Looking Back On A Legacy

By Thane Burnett
Updated: December 13, 2007

BOSTON — Willie O’Ree didn’t just skate over the NHL’s colour barrier.

Almost 50 years ago, he clobbered it. Then when it hit back — busting up his nose and knocking out two teeth — he wrapped his stick over its thick skull.

On the surface, to those who watched it happen, or even read about it buried deep in a few sports sections days after, the debut of the first black NHL player seemed civilized. But Willie O’Ree faced a strong and lingering offence, which was never mentioned in official stats of the time. Something he doesn’t dwell much on, even now.

Back on January 18, 1958, nearing a half-century ago, O’Ree tried to think of himself as just another young hockey player being called up to replace an ailing Bruin for back-to-back games against the Canadiens in Montreal and Boston. After all, he was so very Canadian — learning to skate as a two-year-old and later using blades to make his way to school on icy shoulders of roads in Fredericton, N.B. A kid could have been born purple with a green stripe down his back, O’Ree once wrote, but as long as he played hockey, other young Canadians would easily embrace him.

But when O’Ree, a speedy 22-year-old pro player, pulled on a Bruins uniform and went over the boards during a line change in Montreal, something important moved across the ice. At the time, the significance was underplayed and largely lost in the flurry of sticks and cold steel.

A sports writer of the day noted — in a short January 20, 1958, article that didn’t even warrant a byline — it was just about a decade before that professional baseball had been rocked with the colour barrier being erased by Jackie Robinson. But on O’Ree’s NHL milestone, the writer observed: “He was greeted with no emotion, no applause and, above all, no animosity.”

Perhaps, it was felt, fans were used to seeing O’Ree, because he had appeared many times before on the Montreal Forum ice as a member of the Quebec Hockey League’s Quebec Aces.

“Or, perhaps it was because the slightly built Negro looked lost and inconspicuous on the same ice surface as the … all-time all-stars of the world’s premier hockey league,” the writer opined, using a then common description which now speaks more about the times than O’Ree himself.

Midway through the third period, O’Ree had a chance to test legendary goalie Jacques Plante.

“And only a final, desperate hook by defenceman Tom Johnson — for which he drew a penalty — erased the youngster’s opportunity of scoring a goal in his first NHL game,” it was written.

In a future game against the Canadiens, almost three years after being called up from the minors to play another 43 games with the Bruins, O’Ree would make it past Johnson, finally earning his first NHL goal. It sparked a standing ovation. That moment, O’Ree now proudly recalls — remembering thinking “Shoot low. Just shoot low” — is only outdone by what took place back in 1958.

But while the moment he crossed the invisible barrier may have been picture perfect in a rear-view mirror, the particulars that came before and after weren’t always so gentle.

Tough Willie O’Ree — whose older brother used to hit him into the boards to get him used to the greetings of NHL players — always had to be ready for a fight. Because there was always a fist, elbow, stick or — especially in New York, Chicago and Detroit — a slur in O’Ree’s face.

“I never wanted to be a fighter, but I wasn’t going to let anyone push me out of the league,” he says as we walk the quiet halls of the TD Banknorth Garden, the arena that replaced the original Boston Garden in 1995.

He never picked a fight because of a racial comment.

“I let them go in one ear and out the other — (otherwise) I’d be fighting all the time,” he says.

One night in Chicago, O’Ree was butt-ended in the mouth by a Blackhawks player, who, as O’Ree was picking up his teeth from the ice, stood over him uttering a racist remark. But it was the player’s grin that pissed O’Ree off. When the player later came at him again, O’Ree axed him over the head with his stick.

At one point, O’Ree was ordered to stay in the dressing room for fear of what Chicago fans would do.

“I was alone and turned off all the lights, and thought, ‘Am I going to let them push me out? No,’ ” he recalls.

It’s difficult to understand the thin ice O’Ree bravely navigated. Not only because I’m a middle-class, white Canadian who can’t skate straight, but because the player who was known as an enforcer tends not to spend much time on the toughest attacks. And as a tolerant society, Canadians don’t like to think about their sports as ever being divisive.

The issue of black hockey players over a half-century ago still is raw. Athletes, historians and even fans all remember the acceptance — and any denials — differently.

O’Ree recalls that he hardly heard any racist comments playing in Canada, and that Boston — especially teammates and coaches — welcomed him as just another player. Memories linger on breakaways, train trips and a favourite New Brunswick lake he’ll return to next year to fish with buddies — after celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of his NHL milestone.

At the time, it was argued, there wasn’t a formal colour barrier in place. All but two NHL players came from Canada, and with a relatively small black population, it was said, we just couldn’t produce players like O’Ree. But in truth, there were others, including a forward line — Ossie Carnegie, his brother Herbie and Manny McIntyre — that had played in the Quebec Senior Hockey League several years before O’Ree made his historic leap onto the NHL ice.

Lingering prejudices may have been part of the reason O’Ree’s NHL career didn’t extend beyond 45 games with the Bruins. In a 1990 interview with the Globe and Mail, O’Ree said: “I wanted dearly to be just another hockey player, but I knew I couldn’t be.

“No matter how hard I played or how fast I skated, people just kept making references to my colour.”

Even after his debut, when O’Ree was back in the minors — where he played until he was 43 years old — it was sometimes as if 1958 never happened.

During the 1972-73 season with the New Haven Nighthawks of the American Hockey League, fans in Virginia tossed cotton balls onto the ice along with a black cat.

It took the NHL 30 years to invite him to an all-star game.

Then there was the physical cost — while never earning more than $17,500 in a season. Trying to crowd a goalie in junior hockey, he lost his right eye to a deflected slap-shot. He didn’t tell the Bruins, whose doctors checked his reflexes and lungs but not his sight.

He has had an ankle fused solid and one knee is shot from constant pounding. As we walk outside, headed to a local North Boston pub to order “Bobby Orr Steak Sandwiches,” O’Ree moves gingerly on the ice on the sidewalk.

But he is still fighting-weight trim, his muscles squaring the fabric of his suit and his handshake still feels like warm granite — “Comes from holding the stick … your only friend on the ice,” he explains, sipping lemonade in the sports bar.

A living example of hockey history will sit in a pub decorated wall to wall with copies of Boston’s sports glory moments, and yet no one seems to recognize O’Ree or his importance during our meal.

A father of three — none followed him into the NHL — O’Ree lives in California with his wife, Deljeet. For the past decade, he has travelled North America for the NHL, helping to promote hockey among 40,000 kids, both girls and boys, of every ethnic background.

At 72 years old, he still has goals left — to meet fellow trail-blazers, Oprah Winfrey and Tiger Woods. But what he would really like to see is more minority hockey players. After O’Ree broke the barrier, it took another 15 years before another black player — Mike Marson — followed him into the NHL.

It’s still fairly easy to count the number of black players who’ve called the NHL home and officials say there is currently just over a dozen playing today. O’Ree believes it’s largely finances — the high cost to equip a child to play — that stop many. It’s a problem he and the NHL are working on.

In the few news reports of the day, his own path seemed to arrive without much blood or sweat. But that was never the case, but the sentiment still continues today.

While hungry, he never does finish his “Bobby Orr Sandwich’.” Instead, he ignores it to describe the two times he met baseball pioneer Robinson.

The first was when a 14-year-old O’Ree was on a trip to New York.

“He asked me, ‘Black (kids) play hockey?’ ” O’Ree says with a laugh.

The next time was at a dinner in 1962. Robinson, with a grin, reached out and said: “I remember you.”

As O’Ree nears the 50th anniversary of his NHL debut, it would be nice if more hockey fans said the same thing.