O'Ree had vision as NHL pioneer

Willie O'Ree knows it. If eye examinations were required to pass a physical, he would never have been the first black player to appear in a National Hockey League game.

As it turned out, breaking the color barrier wasn't nearly as challenging as trying to find the puck on the left wing when he couldn't see a thing out of his right eye.

"I told myself, 'Don't concentrate on what you can't see, concentrate on what you can see,' " O'Ree said.

Ironically, it was others who could not see what was inside O'Ree. The 5-foot-10, 175-pound swift skater, who grew up on the frozen ponds in a small mining town near Fredericton, New Brunswick, wouldn't let his NHL dream die even after taking a deflected slap shot to the right side of his face as a 21-year-old. When told by a surgeon that damage to his retina would prevent him from playing hockey again, O'Ree became even more determined to do just that.

"He was a fine physician, but he didn't know the goal I'd set for myself and how I felt inside," O'Ree said. "I was going to go out and prove him wrong."

O'Ree, the director of youth development for the NHL's diversity program, sees everything now, despite losing 95 percent vision in the eye. He sees the fruits of spending the last 10 years introducing hockey to inner-city children, and he has seen black players achieve greatness in the NHL.

"The programs are 10 times better from when they first started," said San Jose Sharks forward Mike Grier, one of 12 black players in the league. "Willie has put in a lot of his own time – he's one of the genuinely nice people out there. Minority players owe him a lot."

What O'Ree has the most trouble envisioning is that Friday is the 50th anniversary of his becoming the NHL's first African Canadian or African American player.

"It seems like just yesterday I stepped on the ice at the old Montreal Forum on Saint Catherine Street," O'Ree said.

It was no easy feat reaching the NHL in 1958 regardless of skin color; there were only six teams. O'Ree was playing senior hockey for the Quebec Aces when he received the historic midseason call-up, and was inserted into the Boston Bruins' lineup on Jan. 18, 1958.

Boston general manager Lynn Patrick and coach Milt Schmidt gave O'Ree words of encouragement that not only made him feel at home but eased his fears.

"They said, 'Don't worry about anything else, just go out and play hockey and the Bruins organization will be behind you 100 percent,' " O'Ree recalled. "That gave me the confidence I needed."

Because the rival and last-place Bruins shut out the beloved Canadiens that night 3-0, O'Ree's debut was hardly the topic of news reports that followed, unlike Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball nearly 11 years earlier. But that is not to suggest O'Ree didn't face similar struggles.

His story is similar to so many Canadian youths. The youngest of 13 children, O'Ree began skating at 3, was in a league two years later and couldn't wait to get home from school to skate on a makeshift backyard rink made by his father.

He also played baseball. Well enough, in fact, that the Milwaukee Braves invited O'Ree, a second baseman, to a minor-league camp in Waycross, Ga., in 1956. Determined not to let anything interfere with his budding hockey career, he stayed just three weeks, but found life far different in the South.

There were racial taunts, restaurants were segregated and when he rode a bus he had to sit in the back.

His Bruins debut was brief. After that first game in Montreal, the teams boarded the same train bound for Boston where the Canadiens won two nights later. O'Ree was sent back to the minors with no goals, no points and no penalty minutes, but plenty of memories.

"Nobody called me the Jackie Robinson of hockey then, but that's how I felt," said O'Ree, who spent most of the next two seasons in the minors. "Of course, Jackie had far worse things happen to him."

The remainder of O'Ree's NHL career consisted of four goals and 14 points to go with 26 penalty minutes during 43 games in 1960-61 with the Bruins.

O'Ree faced racist taunts during his brief time in the league in cities like Detroit, New York and Chicago. He refused to turn to fighting, but one night in Chicago he had enough.

O'Ree suffered a broken nose and had two teeth knocked out by Blackhawks forward Eric Nesterenko, who blindsided him with a butt-end stick to the face. O'Ree retaliated by clubbing Nesterenko over the head with his stick, opening a gash that needed 15 stitches to close and precipitating a bench-clearing brawl.

"I wanted dearly to be just another hockey player, but I knew I couldn't be," said O'Ree, who will be honored in Boston on Saturday prior to the start of the Rangers-Bruins game. "No matter how hard I played or how fast I skated, people just kept making references to my color."

Following the 1960-61 season, the Bruins traded O'Ree to Montreal. He never made it back to the NHL, but played 16 more seasons in the minor leagues, mostly on the West Coast, keeping his blindness a secret the whole time.

"Willie was just another guy," former Bruins teammate Doug Mohns said. "We got a kick out of him because he had a great sense of humor and was fun to be with. He was a real gentleman, but most important to us, he was a hard worker. He went full tilt every shift."

O'Ree's pioneering efforts inspired a younger generation of black players. Grant Fuhr won his first Stanley Cup in 1984. He captured a Vezina Trophy as the league's top goalie in 1988, the same season Chicago's Dirk Graham was named the league's first black captain and St. Louis' Tony McKegney was the first black player to score 40 goals.

Ten years later, Graham would be the first black to be named a head coach (Chicago), Fuhr the first to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003 and Calgary's Jarome Iginla was first in 2002 to win the Art Ross and Rocket Richard trophies along with the Lester B. Pearson Award.

"He had to be that much better than anybody else just to get an opportunity," Fuhr said of O'Ree. "He's the one who made it real for us."

Today, O'Ree travels 15 days a month across Canada and the U.S. for autograph sessions, speaking engagements and clinics. It can take a toll on a 72-year-old man, but O'Ree says he'll maintain his schedule for at least another couple years.

"My dad said, 'Willie, find a job you love and you'll never work a day in your life,' " O'Ree said. "This position I have is just one of those jobs.

"Sometimes the traveling gets to me a little bit, but once I reach my destination and conduct a clinic or give a presentation I forget about the long flight. Maybe my bag is going to Chicago and I'm going to New York, but all in all it's been very rewarding to me."