So we all know the story of the great Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers and how important that was for Black athletes. But while the struggles that Jackie endured are well known, there were other athletes that also fought to break color barriers.
Of those athletes is former NHL hockey player Willie O’Ree who was the first Black player in the NHL, getting his start back in the 1950’s. O’Ree was known for his hard hitting play and for being one of the faster skaters on the ice, but he also had a knack for scoring when given the chance. Although Art Dorrington was the first Black player to sign an NHL contract in 1950 with the New York Rangers, he never made it out of the minors and O’Ree became the first Black NHL player in 1958 with the Boston Bruins. We all know that isn’t a knock on Dorrington’s play, it probably had more to do with his race to be honest, but O’Ree was the first. (Note: The first player to break the color barrier in the NHL was Larry Kwong of Chinese decent.)
But O’Ree’s story in the NHL starts when he was called up from the minors to the NHL. Despite the groundbreaking achievement, it did not appear on the nightly news. Even The New York Times did not find it newsworthy since Canada didn’t have the same racial problems that plagued the U.S.. The crazy thing about O’Ree’s story is that we would wait 25 years before another Black NHL player made it.
“Racist remarks were much worse in the U.S. cities than in Toronto and Montreal,” O’Ree recalled. “Fans would yell, ‘Go back to the South’ and ‘How come you’re not picking cotton?’ Things like that. It didn’t bother me. I just wanted to be a hockey player, and if they couldn’t accept that fact, that was their problem, not mine.”
While some people make stereotypical jokes about Black people not liking the cold weather and ice, Wille O’Ree proved that prejudicial joke wrong as he began skating at three years old and began playing hockey in a league at age five.
“That was the thing to do in the winter,” he said. “Everything freezes over, the ponds, rivers, creeks. Every chance I had, I was on the ice. I even skated to school. My Dad squirted the garden hose on the back yard, and we had an instant rink.”
“In the city where my family lived, there were probably only two or three Black families,” says Willie O’Ree. “Most of the black families lived on the outskirts of town. In retrospect, I think my living around whites made me feel I could play in the pros. I always knew I was as good or better than they were.”
Now O’Ree said he faced the typical racial slurs and derogatory statements, but continued playing until he was 43 years old, a career spanning from 1950-1979. But even though O’Ree’s hockey career ended in the 1970s’, as recent as 1998 O’Ree was active as the NHL’s Director of Youth Development for its Diversity Task Force. To this day O’Ree plays a crucial role in Hockey’s development in Southern California.
Lets remember Willie O’Ree and celebrate his achievements as the first Black player to play in the NHL.