In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier, becoming the first Black Major League Baseball player. On January 18, 1958, Willie O’Ree, stepped onto the ice at the Montreal Forum with the Boston Bruins, breaking that barrier in hockey. For the native of Fredericton, New Brunswick, his story did not start that night, and it is still far from being complete.
O’Ree played a season in Kingston in 1959-60, after briefly breaking into the NHL with the Bruins, playing a pair of games in 1957-58. O’Ree earned his first NHL foray as a callup from the Quebec Aces, who played in the semi-professional Quebec Hockey League.
After suiting up for the Bruins, the team sent O’Ree back to the Aces for a season, and the season after, he joined the Kingston Frontenacs. At the time, the Fronts played in the Eastern Professional Hockey League, the city’s lone pro hockey team. In 1963, without O’Ree, the Frontenacs won the league’s championship, which was the final one before the league folded.
During his time in Kingston, the then 24-year-old O’Ree scored 21 goals and 46 points in 50 games, nearly a point-per-game pace. Dorothy and Monroe Miller, were in the stands when O’Ree thrilled the Memorial Centre crowd. Season ticket holders since 1973, the two remember watching the exciting young forward. “He could follow the play so well. He wasn’t one to stand around, as he was always competing,” said Monroe, who turns 91 at the end of February.
When O’Ree broke into a full-time NHL job with the Bruins in 1960, everything changed for Black hockey players. Once he broke the colour barrier, there was representation at the highest level of the game. While the bright lights of high-definition TV broadcasts were yet to shine on the NHL, O’Ree had an evident presence, showing athletes that playing hockey was possible for someone from a non-caucasian background. O’Ree broke the barrier for Black hockey players and made strides towards opening hockey up to everyone.
The Boston Bruins will retire O’Ree’s number 22 to the rafters in the 2022 NHL season. The ceremony was initially planned for 2021; however, it was moved to January 18, 2022, so Boston fans can honour O’Ree in person.
Since O’Ree’s playing days with the Bruins, players such as Grant Fuhr and himself were inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, and Jarome Iginla will join them when the Hall inducts him in 2021. Not only did he break ground in men’s hockey, but women’s hockey players such as Team Canada Olympic champion Angela James and the PWHPA’s Blake Bolden have since followed in his path.
Although his time in the NHL was brief, the game of hockey, the NHL and O’Ree have worked together over the last three decades to promote diversity within the sport. In 1998, O’Ree joined the NHL as the director of youth development for the NHL/USA Hockey Diversity Task Force, a nonprofit program for minority youth.
While his work with the NHL is exceptional and his glass-ceiling smashing career remarkable, there is still a long way to go for BIPOC communities in hockey. In 2020, a group of Black hockey players formed the Hockey Diversity Alliance, aiming “to eradicate systemic racism and intolerance in hockey.” Willie O’Ree broke the barrier, but his career was only the beginning.