Hockey Hall of Famer and the NHL’s first Black player Willie O’Ree has opened up about breaking the color barrier in the NHL and how an accident when he was 14 could’ve derailed his professional career. O’Ree shared this and more during an appearance recently on “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.”
“When I was 14 years of age, I decided I wanted to become a professional hockey player and then hopefully, one day, play in the National Hockey League,” he said. “I started playing organized hockey at 14. I left my hometown to go up to Quebec, Canada to play junior hockey. I played there for one year and then I went to play in Ontario the second year, and that’s when I had an unfortunate accident. The doctor told me I’d never play hockey again, but I kept it a secret and turned pro and was able to play 21 years with one eye.”
O’Ree suffered an eye injury after being struck by a puck during a game with the Kitchener-Waterloo Canucks in the 1955-56 season. He lost 97 percent of his vision in his right eye.
At 14 years old to have the clarity of vision to set a goal that had never been accomplished before speaks to O’Ree’s character and determination. And to not give up after going blind in one eye shows tremendous resolve and fortitude. O’Ree credits his older brother, whom he refers to as his best friend and mentor, for helping him develop those qualities.
O’Ree was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in November 2018, and had his hockey sweater #22 retired in Boston in January 2022. Fitting honors for a man who did so much to improve diversity, in a sport whose culture forced him to endure so much racism.
“It was really rough at the beginning, but finally I gained the respect of the players and the fans,” O’Ree said.
Following his playing career, in 1998, O’Ree became the NHL’s diversity ambassador. He has helped establish 39 grassroots hockey programs in North America as part of the “Hockey is for Everyone” initiative, inspiring more than 130,000 boys and girls to play the sport.
Through the “Hockey Is For Everyone” campaign of the National Hockey League and National Hockey League Players’ Association, the league and various partners and stakeholders are working not only to make the demographics of the sport more in line with the world, but also to make the spaces in and around the sport more welcoming.
“I met a lot of the Black players and the players of color that are playing in the present time and some of them that I’ve met, they’ve said, ‘Willie, I just can’t imagine what you had to go through to make it possible for players like me to play in the League,’ ” O’Ree said. “I have the highest respect and admiration for you. You must have had to turn your cheek 1,000 times.'”
At 86, O’Ree continues to use his platform and receipts as a pioneer to push for a diverse and welcoming sport. His story is and will continue to serve as inspiration for so many who dare to dream the impossible.
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