Consider the formidable obstacles confronting Willie O’Ree in 1958 as he contemplated the possibility of his being the first black player to skate in the National Hockey League (NHL). First off, during the quarter century from 1942 to 1967 the NHL was the most exclusive top flight sports organization on the planet as only 120 men were allowed at any time to wear the colors of teams based in Toronto, Montreal, Boston, New York, Detroit and Chicago.
In addition, the three top minor leagues, the American, International, and Western Hockey leagues featured 20 teams including those in seven cities that would later host NHL franchises. By most accounts, the level of play in these leagues often approximated that of lesser NHL franchises with players sometimes choosing to remain in cities like Edmonton, Winnipeg or Calgary rather than uproot their families for the oft uncertain length of an NHL call-up.
If leap frogging the four hundred players in those leagues wasn’t enough of a challenge O’Ree faced his biggest challenge due to an injury that he’d suffered in 1956. An injury so severe, a puck strike that cost him the sight in his right eye, that he’d sworn his doctor to secrecy as the risk of its revelation surely would have ended his NHL dream and possibly his hockey career altogether.
As you read this story, close your right eye and imagine performing the most mundane of tasks, such as preparing a meal, parking a car or climbing a ladder with the sight of one eye. Then imagine engaging in the furious maelstrom that is a professional hockey game bearing the same handicap. Add to that having to endure a fusillade of personal insults and racial epithets hurled at you by opponents while being checked and slashed. Such were the challenges that faced 22 year-old Willie Eldon O’Ree of the Quebec Aces as he confronted the monumental and near impossible odds of his achieving his NHL dream.
However, in the midst of his second professional season O’Ree was summoned by the playoff bound Bruins to replace an injured player in Montreal on January 18, 1958 and made history that night as the league’s first black player. Skating on a line with center Don McKenney and right winger Jerry Toppazini he went scoreless in a 3-0 Boston victory.
He’d play one more NHL game for the Bruins that season, but was later called up by the team for a 43 game stretch in the 1960-61 season. During that stint he became the first black player to score a goal in NHL history when he helped lead Boston to a New Year’s Day 3-2 win over Montreal at Boston Garden. Among his teammates that season were fellow Hall of Fame members Leo Boivin, Ferny Flamen, and Johnny Bucyk.
Though his NHL tenure was brief, O’Ree skated for an additional 26 minor league seasons and became a folk hero in San Diego, where the Gulls of the Western Hockey League retired his number which hangs in the rafters of Pechanga Arena.
In 1998 NHL Commissioner recognized O’Ree’s status as one of hockey’s most beloved pioneers and elder statesmen and hired him as the league’s Diversity Ambassador. In this role, he’s traveled to countless schools and rinks promoting the game as a vehicle for inclusion.
In 2018 he was honored with election to the Hockey Hall of Fame and on January 18, 2022 the Bruins retired his number 22 in ceremonies held at TD Garden.