A few years ago, Willie O’Ree learned that his great-grandfather was an escaped slave. As research for a documentary that was being filmed about him, O’Ree travelled to South Carolina and combed through the state archives.
There, he discovered that Paris O’Ree had fled a plantation in the late 1700s and made his way to New Brunswick through an early version of the Underground Railroad. He had been given to a military officer as a reward for fighting against the British in the American War of Independence.
“I didn’t really know much about it,” O’Ree said last week. Days earlier, the definitive book about his life was published by Penguin Random House Canada. “When I went through the records, I had tears in my eyes. ... My only regret was that my brothers and sisters were not alive to hear about it.”
Willie O’Ree, now 85, was the last of nine children born to Harry and Rosebud O’Ree. Theirs was one of only two Black families in Fredericton at the time.
When he was 3, Willie started skating on the frozen lawn in his backyard on two blocks of wood with metal blades attached to the bottom. At 5, he began to play organized hockey. He was 12 the first time a racial insult was hurled at him and 13 when he met Jackie Robinson during a trip to New York.
Nine years later, he became the first Black player to skate in the NHL, when he took to the ice as a left wing for the Boston Bruins. He was the second player of colour to break into the league. Canadian Larry Kwong had played one game for the New York Rangers 10 years earlier.
O’Rees NHL career lasted just 45 games but paved the way for today’s players of colour.
Jarome Iginla wrote the foreword for Willie: The Game-Changing Story of the NHL’s First Black Player, and the jacket includes tributes to him from P.K. Subban, Grant Fuhr and Wayne Simmonds.
The latter, who recently signed a one-year contract with the Maple Leafs, said he learned about O’Ree while he was growing up in the eastern Toronto suburb of Scarborough. His parents wanted him to know about the history of the game, and especially about Willie O’Ree.
“With what he went through, for him to continue on the path to play, made him a trailblazer not only for Black players but for players of other ethnicities as well,” Simmonds said. “He really means everything to me.”
The book is full of surprises and little-known anecdotes. Written with Michael McKinley, a Canadian journalist and filmmaker, it covers O’Ree’s journey from the two-storey house he grew up in near the Saint John River to his debut in the league during the birth of the civil-rights movement to his 2018 induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Over the course of his life, he experienced segregation in the United States, heard jeers from racist spectators and cheers of adulation when he scored the first of his four goals in the NHL at Boston Garden.
“In the book, I wanted people to know more about my hockey career,” O’Ree said from his home in San Diego. "I wanted them to know what I have been involved with.
“So many wonderful things happened in my lifetime, and I had never had an opportunity to share them. I’ve been blessed.”
As a kid, he sang in the choir at the Anglican Church in his neighbourhood and grew up listening to Foster Hewitt broadcast games on Hockey Night in Canada on the radio. He didn’t play in an indoor rink until he was 15 and was kicked off the team at Fredericton High School after delivering a hard check that injured the coach’s son.
A fast skater and hard worker, he progressed through minor hockey until 1955, when he suffered a grave injury while playing for the Junior-A Kitchener Canucks. During a game, a teammate’s shot was deflected into his face and crushed his right cheekbone and eye. The next day, a doctor told him he would never be able to see out of that eye and could never play hockey again.
He was devastated but promised himself he’d get back on the ice. The doctor never shared the details of his injury with anyone else, so when he was discharged from the hospital, O’Ree decided to keep it a secret. The only person he told was his sister Betty, and she never told anyone else.
He spent that winter doing rehab in private. As he skated, he began to get a feel for the ice as a one-eyed player and knew he could adapt. As winter gave way to spring, he resumed playing baseball and discovered that his skills on the field had not been affected by a blind right eye.
He was such a good shortstop and second baseman that he drew interest from scouts for the Milwaukee Braves, who in 1956 invited him to a tryout camp in Waycross, Ga.
He flew from Fredericton to Atlanta, where in the airport he used a “Coloured-Only” bathroom for the first time. That night, he stayed in a Blacks-only hotel and the next day took a four-hour bus ride to Waycross, during which he was forced to sit at the rear.
He slept in a dorm with other players of colour, segregated from whites, and during exhibition games was race-baited by some of them.
After several weeks, the Braves sent him home.
