William Eldon O'Ree, OC ONB: 60th Anniversary of NHL Desegregation
By Dawn Upshaw
Community reports confirm African Nova Scotians played recreational and competitive hockey before 1820. Segregation blocked African Nova Scotians playing on mixed teams or competing against European Nova Scotian teams. 1900-1925, African Canadians organized the Coloured Hockey League of the Maritimes, credited with innovations such as the slap shot and goaltender's full-body, on-ice blocking of the puck.
Trail-blazer Willie O'Ree performed the ceremonial puck drop at the Boston Bruins versus the Montreal Canadiens game, January 18, 2018, at the Boston TD Gardens. This game marked the 60th anniversary of desegregation of the National Hockey League. The opposing teams wore commemorative jerseys patches displaying "60th Anniversary NHL Willie O'Ree".
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh declared that day, and a new street hockey arena, named to honour #22, Willie Eldon O'Ree. Walsh thanked O'Ree for his active, pioneering courage; recognizing the impact hockey desegregation has upon Boston and North America. January 18, 1958, William Eldon O'Ree, was the first person of African descent to compete in the NHL. O'Ree says that the 1958 Montreal Forum game against the Haps was the greatest thrill of his career.
1958-61, O'Ree skated 45 games with the Boston Bruins, scoring his first goal at the 1961 New Year's Day game against the Montreal Canadiens. Bruins winger O'Ree scored 4 goals and 10 assists in 45 games. Despite secretly enduring blindness in his right eye, the result of an on-ice strike from a puck, O'Ree played professional hockey for 21 years.
Coach Milt Schmidt specifies it was not he but General Manager Lynn Patrick and hockey scout Harold "Baldy" Cotton who brought Willie from Quebec to the NHL. That night, the team needed the legs and strategy exhibited by O'Ree. Again, O'Ree says, "We played as a team; like winners, backing each other up. Inclusion is strategic. It is about use of multiple talents."
15 years after O'Ree's debut, Mike Marson skated left wing for the Washington Capitals, making him the second African Canadian to play in the NHL. O'Ree states desegregation of hockey has changed the game. "As Black players, we bring endurance, extended team planning and support to our teams. We bring long-term strategy and team work as our contribution."
O'Ree adds, "Now, the new trend is hockey is females. Girls and women are number one in hockey. Like us, they are about change and inclusion. You see female players passing the puck more often. They recognize the hard work of team mates and are active in including fellow players in plays. You see females consistently passing the puck, backing their team and avoiding violence. Theirs is the new honour and inclusion in hockey. We have to thank girls and women in hockey for team spirit and inclusion."
Other Bruin players have worn Willie O'Ree's number 22; among them Barbadian Canadian Anson Carter, who requested that honour during his 4 year Boston Bruins career. O'Ree's endurance positively impacts upon current sport and professional players. Since 1998, O'Ree works as NHL Diversity Ambassador, directly encouraging and assisting participation by underrepresented youth.
2005, O'Ree was admitted into the Order of New Brunswick. 2008, Haitian-born Canadian Governor General Michaelle Jean awarded Willie O'Ree Canada's highest civilian honour: the Order of Canada. In 2008, the City of Fredericton further commemorated 0'Ree by naming a street and the fully-accessible Willie O'Ree Place.
Marcus James, librarian at the Halifax North Memorial Community Library, reports that O'Ree has launched and funded more than 20 youth motivational meetings at the library in the past decade. While in Nova Scotia, Willie O'Ree initiated a presentation to youth at the Three Mile Plains Community Centre, near Windsor, Birth Place of Hockey. Hosted by Principal Sheldon States, he spent 2 nights in the community discussing his hockey career and personal philosophy with youth and community members. John Paris, Jr., a native of Windsor and the first African Canadian to coach a professional hockey team, states O'Ree provides an inspirational role model.
Currently, many are working to have Willie O'Ree inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, both for his hockey and off-ice contributions. Willie O'Ree, OC ONB, says, "Face it. The need is to be a better and cleaner team player. I can't over-stress the need for full and fair participation, team work and fun. Do it. And... --play hockey."