Game of a Nation
For well over a hundred years, hockey has been etched in Canada’s history. A tradition for many to play or watch over the course of the winter ever since the creation of the National Hockey League (NHL). The NHL original six was composed of the Boston Bruins, Chicago Black Hawks, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers and the Toronto Maple Leafs, creating a league that united North America in a game of strength, courage, and competition.
Considered one of the best, if not the greatest, hockey player in history, Wayne Gretzky once said “You miss 100% of the shots you never take.” A quote that couldn’t be more truthful when it comes to Willie O’Ree who broke the colour barrier in the NHL. By taking a stand and following his passion, Willie was able to pave the path for generations to come by incorporating diversity and identity into the game of a nation.
Born on October 15, 1935 in Fredericton, New Brunswick, his love of sports did not take too long to emerge. A two sport athlete of hockey and baseball, he wound up in New York City after his baseball team won their Junior Championships. And on his last day, he met Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play in Major League Baseball. Little did either of them know that their conversation would go on to change the NHL forever.
On January 18, 1958 after playing for two seasons with the Quebec Aces, Willie made his debut in the uniform of the Boston Bruins to replace an injured player. He faced the Montreal Canadiens that night, but also faced insults, on ice violence, and racially charged antics.
Black cats and cotton balls were thrown onto the ice. Racial slurs were consistently hurled in Willie’s direction. In one circumstance Willie “lost two front teeth courtesy of the butt end of Eric Nesterenko's stick…” (The Los Angeles Times). Willie commented on the issue saying, “ ‘He laughed and made a racial remark…I wound up with 22 stitches. I wanted to go back on the ice, but they said I'd better not. I needed a police escort to get out of the building.’ ” (The Los Angeles Times).
Besides the fact that Willie was breaking the barrier, he also had a physical disadvantage that should have kept him off of the ice completely as Willie is 95% blind in his right eye (The Undefeated). He constantly had to work around the injury to accomplish his dreams. It finally came to the point when he had to tell himself, “ ‘Willie, forget about what you can’t see. Concentrate on what you can see.’ ” (The Undefeated). So as the game continued, Willie was constantly looking out for the game and the cheap shots that persisted (The Undefeated).
However, Willie rose above all of the negativity and obstacles surrounding his hockey debut and continued to pursue his passion. He opened the door for the next wave of African American players to join the NHL, the next, in 1974. Willie has since been recognized in many different arenas, the Order of Canada bestowed upon him in 2008 (The Governor General of Canada), an inductee in the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame, and more. Willie has created a legacy for many to follow as since retiring from the game, Willie has gone on to create not-for-profit organization to help minority youths in sports.
Gary Bettman, NHL commissioner, commented that “Willie O’Ree has devoted his life to our sport and our young people, to diversity and inclusions… His words of encouragement, and the life lessons he has taught, have inspired thousands not only to play hockey but to incorporate our game’s values and ideals into their lives. We marvel at Willie’s strength and his courage, at his willingness to blaze a trail for future generations of players, and we are honoured by his continuing presence as a role model, mentor and ambassador for our sport.’ ” (The Undefeated).
Willie’s story goes to show that in rising above the many obstacles, he has gone on to create a platform that is now used to help combat racism and become a role model for all the generations. And in an article written by Willie and published in The Player’s Tribune, he concludes that “Hockey is for everyone.” An idea that holds complete truth as racism should not dictate who gets to enjoy the glorious sport that has stolen the heart of Canada.
Bell, Daryl. “The NHL’s First Black Player, Willie O’Ree, Had a Short, but Pathbreaking Stint with the Boston Bruins.” The Undefeated, The Undefeated, 14 Feb. 2017, theundefeated.com/features/nhl-first-black-player-willie-oree/.
“Online Exhibits.” New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame, nbsportshalloffame.com/museum/online-exhibits/.
O'Ree, Willie. “Breaking Barriers | By Willie O'Ree.” The Players' Tribune, The Players’ Tribune, Inc., 1 Jan. 2016, www.theplayerstribune.com/willie-oree-nhl-color-barrier/.
PRESS, HAL BOCK | ASSOCIATED. “Taunts Never Stopped for Willie O'Ree.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 16 Apr. 2000, articles.latimes.com/1999/oct/09/sports/sp-20382.
The Office of the Secretary to the Governor General. “The Governor General of Canada.” The Office of the Secretary to the Governor General, 6 July 2012,www.gg.ca/honour.aspx?id=12338&t=12&ln=O%27Ree.