When you read the match report from the January 18th, 1958 game between the Boston Bruins and the Montreal Canadiens the team rosters are a “who’s who” of some of hockey’s greatest players.
The two teams had a combined 13 players who would ultimately be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, including legendary Bruins winger Johnny “Chief” Bucyk and the immortal Jean Beliveau whose name has been engraved on Lord Stanley’s Cup a remarkable 17 times. Another name on those rosters that has special meaning to local hockey fans is that of Bronco Horvath, who lead the Bruins in scoring that season and went on to become a charter member of the Rochester Americans Hall of Fame.
But there is one name listed among the players from that day that most people wouldn’t recognize. Toward the bottom of the list of Bruins players was written “W. O’Ree.” Willie O’Ree, a 5’10” kid out of Fredericton, New Brunswick, played in his first NHL game that night. He only played in two games for the Bruins that season before he was sent back down to the minors. And though he never scored a goal in those games, the impact he had on the game of hockey is notable to this day.
Willie O’Ree was the first black player to play in the NHL.
Willie claims that his race was never really an obstacle to him when he played hockey in his native Canada. It wasn’t until he traveled to cities like Chicago and New York that he began to experience bigotry and hatred from rival fans and opposing players. Remarkably, Willie never let the taunts of others discourage him from achieving his lifelong dream of playing hockey in the NHL.
But racism wasn’t the only obstacle that Willie had to overcome in his pursuit of the NHL. An errant puck struck O’Ree early in his career, leaving him completely blind in his right eye. For twenty years he played professional hockey while hiding the fact that he could only see out of one eye.
Since Willie retired from hockey in 1979 he has worked hard to introduce the game of hockey to minorities and inner-city children. For the past ten years he has served as an ambassador of the NHL’s “Hockey is for Everyone” diversity program which has introduced the game of hockey to over 40,000 kids and has helped charter 30 grass-roots hockey clubs in the United States and Canada.
Our oldest son Josiah plays on one of those teams here in Rochester, NY and in a couple of weeks Willie will be paying them a visit. I’m very excited to have the opportunity to tell Willie first-hand how much his story means to the kids in that program, and how much it means to me. In the age of celebrity atheletes and multi-million dollar endorsement deals, it’s nice to have someone that I can introduce to my son as an example of grace, integrity and dignity