Friday, January 18, 2013

January 18, 1958: Willie O'Ree becomes the first black player in the NHL

On January 18, 1958, Willie O'Ree of the Boston Bruins skated onto the ice in Montreal making him the first player of African decent to play in the NHL. O'Ree was Canadian born and like Many Canadians hockey was in his blood. He worked his way up to the minor league ranks of the NHL, while there an errant puck that left him 95%in his right eye. O'Ree's injury could have ended his playing career becasue the NHL had rules against players with eye damage because of fear that something could happen to their good eye. Not sure how but O'Ree his his injury and kept on playing the game he loved. When an injury left the Bruins in need of a man O'Ree was called up and history was made.

He only played in two games in 1958 but two years later he got another chance, this time playing in 41 games in the '60-'61 season. He scored 4 goals and had 10 assists by the end of that season, while he would go onto have a long career in hockey that would be the last season he played in the NHL. O'Ree has become known as the "Jackie Robinson of Hockey" while his career in the pros wasn't nearly as long, his historical impact on the game he played was definitely significant. He had to play with fans shouting racial slurs, to opposing players taking cheap shots, it wasn't enough to keep him from pursuing a dream.

Following his first full season in the NHL O'Ree  was traded to the Montreal Canadiens , it wasn't good news for Willie because the Canadiens squad was packed with talent and he had no chance of cracking that roster. He found himself back in the minor leagues, two months after the trade to the Montreal organization he was traded again, this time to the Los Angeles Blades of the Western Hockey League. After 5 seasons with the Blades, O'Ree took his talent to the San Diego Gulls another member of the WHL, he made such an impact there the Gulls retired his #20. Willie O'Ree played from 1961 to 1979 in the WHL minus two separate seasons late in his career that he had short stints in the PCL and AHL. In those years in the Western Hockey League O'Ree won two scoring titles, scoring thirty or more four times. It was said that he never got another shot in the NHL because the eye injury had been discovered by the pro clubs. It's too bad that he had to suffer the injury to the eye becasue he was obviously a great player. The head coach of the Bruins, Milt Schmidt said he was one of the fastest players in the NHL that year he skated in Boston.

While O'Ree has been called the "Jackie Robinson of Hockey" there wasn't major changes in the game that was played on ice like there had been in baseball. In 1974, the Washington Capitals drafted Mike Marson, 17 years after O'Ree played in his final NHL game. I think that world of hockey was much slower to advance becasue the popularity of the sport was primarily in the white community. With that said there is no doubt that racism slowed  the wheels of progress, O'Ree himself said he saw his fair share of black players that could definitely play at the top level. Since that day in 1958 more than 70 players of color have played in the NHL, Willie O'Ree will always have been the first.

His impact on the NHL didn't end the day he played his last game, most recently he was involved in a program to help diversify the game, even as late as 2008 O'Ree received death threats for trying to help the game progress. I think those people who would send such a threat are nothing more than cowards who need to understand that we as a people have come a long way. Racism will always exist, simply put it's because some people are just ignorant. I look at what Willie O'Ree did with some of the greatest admiration. I have the utmost respect for any player that did not let racism keep them from pursuing their dreams. With the holiday that celebrates the life of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. upon us it's important for all people to try and achieve their dreams. The line that stands out to me in his famous speech is "I have a dream that one day all men will be created equal" while there will always be work to do, his dream is being achieved. I know personally I hold no hate in my heart for another human being just becasue they have a different skin color. If I ever had the opportunity to shake the hand of Willie O'Ree it would be a privilege and honor. He helped pave the way for other dreams to be achieved.

The first piece of art is the plaque at the San Diego Hall of Champions Sports Museum's Breitbard Hall of Fame.  Christopher Paluso did the artwork you can view more of his work here:

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