“On the inside, I was jumping for joy,” he said. He could not wait to get back to Canada.
A year earlier, Hank Aaron had attended a similar tryout camp. In Waycross, he was shot at.
During the five-day bus ride back to New Brunswick, he realized his only option to play a professional sport was hockey because that was where he was most skilled.
In early summer, he was visiting one of his sisters in Fredericton when Punch Imlach knocked on the door to recruit him to play for the Quebec Aces, a professional team in Quebec City. Three seasons earlier, Jean Béliveau played for the Aces and was the toast of the town. Imlach, who went on to fame as the coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, once played for them, too.
O’Ree scored 22 goals in his first season, and the Aces won the trophy given to the best team in Canada outside of the NHL.
In August of 1957, he was invited to attend the Bruins' training camp by Lynn Patrick, Lester Patrick’s son and the team’s general manager. He was cut, but not before he and another Black player, Stan Maxwell, took part in an exhibition game against the Bruins' AHL affiliate in Springfield, Mass.
He returned to play for the Aces for a second season and was briefly called up to Springfield, which was then coached by Imlach. After six games, O’Ree was returned to Quebec City. Shortly thereafter, the Aces got a call from the Bruins, who needed someone to replace an injured forward for back-to-back games against the Montreal Canadiens. On Jan. 18, 1958, he took a train to Montreal from Quebec City and played at the Forum in a match telecast by Hockey Night in Canada. He held his own in that game and the next, before being sent back to the Aces.
At the time, he didn’t think much about breaking the colour barrier, and little attention was paid by anyone else.
The New York Times was the only newspaper to mention it, followed shortly thereafter by The Globe and Mail.
Two weeks later, in a story published by The Hockey News, instead of praising him, Leo Bramson wrote, “the fact that there has never been a Negro player in the NHL prior to O’Ree must be blamed on the Negro race itself.”
O’Ree was invited to training camp in the fall but was again sent back to the Aces for the 1958-59 season and played the next season for the Kingston Frontenacs of the Eastern Professional Hockey League.
The week before Christmas in 1960, he rejoined the Bruins and spent the rest of the season with them. On New Year’s Day, he scored his first NHL goal, a game-winner, against Montreal goalie Charlie Hodge. For two minutes afterward, 14,000 people in Boston Garden stood and cheered.
In 43 games that season, he scored four goals and had 10 assists – with one eye. He expected to return to Boston the next season but was instead traded to Montreal during the summer and farmed out to one of its affiliates. Soon after, he was traded to the Los Angeles Blades of the WHL and never returned to the NHL.
O’Ree believes teams had discovered that he had impaired vision and spurned him because of that. He played for the Blades and San Diego Gulls of the WHL for most of the next 16 years. He also played in the AHL for New Haven one season, during which a fan in Virginia tossed a black cat onto the ice while he was playing to taunt him.
After he retired, O’Ree took a job in security until he was asked to participate in the NHL’s diversity program in 1996. Three years later, Gary Bettman made the position permanent, and O’Ree has been trying to help minority kids find a dream and live it since.
The year after his last in the NHL, O’Ree met Jackie Robinson for the second time at an NAACP luncheon in Los Angeles. O’Ree approached him with a couple of teammates from the Los Angeles Blades.
Robinson remembered him from when he had visited the Brooklyn Dodgers dugout as a kid. The trip to New York was a reward for the bantam baseball team that O’Ree played on after it won the Fredericton city championship.
On that day in 1948, Robinson expressed surprise when Willie told him he wanted to make a mark on hockey as Robinson had in baseball. Fourteen years later, Robinson remembered their conversation and congratulated him.
“I was in awe of him,” O’Ree said. “After all the people he met, he remembered me. I was amazed.”
Today, O’Ree still does community outreach for the league. He returns to New Brunswick every year to fish for brook trout. He is in the Hall of Fame and satisfied with his life.
“I am glad at the time that I was in a position to break the colour barrier,” O’Ree said. "It’s a nice feeling now to hear today’s players talk about what I went through to make it possible for them.
“The game has changed since the 1950s and 1960s. I’m very happy to see players come forward and realize that everyone’s lives matter. As Martin Luther King said, people should not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.”