After a puck smacked him in the face at age 19, blinding his right eye, he remained close-lipped regarding his impairment so no doctor would deem him unfit to play.
He was attacked by a throng of racist fans at Madison Square Garden who attempted to jerk him into the stands after they pulled his jersey over his head.
”People were grabbing at me, yelling at me, using all the old, ugly words, I was punching, kicking. I wasn’t going to let them pull me into the stands.”
The Boston Bruin forward had gone hard into the boards in the defensive zone of the Rangers. The wire mesh, which protected the fans from the puck and the players from the fans, had given way, and he was fed to an angry mob.
The New York Times tells us:
“The racial epithets burned in his ears. Beer ran down his neck. And a lot flashed through his mind before his teammates and opponents finally hauled him back through the fallen barrier.”
”I don’t even like to think now what might have happened had they got me up there. I just came to the conclusion at the time that the only safe place was on the ice.”
Who is this NHL player?
A black man from Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada named Willie O’Ree.
O’Ree, the NHL’s first black player will be inducted into the HockeyHall of Fame on Monday as a member of the 2018 class.
He’ll join New Jersey Devils legendary goalie Martin Brodeur, former Tampa Bay Lightning face of the franchise Martin St. Louis, Russian star Alexander Yakushev, Canadian women’s hockey standout and Canadian Women’s Hockey League Commissioner Jayna Hefford and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman as the Hall’s newest inductees.
O’Ree becomes the third black person enshrined in the Hall of Fame, joining Edmonton Oilers goalie Grant Fuhr and Angela James, a Canadian women’s hockey superstar who is regarded as the female Wayne Gretzky.
He ultimately played just 45 games in the NHL, and 13 years would go by before anyone followed in his trailblazing footsteps.
The climate O’Ree played in was an intolerant one. Hockey games were attended almost exclusively by whites. The NHL and its minor league teams played a game that promoted violence, especially against a man of color.
After being released by the Bruins in 1961, he never played another NHL game. But his pro career was not finished.
O’Ree spent 14 seasons in the Western Hockey League where he earned two scoring titles, netting 30+ goals four times, with a high of 38.
He played 50 games with the American Hockey League’s New Haven Nighthawks in 1972-73, scoring 20 goals and dishing 24 assists.
At 43 years old, O’Ree played his last game with the San Diego Hawks of the Pacific Hockey League where he scored 21 goals, 23 assists in 53 games.
He will be enshrined because of his work off the ice. O’Ree is responsible for the propagation of minority players and the diversification of the NHL and the sport of hockey itself.
Before Willie O’Ree, only the puck was black.
The NHL has intentionally ignored diversity from its inception and O’Ree has boldly challenged the old white guard.
The NHL can’t erase its racist past, but because of O’Ree, over 45,000 minority kids are enjoying the greatest sport on earth.
It is for these reasons that 83-year-old Willie O’Ree deserves induction more than anyone else.
“This is about the highest award that I’d ever get as far as playing hockey and my work with the ‘Hockey is for Everyone’ program,” O’Ree said. “I’m blessed.”