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Gulls To Honor O’Ree
By Richard Gonzalez
Do you remember your first? Your first time losing a tooth and the anticipation of getting money under your pillow? How about the first time you watched your favorite hockey team play for the first time? Or your first ever hockey goal, for those who play in recreational hockey leagues?
For one man, his first was something that has had a major impact on the game and the NHL today. That man is Willie O’Ree, who was the first Black player in the NHL.
O’Ree is known as the Jackie Robinson of hockey when he broke barriers and made history when he suited up and played in his first NHL game with the Boston Bruins on January 18, 1958, against the Montreal Canadians. “To me, I didn’t know I was breaking the color barrier until the next morning when I read it in the paper,” said O’Ree via The Undefeated’s article by Daryl Bell. O’Ree played in two games with the Bruins going scoreless that season.
O’Ree would later be recalled back to the Bruins in the 1960-61 season. He scored his first NHL goal on January 1, 1961, in a 3-2 win against the Canadians; also, making him the first black player to score a goal in the NHL. O’Ree played 45 games in the NHL, scoring 14 points (4 goals and 10 assists).
In today’s society, most of the fans could care less of the color of one’s skin but focus more on what they bring to their respective team(s). Back in ’58, the world was different and for O’Ree he had to deal with racial taunting, threats, and players looking to take cheap shots toward him for just being Black. Prior to his NHL debut, O’Ree was hit in the head by a puck causing him to lose 95 percent of his vision in his right eye. Normally, this would’ve been a career ending injury; however, O’Ree was able to keep this a secret.
“I had to play hockey again because I had to make it to the NHL. That was always the goal, you see, ever since I was 13, and I wasn’t going to let anybody or anything stop me,” O’Ree said via The Canadian Encyclopedia’s article by Jeremy Freeborn.
O’Ree’s California’s hockey career began with the Los Angeles Blades of the Western Hockey League (WHL), where he played from 1961 to 1967. He then played with the original San Diego Gulls team from 1967 to 1974. During the 1972-73 season, he played for the Gulls and also played in 50 games for the New Haven Nighthawks of the American Hockey League (AHL), scoring 45 points (21 goals and 24 assists). He played a total of 785 games in the WHL scoring 639 points (328 goals and 311 assists).
Since 1998, O’Ree has been the Director of Youth Development and Hockey Diversity, according to Freeborn’s article. He has been active with the Anaheim Ducks’ S.C.O.R.E. program. He also received a great honor on his 80th birthday when the Gulls retired his number 20 jersey on Oct. 16, 2015, for their “Willie O’Ree Night.”
O’Ree was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame this year (2018). He is the third Black player to be in the Hockey Hall of Fame, joining Grant Fuhr and Angela James.
Fuhr presented O’Ree with his Hockey Hall of Fame plaque. In O”Ree’s speech, he said he had set two goals for himself. He wanted to play professional hockey and to play in the NHL. He accomplished both goals. He also said he was too focused on the game to think about breaking the color barrier.
Today the Gulls will honor O’Ree’s Hockey Hall of Fame induction. They will be giving fans an O’Ree bobby head, wearing their original jerseys and will honor him on the ice.
A pioneer and inspiration to the game. O’Ree overcame adversity and torment to break the barrier for future Black and other minority NHL players. He will continue to inspire others and to bring more diversity to the game of hockey. His first is something that will continue to change this game for the best. His appreciation and dedication to the game still lives today. He was driving in the right direction against the wrong oncoming traffic but his love for the game kept him going forward.
“All I wanted was to be a hockey player. All I needed was the opportunity,” O’Ree said in his HOF speech.
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November 16th, 2018