On January 18th, 1958, Willie O’Ree laced up his skates and stepped on to the ice for the Boston Bruins. Unbeknownst to O’Ree, he had just broken the color barrier and became the first Black player in NHL history.
The Canadian player faced what many would consider to be overwhelming odds, which included having to play while racists spewed their venom and, more surprisingly, making to the NHL while being almost completely blind in his right eye due to taking a shot in the face while playing junior hockey.
Despite the lack of sight in his right eye, O’Ree persevered and played two seasons in the NHL with the Bruins, skating for a total of 45 total games in the 1957-58 and 1960-61 seasons. He spent the majority of his career, more than two decades, playing for leagues such as the AHL, EPHL, QHL and the Western Hockey League (WHL). He spent 13 years in the latter, playing for the Los Angeles Blades and San Diego Gulls, amassing a career stat line consisting of 328 goals and 311 assists.
After O’Ree left the NHL ice in 1961, the League didn’t see another Black player until 1974 when Mike Marson suited up for the Capitals.
On Tuesday, O’Ree, at the age of 82, finally got the call he (and everyone else) has been waiting for, and he will now be headed to the Hockey Hall of Fame.
The groundbreaking player has been eligible for the Hall of Fame since 1962 and while his stats might not be that impressive, his true greatness and importance is in what he accomplished, endured and set up as the League’s first Black player. Without O’Ree, players such as Jarome Iginla, P.K. Subban and Wayne Simmonds might not have gotten the chance to put their skills on display for all to witness and appreciate.
Today is a great day for @NHL and the game of hockey! I’m very proud to be an NHLer! @thehockeyhalloffame #HHOF https://t.co/nnhMaq3SxS
I cant think of anyone who has done more to broaden the appeal of our great sport to new audiences, Simmonds wrote in The Player’s Tribune. Hes a living hero to so many of us, and he deserves to be honored as a legend of the game.
“For every kid who was ever told to ‘stick to basketball,’ Willie was like the first man on the moon.” Wayne Simmonds wants to see his hero Willie O’Ree in the Hall of Fame.
This honor would not be possible if I had not rejoined the league in 1996, ORee said in a release published by the NHL. I was given a second wind to give back to the game and I am honored to be recognized.
And his recognition extends to his contributions off of the ice, where he has mentored Black players and worked with the NHL’s Hockey is for Everyone program, which promotes diversity and inclusion in the sport of ice hockey. And while hockey has not completely shed itself of the racism which O’Ree had to face by himself six decades ago, it’s only right that the League finally recognized one of the most important players in the history of their game and honor him the right way with enshrinement.