“If you think you can, you can,” says the first Black athlete to play in the NHL
By Peter Feniak
Willie O’Ree is still skating, though he might not be as fast as he was as a young hockey winger. “I could be at a standstill and, within five strides, I could be at top speed,” the genial 85-year-old remembers from his home in San Diego, California. “Other players would take six or seven. That gave me quite a few breakaways.”
Growing up in Fredericton, O’Ree had speed, agility, and strength—plus dedication and discipline. He would rise higher in hockey than any Black man before him. When on a winter evening—January 18, 1958—he stepped onto the ice at the Montreal Forum wearing the uniform of the Boston Bruins, he became the first Black athlete to play in the National Hockey League. Little was made of this historic step at the time, but over the years, O’Ree found long-deserved recognition. Today he’s known as “the Jackie Robinson of ice hockey.”
O’Ree met Robinson—the Brooklyn Dodgers star who shattered baseball’s colour barrier—twice. O’Ree was 13 and on a trip with his championship bantam baseball team when he first shook hands with the great man and told him he was also a hockey player—one with big-league dreams. When the two met again 13 years later at an NAACP luncheon in Los Angeles, O’Ree was a full-fledged hockey pro, and Robinson remembered him: the Black kid who loved hockey.
Ironically, it might have been baseball that laid its claim on the young O’Ree. He was talented enough to be invited to training camp with the major league Milwaukee Braves. However, that camp was in southern Georgia, where the abundance of whites only signage he saw shook him, as did catcalls from white players. He was relieved to be released—deemed too young—after three weeks.
“Hockey was always a burning desire within me,” O’Ree says. “I started skating at the age of three, playing organized hockey at five. I just played up through the ranks.” His boyhood hockey was an outdoor game, with his parents, Harry and Rosebud, cheering him on from the snowbanks. And when the rinks were busy, “there was pond hockey. I skated on rivers and on lakes, and from time to time, I used to skate to school.”
In his autobiography, Willie (co-authored by Michael McKinley, Viking Canada, 2020), O’Ree writes:
“Hockey thrilled me. It was a kind of life force for me…. I loved the feel of the wind rushing by as I flew down the ice. I loved the sound of the ice chips spraying when I hit the brakes and spun around to charge back the other way. I loved feeling when the puck hit my stick with a crisp thwack and learning how to make that puck feel as if it was on a piece of string.”
One of 13 children, he was nurtured by a strong, supportive family. “I could play any sport I wanted to,” he remembers, “but I had to keep my grades up. My parents were very strict on that. School came first.”
The O’Rees had been part of the community for years. “There was some prejudice,” he says, “but nothing compared to what’s down here in the United States.” In Fredericton, it was understood that Blacks didn’t enter the local barbershop—young Willie went in, anyway, and a friendly barber cut his hair.
O’Ree says he would never hear “the N-word” in Fredericton, but it was different as he began to climb towards the NHL. There had been great non-white hockey players, notably Herb Carnegie of the Quebec Aces, whose white teammate, Jean Béliveau, raved about his talent—but prejudice kept Carnegie from the top league. One NHL owner commented, “I’ll give any man $10,000 who can turn Herb Carnegie white.” (Carnegie, who lived to see a busy Toronto sports arena bear his name, felt the racism deeply—his autobiography is called A Fly in a Pail of Milk (ECW Press, 2019).)
For O’Ree, 16 years younger than Carnegie, the locked door would open slightly, but challenges remained. He recalls the words of his older brother and mentor, Richard:
“He said, ‘Willie, because of the colour of your skin, you’re going to be called names. But I believe you can stay focused on what you want to do. And besides, if they can’t accept you for the individual that you are, it’s their problem, not yours. Just go out and work hard, and everything else has a way of working out.’ And I think that’s the way I’ve lived all my life.”
