CBC Digital Archives

Breaking hockey's colour barrier

February is Black History Month. In Canada, it's a time to celebrate the achievements of black Canadians and reflect on their experiences throughout our past. CBC Digital Archives has pulled together a selection of radio and TV clips that honour black history — some of which exemplify the racism blacks have had to endure and overcome, both in Canada and around the world, while others highlight the remarkable accomplishments of extraordinary people.

In 1958, Canada's Willie O'Ree became the first black man to play in the National Hockey League. But despite a few reporters dubbing him "the Jackie Robinson of hockey," O'Ree never became the household name that baseball's Robinson was. "I kind of just faded into history," says O'Ree in this 2008 CBC radio clip. To mark the 50th anniversary of his first NHL game -- and to combat his relatively low profile in history -- O'Ree is being celebrated in his hometown of Fredericton during "Willie O'Ree Week."
• Willie O'Ree was born in Fredericton on Oct. 15, 1935. The son of a city civil engineer, he belonged to one of only two black families in his neighbourhood.

• While playing minor league hockey for the Quebec Aces of the Quebec Hockey League, O'Ree was recruited to replace an injured Boston Bruins player. His first NHL game was against the Montreal Canadiens on Jan. 18, 1958.

• According to a 2001 article on NHL.com, the press barely mentioned this racial milestone. O'Ree has admitted he was bit concerned about this lack of media attention -- not for personal reasons, but because more publicity might have encouraged a greater number of young black men to pursue hockey careers.

• O'Ree never felt any racism from his Boston Bruins teammates, who simply accepted him as an equal. But he did have to contend with nasty racial slurs and abuse from a number of spectators and opponents. He said he made the decision to not let this bother him, because he didn't want it to affect his game.

• There wasn't another black NHL player until Mike Marson was drafted by the Washington Capitals in 1974.

• O'Ree played only two games with the Bruins in 1958 before going back to the minor leagues, but he was brought back to the Bruins again in 1961. He played 43 NHL games that year, scoring four goals and tallying 10 assists. The following year he went back to the minor leagues, playing mainly in the Western Hockey League until 1979, when he retired from hockey at the age of 43.

• O'Ree returned to the NHL in 1998, but not as a player. He became the director of youth development for the NHL/USA Hockey Diversity Task Force, a role he has found extremely rewarding. He still held this role when this clip went to air in January 2008.

• In addition to the festivities in Fredericton, the 50th anniversary was also celebrated with an exhibit at the Sports Museum of New England, as well as special tributes at a Boston Bruins game and during the All-Star Game weekend in January 2008.

Medium: Radio
Program: The Inside Track
Broadcast Date: Jan. 20, 2008
Guest(s): Peter Allison, Gary Bettman, Louis George, Bob Kenny, Ken Martin, Jr., Thelma Mitchell, Willie O'Ree, Gerry (Red) Ouellette
Host: Robin Brown
Reporter: Teddy Katz
Duration: 12:22

Last updated: February 19, 2013

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

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