Willie O’Ree still spreading love of hockey 54 years after breaking NHL’s color barrier

Sean Leahy

NEW YORK, N.Y. -- When Willie O'Ree stepped on to the ice for the Boston Bruins at the Montreal Forum the night of Jan. 18, 1958, it didn't even hit him that he was doing something historic. Despite it being his first game in the NHL, nerves weren't much of a factor, either.

Playing at the Forum wasn't a new experience for O'Ree. Years in junior hockey and a couple of training camps with the Boston Bruins had seen him play at the fabled Montreal arena countless times.

But the next day, the 23-year old O'Ree realized his first NHL game had become much more than an individual accomplishment.

That night, Willie O'Ree became the first person of color to play in the NHL.

Like baseball's Jackie Robinson 11 years prior, O'Ree faced taunts and racial slurs from opponents and rival fans. And like Robinson, he failed to react to the negativity that came his way in certain cities and focused on hockey.

"All I wanted to do was go out and play hockey and try to represent the hockey club to the best of my ability," said O'Ree Wednesday morning on the 54th anniversary of his breaking the NHL's color barrier. "I knew I was a black player playing in the league. I knew I was going to get racial slurs from not only players on the opposition, but fans in the stands, but I didn't let it bother me."

Growing up in Fredericton, New Brunswick, the youngest of 13 children, O'Ree looked up not only to NHL legends Gordie Howe and Maurice Richard, but also to his brother Richard, who served as a mentor growing up and told him if he wanted to become a professional hockey player, specifically one of color, there would be certain obstacles to overcome.

Race wasn't the only obstacle that O'Ree had to get around.

When he was 19, O'Ree took a puck to his right eye, shattering the retina and causing permanent blindness. A surgeon told him he would never play hockey again. A short time later he began skating and eventually returned to playing, making his way to the Quebec Aces of the Quebec Hockey League, who's coach and general manager at one time was Hockey Hall of Famer Punch Imlach.

Not once during his 21-year career did O'Ree receive an eye exam. After time to adjust to only having vision in his left eye -- especially playing as a left wing -- he continued to be a productive player when his career settled in the Western Hockey League with the Los Angeles Blades and San Diego Gulls. Eventually, due to coach Alfie Pike's need for a right wing, O'Ree made the switch to right wing and won the WHL's scoring title with 38 goals in the 1964-65 season and being named to four All-Star teams.

For the last 14 years, O'Ree has served as the NHL's Director of Youth Development and ambassador for NHL Diversity helping grow the game by introducing hockey young boys and girls all across North America. When NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman first hired him, there were only a handful of programs in the U.S. and Canada. Today there are over 30 and growing annually.

In his time spreading the world that "Hockey is for Everyone", O'Ree has exposed the game to tens of thousands of young children.

"We won't turn any girl or boy away."

At 76, O'Ree still travels around North America running clinics for kids and speaking as schools. Later this month he'll be appearing in Atlantic City, New Jersey and Ottawa for the respective AHL and NHL All-Star Weekends.

Later this year he'll host the fourth annual Willie O'Ree Skills Weekend in Buffalo, which features 50 kids from each of the programs around North America for a weekend of hockey and off-ice life skills training.

O'Ree's message envelopes the story of his hockey career:

"You have to believe in yourself and you have to like yourself to be able to reach your goals," he said. "My expression is 'If you think you can, you can. If you think you can't, you're right' and there's a lot of truth in that. If you set goals for yourself and work towards your goals and make things happen, everything seems to work out."

In April of 2010, O'Ree was awarded with the Order of Canada, which honors a lifetime of outstanding achievement, dedication to the community and service to the nation.

O'Ree doesn't consider what his does as a job. He gets to continue to be a part of the game and now passes along his love for it to young boys and girls across North America.

"Besides playing pro hockey and playing in the NHL, which is the greatest thing I ever did, working with these kids today and being able to just help them set goals for themselves and work with them towards their goals is a great thing," he said.

"I think sometimes it's better than me breaking the color barrier."

Follow Sean Leahy on Twitter at @Sean_Leahy