Bruins History: Willie O’Ree was a Game-Changer

( Photo Credit: CNN / CNN Sports / NHL / Hockey Hall of Fame )

By: Craig Eagles | Follow Me On Twitter @Eags37

William O’Ree was born on October 15, 1935, in Fredericton, New Brunswick. The youngest of thirteen children, Willie grew up idolizing his siblings but was also eager to blaze his own unique path in life and sport. William O’Ree’s inspirational journey in sport would change the game of hockey forever.

Hometown Pride

Willie O’Ree’s grandparents came to Canada from the United States through the Underground Railroad to escape the horrors of slavery. Their journey to freedom would eventually lead them to the New Brunswick capital.

Growing up as a minority in any city or province was fraught with challenges during that era. It was a different time. It was a different world. O’Ree’s family was one of only two black families that lived in Fredericton during that time. Harry O’Ree, Willie’s father, was a civil engineer who worked in the city’s road maintenance industry. Rosebud and Harry introduced their children early on to the value and importance of sport. Willie O’Ree instantly fell in love with the game of hockey.

O’Ree started playing the game at three years old and was playing organized hockey in the city by five. He honed his skills for hours on end on the family’s backyard rink and at the local school rink. Frozen feet and numb fingers never deterred O’Ree’s passion for the game. O’Ree wrote in his autobiography, Hockey’s Black Pioneer, that color was never an issue on those early rinks. The color of skin never mattered when you were on the ice playing the game you loved.

“The fact that I was black never came up when we played as kids,” he recalled. “You could have been purple with a green stripe down the middle of your forehead, and it wouldn’t have mattered. It was only later when I became older, that I learned what “color barrier” meant.” The dream to play at hockey’s highest level was alive and well. No barrier could ever stop Willie O’Ree.

The Dream

By the time Willie O’Ree was 15 years old, he played for the Fredericton Falcons in the New Brunswick Amateur Hockey Association. Over the next three years, O’Ree progressed through the Fredericton hockey system, putting in time with the Fredericton Merchants of the York County Hockey League and the Fredericton Capitals of the New Brunswick Senior Hockey League. After a season with the Junior Capitals, O’Ree made a step up to the senior ranks for a full season in 1953–54. While with the Fredericton Capitals, O’Ree played in the Allan Cup tournament, where he scored seven goals in seven games.

At 19, O’Ree realized he would have to move away from his beloved hometown to further his career in hopes of one day reaching his dream to play in the National Hockey League. In the 1954–55 season, he joined the Quebec Frontenacs of the Quebec Junior Hockey League, where he had 27 goals and 17 assists for 44 points in 43 games. The following season O’Ree joined the Kitchener Canucks of the Ontario Hockey Association when the unthinkable happened; he was struck in the face by a puck, suffering a broken nose and cheekbone. The incident caused O’Ree to lose roughly 95 percent of the vision in his right eye.

His lifelong dream was in jeopardy. Doctors advised him to stop playing, but the high scoring winger was back on the ice within two months. For the next several years, Willie O’Ree and those close to him had to protect a secret. According to NHL bylaws, the league forbade players blind in one eye from competing. Regardless, O’Ree was determined as ever to make the NHL.

To compensate for his blindness while playing left-wing, O’Ree had to turn his head far over his right shoulder. In that era of the game, playing on your off wing was never imagined; hockey purists would never allow it. After only one year in Ontario, O’Ree returned to Québec, where he starred for the famed Quebec Aces of the QHL.

The Bright Lights

After a stellar season in 1956-57 and another strong showing the following season, Willie O’Ree finally received the call he had been waiting for his entire life. He would finally get the chance to live out his childhood dream with the Boston Bruins.

It should be noted that this was less than 11 years after Jackie Robinson made history by breaking the long-standing and, sadly, long protected color line in major league baseball. Resistance to this type of change was still very obvious. Perhaps one of the most telling signs of this resistance is the fact that while O’Ree would break this critical social barrier with the Bruins two full years before the city’s MLB club, the Red Sox would accomplish the same. Much of the adversity that O’Ree was insulated from in Fredericton would rise to the surface in the ensuing years as he wound his path to the NHL, making this achievement all the more remarkable.

The Bruins were set to face their archrivals, the Montreal Canadiens. It seemed only fitting that O’Ree would make his NHL debut in the mecca of Canadian hockey, the famed Montreal Forum. On January 18, 1958, the game changed forever, the day Willie O’Ree broke hockey’s color barrier. O’Ree and the Bruins would skate to a 3-0 victory that night, but the greatest victory that night was felt off the ice.

Willie O’Ree’s courageous and inspirational journey to the NHL paved the way not only for other Maritimers but for all minorities dreaming that anything is possible when it comes to the game of hockey. O’Ree would only play two games for the B’s that season and would have to wait another three seasons before becoming an NHL regular, with B’s playing 43 games in 1960-61.

O’Ree would never return to the NHL, but his impact and legacy will live on. The proud New Brunswicker went on to play 14 more years of hockey with the Hull-Ottawa Canadiens of the Eastern Professional Hockey League, the Los Angeles Blades and San Diego Gulls of the Western Hockey League, the New Haven Nighthawks of the American Hockey League, and the San Diego Mariners of the Pacific Coast League.

A Lasting Legacy

In 1998, O’Ree became the NHL’s Director of Youth Development and an ambassador for the NHL Diversity program. Since that time, he has traveled throughout North America to promote grassroots hockey programs, focusing on serving economically disadvantaged children. In 2003, O’Ree was named the Lester Patrick Trophy winner for his outstanding service to hockey in the United States, and in 2010 he received the Order of Canada for his outstanding service to youth development and promoting hockey within North America.

O’Ree also received the Order of New Brunswick in 2005 and was named an honored member of the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame, where he was inducted in 1984. In 2018, Willie O’Ree received hockey’s highest honor; induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

In total Willie, O’Ree suited up for 45 NHL games; 45 NHL games in hockey’s toughest era. In that era of the game, everything was earned, nothing was taken for granted, and the competition was fierce. Willie O’Ree battled and endured discrimination and racism throughout his journey in the game to live out his childhood dream.

45 NHL games, but a lifetime of inspiration. 45 NHL games that changed the game of hockey forever. A Maritime hockey legend, an amazing role model, and a hero to so many. Hockey’s greatest ambassador, Willie O’Ree, will have his number retired by the Bruins on February 18th. 

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