willie o’ree – the other black experience

January 28, 2010

First Black player in the National Hockey League
Special thanks to AP Community member Amoni for telling us about him!
Willie O’Ree was born on October 15, 1935 in Fredericton, New Brunswick in Canada. He began playing ice hockey as a child in Canada and was playing in a local league by the time he was 5 years old. “That was the thing to do in the winter,” he says. “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.”
O’Ree went on to play with various leagues in Canada and made his debut in the National Hockey League (NHL) in 1958 with the Boston bruins.
While Art Dorrington was the first black player to sign an NHL contract, in 1950 with the New York Rangers organization, Dorrington never played beyond the minor league level.

Rocky Mountain News correspondent Marty York says that O’Ree faced an uphill battle from his first moments in the NHL until his premature consignment to the minor leagues in 1961. “Suffice it to say that, while O’Ree desperately tried to establish himself as an NHLer in the 1950s and 1960s, he was a victim of blatant racism, of the sort of human degradation that you and I might be able to comprehend only with the help of Hollywood,” wrote York. “Few spared O’Ree from torment. Not opponents. Not fans. Not the men who governed hockey. It was hell on ice.”
“I wanted dearly to be just another hockey player, but I knew I couldn’t be,” O’Ree told the Rocky Mountain News. “No matter how hard I played or how fast I skated, people just kept making references to my color.”
“Racist remarks from fans were much worse in the U.S. cities than in Toronto and Montreal. I particularly remember a few incidents in Chicago. The fans would yell, ‘Go back to the south’ and ‘How come you’re not picking cotton.’ Things like that. It didn’t bother me. Hell, I’d been called names most of my life. I just wanted to be a hockey player, and if they couldn’t accept that fact, that was their problem, not mine.”
The Boston Bruins later sold his contract to the Montreal Canadans without notifying him. O’Ree learned about the deal when he got a call from a sportswriter asking him what he thought of the trade.
He went on to play for the Los Angeles Blades and the San Diego Gulls, and retired in 1974. In 1978, at age 43, The San Diego Hawks invited him to join their team. O’Ree, still in good shape, scored 50 points that season.
He now lives in San diego. The NHL created an all-star game for young minority hockey players and named it in his honor. The Willie O’Ree All-Star Game is held every year at the World Junior Championships. Minority players are still rare in the NHL. “I think blacks have just said, ‘Hey, this is too hard to get into,’” O’Ree told the News and Sun-Sentinel. “Baseball can be played in any area, but with hockey you need to get on to the ice. It costs $150-$160 just for the equipment. That’s a big factor.”

Willie O’Ree at the NHL All Star Game on January 25, 2009 in Montreal, Canada. (Photo by Phillip MacCallum/Getty Images for NHL)