Willie O'Ree - Hockey Pioneer

BREAKING THE ICE: The Black Experience in Professional Hockey

by Cecil Harris

Canadian racism was of a gentler strain than that of the American South. O’Ree remembered not having as many career options or as much freedom of movement in Canada as a white man had. But Canadian racism was not overt, not thrust directly in his face, as it was in the U.S. Never was a choice of restaurant or hotel made for him until he arrived in Georgia. Never did he have to ride in the back of the bus, with other darker-skinned athletes, until he arrived in Georgia. A week into his visit, he and his black dormitory roommates sought refreshments at a drugstore after attending Sunday service at an all-black Baptist church. They saw no WHITES ONLY sign and occupied seats at the lunch counter, which infuriated a group of white male customers. A strong gust of racial insults drove O’Ree and his mates out of the drugstore…

Although O’Ree had been used to Canadian bigotry, that certainly didn’t make it tolerable. Back on the rink, his ears burned from shouts of maudit negre (“damned nigger”) from spectators at his games. Difficult as it was to tune out the ugliness and stupidity, he did so to keep alive his NHL dream. But whenever an opposing player struck him with an elbow, a fist, a knee or a stick, he struck back. Playing with one eye would not turn him into a pacifist. But whenever a spectator spat on him or doused him with a beer, he suppressed the inner urge to climb over the boards and beat someone senseless. Instead, he kept his eye on the prize. He believed himself on the cusp of an NHL career, and nothing would get in his way.

The Boston Bruins entered into a working agreement with the Quebec Aces [where O’Ree was playing at the time], beginning in the 1957-5 season, which meant an Aces player could be promoted to the major-league team at any time…O’Ree did not have an eye test to worry about, and the Bruins were unaware of his handicap. Though he impressed Bruins general manager Lynn Patrick and Coach Milt Schmidt with his speed and athleticism, he bagan the 1957-58 season back in Quebec. Competition was fierce for a job on one of the NHL’s six franchises…The number of NHL teams has increased fivefold since then…

The Bruins, beset by injuries at the forward position, needed a winger for a weekend home-and-home series against Montreal. So without fanfare, without public attention even remotely comparable to Jackie Robinson’s debut as the first black in Major League Baseball eleven years earlier, the Bruin’s promoted O’Ree from Quebec. He would don the black sweater with No. 22 on the back and skate in Boston’s lineup on Saturday, January 18, 1958.

“The Montreal Forum was different and special that night,” said O’Ree, who had played a minor league game there two weeks before. “The lights were brighter and the ice was whiter. The fans seemed more elegant, and nobody called me any names.”

Leaving skate marks on the ice in an NHL game for the first time was, for O’Ree, the culmination of a childhood dream. Taking the ice as a black man in the NHL was a moment of historic significance. Yet his major-league debut generated few headlines…In the U.S. many newspapers ran a United Press International one-paragraph brief on his debut that began, “The Boston Bruins, with a Negro, Billy O’Ree, in the lineup for the first time in a National Hockey League history….”

“Nobody made a big deal about the game at all,” O’Ree said. “Not at The Forum, not on our team, not in the press. Nobody called me ‘the Jackie Robinson of hockey.’ But to me I was. I knew I had done something that no black man had ever done before. You bet, I was proud of it.”

- Cecil Harris, Breaking the Ice: The Black Experience in Professional Hockey, Toronto: Insomniac Press, 2003, pp. 83-85.

Cecil Harris
c. 1958
CANADA City of Québec and Region, Quebec, City of Québec and Region, CANADA
CANADA Montréal Region, Quebec, Montréal Region, CANADA
© 2003, Insomniac Press. All Rights Reserved.

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