Willie O’Ree

Photo courtesy of NHL.com

In honor of Black History Month, TheFHN will be featuring biographies on all the black hockey players who have played in the NHL each day throughout the month. 

We start off with Willie O’Ree who broke the color barrier as the first Black player in NHL history in 1958 with the Boston Bruins.  His playing career would span from 1950-1979.  During that time, O’Ree would play professionally in the National Hockey League, Eastern Professional Hockey League, Western Hockey League and the Pacific Coast League.  

O’Ree first skated for the Boston Bruins during the 1957-1958 season appearing in his first NHL game on January 18th 1958 against the Montreal Canadiens.  He would appear in one more game that season for the Bruins. O’Ree would return to the Bruins in 1960 after spending one season with the Quebec Aces of the QHL and another with the Kingston Frontenacs of the EPHL.  O’Ree would skate in 43 games for the Bruins scoring 14 points (4G, 10A) for the season.  O’Ree would finish out his playing career spending the majority of his time playing for the Los Angeles Blades and San Diego Gulls both of the WHL.  After breaking the color barrier, the NHL would not see another black player in the league until 1974 when Mike Marson was drafted by the Washington Capitals.

Willie O’Ree’s accomplishments and determination to persevere go far beyond his playing career.  In 2019 “Willie” a documentary on the story of his family and his ascent in hockey was released.

2019 “Willie” Documentary

“Willie” is a story of courage, resilience, friendship and triumph across North America that was 240 years in the making.  In 1958, during America’s fight to end Jim Crow, Willie O’Ree became the first black player in the National Hockey League – although he had lost his right eye two years before his debut. 

This documentary follows the amazing story of Willie’s family from his great-grandfather’s escape from slavery in 1779 to Willie’s ascent to hockey’s highest honor – induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame on November 12, 2018.  Willie’s story transcends hockey – it is a journey in pursuit of opportunity to blaze new trails and inspire people of all races, both historic in its sweep and scope, and relevant to our current day.  

https://www.williedoc.com/

ACCOLADES

  • Inducted into the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame in 1984
  • Since 1998 he has been the NHL’s Diversity Ambassador
  • In 2008 the city of Fredericton named a new sports complex in his honor
  • In 2008 the NHL and Bruins unveiled a new street hockey rink in his honor
  • In 2008 San Diego State University presented O’Ree with an Award for Outstanding Commitment to Diversity and Cross Cultural Understanding
  • Inducted into the Breitbard Hall of Fame by the San Diego Hall of Champions in 2008
  • O’Ree received the Order of Canada in 2008 which is the highest civilian award for a Canadian citizen.
  • In 2011 The Sports Museum at TD Garden honored O’Ree with the Hockey Legacy Award.
  • In 2015 the San Diego Gulls of the WHL where he played 7 seasons retired his number.
  • In 2017 the Springfield Thunderbirds of the AHL raised a banner to honor O’Ree’s playing time with the former AHL Springfield Indians
  • in 2018 its announced that O’Ree was to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder.
  • In 2018 the Boston neighborhood of Allston would dedicate a street hockey rink in his name.
  • In  2019 the United States Congressional Gold Medal was awarded to O’Ree’s for his achievements “in recognition of his contributions and commitment to hockey, inclusion, and recreational opportunity
  • In 2020 he was named to the Canada Sports Hall of Fame in the Builder category.
  • On February 18th of 2021, the Bruins will retire O’Ree’s number 22.

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