Willie O'Ree, the NHL's first black player was just 22 when he suited up for the Boston Bruins at the Montreal Forum on Jan. 18, 1958. (Patricia McDonnell/Associated Press)
Willie O'Ree and the struggle for black NHLers
O'Ree cleared the ice for generations of black players
Last Updated Wed., Jan. 16, 2007
By Chris Iorfida, CBC Sports
Willie O'Ree has always been proud about breaking the colour barrier in the National Hockey League, an event that occurred 50 years ago but resonates strongly today.
O'Ree was just 22 when he suited up for the Boston 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.
"I was no stranger to the Montreal fans because just a week prior to that, I was Willie O'Ree with the Quebec Aces jersey on, the same black man that was on the ice prior to that," O'Ree, now 72, told CBC Radio.
O'Ree, who was born in Fredericton, will be honoured in the next two weeks in New Brunswick, Boston and at the NHL's all-star game festivities in Atlanta on Jan. 26-27.
Very slowly at first, but now surely, dozens of black players have followed O'Ree's path. The definition of an NHL player is more encompassing than ever, representing different ethnicities and nationalities.
New Jersey Devils defenceman Johnny Oduya, for example, is half-Kenyan and learned the game in Sweden. Junior player and Chicago draft pick Akim Aliu's journey towards the NHL has included Nigeria, Ukraine and Canada. Players with Asian, Hispanic and East Indian backgrounds have also made their mark in the league in the recent past.
George Fosty, who along with his brother Darril authored Black Ice: The Lost History of the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes, 1895-1925, said O'Ree has always been humble about his place as a pioneer.
"He's an ambassador of hockey," Fosty said. "I don't think he saw himself as anything more than what he was.
"I don't think he realized that he had this special role in the history of hockey and I think that's what makes it even more powerful."
Fewer black players in New Brunswick
While Nova Scotia has enjoyed a largely uninterrupted history of black hockey players dating back to the 19th century, New Brunswick's was patchy after a healthy period in the early part of the 20th century.
The theory, buttressed by military records, Fosty said, is that a statistically large number of blacks from the province died in the First World War.
Born in 1935, O'Ree has gone on record as saying his was one of only two black families in his area. His passion for the game developed just like thousands of kids of his generation.
"I guess I've always hoped that some day I might make the National Hockey League," he told the Hockey News soon after his debut in 1958. "I've thought about it ever since I began listening to the Saturday night broadcasts from Toronto by Foster Hewitt."
O'Ree's accomplishment was the result of a combination of skill, hard work and timing.
He has always praised Herb Carnegie, who was 16 years his elder and thought by many to be the finest black player of the post-Second World War era, even though he never made it to the NHL.
Art Dorrington of Truro, N.S., signed an NHL contract eight years before O'Ree's debut, with the New York Rangers. He never played with the team, though: his career was interrupted by military service. After he returned, he played in the minors and until recently helped provide hockey playing opportunities for youth in Atlantic City, N.J.
Stan (Chook) Maxwell played alongside O'Ree in a Bruins exhibition game in 1957, with Manny McIntrye, another contemporary who could have been the first black NHLer.
'Names will never hurt you unless you let them'
O'Ree played for Boston most extensively in the 1960-61 season and would record four goals and 10 assists in 45 games overall with Boston. He said he encountered racial taunts in some American arenas.
"I just put it in my mind that I wanted to play hockey, I wanted to represent the hockey club to the best of my ability, and names will never hurt you unless you let them," he said.
He was traded to Montreal but never played for the dominant Canadiens, settling into a long, productive professional career in the old Western Hockey League with teams based in California, where he now resides.
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.
O'Ree, who was born in Fredericton, will be honoured in the next two weeks in New Brunswick, Boston and at the NHL's all-star game festivities in Atlanta on Jan. 26-27. (Associated Press)
While O'Ree's achievement will rightly be celebrated, blacks made slower progress in hockey than in the other team sports — a fact not easily explained away just by noting Canada's smaller black population relative to the United States.
A full 13 years passed until Mike Marson became the second black player in the NHL, with the Washington Capitals. As well, even in the past decade, players at both the NHL and junior level have endured racial slurs from players, fans and even coaches.
Fosty said he thinks it's inconceivable that there wasn't a single black player not worthy of a crack at an NHL lineup between O'Ree and Marson, especially since the league expanded from six to 18 teams over that span.
"There is that period between 1962 and 1974 where a number of great athletes are coming up in hockey that happen to be African-Canadian and you don't see them advancing," said Fosty.
It's quite likely scouts presumed their bosses and clubs would never take the risk. It's important to note in that regard that both O'Ree and Marson toiled on lowly teams — forward thinking probably took a backseat to necessity.
Incrementally, each subsequent player after Marson enjoyed a bit more stability, from Billy Riley with the Capitals to Tony McKegney with the Buffalo Sabres.
Grant Fuhr was the first black player to both hold the Stanley Cup aloft and make it into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
"It's a special honour, but it's not something I ever really grew up with," Fuhr said when inducted in 2003. "I mean, having got to know Willie and all the things Willie went through, by the time I got to play, all the doors had been opened.
"I was just another player by the time I got there."
In addition to O'Ree, players from the 1960s and early '70s like Percy and John Paris Jr., Bob Dawson and Mike McKegney helped pave the way for Fuhr.
Cultural differences also cited as factor
Frantz Bergevin-Jean told CBCSports.ca that growing up in the late 1970s and early 1980s as a Haitian in Montreal, it was hard not to get swept up in the exciting hockey times.
After playing junior hockey, he has served as a goaltender coach at the University of Moncton and the Moncton Wildcats of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Bergevin-Jean said the participation rates are improving.
"Mr. O'Ree had an impact on the game for coloured kids but I think for most of the families and kids, it's a question of culture," said Bergevin-Jean.
"A lot of them come from countries where soccer is the primary sport and it takes one or two generations before hockey really kicks in."
Crucial to have diverse role models, O'Ree says
For the past decade, O'Ree has overseen the NHL Diversity program, which provides donated equipment and free ice time for youth, many of whom are located in non-traditional hockey markets.
Gerald Coleman, who graduated from the program in suburban Chicago, was the first to make it into the NHL, and is currently playing in the American Hockey League.
O'Ree said he believes things will only get better in terms of diversity.
"Being able to see their heroes in action is critical for young players," he said. "The opportunity to skate with them and just see them is such a big lift, and that's what we need to break down barriers.
"Fans didn't get to see me play, but these kids can see all these players play."