Hello out there, we’re on the air, it’s hockey night tonight! Or at least it was on Sunday, October 15th! Why you may ask? Well, it was the birthday of the local hockey legend himself, Willie O’Ree! Willie O’Ree, a Fredericton native, was born on October 15th, a date that would later become synonymous with hockey history. Growing up in New Brunswick’s capital, O’Ree developed a deep love for the game that would define his remarkable life journey.
Growing up on the east coast, hockey was one of the most popular pastimes to partake in and Willie loved it! He had a passion for the game and most days would end up playing some hockey in the family’s backyard rink. He even skated to school when the weather permitted! During his formative years, O’Ree would play in organized clubs with his older brother, Richard, who took Willie under his wing and taught him how to body check. He prepared Willie for the next step in his young career, the amateur hockey leagues!
Amateur Years and Injuries
Over the next three years, Willie moved fast through the amateur leagues playing for teams such as “The Fredericton Falcons,” “The Fredericton Merchants,” and “The Fredericton Capitals.” By age 19, he was ready to move up the ranks and joined the “Quebec Frontenacs” in the Quebec Hockey League (QHL). This brought him one step closer to his dream of playing in the National Hockey League (NHL)!
However, the 1955-56 season brought a significant setback. During a game against the Kitchener Canucks, O’Ree took a puck to the face, resulting in a broken nose, cheekbone, and a loss of 95% of vision in his right eye. Though doctors insisted that he step away from hockey, Willie was determined and was back on the ice after just two months!
Upon his return to the sport, O’Ree would play for the “Quebec Aces” from 1956-59, a team known for its racial integration at the time. In the 1957-58 season, the Aces formed a partnership with the Boston Bruins. This relationship allowed any player to be called up to join the Boston Bruins, an NHL team, at any time.
On January 18th, 1958, Willie O’Ree made history by becoming the first black player to step onto the ice in an NHL game. However, his historic debut was met with very little fanfare. Neither The Boston Globe nor The New York Times reported on it! Little did they know he would be a mainstay. After playing games here and there for the Bruins, O’Ree’s presence on the Bruins’ roster increased during the 1960-61 season, playing 43 regular season games, and scoring his first NHL goal, making history once again.
Enduring Racial Abuse
Throughout his career, O’Ree encountered a staggering amount of racial abuse. From objects like cotton balls and black cats being thrown on the ice to racial slurs both on and off the ice, he faced countless challenges. Despite this, O’Ree remained resilient, focused on his goals, and worked hard, knowing that his impact would extend beyond his time on the ice.
During his time with the Boston Bruins, as well as the myriad of other hockey leagues he would go on to play for, O’Ree would unfortunately experience countless acts of racial abuse.
Legacy Beyond the Ice
After a productive career, Willie hung up his skates and decided to contribute to the sport in a different capacity. In 1998, O’Ree became the NHL’s Director of Youth Development and became an ambassador for the NHL’s Diversity program. He paved the way for future generations, emphasizing that anyone with the heart, drive, and passion for the game belonged on the ice.
So Happy 88th Birthday to Fredericton’s own hockey legend, Willie O’Ree! Your journey, marked by determination and resilience, broke racial barriers and left an indelible mark on the sport. Your legacy, both on and off the ice, continues to inspire generations and promote inclusivity in a sport Canadians hold dear. Thank you for all that you have done for the sport Canadians are proud to call their own!