Hall of Fame Bound: O’Ree Finally Gets His Recognition
by Bob Dawson,
Boxscore: OTTAWA, Ontario- June 29, 2018 – As Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “The time is always right to do the right thing.” Going into the Hockey Hall of Fame with the Class of 2018 as a “builder of hockey history” has been long over due for the 82 year old Willie O’Ree of Fredericton, New Brunswick. O’Ree, who is known as the Jackie Robinson of hockey for breaking the NHL’s color barrier, joins current black inductees Angela James of Toronto, Ontario (player, Canadian National Women’s Hockey Team, 2010) and Grant Fuhr of Spruce Grove, Alberta (player, Edmonton Oilers, 2003). With his induction, O’Ree becomes the first black player from the Maritime Provinces to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Although O’Ree is not going into the Hall of Fame as a hockey player, it’s important to note that he only played 45 games with the Boston Bruins between 1958 and 1961 before being traded to the Montreal Canadians. Having never played a game for Montreal, his NHL career abruptly ended. O’Ree ended up playing minor pro hockey in the Western Hockey League in the United States for 13 years with the Los Angeles Blades (1961-1967) and San Diego Gulls (1967-1974). During his stint in the league, O’Ree won 2 league-scoring titles and scored 30 or more goals 4 times. He collected 639 total points with 328 goals and 311 assists. Despite his offensive production over those years, he never received another shot at the NHL while lesser skilled white players moved on to play in the “big league”.
Sadly, after O’Ree left the NHL in 1961 no blacks played in the NHL until 1974 with the signingof Mike Marson by the Washington Capitals. Although there were highly talented black players in the minor-pro leagues, they were systematically denied the opportunities to play in the NHL. It was as if there was an unofficial policy of exclusion.
As expected, the re-integration of blacks into the NHL after 1974 was not without its problemswith respect to incidents of racism. From this writer’s perspective, it would appear that in an effort to address the issues and bring more blacks and people of color into hockey and eventually the NHL, the league adopted “diversity” as it’s approach.
In support of this, Bryant McBride, the NHL’s Vice-President of New Business Development, who is black, initiated the Diversity Task Force in 1994 that worked with local community groups in establishing sustainable hockey programs for inner-city youth. Ironically, McBride sought out O’Ree, who was denied the opportunity to make a career in the NHL, to help move the initiative forward which was later renamed “Diversity is for Everyone.”
Despite what happened to him in the past, O’Ree wanted to make a difference in hockey. In 1997, he signed on with the NHL and launched the “Willie O’Ree All-Star Game” which is an annual celebration in which youth representing NHL diversity programs interact with NHL players and attend an NHL game. Later, O’Ree was appointed the NHL’s Director of Youth Development and then Ambassador for “Hockey is for Everyone”, a position he has proudly held since January 1998. On his selection to the Hall of Fame, a humble O’Ree, said, “I’m just pleased with my work and the things I’ve accomplished working with the National Hockey League and the “Hockey is for Everyone program.” This year’s Hall of Fame induction will take place on November 12th in Toronto. Along with O’Ree the inductees will include Gary Bettman (builder, NHL Commissioner), Martin Brodeur (player, New Jersey Devils), Jayna Hefford (player, Canadian National Women’s Hockey Team), Martin St. Louis (player, Tampa Bay Lightning) and Alexander Yakushev (player, Russian National Hockey Team).
As a former black hockey player, I like many others are forever indebted to O’Ree for making the ice smoother for us to follow in his skate marks.