Breaking Barriers: Pioneer O’Ree Visits Dartmouth

By Alex J. Walling
Updated: August 29, 2007


HALIFAX, Nova Scotia — There was Willie O’Ree, so visible on the ice. He had the hometown white hockey uniform. The Quebec Aces logo was one of the greatest I’ve ever seen. And he was black.

O’Ree was playing in Quebec senior professional hockey league. That’s the league the Montreal Canadiens bought so they could get the rights to Jean Beliveau.

That’s right, a black man playing hockey. This was something I had never seen before, but then I was just a 10-year-old kid in the fall of 1957, watching my first of hundreds of games at the Quebec Colisee.

O’Ree, in Dartmouth this past weekend for the second annual Black Ice Hockey and Sports Hall of Fame conference, could really fly as a 22-year-old in that 1957-58 season.

A few months later on Jan. 18, 1958, I remember listening on radio to French broadcaster Rene Lecavalier as O’Ree became the first black man to play in the NHL.

He was called up as a defensive replacement on the third line of the Boston Bruins.

He didn’t play long, only two games in a weekend series against the Canadiens. That first game, a Saturday night in Montreal, wasn’t a big deal for fans.

“The people in Montreal knew me as I played for the Aces and against the Montreal Royals in the Quebec league,” he told me. “Many simply said, ‘Oh, it’s the black man from the Aces who is up with the Bruins.’” Maybe it’s because Jackie Robinson was such a stellar player for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Maybe it’s the sport of baseball, but while it is known that O’Ree was the first to break the colour barrier in hockey, it is the big event here in Canada, as it is in the United States with Robinson breaking the Major League Baseball colour barrier.

A few months ago, MLB went wild with the 60th anniversary of Robinson who made history by playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. I’m not sure if a big deal or any deal will be made in a few months, when the 50th anniversary of the O’Ree achievement takes place.

A person at last weekend’s conference suggested it would be nice if Canada Post had a stamp commemorating the occasion.

That’s a great idea, and I’m looking at someone like NDP MLA Percy Paris to lead the charge.

Paris was at the function with O’Ree, and surprisingly, was silent on the matter.

O’Ree had another crack in the NHL a few years later. He played 43 games for the Bruins in the 1960-61 season.

The fact that he played hockey after his final junior year with Kitchener is remarkable because, in a playoff game that last season, O’Ree positioned himself near the net, turned around and caught a puck, ruining his eye and eyesight.

“I became permanently blind in that one eye from that point on,” he said.

Punch Imlach, then GM of the Aces, didn’t know about the injury, invited O’Ree to training camp in Quebec and made the team, starting a 22-year pro career.

On several occasions, O’Ree would lead his team in scoring.

Not bad for a player with one eye.

But, how did he get away with it?

“Some who saw the injury figured I had regained my sight or it wasn’t that bad,” he said.

“But the big thing is there were no eye tests in training camp. Had there been, I would have been a goner.”

O’Ree played in Halifax in 1972 with the New Haven Nighthawks of the American Hockey League. He remembers a very strong Nova Scotia Voyageurs team.

“They were big, good and strong with all that Montreal talent as provided by Sammy Pollock.”

As for more blacks playing the game of hockey, he says it all starts with a rink.

“I was raised in Fredericton, had a rink in my backyard, and we had five rinks within 15 walking minutes of our house,” he said.

“I don’t care how good of an athlete a kid is, we have to get them on the ice and give them a chance.

“I played nine sports as a kid and gravitated to hockey, but that would not have happened without a rink. We need, in Canada, Nova Scotia and in the U.S.A., more rinks. More rinks mean more kids and more black kids playing hockey.”