O’Ree skated past racist taunts throughout his career, but he also faced another remarkable challenge—something almost nobody knew of: an on-ice injury had left him blind in one eye. From California, he tells the story in a matter-of-fact way:
“I had a good [first] year [in junior hockey in Quebec City], and during the summer, I was traded to the Kitchener-Waterloo Canucks. We were playing in Guelph. Around the second period, I’m in front of the net for a deflection. One of our defencemen does a slap shot and the puck ricochets off of a stick and it comes up and strikes me in the right eye. It hit me flat. Broke my nose and cracked the front of my cheek. I remember dropping down to the ice. The next thing I know, I’m in an ambulance.”
A surgeon explained that the puck had seriously damaged the retina in O’Ree’s right eye. “He said, ‘You’re going to be blind in that eye and you’ll never play hockey again,’” O’Ree recalls. “Well, I was 19 and the goals and dreams that I’d set for myself seemingly were gone. I remained at the hospital for another three days. I was back on the ice within four weeks.”
That took some adjustments.
“As a left-winger, I had to completely turn my head to the right and look over my right shoulder to pick the puck and the play up. I was overskating the puck and missing the net, and I said to myself, Willie, forget about what you can’t see and concentrate on what you can see.”
He kept skating, sharing his story with only one person—his sister Betty:
“I said, ‘Sis, please, if you say anything, if word gets out that I’m blind in my right eye, I’ll never play pro hockey.’ She kept it a secret. My parents said, ‘Oh, thank God he’s back to playing; his eye is recovered.’ I never told them, never told my close friends. Then Punch Imlach, the coach and general manager of the Quebec Aces—the pro team up in Quebec City—contacted me. He wanted me to come to training camp. I made the team. I just thought, Well, it’s my good luck to play with one eye—just don’t tell them.”
Willie describes the long career that followed, including the excitement of a brief call-up to the Boston Bruins (and his first NHL game) in early 1958 and then 43 games with the team—the majority of a season—in 1960–61.
That was also his last taste of the NHL. He wonders today if rumours had begun to circulate about his eyesight. Then there were the other odds against him. Until 1967, when the league first expanded, there were only 132 positions open in the NHL’s Original Six teams. Today, the league has more than 700 players.
After the Bruins, O’Ree continued to play at a high level, in the Western Hockey League—especially when he discovered a new on-ice position:
“In 1965, with the Los Angeles Blades, Alfie Pike, the coach, had about six or seven left-wingers and only one right wing,” O’Ree remembers. “He said, ‘Willie, have you ever played right wing?’ I said, ‘No, left wing—left-hand shot, all my career.’ He says, ‘I’d like you to give it a try. I could use your speed on the right side.’ I switch over, and now I know the boards are right there on my right—I don’t have to be turning my head left and right. I can see the play. It took me about half a dozen games until I fit right in—played right wing that year and won the goal-scoring title. I had 38 goals. And then when I went to San Diego in ’69, I won the title again.”
California suited O’Ree. He played into his early 40s, scoring more than 300 goals in the Western Hockey League, all the time keeping his secret. It was no secret, though, that a Black man playing this traditionally white sport had a target on his back. His memoir recalls the fans in Chicoutimi, QC, who chanted “maudit [racist expletive]” at the Black player on the opposing team. “There wasn’t a game in my first NHL season when an ugly racial remark wasn’t directed at me,” he writes in Willie. “Players would cross-check me. They’d take runs at me to knock me into the boards. They wanted to see what a Black guy would do.
“One night after an opposing player had called me the N-word, I skated up to the referee and told him, ‘This guy just called me a nasty name.’ The referee said, ‘What do you want me to do about it?’ and skated away. I got the message. I just wanted to concentrate on hockey. But guys were always taking shots at my head. I tried to protect myself. They dropped their gloves. I dropped my gloves. They fought with sticks. I fought with my stick. I gained the respect of the fans back then [and] the respect of a lot of players from the opposition.”
The Fredericton native is happier talking about his good times in the game and the warmth he felt in Boston as an NHL’er:
“I first went to Boston’s training camp in ’57 and met Johnny Bucyk and Bronco Horvath, Leo Labine, Jerry Toppazzini, Fernie Flaman. They became good friends.” Boston is often called a city with a racism problem. When O’Ree first played for the Bruins, baseball’s Boston Red Sox had yet to sign a Black player. But the city embraced the hard-working forward. Coach Milt Schmidt famously told reporters, “He’s not Black, he’s a Bruin.” Goals were hard to come by, but when O’Ree finally scored his first in Boston Garden, “they gave me a two-minute standing ovation!”
