On January 18, 1958, hockey player Willie O’Ree of the Boston Bruins takes to the ice for a game against the Montreal Canadiens, becoming the first black to play in the National Hockey League (NHL).
Born in 1935 in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada, O’Ree was the son of a civil engineer, in one of Fredericton’s only two black families. He began skating at the age of three, and joined a nearby hockey league when he was only five. During five years playing with his older brother on teams in Fredericton, O’Ree became known as one of the best players in New Brunswick. After one season with the Quebec Frontenacs of the Quebec Junior Hockey League, he joined the Kitchener Canucks of the Ontario Hockey Association Junior “A” Hockey League, setting a career-high mark of 30 goals during the 1955-56 season. That year, a puck struck O’Ree in the right eye during a game, robbing him of 95 percent of the vision in that eye.
O’Ree managed to conceal the injury and continue his hockey career, joining the Quebec Aces of the prestigious Quebec Hockey League in 1956. During his second season with Quebec, the Boston Bruins of the NHL called up the 22-year-old O’Ree to replace an injured player. On January 18, 1958, the Bruins were playing the two-time Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens at Quebec’s Montreal Forum. O’Ree took to the ice as a forward with the Bruins’ third line, as the Bruins pulled off an upset 3-0 victory. He didn’t score, or record a penalty, and the historic event took place amid little fanfare.
After only two games, O’Ree was sent back to the Aces, though he played several games that season with the Springfield Indians of the American Hockey League (AHL). For the 1959-60 season, O’Ree joined the Kingston Frontenacs of the Eastern Professional Hockey League, notching 21 goals and 25 assists in 50 games. Moving to the Hull-Ottawa Canadiens, he scored 19 points in 16 games. O’Ree rejoined the Bruins at the end of 1960, and on January 1, 1961, in another game against the Canadiens, he scored his first NHL goal. O’Ree played 43 games with the Bruins that season, scoring a total of four goals and adding 10 assists.
The Bruins sold O’Ree’s contract to the Los Angeles Blades of the Western Hockey League (WHL) the next season, and O’Ree spent most of the rest of his career out west, playing 11 years with the Blades and the San Diego Gulls and twice winning the WHL’s scoring title. After one season with the New Haven Nighthawks of the AHL, he went back to California. He took a two-year break from playing in the late 1970s, then returned for a final season with the Pacific Hockey League’s San Diego Hawks in 1978-79. He retired at the end of that season, at the age of 43, after a professional hockey career of 19 seasons and 10 teams.
Fifty years after his historic steps onto the NHL ice, O’Ree’s legacy as “the Jackie Robinson of hockey” is rightfully being celebrated. After 1958, it would be 16 years before another black player, Ontario’s Mike Marson, played in the NHL. As of 2007, there have been 40 black players in the history of the league; 14 of them were active during the 2006-07 season, making up about 2 percent of the league. O’Ree now works as the Director of Youth Development for the NHL/USA Hockey Diversity Task Force.