Willie O'Ree's stats should show thousands of assists to players around the world
This is a column by Shireen Ahmed, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.
As the black and gold banner rose to the rafters, cheers and claps echoed through TD Gardens. I stood there filming the scene on my phone. I could feel a lump in my throat. I proceeded to make a self-deprecating joke to my friend, Renee Hess, lest anyone know that I was crying at the home of the Boston Bruins. I decided to blame Willie O'Ree, the man being honoured that very evening.
Willie O'Ree was the first Black man to play in the National Hockey League. Often referred to as "the Jackie Robinson of hockey," he was called up from the Quebec Aces to play for the Boston Bruins against the Montreal Canadiens on Jan. 18, 1958.
O'Ree's contributions to the game are deeper than being a formidable player who broke records in the minor leagues and who, as is commonly expressed in sports media, "broke the colour barrier." Since 1998 he has dedicated his life to his role as an official NHL Diversity Ambassador teaching that hockey is for everyone. He is responsible for thousands of kids from marginalized communities being able to envision themselves in a place that did not include them.
As O'Ree stood on the large screen, live from his home in San Diego alongside his wife Daljit and daughter Chandra (the pandemic kept him from appearing in person), and watched the banner bearing the No. 22 being lifted, the importance of the day resonated strongly with hockey fans all over the world. A Black hockey player originally from the Maritimes is probably one of the most important players in hockey history.
WATCH | Willie O'Ree's No. 22 raised to rafters in Boston:
O'Ree is from Fredericton, N.B., and played two NHL games in the 1957-1958 season. He returned to the minors and then was called up again for the 1960-1961 season where he had four goals and 10 assists in 43 games. After that, he was traded to the Montreal Canadiens, but never made it onto the ice in the NHL again. Instead, his career flourished in the old pro Western Hockey League and the American Hockey League, where he retired from playing at the age of 43.
One of the greatest gifts O'Ree offered the hockey world was his unapologetic commitment to his love of the game, and of right to play. He still works tirelessly for inclusion but his journey as the strongest advocate for inclusivity began with himself.
O'Ree was a stellar athlete and played more than one sport. In 1956, he was even scouted by baseball's Milwaukee Braves. But O'Ree was reluctant to go to Georgia where the tryouts were being held, particularly when the murder of young Emmett Till had happened just the year before. The concerns for O'Ree were not only because of society's hatred and violence toward Black people, he was also the recipient of targeted hate and death threats. But his dreams would not be limited because of the festering hatred of others.
O'Ree's ability to bolt toward the other goal and swiftly play out an offensive strategy was his trademark. Sports journalist and play-by-play commentator Erica Ayala says that O'Ree skated smoothly and without any "razzle-dazzle."
Anson Carter, former NHL player, hockey analyst for Turner Sports and co-chair of the Players Inclusion Committee, explained what in O'Ree's playing set him apart from the rest.
"Willie's speed and low centre of gravity made him difficult to knock off the puck," Carter told me via text message. "His speed also forced defencemen to back up prematurely or else he would beat them wide, and take the puck to the net."
Represents power and possibility
Carter, a former Boston Bruin, accompanied the banner out to the ice at the ceremony on Tuesday night.
Carter's own career has also been affected by the systems of racism that still exist in hockey, even if he played almost 40 years after O'Ree did. But O'Ree carved out space for Black men and women in hockey, and he represents power and he represents possibility.
When O'Ree first got to Boston, he was taken under the wing of teammate Johnny Bucyk. He was welcomed by the team but this was a few years before the U.S. civil rights legislation was implemented. He was cognizant of the difficulties for other racialized players such as Herb Carnegie and Larry Kwong who came before him. Carnegie never made it to the NHL and Kwong dealt with incessant racial abuse.
During his time, O'Ree knew that talking about the racism he experienced was going to make it more difficult for his career. In interview highlights from his career, O'Ree chose not to speak about racism publicly. In his book published in 2020, he explains why.
"Remember, hockey players love to get under each other's skin. If I tell the whole league on national television that racial barbs really bother me, I can pretty much guarantee that I'll hear more of them. After all, if I tell them I've got a sore rib, they're going to hit me every chance they get."
For many people, this represents an indomitable attitude and a fierce determination to play hockey. Even a random puck hitting his eye and leaving him with a devastating injury when he was 19 years old did not change his trajectory. It left him legally blind in one eye but O'Ree kept that injury a secret. And he went to play a successful career — one that would be in the history books, and stay etched in the hearts of young Black players forever.
Ayala told me via email that O'Ree's fire for the game is still hot. "In 2020, l saw him win a faceoff cleanly against Blake Bolden during a friendly street hockey exhibition," she wrote. "The two attended a local Anaheim school alongside the Black Hockey History mobile museum, and I can attest, the man still has quick hands!"
He dedicated his life to hockey and hockey communities all over the U.S. and Canada.
He has introduced underrepresented youth in hockey to the game and shared his story with the world. He embraced anyone wanting to embrace hockey. And that makes him not only one of the most cherished players in the league's history but one of the most sincere guardians of the game. The City of Boston officially declared Jan. 18 as Willie O'Ree Day.
Although O'Ree has admitted that he was a childhood fan of the Montreal Canadiens, the historically bitter rivals of the Bruins, he felt a part of the Bruins family. I teared up as the banner was lifted to the ceiling. How was it possible that I, a second-generation Canadian from Halifax (born into a Montreal Canadiens loving family), would be crying as a tribute to a Boston player occurred?
That is not only the power of O'Ree's influence but a win for history and for the future of hockey.