Boston Bruins: Willie O’Ree continues to be honored

Boston Bruins, Willie O'Ree (Photo by Presley Ann/Getty Images)
Boston Bruins, Willie O'Ree (Photo by Presley Ann/Getty Images) /

Former Boston Bruins winger and the first black player in the NHL, Willie O’Ree is to be inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame.

Never has it been a more pertinent time to celebrate a player who broke down barriers. When he suited up for the Boston Bruins on the 18th January 1958, Willie O’Ree was there representing an absolute minority. He showed he wasn’t just a stunt for publicity however, playing a further 2 games that season before going on to play another 43 in the 1961 season.

Hard as it is to swallow, debuting back then, he faced all manner of racial abuse. To his credit, he allowed all of the vitriol spouted by the away crowds to wash over him. In his own words, “I Just wanted to be a hockey player, and if they (the fans) couldn’t accept that fact, it was their problem, not mine.”

You only need look at comments made by his teammates; namely Don McKenney who was quoted saying “(his race) didn’t mean anything to us. He was one of us, a Bruin.”

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Willie O’Ree was accepted by his Boston Bruins teammates because he had a talent for the game of hockey. Skin color meant nothing in that regard; if you have the skills, you deserve your spot, whether that’s as a doctor, a teacher, an astronaut or indeed as a professional hockey player.

Although it was announced over a week ago that Willie was being inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame, in light of the ongoing situation unfolding in the United States and indeed the wider world, it seems all the more important to highlight his pioneering accomplishments.

Although he may never have won a Stanley Cup and he may have only played 45 games for the Boston Bruins, it’s clear to all that he paved the way for racial diversity in the NHL. That his debut received so little notice in the press at the time is surprising and one might wish that it did cause more of a conversation.

However, we mustn’t forget that the late 1950s were a time where race was still a big issue among the American public and divisive attitudes were still prevalent. As much as we might’ve thought that we’ve moved past all that, it appears just as contenscious in today’s society, 62 years on.

Willie O’Ree did indeed break through the color barrier and the NHL is all the better for having players of race these days.

“(his race) didn’t mean anything to us. He was one of us, a Bruin.”

In that regard, it was worth enduring the abuse and taunts he suffered, just to play the game he loved. The Boston Bruins should be rightfully proud as an organisation, that they were willing to overlook the public sentiments of the time and give him his shot at the big league.

His on-ice record is long forgotten, he’d be just another name on some old Boston Bruins team sheets by now; if it weren’t for that one differentiating factor – the color of his skin. Instead, he’s a Hockey Hall of Famer and now a member of the most recent class of Canadian Sports Hall of Fame inductees.

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Even at the age of 84, he continues to lead the charge as an ambassador for NHL Diversity. Keep fighting the good fight, Willie.