When rookie Willie O’Ree laced up his skates for the Boston Bruins on January 18, 1958, he became the first black player to appear in an NHL game. In so doing, he made history, breaking the NHL color line and removing another barrier for blacks in professional sports.
O’Ree played for the Bruins for several short stretches before heading back to the minors in 1961. He proceeded to enjoy a long and successful minor league hockey career before hanging up his skates for good at the age of 43 in 1979.
O’Ree may not have set scoring records during his brief NHL career – but he was an important pioneer who blazed a path with courage and class.
O’Ree once said of his NHL experience, “Fans would yell, ‘Go back to the South’ and ‘How come you’re not picking cotton?’, things like that. It didn’t bother me. I just wanted to be a hockey player, and if they couldn’t accept that fact, that was their problem, not mine.”
O’Ree almost didn’t get the chance to make his place in history. Two years before being called up to the Bruins, O’Ree was struck in the right eye with a puck, leaving it 95% blind. If the injury came to light, he would never have been allowed to play. So O’Ree kept his injury a secret, even changing to the other wing to be able to keep track of the play. The determination he showed makes his NHL journey that much more courageous and compelling.
Willie O’Ree is a remarkable gentleman and endures as “The Jackie Robinson of Hockey.” For the past quarter century, he’s worked directly with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman while traveling across North America as the NHL’s Diversity Ambassador. In 2018 he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame and on January 18, 2022, his Bruins number 22 jersey was retired in his honor in ceremonies held at TD Garden.