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.
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: