NESN.com is celebrating Black History Month by honoring the first black players in the histories of the Bruins, Celtics, Patriots and Red Sox. Stop by each day this week for a new retrospective on a different barrier breaker.
Willie O’Ree was playing in his second season with the Quebec Aces of the Quebec Senior Hockey League when he got the call.
In 1958, 11 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, O’Ree did the same in the National Hockey League.
O’Ree was called up by the Boston Bruins to play against the Montreal Canadiens on Jan. 18, 1958. He became the first black player to ever skate in an NHL game when he filled in for a sick Leo Labine.
O’Ree almost never made it to the NHL, as he lost 95 percent of the vision in his right eye two years prior to his historic debut. Rather than tell someone about it, he played on, ultimately making history when he took the Boston Garden ice against the rival Canadiens.
The Bruins won 3-0 in O’Ree’s debut. Unfortunately for the B’s, who were coached by Milt Schmidt and captained by defenseman Fern Flaman, they came in second in the standings that season — sitting at 32-29-9 — and lost to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round of the playoffs.
Of course, the historical significance of O’Ree goes far beyond that one special night in 1958. In the end, he participated in 45 total NHL games, all with the Bruins. After playing a two-game stretch in 1958, he returned to the team for the 1960-61 season and played in 43 games. He recorded four goals and 10 assists for 14 points in his NHL career.
O’Ree eventually was hired 40 years later by the NHL to be the Director of Youth Development, a job he took with great honor. O’Ree’s contributions were recognized with the greatest of them all in 2018 when he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
In an interview with Boston.com last week, O’Ree offered a glimpse of the inspiration he provides to this day.
“I still work with these kids and still tell them the same thing,” O’Ree said. “Work towards your goals. Set goals for yourself. Stay in school and get an education. … Be all that you can be, feel good about yourself, like yourself. I like myself. I feel good about myself and I work with these kids and I hope I can pass something on to them that they can use in their daily life and be a better person.”
Check out his 2018 Hall of Fame speech below.
O’Ree, who opened the door for current black players like Wayne Simmonds and P.K. Subban, was a true pioneer and a leader in every sense of the word.
Thumbnail photo via Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY Sports Images