Hockey pioneer O'Ree to receive Fredericton honours

The City of Fredericton will pay tribute this week to local hero Willie O'Ree, who became the first black player in the National Hockey League a half-century ago.

The City of Fredericton will pay tribute this week to local hero Willie O'Ree, who became the first black player in the National Hockey League 50 years ago.

The New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame will honour O'Ree on Tuesday at the Fredericton Inn at a special ceremony. O'Ree was inducted in 1984.

"I think it’s going to be a nice way to cover his life here, [and] his connection to Fredericton, which he still holds very dear to him," said Krista Morrissey, executive director of the Hall of Fame.

The hockey pioneer, now 72, will also be on hand the next night when the city’s new Northside Sports & Leisure Complex will be renamed Willie O'Ree Place.

In addition to friends and relatives, those expected to attend the festivities are:

  • Former 50-goal NHL scorer and New Brunswick native Danny Grant.
  • Gerry Ouellette, O'Ree's teammate on the 1960-61 Bruins.
  • Louis George and Tim Bliss, who go all the way back with O'Ree to the Fredericton Capitals of the early 1950s.

"Fredericton hasn't built sports complexes in quite a long time and everything seemed to come together," said Mayor Brad Woodside. "When this new one was under construction, we started talking about recognizing Willie."

Representatives from the NHL will be on hand, and the likes of Wayne Gretzky, and Hockey Night in Canada 's Ron MacLean and Don Cherry will be part of a video tribute.

O'Ree grew up in Fredericton and was was just 22 when he suited up for the Bruins at the Montreal Forum on Jan. 18, 1958, playing alongside greats like Johnny Bucyk and Bronco Horvath, and going up against future Hall of Famers such as Jacques Plante, Jean Beliveau and Doug Harvey.

O’Ree recorded four goals and 10 assists in 45 games over two stints with Boston. He was traded to Montreal but never played for the Canadiens, settling into a long, productive professional career in the old Western Hockey League with teams based in California, where he now resides.

Eddie St. Pierre, a longtime sportswriter in the province, remembers O'Ree's progress well.

"I saw him play when he was very young and you could tell then that he had potential to go places, which he did. He was a very good skater," St. Pierre told "I think he was still in high school and he was playing with the Fredericton senior Capitials when I first started writing, in the mid-'50s."

O'Ree indeed made the jump from the junior to senior Caps, scoring seven goals in as many games in Allan Cup play for the Caps in 1954.

In addition to the colour barrier, his ascension to the NHL was made more remarkable by the fact he took a puck to the face not long after, essentially leaving him without vision in his right eye. Few knew the seriousness of the injury, and he switched from left wing to the right flank to compensate.

For the past decade, O'Ree has overseen the NHL Diversity program, which provides affordable hockey opportunities for youth from all backgrounds, often in non-traditional hockey markets.

O'Ree will be recognized by the NHL during all-star weekend in Atlanta from Jan. 26-27.

Woodside said he and about 40 other area residents will travel to Boston to be there for O'Ree when he is honoured by the Bruins during Saturday afternoon's game against the New York Rangers.

With files from the Canadian Press