The Current

How former Bruins winger Willie O'Ree kept his vision impairment a secret from the NHL

Willie O'Ree was the first black man to ever play for the NHL, but racism wasn't the only thing he had to overcome to make his hockey dreams come true. The hockey legend sat down with Anna Maria Tremonti to talk about re-learning how to play after losing the sight in his right eye — and why he's still involved with the league today.

'In the 21 years I played pro, I never took one eye exam,' the retired NHL player says

Willie O’Ree sat down with Anna Maria Tremonti to discuss how a puck to the face almost derailed his entire career. (Andrew Nguyen/CBC)

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An errant puck to the face could have cost Willie O'Ree his career. Instead, he ignored his doctor's warnings and moved on to become the first black player in the National Hockey League.

While playing hockey in the minor leagues, O'Ree was struck in the face by a ricocheting puck, which cost him 95 per cent of his vision in his right eye. He feared this injury would preclude him from being eligible to play in the NHL. His solution? Don't tell anyone. 

His doctor warned him that without proper eyesight, his hockey career would be over. 

"I laid in my hospital bed and things were going through my mind: 'What am I going to do now?' And I get out of the hospital and within the next five weeks, I'm back on the ice practising and playing," O'Ree told Anna Maria Tremonti on The Current.

His plan of secrecy worked. O'Ree re-learned how to play hockey with his impairment, and in 1958, had his first game as a winger for Boston Bruins. In 2018, the hockey trailblazer was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

O'Ree, who played 45 games with the Bruins from 1958 and 1961, is the focus of a new documentary called Willie, directed by Laurence Mathieu-Leger.

The Fredericton, N.B.,  native has been called the "Jackie Robinson of ice hockey," but his hometown wasn't satisfied with the rest of the world's lack of awareness about the former player. In 2008, Fredericton celebrated the 50th anniversary of O'Ree's first NHL game by creating "Willie O'Ree Week."

Listen to this segment from CBC Radio's The Inside Track in 2008.

O'Ree, 83, sat down with Tremonti on The Current to discuss how he didn't let a potentially debilitating injury derail his career and how he remains involved with the league through the Hockey is for Everyone campaign to encourage diversity and inclusion.

When you work with young hockey players today what do they ask you?

Oh, they asked me about what it was like playing with one eye. I had lost my eye my second year, junior. You know, back then, none of the players wore any helmets, no face shields, no cages, nothing to protect your face. And it was an unfortunate accident.

There was a slap shot from the point — I'm in front of the net for a deflection — and the puck ricocheted off a stick and came up and hit me flat and broke my nose, broke part of my cheek, and I remember dropping down to the ice and the next thing I knew was placed in an ambulance and taken to the hospital.

Dr. Henderson was the surgeon. I remember being in the recovery room and he came in and said, 'Mr. O'Ree, I'm sorry to inform you,' he says, 'The impact of the puck completely shattered the retina in your right eye.' And he says, 'You're going to be blind and you'll never play hockey again.'

Well, I was 18 going on 19 and the goals and dreams that I had set for myself of not only playing professional hockey, but hopefully, playing one day in the National Hockey League seemingly were gone.

So I laid in my hospital bed and things were going through my mind: 'What am I going to do now?' And I get out of the hospital and within the next five weeks, I'm back on the ice practising and playing. The only difference I felt about myself was I just couldn't see out of my right eye.

Video: O'Ree describes being scouted for professional baseball

When Willie O'Ree was scouted for professional baseball

4 years ago
Duration 3:11
O'Ree was scouted by the Milwaukee Braves baseball team in the 1950s. It took him on a brief journey to a training camp in Georgia, where he saw American racial segregation up close for the first time.

Did you have to kind of relearn to do some stuff? Your depth perception would change a bit too, huh?

And I did a lot of this. Being a left hand shot and playing left wing, I had to turn my head all the way around to the right to pick the puck up with my left eye. ... So, the season ends and I go back. I go back to Fredericton and now I either have to turn pro or play amateur and I had kept my fingers crossed that I'd be contacted by a professional team.

So [George] 'Punch' Imlach was the coach and general manager of the Quebec Aces and he called me and said, 'Willie,' he says, 'I've watched you play the last couple of years. I'd like to invite you to training camp.' So I tell my parents and I tell my friends that I'm going to Quebec with the Quebec Aces and I go up and I make the team but I don't tell them that I'm blind — I'm blind in my right eye. Because I never took an eye exam and I said, well, if I'm good enough to make the team with one, I just don't tell them.

Nothing stops you.

We won the championship that year, and I said, "Willie, you can do anything you set your mind to, don't worry about anything else." So when I went to the Bruins training camp, I never took an eye exam. Went back, played with the Quebec Aces.

When I was called up on Jan. 18, 1958, I never took an eye exam. I just went out and played because everybody thought when I came back to play that I'd recovered from my injury.

I never even told my parents that I was blind because I knew that they would try and stop me from playing. I only told my younger sister Betty and she's passed on, and I swore her to secrecy. I said 'Sis, don't say anything because if they find out that I'm blind, I won't be able to play.' And I went to training camp. In the 21 years I played pro, I never took one eye exam.

Video: Watch O'Ree describe his first game in the NHL.

Willie O'Ree's first game in the NHL

4 years ago
Duration 1:28
On Jan. 18, 1958, O'Ree stepped onto the ice of the Montreal Forum as a member of the Boston Bruins, officially becoming the first black player in the NHL.

Did they ever know?

No. Well, I told them — just not while I played. I tell people now, I say 'Yeah, I was blind when I played my second year junior.'

What keeps you coming back to the game? 

I think it's just the the love of the game. When I retired from professional hockey in 1980, I felt that I had something to give back to the sport and give back to the community and the youth development program.

I just felt that there are kids out there that I could help be better individuals and, you know, feel good about themselves and like themselves. I've worked with the Hockey is For Everyone program for 22 years and I wouldn't have stayed with it for 22 years if I didn't think it was a good program. 

Video: O'Ree on the weight of being the first black player in the NHL

The weight of being the NHL's first black player

4 years ago
Duration 1:51
Willie O'Ree said he had to work harder and play faster as the first black player in the NHL, but he's also thankful for the support he got from Boston Bruins management.

What does it give to you to work with those young people? 

A nice feeling, you know? Just to feel good about being able to help one boy or girl feel better about themselves ... working towards your goals. Goal setting is very important. You need to set goals for yourselves and work towards your goals.

Willie premieres at the Hot Docs film festival in Toronto on April 30.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.

Written by Émilie Quesnel. Produced by Julie Crysler.