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O’Ree, Willie (1935- )

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Willie O’Ree, the National Hockey League’s (NHL) first black player, is an African-Canadian, born on October 15, 1935, in Fredricton, New Brunswick. He began skating at an early age and quickly developed into one of the best players in eastern Canada.  O’Ree joined the Quebec Frontenacs, a junior hockey league team in 1954.  While there a puck struck O’Ree in the right eye during a game in Ontario. Eight weeks after being injured he returned to hockey but had lost almost all of the vision in his right eye.

Despite his injury O’Ree in 1956 was acquired by the Quebec Aces, a professional team.  O’Ree led them to a championship during his first season of play.  During the following season in Quebec, O’Ree was noticed by NHL scouts and invited to join the Boston (Massachusetts) Bruins to replace an injured player. He made his NHL debut on January 18, 1958 against the Montreal Canadiens, becoming the first black player in the League’s history. At that time in hockey there was little medical testing and no eye exams.  As a result O’Ree played 21 professional seasons with vision in only one eye.

O’Ree faced an uphill battle from his first game in the NHL.  For the rest of the season, his only one in the NHL, O’Ree endured constant racial slurs from both opposing players and fans. After O’Ree’s first season in the NHL, he found himself unceremoniously traded to the Hull-Ottawa Canadiens, a Montreal farm team. He learned of the trade, not from Boston Bruin officials but from a sportswriter who called him for his comments.   O’Ree returned to the Boston Bruins and the NHL for the 1961 season.  During his 43 games that year he scored four goals and had 10 assists.  

After returning to the Hull-Ottawa team for two seasons, O’Ree was traded to the Los Angeles Blades of the Western Hockey League (WHL). He later joined the San Diego Gulls, the first of a series of California teams.  O’Ree played a total of fourteen years in California where he scored thirty or more goals per season and won two Western Hockey League scoring titles. Despite his status as a star player in the WHL and the NHL expansion into Los Angeles in 1967, O’Ree was never again called to the NHL. Even though he was reportedly the fastest professional skater at that time, the NHL had become aware of his eye injury.  

In 1984 O’Ree was inducted into the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame. In January, 2008 the Boston Bruins and the NHL deputy commissioner honoured Willie O’Ree at TD Bankworth Garden in Boston to mark the 50th anniversary of his NHL debut. In February of 2008, his hometown, the City of Fredericton, dedicated a new sports complex in his honour.

Willie O’Ree lives in Southern California where he is the Director of Youth Development for the NHL/USA Hockey Diversity Task Force, a non-profit program for minority youth that encourages them to learn and play hockey.

Sources:
Willie O’Ree and Michael McKinley, Autobiography of Willie O’Ree: Hockey’s Black Pioneer (Toronto: Somerville House, 2000); Robin Winks, The Blacks in Canada (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997); http://www.fredricton.ca/en/recleisure/2008Jan15OReePlaceNamed.asp.

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