Brunswick, Canada, where hockey was the norm to him and his peers. His grandparents were formerly enslaved before traveling north on the underground railroad to settle in Canada. As the youngest of 13 children, most of his older siblings moved away during his youth, leaving him and his youngest sister at home with their parents. Nonetheless, O’Ree recalls a fulfilling childhood.

“I have such great memories of my childhood,” O’Ree told Blavity. “I played a number of sports. The friends that I have [in Canada] — some of them that are still around — I've been friends with for over 70 years. It’s always nice to go back, reminisce and catch up on what’s going on there. I go back once a year.”

Though O’Ree grew up during the era of American segregation, he said he did not experience much racism and discrimination in Canada. In fact, O’Ree said he grew up with a diverse group of friends that included kids from Black, Jewish, Italian and French backgrounds. It wasn’t until he traveled to the U.S. that overt racism introduced itself to him. At the same time, his initial visits to the States offered him a rewarding encounter with an earlier Black sports legend — Jackie Robinson. 

“My first trip to a big city was in 1949 to New York,” O’Ree said. “I played baseball in my hometown, and we’d won a championship. Our reward was a trip to New York. We visited the Empire State Building, Radio City Music Hall and Coney Island — and I watched the Dodgers play. That’s when I first met Jackie Robinson. I talked with him after the game, shook hands with him and told him that not only did I play baseball, but I played hockey. Mr. Robinson didn’t realize that there were Black kids playing hockey but I assured him there were a few.”

Ironically this was just the first time that O’Ree and Robinson would meet in person. In fact, their second meeting took place about 13 years later at an NAACP luncheon in California.

“Mr. Robinson was in the lobby talking to some media people, and the coach of the team that I’d come with came to introduce us,” O’Ree shared. “Mr. Robinson said, ‘Aren’t you that kid that plays hockey?’ I think I made an impact on him when I told him I was considering hockey as a career. He’d met so many people during that time, but he singled me out; he remembered me all those years.”

The same media is responsible for coining the reference “the Jackie Robinson of hockey.” While it seems as if ice hockey was just in his blood, O’Ree made it clear that he’s worked at the sport almost his entire life. His dad even built a skating rink in their backyard when O’Ree was only three years old. However, ice hockey and baseball weren’t his only sports of interest. O’Ree participated in tennis, softball and rugby, as well. 

 As if his all-around athleticism wasn’t impressive enough, as a youth, O’Ree suffered a severe injury while playing hockey, yet he continued to play sports with one eye.

“Back then, the players didn’t wear any headgear,” O’Ree said. “It was an unfortunate accident where the puck struck me in my eye and I lost 97% vision in my right eye and was declared legally blind. This was when I was contacted by a manager for a professional team. I made the team and I never told them about my eye. Back then we didn’t have to take an eye exam like players do now. That was in 1956.”

After a successful run with the Quebec Aces, O’Ree was contacted by the Boston Bruins to join them in Montreal, playing two games on January 18, 1958. Those two games were the beginning of a professional hockey career on an NHL team. He went on to play professional hockey for 21 years, after being traded to the Los Angeles Blades and then the San Diego Gulls. Sadly, but as expected, O’Ree said he faced racism, prejudice, bigotry and ignorance.

“There were players on the opposition, fans in the stands that made racial remarks to me,” O’Ree recalled. “But I learned something from my brother, friend and mentor who said, ‘Names will never hurt you, unless you let them.’ I was a good hockey player, I excelled. The name-calling was every game, players were taking shots at me and I always had to protect myself in the beginning. But I gained the respect of players and fans.”

It took, some white hockey fans, time to see O’Ree as a great hockey player and not as a Black man infiltrating their sport. He worked just as hard, if not harder to get to his position. Along with the support of his older brother and coaches, O’Ree gracefully broke the ice hockey color barrier — and he did it without any intention of being the first.

“I was just another player on the ice, trying to win hockey games,” he said. “I knew that I had a lot of friends that believed I could play pro, but I just wanted to stay focused on being the best player I could be. If it happens, it happens.”

Now, with San Diego being his permanent home and retiring from hockey in 1967, O’Ree is impacting the NHL and the overall sport of hockey in a different way — breaking grounds off the ice. He has been working with the NHL and the Hockey Is For Everyone program for approximately 20 years to make the sport more inclusive. With a two-decade career there is so much knowledge he can share. 

As for today’s conversations based around the rights of athletes, their free speech and the consequences of exercising such rights, O’Ree can spread additional wisdom in those areas as well. Considering the unequal treatment of Black athletes and the barring of Colin Kaepernick, it’s clear some things haven’t changed. 

“It’s not going to stop overnight,” O’Ree said. “There’s a lot of learning that has to be taken into consideration. There are a lot of racist and bigoted people out there that, unfortunately, are not going to change. These players of color are there because they have the skill and ability to be there. They deserve to be there regardless of race.”

As we wrapped up our conversation, Mr. O’Ree responded to one of the most important questions any person can ask an elder; advice for the future. 

“There are so many Black athletes breaking grounds,” he said. “I think you need to set goals for yourself; work toward those goals and dreams. There will always be a first in every sport and sometimes you don’t realize it’s you. Work toward your goals, stay focused and don't let anyone tell you that you can’t obtain your goal. If you think you can, you can and if you think you can’t, you’re right.”

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Journalist. Publicist. True Chicagoan. Woman of God. Boy Mom. "I enjoy discussing the 'unfavorable' subjects for the sake of creating public awareness and provoking actions towards justice."