Settling in California, O’Ree married, and he and his wife had two sons, Kevin and Darren. That marriage ended in divorce, but his second marriage, to Deljeet, has lasted. He and Deljeet have a daughter, Chandra.
Like most professional athletes, O’Ree faced a tough transition when retirement came. Post-hockey, he took a range of jobs, finally finding himself working in security at San Diego’s posh Hotel del Coronado. He dreamt that one day he might reconnect with the NHL.
In 1996, as O’Ree entered his 60s, a surprise call came. Bryant McBride “explained his ‘Hockey Is For Everyone’ program, and it rang a bell in my ear,” O’Ree says.
A Chicago-born business executive who had been a fine hockey player in his Sault Ste. Marie youth, McBride had a résumé that included both West Point and Harvard. He was also African-American and he sensed O’Ree’s value to the NHL’s diversity initiative. Young Black hockey players needed to be supported, to feel welcomed in the game. O’Ree had personality and he’d gone through the experience; he knew there was still much work to be done. After his 1958 NHL debut, it wasn’t until 1974 that Ontario’s Mike Marson and Nova Scotia’s Bill Riley became the second and third Black players to make the big league.
Today there are 43 non-white players in hockey’s top league. Each one knows about “hockey’s Jackie Robinson.” In his heartfelt preface to Willie, long-time Calgary Flames star Jarome Iginla salutes O’Ree as a trailblazer. Current NHL’er Wayne Simmonds adds, “for every [Black] kid who was ever told to stick to basketball, Willie was like the first man on the moon. He wasn’t just a hockey player. He was an astronaut.”
O’Ree and his hometown remain close—though remembering childhood winters, he laughs, “I shovelled enough snow to last a lifetime.” He returns each year to see family and close friends.
A group of those friends gave their energy to a petition to include him in the Hockey Hall of Fame; in 2018, in the “builder” category, O’Ree made the cut. An award-winning feature-length documentary—Willie—brings that successful campaign to joyful life. And today, a gleaming state-of-the-art arena in Fredericton honours the city’s native son, in the two official languages, as Place Willie O’Ree Place.
“I feel blessed,” he says from California. “Over these past years, so many wonderful things have happened in my life—getting the Order of Canada, being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, and now I’m going into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame. There was the documentary. And the Canadian Mint produced a 20-dollar silver piece: a picture of me in a Bruins uniform on the front and, on the back, a picture of the Queen.”
The Willie documentary also follows O’Ree on a journey into his family’s past. In South Carolina, he discovers Paris O’Ree—his great-great-grandfather
—who lived as a slave to a military officer with the French name “Hoary” (pronounced O-Ree). After the American War of Independence, Paris O’Ree courageously made his way to Canada.
“I didn’t really know a lot about my ancestry,” O’Ree says. “My mom and dad didn’t talk about it. In the archives, [when] we saw the map where the O’Ree family lived in Carolina, I had tears in my eyes. I couldn’t hold them back. My people had to go through so much.”
When travel resumes post-pandemic, O’Ree will continue as a diversity ambassador for the NHL. He loves his time with young people. He never tires of reminiscing about the NHL he knew: “Sawchuk, Worsley, Doug Harvey, Ted Lindsay—so many great players.” He treasures his brief moments on ice with his idols, Maurice “Rocket” Richard and Gordie Howe. Most important, he shares what he has learned about meeting challenges and seeking your dreams “at schools, Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCAs and YWCAs, juvenile-detention facilities….
“I tell these boys and girls, ‘Stay in school—get an education.’ I tell them, ‘Think good about yourself, like yourself, and work hard. There’s no substitute for hard work. If you set goals and work towards your goals, don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t reach them.’ The phrase I use: ‘If you think you can, you can; if you think you can’t, you’re right’…there’s a lot of truth to that.”
Photo: The Canadian Press/Stephen MacGillivray.