Naomie Seh November 30th 2017 RBC Scholarship
Black Ice Breaker
A baby bird does not know its potential until he sees his parents fly. Likewise, a young, impressionable black child may not know the extent of his potential until he sees one of his own in a position of power. This pattern is recurrent in all living beings. For this reason, Canada now diligently makes efforts to celebrate the diversity that its population contains. This translates in redefining the ethnical norms in our media, our sports, and our culture to more accurately represent the ethnicities that shape Canadian society. However, it is with great thanks to many black pioneers that a collective Canadian identity has been advanced to now include greater racial diversity. Historically, black Canadians have worked tirelessly to build a more inclusive society. Hence, it is important to recognize those who courageously followed their dreams despite the marginalization that they faced. These are the individuals who defied stereotypes and defeated the odds when no one was around to support them. These are the individuals who not only accomplished unimaginable things for their era, but made sure to establish facilities and programs so that those who followed could do the same, or better. These are the individuals like Willie O'Ree, the first black person to ever play in the NHL.
Born in 1935, O'Ree's legacy began in Fredericton, New Brunswick. At the age of 5, he was already playing for a hockey league. Here, he discovered his passion for the national sport. Year after year, O'Ree's hockey legacy began to take flight, leaving every team fascinated by his skill. In 1955/1956, he was playing for the Kitchener-Waterloo Canucks, a successful team in the Ontario Hockey Association. He was closer to his dreams than ever before. Suddenly, his life took an unexpected turn. He was hit in the eye with a puck, leaving him 95% blind in his right eye (The Canadian Encyclopedia). Indisputably, this is a career ending injury for any athlete. However, his determination only grew from that. He kept his injury a secret, and constantly reminded himself “Willie, forget about what you can’t see. Concentrate on what you can see.” (The Undefeated). With one eye, he focused on the goal. In 1958, after training for a few weeks with the Boston Bruins, O’Ree finally accomplished his greatest dream. A monumental moment in Canadian history, O’Ree stepped onto the ice in a Montreal Stadium as the first black person to ever play in the NHL, breaking the colour barrier in this once white-only sport forever.
Despite the racism he faced by players and people in the crowd, every game O’Ree played allowed young black Canadians to see themselves represented in a sport incredibly important to Canadian culture. After 20 years of minor league hockey and 45 games in the NHL, O’Ree became an ambassador for Hockey is for Everyone, NHL’s diversity program (Sportsnet). He committed his life to providing access to ice rinks for children of all backgrounds. His fearlessness inspires us to pursue whatever fuels our hearts, regardless of societal conceptions that try to define us. His persistence challenges black youth to dare to break the ice in areas that have not been conquered.
O’Ree’s accomplishments have allowed other black hockey players to pursue their dreams. Hence, black NHL players such as Jarome Iginla and Evander Kane can be as successful as their white teammates today. Impressionable black children can now be confident in their potential, and motivated to break other barriers. This extends beyond athletics. O'Ree's story requires us to be the change. In my life, my parents have always held respectable positions in their workplace. For this reason, I am confident in my abilities, despite the discrimination I may face. Unfortunately, every child does not have the same foundation. This has inspired me to organize a Black History Night for my school, in which black leaders, business owners, and determined individuals can strengthen the next generation of black excellence.
Leaders like O’Ree have helped otherwise invisible youth feel part of our national identity. By following their dreams boldly and unapologetically, and achieving them through hard work, O'Ree and many other black Canadian figures helped pave the way for future generations. They have taught us to never limit ourselves in the face of adversity. Their stories extend beyond black history, containing powerful lessons that every Canadian can benefit from. If there’s a wall, then break it. If there’s no trail, then pave it. And if you have a dream, then actualize it.
Dawabe. “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/.
Freeborn, Jeremy. “Willie O'Ree.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/willie-oree/.
“The Remarkable Secret of Willie O'Ree.” Sportsnet.ca, www.sportsnet.ca/hockey/nhl/willie-oree-first-black-player-nhl/.