RBC Black History Month Student Essay Competition
6 December 2018
Willie O'Ree, Ambassador of Diversity
For the love of the game: It is “THE” reason why most professional athletes play their sport. Some athletes become leaders and those leaders become heroes in the eyes of youths, turning athletes into lifelong mentors and youth into lifelong players. A country’s culture encompasses that nation’s set of identity, observances and traditions so it is not surprising that most countries believe that sport contributes to their culture. A recent study found that 90% of Canadians believe that hockey is the fabric of Canada’s culture (O’Reilly et al., 2015).
I learned about Willie O’Ree from playing hockey in a community center that bears his name. Born in 1935, O’Ree was raised in the city of Fredericton, a two-hour drive from my home town. He was from one of only two black families in that city and grew up playing hockey, Canada’s favorite sport (Murphy, 2011). Like O’Ree, I played hockey since I was five and these past two years, I have coached Peewee hockey. Throughout these years, only one of my teammates is a visual minority and I witnessed his experiences of racism on the ice. O’Ree’s story is an important one as it teaches us essential lessons in sport that we, as players and coaches, can apply in these difficult moments to support visual minorities: To reaffirm that it is the player that matters, not race.
On January 18th, 1958, at a game in the Montreal Forum, O’Ree was called up as a replacement for a Boston Bruins player that had the flu. Playing that game, O’Ree became the first black player in the NHL. So great was his focus and love of hockey that he was unaware of the importance of his debut: "I didn’t know I had broken the color barrier until I read it in the paper the next day" (Russo, 2018). The Montreal crowd welcomed him with open arms although the reaction was not the same in the United States. He faced many racist comments from hockey fans in many American cities. O’Ree had resolved to not be bothered by them: "Fans would yell, 'Go back to the south' and 'How come you're not picking cotton?' It didn't bother me. I just wanted to be a hockey player, and if they couldn't accept that fact, that was their problem, not mine" (McGourty, 2007).
Hockey is an extremely physical sport and O’Ree learned in an early game in Chicago that he could not get physical over racist comments as it only inspired more hate and violence (Pitts, 2008). On the ice, it had to always be about the game of hockey. When he reconciled himself to identify the difference during that fateful Chicago game, I believe it was that moment that O’Ree distinguished himself as a true leader, hero and mentor. O’Ree learned to play through the racism and in doing so provided a valuable lesson and a blueprint for all coaches and teammates in my sport.
O’Ree was a standout all through his minor career but two years before his NHL debut, an errant puck rendered him blind in one eye (Murphy, 2007). This injury should have been a career-ender but against all odds, he was back on the ice in ten days. This is O’Ree at his finest, a driven man with a life plan that would stop at nothing to reach his goals. Although he did not take the NHL by storm, O’Ree would contribute to the game of hockey for years to come.
O’Ree inspired over 120,000 youth as the Director of Youth Development and Ambassador for NHL Diversity, a position he has held since 1998 and still holds today (Russo, 2018). In this position, O’Ree founded thirty-nine programs across North America to create access and eliminate the economic burden to hockey (NHL, 2018). The combination of the financial burden and lack of access to this sport are the two key reasons why hockey is less diverse (Moore, 2016). In 2003, O’Ree received the Lester Pearson award for his contributions to hockey; in 2008, he received the Order of Canada; and he was recently inducted into the hockey hall of fame in November 2018 (Freeborn, 2018).
O’Ree’s programs encourages youths with diverse ethnicities to try hockey and learn the values that O’Ree emulated throughout his career: commitment, perseverance and teamwork. I am thankful O’Ree is helping to transcend racial barriers in my sport by inspiring minorities to play the game I love.
Freeborn, Jeremy. “Willie O’Ree.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, 30 Nov. 2018, www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/willie-oree.. Accessed December 1, 2018.
McGourty, John. “O’Ree a Hockey Pioneer,” 8 Jan. 2007, www.nhl.com/news/oree-a-hockey-pioneer/c-384682. Accessed November 27, 2018.
Murphy, Steve. Interview with Willie O’Ree. CTV News, 23 Aug. 2007, www.youtube.com/watch?v=g5Wm-TvmC4Q. Accessed November 25, 2018.
O’Reilly, Norm et al. “Ice Hockey in Canada 2015 Impact Study Summary: The Economic, Social, Community and Sport Benefits of Canada’s Favorite Game”. Scotiabank, 13 May 2015, www.scotiabank.com/ca/common/pdf/Ice-Hockey-in-Canada-Summary-and-Infographic.pdf. Accessed December 3, 2018.
Pitts, Byron. Interview with Willie O’Ree. CBS News, 28 Feb. 2008,PY www.youtube.com/watch?v=yDy_IPNwIhc. Accessed November 26, 2018.
Russo, Eric. “O’Ree A Vital Part of Hockey History,”17 Jan. 2018, www.nhl.com/bruins/news/oree-a-vital-part-of-hockey-history/c-295030080. Accessed November 27, 2018.
“William (Willie) O'Ree - Director of Youth Development.” NHL, www.nhl.com/ice/page.htm?id=25345. Accessed 3 December 2018.