SOUL ON ICE:The Willie O’Ree Story

by Mike Walsh

O’Ree was born in 1935 and grew up in Fredericton, New Brunswick, a small city in coal mining region just north and east of Maine. “In the city where my family lived, there were probably only two or three black families,” says Willie. “Most of the black families lived on the outskirts of town. In retrospect, I think my living around whites made me feel I could play in the pros. I always knew I was as good or better than they were.”

He started skating when he was three years old and began playing in a league at age five. “That was the thing to do in the winter,” he says. “Everything freezes over, the ponds, rivers, creeks. Every chance I had, I was on the ice. I even skated to school. My Dad squirted the garden hose on the back yard, and we had an instant rink.”

Willie played in local hockey leagues before joining a junior team while in high school. The juniors in Canada roughly equate to college hockey teams in the U.S.

Willie was also a heck of a baseball player. “I was a pretty good shortst Read More
SOUL ON ICE:The Willie O’Ree Story

by Mike Walsh

O’Ree was born in 1935 and grew up in Fredericton, New Brunswick, a small city in coal mining region just north and east of Maine. “In the city where my family lived, there were probably only two or three black families,” says Willie. “Most of the black families lived on the outskirts of town. In retrospect, I think my living around whites made me feel I could play in the pros. I always knew I was as good or better than they were.”

He started skating when he was three years old and began playing in a league at age five. “That was the thing to do in the winter,” he says. “Everything freezes over, the ponds, rivers, creeks. Every chance I had, I was on the ice. I even skated to school. My Dad squirted the garden hose on the back yard, and we had an instant rink.”

Willie played in local hockey leagues before joining a junior team while in high school. The juniors in Canada roughly equate to college hockey teams in the U.S.

Willie was also a heck of a baseball player. “I was a pretty good shortstop and second baseman. In 1956, I was invited to the Milwaukee Braves minor league facility in Waycross, Georgia. I told them that I planned to make hockey my career and that I had no interest in becoming a professional baseball player. I played baseball in the summer just to keep my legs in shape and keep my reflexes sharp. They talked me into going anyway. I was in Georgia for about three weeks. I had a good camp, but I was afraid I would catch on and it would interfere with my hockey, so I left.

“That was my first time in the south. Its customs, you know – like white-only or colored-only restaurants. I never experienced anything like that in Canada. When I left, I had to sit in the back of the bus. I couldn’t move to the front until I got up north.”

During the 1955/56 hockey season, Willie played for the Kitchener-Waterloo Canucks, a junior hockey team. During a game he was struck with a puck in the right eye. The injury was so serious that he permanently lost 95% of the vision in that eye. A doctor advised him to stop playing, but that was inconceivable to Willie. In eight weeks he was back on the ice.

He had only one problem. “Being on left wing, my right eye was closest to the puck. When I came back, I would lose sight of the puck, and I was getting body checked much more. So I switched to the right side. I had to take most of the passes on my backhand. But it didn’t bother me. At least I had vision of the rink.”


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Learning Objectives

Learners will understand the difficulties experienced by New Brunswick black athlete Willie O'Ree.

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