By: Andrew Thompson Twitter: @godwentwhoops
Today is the 60th anniversary of Willie O’ Ree playing in the NHL. He was the first African-American player to suit up in the league, and he did it while wearing the Black and Gold of the Boston Bruins. O’ Ree ended up playing against the Montreal Canadiens that night (another page in the glorious history of the rivalry between those two teams).
Willie O’ Ree set a standard for the NHL. He integrated into the league in a time where integration wasn’t considered to be a good idea. He gave everything he had. Every night. (Looking at other people who were blessed enough to have the privilege to wear the Black and Gold, that should be enough). O’Ree ended up playing only 45 games in the NHL, but all of them were for the Boston Bruins.
O’Ree’s career is extensive. During his 28 season career (1950-1979), O’ Ree played in ten different leagues. He played at the NHL level despite being nearly blind in his right eye (a fact he kept hidden in order to play in Boston).
O’ Ree still checks in on the Bruins from time to time, when he isn’t helping grow the sport of hockey around the world.
— Boston Bruins (@NHLBruins) January 16, 2018
For the last 20 years O’ Ree has been the diversity ambassador to the NHL. He tirelessly strives for the day where any kid can learn the game of hockey.
The Boston sports fan community hasn’t always been painted in the best light over the years. There have been a tiny minority of fans who have said and done stupid things in the name of the fandom (and bigotry). While some people still believe that Boston should still be painted with a racist brush, O’Ree disagrees.
He even regards Boston as his second home.
“You’re going to have racism, prejudice, bigotry, and ignorance all over. I had it when I played. The one thing I did was I just ignored it. I just told myself ‘I’m a black player playing hockey. If people can’t accept me for the individual that I am — because I had the skills and the ability to play hockey at that time — then that’s their problem, not mine,’ ” said O’Ree about his confronting bigotry while playing pro hockey.
Willie O’ Ree was inducted into the Order of Canada in 2008.
A case should be made about inducting him in the NHL Hall of Fame. Granted 45 games isn’t enough to be considered to make that much of an impact as a player. But there is a category that fits O’Ree to a tee.
O’Ree should be inducted into the Hall of Fame under the ‘builder’ category. As diversity ambassador, he has brought hockey to all parts of the world. He has spent the last two decades expanding the fan base. (Besides, if Jeremy Jacobs (the guy that held the reins for two lockouts and was the silent voice behind a third) can qualify as a builder, then O’Ree certain deserves the nod.)
Happy Anniversary to one of Boston’s living legends. He made the game of hockey a better place to play in.